The Torah teaches us to glorify God while the Talmud elaborates with a lovely concept called “hiddur mitzvah,” which means to beautify a deed or commandment. In North Bethesda, Magen David Sephardic Congregation takes inspiration from that Jewish concept in its beautiful Moorish-designed building.
With a dozen onion-domed windows, a sanctuary featuring a traditional Sephardic reader’s table in the center surrounded on three sides by dark wood pews, and a vividly painted half-domed built-in alcove ark to hold the Torah scrolls, the building feels spiritually edifying, even amid the bustling cluster of nearby office and retail shops just off busy Rockville Pike.
While the 150- to 180-member congregation has been without a full-time rabbi since 2018, it continues to enhance its prayer space and its spiritual growth. This past month, just in time for the high holidays, Magen David unveiled a series of 12 artist-designed glass windows depicting the biblical 12 tribes of Israel in clear etchings that when lit, glow from both inside and out.
A number of member families donated funds to cover the design, fabrication and installation of the windows, which were created by the late Israeli-based artist Yaakov Meir from Rishon LeZion, a friend and acolyte of contemporary abstract artist Yaakov Agam.
Itsik Elimelech, Magen David’s president, describes the synagogue as “very warm. The Sephardic tradition welcomes everybody.” He gestures to the graceful sanctuary, bathed in the white light of the lit windows, and says, “Everything here is part of that spirit, very beautiful and spiritual.”
Elimelech, who walks to Magen David on Shabbat and holidays, like the majority of congregants, noted that funds for the beautification project did not come out of the operating or education budgets, but were completely donated by long-time members who wished to honor or memorialize family members and people in the community. “We always need to balance investing in our spiritual programs and in beautifying the synagogue,” he said. “Our first priority is always educating the kids and members with spiritual classes.”
In addition to the windows, the synagogue recently installed two lit panels on either side of the ark that contain the complete Kaddish and Modim prayers, because, Elimelech pointed out, those are said in almost every service. This year, Magen David purchased a complete set of 250 machzorim — high holiday prayer books — that were just used for the first time.
Debbie Shemony, the synagogue’s recording secretary, has been a member for 24 years. She is Ashkenazi with Eastern European Jewish roots and married into the Sephardic tradition. She has watched the synagogue evolve slowly and carefully.
She said when she saw a mockup of the window designs she was unsure how they would look, after all the years with the synagogue’s colored stained-glass windows.
“But the first time I came in at night, for Kol Nidre, it was so inspiring. It made me feel good. I love how meaningful the design is and how the 12 tribes honor different families here.”