Am Kolel Brings its Books from Beallsville to Rockville

Rabbi David Shneyer. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

With more than 1,000 books already shelved and hundreds more to be catalogued, the Am Kolel Judaic Resource Center celebrated its new facility in Rockville on April 23.

Relocated from the Sanctuary Retreat Center in Beallsville, Am Kolel offers weekly Shabbat services, works with non-affiliated people for their lifecycle needs, builds bridges with the faith community, provides guidance for converts, incubates new organizations and serves as their fiscal sponsor and publishes new Jewish recordings and publications.

Behind it all is Rabbi David Shneyer, a Renewal rabbi who founded Am Kolel in 1990 as an independent Jewish community with an eye to art, social justice and spirituality. He recently retired as rabbi of Kehila Chadasha in Bethesda.

The Sanctuary Retreat Center is for sale. Am Kolel has relocated to a house in a residential area.

“You can imagine going from 28 acres to not even one-quarter of an acre,” Shneyer said.

In addition to that sprawling library, the center’s walls are covered with works by local Judaic artists. Shneyer said he plans to offer Shabbat and holiday celebrations and classes.

“We are hoping more than anything else that this center will be used,” he said.

Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Longtime Am Kolel member Shelley Sturman joined the Sunday afternoon festivities, noting, “I’m thrilled to see it thriving and growing and enriching so many lives.”

She was particularly happy that the new location is in Rockville, much closer than Beallsville.

The community began moving in during March, creating what Shneyer hopes will be “a gathering place” for progressive Jewish groups in the area.

“I started it, because of a need,” said Shneyer. “People can come by as they wish. They can sit, hang out here, read, bring their lunch.”

Two librarians are among those volunteering to prepare the library, which has 2,000 books and more coming, many of them donated by Shneyer.

There are two closets filled with uncatalogued books. “We are running out of space” and expect to use a second room in the house for the library soon, he said.

Eventually, they plan to list all their titles online.

Susan Freiband, of Alexandria, is one of the librarians. She comes with plenty of experience, having taught library science at the University of Puerto Rico.

When she returned to the mainland, “I wanted to find a Jewish Renewal community,” she said, and has been with Am Kolel since around 2008.

“The library is all Judaica. The books are fiction, non-fiction. There is some Hebrew and some Yiddish,” she said.

Named for donors, the library’s official name is the Rae Alice and Bernard Cohen Am Kolel-Kehila Chadasha Library.

On Sunday, three artists who are long-time members of Kehila Chadasha were among about 50 people who gathered to dedicate the new facility.

“We are all part of Kehila. All of us have known [Shneyer] for 30 years,” Wendy Miller said. “We’re here to support him.”

Gail Singer looked around and declared happily, “We’ll be using this facility.”

Also with them was Rosana Azar, who made the ark and banner for Kehila Chadasha. Her students created the brightly colored stepping stones at the back of the house.

They joined in the celebration as former presidents and board members of Kehila Chadasha each gave a few taps with a hammer to affix two mezuzot. A trio consisting of two guitars and a clarinet played Jewish music. Member Miles Goldstein welcomed the opening with several blasts of the shofar.

“I should be retiring,” said Shneyer, who said he is in his 70s. “I’m having too much fun.” ■

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