Beth Shalom opens home

March 10, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Beginning today, Howard County Jewish children won't have to travel to Baltimore or Washington to see what an actual synagogue looks like.

The county's first building dedicated from the start as a synagogue opens today on Guilford Road in Simpsonville just south of Columbia -- thanks to the 200 families that belong to the Beth Shalom Congregation.

The synagogue's opening reflects the continued rapid growth of Howard's Jewish population, now estimated at about 8,500 or roughly 4 percent of the county's residents.

Other distant Baltimore suburbs are undergoing similar growth in their Jewish populations. Carroll County, for instance, now has about 500 Jewish families, or about 10 times the number a decade ago, according to Seymour Essrog, the county's only rabbi.

About 95,000 to 100,000 Jews live in the Baltimore region, up from about 93,000 in 1986, says Phyllis Hersh, a spokeswoman for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Beth Shalom's 10,000-square-foot, L-shaped synagogue is a milestone for Howard County's Jewish community and particularly for its members, who raised and borrowed about $1.6 million to build it.

"We think this is good for the community," said Kenneth L. Cohen, rabbi for Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. "We're very happy."

"It gives us a place to root," said Maury Friedman, chairman of Beth Shalom's building committee. His two children were among local Jewish youngsters who had to go to Baltimore to see a building dedicated as a synagogue from its inception; others have been taken to Washington for the same purpose.

Members of Howard's Orthodox Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education Center have their own synagogue near Columbia, but it is a converted farmhouse.

Rabbi Cohen says he still finds it difficult to believe the synagogue is completed, considering the paperwork and delays involved in its construction. "It's a mental disconnection," the rabbi said. "It's like an out-of-body experience. I can't believe it -- after 10 years of running the synagogue out of my house."

The first Shabbat service at the new synagogue is tonight. The Torah, or five books of Moses, will be placed in the Holy Ark, and Rabbi Emeritus Noah Golinkin will lead a procession to affix the traditional mezuzah to the front doorpost.

Rabbi Cohen said he expects hundreds of people to attend the long-awaited service. A more formal dedication of the building will be held in June.

It took at least 10 years of planning to make the synagogue a reality. For nearly 25 years, the congregation met at an interfaith center in Columbia's Owen Brown village and at two other such centers.

When designing Columbia, the Rouse Co. established four interfaith centers -- in lieu of setting aside land for separate houses of worship -- to promote religious harmony and understanding.

But after years in these centers, Beth Shalom members wanted their own synagogue -- not rented space.

"I likened us to a caravan," Mr. Friedman said, explaining the congregation never knew where it would meet next as it moved from one center to another.

With Beth Shalom's move to its own home, three other Jewish congregations still continue to meet in Columbia's interfaith centers.

Beth Shalom's new green-roofed synagogue features a 300-seat sanctuary with a wooden ark topped by a star of David. "The Holy Ark faces east toward Jerusalem," Rabbi Cohen said. "All Jewish prayers are directed toward Jerusalem."

The traditional Jewish eternal light, symbolizing God's omnipresence, will be placed above the Ark in the future, Rabbi Cohen said.

The sanctuary has a vaulted ceiling with red and blue stained glass windows. "People say it looks like flames," Rabbi Cohen said, adding that the flame is a symbol of Conservative Judaism.

The burning bush, where God appeared before Moses, wasn't consumed by flames, he said, noting a parallel to Judaism's course in America: "It has flourished."

Adjacent to the new sanctuary is the county's only commercial kosher kitchen. Around the corner are three classrooms, which Bet Yeladim Nursery School and Day Care, an independent nursery school, will lease.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Cohen said, his congregation will try to strengthen its bonds with its new neighbors, Simpsonville's longtime black community and the all-black Locust United Methodist Church.

Having heard that the county plans to rename a stretch of Guilford Road by the synagogue, Rabbi Cohen said he plans to ask officials to name it after abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

"What's the Jewish connection? Her code name was Moses. . . . I think it's a natural name."

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