Moving a Shul: What We Learned About Our Congregation
by Rabbi Jonah Layman
Shaare Tefila Congregation
was founded in Washington, DC,
in 1952. After 10 years it moved
to Silver Spring, Maryland, where
it thrived for 40 years. Membership
reached a peak of 800 families and
the religious school had 600 students. When
I was hired 17 years ago, however, the demographics
already were changing. Jews were
moving out, young Jews weren’t moving in,
the public schools were no longer the best
in the county, and the area was becoming ethnically
Ten years ago the congregation formed
a committee to evaluate its future. I preached
a sermon on Kol Nidrei that laid out the situation,
concluding that we had to move
in order to survive. Both the committee and
my sermon created a buzz. People began talking
about what our future would look like.
They began thinking about their commitment
to the shul and to the building they
grew up in, or were married in. They started
thinking about what it would be like to
The committee recommended that we
look for land so we could build a new building.
A six-month search found only one
viable site, about two miles from another
Conservative shul in Olney. After meeting
with representatives of that congregation
and United Synagogue’s regional office,
we all agreed that we could go ahead with
the purchase. It was 2004, the economy was
booming, and our county’s parks and planning
office was predicting 15 percent growth
in Olney over the next 15 years. Both congregations
agreed that there would be plenty
of room for both of us.
Next, we held town hall meetings where
we answered our members’ concerns. The
shul construction would be financed by the
sale of our Silver Spring building, a capital
campaign, and a mortgage. The architectural
firm displayed a beautiful model of
the new building, and our relocation committee
chair, who was born to parents who
were members when the congregation was
in the first building in DC, and was married
in the second one, passionately urged
our members to agree to move. Over 80 percent
In 2006 we sold our building to a church
and began our life without a permanent
home. Permits that we were told should only
take three to six months to secure ended up
taking a year and a half. That delay overlapped
with the collapse of the economy
and the real estate market. Though we had
the funds the construction company no
longer was confident that we would be able
to satisfy our obligations and pulled out
of our financing agreement. That happened
when the site was being graded, so we halted
construction. We were back at square one.
It was now 2008, and we had spent almost
two years without a building.
During that time I had sold my house
in Silver Spring and moved to Olney so I
would be in walking distance of the new
shul. That complicated finding a temporary
Shabbat location, because it would have
to be in walking distance of my new house.
Eventually we found a suitable elementary
school. We also wanted to maintain our
offices and a schedule of daily morning and
evening minyanim. A member of the shul
who had practiced medicine from his house
moved into an assisted living facility. His
daughter, also a shul member, generously
agreed to let us use the house rent free for
offices, meetings, and minyan until we
moved. It could be argued that the family’s
generosity is what allowed us to survive
Plan B, now that construction was halted,
was to find an existing building in Olney to
buy and renovate. After looking for six
months we found a suitable one, but the
seller raised the price at the last minute.
It was no longer in our price range.
At the same time, we worked on Plan
C. A committee explored mergers with two
other congregations. Those plans ultimately
failed because each congregation wanted to
protect its identity. Each wanted more of
a say about the future of the new entity
and none was willing to compromise sufficiently.
Just when we thought that all was lost,
a member of our board found a company
that designs and constructs houses of worship.
BGW, which stands for Building God’s
Way, is a company whose religious ministry
is building sanctuaries. It had just completed
a church a few miles from Olney and we
liked its approach, which was not only about
business but focused more on the spiritual.
We became its first synagogue. Representatives
came to Shabbat services and
spoke to us about who they were and what
they strive to do. They won over our congregation and we overwhelmingly supported
hiring the firm to construct our building.
After 10 more months spent revising our
permits, construction began in the spring
of 2010. By the end of the summer the steel
frame was up and by August 2011 we had
our occupancy permit.
It was 5 years and one month after we sold
our Silver Spring building.
No one lesson we learned as a congregation
these past five years supersedes the
others. They are interrelated and interdependent.
Everything had to be in place in
order for us to succeed.
This is what we learned.
It was clear to us from the beginning that
we needed a clear and articulate vision. Our
relocation vice president used the word
“imagine” all the time. But the imagination
was based on the shul’s history, the connection
members have to it, and the type of
community we are. We are an egalitarian,
warm, friendly, and nurturing congregation
(isn’t every shul?!) and we maintained our
identity throughout this process. The executive
director, cantor, and I stayed with
the shul the whole time, so we provided constant
presence and support for the vision.
The shul’s leadership also stayed constant,
so that even though the construction plan
changed, the leadership didn’t.
Because the vision was clear, members were
willing to withstand challenges and obstacles.
We held Shabbat services in an elementary
school until the school closed for
reconstruction. Then we moved to another
school until the members complained about
its temperature and the metal folding chairs.
Next, we moved to a room in a theater. B’nai
mitzvah were able to select a nicer location;
those services were held in different
synagogues in the area. High holiday services
were the biggest challenge. Schools in
Maryland are closed only on the first day of
Rosh Hashanah. Fortunately, the high school
we found was close to a Reform synagogue
that was available to us on the second day.
And all this was just for services. Adult education
classes were held at members’ homes,
daily minyan was in the Silver Spring
office/home, and other programs were held
in other rental spaces.
Our members had to keep track of where
services and programs would be every week.
We still had good attendance at our events
and our members stayed with us because
they knew that there was light at the end
of the tunnel.
And our members were committed to the
shul. Even our oldest member – who was
then 100 years old – paid her new building
fund in full.
Early on, we recognized that our situation
would force us to be creative. Our Silver
Spring sanctuary had a five-step bimah, and
I used to sit on it throughout the service.
The elementary schools and the room in the
theater were just rooms with chairs, so our
seating became circular, with the reading
table in the middle. I also became our greeter,
meeting people at the door. People loved the arrangement so much that we told the
design/construction company that we
wanted flexible seating in the new sanctuary.
We now have a two-step bimah, but
the reading table is on the floor in the middle
of the seats. I still greet people at the
This forced creativity also applied to programs
and their locations. We used to do
tashlich at a stream near our building in Silver
Spring. We moved it to a regional park,
added a program to the service, and made
it the Sunday after Rosh Hashanah. Now
that we’re in our new building we conducted
tashlich the same way this year too.
Our transition forced us to look at our
vision, work with our members, and provide
programming and services that would
still meet their religious, educational and
The final lesson to share is how much energy
our leaders and volunteers were willing to
expend. The members of the relocation committee
worked for eight years. Board members
and officers served extra terms to provide
stability. The professional staff stayed with
the shul to be its communal face. It’s hard
to explain why. We’ve all been touched by
lifecycle events and have felt how much
Shaare Tefila has been part of our lives.
We all wanted to be sure that the shul would
survive so that other generations can be
equally touched and inspired.
Colleagues with whom I have shared this
story and who have watched it unfold have
been astounded by our accomplishment.
Our dedication event the Sunday before
Rosh Hashanah was both exhilarating and
emotional. When our past presidents carried
all our Torah scrolls and I put them
in the ark, it was like a dream come true.
I think the lessons we learned can be applied
to other shuls. You too can build a core of
dedicated, resilient, creative, and energetic
members. We pray that this success can
be translated into growth in Olney.
Rabbi Jonah Layman has been the rabbi of
Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney, Maryland,
since 1994. He is the immediate past
president of the Washington Board of Rabbis
and a past president of the Washington-
Baltimore region of the Rabbinical Assembly.