Parking lots have become more than a synagogue’s place for cars

Temple Solel in Bowie hosts and drive-in menorah lighting in December 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Steve Weisman)

When it was time to start services, Rabbi Uri Topolosky used to ask congregants to take a seat. But since July, he joking asks them to find a tree for the outdoor services at Kehilat Pardes – The Rock Creek Synagogue, in Rockville.

Since the pandemic began, area synagogues that want to bring members together at a safe distance have a new appreciation for the outdoors. Their parking lots, once a merely utilitarian, environmentally unfriendly sprawl around the synagogue building, became a meeting ground, a space to fill up with people instead of just cars.

“I’m looking forward to it being once again a place where people park cars,” said Rabbi Daniel Zemel, of Temple Micah in the District. “It’s been nice to have a place for activities, but it does not approach the sense of holy ground in any sense as Moses approaching the burning bush.”

The pandemic has turned the Reform congregation’s parking lot into what Zemel called a “collection place” — a drop-off point for students collecting food for charity and a place where families can pick up Chanukah goodie bags or hamantashen for Purim. It’s been the site of a book exchange and host to ice cream trucks.

Congregation Har Shalom’s 500-space parking lot was the place for prayer early in the pandemic, and the spot for family activities, such a pony rides on Purim, said Carly Litwok, synagogue administrator at the Potomac synagogue.

Rabbi Natan Freller of Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington said he wants to continue to use the parking lot, which he describes as the largest space at the congregation’s disposal. But the parking lot has no electrical outlets, which would preclude livestreaming services and other events on the asphalt.

Har Shalom has a similar problem, but their issue is the lack of Wi-Fi in its parking lot. Rabbi Steve Weisman of Temple Solel in Bowie wants to livestream outdoor social gatherings. However, he doesn’t know how they will compare to the Reform congregation’s livestreamed services.

“When the rabbi’s talking from the bimah inside the sanctuary, and you’re in your dining room, you can close your eyes and imagine you’re still in the sanctuary,” Weisman said. “But when it’s Shabbat barbecue, I don’t know how well that translates over to the live stream. So I’m curious to see what the impact on an event like that is going to be in this new world.”

Another problematic feature of the parking lot: weather.

“It’s disappointing,” said Eileen Kugler, co-executive vice president of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, said about rained-out events. “Because it does have a really warm and inviting feel to it when we’re able to do things outside. The kids can run around and play a little bit more freely. And we enjoy the feel of an outdoor service.”

Before the pandemic began, Kehilat Pardes met outside only once a year: on Sukkot.
Topolosky said the pandemic has made the congregation rethink its relationship to the outdoors.

“We understood that it could be a meaningful prayer space,” Topolosky said. “But during this pandemic, we’ve now been forced to use it all the time. And despite its challenges, we’ve come to realize the beauty of this space and the power to help elevate our prayers.”

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