Isaac Hametz doesn't identify as an Orthodox Jew, and neither do many of the Jewish people living in downtown. But the 30-year-old was enlisted by the leader of Lloyd Street's B'nai Israel congregation for a singularly Orthodox quest: Determine how to create a downtown eruv, a ritual zone typically marked by wire or string that makes possible certain activities otherwise forbidden on the Sabbath.
Rabbi Etan Mintz, who joined B'nai Israel in August 2012, said an eruv is critical to helping the 140-year-old congregation attract and retain families, and ultimately re-establish itself as the center of a thriving downtown Jewish community.
"It's a marker," said Mintz, 35. "There are people who don't come to synagogue every Saturday, but they want to know that there's a synagogue in the community [and] … they want to know that this is a vital enough Jewish community that they have an eruv."
While the idea is still in the mapping phase, a congregation committee envisions a zone that eventually could stretch from Canton and Fells Point through downtown and around the harbor to Federal Hill.
For observant Jews, there are numerous restrictions on activities on the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, related to a prohibition on working on what's supposed to be a day of rest. For example, carrying keys, money or even babies — even pushing children in a stroller — is prohibited. But an eruv expands the private walls of the home, relaxing those restrictions.
An eruv typically is marked by wires strung from buildings, light posts and utility poles around its perimeter.
Mintz said he's had early discussions with the mayor's office and city council members about the plan, which often requires permissions from the city and utility companies and in some cases has provoked fierce opposition and lawsuits.
So far, he said, reactions have been positive and he would be "shocked" if people opposed the eruv.
"I think in particular in Baltimore City this fits in exactly with the mayor's plan to bring in and root young families," he said. "It really does fit into what she's doing."
B'nai Israel, the only synagogue left downtown, sits in what once was the heart of the city's Jewish community. Baltimore was a leading port for Eastern European immigrants, many of whom were Jews and settled along Lombard Street near the waterfront. But generations of migration shifted the center to Northwest Baltimore and nearby suburbs.
By 2010, about 4,500 Jewish people lived downtown in 3,700 households, just 5 percent of the total Jewish population of 93,400, according to a survey for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
In 1979, B'nai Israel's future looked bleak, with membership dwindling and the building in such disrepair the city funded a temporary roof. For more than 20 years, it lacked a full-time rabbi.
But Mintz and others said there are signs that the Jewish community, like others, is returning to the city.
Today the building is restored and the synagogue has 160 dues-paying households. There's also an extended network of hundreds of young professionals, who gather for occasions including once-a-month Friday dinners, sports games and "boot camp" workouts. Last March, The Associated opened a permanent Jewish Community Center for families in Federal Hill.
Members said younger faces have begun to dominate at Saturday services, a break from broader religious trends and a reflection of the nearby neighborhoods, where the Downtown Partnership estimates about half of the residents are between the ages of 25 and 34.
"There was a whole period in our history when pigeons were roosting on the roof and things were pretty dim," said synagogue President Frank Boches, who is in his 70s and joined B'nai Israel about 15 years ago. "It's really changed."
B'nai Israel, which started as a Russian congregation and today is Modern Orthodox, draws worshipers from a range of Jewish beliefs, and is starting to pick up members who were previously disengaged, Mintz said. The Associated survey found that 53 percent of downtown respondents identified as non-denominational secular, while just 8 percent of downtown's households belonged to a synagogue and only 4 percent kept kosher.
"We're a traditional denomination and what we're seeing is that denomination is not as relevant. What's relevant is that people are looking for community and family and connectedness," Mintz said. "There's a sense of excitement. People feel like they're part of rebuilding and revitalizing something. They're almost like urban pioneers. They're synagogue pioneers."
Mintz and others said an eruv, as well as other Jewish infrastructure such as a preschool, will build a stronger congregation, helping to maintain members as they have children, as well as to draw new families to the area.
"It's a great thing to do. One, I think there is demand and, two, I think it's an important statement to the Jewish community in Baltimore that we're welcoming to everyone," said Anna Klein, 30, who joined the synagogue in 2008 and lives in Federal Hill with her husband and two young sons.
Klein said she is not personally restricted by the absence of an eruv, but it would help visiting relatives and make the downtown a more attractive option for others.
"Maybe five years ago or six years ago, I think people were very quick to leave," she said. "But now with talks of opening a Jewish pre-school and the JCC downtown, staying downtown has really become more of a viable option for Jewish families."
Two real estate agents who do business in Northwest Baltimore said the 1978 eruv, which encloses parts of Mount Washington, Park Heights and Pikesville, has made the area attractive to the Orthodox, who are the fastest-growing denomination in Greater Baltimore. Between 1999 and 2010, the Orthodox grew from 21 percent to 32 percent of the Jewish population, according to The Associated survey.
Those families are drawn by the different synagogues and schools, the kosher markets and the eruv, said Joe Bondar of Bondar Realty in Pikesville. But he said a second Baltimore eruv, a five mile loop that includes the Johns Hopkins University's Charles Village campus, hasn't prompted many inquiries since its addition in 2008.
"A downtown eruv would be a new experiment," Bondar said. "The infrastructure is still small. There's still only going to be one synagogue. … It's a tough call."
Rabbi Darren Levin, who is responsible for the Hopkins-area eruv's maintainenance, said it helps build a sense of community and responsibility among his students, who volunteer to walk the perimeter during the week checking to make sure it remains whole.
"Community members and leaders invest much care and effort in the construction and ongoing maintenance of the eruv," said Levin, rabbi for the Orthodox Union's Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at Hopkins Hillel. "It promotes a culture of collective commitment."
A downtown eruv faces particular technical challenges, among them a lack of frequent utility poles.
The congregation's eruv committee has discussed using rail lines and possibly the harbor bulkheads to create the enclosure, which also needs funding to go forward. The Orthodox Union raised $15,000 to construct the Hopkins eruv, according to Baltimore Sun archives.
"It's certainly within reason to accomplish with the appropriate funding and the appropriate support from partners," said Hametz, who sits on B'nai Israel's eruv committee and has studied eruvs in cities across the United States.
Hametz, a landscape architect by training, said he believes the eruv is related to the idea of an intimate, walkable community, and is a testament to how different people can use the same space.
"There's a certain kind of overlap [with] graffiti," he said. "It speaks to understanding the city as a collage of projected realities and invisible markings that a lot of us don't really pay too much attention to."
Hametz doesn't think there's urgent demand for a downtown eruv now, but, he added, "its capacity to attract additional families and additional interest in the area, I think is probably very real."
What is an eruv?
An eruv is a ritual zone typically marked by wire or string that makes certain activities otherwise forbidden on the Sabbath possible for Orthodox Jews. There are numerous restrictions on activities on the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, related to a prohibition on working on what's supposed to be a day of rest. For example, carrying keys, money or even babies — even pushing children in a stroller — is prohibited. But an eruv expands the private walls of the home, relaxing those restrictions.