Am HaTorah Congregation in Bethesda generally flies under the radar in the local Jewish community due to its small size, making it “the best kept secret in Bethesda” according to its president, Alan Dorfman.
The small, close-knit Orthodox congregation is currently seeking a new rabbi and has less than 10 dues-paying members, but it provides a sense of convenience and community that is attractive to its members and gives them the perfect piece of Jewish life they’re looking for.
“[People love the] friendliness – we welcome anybody, and we don’t assess them. There’s no prerequisite as to a level of belief or anything like that,” Dorfman said.
Am HaTorah has been in the Bethesda community for around 40 years and serves as a vital connective piece of the local Jewish community due to the vast size of the region, according to Dorfman.
“We basically have been a mainstay. If our tiny shul was to vanish, then there would be a big problem for a lot of people outside the shul. As small as we are, we’re kind of key component of the Jewish community,” Dorfman said.
The synagogue is looking to maintain this communal role, expand its membership and bring its full slate of programs back as it continues searching for a rabbi to replace former Rabbi Yehoshua Singer following his recent move to Georgia.
The programs and the people are what make Am HaTorah such a great community for people to be part of, especially for those who want a more intimate feeling with a small group.
Singer said that the small group environment was a big part of what made some of the programs so great and allowed people to form deep personal relationships that made them more comfortable with one another and more willing to have discussions when they met on a variety of interesting and educational topics.
“The smaller it is, the easier it is, and the more comfortable people are. It’s people that they’ve seen more often and are comfortable with and they’re quicker to ask their questions, raise their opinions,” he said.
Singer emphasized the importance of these conversations, educational programs and trips as being key aspects of why he enjoyed his time at Am HaTorah so much. He said that spending almost 10 years there helped form some incredible relationships that taught him even more than he taught his congregation.
Singer added that before COVID-19, the synagogue was larger and had been doing proactive outreach to expand, but while they were hindered in those efforts due to the pandemic, his interactions with the congregation and some of those vital programs were able to maintain their spirit.
“I think the bread and butter of what Am HaTorah is, the beauty of Am HaTorah, really kept up through COVID. The core of it really was bringing people in. And more than socializing was just the dynamic of having a forum for open conversations about our heritage, about Judaism, what it is, who we are, what it means to be a Jew,” he said.
Singer said those aspects of Am HaTorah made it very difficult to move and that he’s still in contact with many people from the area. He added that he hopes the synagogue can find someone to maintain the great culture while being able to put time and energy into creating new events and new ideas for the congregation to enjoy.
“I expect it’s not going to be somebody [exactly] like me – it’s going to be someone with a different personality than me. The rabbis before me led different types of discussions based on their personalities and types of events,” Singer said.
Dorfman added his opinion on the search for a new rabbi, saying that while not having a rabbi currently has made things somewhat challenging, he is expecting there to be some growth for the synagogue soon.
“To get people to support a rabbi, we need the rabbi. Right? So, we’re in a difficult moment … I do think there we’re known enough that people will inquire [about us]. There might be one or another difficulty that means they might not come right away. But there are people in the Bethesda area who we expect to become part of our community, in the not-too-distant future,” Dorfman said.
That’s the attitude of Am HaTorah, a small but connected community that’s working to provide a convenient and meaningful way for people to be a part of its congregation.
“I was very close to all the people there and [have] very fond memories and lessons and life experiences that I draw on every day from the people and the conversations that we had. It’s very special,” Singer said.