It started with a newspaper ad in the Montgomery Village News calling for Jewish families to meet at Watkins Mill Elementary School for a religious service on Feb. 19, 1971. Ten families answered the invitation of Cantor Saul and Ethel Finn for what would become Kehilat Shalom.
Fifty years later, the Conservative congregation has 150 member families and its extensive building remains a Jewish hub in Montgomery Village and Gaithersburg.
The synagogue kicked off its yearlong anniversary celebration in March with a Zoom performance by klezmer musician Seth Kibel. But congregants would rather celebrate in person, said Marilyn Scheiner, the congregation’s senior vice president. “There’s so many unknowns on what’s happening right now, but [we’re] trying to get something together.”
The synagogue has changed a lot over the years, according to Gerry Goldgraben, a member for 40 years until he moved in 2016. In 1974, when he joined, Kehilat Shalom (Congregation of Peace) was known as Gaithersburg Hebrew Congregation.
He recalls the first time he and his wife attended a Shabbat service there.
“We went there, and we loved it. The people seemed to be very friendly. And I started chatting with someone who I thought was the rabbi. He had a beard. And it ended up he was the president of the congregation.”
Back then, Saul Finn was the cantor. The congregation hired its first full-time rabbi, Gary Creditor, in 1976. Goldgraben said the congregation often met at a local recreation center and used an elementary school for its religious school. High Holiday services were at the nearby Holiday Inn.
It was a young congregation, and transient, Goldgraben said.
“It seemed at that time as if everyone was from somewhere else,” Goldgraben said. “And no one had family here, or at least very few. So we were like one big extended family, which was a great feeling.”
The synagogue built its building and, in 1987, its 250 member families merged with the 55-member Adat Shalom, which had no permanent building, to form Kehilat Shalom.
Rabbi Mark Raphael led the synagogue from 1996-2012. Rabbi Charles Arian succeeded him. Hazzan Kim Komrad has been the congregation’s cantor since 2002.
Scheiner has been a congregant for the past 15 years and enjoys the small feel of Kehilat Shalom. It’s the kind of congregation where “everybody knows everybody,” she said. A congregation where members deliver home-cooked meals to those who are sick and can be depended on to provide a minyan for shivah.
“It’s smaller and friendlier, and more engaging than a large congregation,” Scheiner said.
Laurie Weker Lipton joined Kehilat Shalom in 2019. She and her husband had belonged to a larger congregation, but “it just all felt very overwhelming.”
In their first experience with the congregation, “We showed up at a Shabbat unannounced. And [Rabbi Arian] very quickly came over and greeted us,” Lipton said. “The next week, I’m getting a call from the membership vice president who somehow looked us up and called us and that was sort of the beginning.”
Lipton is now vice president for development. She is helping in the planning for the anniversary. The synagogue wants to bring former members and religious school students together for a reunion. (For information, email [email protected])
Meanwhile, congregants can gather at a distance around a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck that will pull into the Kehilat Shalom parking lot at 11:30 a.m. on April 11. The truck will sell flavors including Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz and Cherry Garcia.
“It’s a milestone that needs to be acknowledged,” Lipton said of the anniversary. “I mean, it’s not every day that an organization turns 50.”