March 4, 2005

by Reb Yudel
Open Orthodoxy in Action

Washington Jewish Week profiles growth of two frum shuls in the District of Columbia, one Chabad and the other headed by Avi Weiss protoge Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.

An Orthodox blossoming In District, traditional offerings grow, as do names

by Paula Amann

News Editor

For years, Kesher Israel Congregation has carried a neighborhood tag, the Georgetown Synagogue. Last fall, another District synagogue expanded its name and seemingly its mission, as Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah also became the National Synagogue.

At the same season, the American Friends of Lubavitch in the city's Kalorama area took on the title, Shul of the Nation's Capital, as it launched weekly Saturday morning Shabbat services, in addition to holiday and Friday evening worship.

The name change, says Rabbi Levi Shemtov, AFL's Washington director, have flowed out of the expanded religious menu, which in past years, was confined to major Jewish holidays.

"We are not the pedestrian synagogue with a large board of directors and an overarching bureaucracy," said Shemtov. "We're simply a place where anyone who wants to come to enjoy services is welcome to do so."

He has also invited guests to the shul, including author-congregant Tom Diaz this week and on Friday, Cantor Jeff Nadel of Potomac's Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom justifies his modern Orthodox congregation's new moniker as one more inviting to newcomers.

"We're living in Greater Washington, the least affiliated Jewish community in the country. We need a tag line that makes us accessible, that makes people feel welcome," said Herzfeld. "While we're proud of Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah, it's a mouthful."

Kesher Israel's Rabbi Barry Freundel declined to comment on the nomenclature changes at neighboring Orthodox congregations.

Meanwhile, Ann Chernicoff, 23, a coordinator of the D.C. Beit Midrash, which meets weekly at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, applauds the wider range of services now available to District Jews.

"Having more Jewish options in the area definitely strengthens our program," said Chernicoff, a District resident and federal contractor.

But she suggested that recent name changes by District congregations might prove puzzling to some Jews seeking a spiritual home.

"Particularly as the establishment of these new groups enhances the variety of options in D.C., I think it makes the pull to brand that much stronger, but it also makes it more confusing to newcomers," Chernicoff said.

Jeremy Kadden, a steering committee member for the traditional DC Minyan, which holds services at the DCJCC, hails the religious explosion in the District.

"The more, the merrier. We feel whatever brings Jewish life to this area is a good thing," said Kadden, 27. "Each group is filling a different niche. We don't feel like there's a competition."

Herzfeld, meanwhile, is widely credited with bolstering what was seen as a flagging congregation. Former synagogue president Leonard Goodman points to a "complete transformation" at Ohev Sholom.

As recently as a year ago, daily morning and Friday evening services had ceased there, for want of people.

"There's no comparison," said the District's Goodman, 71, a member since 1979. "We had trouble meeting a minyan" or Jewish quorum of 10 men, at that time.

He recalls keeping the 16th Street shul open on Friday evenings, just in case a visitor happened by.

"I didn't want them to find a locked door," said Goodman.

Now, he reports, between 40 and 200 people attend Friday and Saturday morning services, depending on the program and the weather. He credits the young new rabbi, who joined Ohev Sholom last summer, with the shul's metamorphosis.

"The biggest magnet is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld; he is so warm, so welcoming," Goodman said. "I have had a person say they would not want to join an Orthodox congregation -- except this one."

Herzfeld has instituted an array of new programs, including such guest speakers as scholar-educator Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg and author-speaker Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who both visited the shul last fall.

A promotion in December offered a free pair of tefillin to "make you feel like a minyon" for the first 20 people who attended morning services 30 times in the next 60 days.

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