Joel Cohen wanted his kids to receive instruction in their Jewish faith. But the closest synagogue was half an hour from his house in suburban Waldorf, Md. So Cohen did what any good dad would do: He opened the phone book and called everyone in the area with a Jewish-sounding name he could find, hoping others might help him form a social group to teach the Torah.
Sha’are Shalom, which began with a dozen memberships, now counts 36, many of them families. And more than 15 years later, members of that original Charles County group plan to break ground for a synagogue in Waldorf in August. The building will mark the culmination of steady growth within small Jewish congregations, an increase in numbers that has been a piece of the southern Maryland region’s swelling population.
In Prince George’s County, the Shaare Tikvah congregation sold the synagogue it had occupied since 1967 and plans a new building in Upper Marlboro to target the budding Jewish presence in southern Maryland more effectively. It has 34 memberships. And the Beth Israel congregation farther south in St. Mary’s County has about 55 memberships, including 40 families, after a boost when the Patuxent River Naval Air Station expanded in the late 1990s.
Southern Maryland’s small congregations have little resemblance to their big-city counterparts that can count more than 1,000 dues-paying members. These groups of no more than 60 families often meet in such places as a church classroom or a member’s home, using part-time rabbis or rabbinical students.
All struggle with the fact that it requires serious commitment to be a Jew in southern Maryland. Some amenities that come with big-city life, such as kosher delis, good rye bread and Jewish neighbors, are few and far between.
“Even the supermarkets that do try to provide certain things, especially before Passover, they don’t get it,” said Lisa Shender, membership coordinator for Beth Israel, who moved to St. Mary’s from the Philadelphia area. “Coming down here, we found ourselves in a distinct minority. It was quite a change.”
Cohen, who now works near Columbus, Ohio, plays down his phone book exploits but remembers the challenges that his small Waldorf congregation faced in its infancy: deciding whether to teach children about the Holocaust, or how important it was to provide adult and youth classes. By comparison, Cohen said, asking 60 strangers if they wanted to form a Jewish group was easy.
Cohen’s experience is typical of small congregations, said Karen Falk, curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. She studied small Jewish communities in southern Maryland and found the groups were driven by the dedication of their key members, who often join or form congregations so their children can receive Jewish instruction.
“Jewish life in the small community is not easy,” Falk said. “It’s a conscious choice on the part of every individual Jew in these communities to remain Jewish.”
That’s exactly how Shender prefers it.
“Being part of a huge community, you don’t have to work very hard at being Jewish: It sort of just is,” she said. “Those who have joined our community find that they are part of a family.”
Some Jews find small-town existence too formidable. Christine Arnold-Lourie, a history professor at the College of southern Maryland, lives in Silver Spring, Md., where many of her neighbors are Jewish and she belongs to a congregation with thousands of members. She said she would never have thought to raise her children in southern Maryland because of her concerns about a lack of tolerance for Judaism.
“Most of our students have never seen a Jew,” she said. “There’s a real lack of understanding and, in some cases, a lack of tolerance.”
Practicing Judaism in a small town can be a struggle, but a happy one, said Klaus Zwilsky, head of the Beit Chaverim congregation in Calvert, Md. He might be chief cook and bottle washer in addition to president, but he is willing to work long hours as long as congregation members remain enthusiastic.
“It’s a struggle, but we seem to be able to make a go of it,” he said.