Synagogue celebrates its new space

Dedication, other events mark Har Sinai's move from city to Owings Mills

October 19, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Some of the interior doors still lack handles, landscaping has yet to be completed and the 120-pupil preschool won't be filled with the sound of children until next year, but Har Sinai Congregation is ready to dedicate its new synagogue in the Worthington Valley area of Owings Mills this weekend.

The 61,150-square-foot building, set on 17 wooded acres off Greenspring Avenue, was completed this summer, and the Reform Jewish synagogue moved in July from its former Park Heights home in Baltimore. Services for Rosh Hashanah last month were the first held in the new building.

Weekend events include a Shabbat dedication service yesterday, a black-tie gala today and the formal dedication of the synagogue tomorrow with reception, tours and children's activities.

Founded in 1842, Har Sinai is the nation's oldest continuously operating Reform Jewish congregation, according to Rabbi Floyd L. Herman. "We're pioneers," he said. "We're the first congregation to have a female cantorial soloist and the first Reform congregation to build a new building in this neighborhood."

Congregation President Marshall J. Salsbury said the move, approved by the congregation in 1994, was prompted by the realization that most of the families joining Har Sinai were from northwest Baltimore County.

"This is the culmination of many years of effort by many people," Salsbury said, adding that Har Sinai has about 470 families.

The move mirrors a trend among Baltimore-area synagogues dating to the late 19th century, when congregations that started in East Baltimore began moving northwest. Many relocated to the area around Eutaw Place, then to Park Heights, then to the suburbs, said Robin Waldman, an archivist and librarian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Har Sinai's first synagogue was built on High Street in Baltimore in 1849. The congregation relocated to two other city sites before moving some of its operations to Park Heights Avenue in 1937. "From a historic point of view ... we've gone where our people live," Herman said.

The dedication of the Owings Mills synagogue comes almost 65 years to the day after the congregation's Park Heights synagogue was dedicated.

The new building is the same size as, or perhaps slightly smaller than, the one the congregation left behind in the city, Herman acknowledged. Yet the space is more flexible. Many of the rooms -- including the 125-seat chapel -- can be used for a variety of purposes. The large social hall can be divided into several smaller rooms with movable walls or opened up for extra seating during crowded holiday services.

The centerpiece of the two-story building is an airy, sunlit 400-seat sanctuary with a large skylight over the ark area and walls crafted from Jerusalem stone. Trees visible through the windows frame the free-standing ark.

Adjacent to the sanctuary are a bride's room, a robing room and a quiet room. A youth lounge, nursery school and library are nearby.

Several years ago, Har Sinai was at the center of a heated development battle with some of its Owings Mills neighbors over its plans for the site. In March 2000 the congregation agreed to adhere to a detailed landscaping plan, noise abatement and lighting restrictions sought by the community and to kill plans for a commercial day care center. In exchange, neighbors agreed to drop two lawsuits filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court that sought to block the project and to dismiss an administrative appeal.

Herman said the congregation is looking forward to a long, harmonious relationship with its neighbors.

"I think we'll be here a long time," Herman said. "Synagogues belong where people live."

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