A Fresh Start on Fertile Ground
Older Student Rabbi Leads Young Temple

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

The children bounded into Congregation Kol Ami's Shabbat service noisily, their yarmulkes barely remaining atop their little heads, as student rabbi Dan Sikowitz sang a Hebrew song, accompanied by a congregant strumming on a guitar.

Then they grew silent, sitting in a circle as they hung on every word of Sikowitz's story. It was about Adam, the first man. Adam came up with a list of daily chores for all the creatures of the Earth. The animals griped, though, about having to work on Shabbat, and in the end, Adam, gently chastised by God, relented and gave them the day off.

"So," Sikowitz concluded, "if your parents tell you, 'You got to make your bed tomorrow,' I give you permission to say, 'Not on Shabbat.' "

Their parents, sitting in the pews, had a good laugh at that one. Spirits are high at Kol Ami, a Reform Jewish congregation in Frederick founded in 2003. The congregants like Sikowitz, who is studying to become a full-fledged rabbi after a career as a financial analyst. And they like their membership numbers, which have increased from the 15 families that began the congregation to 60 families.

Though Kol Ami members give some of the credit for their success to God, they acknowledge that the area's demographic changes have also given them a boost. For decades, there was only a tiny Jewish population in Frederick. A book on the matter, "The Jews Beneath the Clustered Spires," notes that the number of Jews in the city remained at roughly 100 between 1870 and 1970.

These days, though, with house prices rising in Montgomery County, Jewish residents-- like everybody else -- are moving out to the region's frontier.

"There's a lot of Montgomery County people coming out to Frederick because it's more affordable," said Jamie Hendi. ("Though not anymore," she added quickly.) Hendi, the congregation's president, said she moved from the District because her husband's new job was in Frederick.

In the city, they found a long-establishedsynagogue, Beth Sholom, which recognizes "all levels of Jewish observance," leaders say. That congregation has grown in recent years, as well, and moved into a new building in 1994.

But for Hendi, raised as a Reform Jew, it was not quite right. Reform Judaism, she said, is a little more individualistic, a little more laid back, and generally welcomes marriages between Jews and members of other religions -- a plus for Hendi, whose husband is Catholic.

"When you've grown up Reform," Hendi said, "you want to raise your kids Reform."

They met with a handful of other Reform Jews and made plans to start a congregation. They found a place to worship -- in the building of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, whose simple, modern prayer hall looks like a church as designed by Ikea, with no crosses, no images of Jesus, no Christian icons at all.

The one thing they were still missing was a rabbi. At first, they brought in guest rabbis from Montgomery County synagogues for their monthly meetings, but after a year or more, they were running out of religious leaders they could ask for favors.

Enter Sikowitz. He had been raised Jewish, but his parents were not particularly observant. "The day after my bar mitzvah, I never set foot in Hebrew school," he said. A physiologist by education, he later went into financial analysis for MCI, "but I was miserable the whole time," he said. "I needed to do something important to me."

Sikowitz felt a calling, and after discussing it with his family, he began learning how to become a rabbi. He and his wife saved money and sold their house, and he enrolled in Hebrew University College in New York. The Chevy Chase resident wanted to work at a synagogue close to home, and he was ready to begin his apprenticeship as a student rabbi just as Kol Ami was most desperate to get one.

Hendi called a local leader to say she was looking for a rabbi, and 10 minutes later, she said, Sikowitz's résumé was in her e-mail inbox. They met, and Sikowitz came aboard almost immediately.

"I immediately liked them," Sikowitz said. "In Yiddish, it's berschert -- just meant to be together."

"I love him, I love him, I love him," Hendi said. "He's very warm, he's very laid back, he's very knowledgeable."

Part of Sikowitz's popularity comes from his age: At 48, he has the kind of experience not usually found in student rabbis.

"It gives us a much different perspective," Sikowitz said. "I've been laid off from a job before. If someone comes to me, I know the pain."

Hendi said his charm is drawing more people to the congregation. More people have been calling every day -- particularly before and during the High Holidays. Hendi is hopeful that the congregation will be able to move out of the church and find a synagogue of its own.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company