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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 certification.

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."

 
 
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