Amid the violence: Background on Baltimore’s Jews

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — The April 19 death of an African-American resident of Baltimore, Freddie Gray, while in police custody triggered a wave of protests in the city and shined a light on its history of police brutality and racial and economic disparities. On Monday, the protests turned violent, giving way to rioting and looting.

Here is some background on the Baltimore Jewish community.

How many Jews are there in Baltimore?

There are 42,500 Jewish households in the Baltimore metro area, up by 16 percent since 1999, according to the 2010 Baltimore Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

What does Baltimore’s Jewish community look like?

It’s more traditional than the average American Jewish community: Orthodox Jews, the community’s fastest growing sector, comprise 32 percent. Roughly one-quarter are Conservative, 23 percent are Reform and 13 percent are secular or nondenominational. Only about 20 percent of married Baltimore Jews are intermarried.

Where do Baltimore Jews live?

Jewish immigrants originally settled in East Baltimore in an area called Jonestown; it became known as “Jewtown.” Today, most Jews live in the northwest suburbs, such as Pikesville and Owings Mill, or in neighborhoods in the city’s northwest such as Upper Park Heights, Mount Washington and Roland Park. Of those, Upper Park Heights is the most racially mixed, with large numbers of Orthodox Jews, middle-class African-Americans and immigrants. In recent years a growing number of Jews have moved to the city, reviving the B’nai Israel synagogue there and prompting the opening of a Jewish community center downtown. There are approximately 3,700 Jewish households downtown.

What are black-Jewish relations like in Baltimore?

Historically, many local Jews were active in the civil rights movement. But the city’s department stores, most of them Jewish-owned, were long known for segregationist policies (Maryland was a slave state). As in many American cities, riots broke out in Baltimore in 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, killing six, injuring 700 and damaging 1,000 small businesses and homes, many of them Jewish-owned. The riots accelerated white flight, spurring many of the city’s remaining Jews to move to the suburbs.

In 2010, tensions flared between Orthodox Jews and blacks in the Park Heights neighborhood, with both sides protesting in the streets after a member of the Shomrim Jewish community patrol group was arrested in the beating of a black teenager. Ultimately, a Shomrim member was found guilty of false imprisonment and second-degree assault.

Have local Jewish groups been involved in the Freddie Gray protests?

Members of Baltimore’s Jews United for Justice and the Baltimore Jewish Council participated in a peaceful protest on Saturday. In the aftermath of this week’s rioting, Baltimore’s Jewish federation has been accepting donations to benefit neighborhoods affected by the violence and is working with churches, community centers and civic organizations to distribute that aid. Through Jewish Volunteer Connection, the federation also sent volunteers to help clean up.

How have Baltimore’s Jews been impacted by the unrest?

For part of this week, many Jewish day schools were closed and the Park Heights JCC closed early due to fears of possible rioting in areas such as Northern Parkway and the Owings Mills Mall (no rioting ultimately occurred in those places). Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen of Chabad of Owings Mills beefed up security and evacuated the Torahs from his synagogue as a precaution.

(The Baltimore Jewish Times contributed to this report.)