Shaare Tefila Congregation was founded in Washington, DC, in 1952. After 10 years it moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, where it thrived for 40 years. Membership reached a peak of 800 families and the religious school had 600 students. When I was hired 17 years ago, however, the demographics already were changing. Jews were moving out, young Jews weren’t moving in, the public schools were no longer the best in the county, and the area was becoming ethnically diverse.
Ten years ago the congregation formed a committee to evaluate its future. I preached a sermon on Kol Nidrei that laid out the situation, concluding that we had to move in order to survive. Both the committee and my sermon created a buzz. People began talking about what our future would look like. They began thinking about their commitment to the shul and to the building they grew up in, or were married in. They started thinking about what it would be like to lose it.
The committee recommended that we look for land so we could build a new building. A six-month search found only one viable site, about two miles from another Conservative shul in Olney. After meeting with representatives of that congregation and United Synagogue’s regional office, we all agreed that we could go ahead with the purchase. It was 2004, the economy was booming, and our county’s parks and planning office was predicting 15 percent growth in Olney over the next 15 years. Both congregations agreed that there would be plenty of room for both of us.
Next, we held town hall meetings where we answered our members’ concerns. The shul construction would be financed by the sale of our Silver Spring building, a capital campaign, and a mortgage. The architectural firm displayed a beautiful model of the new building, and our relocation committee chair, who was born to parents who were members when the congregation was in the first building in DC, and was married in the second one, passionately urged our members to agree to move. Over 80 percent did.
In 2006 we sold our building to a church and began our life without a permanent home. Permits that we were told should only take three to six months to secure ended up taking a year and a half. That delay overlapped with the collapse of the economy and the real estate market. Though we had the funds the construction company no longer was confident that we would be able to satisfy our obligations and pulled out of our financing agreement. That happened when the site was being graded, so we halted construction. We were back at square one. It was now 2008, and we had spent almost two years without a building.
During that time I had sold my house in Silver Spring and moved to Olney so I would be in walking distance of the new shul. That complicated finding a temporary Shabbat location, because it would have to be in walking distance of my new house. Eventually we found a suitable elementary school. We also wanted to maintain our offices and a schedule of daily morning and evening minyanim. A member of the shul who had practiced medicine from his house moved into an assisted living facility. His daughter, also a shul member, generously agreed to let us use the house rent free for offices, meetings, and minyan until we moved. It could be argued that the family’s generosity is what allowed us to survive our transition.
Plan B, now that construction was halted, was to find an existing building in Olney to buy and renovate. After looking for six months we found a suitable one, but the seller raised the price at the last minute. It was no longer in our price range.
At the same time, we worked on Plan C. A committee explored mergers with two other congregations. Those plans ultimately failed because each congregation wanted to protect its identity. Each wanted more of a say about the future of the new entity and none was willing to compromise sufficiently.
Just when we thought that all was lost, a member of our board found a company that designs and constructs houses of worship. BGW, which stands for Building God’s Way, is a company whose religious ministry is building sanctuaries. It had just completed a church a few miles from Olney and we liked its approach, which was not only about business but focused more on the spiritual. We became its first synagogue. Representatives came to Shabbat services and spoke to us about who they were and what they strive to do. They won over our congregation and we overwhelmingly supported hiring the firm to construct our building. After 10 more months spent revising our permits, construction began in the spring of 2010. By the end of the summer the steel frame was up and by August 2011 we had our occupancy permit.
It was 5 years and one month after we sold our Silver Spring building.
No one lesson we learned as a congregation these past five years supersedes the others. They are interrelated and interdependent. Everything had to be in place in order for us to succeed.
This is what we learned.
It was clear to us from the beginning that we needed a clear and articulate vision. Our relocation vice president used the word “imagine” all the time. But the imagination was based on the shul’s history, the connection members have to it, and the type of community we are. We are an egalitarian, warm, friendly, and nurturing congregation (isn’t every shul?!) and we maintained our identity throughout this process. The executive director, cantor, and I stayed with the shul the whole time, so we provided constant presence and support for the vision. The shul’s leadership also stayed constant, so that even though the construction plan changed, the leadership didn’t.
Because the vision was clear, members were willing to withstand challenges and obstacles. We held Shabbat services in an elementary school until the school closed for reconstruction. Then we moved to another school until the members complained about its temperature and the metal folding chairs. Next, we moved to a room in a theater. B’nai mitzvah were able to select a nicer location; those services were held in different synagogues in the area. High holiday services were the biggest challenge. Schools in Maryland are closed only on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Fortunately, the high school we found was close to a Reform synagogue that was available to us on the second day. And all this was just for services. Adult education classes were held at members’ homes, daily minyan was in the Silver Spring office/home, and other programs were held in other rental spaces.
Our members had to keep track of where services and programs would be every week. We still had good attendance at our events and our members stayed with us because they knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
And our members were committed to the shul. Even our oldest member – who was then 100 years old – paid her new building fund in full.
Early on, we recognized that our situation would force us to be creative. Our Silver Spring sanctuary had a five-step bimah, and I used to sit on it throughout the service. The elementary schools and the room in the theater were just rooms with chairs, so our seating became circular, with the reading table in the middle. I also became our greeter, meeting people at the door. People loved the arrangement so much that we told the design/construction company that we wanted flexible seating in the new sanctuary. We now have a two-step bimah, but the reading table is on the floor in the middle of the seats. I still greet people at the door.
This forced creativity also applied to programs and their locations. We used to do tashlich at a stream near our building in Silver Spring. We moved it to a regional park, added a program to the service, and made it the Sunday after Rosh Hashanah. Now that we’re in our new building we conducted tashlich the same way this year too. Our transition forced us to look at our vision, work with our members, and provide programming and services that would still meet their religious, educational and social needs.
The final lesson to share is how much energy our leaders and volunteers were willing to expend. The members of the relocation committee worked for eight years. Board members and officers served extra terms to provide stability. The professional staff stayed with the shul to be its communal face. It’s hard to explain why. We’ve all been touched by lifecycle events and have felt how much Shaare Tefila has been part of our lives. We all wanted to be sure that the shul would survive so that other generations can be equally touched and inspired.
Colleagues with whom I have shared this story and who have watched it unfold have been astounded by our accomplishment. Our dedication event the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah was both exhilarating and emotional. When our past presidents carried all our Torah scrolls and I put them in the ark, it was like a dream come true. I think the lessons we learned can be applied to other shuls. You too can build a core of dedicated, resilient, creative, and energetic members. We pray that this success can be translated into growth in Olney.