Here’s how synagogues were building community in 2022

Rabbi Jonathan Roos. Photo by Judy Licht.
Rabbi Jonathan Roos. Photo by Judy Licht.

Bursting at the seams

At Temple Sinai, the religious school was pulling double shifts because there wasn’t enough room to teach everyone at once. Closets were converted into offices. Offices were subdivided to make room for more staff. A big board with Post-It notes let everyone at the 1,140-member family Reform congregation know who was reserving which space for which meeting, program or class.

But the building, built in the District in the late 1950s in the midcentury red-brick utilitarian style, was heading for a change.

The congregation decided it would do no good to tinker around the edges, said Rabbi Jonathan Roos. “We realized we needed to build capacity.”

It was all supposed to be done by the second half of 2020. The pandemic put a pause on construction. This year, building resumed.


“We got 200 cartons of books in the first two days,” says Rabbi Uri Topolosky, of Kehilat Pardes in Rockville. Photo by Andrea F. Siegel

The people of books…
and more books

On a November morning, Rabbi Uri Topolosky stands amid cartons full of Jewish books and piles of hundreds of volumes to be sorted, and grabs a book.

“I think this is the most popular name for a book here: ‘History of the Jews,’” he says.

Topolosky, rabbi of Kehilat Pardes, headed the massive Jewish book drive for the Washington-area Jewish community. With goals to recycle, purchase and bury, the event took place in November.

He says among people’s reasons for parting with the books are downsizing, moving to Israel and getting books out of their homes that they no longer use.


Susie Bibi, left, unveils the sign for Chabad of Bethesda’s new playground.

A miracle or two

A brand-new playground was the centerpiece of the Lag B’Omer celebration at Chabad of Bethesda.

A jungle gym, two slides and a four-way seesaw, it had a lot in common with other playgrounds. The difference, according to Rabbi Sender Geisinsky, is that it is the byproduct of a miracle.

In early 2020, community member Susie Bibi caught COVID-19. Her illness was so severe that she was intubated and put into an induced coma. She spent seven months in the hospital before recovering enough to be released.

Bibi was at the ceremony to dedicate the playground, built in thanks of her recovery.


Celebrating longevity

Temple Beth Ami celebrated its Jubilee year. Last November, they travelled back to Ritchie Elementary. The celebration continued during Purim with the jungle-themed “Purim Palooza.” And on April 30, Temple Beth Ami held a gala.

Many of the current clergy, staff and members still look back on those beginnings. “We’re here only because of the people who have built the synagogue,” said Senior Rabbi Gary Pokras, who came to the temple in 2016. “They were wise and wonderful with the choices they made. To start with a handful of people and turn that into a vibrant synagogue is really amazing.”

The 15 families that helped Southeast Hebrew Congregation move from the District to the White Oak area of Silver Spring were honored at the synagogue’s 100th anniversary banquet on June 19. The synagogue also memorialized past rabbis Simon Burnstein and Kalman Winter.

“This is where [the congregants] want to be and this is how they want things to be,” said current Rabbi Meir Bulman, who joined the Orthodox synagogue in 2021. “And really having that strong sense of identity with Orthodoxy and the values that the synagogue stands for.”


Jewish education

Rabbi Lia Bass aims to understand the Hebrew Bible on “different levels and Jewish lenses.” On April 24, she taught a class at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation about Jezebel, queen of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel and one of the most hated people in scripture.

“I am fascinated by the depiction of women in the Hebrew Bible, how women are sometimes vilified and how women are sometimes sanctified or beautified,” said Bass, a rabbi with the Jewish Institute for Lifelong Learning and Innovation. “That is fascinating to me. And Jezebel is one of these characters where we hear her name and we immediately hate her.”

At Shaare Tefila, a Torah study group that has been meeting since 1994 reached the end of Deuteronomy. Rabbi Jonah Layman said the group treated every part of the Torah with equal seriousness. “We spent weeks on the few verses that make up the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, just as we spent weeks on a particular understanding of skin rashes from the book of Leviticus.”

Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this story.

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