Beth Shalom needs more room

Expansion: The crowded synagogue in Columbia is raising funds to double the size of its building and bring much-needed relief.

Religion

April 16, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Simply put, Beth Shalom Synagogue in Columbia needs room.

The Conservative Jewish congregation is so crowded that it holds Saturday services in an auditorium that quickly gets turned into an area for Hebrew school classes - and then must be changed back again for the next set of religious services. Children in the Hebrew school are tutored on sofas in the halls.

But this is something that Beth Shalom's leaders expected when opening 10 years ago. It was thought that an expansion would be necessary about this point, and they have started fund-raising for a $3.5 million project that will double the building's size and provide some badly needed relief.

"We don't have an inch of floor space left," Rabbi Susan Grossman said. "It's not a three-day-a-week problem. It's an every-day-of-the-year problem."

Ron Meliker, who is chairing the expansion effort, said the synagogue has raised about 30 percent of the money and hopes to begin construction within 12 months and complete it about a year after that. Meliker said the synagogue has about 10,000 square feet and the expansion would add about 12,000 square feet that will equally serve the religious services and the educational division.

Beth Shalom, the only free-standing synagogue in Howard County, opened with a membership of 170 families and has 380 now. The expansion would provide room for up to 500.

The project will give Beth Shalom the ability to add and improve many things. Meliker said a chapel will be built for religious services, and a nursery or preschool program will be started. A connected adult and children's library is part of the plan. Beth Shalom lacks a library now, instead using bookcases to hold its reading materials.

The synagogue also plans to build a media room that children can use to work with computers. Beth Shalom has some computers on carts that are moved to classrooms. A youth lounge will be built, along with more and bigger Hebrew School classrooms.

"Any expansion is going to help the congregation grow," said Allen Brown, Beth Shalom's executive director. "We'll be able to do more with a large facility. We can offer better programs to the congregation."

Meliker, Brown and Grossman stressed the importance of the synagogue's educational programs. Half of the expanded area will be devoted to the Hebrew School, which might need space more than any other group. It holds classes Sundays and after school during the week.

Education Director Rich Kavalsky's programs are bursting at the seams. The Beth Shalom Religious School had 138 students when he arrived six years ago. There are now 263 in the classes, and there are five classrooms available.

Kavalsky said Beth Shalom has to be clever and make classrooms out of all kinds of spaces in the building, based on what might be available.

"The expansion will give me a chance to have more individualized help with the kids," Kavalsky said. "That's important because there's so many different levels of Hebrew knowledge that it's hard for a teacher to really hone in on [it]... in one class."

Meliker said the official fund-raising program kicks off in the next few weeks. One committee is handling fund-raising, and the other is concentrating on construction. They will seek pledges from members and from the nearby Jewish community.

Synagogue officials are optimistic that organizations in the Baltimore and Washington areas will help the project with donations.

"We're looking for support from the Jewish community within Howard County and the surrounding metropolitan areas," Meliker said. "A large part of our investment in the expansion is tied into the Jewish education of the youth of Howard County, and that we believe that there are foundations and other philanthropic leaders and organizations that would support that initiative."

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