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Nomads no more; Shaare Tefila comes home
Washington Jewish Week / July 6, 2011

By Larry Luxner

Thirty-three private homes, nine synagogues, seven schools, five Leisure World locations, four libraries, two churches, one country club and even a bank. And that’s not even a complete list of the 70 places members of nomadic Shaare Tefila Congregation have prayed in the five years since selling their property in Silver Spring.

But the wandering is finally coming to an end, as the Conservative shul plans to move into its newly built synagogue in Olney sometime in July.

“We’re just waiting for the Montgomery County building occupancy permit,” said Rabbi Jonah Layman. “As soon as that happens, we can start moving things into the building and then start holding services.”

The shul at fronts busy Georgia Avenue on a 4.09-acre plot of land half a mile north of the new Inter-County Connector and just south of the Olney Antique Village. Thirty or so mostly Spanish-speaking construction workers are putting the finishing touches to the 27,791-square-foot building, which from the outside doesn’t appear to be a synagogue just yet; in fact, the only indication that there’s anything Jewish about this place is a big blue sign out front that announces “Future Home of Shaare Tefila Congregation.”

Wendy Abraham, the congregation’s vice-president of relocation, says taking occupancy of the new shul is the culmination of a dream.

“I’ve been a member of this synagogue since I was a small child,” she told WJW. “Over the years, I’ve told the congregation, ‘close your eyes and imagine what it’ll be when we get there.’ And now it’s finally becoming a reality.”

Shaare Tefila, founded in 1951 in Washington’s Riggs Park district, moved to the White Oak neighborhood of Silver Spring in 1965 as its membership expanded, reaching an all-time peak of 850 families in 1976. The congregation eventually outgrew that facility on Lockwood Drive, and in 2005 the building was sold.

That sale provided funds for a future third home for Shaare Tefila, but it also marked the beginning of a long, frustrating period of wandering from place to place.

“It made for a more challenging experience,” recalled the congregation’s president, Bess Teller. “People were constantly checking up on where to go for services. We relied on each other; even the logistics were incredible. There was lots of schlepping and unloading, and making kiddushes in places without kitchen facilities.”

Shabbat services and daily minyans have been held in unusual venues including Emory Methodist Church, Sandy Spring Bank and a local Starbucks. In 2008, work on the new shul was halted due to rising construction costs, and members briely explored a possible merger with B’nai Shalom of Olney. But the congregation never lost hope that it would once again have a building to call home.

That home ended up costing around $6 million, with most of it being paid from proceeds from the sale of Shaare Tefila’s White Oak property in Silver Spring. But Abraham said the congregation also raised more than $2.5 million, “which was well above what anybody professional told us we could raise.” Individual donations ranged in size from $1,000 to over $100,000.

“We’re not a wealthy congregation, but we’re very committed,” she said.

Layman, who’s been spiritual leader of Shaare Tefila since 1994, said “we were fortunate to sell the building in White Oak at the right time to get what we asked for. That provided us a solid foundation and about two-thirds of the money we needed [for the new shul]. Fundraising provided the rest.”

He added: “I think we learned a lot about our congregation over the past five years. We’re resilient and we have a great sense of family and community. Initially, we did lose some members, but for the past three years, we’ve been stable. And in fact, in the past couple of months we’ve gained some members as it became clear that we were moving into a new facility.”

Shaare Tefila’s new home boasts, among other things, a sanctuary holding up to 380 people; a social hall with table seating for up to 275 guests for weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other events; a 72-seat chapel for religious services; 10 classrooms, seven of them outfitted for pre-school use, and 120 parking spaces, compared to 85 at the previous Lockwood Drive location.

Publicity chairman Milton Goldsamt says he sees the move to Olney as “the opening of a new vista.”

“It’s like a new horizon, like coming out of a cave,” said Goldsamt, a Shaare Tefila member since 1975; both he and his wife Susan sing in the synagogue choir.

Abraham, noting that “we’ve tried to bring part of our old building into the new building” said that a set of seven stained-glass windows — representing the six days of creation and Shabbat — were removed from the original synagogue on Lockwood Drive and have been installed in the new shul.

“Our membership currently includes people who live in Potomac, Rockville and Bethesda,” said Abraham, who lives in Columbia. “People who have other choices in synagogues have made the decision that they want to go to Shaare Tefila. And we’re hoping the ICC will make it easier for people to come to us.”

What makes Shaare Tefila’s story even more unusual is its partnership with BGW Services of Ogden, Utah — an evangelical construction firm founded as Building God’s Way and specializing in the building of churches throughout the United States.

“They’ve built 500 churches across the country but had never done a synagogue before,” said Teller. “We came across them because they were building a church in the neighborhood. They are as understanding as can be. We occasionally provide lunches for the crew, and even built a sukkah at the construction site, and they ate whitefish and bagels there.”

Layman said that despite its evangelical nature, BGW personnel “did not try to proselytize us. In fact, what we saw was their religious mission to build houses of worship. That’s how they see their Christianity come into practice. They were all nice accommodating to us.”

The rabbi added that “as the steel frame went up, they came up with the idea of writing passages on the beams. So we did that one event late August last year, writing prayers in Hebrew and English, then followed that with Friday night services. For long time, it was just the steel frame with the passages on it standing bare. It was really awe-inspiring.”

Events planned to inaugurate Shaare Tefila’s new home include a dedication Shabbat weekend, Sept. 2-3; a formal dedication ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 18; an open house for community residents, including guided tours, on Sunday, Oct. 16, and a dedication gala dinner and dance on Sunday, Oct. 23.

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