Synagogue readies for centennial

Kneseth Israel Congregation to begin commemorating its 1906 founding today


On Dec. 19, 1906, the state of Maryland approved a charter that marked the founding of Kenesseth Yishroal, the "Assembly of Israel." It was the first synagogue in Annapolis, with about 150 members who met above a store on Market Space.

Ninety-nine years and several locations later, Congregation Kneseth Israel, which bills itself as Southern Maryland's oldest Jewish congregation, is beginning a 100th anniversary celebration of its history, presence and service within the local community.

The yearlong commemoration kicks off at 3 p.m. today with a concert led by violinist Daniel Heifetz in the synagogue's sanctuary at 1125 Spa Road.

"Music is very much a part of Judaism. The arts are very much a part of it," said Anna Greenberg, co-chairwoman of the 100th anniversary committee and a congregation member for 76 years. "And it's a celebration. Why not start with music?"

The concert is the first of four major events that Kneseth Israel is planning for the coming year. In December, the first of two shabatons, or study-related weekends, will address the 350 years of Jewish presence in the United States and will feature a talk led by Brandeis University professor Stephen Whitfield. A second shabaton will be held in March, and a banquet in May will conclude the formal commemoration.

Over the course of its celebration, the more than 330-member congregation hopes to raise funds for a series of etched-glass windows in its Allen J. Reiter Auditorium that will pictorially represent its history.

"The largest one has already been contributed by a generous couple of our congregation," Greenberg said. "We hope to have [the other three] dedicated by members of the congregation."

The congregation already has seen one major development this year, this month's reopening its Hebrew school after a 12-year hiatus.

The school meets Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons and is designed for public school students who wish to receive further knowledge about the history and traditions of their faith.

"What we try to do is open the door for those families who cannot afford day school," said Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Weisblum, Kneseth Israel's spiritual leader since March 2002. "We have so far four different groups [of students]. It's gaining well, and we have a great hope."

The Hebrew School now complements the more than 40-year-old nursery school and 16-year-old day care center run by Kneseth Israel, said Lore Singerman, president of the congregation since 2002.

With the number of developments currently under way on its grounds, the congregation seems to have found a permanent home at Spa Road and Hilltop Lane, just across the street from St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church. But in its 100-year history, the synagogue has moved extensively throughout the Annapolis area.

In 1910, the congregation purchased a three-story house at 183 Duke of Gloucester St. as its first synagogue building. As its membership grew over the next two years, the congregation sought a larger meeting place and in 1912 moved to a house at 142 Prince George St. Six years later, Kneseth Israel moved yet again, purchasing the former mission chapel of St. Anne's Episcopal Church at the corner of Prince George and East streets. The building was dedicated as the congregation's synagogue in 1921.

The congregation remained at that location for four decades, but continued membership growth eventually prompted its leadership to seek yet another home. The current synagogue was dedicated in January 1963.

As it coped with the relocations, the congregation also overcame a series of hardships.

Morris D. Rosenblatt, rabbi of the congregation from 1945 to 1983, was one of the congregation's central figures, speaking frequently on issues of social discrimination and helping to establish relationships between congregation members and the wider Annapolis community.

But in 1985, Rosenblatt was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. The congregation dedicated a stained-glass window in the sanctuary to his memory in 1991.

"We as a people have struggled many times with ups and downs," said Weisblum, a 14th-generation rabbi. "One hundred [years], it's something. And it was not an easy task."

Tickets to today's concert at Kneseth Israel are $36 for adults and $18 for children and can be purchased at the door.

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