Smaller and older now, Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville retains its spark

Rabbi Mendel and Lila Abrams: “This will be our last year for everything,” Rabbi Abrams said.
Photo by Andrea F. Siegel

Family-like. Welcoming. Diverse. That’s how people describe Beth Torah Congregation, which made its home for more than four decades in Hyattsville, Md.

However, the Conservative congregation founded 73 years ago as Northeast Hebrew Congregation in the District of Columbia will dissolve at the end of this year. It dwindled to a fraction of the 300-plus congregants it had at its height in the 1970s, when more Jews lived near its building in Prince George’s County and other close-in locations.

“It’s sad,” said Rabbi Mendel Abrams, the Conservative rabbi who is starting his 50th year as Beth Torah’s spiritual leader — so long that barely a congregant knows a previous rabbi of the congregation. That same year, 1971, shortly after Abrams arrived, the congregation became egalitarian, had its first bat mitzvah service where the girl did the same things boys did for their bar mitzvah services and dedicated its new Hyattsville synagogue as Beth Torah, or House of Torah.

The congregation sold the building five years ago.

“Everybody migrated away. There just wasn’t anybody there anymore,” Abrams said.
Since then, Shabbat and holiday services have been in the home of Abrams and his wife, Lila.

“This will be our last year for everything,” Abrams said, noting disbanding preparations are underway.

“Their assets will be given to charities that the members have voted on,” said Lila Abrams, his wife.

The final High Holiday services were via Zoom from the couple’s living room, with Abrams joined by Andy Sandberg of Silver Spring, who has long served as Beth Torah’s cantor for High Holidays and special occasions. From home, worshippers saw and heard each other online, and continued the practice of having all who want to lead a prayer do so. “In the first song [on Rosh Hashanah] everyone was singing at a different speed. We said, ’Wait, hold on’ — everyone’s got to mute,” said Sherry Warsaw of North Bethesda. “I think everyone enjoyed it. The rabbi calls on everyone to read, so I unmuted and read, and so we felt we were a part of it.”

Sometimes Shabbat services have been held on the screened porch that looks out to the Abrams’s leafy backyard.

“If we are doing services out here — it’s noisy Shabbat. The birds are singing along,” she said.

Shabbat services ended before Passover due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the decades, the congregation included state legislators and diverse families, people who lived nearby and those who bypassed closer synagogues to reach it; attendees at services included Asian, Black, Hispanic worshipers, the rabbi said. Whoever came was welcome.

Remaining congregants are 60 and older; there are no children. At 86 and with back issues, Abrams is retiring from his pulpit. He wanted to earlier, “but they wouldn’t let me. … I didn’t have the heart to say no to people who want to go on as Jews,” the rabbi said.

Still, synagogues have life cycles.

Lila Abrams noted that children raised in the congregation who settled in new communities founded new synagogues and assumed active roles in others.

“Endings, they are always nostalgic,” her husband said.

As a home of Jewish life, Beth Torah held religious services, adult study, a Hebrew school, holiday events, weddings, b’nai mitzvah, religious group meetings, catering by Sisterhood, cookouts by the Men’s Club. There were births to celebrate, eulogies at funerals, and congregational trips to Israel and elsewhere planned by Lila Abrams, who until recently owned two tour operations.

“The beauty of Beth Torah from my standpoint is it’s not rabbi and congregation. We’re friends. We have some very, very close friends here,” the rabbi said. That includes a congregant who moved to Cape Cod but comes to them with his family, including grandchildren, for Passover seder almost annually, and there are congregants they vacationed with.

Popular was the monthly “Ambassador Series,” a Friday night dinner with a guest speaker from another country on Jewish communities there and cuisine of that country prepared by the Sisterhood, the couple said.

Founded in 1947, the fledgling Northeast Hebrew held services in a church annex and theater, with Sunday school in a restaurant before it began a series of moves that culminated in constructing the Hyattsville synagogue, according to its history. Many affiliated with it had moved to that area by the late 1960s, before and after the violence in Washington following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Warsaw’s father was a Northeast Hebrew founder. She remembers the early congregation this way: “It was like family.” She loved being costumed for Purim there.

“I was the first bat mitzvah in the synagogue,” Warsaw, now 79, said, recalling it was a Friday night, probably in 1954 when the congregation was in a house but building its first synagogue. Although she did not read from the Torah or chant a haftarah — that was then for bar mitzvah boys on Shabbat morning — “I ran the service.”

Members of that Northeast Hebrew “family” came to dinners at her parents’ home. A story involving Rabbi Raymond Krinsky, hired in 1953 as Northeast Hebrew’s first full-time rabbi, is still retold: “My mother invited him for one of the [High] holidays. … He came in [the front door] and my mother yelled out to him [from the kitchen], ‘Rabbi, go into my bedroom and take off your things. I’ll be right in.’ My mother realized what she said, she was hysterical laughing … everybody was laughing,” Warsaw said.

Decades later — married and living in Montgomery County — after her father‘s death in 1986, Warsaw said her mother wanted to attend High Holiday services at Beth Torah, so she and her husband took her. They kept attending after her mother’s death. It wasn’t convenient, but Warsaw preferred it to larger, closer Conservative synagogues. The couple became friends of the Abramses.

“Anyone who came was welcome,” she said, noting its relaxed atmosphere and the discussions that always enhanced her understanding of Judaism.

As a child, she felt she could always pipe up with a question for Krinsky, and feels the same about Abrams, who says he loves teaching.

“Rabbi Abrams, he would stop and ask a question, or I would raise my hand and say, ‘Rabbi, I have a question,’ and we would have a discussion. There was always room for discussion or an explanation. You never felt that you couldn’t ask a question, and not just read by rote,” she said.

Beth Torah was home to a number of families that were not so traditional at the time. When Beth Torah needed a new roof, in the 1990s, a congregant wrote to Abe Pollin — the philanthropist and owner of the NBA Bullets (Wizards) and NHL local sports teams — seeking a donation. He was not affiliated with Beth Torah. The congregant wrote that she wanted the synagogue to be there for future families like hers: Her husband was not Jewish and they had an adopted Korean-born daughter. Pollin donated half the roof’s cost, with the name of his roofer, Lila Abrams said.

Beth Torah rented space to a mostly Black church for about two decades. “We had a number of activities together,” she recalled.

Slowly, Beth Torah was shrinking, its congregants moving or dying; by the mid-1980s, many Jews were heading to the expanding Montgomery County and Northern Virginia suburbs; Northwest Washington remained popular, too. There was a dearth of new congregants.

What happens when Beth Torah disbands? Probably something like this, the rabbi said: “What I am going to tell people is I will be here, and I will be davening and anybody who would like to join me, they are welcome. But it’s going to be under no aegis.”

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  1. Reading this story is personally very sad for me. In 1971 I began conversion studies with Rabbi Abrams in preparation for my marriage in 1972 to my beloved husband. We will celebrate our 50th anniversary next year. I now realize I must have been one of the rabbi’s first converts. I remember he tried to dissuade me several times from converting but I was able to convince him of my dedication only through persistence.

    Now at age 72, I recall but a few memories of those wonderful early times: celebrating Pesach with the Abrams at their home, my first Mikva, struggling to learn Hebrew, questioning by the three rabbi’s at my Beit Din, Rabbi Abrams’ beautiful blue eyes.

    There were just a few of us in our conversion class and one young fella married Rita Hohenbrink, later a good friend and neighbor in Oak Ridge, TN. I seem to recall meeting the Rabbi when he traveled to Rita’s home for a bar mitzvah.

    So now, just this week, I am still studying: reading for an upcoming zoom study session about the Holocaust. You were an excellent teacher, my friend. Your lessons stuck!

    I can only wish you continued joy in your life’s journey as your friendship and teaching so long ago enabled me to begin my life’s joy in marrying my beloved Peter.
    Todah Rabah.

  2. It saddens me to hear Beth Torah is no more. I have many fond memories of services with Rabbi Abrams & Cator Rose, Sunday School, Hebrew School, Celebrating my Bat Mitzvah in 1979 including Bat Mitzvah lessons, and many events. I shall remember everyone. I wish you all well.
    Dana Yacuel-Langgle ( Dana Yacuel)


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