In the late 1960s, a demographic study of the Baltimore Jewish community revealed a shocking truth: the community was woefully unprepared to deal with its aging population, specifically when it came to affordable housing. It was out of that study that organizers established CHAI (Comprehensive Housing for the Aging Inc.) in 1969 to provide affordable housing to the eldery as well as to manage Concord House senior home. Over the years, the organization’s name has changed—it’s now Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc.—and so has the scope of its mission. CHAI now works to address overall community needs—from housing to education—in the Park Heights area, establishing programs that appeal to the area’s diverse residents. Its homeowner assistance programs, for instance, which provide homebuyer education, loans and other benefits, proved so popular with both African-American and Jewish homeowners, they added an unforeseen bonus: “They brought African-American and Jewish homeowners together in each other’s homes,” said Ken Gelula, past executive director of CHAI. “Neighbors learned that they had much in common with one another.”
CHAI also collaborated with city schools in the area, including the Northwest School Community School Partnership, to help stabilize the neighborhood by enhancing the quality of area public schools. “The basic premise is that good schools make good neighborhoods,” said Jill Blumenthal, coordinator of the partnership. More recently, CHAI educational efforts have expanded to Pikesville via the Pikesville Schools Initiative, which works to strengthen that area’s schools.
But CHAI hasn’t lost sight of its original mission of helping seniors. Its Senior Home Repair/Home Modification Program assists almost 250 low-income seniors and disabled households in Northwest Baltimore by providing repairs, assistive devices, energy saving improvements and links to other services.
Across the city in the Jonestown neighborhood, positive developments are also afoot. Home to Corned Beef Row—what was once the epicenter of Jewish life in Baltimore—as well as anchor institutions such as the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Jonestown has struggled to define itself in recent years. In 2015, the Jewish Museum took a leadership role in developing the Jonestown Vision Plan, a blueprint for growth, focusing on community identity, business development and public spaces. “Jonestown currently has a lot of great destinations, but no one is thinking of it as a neighborhood as they think of Federal Hill or Little Italy,” said Tom McGilloway of the Baltimore-based landscape design firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, which contributed to the plan. “The point [of this plan] is to connect the dots [in people’s minds through] development, branding and identity.”
Volunteer work is a vital part of any program to improve a neighborhood—as well as a tenant of Jewish life. Founded in 2001, the Jewish Volunteer Connection matches volunteers with organizations throughout Greater Baltimore (nonprofits, schools and service agencies) based on their interests, skills and needs of the organizations. From helping out at homeless shelters to mentoring at-risk high school students, via the JVC, volunteers can search for ways to do their part in improving the lives of people throughout the city.
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