The journey to Kemp Mill Synagogue began with a mile.
For the young families of Kemp Mill, the mile walk to Young Israel Shomrai Emunah was just a little bit long for their children. “People thought it would be nice to have a shul that we could walk to that was closer,” explains Dr. William “Buddy” Stern. As much as Young Israel liked the idea of creating a branch down the road it was ultimately determined to be an expense the synagogue did not want to incur. So the young families decided to go it alone. They pulled together to buy a house, converted the living room into a sanctuary and founded Kemp Mill Synagogue, KMS
as it is known.
Stern remembers the first Shabbat as it was the naming of his daughter. “We sponsored the first kiddush. There is a blessing after going through a traumatic event, you bentsch Gomel. In a lot of Orthodox synagogues the husband would say it on behalf of his wife after childbirth. My wife got to say that blessing publicly.”
Being as forward thinking as possible with women’s issues within halachic parameters is one of the three pillars on which KMS is founded. Creating a community that inspires serious tefillah (prayer) and upholds a deep commitment to Israel form the remaining two, and all add up to an Orthodox Jewish community that is very engaged in the world.
Three rabbis who were involved in the children’s high school volunteered to lead the congregation. “It was a natural fit – the 10 founding families all had children in school at the same time so it worked out,” explains Stern. One of the three, Rabbi Jack Bieler, was hired as the synagogue’s first (and only) rabbi.
“KMS was founded on certain important principals,” says Bieler. “We are concerned with trying to create a davening atmosphere that is inspiring to adults and also children.” To that end, they have a junior congregation for fourth- through sixth-graders and a youth minyan of seventh- through 12th-graders. The youth minyan is run by the children.
After gutting the ground floor, using the basement, putting up tents in the backyard for bar mitzvahs and flooding into congregants’ basements for the High Holidays, it was time to move into a new building.
Rather than building one large main sanctuary, the new building, which was completed in 1998, contains multiple davening spaces to maintain the intimate prayer experience for the 320 families. Everyone comes together for kiddush, which the congregants take turns helping to prepare.
Rabbi Bieler purposefully does not have a chair on the bima. “We run on populist principals,” he says. “I don’t speak all the time or teach all the classes.”
Speaking and teaching opportunities rotate among the congregants. “I want people who are engaged actively,” he explains noting that the congregation is made up of people who do a lot of interesting things and much is added when someone gives a d’var or teaches a class from his or her perspective and area of expertise.
“The average person you are passing in shul is some sort of influential person in the American and Jewish community,” notes Miriam Stein, director of Jewish life at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. “We have people like Erica Brown, who are household names in Jewish education. When it comes to the Jewish college scene, Ari Israel oversees one of the most successful campus communities at the University of Maryland. David Makovsky regularly contributes to NPR and The New York Times. Matthew Levitt is an expert on counterterrorism, Nathan Diamant heads government relations for the OU. But you also have phenomenal everyday citizens who are engaged in community service and community building.”
“It is true that we have many smart people in our congregation, but what always appeals to me most are the strong friendships in the congregation, the glue of chesed [loving-kindness] and the communal bond when we pray together,” remarks Joey Turitz, KMS president. “My wife and I are grateful to raise our children in such a vibrant, enriching and committed shul.”
For Stein, 33 and her young family, it is also the warmth of the community that stands out. When her husband was saying Kaddish for his father last year, the youth minyan was especially welcoming. “They made us feel comfortable every single week. That’s representative of the community – people are very welcoming, people are very sincere,” she says.
“I enjoy the tefillah. I do go for the prayers. But if I don’t go for a week, I miss it. I miss my friends. This is my core community.”