At first glance, the Silver Spring neighborhood of Kemp Mill resembles many other subdivisions built in Montgomery County in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A closer inspection, however, reveals something a little different.
Interspersed among the tree-shaded blocks of ramblers, split levels, Cape Cods and Colonials are four Jewish schools and three synagogues. At the Kemp Mill Shopping Center, along with the usual Giant Food, CVS pharmacy and Chevy Chase Bank, are a kosher butcher and a kosher bakery that do a thriving business.
At least half of the community's approximately 10,000 residents are Orthodox Jews.
"Kemp Mill has probably the largest Orthodox population in Montgomery County," said Shonny Kugler, a real estate agent and resident of Kemp Mill since 1966.
Kemp Mill has been a destination for Orthodox Jews since 1961, when the Young Israel Shomrai Emunah synagogue relocated to the leafy suburb from Washington.
"There was no Orthodox community until we moved out here," recalled Gedaliah Anemer, senior rabbi at Shomrai Emunah. "We started having services in my house. A small synagogue was built a year later."
The synagogue has grown along with Kemp Mill. Today it operates out of a building on University Boulevard, where there is also a nursery school, and one on Arcola Avenue.
"We have 800 families," Anemer said. "Kemp Mill is pleasant for the Orthodox. I have this proprietary feeling about it. I'm like a father."
The high number of Orthodox Jews who call Kemp Mill home is apparent on weekends, when, rain or shine, people are out in droves, walking to places of worship. Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and lasts until sundown Saturday. Kugler said that religious tenet attracts Orthodox Jews to Kemp Mill. "They need a synagogue within walking distance," he said. "They relocate for that."
Herzel Kranz, the rabbi at Kemp Mill's Silver Spring Jewish Center, said that while other areas in Montgomery County have substantial Jewish populations, "Kemp Mill is the Jewish neighborhood of Washington."
"Potomac has synagogues," he said, but "a synagogue does not make a community. It's the infrastructure; the schools, the mikvah [ritual bath], a butcher shop, bakeries, bookstores. It's either here in Kemp Mill or a mile away in Wheaton," Kranz said.
He also said that the three high-rise apartment and condominium buildings near University Boulevard and Arcola Avenue further anchor Orthodox Jewish families to Kemp Mill by providing housing options for those who want what the neighborhood offers but either are not ready for or no longer need yards and large houses.
"It's an advantage here. They give opportunities for newlyweds and grandparents to have a place to live," Kranz said.
He said it's not unusual for multi-generational families to live around the corner from each other in Kemp Mill.
Gary Skulnik, 36, executive director of the Kemp Mill Civic Association, said the proliferation of Orthodox synagogues and Jewish schools led his family to buy a home in Kemp Mill when they moved from Atlanta 71/2 years ago.
"It's easier to live like this because of all the supports. It's very close-knit. It enriches life. On Saturdays, services are over at noon and afterward it's a huge social scene," Skulnik said. "That's where you catch up and make play dates. Everyone goes to someone's house for lunch, and it will last three to four hours. Then you walk home, the parents nap or go to class to study Torah, the kids play and you know they're not watching TV," also not permitted on the Sabbath.
Skulnik said that in addition to the synagogues, neighborhood minyans -- small prayer gatherings -- abound, including one that meets down the street from the house where he lives with his wife, Polina, 37, and their children, ages 2, 6 and 9. The Skulniks belong to Kemp Mill Synagogue, but the building is a little more than a mile from their house. At least once during a typical weekend, they will take advantage of the closer minyan, Skulnik said.
"On Shabbat, you go to services Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday night. Walking once is fine, but three times, you can imagine," he added.
Not all Kemp Mill residents are Orthodox Jews, of course. The many recreational activities available at the nearby Wheaton Regional, Northwest Branch and Sligo Creek parks, plus Kemp Mill's close-in location, attract a multicultural population. According to the 2000 census, 68 percent of Kemp Mill is white, 15 percent is African American, 11 percent is Hispanic and 8 percent is Asian.
"We love it. We were living in D.C. and were looking for a year for a bigger house. We had triplets, and we could not find a place big enough that we could afford," said Kim Jones, 34, an African American real estate agent who has lived in Kemp Mill for five years. "We live on a cul-de-sac, and my kids can ride their bikes."
Jones, who is active in the civic association, said she looks for opportunities to mingle with neighbors. "I'm organizing a community block party in the spring," she said.
Of course, no place is perfect.
"We don't have enough sidewalks," Skulnik said. "People who do drive [on the Sabbath] wish everyone would stay to the side of the road, and we need to do that."
Jones said sidewalks are not an issue for her, but there is one addition she would like to see at the neighborhood shopping center.
"They could put in a Starbucks," she said. "That's always a plus."