Coming Home: A Synagogue Ends Its Time in the Wilderness
by Bonnie Riva Ras
For Jews today, a
sukkah is a temporary structure
used for a defined period
of time. But while dwelling in
a sukkah can be spiritually
uplifting, it doesn't take the
place of a permanent home.
The members of Kol Shalom, in Rockville,
Maryland, know firsthand what it means
to be without a home – and the pleasure of
finally having one. Founded in 2002, the 200-
family congregation has been dwelling in temporary
quarters for the last 10 years, "a long
time to be in the wilderness," said Jonathan
Z. Maltzman, the kehilla's rabbi.
The congregation leased office space in
an apartment complex, used the classrooms
of a local elementary school for religious
school, and held meetings in congregants'
homes. They worshipped at the Jewish Community
Center of Greater Washington and
held high holiday services at hotels. "We
were spread all over the place," said Executive
Director Deb Finkelstein. "But we still
grew the community."
Among the many challenges involved
in not having a building, Finkelstein said,
was that "we always had to explain where
everything was located. And we had to find
places to hold events – every venue had
its own rules and regulations. Plus, moving
arks, Torah scrolls and siddurim was
always a challenge."
Still, Finkelstein believes that despite the
temporary spaces, Kol Shalom's strong sense
of community kept the group going, as did
the shared dream of building a home of its
own. Finally, in 2006, the congregation purchased
nearly five wooded acres in Rockville
with the goal of moving into its own building
three years later. But there were unexpected
delays, including a three-year building
moratorium by the city. Fortunately, during
the community meetings held as part
of the zoning process, the kehilla received
overwhelming support from neighbors and
from the city of Rockville, said Finkelstein.
She thinks it helped that "we wanted a low
key, unpretentious building that would fit
into the landscape and into the residential
neighborhood." The plan called for using
bricks, stone and natural materials that mimicked
the surrounding environment.
The members of Kol Shalom wanted an
environmentally friendly home and hired
the architectural firm of Shinberg Levinas,
known for its environmental designs. "There
is a real commitment to the Jewish value
of caring for the environment and to social
justice in our congregation," said Ilene
Cohen, a past president of the kehilla who
was involved in the building's planning.
It was important to the congregation that
the building meet the highest standard of
LEED certification. (LEED stands for Leadership
in Energy and Environmental Design,
an international green building certification.)
In fact, Kol Shalom is the first Conservative
congregation in the United States
to apply for the gold level, the highest LEED
One way the building meets LEED standards
is through its green roof, meaning a
roof covered with small plants that grow
slowly. These plants help keep the building
cooler or warmer depending on the season.
Other environmental features include
maximum insulation, low-waste water systems,
a geothermal heating and cooling system,
and adjustable lighting that can be
regulated depending on the availability of
natural light. There are also bicycle racks
– and showers for those who ride to shul
– as well as carpooling stations. "Land use
is an important factor in certification, so the
main entrance and parking lot face the back
and are not seen from the road," said Salo
Levinas, one of the architects.
Beyond its environmental features, the
building is distinctly Jewish, Levinas added.
"On the outside walls, there are stone
masonry plaques depicting the festivals, and
the mail slot is shaped like a chai. The doors
use tree-of-life imagery and there are Hebrew
letters in the glass."
Kol Shalom's building was dedicated on
April 27, 2012, when the Torah scrolls were
marched from Rabbi Maltzman's home to
the congregation's new home. Right now the
synagogue has a dual purpose sanctuary/social
hall, but a permanent sanctuary is planned
for the project's second phase.
But this is not the first structure that Kol
Shalom constructed on its land. Fittingly, that
structure was its 2008 sukkah, the quintessential
temporary Jewish dwelling. This fall,
Kol Shalom will join other kehillot in dwelling
temporarily in its sukkah, then returning
to its permanent building. "We were wandering
for far too long," said Maltzman.
"It is a fabulous feeling to be home."