First Jewish school to open Beth Shalom's new structure may be complete next month

September 04, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In what its rabbi calls a historic moment, the county's first Jewish congregation soon will open the first Jewish religious school in Carroll County.

The Beth Shalom school will house an office and four classrooms, offering children from preschool to high school lessons in Judaism and interaction with peers who share their beliefs.

Jewish children in a predominantly gentile county such as Carroll often feel isolated, said Sharon Rosenbluth, who has taught religion at Beth Shalom for three years. The congregation has used space at the synagogue for classes, but never had its own school building, until now.

"There is a big difference being raised in a Jewish community your whole life and being the token Jewish student in a public school classroom," she said. "In our school, Jewish children will learn they are not alone, and that they can have friendships with other Jewish children."

The 1,800-square-foot building is almost double the size of the synagogue to which it is attached. Members have pledged to pay the $50,000 in construction and equipment costs.

"We have raised 35 percent of the cost already, quietly and with no pressure," said Rabbi Seymour Essrog, spiritual leader of the Taylorsville congregation. "We see the need, and the project is both exciting and tangible.

After Friday evening services, he opens the door to the school to show his congregation how well work is progressing. By the time classes resume in October after a summer break, the school building likely will be complete.

Nearly three years ago, the 62-year-old Essrog became leader of the fledgling congregation of 20 families, and Rosenbluth was scheduling religion classes for nine children. "A one-room school with a partition is not the best atmosphere for learning," said Essrog.

Now, 120 families from all areas of Carroll attend weekly services; as many as 550 will participate in high holy days services at Martin's Westminster this month. The congregation employs two teachers, who instruct 46 children.

"The school shows our progress and a new awareness of the Jewish identity," said Rosenbluth. "We never expected such growth."

The lessons range from basic Judaism to the structure of prayers. Students prepare for bar and bat mitzvahs, and learn to read and write Hebrew.

"With assimilation, we lose a lot of Jews each year," said Rosenbluth. "My goal is to give these kids as much Jewish identity as I can, to make them as proud of being Jews as possible."

Mira Foote, who teaches toddlers and pre-school children at Beth Shalom, said a school is critical for a congregation that "is growing by leaps and bounds." "A school reflects the growth of the congregation and its ability to be more complex and diverse," said Foote, a member for two years.

It will eliminate the need to partition off classroom space from the main area of the synagogue, and ease the difficulties of scheduling and teaching children of varied ages and learning levels, she said. "With separate classrooms, each child can participate at the proper pace and level," said Foote.

Both teachers expect the new school to continue growing, largely because of Essrog, whose "fantastic enthusiasm propels the group toward growth and maturation," said Foote.

Many in the congregation followed him to Carroll from Beth Israel in Randallstown, a spiritual family that grew from 200 to 1,100 families under his 30-year-leadership. "Any house of worship is predicated on the central role of the clergy," said Essrog.

When Beth Israel sold its Randallstown property to Colonial Baptist Church, Essrog could have retired. Instead he chose a new challenge, one that parallels his early rabbinate experiences as a newly discharged Army chaplain assigned to a growing congregation.

His offer to conduct services at Beth Shalom twice a month quickly led to the leadership of the congregation. He often meets adults at Beth Shalom whom he knew as children at Beth Israel.

"With me, they find rootedness and stability," he said. "I am a connection in a world growing impersonal."

Essrog, who is the chaplain to both the Baltimore County and City police departments and the vice president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, said the Jewish community feels at home in Carroll. Nearby churches have welcomed the rabbi and often include him in their services, he said.

Like other religious communities in Carroll County, Beth Shalom will continue to expand. Its 12 acres along Liberty Road offer ample space for the new sanctuary and auditorium that its rabbi envisions.

"We are located in the right area and seeing the growth of the Jewish community," said Essrog. "Here we are, sitting right in the eye of the fastest growth area in the state. People are coming, and as long as they do, we want to be here to serve them."

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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