New Directions For Jewish Life In Owings Mills
Finding the epicenter of Jewish life in Owings MillsJuly 17, 2009
The entrance is Owings Mills Boulevard heading north. As you cross the bridge over Reisterstown Road, there’s a fire station on the right, a restaurant park on the left; past the first shopping center, with Stevenson University’s Owings Mills campus on a hill behind it; past the second shopping center at Crondall Lane.
After that, on a warm summer day, there’s nothing but green, green, green — grass, shrubs and trees — bordering the four-lane road. Then, around a gentle curve, you hit the first residential development. And the next, and more — strings of houses spooling out from streets like Bosley and Timbergrove, circling back and intersecting with each other.
Unlike Pikesville, which has an inscribed stone slab marking its entrance, there is nothing like that here. If there were, it would say, “Welcome to Jewish Owings Mills.”
The Jewish community has, and by all indications still is, moving to Owings Mills. From 1985 to 1999, according to the 2000 demographic survey, the most current, by the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the Jewish community in Owings Mills/Reisterstown grew by 171 percent. This compares to 2 percent for Pikesville/Mount Washington and minus 47 percent for Park Heights.
In 2005, the Associated did a demographic review to track trends in the community. While Owings Mills/Reisterstown’s sizzling rate of growth seems to have slowed, it remains a destination, particularly for young families, says Matthew Freedman, the Associated’s chief strategy and development officer.
“We don’t have percentages,” Mr. Freedman says of the review. “But the number of Jewish families with minor kids is far greater than the number in Pikesville.”
In this vast and spread-out part of Baltimore County, there are several Jewish institutions, from the Jewish Community Center to Beth Israel and Har Sinai congregations. It can seem like an uphill battle to bring Jewish life to the many Jews living here. The consensus is, the farther from the Park Heights/Pikesville core, the less the connection.
A sizable number of unaffiliated Jews live in Owings Mills, although there are no figures to back up that widespread impression. There are Jews who belong to their families’ traditional shuls but rarely attend themselves. There are Jews who consider joining the JCC and living in neighborhoods so Jewish they’re jokingly referred to as “Pikesville Plus.”
Mr. Freedman is most comfortable talking in specifics. He reels off numbers and quotes statistics. In this situation, he can only speak from his own experience, and it seems to prove the point.
He has lived in Mount Washington, in a mostly Orthodox neighborhood where his was the only household on the block that wasn’t shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant). He has lived in Pikesville, in a mostly Jewish neighborhood whose residents were regular shul-goers.
Now, he lives in Reisterstown, where half the neighborhood is Jewish and, of that half, affiliation is mixed. Mr. Freedman’s is the only household that keeps kosher and attends his congregation, Har Sinai, on a regular basis.
The Associated is looking to connect with the unaffiliated through its agencies. The best known is the JCC Owings Mills, which runs programs specifically geared to them. Tot Shabbats are for parents and toddlers; Got Shabbat, Friday night family dinners; and the Mother’s Circle, for non-Jewish women married to Jewish men.
In addition, the JCC Owings Mills long ago formed a synagogue task force that works with area shul leadership. Since the recent vote to open the facility on Shabbat, the focus is to develop creative outreach programming.
Other efforts are intended for area residents in general. Jewish Community Services, another Associated agency, opened a branch office in the “suburbs” many years ago. First it was in Randallstown, then relocated to Owings Mills, a reflection of the Jewish population shift.
Beth El Congregation started a chavurah within its Hebrew school for the many parents who live in Owings Mills. Weekday classes and Shabbat dinners are held in private homes, so they don’t have to drive to Beth El’s campus on Park Heights Avenue. Beth El is planning to expand this program to the congregation as a whole.
Etz Chaim of Owings Mills operates out of a storefront in the Valley Village Shopping Center on Reisterstown Road. About 200 people per year are actively involved in its programs, classes, tutoring, Shabbat dinners and High Holiday services, all of which are free.
“We are happy with our successes,” says Etz Chaim’s Rabbi Jason Gelber, although, he adds, there are still goals it wants to reach.
Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen opened Chabad of Owings Mills in 2005 in a storefront on Owings Mills Boulevard. Chabad regularly gets 50 people for Shabbat services and 300 for High Holiday services, which are held in a local elementary school.
As pleased as Rabbi Katsenelenbogen is with Chabad’s attendance, he can’t help but wish it were bigger. The rabbi is not alone in remarking on the “relaxed” Jewish life in the area.
“You’re not surrounded by the Jewish community and intense Judaism. You have to seek it out,” says Rabbi Katsenelenbogen.
Not all Jewish programs succeed. Orthodox groups in particular seem to have had a difficult time finding their audience in Owings Mills.
At one time, Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach, held minyanim in a house in Owings Mills. Yet, in recent years, it closed.
Better known is Beth Tfiloh Congregation, an Orthodox shul in Pikesville that with great fanfare opened a campus in Glyndon, Md., in 1998. Ten years later, in 2008, after constructing a building for its Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a 400-seat chapel, it sold the property.
Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg is outspoken on the subject. Beth Tfiloh found a large, young Jewish population in the area, but many weren’t interested in the religion, much less in Orthodoxy.
“They weren’t the day school-oriented Jewish population,” he says.
Rabbi Wohlberg attributes that to several factors: the sprawling nature of Owings Mills, the strength of the Pikesville congregations and the kind of young families who choose to stay in Pikesville rather than move to Owings Mills.
Beth Tfiloh’s Glyndon campus reached a “nice nucleus” of people, he says, but it never touched the mass of residents, an opinion he believes applies to other Orthodox institutions such as Aish HaTorah and Etz Chaim that operate in the area.
“We were never part of the community the same way we are in Pikesville,” says Rabbi Wohlberg.
In the mid-1960s, the idea was being floated that another JCC was needed besides the facility on Park Heights Avenue. A market research company was hired to determine where it should go.
Pacy Oletsky, then a JCC board member, was not alone in thinking that Randallstown, a hot spot for the Jewish community at the time, would be the site. But when the report came back, Mr. Oletsky was stunned.
“It said the community was moving to the east side of Reisterstown Road and into Owings Mills. It said, ‘Find a location in the Owings Mills corridor,’” he recalls.
Five years later, after an extensive search that included rejecting suitable sites in Randallstown, the Associated bought 165 acres on Gwynnbrook Avenue near Garrison Forest Road. Mr. Oletsky, by then president of the JCC board, calls it “a risky move.”
Mr. Oletsky has lived in the Green Spring Valley for nearly 40 years and to say that he knows the area well is an understatement. He describes Owings Mills/Reisterstown back then as “rural” and “isolated.”
Other longtime residents agree. Before I-795 [Northwest Expressway] and Owings Mills Boulevard, said one, “You had four traffic lights from the Baltimore Beltway [I-695] to Reisterstown, Md., which was its own little town. It took forever to get there.”
Although the Jewish community had started to move to the area, there was nothing north of the JCC site except a few, older houses. The opening of the JCC Owings Mills in 1977 changed that.
It made Owings Mills a “Jewish area,” says Mr. Oletsky. “People stopped being pioneers for moving so far out.”
Other Jewish institutions followed. In the early 1990s, the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation began looking for a new site as its Randallstown-based membership dwindled.
The focus was Owings Mills, says Howard Gartner, a member of the Beth Israel search committee, for a number of reasons. The JCC was there, as were many of its members by then, and the opportunity to attract young Jewish families was too good to ignore.
“We sat down with aerial maps and looked for land we thought would work,” says Mr. Gartner.
In 1995, Beth Israel bought property on Crondall Lane and renovated it into its current home. The move paid off.
In its heyday in Randallstown, Beth Israel’s membership hit 1,000 families. At the time of the move, it was down to the mid-500s. Now, it’s almost 900 families, making it the biggest shul in the area.
What’s more, Beth Israel’s membership tends to be a younger demographic than most shuls, says Rabbi Jay Goldstein, its spiritual leader for the past 13 years. Next year, 60-plus b’nai mitzvot are scheduled, rivaling the number seen at larger shuls in Pikesville.
Rabbi Goldstein views Beth Israel as an “anchor” in the Jewish community, a “central address” for the area. Because of that, he has taken a leadership role, heading the JCC’s synagogue task force and promoting joint adult education initiatives with nearby shuls.
“I’ve tried to create an environment for the entire Jewish community,” he says.
In 2002, Har Sinai Congregation relocated from Park Heights to Owings Mills. Like Beth Israel, the move boosted membership, which now hovers at 500-plus families, says Louise Zirretta, Har Sinai’s president.
In fact, a recent survey of membership showed the largest percent came from the Owings Mills/Reisterstown ZIP codes. “We’ve met our goals and expectations,” says Mrs. Zirretta.
Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation, and Adat Chaim, Conservative, are both located in Reisterstown.
Temple Emanuel left its Randallstown home in 1994 to a site on the west side of Reisterstown Road. “Our members started moving and that’s where we found land,” says Susan Dubin, its president.
Membership hovers around 250 families, with the majority from Owings Mills/Reisterstown, but also from Carroll and Howard counties. “We’ve stayed about constant,” Mrs. Dubin says of membership.
In the past 20 years, says Cantor Sharon Wallach, who serves as spiritual leader of Adat Chaim, the congregation has grown from 60 families meeting in local schools to 140 families with its own building. Membership is split 60/40 Owings Mills/Reisterstown to Carroll County.
She would like membership to be higher. But if a JCC membership is your only link to the Jewish community, Cantor Wallach is not going to knock it.
“Anything that brings people to a Jewish place doing Jewish things is wonderful,” says Cantor Wallach.
When Cynthia and Scott Cherry went house-hunting 10 years ago, they looked in several areas, including Pikesville, where Mrs. Cherry was raised and her parents still live.
They ended up buying a house in the Owings Mills neighborhood of Worthington Glen. One reason was the area’s proximity to Pikesville; another, many of their friends were moving there at the time.
As it has turned out, Mrs. Cherry, a human resources executive, and her husband, a sales vice president, live around the corner from her brother and his family and are within shouting distance of a close-knit group of her childhood girlfriends.
Almost every day, Mrs. Cherry runs into people she knows. It’s one of the things she loves about Baltimore.
“People stay connected to the areas in which they grew up,” says Mrs. Cherry, a Beth El member and the mother of two children who attend McDonogh School. “The sense of familiarity is terrific.”
Karen and Ken Marino moved to Worthington Park 16 years ago from New York state. The JCC Owings Mills was a big attraction, as was a nearby Jewish preschool and Hebrew school.
“We wanted to be in a young, Jewish area,” says Mrs. Marino, a dietitian. She and her husband, a teacher, belong to Beth Israel. Their children attend Chatsworth School and Towson High’s magnet program, both Baltimore County public schools.
The county public school system is neither required nor allowed to have demographic breakdowns of its students. Franklin High School has almost 1,600 students; Owings Mills High, about 1,000. Franklin is said to have more Jewish students than Owings Mills, but exact numbers are not known.
Linda Esterson’s two children attend Franklin High and Franklin Middle schools. Mrs. Esterson is convinced that the Jewish community’s impact has been dynamic.
“They’ve changed the face of the local schools,” Mrs. Esterson says of Jewish parents.
Mrs. Esterson, owner of a public relations-advertising firm and a free-lance writer, and her husband, Rick, a management professional, live in a neighborhood where one side of the street is the Reisterstown school district and the other side, the Owings Mills district.
So involved are Jewish parents in the classrooms and the PTAs that for field trips, she says, “You have to be on the waiting list as a parent-chaperone because everyone wants to go.”
Ellen Kraemer is familiar with Owings Mills High School. Its district includes Caves and Worthington valleys. When her oldest son, now 20, started there as a freshman, “I was shocked because a lot of people I grew up with in Pikesville, their kids were going to Owings Mills High,” says Mrs. Kraemer, who lives off Walnut Avenue.
Now, her 16-year-old son attends Owings Mills High. Even in the few years between the two boys, Mrs. Kraemer, a homemaker, believes the number of Jewish students has increased, thanks to the movement of the Jewish community.
Even though Jewish students at Franklin and Owings Mills high schools are a minority, they say they feel comfortable. They have not encountered anti-Semitism. There are no awkward incidents to report. They like being in a school with a diverse student population.
“It’s a friendly place. The kids are nice; the teachers are nice,” says Franklin student Emma Danoff, 14, the daughter of Claudia and Michael Danoff. Of the Jewish students, she adds, “It’s not the biggest [group in the school], but it’s not tiny either.”
Brandon Sacks, 15, plays sports and is active in student government at Franklin High. “You get to know people of different backgrounds,” says Brandon, 15, the son of Lauri and David Sacks.
Brett Mazor, 16, and his sister, Cara, 14, attend Owings Mills High. “There’s a lot of diversity — African-Americans, Russians, Hispanics,” Brett says of school. “I fit in well with everyone.”
The outreach to Jewish students is through after-school Jewish Culture Clubs. Rabbi Rocky Caine, assistant regional director of NCSY [National Conference of Synagogue Youth] and JSU [Jewish Student Union], came to Baltimore last year to run the local clubs.
Franklin and Owings Mills both have clubs, as does Pikesville and, next year, Carver. The Curriculum Initiative, with an office in the JCC Park Heights, runs similar clubs in the private schools like McDonogh.
The clubs’ goal is to reach the students, especially the unaffiliated, with programs and discussion on topics of Jewish interest. It’s easier to do that in a school with a big Jewish student population. There are more kids to draw from.
But Rabbi Caine doesn’t sound concerned. Franklin High has enough Jewish kids “to make a successful club.” He is working with the Maccabi Club and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization to strengthen the Owings Mills High club.
“If you build it, they will come,” goes the movie line and so, it seems, does the future of Jewish Owings Mills.
The community appears to be heading even farther to the north and east, following housing trends into the Greenspring and Worthington valleys, and from Caves Road to where Owings Mills blends into Reisterstown.
Mrs. Esterson is seeing a lot of residential development off Greenspring Avenue along Dover and Ridge roads. “When my daughter makes new friends, that’s where I’m taking her,” she says.
As for the Associated, Mr. Freedman calls Owings Mills a “giving community.” Many donors to its annual campaign live there, as do the Associated’s president and chairman of the board.
“That’s telling,” he says.
Still, Mr. Freedman recognizes the challenge of Owings Mills as a Jewish community. He foresees two scenarios: The Associated can provide relevant Jewish programs that support Jewish identity, or not.
“Our job is to make the former happen,” says Mr. Freedman. “Otherwise, Owings Mills will be mostly unaffiliated.”
East Side/West Side
The east and west sides of Reisterstown Road took different paths. The reason is simple and can be summed up in one word: land. In the mid-1980s, Baltimore County officially designated Owings Mills a “growth” area. The county developed Red Run Boulevard as an office/light manufacturing center for jobs. The Owings Mills Metro and I-795 were built as transportation hubs. The Owings Mills Mall was the retail attraction.
That left Owings Mills New Town. It was going to be the “town center” for this new growth area. Everyone thought it would be a magnet for the Jewish community.
All this development took place on the west side of Reisterstown Road. That’s where Baltimore County focused its planning, says Arnold “Pat” Keller III, director of the county Office of Planning, because it could.
On the east side of Reisterstown Road, two large and important tracts of land were “out of the county’s control,” says Mr. Keller.
The first was the Baltimore City-owned land on which the then-Baltimore Colts football team had a training facility. The land has since been sold and the facility, now for the Baltimore Ravens, relocated to Northwest Regional Park, in Owings Mills.
The second was the state-owned Rosewood Center, a facility for the developmentally disabled. Over the years, parcels of Rosewood land have been sold off. The facility closed in June and the remaining land will be sold this fall, for uses still to be determined.
Larry Lichtenauer is president of Lawrence Howard & Associates, an advertising, public relations and market research firm. He has lived and worked in the Owings Mills/Reisterstown area for 15 years.
Mr. Lichtenauer remembers developers pouring into the east side of Reisterstown Road, where land was available and cheap. They built single-family houses, not too pricey and on a nice size lot, and at a time when such housing was limited.
“I knew a ton of people who moved there,” says Mr. Lichtenauer. “They moved out of ranchers to what were considered almost mansions back then.”
New Town didn’t have that resource. Because of land costs, New Town was developed with many condominiums, townhouses and apartments rather than single-family homes. It wasn’t the kind of housing the Jewish community sought.
Moreover, New Town never jelled as the town center the county envisioned. As Brian Ditto, executive director of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce, puts it, “New Town seems to exist in its own little bubble.”
New Town is now fully “built out,” in the jargon. Although there is no demographic breakdown, Dena Bober has the impression that New Town is not a particularly Jewish area. It has no synagogues, nor churches either.
Mrs. Bober, a member of Adat Chaim Congregation, is president of the Weston Condominium Association, a development of individual houses that, along with Spring Mill Condominiums, appear to have the largest concentration of Jewish residents.
Still, New Town has its own vibrancy and ambience, one that prides itself on the racial and ethnic diversity of its residents. Weston, for example, has Jewish, Oriental and African-American homeowners.
“We’re definitely a mixed community,” says Mrs. Bober.