Howard's first synagogue due to open next summer Temple will house Beth Shalom

September 05, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

After nine years of planning and 23 years without a synagogue, Columbia's 200-family Beth Shalom congregation is ready for a home of its own.

The $1.3 million, 10,000-square-foot synagogue, being built for the Conservative congregation on Freetown and Guilford roads in Simpsonville, is due to open next August, the first synagogue to be built in the county.

And leaders of the county's estimated 8,500 Jews say they hope it will help provide a cultural anchor for the fast-growing Jewish community.

"The building is a means to an end," said Beth Shalom's Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, whose congregation has met at Columbia's interfaith centers for the past two decades. "We want to keep Jews Jewish and to celebrate ethnicity."

He added that his son Zachary, 2 1/2 , has "never seen a synagogue. He's only seen interfaith centers."

The synagogue will fulfill a longtime dream for members of Beth Shalom congregation.

Since 1970, the congregation has met at three of Columbia's four interfaith centers, which were created by the Rouse Co. to promote religious understanding by having different congregations share the same building.

But congregations are not allowed to hang religious symbols outside the interfaith centers, a frustration for some of the religious.

Nine years ago, members of Beth Shalom decided to build a synagogue, partly to avoid paying rent at the interfaith centers.

In addition, members who grew up Orthodox or Conservative began to yearn for a traditional worship setting in a synagogue, rather than sharing a building, leaders said.

"We're like a family who lives in an apartment for many years and is ready to buy a house," said the congregation's president, Mel Wahlberg, a member for 15 years.

Beth Shalom's building fund and congregation have raised at least $500,000 for the synagogue, designed by Westminster-based architects Camlin/Arbaugh & Associates.

In June, a ceremonial groundbreaking took place, with construction to begin in November or December.

The synagogue will feature the county's first kosher kitchen, a social hall, a 500-person sanctuary, a day-care center, and an exterior wall resembling the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

William Cook, the congregation's vice president, said the new synagogue "gives another dimension to Jewish life in our community."

The new synagogue also may attract new members, said Rabbi Cohen, who noted that Beth Shalom's membership has more than doubled during his seven-year tenure.

"We have had tremendous success in bringing back respect for the Jewish tradition," Rabbi Cohen said. But he warned that members shouldn't focus on the building to the exclusion of their community. "A synagogue isn't just bricks and mortar," he said. "It's flesh and blood."

0$ And though all are welcome to at

tend the synagogue, Rabbi Cohen said Beth Shalom isn't competing with the county's other Jewish congregations.

In addition to Beth Shalom, two other congregations meet in the interfaith centers. The Orthodox Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education meets in a converted farm house on Rodona Drive.

Beth Shalom already is making an effort to reach out to non-Jewish communities near the site of the synagogue project.

The congregation has established a rapport with its new neighbor, Locust United Methodist Church. The rabbi and the church's minister, the Rev. Victor Sawyer, have exchanged pulpits.

The two also have worked together to obtain sewer and water lines for the 230-member, all-black church in Simpsonville, just south of Columbia.

Mr. Sawyer said he's happy to have new neighbors, and believes they may raise the region's property values. "It's going to be like a new town," Mr. Sawyer said.

Rabbi Cohen said he'd like to see the synagogue become a fixture of the community. "It is our fervent hope that the new building will enhance the celebration of Judaism in the county and be a resource for all Howard Countians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike," he said.

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