Members of Washington's oldest Orthodox synagogue are involved in a bitter internal battle over its future, reflecting the dilemma of many longtime District congregations: Does survival require relocating to the suburbs?
The dispute at Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah pits a group of mostly elderly members who live near the Northwest D.C. synagogue against a faction of mostly younger members who live in suburban Maryland and worship at an Olney branch of the main synagogue.
The older members say they fear that the Olney group is trying to gain control of the synagogue board so it can sell the 30,000-square-foot building at 16th and Jonquil streets NW, which is assessed at $3 million, in order to finance construction of a $1 million worship and learning center in Olney.
The Olney members deny that they want to sell the building. But D.C. members said they have lost trust in the Olney group, which succeeded in May in electing one of its leaders as synagogue president. "We don't believe them. It's in their interest to close us down," said Joshua Kranzberg, a leader of the D.C. faction.
Underlying the dispute is control over a synagogue whose roots in the city go back more than 100 years, a congregation where singer Al Jolson's father was cantor beginning in the 1890s. The synagogue also owns a cemetery in Southeast Washington with 4,000 plots, only half of them used.
Ohev Sholom was established in 1886, then merged in 1958 with another old-time congregation, Talmud Torah, to form a congregation of about 650 households. Two years later, members dedicated the large, white limestone building with massive pink doors on 16th Street NW in the Shepherd Park neighborhood.
But the D.C. congregation has since dwindled to about 100 households. A room of the synagogue is filled with old photographs and historical artifacts, but the facility has no school, and during weekdays it is quiet.
By contrast, at the Olney congregation, "things are happening, there are children's voices, there are parties" and an active social life for members, said Deborah Cohn Runkle, who lives in Kensington and worships at the Olney branch. The 16th Street synagogue, she said, "doesn't offer any of that."
The Olney group, which worships in a small home, consists of about 50 households but is growing steadily.
Runkle said the Olney worshipers have no interest in selling the 16th Street synagogue. "That is a fantasy," she said, noting that they already have raised three-quarters of the money needed to build a worship center in Olney. "We don't need to sell their building."
But Runkle added that she could not provide "a permanent guarantee" to the D.C. members. "I can't say the shul would never be sold," she said.
The idea of selling the 16th Street building because of dwindling membership first was proposed by a synagogue committee in the mid-1990s, but it was set aside after being roundly denounced by a majority of members.
About the same time, the synagogue began giving moral and financial support to a small group of Orthodox Jews trying to establish a community in Olney. It donated two Torahs to the fledgling group and purchased two homes, one for worship and one to serve as a residence for its rabbi, Shaya Milikowsky.
The idea was "to branch out and establish a foothold someplace if we failed here. It was like covering our bets," said longtime Ohev Sholom member and past president Leonard Goodman. "Just how it would all work out wasn't all planned from the start."
In 2001, the Olney group became financially independent and drew up plans to construct new facilities. D.C. members began to fear that the only way the project could be financed would be through the sale of their 16th Street synagogue.
Meanwhile, Olney members grew increasingly irritated with what they perceived as an effort to sideline them from a decision-making role at the synagogue, according to Olney group member David Meshel.
In May, at the synagogue's annual elections, the Olney faction turned out in force, nominated Meshel to run against Goodman for president and elected Meshel by a vote of 32 to 20.
Goodman felt betrayed, explaining that the D.C. faction had not tried to muster its forces to vote because it thought the slate of candidates had been agreed on.
"Because of the deceitful way they took over," Goodman said, he and others interpreted the vote as "a signal that Olney wanted to take over the main synagogue and sell it."
Goodman and his lame-duck board of directors then formed a nonprofit group called Friends of Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation and transferred title of the building to the group May 28.
In the latest twist to the dispute, the synagogue's board of directors voted 15 to 8 last week to sever all ties between the D.C. congregation and the Olney branch and to create two separate boards.
The action "ensures the independence of" Ohev Sholom, said Kranzberg, who was named interim president. It demonstrates, he said, that the synagogue "is now controlled by a board dedicated to encouraging the growth of the District's oldest Orthodox Congregation at its present location."
The Olney group rejected the action as illegal. "I was ousted as president. That's against the bylaws," Meshel said. "Now, there are two separate boards, and that's wrong because we're all members of the same congregation."
Runkle said that it "was very painful for the people at 16th Street to no longer have the presidency of the shul. . . . I think they felt they were losing control."
She said she understands their concerns. "Their fright stems from an obvious fact of life, that for more than 20 years . . . they have been dwindling as people age and younger people don't move into the neighborhoods," she said. "They can barely get a group of 10 men together to pray."
Under Jewish law, a minimum of 10 males must be present to have a formal Jewish prayer service. Jewish law also prohibits the use of an automobile on Shabbat, the Sabbath.
Shepherd Park dropped from 3,636 residents in 1990 to 3,158 in 2000, according to census figures. Still, the D.C. congregation's members say they believe their membership decline can be reversed.
Goodman cited a revived interest among suburban residents in moving into the District and the recent purchase by the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital of a nearby school building. Synagogue members say they hope the school will draw more Jewish families to the neighborhood who will join their congregation.
Rabbi Hillel Klavan, who served as Ohev Sholom's rabbi for 48 years until his retirement in June, declined to comment on the congregation's troubles, calling them "an internal matter." Klavan, who holds the title of rabbi emeritus of Ohev Sholom, moved to Olney when he retired and now worships there.
The District congregation is looking for a new rabbi.
"Ultimately, what we're trying to do is to maintain a congregation in this neighborhood so we'll have a place to pray," said Benjamin Mintz, 75, a member of Ohev Sholom since 1959. "We just want to be left alone. We want to run our own show, choose our rabbi, have our own services. I would like them to accept that we'll be two different congregations, and we'll be friends."
But the Olney group is reluctant to divorce. "Now we are running through a little rocky time," Meshel said. "But we're going to try and reconcile and be one happy family. . . . I never wanted this to happen in the first place."