'Congregation that could' finds Charles County home


WALDORF -- To find the congregation's Torah, you must enter an Episcopal church and ascend to a musty attic that is home to mice and cardboard boxes. It seems an odd place for the elegant, handwritten scroll containing Judaism's teachings, but its owners assure that it won't be there much longer.

After a decade of renting space from the church and other organizations for services and storage, the fledgling Congregation Sha'are Shalom recently bought a 4-acre property here on which it will build Charles County's first synagogue. Its construction will be a milestone in the evolution of rapidly growing Southern Maryland, a once-rural area with deep Catholic roots.

Finally, 40 Jewish families will have a home for their Sabbath and High Holy Day services, their Hebrew school (now conducted in a dance studio) and their 65-pound Torah, which they bought in 1994.

"Our nickname is 'The Synagogue of the Wandering Jews,'" says Randy Schoch of nearby Oxon Hill, who holds a para-rabbinic certificate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. The Reform congregation can't afford a full-time rabbi, so Schoch, 60, who took what amounts to a short version of rabbinical training for two years, is the next best thing.

"We've had services at the conference center of the Holiday Inn. We were in a Southern Methodist church, and in a community center before that," Schoch says. "I guess every congregation, at the beginning, has to be especially motivated to get the ball rolling."

The congregation, composed largely of Washington-area transplants and workers from the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, is characterized by pluck, says Joshua Caruso, who led services here each month as a student rabbi in the late 1990s.

"They are the little congregation that could," says Caruso, 32, who has since been ordained and is based at a temple in Rockland County, N.Y.

"I would take the train from New York City, with its enormous Jewish population, to what I perceived as the middle of nowhere and suddenly be so inspired because they had to make Judaism happen by themselves," Caruso says. "They would run kosher hot dog stands at events to raise funds."

Lee Weinberger, the congregation's president, couldn't have imagined a synagogue here 25 years ago, when Charles County was still relatively undeveloped. Moving to the county from Mississippi in 1976, the now-retired Air Force officer knew of only two other Jewish families in the area.

At the time, Weinberger, now 64, had to travel about 20 miles to the Washington area for Passover supplies and plead with his children's teachers to excuse them from tests on Jewish holidays. "The school system didn't know there were Jews here," he says.

Even now, in a county teeming with subdivisions and huge, boxlike stores, members of the congregation feel like trailblazers.

"We're pioneers in Conestoga wagons," Schoch says.

Southern Maryland has Catholic roots dating to the arrival of settlers from England in the 17th century. Charles County is home to some of the oldest churches in the nation, including St. Ignatius, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the Port Tobacco River and was founded in 1641.

The region has never been known as a Jewish enclave. Sha'are Shalom is the only Reform congregation in Southern Maryland. There is one synagogue in the area, Beth Israel in Lexington Park, St. Mary's County.

Sha'are Shalom got its start as a social group. "I was sitting at home in about 1990 when a man called -- he had stumbled across my name -- and said, 'Would you like to meet the Jewish families in the county?' I said that I already knew the other two," Weinberger says.

But 28 people went to an initial reception, and the group has been growing ever since.

Charles County's population rose 19 percent in the 1990s, from 101,154 in 1990 to 120,546 last year. Many of the new residents are attracted by the affordable housing and property tax rates.

Sha'are Shalom spent about $90,000 on the land and estimates that it will need to raise more than $400,000 to build and furnish the synagogue. The congregation hopes to select an architect this month, but doesn't know when it will have enough money to begin construction.

In the meantime, it is making do at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where it convenes in a large classroom. Congregants drape a tapestry over the crosses on the wall before services begin.

But the congregation yearns for a home of its own. Its longing has been magnified by the recent terrorist attacks, which members say increase the need for a symbolic shelter from the world's storms.

"My wish is that my great-great-grandchildren will be members," Weinberger says.

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