When Rabbi Jessy Dressin moved to Baltimore in 2012, the same year she was ordained, she lived in an apartment in Bolton Hill and regularly walked by the old synagogue on the edge of Druid Hill Park.

The Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue stood like a silent fortress as she imagined each time she passed what more it could become someday. The Orthodox Jewish synagogue on Liberty Heights Avenue, known to many as the Shul in the Park, no longer served its original purpose as the place local families worshipped on the Sabbath. Its congregants had gradually moved outward from the neighborhood over the decades as the demographics of the city changed. By 2012, it was used only for occasional services.

Its place in history was certain, but its role in the future remained a matter of speculation for years.

Until now.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The religious institution is converting to a nonprofit called Third Space at Shaarei Tfiloh. Its new leadership announced Wednesday that the almost century-old building has been renovated and will become a “place of learning and community informed by Jewish traditions,” according to a statement. “It will serve as a nonsectarian gathering place for intellectually curious Baltimoreans to explore Jewish wisdom and its deep traditions of communal learning and engagement in a non-dogmatic, inclusive, intellectually open and inviting space.”

The synagogue was fated to become either a museum or a playground, said Dressin, the executive director. Its leaders chose the latter.

The landmark Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue is converting to a nonprofit called Third Space at Shaarei Tfiloh that will serve as kind of community center rooted in Jewish traditions. (Hugo Kugiya)

The new name is play on the sociology concept of a “third place,” or a gathering spot that’s not the home or the workplace. Third Space’s creators drew inspiration from Sixth & I, an historic synagogue in Washington, D.C., that’s now “a center for arts, entertainment, ideas, and Jewish life” and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, which hosts lectures along with music and dance performances, and describes itself as a “proudly Jewish organization.”

The board of the old Shaarei Tfiloh synagogue voted to make the change. The nonprofit’s new board of directors will be led by Jon Cordish, who was also the chair of the old board and whose family financed much of the renovation. His great grandfather Louis Cordish was the first president of Shaarei Tfiloh and founded the family real estate firm, The Cordish Companies. (The firm owns the building that houses The Banner’s office.)

Third Space will officially open June 4. Its first announced event will be an open house on Sunday, June 9, from noon to 5 p.m. The public will be able to tour the space, meet the staff and learn more about plans for the building’s use.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“If you’ve been in the synagogue before, we hope you’ll say, ‘I love what you’ve done with the place,’” said Dressin. “If you’ve never been, it’ll probably be hard to tell what we updated.”

The synagogue’s sanctuary has been restored to its original grandeur but is largely unchanged. The infrastructure has been modernized to improve access and comfort. Most of the updates are evident on the basement level, where the center will stage performances and host social events.

The basement was previously used as offices and a social hall, and contained a small chapel used for study sessions. The century-old wood table where students studied the Torah and Talmud remains.

Cordish declined to provide the specific cost of the renovation but said it was “a substantial investment” and “a work in progress” with a multiyear plan that could require further investment. Operating expenses are expected to be offset by fees charged for courses and events as well as rental income from organizations and individuals who want to use the space.

What exactly will happen in Third Space will be revealed this summer when it hosts a few events. Dressin, whose input was crucial in the creation of Third Space according to Cordish, also indicated a fall schedule will be announced later this summer. The lineup will include classes, lectures, performances and holiday celebrations.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Education and the arts will be among Third Space’s priorities, Dressin and Cordish said. It will also act as a resource for the community and play a role in the secular, civic life of the neighborhood and city. They expect the center to host neighborhood meetings and even serve as a co-working space. There will be events tied to Jewish holidays and non-Jewish holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and opening day for the Orioles.

Third Space will be “unapologetically a Jewish space,” but one that will also “add value to the neighborhood” Dressin said.

Once predominantly Jewish, the area around the synagogue decades ago became predominantly African American as the population of Baltimore shifted as a whole. By 1960, African Americans, propelled by the Great Migration from America’s South, represented a third of Baltimore’s population. Black Baltimoreans became the majority of the city’s population by the 1980s.

Many of the Jewish families of Shaarei Tfiloh from Park Circle and Mondawmin moved to Park Heights, Randallstown, Pikesville and Owings Mills. The synagogue was built to last forever, but the people who filled it made different plans.

According to a 2020 study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, the Jewish community in Baltimore consisted of 46,700 households and 115,400 individuals in Baltimore and Baltimore County. The study found that Jewish young adults ages 18 to 34 disproportionately live in Baltimore City compared to their older peers.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Baltimore is, in many ways, a very siloed city,” said Dressin, whose husband’s maternal grandparents married at Shaarei Tfiloh. “But the younger generations choosing to live in the city, or choosing to live outside the ZIP codes their parents lived in, or aren’t from here, they are really hoping and wanting to break down some of those silos. We hope to be a place where some of that happens and we explore what happens when you bring people together.”

Cordish said the leaders of Third Space want it to reflect the particular needs of Baltimore’s community.Our intention is to be a complement to the traditional synagogue … a gateway to get engaged with Jewish knowledge and Jewish learning, but to do it in an inclusive and inviting atmosphere,” he said.

At any given time, at least four generations of Cordish’s family worshipped at the synagogue. His grandfather was the first to have his bar mitzvah there. His brother Blake got married there.

“For our family, it’s been a place for our most cherished life events,” said Cordish, 56, who resides in Baltimore.

“It was always very important to us to preserve it physically. It’s an important landmark. We’re very excited for the opportunity to have another great 100-year run as an institution.”

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

More From The Banner