A Miracle in Baltimore (?)


Is it a miracle that the beautiful building of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation, just 150 feet from where rioters tossed rocks at police and two blocks from stores that were devastated at the Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore during the recent Baltimore riot wasn’t damaged? Here are some facts.

My dad, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, became the first rabbi of Shaarei Tfiloh in 1933. In the beginning, the synagogue was very successful. It was crowded every Shabbat. On the holidays, there were no seats for my brother and sister and me. In fact, dad placed me in the choir, although I’m a monotone, so that I could have somewhere to sit. The synagogue had over 2,000 seats

However, in the early 1950s the neighborhood began to change. Blacks moved into the area. Many whites ran in those days in all communities. The congregational leaders wanted to relocate the synagogue uptown as other synagogues – including two about two miles north and west of us – did. Dad refused. He told his congregants that this was immoral. Blacks had a right to live where they wished and we should get along with all people.

Soon our neighbors were Black. A charismatic Christian Black preacher began to visit his Baltimore headquarters a half a block away from our house on Auchentoroly Terrace. He would drive up in a fancy limousine with running boards on which his brightly uniformed guards stood. This didn’t disturb dad.

The congregants had enormous respect for dad – and still do, despite him passing on in 1976 – they did not listen to him. Although they didn’t relocate the synagogue, they ran themselves. By 1960, the synagogue attendance was sparse, dad’s salary was cut, but he stood his ground. Dad retired in 1964, after serving Shaarei Tfiloh for 31 years and became the president of the day school Talmudical Academy with no salary, and the synagogue asked me to serve as their week-end rabbi, and I did so for seven years.

I was working at that time for the government in the civil rights movement. My job was to give guidance to the large insurance companies on how to hire Blacks. I left Shaarei Tfiloh in 1970 and became the first resident part-time rabbi in the new city of Columbia, Maryland. However, I left this position after half a dozen years and led services at Shaarei Tfiloh for the High Holidays until the early 1980s.

The current part-time rabbi at Shaarei Tfiloh is David Herman whose main position is with the Baltimore city government. He told me that today, unlike the 1968 Baltimore riot, the 2015 riot was not due to race, but stemmed from the perception that the police unofficially deliver a form of street justice due to police frustration with what they perceive to be a revolving door in the judicial system for criminals.

Rabbi Herman said there is no Jewish-Black issue today. The Associated Jewish Federation in Baltimore has an organization today called Chai that deals with issues of mutual concern in the Black and Jewish communities.

He told me that the riots started in a school across from the Mondawmin Mall because kids had texted on Facebook that they wanted to “purge the city.” City officials knew about the texts an hour before the riot, but did nothing. Neither did the school. The situation was exacerbated when buses and subways that normally take the children home were cancelled by city officials, and the youngsters had no way of getting home.

In an abundance of caution, Rabbi Herman drove to Shaarei Tfiloh at 4 AM when he heard a report that a Black church was set on fire a few blocks from Shaarei Tfiloh. He removed the Torah scrolls and the historic minute books of 1920-1960 which covers the interesting board meetings before and after dad became the synagogue’s first rabbi in 1933.

Viewers of the riot on TV saw many pictures of the CVS store that was burned. What most people do not know is that just behind the CVS store is the oldest Jewish burial ground in Maryland. None of these graves was touched during the riot.

The same phenomenon also occurred during the last major Baltimore riot in 1968. The original neighbors and now their children and grandchildren call the synagogue, Shaarei Tfiloh, part of their neighborhood.

In short, Shaarei Tfiloh has had and still has positive links to the Black community since its first rabbi, my dad, and the Baltimore Jewish community has worked hard to preserve good Black-Jewish relations. Is it possible that the rioters knew about these links and therefore did no damage to the Shull and burial ground? Is this a miracle?