Ohr HaTorah strikes balance between shul and kollel

Adam Sragg, right, studies Gemara inside Ohr HaTorah’s beit midrash with Eli Cohen. Photo by Justin Katz

Inside the modest white building adjacent to the Silver Spring Jewish Center in Kemp Mill, a group of 15-20 men sit in pairs each night parsing the Gemara — rabbinic commentary on the Talmud.

The room is alive with conversation — a mix of pleasantries, Hebrew and Aramaic phrases from the Gemara, and back-and-forth dialogue in English. The men are animated as they discuss Jewish laws, dissecting the difficult text on such subjects as marriage proposals and kashrut, pulling out other books and turning more pages to delve deeper into the meaning of the commentary.

At half past the hour, a dozen more men flood the room. One dons a tallit before standing in the center of the room, steps from a Torah ark. The hefty books filled with commentary are swapped for siddurim.

This is the moment when Ohr HaTorah Congregation goes from a nighttime kollel — an institute of advanced Talmud study — to synagogue.


The 5-year-old Orthodox congregation celebrated the completion of its building on May 12. Founded by former Yeshiva of Greater Washington students, Ohr HaTorah’s goal has been to create a synagogue that replicates the intensive studying found in yeshivot.

The new $1 million, 3,400-square-foot building near the Yeshiva is laid out for maximum efficiency. A small lobby with a bookshelf holds siddurim and has entrances to a social hall and the beit midrash, the study hall. Inside the beit midrash are more bookshelves, a Torah ark, long, narrow tables for studying and a mechitzah, which separates the men from women at prayer. On the opposite side of the building lie a kitchen and the rabbi’s office.

“Every single night we have members come after working a full day to sit down with a learning partner,” says Richard Weiss, 30, one of the congregation’s founding members. Learning with a partner, or chevruta, is a cornerstone of yeshiva learning.
This is the newest Orthodox shul in the neighborhood.

Ohr HaTorah celebrated its first Shabbat in 2012 in a social hall of a Kemp Mill apartment building, a space congregants would lease for several years.

In 2014, the congregation, then 40 families, could not afford both to construct a new building and to hire a rabbi. The consensus was to hire a rabbi.

The congregation began searching for a spiritual leader; Rabbi Michoel Frank sought the position.

Frank wanted to join a young, growing congregation and Ohr HaTorah wanted a rabbi who would share in their vision of replicating yeshiva-style Torah study.

“A yeshiva has a very specific style — what the prayers are like [and] what the decorum is like,” says Frank, the synagogue’s mara d’asra — the congregation’s decision maker on issues of Jewish law. “People will expect that there won’t be any talking during prayer time and they expect a certain pace in the prayer.”

That pace is a fast one. Back at the beit midrash, the congregation begins ma’ariv, the evening service. Most of the men chant audibly, swaying back and forth as they move swiftly through the service.

At the end of 2015, the congregation began renting space in the Kemp Mill Shopping Center. The congregation broke ground at their new location in May 2016 after buying the land from Rabbi Herzel Kranz of Silver Spring Jewish Center for $250,000.
The congregation raised funds for the building from members’ pledges, fundraising and a mortgage, said Weiss.

The building’s completion comes during a time of growth in Kemp Mill’s Orthodox community, says Weiss, a native of Montgomery County. He attributes the congregation’s doubling in size to 80 families from 2014 to 2016 to similar growth in the greater Kemp Mill community, Frank’s spiritual leadership and the congregation’s close-knit nature.

“Everybody knows everybody,” says Weiss. “When someone has a baby the entire community signs up to deliver dinner each night for weeks. When someone is sick the same thing happens.”

Most of the congregants are between the ages of 25 and 40. After they received high school diplomas from the Yeshiva, many stayed for Yeshiva Gedolah, earning a bachelor’s degree in Talmudic law through that program. Most of them then pursued professional degrees in secular fields such as law, accounting or medicine.

Adam Sragg, 27, who joined the congregation with his wife last year, thinks going from studying in a yeshiva to balancing the demands of work and family life can be a difficult transition for many yeshiva alumni. The balance that Ohr HaTorah strikes helps ease that transition.

“That’s why Ohr HaTorah itself [has] such a strong core of Yeshiva alumni,” Sragg, a nurse by profession, says. “They wanted to maintain their connection with the values and Torah study that the Yeshiva provided for them.”

The most contentious debate of the congregation has little to do with Talmud, Weiss says. Which is a more delicious Shabbos meal: cholent — a slowly simmered beef stew — or herring?

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