The families at Congregation Shaare Tikvah had concluded their Sabbath service, and a dance was planned that Saturday evening for the young people of the Temple Hills synagogue.
Louis Burger still thanks God that a flu epidemic forced the dance to be moved to a private home that night three decades ago. About 9:30 p.m., police said, someone slipped through the back door of the synagogue and planted dynamite. The explosion destroyed part of the kitchen and the recreation hall. If the dance hadn't been moved, the bomb blast probably would have killed some of the synagogue's members.
"It was terrible. It was terrible. I never thought this could happen in America," said Burger, a Holocaust survivor who will never forget the Jan. 11, 1969, bombing that gave him a scary reminder of the tragedy he had fled in Europe.
Despite more than $200,000 in damage, the members of the Temple Hills synagogue rebuilt the building. Today, the congregation is trying to rebuild itself in another way. With an aging membership, and many members living outside the county, the congregation is looking for ways to attract new families from Prince George's County and Southern Maryland.
This past weekend, many of the 65 families who belong to Shaare Tikvah joined together to observe the festival of Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, which commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness during the Exodus. They also built Sukkots, the huts where Jews celebrate the holiday, and used the occasion to show off the congregation to prospective members.
"The festival of Sukkot is an annual thanksgiving which reminds us that God is still the source of our well-being," said Rabbi Reuven Resnick, the new spiritual leader of Shaare Tikvah.
"During the 40 years in the desert, it was clear that God provided for all of our needs. He sent manna from the heavens and brought water forth from rocks," Resnick said.
Resnick knows that God can't necessarily help with a membership drive, so Resnick and the synagogue's leaders are trying different ways of spreading the word about the congregation.
As it enters the new millennium, the 34-year-old congregation is hoping to find a way to grow beyond its present size. Members of the congregation hope that its new, young rabbi--Resnick is 34, the same age as the congregation--as well as the synagogue's strong history of public service and its unpretentious and friendly atmosphere will make it a destination not only for Jews in Prince George's but also for those in Southern Maryland and elsewhere in the Washington area.
"Our congregation is small but very warm and vivacious," Resnick said. "We are hopeful that Jews throughout Southern Maryland will become part of our extended family."
Many of Shaare Tikvah's original members still participate in the congregation. They were part of the generation that moved to the Washington area in the 1940s and settled in Southeast Washington. Suburbia beckoned when Prince George's County began to integrate--racially and religiously--in the 1960s. Abe Hamburg, the treasurer and a founding member of the synagogue, also returns to Shaare Tikvah every Sabbath.
"For me, the synagogue is like a second home. Even though I moved away from the area, I come back to services," said Hamburg, 78, a resident of Leisure World at Silver Spring. "I travel 30 miles every Sabbath because this is my house of worship. I have many memories here."
A description of Shaare Tikvah's history says, in part: "To the Jew, the synagogue is more than a building--it is a house of Life wherein religious services are held, educational programs for children are conducted and cultural, social and recreational activities for the entire family are offered."
Hamburg, who guided the purchase of the property to build the synagogue in the 1960s, said: "Obviously, the congregation is losing some of its membership, but I personally want to do all that I can to keep it going."
Shaare Tikvah is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. It was formed in 1965 with the merger of Congregation B'nai Jacob-Beth Israel and Congregation Aitz Chayim, which was formerly the Washington Highlands Jewish Center.
These congregations originally were in the Congress Heights-Washington Highlands section of Southeast Washington, but after the merger, the congregation looked for land in Prince George's.
On Oct. 10, 1965, a service of consecration was held on the grounds of the synagogue at 5404 Old Temple Hills Rd. In September 1967, about 175 families held services in a new $250,000 synagogue.
But not everyone welcomed the synagogue. The bomb blast in 1969 caused $200,000 damage, leaving a huge hole in the building's concrete floor, destroying doors and damaging the staircase.
Police believe the bomb blast was the work of a Cheverly man, who was tried and acquitted.
The bombing left sour memories for a while, but some members say those have eased as the county's African American population has grown.
Ken Witkin, 61, a longtime member of the congregation, said that the growing African American neighborhood nearby has made the Jewish community feel more welcome today than the majority-white county did in the 1960s and '70s.
"The county has changed," Witkin said. "African Americans are more friendly to Jewish people than [non-Jewish] whites. When the county was majority white, Jews were victims of discrimination. It was heartbreaking when they bombed our new building."
Today Witkin is among the leaders of the congregation trying to get the word out that Shaare Tikvah is still going strong. He writes letters to the media about his congregation and has created a home page for the synagogue on the Internet. Members of the congregation also are involved in volunteer work in the community and frequently welcome non-Jews from the neighborhood to services.
Witkin, a former e-mail administrator with the Department of Defense, said the synagogue was ahead of its time in having a home page: "I realized that my experience with the Internet could be a means of reaching out to new members and allow older members to retrieve information."
The synagogue also is looking to Resnick to help invigorate the congregation. He took over as the congregation's leader this month, replacing Rabbi Avigayl Young, who moved to a larger congregation in New York.
Before moving to the area, Resnick lived for more than a decade in Israel, where he worked with Jewish people who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Resnick also lived and studied in Leningrad, Russia, where he met his wife.
Resnick said he moved to the area because his wife is studying to become a cantor, someone who leads the singing during services. Shulamit Resnick is attending the Maalot Cantorial School in Rockville. "It is a very good way to use my ability to sing," said Shulamit Resnick, a native of Latvia. "A cantor is not just someone who sings, but a person who can be very important in the life of the community. It is a very good way to use my ability to sing."
Andy Sheldon, of Upper Marlboro, the current president of the synagogue, said Reuven Resnick is exactly what Shaare Tikvah needs to attract younger families. "He is extremely dedicated, full of energy and has a strong background in terms of Hebrew education."
Resnick said his goal is to strengthen the spiritual education of members in his congregation. "I want them to know about their faith."
One way the congregation has learned more about its faith is through the Frances Glukenhous Memorial Scholar-in-Residence Program. In memory of her husband, William, Glukenhous established a fund 20 years ago for an annual lecture series by a scholar from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Shaare Tikvah also has an active Men's Club, a Sisterhood organization and a youth group. In addition, the synagogue is a meeting place for an "Over-50 Club," which is sponsored by the Prince George's Council on Aging.
Resnick said: "We are very glad to be part of Prince George's County and Southern Maryland, and we hope that we can grow together."
CAPTION: A Shaare Tikvah congregant enters a Sukkot outside the home of Mike and Kelley Stein.
CAPTION: Rabbi Reuven Resnick, shown with his wife, Shulamit, leads Congregation Shaare Tikvah.
CAPTION: Above, members of Congregation Shaare Tikvah talk and eat in a Sukkot, an 8-by-10-foot structure built for the festival of Sukkot. At left, congregants participate in a havdalah, a service to mark the end of the first part of Sukkot.