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Kemp Mill:
Neighborhood Holds
To Religious Past

By Marianne Kyriakos
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 26, 1992

Sometimes it's hard to miss the Kemp Mill community. Especially if you happen to be shopping in the Kemp Mill Giant on Saturday morning when, if you look out a window, you can see many of Kemp Mill's residents walking by.

A thousand of them, maybe more, a long parade of Kemp Millers.

Where are they going?

To pray together.

"It is probably the largest Orthodox Jewish community in the Washington area, and it is probably the largest between Baltimore and Miami," said Jerry Pasternak, president of the civic association for this neighborhood in southeastern Montgomery County.

Orthodox Jews do not drive a car from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. "And when that many people are walking in the street," Pasternak said, "it's highly visible."

While it is easy to spot the Orthodox contingent, the neighborhood of 5,500 people is more than a Jewish community. Most recent U.S. census data show 14 percent of Kemp Mill's population is black, a percentage slightly higher than the county-wide black population of 12.1 percent. There is a Catholic church on Kemp Mill Road and nearly 300 Asians call the suburb home.

About 500 of the community's 2,000 households are Orthodox and most others are conservative or reformed members of the Jewish faith. There are four synagogues within walking distance of the neighborhood, which is mostly filled with split-level, colonial and rambler homes.

Shonny Kugler, a real estate agent with Long&Foster Real Estate Inc. and a resident of Kemp Mill, said the housing prices range from the $160,000s to the $330,000s. Much of the suburb was developed by Jack Kay, starting in 1958.

"I just can't imagine living anywhere else," said Ruth Shapiro, whose family outgrew their first house in Kemp Mill five years ago and moved to another seven blocks away.

She and her husband, Phil, a consulting engineer for Computer Sciences Corp., have three daughters and are active in the Parent-Teacher Association at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School. Many of their neighbors, however, send their children to one of several Jewish day schools in the area.

For this reason, Ruth Shapiro said, "the schools don't reflect the neighborhood at all." That fact is a concern to the family.

"We believe in the public schools," Phil Shapiro said. "There's something to be said for growing up in that."

Their youngest daughter, Tammy, is a fifth-grader at Kemp Mill Elementary, which ranks consistently near the top among county schools in test scores. Laura, 12, is an honors student at Lee. She is busy rehearsing for the Washington Opera Society's production of "Turandot" at the Kennedy Center in February. Eldest daughter Elisa is in the math-science magnet program at Blair High School.

Phil Shapiro said: "You know what the biggest issue in Kemp Mill is? It's the misperception about the public schools. There's a lot going on that's good, and I think that gets lost."

He said two of Lee's academic and science teams went to the state finals last year. "We have an excellent and committed new principal, and the kids are involved in the community," he said.

For community involvement, the younger residents have their parents' example. Kemp Mill has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the state, said Pasternak, an attorney. He described the area as overwhelmingly Democratic in registration.

"Our history of excellent participation in elections gets the attention of politicians, so it kind of feeds on itself," Pasternak said.

An informal civic association meets four or five times a year. "Fifty or sixty people show up at a regular meeting. To get that type of turnout, when really, there is no burning issue ... I think that says a lot about the community," he said.

Not that Kemp Mill never has had a burning issue.

Three years ago, a Montgomery County jury acquitted a self-described skinhead of charges of vandalizing an Orthodox Jewish school in the community. The suspect had confessed complicity in the vandalism to 10 different people over a period of several months, according to testimony at the trial, but police ultimately had no physical evidence linking the suspect to the crime. At the time, police described the rampage at the school as "extraordinarily destructive."

"The reaction of the community was just an incredible coming together," Pasternak said. "The mood was, 'If you hurt my neighbor, you have hurt me.'"

A meeting at Lee drew 300 residents and representatives from county, police and state's attorney offices. "There was tremendous disappointment that they were not able to turn a conviction, but those things happen," Pasternak said.

Neighbors said there was a great deal of fear and anxiety after the vandalism. Pasternak was outraged when Jewish Week published a headline to the effect that Kemp Mill Jews were facing the challenge of skinheads and harassment as a way of life.

"I was furious," he said. "It was just adding to the frenzy and panicking people even more. They even posed a picture of a guy with his yarmulke patrolling the neighborhood with a baseball bat."

Things have settled down a lot. "There was once a problem with a number of break-ins, but it wasn't a problem of being a targeted community for anti-Semitic activity," Pasternak said.

"I think we have a very collegial atmosphere. You see people walking their dogs, playing with their kids, jogging through the streets. It's a nice place to live," he said.

This week, the Shapiros are joining many of their neighbors in celebrating Hanukah. Candlelight from menorahs flickers in bay windows up and down the streets of Kemp Mill.

Another community tradition takes place many Sunday mornings when 25 or 30 concerned citizens gather at 9 sharp at the Recreation Center on Claybrook Drive. The burning issue: softball.

For Phil Shapiro, the game is one of the nicest things about life in Kemp Mill.

"We change teams every week," he said. "Sometimes it's everybody who has facial hair against those who don't. Or people who have daughters against people who have sons."

Shapiro said: "I've played on a lot of softball leagues. And this one is more fun and competitive than any of the other leagues I've played on."

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