A relaxed Calah Congregation

Synagogue: Leaders work to create an atmosphere in which congregants can learn without feeling intimidated.

October 10, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With its roots in adult education, Calah Congregation has evolved into a liberal synagogue known for its informal service, provocative lectures, charitable projects and open environment.

"We keep the doors open for all who want to appreciate their Jewish heritage," said Jordan Alpert, synagogue president.

The unaffiliated Reform synagogue has about 60 families as members. Sabbath services are held at 8 p.m. every other Friday at Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia. The Hebrew and English prayers are led by Cantor Michael Markowitz in a modern service with traditional melodies.

"It certainly is not a typical congregation," said David Jaller, synagogue vice president. "The things we do are different, but we still give people a grounding in Judaism."

Calah was founded in 1982 by a handful of congregants and Rabbi Emeritus Herbert Kumin, a New Yorker who moved to Columbia in 1977. Kumin recalled that the adult education classes sponsored by some local synagogues at that time drew few participants.

"Rabbis would complain people didn't want to learn," he said.

In 1980, Kumin established the Academy for Higher Learning, which offers free adult education seminars presented over coffee and cake at local senior and village centers on topics ranging from Judaism to health issues. "I wanted to give people a reason to come," Kumin said.

Those who attended were acknowledged for their commitment. "The rabbi would give a party and certificates," said Lynn Green, synagogue treasurer. "If you [attended] eight times, you got an `Academy Award.' "

Participants told Kumin that they wanted to continue learning and praying together in a congregation in which costs would be minimal. Two years later, they founded Calah, an ancient Hebrew term for a gathering of people to learn.

"People found it just very relaxed," Jaller said. "Rabbi Kumin felt it was important for people to enjoy and learn in an atmosphere where they could feel comfortable and not intimidated. He and his wife made people feel welcome."

Kumin compiled Sabbath and High Holiday prayer books, which feature elements of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox liturgy. Kumin's wife, Bernice, leads the synagogue's choir.

After Kumin retired in 1998, congregant Bob Sacks took over. "It's a labor of love," Sacks said. "I'm not as learned as the rabbi, but I read and understand a lot of Hebrew. I pass on what I know from reading the different commentaries and integration of each Torah portion."

During services, Sacks reads the Torah and discusses that week's Torah portion, which he usually relates to topical events. "We try to give a little education about the Torah," he said. "There are very few passages in the Torah you can't relate to current events. I tend to follow the reading with some of the events that shaped our history."

At each service, Bernice Kumin calls up congregants who are celebrating a birthday or an anniversary and hands each a gift-wrapped present, usually a book. "It's a nice touch, and people enjoy it," Green said. "She looks out, too, for what interests you."

Guest lecturers are invited and have included a Holocaust survivor, a Jewish cookbook writer, artists and a meteorologist. "We invite anybody with something to teach," said Green, who coordinates the program with Jaller.

Unlike more traditional synagogues, Calah Congregation accepts interfaith couples. "The non-Jewish partner is made to feel welcome and very much a part of the congregation," Markowitz said. "Rabbi Kumin opened up a way for intermarried people and others who didn't want to take on the demands of a more traditional congregation."

Congregants attend social events and participate in the synagogue's annual talent show, "whether they have talent or not," Green said.

On Passover, they celebrate the Seders at a Columbia restaurant, supplying the matzo, matzo ball soup and gefilte fish. After Yom Kippur, congregants break the fast as a group with a dairy potluck dinner.

"In this congregation, there is a lot of eating, a lot of praying and a lot of togetherness," Green said. "It's like a big family. Everybody cares about everyone else. It's very haimish [homey]."

With no building fund and low membership dues, the congregation has increased. "We're trying to grow without raising dues," Sacks said. "The more members we have, the more we can do for the community."

Surplus funds sponsor the congregation's teen and young adult activities, its community service programs, and its charitable projects that benefit such organizations as a nonprofit camp for critically ill children and Mogen David Adom, Israel's National Emergency Medical Service.

For Mitzvah Day, an annual community project sponsored in May by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, congregants visit a Baltimore senior residence, where they also throw a New Year's party.

"For a little congregation, they have a lot," Kumin said. "They have all kinds of people who never saw a Jewish word before, and they love to come. I did my job, and I feel good."

Calah Congregation

Denomination: Liberal Jewish

Leadership: Bob Sacks, acting lay leader, and Rabbi Emeritus Herbert Kumin

Size: 60 families

Location: Owen Brown Interfaith Center, Columbia

Date founded: 1982

Phone: 410-792-8029

Web site: www.calah congregation.com

Worship services: 8 p.m. every other Friday

Children's program: Sunday school at 9 a.m. every other Sunday, from preschool through bar mitzvah and confirmation

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