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Judaism on Delmarva: Beth Israel Celebrates 90 years

Beth Israel Congregation, a conservative Jewish synagogue in Salisbury, is celebrating its 90th year on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While the words conservative Judaism and the Eastern Shore are not usually found in the same sentence, Beth Israel has proven a vital part of a community where it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “Really, you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met.” I spoke with a few Beth Israel congregants about what the temple means to them and how they juggle practicing Judaism and living on the Eastern Shore.

Toby Rubin moved to Salisbury 44 years ago with her late husband, Bernie. They chose Salisbury particularly because it had a temple and a Jewish community in which they could raise their children. Still, she has been that initial introduction to Jews and Jewish life for many people on the Shore.

“I know when I first came here and there were a lot of non Jewish people that I met and they looked at me said “you can’t be Jewish you’re a nice person”,” said Rubin. "You look like the rest of us, well of course I do! We’re normal people, we’re like everybody else, and no we don’t have horns!"


Rubin was joking about the horns of course, but there really are a lot of misconceptions about Judaism in places like Salisbury.


"I think especially in areas where Jews are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority, education is so very, very important," said Rabbi Arnold Bienstock. "Especially in areas where individuals may have never met a Jewish person in their life."


Rabbi Bienstock is in his sixth year leading Beth Israel. He’s served as rabbi in many rural Jewish communities similar to Salisbury. He’s well versed in small town Judaism and what it takes to survive. Much like Rubin, Rabbi Bienstock takes his role as PR person for the Jewish community in Salisbury – and in general – very seriously.


"I take that responsibility," said Bienstock. "I regard myself as an ambassador and sort of feel this may be the only experience the individual has so I somewhat feel that sense of responsibility because that individual is going to rightfully or wrongfully but just pragmatically make their observations based on that one experience."


That ambassadorship falls on all Jews and members of minority religions in rural areas like the Eastern Shore, whether they ask for it or not. That Jewish community on the Eastern Shore is dwindling, though, and identifying the factors for that decline is crucial to making it to the 100th anniversary.


"The obstacle right now is the economy and what basically makes any religious community thrive is you need young families, and we don’t have any of those coming in," Bienstock said.


That wasn’t always the case. In 1999, the Davis family moved to Salisbury, Maryland from Winnipeg, Canada. Ella, who was 26 at the time, and her husband Alon, who was 28, already had one son and had another on the way. They moved here because of two things: Alon was offered a position at Peninsula Regional Medical Center and there was a growing Jewish community. They had economic opportunities and the promise of a Jewish community. Now, she observes that’s not really the case.


"I don’t know if it’s the economic climate of Delmarva, that we’re not getting people moving in, and so we’re not getting those young families, we’re not bringing them into the synagogue," said Ella Davis. "It’s very sad, it’s absolutely very sad."


Davis feels that economics and culture really do go hand in hand.


"I think it’s such an important thing for the community here in Salisbury that this is a piece of cultural diversity they really need to embrace, it’s an opportunity to recruit other people into the area, whether they are Jewish or not it still means for many people coming to an area, a lot having different types of multiculturalism in their lives, that could a mosque that could be a synagogue, that could be a Hindu temple," said Davis. "It’s important to have that diversity. I think it’s difficult to recruit professional people into an area with out those things. For me personally if Beth Israel did not exist in this community I would impact my life significantly. We moved to this area specifically because there was this type of multiculturalism."

The need for community is more important now than ever for Davis, on the eve of her daughter, Shayna’s, bat mitzvah.

"It’s been very difficult because there’s not many people here, not many people in Salisbury I can relate to," said Shayna Davis. "The main people you see are the two people that go to services every week, so it’s a little difficult to actually get into the culture.”

Her mother described how hard it is to expose her daughter to their heritage and religion in a quickly dwindling Jewish community.

"The first half year she really started participating in going about three Saturdays out of every four, we did not have a minyan for six months," Davis said.

Achieving a minyan means gathering enough Jews who have had a bar or bat mitzvah, who have entered into Jewish adulthood, in order to read from the Torah, the holy text.

"On the day they were reading the New Moon, Shayna's Torah portion, I had to call in as many favors of friends as I could to make a minyan," said Davis.

Davis’s second son, Aaron, has experienced far different struggles than his sister Shayna. He's an upperclassman at Parkside High School, where he's experienced his fair share of anti-Semitism.  


"This past week a kid in my chemistry class drew on his arm a swastika and it's very uncomfortable," said Aaron Davis. "I mean I can’t say anything back. I try complaining to a teacher and they’re like 'It’s a swastika, get over it.' How can I get over it? I have three great grandparents who are Holocaust survivors. You have to sometimes bite your lip and look the other way."


When the place where young people are meant to feel safest – school – is the one place they feel the most outcast because of their religion, it’s crucial that they have something like a place of worship or cultural community to support them. The Davis’s have ensured their children understand just how deep their roots go, taking them to Israel, the Jewish holy land. Still, having Beth Israel in Salisbury means not being alone.

Beth Israel and its congregants celebrate their 90th anniversary in Salisbury, Maryland, this year. What the temple will look like at its 100th anniversary is a mystery, as is the economic future of Salisbury. That being said, members of Beth Israel like the Davis family are rooting for it to endure. They need it to.

"I would be very, very tormented to see the synagogue not survive," Ella Davis said. "Not because I need a building to pray in, but because I need a community to be a part of."

This is Faith Tarpley for Delmarva Public Radio in Salisbury.