News & Community

Rabbi Jessy Dressin Helms a New Community Crossroads Near Druid Hill Park

Inspired by Sixth & I—Washington, D.C.'s nondenominational arts hub in a historic synagogue—Third Space at Shaarei Tfiloh will offer programming focused on building community relationships.
—Photography by Mike Morgan

When Rabbi Jessy Dressin moved to Baltimore in 2012, she would pass the iconic Shaarei Tfiloh synagogue on her stroll from Bolton Hill to the old Union Craft Brewing on the Jones Falls, where her husband, Mark, works.

“I obviously knew it was a Jewish building, and I would ask around about its story, but not many people knew,” she says.

So she moved on with her life, as one does, founding Charm City Tribe, working as the director of Jewish life for the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Baltimore, and then, most recently, serving as the senior director of Jewish education at the community-service nonprofit, Repair the World.

That is, until a chance encounter in 2022, when Dressin was introduced to Jon Cordish, principal and director of finance at The Cordish Companies real estate development firm. It turned out his family was deeply connected to Shaarei Tfiloh and looking for the right person to take over the largely unused building—with its circa-1927 rock-faced stone structure, stained glass windows, and copper-clad dome.

“For a century, across five generations, our family had been coming to Shaarei Tfiloh to be in community and to learn,” says Cordish, whose family had been maintaining the space for occasional services. “We were committed to preserving this remarkable place as a Jewish institution, while reimagining it as something new and additive for Jewish Baltimore—and the city at large.”

Dressin, whose rabbinical thesis had focused on expanding behaviors and assumptions of younger Jews, was intrigued. Inspired by Sixth & I, a nondenominational center for arts, entertainment, and Jewish life in Washington, D.C., she envisioned a similar venue for lectures, classes, workshops, concerts, community events, and beit midrash (a sort of Jewish study hall).

After multiple conversations—including how best to welcome and include the surrounding and predominantly Black neighborhood—she signed on as executive director at the newly named Third Space at Shaarei Tfiloh.

“Third spaces” are built on an idea that a healthy society requires three places where people build relationships: a private setting where you spend time alone or with family, like a home; a public setting where you contribute to society, like work or school.

“And then the third is the place where people who are proximate because of geography, shared interests, or common concerns will find or discover each other,” says Dressin. “That can be a park bench, or a coffee shop, or a 100-year-old synagogue.”

Third Space opened its doors in June for a soft opening, with a full lineup of programming slated for the fall, around the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And as a former Orthodox congregation, the old Shaarei Tfiloh would have never allowed a woman to lead from the [podium]. Then again, being a changemaker is nothing new to Dressin.

“I’ve had ample opportunity to really establish myself as someone who is entrepreneurial and innovative and just an agitator to the status quo, but not for the sake of breaking it down—for the sake of building it up.”

She knows this is a tough time to be Jewish, with rising cases of antisemitism around the world, but at the same time, she’s not shying away from “difficult conversations that are often avoided but require engagement—like the topic of Israel, or facing some of the challenging histories of relationships between Jews and the non-Jewish Black community.”

For Dressin, there is stress that comes with starting something new, but her supporters remind her that she’s been working toward this moment.

“They say, ‘Your whole rabbinate is built on [bringing communities together] and now you have this vessel.’”

Still, she marvels over the bit of fate for “2012 Jessy,” who used to walk by this synagogue. “I never thought I’d have the keys to the castle.”