Since 2016, Temple Beth Ami in Rockville has taken a special interest in South Lake Elementary School in Montgomery Village. Members of the Reform synagogue have organized donation drives for the school and led after-school programs. But over the summer, this philanthropic relationship turned into one of advocacy.
“This school is our community, and it’s part of being Jewish to take responsibility for your community,” said temple member Susan Fox. “We wanted the people to understand in our temple that this is our community. And they did.”
With 90 percent of its students receiving free meals from Montgomery County, South Lake is overcrowded and in disrepair, according to WTOP news.
In May, the Montgomery County Council voted to postpone renovations for South Lake by a year to save money, according to Montgomery Community Media. In response, members of Temple Beth Ami’s social action and community service group, Community of Action, took part in a letter-writing campaign organized by the faith-based organization Action in Montgomery.
“It struck a nerve,” said Susan Stern, like Fox a leader of Community of Action. “We have this special relationship with [South Lake] and they really need us right now. They need our voices.”
And on Oct. 2, Action in Montgomery held a press conference, which included the presentation of a petition signed by local clergy, including Beth Ami’s rabbis, Gary Pokras and Baht Yameem Weiss. The petition asked the council to cancel the delay and have construction finished by September 2023, as originally planned. The council will conduct public hearings on the matter on Dec. 1.
Congregants formed Community of Action in 2015.
“The dynamic of our group was that we wanted to be more hands on and more deeply engaged in the community, and to come up with projects where congregants can really get involved directly in the community,” said Debbie Jacobs, the group’s third leader.
The group was seeking out potential projects when they learned about South Lake Elementary School, with its mostly low-income student body and 14 portable classrooms to handle the building’s overflow of students.
Community of Action members met with school officials to find out how they could help. They started an art club and, later, a chess club.
The group went on to launch a parenting class for moms of young children and a lunchtime volunteer reading program. And the entire congregation supports annual fundraising events and clothing drives. In May, members of the Community of Action delivered 425 surgical and cloth masks to the school to be given to parents.
In the past, Temple Beth Ami collected school supplies, backpacks and clothes for various charities. But Jacobs said donations from congregants have “dramatically increased” after the group earmarked a portion specifically for South Lake.
“It really seems that once people know this is going to a specific community, people seem to feel more compelled to donate,” Jacobs said. “And I think that’s a lesson for other congregations.”
Regardless of the county council’s decision, Jacobs said Community of Action will continue to raise its voice in support of South Lake.
“What draws me to this work for South Lake is that the solutions seem so within reach,” Jacobs said. “It’s rewarding to do work where you feel like it matters not only because it’s so important, which it is, but also because you can have an impact and it’s tangible.”