While there is nothing small about B’nai Israel Congregation, with its 1,200 unit-members, 125,000-square feet of building space and 124-page program guide, it’s the little things that makes this Rockville synagogue so special.
There’s the annual open house at Senior Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer’s home for the staff and clergy to meet every new member as well as the matching up of new nursery school families with current ones.
These programs, as well as an award-winning USY, a two-story library and an extensive adult education program, have helped the synagogue stay young as it approaches its 90th birthday next year.
“We are really a small, caring congregation,” said Vickie Abrutyn, who was president here in 2005-2006. “Our rabbis, they are never not on top of what is happening in a congregant’s life,” she said, adding that she is sure Schnitzer knows the phone number of every member.
Theirs is “a very diverse and very inclusive” place, Schnitzer said. He points to diversity in terms of age, careers and areas where the congregants reside. Also, he said, “We’ve worked very hard in the last few years to be gay inclusive.”
B’nai Israel is a “multi-age, strong, extraordinarily committed” synagogue, noted Lois Alperstein, synagogue president.
Because new members can become involved right away, and are actually encouraged to do so, B’nai Israel never needs to beg people to fill its lay leadership positions.
While new leaders are constantly stepping up, both clergy and staff tend to stick around a long time. “There is a lot of staff continuity. There is a culture of caring and stability,” Schnitzer said. That staff includes its own shaliach, a position created one year ago.
The synagogue has its roots in D.C., where it started back in 1925. It followed the flow of the Jewish population into the Maryland suburbs and now sits on Montrose Road, basically one building in two parts. There is the Gerald S. Snyder Building, where services are held and offices are located, and the Thelma and Melvin Lenkin Educational Activities Center, where the schooling takes place.
Its location helps establish its programming. With the Charles E. Smith Life Communities close by, the synagogue likes to offer free lectures geared to residents there.
About 150 of the students at the nearby Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School are children of members of B’nai Israel.
Since adding the educational wing 10 years ago, B’nai Israel has been able to hold all its High Holiday services in one place, offering worship space to approximately 3,500 people.
Next year will mark two changes for the adaptable congregation. Its nursery school will become full day, the synagogue website will be updated and the dues structure will change to include High Holiday tickets.
“This created obvious budgetary challenges,” Abrutyn said. “But it’s what the members wanted.”
Social action has a large role here. The synagogue doesn’t just donate food during a mitzvah day. Instead, it has its own garden, and contributes “thousands of pounds of vegetables” to the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, the rabbi said.
B’nai Israel is known throughout the area for its annual spring fundraiser, which recently featured comedian and actor Paul Reiser. Last year, Jason Alexander, Seinfeld’s George Costanza, entertained a packed house.
“I look around B’nai Israel, and I am tremendously heartened and encouraged,” Schnitzer said.