Jewish Congregation marks 25th anniversary Unaffiliated group draws on variety of traditions

November 02, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

It was the late 1960s or early 1970 -- memories are hazy -- when the Electric Prunes rock band performed at a service for Columbia's then-unorganized Jewish population.

Outraged by the unorthodoxy shown by the event's sponsors, some went off to start their own congregations.

Others -- impressed by the innovative approach to worship -- stayed, and the Columbia Jewish Congregation was born.

As it prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday, the 350-family Columbia Jewish Congregation still marches to a different beat.

It's the county's oldest unaffiliated Jewish congregation -- meaning that it is not associated officially with the four main branches of American Jewry: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

The congregation incorporates traditional and modern aspects of Judaism into its services and teachings.

"It's clearly among the minority," said Eliot Spack, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education in New York. "The majority of congregations choose to affiliate with an ideological movement."

The congregation, led by Rabbi Martin Siegel, 62, brings together individuals with diverse approaches to expressing their Judaism.

On the Sabbath, it's not unusual for the congregation to have Orthodox Jews sit next to Reform, or those who follow kosher dietary rules sit next to those who don't. Some women read the Torah, which is not allowed in Orthodox congregations. Members create their own prayer books or lead the Saturday morning prayer group, known as "havurath," in Hebrew.

"It was founded with a unique vision: All aspects of Jewish [life] can work together in one congregation," Mr. Siegel said. "It's very accepting to everybody. We don't say 'You have to do this. You have to do that.' "

Joel Barry Brown, the congregation's vice president, agreed.

"It's a big-tent organization," Mr. Brown said. "It's inclusive vs. exclusive."

Jacques Fein, president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, said the congregation's strength is that "it allows Jewish people to find their way and look for different ways in worshiping within traditional means."

When the congregation was created in the fall of 1970 by 12 Jewish people then new to Columbia, its mission mirrored the ideals of the new town.

"We got together and asked what was relevant to us at that time," said Helane Jeffreys, a founding member and Wilde Lake resident. "What was relevant was sharing ideas."

The county's Jewish population was small then, and there were no established congregations or synagogues. The Howard County Jewish Council, now called the Jewish Federation of Howard County, provided services.

It was the council that invited the rabbinical student who brought in the Electric Prunes -- not so unusual in the context of the times. That incident and the Columbia Jewish Congregation's birth took place during a nationwide Jewish renewal.

"It was a reaction of Jewish individuals involved in the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement who didn't buy into the traditional practice any more," said Holly Snyder, an archivist for the American Jewish Historical Society in Waltham, Mass.

In Columbia, the new congregation's founding members initially met in a private home. Helane Jeffreys' husband, Shep, a psychologist, served as the congregation's facilitator.

Later, members met at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center and then the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, the congregation's current home. Mr. Siegel arrived in 1972.

Twenty-five years later, there are six Jewish congregations for approximately 10,000 Jewish residents in Howard. The Columbia Jewish Congregation has become a permanent and well-known fixture in the county.

Its social service activities include two housing units for low-income residents in Columbia's Long Reach village.

Mr. Siegel -- who had a leading role in the drive to incorporate Columbia as a city -- also is a member of the Howard County Clergy for Social Justice.

"It's a congregation with a social conscience," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Siegel's congregation also has strong ties to the affiliated congregations and helped establish other Jewish congregations.

When he retires in a couple of years, Mr. Siegel said, "I hope that the essential spirit that [the congregation] was founded on remains and that it doesn't lose its uniqueness."

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