Potomac synagogue enters fifth decade with facelift

President Sorell Schwartz and Marie Kramer stand by the free-standing glass-covered ark. Left: A flier with Har Shalom’s original name is hung in the library. Photos by Suzanne Pollak

Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac celebrated its 50th anniversary as if it were staving off a midlife crisis.

A capital campaign begun last year is underway “not to add, but to refurbish” the building, said President Sorell Schwartz. The $5 million facelift that is expected to be completed in the fall of 2016 includes a new entrance, an improved social hall and outdoor courtyards.

About $2.3 million already has been raised.

But the synagogue, founded as the Seven Locks Jewish Community of Potomac with a portable ark and a borrowed Torah, isn’t looking to redefine itself as it enters its fifth decade.


The synagogue will remain “cutting edge,” Schwartz said, noting it was quick to include the matriarchs in its prayers and allow women to read from the Torah. It is was early in its open arms approach to interfaith families and gays, he said.

Rabbi Adam Raskin, who joined the congregation in July 2011, agreed that this synagogue is inclusive. He also praised members for their eagerness to “learn, to be challenged, and to be engaged in deep conversations about Torah and Jewish tradition.”

The synagogue “has all the amenities of a large congregation, as well as the warmth and unpretentiousness of a smaller shul. That has been a hallmark of Har Shalom for decades.

Even the design of the sanctuary (in the round) is meant to engender inclusiveness, and participation in religious services,” he wrote in an email from Israel.

The synagogue’s current membership of 700 families is down from a high of 1,200 families in 2000. Schwartz attributed the decrease mainly to the fact that are more synagogues, and therefore more choices, in the Potomac area. He also pointed to a national decline in membership at Conservative synagogues.

Two hundred children attend its school, and 35 go to the early childhood program, said Shelly Engel, synagogue executive director.

Marie Kramer helped build the Har Shalom of today when there were not many Jewish-oriented things to do in the Potomac area. Originally, about a dozen people got together socially, paying $10 a year, to attend family picnics and other events. The goal was to connect with other Jewish families and not necessarily to form a synagogue, she said.

But in late 1964, the idea of building a synagogue arose; group members soon began meeting for services in a home.

Around this time, the area was growing tremendously, due partially to the openings of Routes 270 and 495, Schwartz said. “From the early 60s on, the whole Potomac and Rockville area began blooming. Houses were being built, an immense amount.”

Eventually members of the Seven Locks Jewish Community purchased land on Falls Road and dedicated a building in 1971. It has been enlarged and refurbished several times, most recently in 2003 with the addition of the Burke sanctuary, which features a free-standing glass-covered ark and reading lecterns in the middle of the room, Sephardic style.

Rather than speaking from a raised bima in the sanctuary, “Our rabbi is always at congregational level,” Schwartz said.

The sanctuary also is home to the Har Shalom Players. Its members have been performing an annual musical for the past 10 years, featuring congregants and a few outsiders in an annual play that is of “very high quality,” Schwartz said. In local semi-professional theater, it’s common for an actor’s bio to include work performed at Har Shalom, he said.

The theater program has expanded to include dramas by the Peace Mountain Players, which is derived from the Hebrew translation of Har Shalom. It is in its second year.

“We really set a niche in this community,” Schwartz said.

Har Shalom offers alternatives for its non-acting members. It runs several mitzvah days a year and has a huge following for its Daytimers program, which features speakers and films for older adults.

“They are almost like the National Press Club. They get speakers who are unbelievable,” Schwartz said.

Its youth program is an active one, with special groups beginning in kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade in its USY program.

There’s also ample opportunity for political discussion. It’s not uncommon to find a group of congregants spending part of Shabbat in the library discussing current events.

“Anyone who thinks all Jews are Democrats should come here. We really have a wide spectrum,” Schwartz said. “Fortunately it’s Shabbat, so we don’t yell. Everybody is respectful” as they attempt “to settle all the world’s problems.”

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