Congregation finds its way back home

Beth Shalom is set to break ground after three years of nomadic worship


After 2-plus feet of rain-soaked snow cracked the ceiling beams of Temple Beth Shalom's sanctuary, the Arnold congregation hopped from hotel to country club to tent before settling into a set of trailers as its makeshift place of worship.

There, synagogue leaders say, they made do - housing their holy scrolls in a closet, praying on movable seats - all the while working toward the day they could afford to build a new home.

Today, more than three years after the February 2003 storm that drove them from their sanctuary, the 240-family Reform Jewish congregation is set to celebrate the construction of a $4 million building - one designed to accommodate a growing membership.

"It's much more than replacing a sanctuary that's gone," said Rabbi Ari J. Goldstein, Beth Shalom's spiritual leader. "Anne Arundel County is not a mecca of Jewish community and Jewish experience. ... It's up to us to maintain Jewish community here or it's not going to happen, and that's what this sanctuary really represents."

With the permit process still in the works, Goldstein and other synagogue officials said today's groundbreaking is ceremonial. It will coincide with the last day of religious school.

They expect construction to start next month and are looking forward to the day when they can move into the 14,000-square-foot sanctuary and social hall.

While the congregation has tried to make the trailers "presentable," "There's certainly not the same feeling of spirituality there," said Beth Plavner, who co-chairs the synagogue's capital campaign. The campaign has raised about $2.1 million.

"I'm looking forward to the real thing," she said.

Beth Shalom's groundbreaking is one of two major events celebrating Jewish life at Anne Arundel County's synagogues today. The other, at the traditional Kneseth Israel congregation, is a 100th anniversary gala expected to draw more than 300 people. It will also feature a tree planting and a dramatic presentation of the congregation's history.

The county also is home to a third congregation, the Conservative Kol Ami in Annapolis.

"I think to maintain our presence was formidable," said Anna E. Greenberg, who co-chairs Kneseth Israel's 100th anniversary committee. For years, she said, it was the only synagogue in the county. "We were very diligent about remaining a unifying force. We made ourselves known in the community."

Officials there and at Temple Beth Shalom stress the congregations' roles in maintaining a strong Jewish presence in the county - a presence made all the tougher for Beth Shalom by its nomadic existence after the storm, which also damaged malls, a day care center and at least one other religious building, according to a county official.

For the first year, the 46-year-old congregation used hotels, a country club and a tent set up on the congregation's grounds for worship and ritual events, synagogue officials said.

With the congregation constantly on the move, "It was very difficult to have a sense of community," said Plavner.

The next spring, Beth Shalom moved into the modular units on synagogue grounds and outfitted them for worship.

"I have to hand it to this congregation for creating a sanctuary out of something that would never be a sanctuary," said Goldstein, who was hired to lead the congregation in 2004. "It could be worse than this."

While there had been talk in the past of building a new sanctuary, the congregation's first priority was building a structure to house its religious and nursery schools, said Charles E. Anthony, a synagogue member and architect who designed Beth Shalom's soon-to-be-built sanctuary. The school building was dedicated in 1998.

"Then there was this act of God that condemned our building," Anthony said. Congregants debated whether to take the insurance money and fix up the old structure, he said. But ultimately, they decided a new sanctuary and social hall - one large enough to handle growth - was the better option, he said.

Leaders mounted a capital campaign beginning early in 2004, hoping to raise $2.5 million of the total cost and to finance the rest, Plavner said.

They're hoping to move the synagogue into its new and much larger sanctuary - about twice the size of the old one - by the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the fall of 2007.

"Having a sense of feeling we're finally home - that's what I'm looking forward to," Goldstein said.

The groundbreaking will be held at 11 a.m. today at Temple Beth Shalom's grounds at 1461 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd. The half-hour ceremony will be followed by a family festival complete with moon bounce, a barbecue and field games. For more information, call the synagogue at 410-757-0552.

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