For over 120 years, our community has served as an integral role to anchor Judaism in this part of the country. Members from our congregation have also played an integral role to the building of business affairs, civic affairs, politics, health administration, medical services, government, arts, and education.
When Jonathan Hager purchased 200 acres of land in Western Maryland which he named 'Hager's Fancy', a number of Jewish traders from Philadelphian Jewish families were already active and living here. The best known to us were Levi Cohen and his partner Henry Lazarus, who were conducting business in Frederick and what was later to officially become Elizabethtown, Maryland in 1768 (named for Jonathan Hager's wife, Elizabeth Kershner).Western Maryland was then part of the farthest outreach of the Philadelphia trading network. This network was made up of 21 counties including eight counties of Pennsylvania, three lower counties of Delaware, seven counties in New Jersey, and three counties in Maryland. It covered about 20,000 square miles.
Cohen and Lazarus were merchants and traders. They were accustomed to moving around the countryside to trade and sell their wares. Like many others of their profession, these pioneering Jews searched for crossroad towns and outlying developments that were situated on navigable rivers. From these remote locations, they could buy grains and furs from farmers and trappers and then forward them, through the commercial network, to markets in the cities of Philadelphia and New York.Levi Cohen was an active and valuable member of the community in Frederick. Today he can be traced through land purchases and records of his philanthropic endeavors. In 1759 he leased a lot in Frederick for five years. In 1760, he was one of eleven managers of a local lottery to raise money for a new fire engine for the fire company to which he belonged.
In 1768, Cohen shifted some of his interest in real estate to Sharpsburg near Elizabethtown. Although in the next year, he purchased more land at this same location, he was still actively a citizen of Frederick where he managed again another lottery fund raiser.After the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, each new state established a legislature, a constitution, and a standard of citizenship. In Maryland, voting rights were allowed for all free men over 21 who owned fifty acres of property worth forty pounds. The Maryland oath of allegiance included a reference to Almighty God, thus it was an oath that Levi Cohen was able to take. With his interests now shifted to his property near Sharpsburg, Levi Cohen was the first man in Washington County to take and sign the oath of allegiance, thereby becoming Washington County's first citizen.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th Century, Jews continued as peddlers and merchants in Washington County. As in many other locations, Jewish peddlers came offering their wares until they could save enough money to open a store. Then they switched from being peddlers to being merchants. Although information about these years is now sketchy, records show a Rabbi named Levi officiated at marriages performed between 1851 and 1856. The community also searched for "a person suitable to act as a chazzan, shochet, and Hebrew teacher."
Rental receipts in the Presbyterian Church's archive indicate that the Jewish community held worship services off and on from 1840 to 1875 in Hagerstown at the church on South Potomac Street. This is a very early example of the interfaith cooperation that has long been a hallmark of this community.
Jews from Washington County served Maryland during the Civil War. Included among the casualties of the Battle of Antietam, were seven Jewish Confederate and seven Jewish Northern soldiers. The Washington Confederate Cemetery serves as the final resting place for Jewish Confederate soldiers.
By the 1890s the Jewish community had grown in size and stature to incorporate under the laws of the state of Maryland. In 1892, they formed the Synagogue of the Sons of Abraham at Hagerstown, MD. They mortgaged the property on East Baltimore Street where the synagogue still stands. In 1895 the congregation incorporated under the laws of the state of Maryland. The original charter defined the goals of the synagogue community. These goals included maintaining a place of Jewish worship and a place for burying Jewish dead.
When the founders of the Congregation purchased the property on Baltimore Street, they moved the house that was standing there to the rear of the property. They used it as the schoolhouse for daily cheder and Sunday school classes. At the front of the property they constructed a traditional red brick synagogue building with a central bimah and two aisles on the main floor. They placed the Ark on the south wall and built a curtained, horseshoe-shaped balcony so that women could attend. They put the mikvah in a small room in the rear of the building.
In 1915 the women of B'nai Abraham formed the Hebrew Ladies Auxiliary. This service organization dedicated itself to fund raising efforts on behalf of the congregation and the religious school. It sponsored raffles, card parties, and sold commercial advertisements for printed programs. The club was open to all congregants, men and children included. With the arrival of World War I, B'nai Abraham sent fourteen young men into the armed services By 1921 the fledgling Hebrew Ladies Auxiliary had raised enough money to build the Talmud Torah building that stands next to the synagogue. The new building housed the daily cheder and Sunday school classes, but it also included space for meetings and social events and a small kitchen.
Just as the school building was no longer adequate for the community, neither was the synagogue itself. The last services held in the old building were the Yom Kippur services of 1923. Immediately after they ended, the building was razed and construction of the current day synagogue began. For the next eighteen months, the community held Sabbath and holiday services in the Talmud Torah building. For the High Holy Day services, they met in the sanctuary of the partially completed synagogue.
The new synagogue was completed in 1925 and still serves the community of B'nai Abraham. When it was new, the bimah and the ark were placed on the south wall as they are today, and the balcony was in place on the north wall. The main floor, however, was divided by two aisles, with a curtained section at the back for the women. Today's kitchen housed the community mikvah. The single aisle design of today's sanctuary was developed in 1938 when more seats were added, and the bimah was widened.
The years between the construction of the new synagogue and the Second World War saw a constant and inevitable change in the Jewish community of Hagerstown. The older members of the congregation clung to the Orthodox ways they had known always. The younger members and those coming to Hagerstown, were becoming more liberal in their Jewish practices and observations. The old ways began to die out, and demand for the new ways grew continually. One of the liberal Jews was elected President of the Congregation during the 1920's, giving evidence to the impending liberalization of the congregation.
As with any major change, dissension and discontent marked the day. Inevitably, the ways of the future prevailed. Unlike many other congregations undergoing this change, however, B'nai Abraham switched from Orthodox observance, not to Conservative, but directly to Reform. We are a small portion of the population of our community. But in spirit we are enormous. We are tireless in our efforts to promote tolerance among all people, to enhance life in our community with art and music, and to carry into the future the pride in our way of life and the love of freedom instilled in us by our ancestors.
We are blessed to be experiencing a reinvigoration of Jewish life in our community. Our members continue to serve in leadership roles in our city, our membership is growing once again and we have just completed a major modernization project of our building. We continue to worship in our historic sanctuary and know that we will do so for another 120 years.