CUMBERLAND, MD. — When Doug Schwab was growing up in the 1960s here, on Maryland’s far western tip, there were 60 kids in his Hebrew school and the newspaper was full in the fall with ads from the many Jewish-owned downtown stores saying they would be closed for the High Holidays.
This week, as Jews in this small Appalachian Mountain city celebrate Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — Jewish communal life is far more intimate. A few of the nine children who make up B’er Chayim’s Hebrew school helped prepare the synagogue for the year’s biggest crowd, and people who happened to be traveling the 2½ hours to Washington and Baltimore were asked to bring back challah and special white Sabbath candles, as Jewish items aren’t for sale around here anymore. Most of B’er Chayim’s members are over 60 and have children who moved away from this economically depressed region and won’t be in Cumberland for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur next week.
“Now you’re at a point where you don’t have any family around, so you have to decide you want to keep the heritage alive and do your part to do that,” said Schwab, 59, who retired recently with his wife from running their family children’s clothing business and now leads many of the 50-family synagogue’s efforts. “You’re making it what it becomes.”
Statistically, Cumberland’s Jews would seem likely to become history. Small American Jewish communities up and down the eastern United States are dying as the economic forces that brought Jews to run stores in downtowns decades ago vanish and Americans in general cluster more and more in major metro areas.
Jews are overwhelmingly big-city people — and always have been. But for the smallest Jewish communities, the High Holidays are a time when Jewish life becomes a bit more visible, when visiting rabbis come to places like Vicksburg, Miss., Olean, N.Y., and Auburn, Ala., to hold services in synagogues, living rooms or borrowed church space.
Cumberland’s Jews aren’t ready to give up. A major private donation allowed them to refurbish the one remaining synagogue (there were four at one time; the last one besides B’er Chayim closed in the late 1990s) and Wednesday night at sundown, when Rosh Hashanah begins, will be the first service in months back in the 161-year-old building, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating synagogue. Unlike many communities of their size, B’er Chayim has a rabbi and it is busy advertising everywhere from the Deep Creek Lake recreational area to the local medical center to let unaffiliated Jews who might move in know of the beautiful small synagogue sitting on a quiet downtown corner.
In some ways, B’er Chayim’s challenges aren’t so different from much of organized religion in America. People are less affiliated with particular denominations, and the vast majority of churches have fewer than 500 members. But religious minorities have particular challenges, and Jews tend to bunch up. Less than 40 percent of Americans live in the 20 biggest U.S. metro areas, while 80 percent of Jews do, said Ira Sheskin, geography department chair at the University of Miami and an expert on Jewish demographics.
“Jews are an ethnic group. If they don’t cluster together, they don’t maintain that identity. The Internet has changed that a bit in the past 10 to 15 years, with virtual congregations, but generally once you get below 100 Jews, places tend to disappear,” he said.
Jews in Cumberland have been close — and flexible, by necessity.
The synagogue basketball team plays in the church league, and one year it won the “Christian spirit” trophy — which sits in the refurbished community hall — after losing every single game of the season. Hebrew school was moved from Sunday mornings to Saturday to accommodate basketball and, when Cumberland’s Jewish life was more Orthodox, boys were used to being pulled out of sports and other activities a few times each week to join a “minyan,” or the 10 Jewish males required for certain rituals, including reading the Torah or reciting the prayer for the dead.
Even when the Jewish community was larger, it was small by comparison, and residents were not accustomed to the conveniences that are standard for Jews in larger cities. If you wanted lox, you went to the liquor store downtown, whose Jewish owner bought in bulk when he went to Baltimore.
Lydia Savramis, 30, grew up in Cumberland and is one of the few members of her Hebrew school class who stayed. She remembers feeling special as a youth in a small synagogue that even then was top-heavy with older members.
“Older people would say, ‘This is how you set a table,’ or, ‘This is how to have a firm handshake.’ The older generation took a vested interest in us. It was a very warm environment. And it was never like: ‘Oh there’s that family I don’t know well.’ That never happens. We knew everyone,” said Savramis, who is an orthotist.
She remembers amazing food at the synagogue on the High Holidays, and every recipe was familiar.
Savramis doesn’t do much to observe the High Holidays these days but considers herself connected with other unaffiliated Jews — very typical of her age group — who do things like cook for Hanukkah, a holiday around Christmas that isn’t associated with synagogue services.
Al Feldstein, the unofficial historian of Cumberland’s Jewish community, said he feels a feature of Jewish life here is simply trying to be good.
“In the back of my mind, when you live in a community like this, whatever you do, it doesn’t just reflect on your name, but it reflects on the whole Jewish community,” Feldstein said Monday at the synagogue.
In the past few days, members have been readying the building for its first service since being refurbished. The four children who made up Sunday’s Hebrew school hung up the mezuzah — an encased parchment that goes on the door posts of Jewish homes — and on Monday members were setting up tables for apples and honey, meant to accompany a prayer for a sweet new year.
Members who live in much more isolated pockets in West Virginia and Pennsylvania were expected from an hour away, as were a few students from nearby Frostburg State University. Rabbi Stephen Sniderman had written his sermon, titled “The Old and the New.”
“The building was old and now it’s new,” said Sniderman. “Judaism is an old religion and we have to constantly make it new.”