BNHA Jewish Heritage

Content about Jewish Heritage

Spicemaker Gustav Brunn and his family fled Nazi Germany for Baltimore in 1938. After some early struggles, he opened a small spice company near the harbor, where he created a spice blend especially for the fish market vendors across the street. He called his new seasoning “Old Bay.” As every Marylander knows, Old Bay didn’t just become popular—it became an essential ingredient in the traditional Maryland steamed crab feast.

Brunn offers just one example of the Jewish contribution to Baltimore and the surrounding region. Ever since Jews first settled in the city they have played an active role in Baltimore’s economic, civic, and cultural life. It hasn’t always been easy since they faced their share of discrimination. Mostly, though, Baltimore has been a place where Jews could get ahead, participate in the local culture, and embrace a strong identity as “Baltimorean.” At the same time, Jews formed their own tight-knit community with well-defined neighborhoods and strong institutions. This too hasn’t always been easy since they have been a diverse lot, gathered from all parts of the world, from widely different circumstances and religious backgrounds.

While Jews arrived in Baltimore before the Revolution, the first to make their mark were the Etting and Cohen brothers, early nineteenth century merchants, bankers, and civic leaders. Two Cohens and an Etting fought at the Battle of Fort McHenry. But they also had to fight for their own political equality, because the Maryland constitution required public officials to swear a Christian oath in order to hold office. In 1826 the state legislature finally passed the “Jew Bill,” allowing Jews to swear a substitute oath—and their fellow citizens promptly elected Solomon Etting and Jacob Cohen to the Baltimore City Council. Despite integrating into Baltimore’s social scene, the two families maintained their Jewish identity, acquiring their own burial grounds, keeping kosher, and holding religious services in their homes. 

Jews from Central Europe migrated to the U.S. in large numbers in the mid-19th century, boosting Baltimore’s Jewish population from about 120 in 1820 to 10,000 in 1880. A much larger wave of immigrants came from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, with the number of Baltimore Jews reaching 70,000 by 1930. Later, smaller migrations included refugees from Nazism in the 1930s, Holocaust survivors in the late 1940s, Soviet and post-Soviet Jews starting in the 1970s, and Iranian Jews in the 1980s. The Jewish population also increased naturally as families put down roots. Today, some 95,000 Jews live in the Baltimore area.

From the first congregation’s humble beginning in rented rooms over a Fell’s Point grocery in 1830 grew a thriving network of religious, cultural, and charitable institutions. In 1840 that congregation, Baltimore Hebrew, became the first in America to have an ordained rabbi when it hired Bavarian-trained Rabbi Abraham Rice. It built the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845—today, the nation’s third oldest surviving synagogue building. In 1842 some members broke away from Baltimore Hebrew to form Har Sinai, the first American congregation founded on the principles of Reform Judaism. In 1933 the establishment of Ner Israel Rabbinical College made Baltimore an important center of Orthodox Judaism, a position it retains today. Although religiously diverse, Jews united around activities such as taking care of the Jewish poor and fighting antisemitism. In 1920 communal organizations joined together to form the Associated Jewish Federation, which continues to serve the community.

Jewish immigrants arrived with few resources. German Jews often began as peddlers while Eastern Europeans—men and women alike—toiled in the city’s garment industry. Baltimore’s commercial and manufacturing opportunities helped families get ahead. Husbands, wives, and even children often worked together to establish small businesses. As Jews climbed out of poverty they moved out of their immigrant ghetto in East Baltimore (still home to the delis of Corned Beef Row) into a series of northwest neighborhoods and suburbs. Their desire to maintain a strong community led them to reside near each other—though real estate discrimination also helped draw the boundaries of Jewish residency.

While most Jewish families attained middle or upper middle class status, a few founded some of Baltimore’s most prominent firms. Louis and Jacob Blaustein’s Amoco Oil Company began in 1912 with father and son selling kerosene door-to-door. The Hoffberger family built a diverse empire that included a heating oil company, National Bohemian Beer, and the Baltimore Orioles. Both families created charities to benefit a variety of local causes. Indeed, Jewish philanthropies and businesses have had a major impact on Baltimore. For decades, Hutzler’s and other Jewish-owned department stores drew Baltimoreans downtown. Real estate developers like Joseph Meyerhoff shaped the region’s growth. Meyerhoff, the Cone sisters, Carroll Rosenbloom, and others shaped key institutions, from the symphony to the art museum to the Baltimore Colts.

The contributions of Baltimore Jews have extended well beyond the city’s boundaries. Henrietta Szold founded the nation’s largest Jewish organization, Hadassah, in 1912, and went on to build the health system of pre-state Israel. In 1947, Baltimore Zionists acquired an old Chesapeake Bay steamship for the purpose of transporting Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Under its new name, Exodus, its voyage became a key episode in the birth of the state of Israel. A decade later, Baltimore native Leon Uris featured the ship’s saga in his wildly popular novel named after the ship. Other Jewish Baltimoreans who have influenced popular culture include film director Barry Levinson, pop singer Mama Cass Elliott (born Ellen Naomi Cohen), and pioneering rock and roll songwriter Jerry Leiber.