A History of the Bnai Israel Congregation of
by Fred Shoken
The beginnings of the B'nai Israel Congregation date from the first decade
after the Civil War. On April 12, 1873, the congregation met at its regular
place of worship, 81 North Gay Street (in what is now the vicinity of Gay Street
and the Jones Falls Expressway), and established a Board of Trustees. Ten days
later, the eight-member board appeared before two justices of the peace and
signed their names to a certificate of incorporation. B'nai Israel's charter was
approved by the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City and filed in court records on
April 30, 1873.
It is uncertain how long the congregation was in existence prior to drawing
up a Certificate of Incorporation; however, 1873 has long been considered the
date when B'nai Israel began. The original name of the shul was the "Russian
Congregation B'nai Israel of Baltimore City."
Charter of the B'nai Israel Congregation April 1873
According to one source, B'nai Israel originated when dissension led a group
of members to withdraw from an earlier synagogue, Bikur Cholim, to form their
own congregation. No supporting evidence is presented for this claim, and since
B'nai Israel purchased the former home of Bikur Cholim five years later in 1878,
there is every reason to believe that an amicable relationship existed between
the two congregations.
B'nai Israel may have originated when Jews living in close proximity started
davening together for the sake of convenience and later formed a shul. A
majority of the original B'nai Israel board members lived on Harrison Street,
just west of the Jones Falls. While Harrison Street no longer exists, it was
once the heart of Baltimore's Jewish community.
The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation held services at Harrison Street and Etna
Lane for eight years prior to building Baltimore's first synagogue on Lloyd
Street in 1845. A second congregation, Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol Cluas, also met on
Harrison Street, but these congregations were made up of German Jews, as opposed
to the Eastern European Jews that formed B'nai Israel.
Harrison Street, where most of B'nai Israel's founders lived
(E. Sachse, & Co.'s bird's eye view of the City of Baltimore, 1869)
These are the names of the founders of the B'nai Israel congregation: Joseph
Hyman, Louis Sakolski, Samuel Freidman, Bernard Schiller, Julius Sachs, Joseph
Stein, Jacob Nathan and Samuel Bartz.
Joseph Hyman, the first president of the shul, is listed as a shoemaker in
Baltimore City Directories. He lived at 12 Harrison Street. Other members of the
Hyman family, including David and Koppel, appear in early articles about B'nai
Israel. The Hyman family has long been involved in the congregation. David S.
Hyman chaired the 100th anniversary banquet in 1973. Judi Tepperman, David
Hyman's daughter, served as recording secretary for B'nai Israel for many years
in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
Louis Sakolski was in the clothing business and lived at 65 Harrison Street.
He was the secretary at the first recorded meeting of the congregation.
Samuel Friedman and Bernard Schiller were both in the clothing business and
lived on Harrison Street, as did Julius Sachs, a peddler. Joseph Stein and Jacob
Nathan were both glaziers and are listed at 8 Broad Alley (near Lombard and
Exeter streets). No listing could be found for Samuel Bartz.
Another early member of the congregation was Julius Krulewitch, a shoemaker,
who lived at 23 Harrison Street. Benjamin Krulewitch became president of the
shul in the 1890s.
Three Early Leaders of the B'nai Israel Congregation
Despite the fact that B'nai Israel was chartered as a "Russian Congregation,"
many of the Harrison Street residents involved in the early days of the shul
Joseph Hyman, Joseph Stein, Koppel Hyman, Julius Krulewitch, Issac Jacob and
Louis Sakolski are listed in the 1880 Census as being of Polish descent.
There is scarce information about the spiritual leaders of B'nai Israel in
its early years. An 1895 newspaper article states that while no rabbi was
employed for some years after the congregation was founded, Rev. Moshe Shimon
Sivitz was the rabbi for a time in the 1880s. He left to become Chief Rabbi of
Pittsburgh. Rev. Abraham Levinson was B'nai Israel's rabbi during the
congregation's formative years from 1890 to 1912.
In the 1880s, Baltimore City Directories list a Rev. Silverman (?) as a
reader for the "Russian Orthodox" synagogue at Exeter north of Fayette Street.
This roughly corresponds to biographical information that states Tanchum
Silberman was the chazzan of B'nai Israel from October 1882 to October 1885. He
was later associated with Mikro Kodesch and Shearith Israel congregtions. Other
B'nai Israel chazzans in the nineteenth century included Reverend Moses J.
Braude and a Cantor Davis.
Rabbi Abraham Levinson (1890-1912) and Cantor Tanchum Silberman
B'nai Israel met in a rented hall on Gay Street for five years. In 1878,
Bikur Cholim dedicated a new synagogue on High Street and sold their former
building, a remodeled schoolhouse at 112-116 N. Exeter Street, to B'nai Israel.
On August 7, 1885, B'nai Israel dedicated a new synagogue at that location.
Apparently the remodeled schoolhouse was torn down for this new shul
(Baltimore's main post office now occupies the 100 block of North Exeter
Approximately 10,000 Jews lived in Baltimore in 1880. In the next twenty
years the number increased to 25,000, largely due to an influx of Jews from
Eastern Europe. Starting in the 1890s, Baltimore's earlier German Jewish
congregations moved out of East Baltimore and the downtown area. In rapid
succession, Baltimore Hebrew (1891), Oheb Shalom (1893), Har Sinai (1894) and
Chizuk Amuno (1895) moved to the near Northwest section from Lanvale Street to
North Avenue, McCulloh Street to Bolton Street. In 1903, Shearith Israel joined
the other four German Jewish congregations in the same northwest neighborhood.
This exodus allowed B'nai Israel to expand by purchasing the former home of
Chizuk Amuno on Lloyd Street. Chizuk Amuno, at the time an Orthodox
congregation, sold their home of less than twenty years to B'nai Israel for
$12,000. On September 10, 1895, the congregation held services at 27 Lloyd
Street for the first time. B'nai Israel never moved from the old neighborhood
and remains the last active synagogue in the East Baltimore/downtown area.
On June 89, 1898, Simon Reif and Cantor Braude of B'nai Israel participated
in the founding of the Orthodox Union. B'nai Israel was one of approximately
fifty congregations in the United States and Canada that sent delegates to the
founding convention of this organization in New York.
Called the "Russiche Shule" or Lloyd Street Synagogue by natives, B'nai
Israel flourished during its first fifty years on Lloyd Street. The synagogue
was a center of Jewish life in the first half of the twentieth century.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of simchas took place in the synagogue from 1895 to
1945, the golden era of B'nai Israel. Many families throughout Baltimore have
relatives that were either married or bar mitzvahed at B'nai Israel.
Invitation to a Wedding at B'nai Israel 1898
Invitation to a Bar Mitzvah at B'nai Israel 1927
B'nai Israel was also known as a center for learning and piety. Day and night
study took place in the Bais Hamedrosh. There is no record of a hired spiritual
leader for the congregation from 1912 to 1930. The congregation was made up of
learned men who conducted the affairs of the synagogue and turned B'nai Israel
into a true house of study.
A surviving flyer announced in both English and Yiddish that a "Seam Hagodel,"
a celebration for the completion of the study of the mishna, took place on
December 31, 1933. This was the twenty-fifth time that the members of B'nai
Israel had accomplished this achievement!
1933 Flyer in English and Yiddish Announcing a "Seam Hagodel"
B'nai Israel was well known for its devout and scholarly members. At the
Chevrah Mishna and Chevrah Gemorah study groups, men would sit on benches around
long tables discussing Jewish law day and night. Rabbi Michael Forschlager, a
noted scholar, led study groups for many years at B'nai Israel.
In 1930, Rabbi Samuel Liebb became the spiritual leader of B'nai Israel, but
he had moved on to Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Agudas Achim by 1936. In 1939, Rabbi
Samuel Pliskin, was selected as rabbi. He would make B'nai Israel his life's
work, continuing in this position for nearly forty years, the longest tenure of
any spiritual leader in the history of the congregation.
Talmud Study at B'Nai Israel in the 1940s
Rabbi Pliskin was born in Glenbokie, Poland in 1913 and studied under the
Chofetz Chiam in Radin, Poland. He was a noted scholar and journalist, leaving
Europe just prior to the Nazi conquest of Poland. His early years at B'nai
Israel coincided with the "tail end of East Baltimore's Jewish heyday." Rabbi
Pliskin's Friday night Torah lectures attracted Jews from all over East
Baltimore. He also wrote torah commentary for a Yiddish newspaper, Der
Amerikaner, and was active in Vaad Hatzalah, an organization that worked to
rescue many European rabbis and their students who fled to the Far East during
World War II.
August 1939 Jewish Times Announcement of the Appointment of Rabbi Samuel
Rabbi Pliskin's first Rosh Hashanah message to the people of Baltimore was
filled with trepidation and fear. The world was on the verge of World War II,
the fate of European Jewry was darkening, and Eretz Israel was hampered by
Britain's "White Paper." He stated, "A thick black question mark surrounds the
planet Earth and its inhabitants!" Yet, he called for an awakening at the sound
of the shofar and prayed "May the Lord scatter the dark clouds and may He in all
His mercy cause the sun to shine upon His world. May He purify the hearts of all
people and the conscience of their rulers, in order that they may rebuild what
they have destroyed and make the mourners rejoice again."
Throughout this difficult time, Rabbi Pliskin was a shining light at B'nai
Israel as he upheld the great tradition of his congregation. He became so much a
part of the fabric of the shul that by the 1950s, B'nai Israel was no longer
called the "Russiche Shule," but more appropriately, Pliskin's Shul.
As the numbers of Jews living in East Baltimore decreased rapidly after World
War II, B'nai Israel became the sole Jewish outpost in the wilderness. The sons,
daughters, and grandchildren of immigrant East Baltimore peddlers and
storeowners became lawyers and doctors and professional leaders. They followed
the American dream moving out to suburban neighborhoods, leaving behind the
remnants of Jewish East Baltimore. Between 1945 and 1974, twenty-one East
Baltimore congregations disbanded, merged with other congregations or moved from
East Baltimore to the northwest suburbs.
But some Jews stayed behind, and B'nai Israel served their needs. Albert
Hoffman, the president of the shul for three decades, was committed to keeping
open the shul where he grew up.
Photos of B'nai Israel in the 1960s
B'nai Israel welcomed all. Rabbi Pliskin was meticulously Orthodox, but he
did not question the level of observance of his congregants. He said, "When a
long-lost child comes home, parents do not ask questions. No investigating. No
discussing. The Mother and Father always care." Some who had not attended
religious services for years were attracted to B'nai Israel and later became
Another reason why B'nai Israel remained was that according to the Talmud,
the one surviving shul for a city must be protected and preserved. Without B'nai
Israel, the Jews who stayed in East Baltimore and downtown would have no place
to pray. It was an obligation for this last shul to remain when all the others
On November 23, 1978, Rabbi Pliskin passed away. Rabbi Morris Landsburg
succeeded him. Over the next few years, the shul that only charged $12 for
membership dues and did not sell seats on the High Holidays was literally
falling apart. The beautiful second floor sanctuary was open to the elements and
pigeons roosted in gaping holes in the ceiling. The few who came to services
prayed in the lower level Bais Hamedrosh, the former center of learning for the
shul. There was little hope that B'nai Israel would survive into the
twenty-first century, but brighter days prevailed. A new lease on life was
granted to the building, as well as a second chance for the congregation.
Condition of B'nai Israel sanctuary in 1982 before rehabilitation
These words were spoken at the rededication of B'nai Israel on December 20,
1987: "We pay tribute today to a group of dreamers no more than a handful of
people. They have a dream that what once was can yet be again. They look
not only to this shul's past with pride, but look to this shul's future with
Efforts to restore B'nai Israel began in earnest in 1979. Mrs. Helen Sollins,
an oral historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (then called the Jewish
Historical Society), visited B'nai Israel when her husband, Leonard, had gone to
the shul to recite kaddish. She ventured upstairs during the services and was
devastated by the condition of the sanctuary. Her family attended B'nai Israel
during its glory years and her grandfather, Issac Shuman, was among the many who
studied Talmud here.
She tried to convince the Jewish Historical Society to renovate the building,
but that organization was still struggling to maintain the Lloyd Street
Synagogue up the street. At a reception in 1981 promoting the TV show "Masada,"
she approached "Mimi" DePietro, a city councilman representing East Baltimore,
for help. She pleaded that B'nai Israel was our Masada the last stand for
Jewish East Baltimore. Councilman DePietro helped convince Mayor William Donald
Schaefer that city efforts were needed to halt the deterioration of this
historic structure and funding was secured for a temporary roof.
With city support for the project, others provided backing and financial
assistance. The Associated Jewish Charities helped to raise funds. Robert
Weinberg, the Jewish Historical Society Vice President, included B'nai Israel in
his plans for a Jewish Heritage Center taking in the old Lloyd Street Synagogue,
B'nai Israel and a new museum building. State historic preservation grant
funding was obtained to help restore B'nai Israel. The synagogue itself raised
over $75,000 to further these efforts.
Ownership of the historic building was turned over to the Jewish Historical
Society, which in turn leased the building back to the shul for $1 a year for
the next 99 years. The Jewish Historical Society would maintain the exterior and
conduct tours of the building in conjunction with activities of the museum,
while the congregation would continue to maintain the interior and hold regular
services in the restored building.
Restoration work under the direction of Kann and Associates, architects, was
completed in December of 1987 and the restored B'nai Israel Synagogue was
rededicated on the sixth night of Chanukah. While the fate of the building was
no longer in jeopardy, the fate of the congregation was still in doubt. On
October 20, 1990, the Baltimore Jewish Times featured a cover story on B'nai
Israel's struggle to survive.
Photo from cover of the Jewish Times July 20, 1990
The neighborhood around the shul was still declining. Hulking high-rise
public housing projects loomed over the shul and the few remaining businesses on
Lombard Street, East Baltimore's historic Jewish main street, but B'nai Israel
refused to die.
S. Leonard Sollins was elected President of B'nai Israel, taking over the
efforts of Albert Hoffman, who kept the synagogue functioning during its darkest
of times. Under Mr. Sollins' leadership, Jews with family ties to B'nai Israel
returned to attend services. Others who stopped by to see the beautiful building
and experience a traditional service were so welcomed by congregants that they
stayed on and became members, regularly participating in weekly services.
Visitors to the Baltimore staying at downtown hotels or attending conventions
found B'nai Israel when looking for a place to attend religious services.
Students interning at Johns Hopkins Hospital or studying at downtown campuses
joined regular services. Special services were held for veterans groups and
men's clubs. When Cantor Abraham J. Denburg and his choir performed, hundreds
found their way to East Baltimore's last shul.
S. Leonard Sollins conducting a school tour of the restored B'nai Israel in
For a short time after the building was renovated, Rabbi Murray Gershon
spearheaded efforts to re-build the membership. Later Rabbi Seymour Essrog was
hired to read the Torah on Saturday mornings and provide a weekly sermon. Many
families that had been affiliated with former congregations led by Rabbi Essrog
held simchas on Lloyd Street. Rabbi Essrog personified B'nai Israel's welcoming
atmosphere, making everyone feel at home.
When Rabbi Essrog left B'nai Israel in 2000 to lead the Adat Chaim
congregation in Reisterstown, a young rabbi studying at the University of
Maryland Law School, Shraga Goldenhersh, was hired. In his short tenure, Rabbi
Goldenhersh inaugurated the first Friday night Shabbos service to be held at
B'nai Israel in more than twenty years.
In January 2002, Rabbi Gershon Grayman became B'nai Israel's spiritual
leader. Under his leadership, in addition to regular Saturday and Sunday morning
services, special Friday night services were held once a month, attracting a
diverse crowd. Other events taking place under Rabbi Grayman's tenure included
annual Chanukah and Purim parties, a special Tu B'shevat seder, guest scholars
for the annual Pearlstone Kallah, field trips to Jewish sites in New York,
Washington and Philadelphia, an annual B'nai Israel day at Oriole Park at Camden
Yards, and the 130th Anniversary Banquet the first major banquet hosted by the
congregation in thirty years.
In September 2005, Rabbi Alan Yuter came to B'nai Israel. A member of the
Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Yuter formerly served as rabbi of
Congregation Israel in Springfield, New Jersey, and was a professor of history
and Jewish studies at Touro College. A prolific author and philosopher who
writes on religious themes in Biblical and Jewish law and contemporary Jewish
thought, Rabbi Yuter penned Holocaust and Hebrew in 1983. His many
scholarly articles and essays have appeared in numerous important prestigious
journals including Judaism, Midstream, Jewish Political Studies Review, and
others. Rabbi Yuter moved into a house in Little Italy to be within walking
distance of B'nai Israel.
In order to be a full-fledged shul for downtown neighborhoods, Rabbi Yuter
insisted on weekly Friday night services and mincha services for Shabbos. He
conducts learning sessions on Sunday after morning services, Tuesday night and
B'nai Israel no longer struggles to survive and the congregation is growing.
Membership is over 200 families. An outreach program has begun to meet the needs
of an estimated 5,000 unaffiliated Jews residing in downtown and waterfront
communities. A Jewish Community and Education Outreach Center adjacent to the
synagogue is on the drawing board. A multi-purpose room will allow the shul to
expand educational programs, hold special events and host celebrations.
Architect's Rendering of Proposed B'nai Israel Community and Education
The final chapter of the torah ends with the death of Moses at the age of
120, but the children of Israel B'nai Israel live on. After 130 years,
Baltimore's historic B'nai Israel congregation has become a new center for
Jewish life in downtown Baltimore. From generation to generation, from strength
to strength, B'nai Israel lives.
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