Oseh Shalom marks 50 years of Jewish presence in Laurel

Laurel Leader
'We built a building, but I don't think of it as walls that keep others out,' said Rabbi Doug Heifetz

Fifty years ago, 26 years before the current $2.1 million structure that is home to Oseh Shalom was built, 16 local Jewish families gathered to create a social, cultural and religious presence in Laurel.

Congregation members joyfully celebrated a half-century of an evolving Jewish community Saturday at the synagogue off Van Dusen Road, an award-wining building distinguished by its blue "wings" and glowing dome.

With guest speakers Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, former Gov. Paris Glendenning and building architect Travis Price, the golden anniversary dinner also recognized members of 40 years or more, past presidents and honorees Holly and George Stone, who executive director Barry Nove said have been stalwart supporters of Oseh Shalom since they joined the synagogue in 1990.

According to the evening's Memory Book, George Stone assisted with finance and retreats, served on the board of Camp JFR for 8- to 17-year-olds in the Pocono Mountains and chaperoned homeless men and women sheltering at Oseh Shalom overnight.

Holly Stone served as co-president of the Parent Teacher Student Association and assisted in the search for Rabbi Doug Heifetz, who came on board in 2006. She also served as a substitute teacher and cooked dinners for the homeless and upper school.

In those early days, the synagogue existed only in the hearts of a dedicated few; co-chairmen Stuart Schwartz (who died in 2015) and Martin Chaitovitz led the tiny congregation, which met in private homes and the basement of the Citizens Building and Loan bank building on Route 1.

Jill Goozman, who said Schwartz was the driving force in recruiting members, recalls attending the first meeting in the basement of a commercial building on Montgomery Street.

Lay leader Harry Rosenbluh (who died last year) conducted religious services and would continue doing so for the next 14 years, until Rabbi Gary Fink was installed as the full-time rabbi.

At the suggestion of Marilyn Glaser, in 1973 the congregation adopted the name, Oseh Shalom, which translates as "doers of peace" in Hebrew.

In 1979, the congregation affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement after studying the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements for a year, according to Valerie Kaplan, a synagogue member since 1974 and past congregation president. Based on the philosophy of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the Reconstructionist movement interprets Judaism as progressively evolving — a blend of traditional culture and modern spirituality that emphasizes communal decision-making based in Jewish values.

The movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1968 and gay and lesbian rabbis in the early 1980s.

Today, Oseh Shalom, which has grown to 250 families and is Laurel's only synagogue, also welcomes nontraditional households, including same-sex couples and interfaith families.

"We're open to all, although our members are mostly Jewish households," Heifetz, the current rabbi, said. "We've become a regional center for culture and spirituality and programming; we have all kinds of groups who meet here."

Those groups have included Laurel churches such as City of Zion Church and Olive Branch Church. Heifetz said Oseh Shalom is reaching out to local mosques and forming partnerships with Islamic communities as well.

"We built a building, but I don't think of it as walls that keep others out," he said. "We are becoming more and more expansive about who we invite in."

Challenges and threats

The Jewish Community of Laurel, which became Oseh Shalom, was founded May 24, 1966.

Oseh Shalom has weathered its share of challenges and threats. In June 1969, the Jewish Congregation of Laurel, which had grown to 55 families, purchased a home on Mount Pleasant Drive in Montpelier to refit as a synagogue.

That fall, Prince George's County issued an eviction notice citing a shortage of off-street parking spaces. The congregation was able to negotiate a compromise and remained until 1973, when it built a larger synagogue on Briarwood Drive.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1985, the Briarwood Drive synagogue was desecrated with profanity and a swastika was painted on the front of the building. The vandals were never found.

In 1989, the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents had increased in the U.S. by nearly 12 percent; many were attributed to so-called neo-Nazi skinheads.

In January 1990, a bomb threat was called in to Oseh Shalom's Hebrew School. Prince George's County police increased patrols in the neighborhood, but the caller was never found.

A story in the Laurel Leader a few months later reported individuals identifying as members of the "Aryan Defense Force" calling in more threats in March. In that article, Fink, who was the rabbi then, was quoted as saying he and the congregation were offended and hopeful that the community would rally around them.

"When I look at [the synagogue] as being a member of the greater Laurel community, I look at it … as a threat to everyone in the community," Fink said.

In August 1990, the Leader reported a third incident; a sign at the future home of Oseh Shalom, where it currently stands, was spray-painted with the threat, "U Build We Burn!!"

In November 1991, the synagogue on Olive Branch Way was dedicated with a standing ovation for Travis Price, the architect who spent seven years creating the building that would win an award from the 30th annual Masonry Design Award Competition the following year.

The synagogue's dome, which was replaced in 2014, symbolizes God's unity and perfection. The exterior's striped earth tones and a jagged wall represent the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; and an "unfinished" wall reflects the Jewish belief that world redemption is incomplete until man achieves a messianic age of peace.

The dedication plaque read, "May the source of peace in the heavens grant peace to us, to Israel and to all the world."

'A pleasure to go there'

A time walk exhibit traveling from 1970 into the 2010s welcomed congregation members at Saturday's event, with photos and news clips telling stories of cultural, civic and community accomplishment and growth.

A brief but lively welcome service led by Heifetz and cantor Charlie Bernhardt preceded the celebration dinner organized by the 50th birthday celebration committee, chaired by Kelly Benton-Klein.

Bernice Goodwin, of Laurel, whose family was one of the original 16, said she is disappointed that she couldn't attend Saturday's celebration.

"The building is beautiful inside and out and it's a pleasure to go there," she said.

Goodwin said she raised three sons while attending Oseh Shalom and that her youngest was the first to have his bar mitzvah at the synagogue on the Briarwood Drive.

Laurel residents Jill and Marty Goozman have also been members since the synagogue's founding. Their two children grew up with Oseh Shalom, attending religious classes and celebrating their bat and bar mitzvahs at the Briarwood Drive synagogue.

Jill Goozman said the congregation's Torah was donated to the synagogue in 1968 by the Merchants Association of Laurel to honor Irving Fliss, who owned Mel-Ron Fabrics at the Laurel Shopping Center. He had died the previous year.

Torahs are both "hard to get and expensive," she said, with 304,805 letters hand written by a scribe in a process that takes about 18 months. Although the cover of the Torah — originally inscribed in memory of Fliss — has been replaced, she said the scroll is used in services today.

"This celebration brings back many fond memories from the early days until the present, which has been an enriching and heartwarming experience," Goozman said Saturday.

Lynne Gaynes Kaplan, who's been congregation president since 2013, said it was "a joy to contribute memories."

Heifetz is going into his 10th year as rabbi and spoke of many recent accomplishments; he said the congregation has not only survived, it has flourished.

"We can do this and we can do so much more," Heifetz said.

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