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Congregation B'nai Abraham marks 120th anniversary

The original synagogue in Hagerstown was built at the Baltimore Street site in 1892

May 12, 2013|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com
  • Congregation B'nai Abraham member Jerry Falke shows the torah discussing history of the synagogue in Hagerstown.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

Congregation B’nai Abraham was founded more than a century ago, and over the years since there has been a rich history of Jewish life in Washington County that has been marked by Jews winning political freedom, the congregation moving through a reform movement and memories of a tight-knit group.

Congregation B’nai Abraham is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year, a milestone that has been marked by a number of events, including a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration last month at the synagogue at 53 E. Baltimore St.

The Jewish history in Washington County can be traced to the beginning of the county.

Jerry Falke, a longtime member of Congregation B’nai Abraham and retired Hagerstown podiatrist who has conducted extensive research on the congregation, completed a 17-page history of the congregation that notes that the first resident of the county — Levi  Cohen — was Jewish.

Cohen and business partner Henry Lazarus were merchants and traders who moved about the countryside in the area in the 1700s to trade and sell their wares, according to Falke’s history.

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Cohen and Lazarus moved through crossroad towns and along rivers in the region, buying grains and furs, and forwarding them to Philadelphia and New York City, according to Falke’s history.

Cohen bought land in Sharpsburg, moved to the town in 1768, and remained there through the Revolutionary War, Falke said.

The original synagogue in Hagerstown was built at the Baltimore Street site in 1892. Falke said there are no photographs of that early building, but he believes the brick building was a single-story structure. It was torn down in 1923 and a new synagogue — the one that stands today — was dedicated in 1925.

The two-story structure features extensive woodwork and original stained-glass windows. Other stained-glass windows eventually were added by A. Raymond Katz, who was one of the most popular synagogue architects in the country, Falke said.

As with all the projects at the synagogue, Falke said he believes that probably all of the money for the building’s construction was raised by members of the congregation.

Members of the congregation talk about the camaraderie they have found at the synagogue over the years, and the times they have spent enjoying events such as fairs and auctions.

“It’s been the base for our life,” said Fred Kramer, who has been a member of the congregation for 61 years.

Members of the congregation watched as Jews won political freedom in the county.

Until 1826, Jews could not hold public office, which caught the attention of Thomas Kennedy, a member of the state legislature who was from Washington County, Falke said.

Kennedy drafted a bill to allow Jews to hold public office and his attempt to see the bill pass met with failure for years in the state legislature.

Falke said Maryland was one of the last states to guarantee political freedom to Jews.

“I always thought that was kind of ironic given that Maryland is known as the Free State, right?” Falke said.

The proposal, which ultimately was referred to as the “Jew bill” because of its long title, finally passed in 1826.

One of the first local Jewish people to be elected to office was Jacob Berkson, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1955 to 1958, and whose grandfather was a founding member of the synagogue’s congregation, Falke said.

The second Jewish resident of Washington County to serve in the state legislature was Richard “Rit” Grumbacher, who served in the House of Delegates from 1961 to 1974, Falke said.

Besides facing political freedom limitations, local Jews at one time also faced social barriers, said Fred Raskind, rabbi for Congregation B’nai Abraham. Fortunately, the current members of the congregation can look back and see that those barriers have been broken down, Raskind said.

Through the years

The synagogue started as an orthodox congregation but it began changing to a reform congregation starting in the early 1900s. It took years for the transition to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to occur, but it was in place by 1948.

The orthodox congregation was marked by customs such as female members sitting in an upstairs section separated from male members.

Reform congregations are committed to equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. The reform movement was the first to ordain women rabbis and elect women presidents of synagogues, according to Falke.

Lieba Cohen, current president of the synagogue, spoke fondly of the congregation and the town she came to call home. Cohen said she believed she would only be in Hagerstown for a short time when her husband accepted a job at the Fairchild plant here in 1976.

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