Washington Jewish Week / November 9, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Bearded Hasidim danced joyfully with recent Israeli Army graduates, as Ofri Meir sang nostalgic Mizrahi melodies and crowds of local Jews noshed on kosher sushi, grilled salmon, roasted vegetables and tasty Middle Eastern desserts.
The lavish party, held Sunday night at Rockville’s Rollins Congressional Club, was organized by the nearby Chabad Israeli Center to raise money toward an $80,000 renovation project. It attracted more than 130 people and marked an important milestone in efforts by the Hebrew-speaking congregation to once again worship in its own home.
“We have to upgrade our building for public or commercial use,” explained the center’s longtime rabbi, Shlomo Beitsh. “In order to use it for a synagogue, it needs to be commercial. We need to install fire sprinklers, access for the handicapped, lavatories for the disabled, emergency exits, a fire escape, A/C and heating. The city does have a law that permits churches in residential areas, but that’s zoning. We still need a use permit.”
The little shul fronts Rollins Avenue in a residential neighborhood of Rockville affectionately nicknamed the “kibbutz” because of the many Israeli families living there. Beitsh says he bought the single-family house in late 2003 “to live upstairs and start a minyan downstairs.”
Beitsh led Shabbat services at that location until August 2010. That’s when Montgomery County Judge Brian Kim — following a series of letters, complaints and public hearings — ordered the center shut down, citing violations of an order issued three months earlier that limited the synagogue to no more than 25 worshippers. In addition, the order had prohibited Beitsh from occupying the building other than Friday nights and Saturday mornings because it did not meet local fire safety codes.
“For five years, nobody complained. If it was such a real issue, the city and the neighbors should have come to me,” he told WJW. “The problem started when we started home day-care and got a permit for eight kids. In 2008, we tried to extend the permit to allow more kids. When the city notified the neighbors, they got a few complaints.”
Since its closure, the rabbi has moved his Orthodox services to the nearby Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, where they’ll continue until the necessary renovations are finished, most likely by Chanukah.
“We did a fundraising campaign last year on the High Holidays, but the actual work didn’t start until we got the permits this summer,” said the 34-year-old Beitsh, who lives in the house next door with his wife Sarah and their seven children.
Beitsh, interviewed in a makeshift office on the second floor of the empty synagogue, said he has no plans to enlarge the 2,400-square-foot structure.
“All this construction is just to comply with the code. The permit will allow us to have only Shabbat services,” said the rabbi, whose congregation survives entirely on donations. “So if we want to use it for classes during the week, we’ll have to go through another public hearing.”
Everyone involved in both the renovation and the fundraising is Israeli, from the project’s architect (Gadi Romem) to the engineer (Yoav Steinbach). Actual construction work is being done by Avis-R Co. Inc., which is jointly owned by Zion Avissar and Kochav Lyani.
Likewise, food for the gala event came from Rockville-based Dahan Catering, while Da Vinci’s Florist of Silver Spring donated the decorations and lighting.
Besides live music, dancing and speeches by various dignitaries, the Oct. 30 party — emceed by Gil Tamary of Israel’s Channel 10 TV — featured a silent auction of various items ranging from a laminated portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (starting bid: $65) to a green hamsa with mezuzah on a marble stand ($100). Various services were also auctioned off, including a haircut at Rockville’s Oxygen Salon & Day Spa ($40) and VIP airport limousine service by Isroyal ($70).
Dalia Assaraf, who said the auction raised more than $10,000, said she feels more comfortable at the Chabad Israeli Center than at any other congregation in the area.
“They do everything for the community but don’t ask for anything back,” she said. “They welcome all Jewish people, whether you have money or you don’t. That’s what’s nice about Chabad.”
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of the Chabad movement for Maryland, praised Beitsh for being “totally devoted” to bringing yiddishkeit to the local Israeli community.
People who come here from Israel all think that one day, they’ll go back. But they need to ensure that while they’re here, they — and particularly their children — retain the flavor and knowledge of Judaism, so that when they go back to Israel, they’ll feel that same sense of familiarity,” said Kaplan, who oversees 21 Chabad congregations throughout the state, from Frederick to Annapolis to Ocean City.
“Sometimes it doesn’t happen, because the kids are going to local schools,” he said. “And even if they pick up a smattering of Hebrew, they’re not going to have a sense of Judaism. In order to do that, you can’t rely on just one Rabbi Shlomi.”
Kaplan estimates that 1,500 or so Israeli families reside in the Washington, D.C., area, and another 600 to 700 Israeli families in metropolitan Baltimore.
The Potomac-based rabbi came to Beitsh’s aid once the congregation’s regulatory headaches began in 2008.
“The city of Rockville was rather unreasonable” about the whole affair,” said Kaplan. “Our attorney, [former Rockville mayor] Steven VanGrack, also felt it was unreasonable, but we’ve gotten past that.” He added that “this sort of thing has happened elsewhere, often because our establishments are in residential neighborhoods, and we’re converting a house and making it into a small center.”
Besides Rockville, there’s also a Chabad Israeli Center in Baltimore; similar centers also exist in Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, Miami and other cities with large Israeli immigrant populations.
“We just started one in Baltimore six months ago,” he said. “We cater to Israeli kids who are brought here to work in the shopping malls for six months to a year, without any ties to the community. Passover comes, and these kids are totally lost without us.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Gadi Shamni, defense attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
“The unique thing about Chabad is that it’s not a sectarian organization. They try to bring everybody together. It’s a unifying kind of Judaism,” he told WJW, emphasizing that his presence at the event was not as an official of the Israeli government, but rather as a Jew living in Rockville who deeply admires the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
“They help Jews who cannot afford to send their children to private Jewish schools,” said Shamni. “Without organizations like Chabad, we’d have fewer Jewish people in the world.”