Why I Give:
Finding Jewish Identity at the JCC


By Randi Buergenthal

I am a native Baltimorean, but I didn’t grow up in Pikesville or Randallstown, or the areas that most of you think of when my peers say they grew up in Baltimore.  I am not really good at the high school Jewish geography game, because I was one of three Jews in my high school graduating class; I guarantee you that you did not know me in high school.  My family did not belong to a synagogue, so I am not good at that Jewish geography game either.  

I grew up in Reisterstown when 795 didn’t exist. There were hardly any restaurants or shops or even a movie theater. I remember my grandfather, my Zaddy, worrying because my parents were moving to as he called it, “Klan Country.” 

The year was 1978, and my parents decided to move to Reisterstown because they heard that The Associated had bought a plot of land and was planning on building a JCC in Owings Mills. The JCC, my parents told me, would be a good place for me and my brother to grow up.  So my parents, and many other families like mine, moved to Reisterstown and joined the new Owings Mills JCC.   

It wasn’t easy growing up in Reisterstown. I was called antisemitic slurs and was given zeros on tests that were given on the high holidays because I wasn’t at school. I even remember one of my teachers telling me that I had to choose between being a good Jew or being a good student.   

In third grade, a classmate called me Jew Bagel. I went home and cried to my parents. But they did not switch me to a new school, call the principal, the board—all things that I think we would do today. Instead, my mother looked at me and simply stated, “You’ll go to the JCC, where you will find kids like you.” And I did.  

My mother would pick me and my brother up from school, and drop us off at the J. I would hang out in the teen lounge. I took classes and volunteered in the preschool where I did art projects and read stories to the kids. In the summers I volunteered at camp, and when I was 13, the youth director convinced me to join BBYO where I immersed myself in leadership roles.

When I turned 16, I got a job at the front desk. I sold memberships, gave tours even worked at the summer concerts, which were held in the gym. On my college breaks I taught art classes to middle schoolers. 

While the J became my home, it also became my story. 

It was where I met my best childhood friends and discovered my connection to Judaism. The J was where I fit in and where I learned that I could make a difference.  

Later, when my husband and I moved back to Baltimore, the J became the first place to welcome us home. It is where we worked out and went to the pool and made our friends. The J is where my now adult daughters made the paint stick chanukiah that we light every year and the matzoh cover we still use at our seders. It is where they went to camp, Maccabi and became TNTs. It is where my oldest learned to lifeguard and my youngest worked as an assistant teacher. The J is also where my girls learned to sing the hamotzi in preschool— the way they both still sing it on Shabbat today.   

 

The J became not just my story, but my family’s story.  And it became my why: 

The reason why I choose to give my volunteer time to the Jewish community,  
The reason why I support The Associated,  
The reason why I became a synagogue president, and
The reason why I am chair of the board of the JCC. 

Back in 1978, the JCC board of directors had the vision to create an engagement and communal platform with the goal of reaching unaffiliated and unengaged Jews. The goal was to immerse them Jewish community and create Jewish connections for these families, their children and hopefully, the next generation: Their children’s children.   

I am that child, and my children are those children.  


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The Associated is a home for everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community. We offer several email lists to help people find a community, engage with their peers and support Jewish journeys around the world.

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