Perhaps it's the congregation's small size, or maybe it is the emotions raised by the fire that devastated the synagogue 16 months ago. No matter what the reason, the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring commands an intense loyalty from its 80-family Orthodox Jewish congregation, which donated $150,000 to begin the rebuilding effort.

Hannah Hirsh, who was a member of the congregation until moving two years ago, brought her two young children from Teaneck, N.J., for the ceremony.

Hirsh said she cried when hearing about the fire, which Montgomery fire officials blamed on arson. "I felt like part of my history had been taken away, we thought the synagogue would always be there," she said. "But this is a beautiful occasion. I feel a very strong attachment to this synagogue. There is a wonderful sense of community here."

Jack Zaltzman, 77, walked three miles every Sabbath to attend services at Woodside Synagogue, 9001 Georgia Ave.

"I like to go there because I like the people," he said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "People are very nice at the synagogue. They invite us to bar mitzvahs and I can usually get invited to a circumcision."

The hourlong blaze in April 1986 destroyed most of the main sanctuary and a significant portion of the synagogue's Bibles, reference books and prayer shawls. The scrolls were smoke-damaged and are being repaired.

The new building is expected to be completed in January, and the congregation has taken out a $350,000 mortgage to complete the financing for the building.

The synagogue was established in 1963 by a group of people living in the Summit Hill Apartments in Silver Spring who met in the building's party room. In 1977 they moved to a 19th century house on Georgia Avenue.

The congregation has operated entirely on a voluntary basis and has never had its own rabbi to lead its services. President Milton Herman explained, "We're a small synagogue and we felt we could do without one." Lack of funds, he said, was part of the problem.

On Sunday, about 50 members of the congregation gathered at the same area where many of them stood 16 months ago when they watched in anguish as fire swept through the building. Then, their main concern was the condition of the holy scrolls.

"We wanted to go in ourselves to rescue the Torahs, but the firemen told us it would be too dangerous," said Joe Abeles, a longtime member of the congregation. Sunday, as their children cheerfully chased each other around, their parents exchanged pats of congratulation for their efforts in raising the money to renovate and build an addition to their synagogue.