When many of the Jewish families in Charles County gathered for Yom Kippur yesterday, they met in the rented parish hall of an Episcopal church in Waldorf, their worship led by a traveling rabbi from New York City.
But before Sabbath last week, Lee Weinberger drove out Route 5 into Charles County to show a visitor a five-acre piece of land covered with yellowing soybean plants.
The dream, he said, is to turn this storm-battered farm field into the site of a synagogue for the Sha'are Shalom Congregation, a group of 40 Jewish families in Charles County formed nine years ago when a newly arrived resident perused the local phone book for names that looked Jewish and then called those numbers and asked, "Do you want to meet the other Jews in Charles County?"
Its dream of a synagogue and recent acquisition of land are the latest evidence of the growth of established and emerging Jewish congregations in Southern Maryland, a region with deep Catholic roots that go back to the first settlers who arrived from England in 1634.
As rapid growth through the 1990s has transformed the region--new military jobs, thousands of new residents, rural areas turned into subdivisions--the religious landscape is also changing.
Not only has the Sha're Shalom congregation emerged, but the area's only synagogue in St. Mary's County has experienced recent dramatic growth. And in Calvert County, a new group has begun to meet informally and is considering forming a congregation.
"The first time we did a Seder was pretty exciting. It wasn't an ultra-religious thing," said Jonathan Lowenthal, an internist in Calvert County, who is a founding member of a new informal group of about 70 Jewish families.
In St. Mary's County, Beth Israel in Lexington Park, the region's only synagogue, has doubled its size in recent years, adding 25 families and seven single members. Herb Winnik, former president of the congregation, attributed the growth to jobs added at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a military base in Lexington Park, about 60 miles southeast of the District.
Recently, Beth Israel, referred to by members as the "one-room schul house," secured an agreement with a local cemetery to consecrate a section for Jewish burials--Southern Maryland's first Jewish cemetery.
The arrival of a more visible Jewish community in the area has been a long time coming, and some members of the Jewish groups are not yet convinced that they have been accepted. Lowenthal noted that some officials declared Calvert County a "Christian community" earlier this year during a controversy over school prayer. But some see progress, too.
"It used to be that we had to drive to Rockville to get supplies for Passover. But now we get most of what we need from the local Safeway and Giants," said Weinberger, 62, a retired Air Force captain who is the president of Sha're Shalom, which is Hebrew for "gates of peace."
Not only have members of the congregation persuaded local businesses to stock matzoh and gefilte fish, foods for the Jewish Passover, they have also established their own Hebrew school. On Sunday mornings, the GJ Dance Studio in Waldorf becomes the group's school, with a volunteer principal who is a congregation member.
"We've evolved from a social group to a real synagogue," Weinberger said.
Lowenthal's group seems to be on the same path. The first gatherings, organized largely by word of mouth, were "social and cultural, not religious," members said. They met for Seder in April, and next month, members will gather for a post-Yom Kippur "break the fast" party.
Lowenthal knew a few Jewish families from his medical practice. From time to time, he celebrated holidays with them at his home. One of his patients was the Rev. Paul Dudziak, who is pastor of Jesus the Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church. In the way of small communities, Dudziak knew a schoolteacher whose children went to the church's nursery school, and she knew Lowenthal because she had taught his children at Hebrew school in Annapolis.
"I thought of encouraging some Jewish friends to come together and see if they [could] establish critical mass," said Dudziak. "I think it's important for people's spiritual lives."
Dudziak nudged Lowenthal and others and offered his parish hall.
Encouraged by Dudziak and tiring of driving her two children to Hebrew school in Annapolis, the schoolteacher took up the cause. She thought she could get Hebrew school started in Calvert County. She made phone calls, arranged a holiday gathering, started an informal newsletter and placed an ad in the local paper.
"My whole concept was to let other Jews know that that they're not alone," she said.
The irony of it is that the schoolteacher, an energetic and emphatic organizer who grew up in Rockville, does not want to be identified by name and thus identified as Jewish. In the newspaper ad, she listed the phone number of another member, who served informally to screen callers.
"I'm in fear of the KKK. This is the South, and I know that organization is here," she said. "Most everyone knows I'm Jewish. But I'm concerned about my children. In terms of letting everyone in the world like the KKK know, that I worry about."
There is no known or recorded evidence of current activity by the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group, in Calvert County. But the schoolteacher's fear underscores the perceived climate that new Jewish congregations must face in the outlying suburbs, where, as one member remarked, they are "seen as a novelty, or they condescend to you."
"I can appreciate her concern. If she was perceived as an organizer, she could be a target," said Rabbi Donald Berlin, acting director of the mid-Atlantic Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation, a national organization of the Jewish reform movement.
"It's a sad commentary on our difficulty in America with diversity. We both want it and reject it at the same time," he said.
Berlin's group helped the Charles County congregation find a traveling rabbi, linking it with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York.
"Renting a rabbi" is common with new and small congregations that can't afford a full-time leader. Beth Israel in St. Mary's County brings in Rabbi Bernice White from Potomac twice a month. Someday the Calvert County congregation will rent its own, too, members said.
Religious leaders said the growth of Judaism in Southern Maryland parallels development and growth in general, in areas away from the traditional Jewish community centers.
"I'd say that what's changed is that people who are in need of fellow Jews have felt less reluctant to travel away from large urban centers," Berlin said.
As with the recent experiences of Calvert and Charles County congregations, Jewish people find each other--at the mall, through common doctors or nurseries, names in the phone book--and form a core group, Berlin said. The St. Mary's group formed with two families in the early 1940s, and members built the synagogue.
"That's been happening in America historically. It's an exciting phenomenon," said Berlin.
For instance, most of the 880 North American congregations under the umbrella of Berlin's national group are "small congregations in places you wouldn't expect to find Jewish people," he said.
And as they grow, they establish the groundwork for future worshipers in the community, down to making sure that local bakeries supply challah bread during the Jewish high holidays.
"These people are pioneers," said Rabbi Ken L. Cohen, executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's Seaboard Region office in Washington.
Wearing a yarmulke and a prayer shawl at Yom Kippur service yesterday morning, Weinberger addressed 70 people. He referred to early days when the group used a borrowed Torah, and the year 1994--a milestone, he said--when the group bought its own. Weinberger found it through the Internet. Yesterday, the Torah sat on a makeshift altar at the parish hall. A cobalt-blue stained-glass Star of David was hanging on the window by the door.
"We have an opportunity to get to that next step," he said, and promptly urged members to give generously to the new-building fund.
CAPTION: Amy Schafer, 8, and Dan Schafer, 11, listen to Josh Minkin, a traveling rabbi from New York, during a Yom Kippur service at a church in Waldorf. Sha'are Shalom Congregation plans its own building.
CAPTION: Jonathan Lowenthal, right, helped found a group in Calvert County. Son Justin, 9, lights candles, watched by Jacob, 7, and mother, Liz.
CAPTION: At a Yom Kippur service at a Waldorf church, Marvin Cohen carries the Torah around the congregation as members reach out to touch the word of God.