Divine Deeds: Congregation B'Nai Abraham
Since Its Founding More Than a Century Ago, Hagerstown’s Congregation B’nai Abraham Has Left a Kind, Charitable Footprint on Washington County.
by Joe Weagley + photos by Jason Turner
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The Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” translates to “acts of loving kindness.” It’s this expression that defines the fundamentals of Judaism, and inspires members of Congregation B’nai Abraham of Hagerstown to perform unconditional acts of volunteer service that positively impact the greater community. “Like all religious institutions, it is our responsibility to assist those in need,“ says Dan Greenwald, president of Congregation B’nai Abraham.
B’nai Abraham was founded in 1892, a century and a half after the first Jewish traders and peddlers settled in Western Maryland. By the early 1890s, the Jewish community was large enough that Hagerstown’s first synagogue was built at 53 E. Baltimore St. The building later was replaced, and the current synagogue was completed in 1925. Over the years, members of B’nai Abraham have distinguished themselves in military and public service. “Our members are involved in those organizations they are passionate about,” says Dan. The congregation’s volunteer work has always been a year-round effort in a broad spectrum of charities with one goal in mind — improving the quality of life in Washington County and beyond.
Sometimes, B’nai Abraham’s volunteer work is encouraged by a love of the arts, from fund-raisers for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and The Maryland Theatre, to members of the congregation serving as officers and board of directors. Since 1992, B’nai Abraham and Trinity Lutheran Church have sponsored The Potter’s Bowl, a joint interfaith partnership to raise funds for Hagerstown’s Community Free Clinic, a freestanding grassroots organization that provides medical care and prescription medication to uninsured residents of Washington County. “All of our services are free,” says Robin Roberson, executive director of the Community Free Clinic. “The Potter’s Bowl is vital to the Community Free Clinic and is one of our two largest fund-raisers.”
At this annual event held at the Hagerstown Elks Lodge, each guest selects a glazed pottery bowl created and donated by a local artisan. Guests use the bowl to sample a comforting variety of donated soups — Italian Beef Vegetable, Turkey Sausage with White Bean, Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls or vegetarian Potato Leek — before taking it home to use or add to their collections. About 26 potters from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia participate, with each potter usually donating 10 bowls. “The people who donate the bowls and make the soup give from the heart,” says Carol Mendelsohn of Hagerstown, co-founder of the Potter’s Bowl with Janet Emral Shaool and co-chairwoman Carrol Lourie. The 2011 Potter’s Bowl raised $19,810. “The Community Free Clinic feels very privileged to be the recipient of this exclusive event,” Robin says.
Caring for the Community
Members of Congregation B’nai Abraham hope to leave a greater impact on the community at large. The congregation works with Locust Point-Neighborhoods 1st, conducting meetings at the synagogue on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. “This partnership provides an opportunity for both our groups to interact as part of the neighborhood,” Dan says.
This spring, B’nai Abraham and the Locust Point-Neighborhoods 1st group participated in the Maryland Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry to distribute food to people in need. “No one in our community should go hungry,” Dan says. It was the first time it was held at B’nai Abraham, but it was “a rousing success,” says Dan, who also serves as president of the board of directors of Food Resources Inc., a partner agency with the Maryland Food Bank that assisted. Other churches and service organizations also participate in this important work.
Volunteers from B’nai Abraham also help at the REACH Shelter on Franklin Street. Volunteers register guests in the evening and help prepare dinner, especially during the holiday season. In December, congregation volunteers participate in Caring Hands Gift Wrap, a fund-raiser for the Washington County Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross and held in coordination with the Valley Mall, “to allow other volunteers who celebrate Christmas to prepare for the holiday,” says Dan. The congregation is one of many groups to participate. “Because Christmas Eve is a busy time for our Christian friends, members of our congregation volunteer to wrap gifts on that day.”
Regardless of the season, the volunteers of B’nai Abraham are always willing and ready to give back to the community. Staying true to “tikkun olam,” the congregation believes they have a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of society. “We really don’t measure the impact of our volunteer work,” Dan says. “We just know that it’s the socially responsible thing to do.”
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Heeding the Call of the Community
Congregation B’nai Abraham
53 E. Baltimore St., Hagerstown
Office open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 a.m.–1 p.m.