Synagogue takes prayer to heart Congregation draws inspiration for major school building project

September 15, 1998|By Heather Cabot | Heather Cabot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An age-old prayer chanted by Jewish families in temples each Sabbath has inspired a Howard County community to hark upon tradition to build and strengthen their faith -- literally.

For the past two years, members of Congregation Ahavas Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Columbia, have been constructing a building with their own hands.

"We're having our own kind of barn raising," explains Rabbi Hillel Baron, founder of Ahavas Israel and the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education, referring to the soon-to-be-completed wing of the center's school.

From drawing up blueprints to painting the walls to laying the tile, synagogue members are lending their skills to erect the 2,000-square-foot addition at 770 Howes Lane in Hickory Ridge. The spacious room brightened by skylights enlarges the preschool and kindergarten building to make way for two more classrooms. The space will accommodate first-graders for the newly established private day school, Gan Israel. On the High Holy Days and special occasions such as bar mitzvahs, the 40 families that attend Ahavas Israel will convert the multipurpose room into a sanctuary.

The congregation is drawing on a temple prayer that celebrates people who "build synagogues and who occupy themselves faithfully with communal affairs." The "Mishabeirach" (Hebrew for "may he who blesses") asks for special care of those who work to build and strengthen their community.

"This is really true to the original tradition where everybody had a part in it and everybody has their thing to do," says 36-year-old Baron, pointing to an era long gone when Jews contributed wine and candles for communal rituals. The young rabbi says that today many mainstream synagogues expect their members to "write a check for the building fund," rather than physically partake in the process.

According to Baron, congregation members have not been reluctant to roll up their sleeves. Although this project is the largest transformation the center has undergone since it was established on the property of an old horse farm in 1989, it is not the first time members have donated their time and energy.

Nine years ago, the three small wooden buildings perched on a grassy hill overlooking U.S. 29 had not been converted from a rundown barn and home into a house of worship and school. Over the years, congregants gutted the barn that was filled with old cars and farm equipment and revamped it into a worship area. Families vividly recall hanging drywall, painting and cleaning in groups of 10 on Sundays until they got the job done.

"It's not to say that people who belong to other synagogues who put their efforts into a large fund-raising campaign should be undermined," says electrical engineer Larry Schoen, who remembers installing the central air conditioning in the old barn. "[But] there's really an honor when you do it yourself. We're really much more involved."

Rabbi as foreman

While Schoen estimates about 75 percent of the manual labor for the construction has been contracted this time around, he credits the rabbi with taking on the role of foreman.

"He is the only rabbi I know who does demolition, drywalling and plumbing with his own hands," Schoen says with a laugh. Some members joke that Baron dons two hats -- one as spiritual leader and the other as boss of "Baron Construction," says Robert Tennenbaum, architect on the job and member of the temple since 1990.

On a muggy August morning, Baron surveys the site, walking and talking, pausing intermittently to take calls from tradesmen on his cell phone. He started Ahavas Israel while finishing up rabbinical training in Brooklyn, N.Y. Baron says he was motivated to reach out to other Jews and came to Columbia when a rabbi and mentor in Baltimore told him there were people in Howard County looking for a traditional service.

"That was Hanukkah of '84," recalls Baron, who used to trek down Interstate 95 in an "old clunker" from his Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn to lead Sabbath prayers every other weekend in Columbia. Late that spring, ordained and newly married, he moved with his wife, Chanie, to Columbia for good. With them, they brought the attitude that "you've got to do what you can with whatever you've got" -- a philosophy that has become the cornerstone of Ahavas Israel.

"There's a sense that you've created this place as part of this community," says Tennenbaum, who proudly watched his blueprints come to life during the recent construction. He carefully researched synagogues from 18th-century Eastern Europe on which the new building's multi-pitched and sloped roofs are modeled. Lubavitchers are a conservative sect of the Hasidim, a group of pious Jews whose approach to Judaism originated in Poland during the mid-1700s.

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