Home for the holidays

Symbol of `strength,' `vitality'

After years wandering, Arnold congregation has a synagogue

August 31, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

The doors are lying on the floor, waiting for handles. A cherry wood pilaster doesn't yet reach the ceiling. The architect, whose living room is temporarily housing the ark he designed, is scribbling a punchlist on a lined pad.

One week from tonight, several hundred people will sit here in prayer, as Temple Beth Shalom congregants dedicate a $4 million sanctuary, officially ending more than four nomadic years that began with a blizzard.

Barely a week later will be the first time in recent memory that the full congregation will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, together on its Arnold property, where the old sanctuary was so small that the 240 member families worshiped in shifts.

The new building, with a 250-seat sanctuary that can expand into a cavernous social hall to seat 900 people, offers a vision of the future of the growing Reform Jewish temple and the small but growing Jewish community in Anne Arundel County.

The structure is testament to the resilience of the congregation, founded by five families in 1960.

"I think that this serves as a symbol of the strength and the vitality of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Ari J. Goldstein, the spiritual leader hired in 2004.

The congregation's recent journey began after February 2003 snowstorms plopped more than 2 feet of soggy snow on the roof, cracking the beams. The building was deemed unsafe by county officials, and a bat mitzvah service the next day was hastily moved to the Radisson hotel in Annapolis.

Like the Israelites who left Egypt, the congregation wandered, landing all around the Annapolis area for more than a year. By the time it put six trailers together for a makeshift sanctuary, the plan for a new sanctuary and social hall was in the works. Construction began a year ago.

"We were in Loews (Annapolis Hotel), the Sheraton, Chartwell Country Club and regular services were being held in a classroom," recalled temple president Heidi Handelsman.

The building housing the religious school and offices was not damaged in the storm, and rooms there were pressed into service for worship, and for combination office, meeting and prayer space.

In recent months, with the new building up and trailers removed for parking lot expansion, bar mitzvah services were held at the Jewish chapel at the Naval Academy.

Planners worked to give congregants, most of whom live around the county and on the Eastern Shore, reasons to show up at the 11-acre temple home.

"We planned more social events that would keep people coming here," Handelsman said.

The nearby Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company let the temple's youth group hold a carnival on its grounds. Businesses donated items to a silent auction that went along with a fundraising dinner-dance, Handelsman said. Lectures on religious subjects continued.

Architect Charles Anthony, a temple member, said he designed the new 15,000-square-foot building to evoke the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - boxy and with columns - and other ancient structures he saw on a trip to Israel with the rabbi. The building is made of split-face block, a pale and rough masonry.

On the way to the sanctuary, congregants will be greeted by a decorative wall of Jerusalem stone - it was too expensive to build the entire structure from the imported rock - which Handelsman called "our own little Western Wall" that is meant to be touched.

In the sanctuary, clear windows form a combination of a tree of life and menorah, or multi-limbed candelabra. Light maple pews and deep cherry pilasters stand out against blue carpeting and upholstery.

A huge wave, designed to evoke a Torah scroll, goes several stories up, floor to ceiling, behind the bima, from where leaders conduct the service. What's now a huge hole in it will hold the ark and three Torahs. On the ark, in Hebrew, will be written, from Psalm 118, "Open for me the gates of righteousness."

Anthony doesn't expect to have the doors to the ark ready for the dedication. And other finishing touches - including landscaping - won't be done either.

Next Friday night, holy Torah scrolls will be marched into the sanctuary. The shofar, a ram's horn, will sound.

Founding members will light the eternal flame. The temple's first full-time rabbi is coming from New Jersey to participate.

An adjacent soundproof room will allow worshippers with youngsters to attend services without disturbing the congregation.

"The building was designed to support a Jewish future in Anne Arundel County," said Beth Plavner, co-chairwoman of the campaign that raised about $2.5 million for construction. "Hopefully, we've got enough growth built into it."andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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