Ohr Kodesh celebrates 70 years in Md. suburbs

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From left, Meyer Freyman, Sam Eig and Rabbi Tzvi Porath stand together at the groundbreaking of Ohr Kodesh. (Photos courtesy of Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, gift of Rabbi Tzvi and Esther Porath)

As a recently married couple in 1974, Gary and Abby Simms were on the hunt.

“We were both still in law school,” Gary Simms said. “We were shul shopping and stopped [at Ohr Kodesh Congregation] one Saturday and were just blown away by the warmth. And we knew we had found the place. We were done.”

Next month, Ohr Kodesh celebrates its 70th anniversary.

What was in 1948 a handful of families in Chevy Chase and Silver Spring who formed the Montgomery County Jewish Community is today the 450 family-strong Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.

In the post-World War II Jewish migration to the Maryland suburbs, the future Ohr Kodesh was the first synagogue established in Maryland south of Baltimore. After a few years of meeting in homes, the congregation opened its building in 1952. It took the name Ohr Kodesh in 1966.

Members describe the Conservative synagogue as a place that is both serious about Judaism and welcoming, encompassing a spectrum of observance.

“There’s a big community of people who come on Saturdays who walk, but then the parking lot is also full,” Simms said.

The congregation didn’t start out with an affiliation. That came after the arrival of its first rabbi, Tzvi Porath, who was initially hired in 1952 as executive director. But, as Porath told The Washington Post in 1977, the congregation hadn’t yet settled on who it wanted to be.

“[They] were moving in many directions, trying to encompass the whole Jewish community,” he said. “They needed an identity.”

In 2008, Ohr Kodesh received a rescued Torah from Bialystok, Poland. (Photo courtesy of Ohr Kodesh)

In 1956, the congregation joined the Conservative movement, a moment Porath identified as “a turning point.”

“We accept traditional Judaism as our direction in life,” Porath said in describing the decision. “We also recognize the need for change. We try to make our changes within the Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Lyle Fishman, who came to the congregation in 1984 after Porath’s retirement, has continued that approach. Porath died in 2007.

“[The congregation] has a wonderful group of people who are excited to grow their Jewishness,” Fishman said. “We’re traditional in the liturgical presentation that we have. But we have also made entry to religious life and community as accessible as possible. And then build with them what they want to build.”

Fishman described his congregation as “intellectually curious, Jewishly curious and interested in fostering community.”

And at Ohr Kodesh, it is easy to get involved, said Simms, who was a synagogue board member by his mid-20s. One of his and Abby’s proudest undertakings, he said, was their effort to establish the Ohr Kodesh preschool.

Ohr Kodesh has had just two rabbis in its 70 years: Rabbi Tzvi Porath, pictured here with a group of confirmation students, and Rabbi Lyle Fishman.

Abby Simms organized it with a few other mothers and Gary Simms coordinated with the board and by 1980 their oldest son, then 3-years-old, was one of 35 kids in the first class of the preschool, which now enrolls more than 100 children.

“People who want to see something happen, they just have to work at it and it happens,” Simms said.

The synagogue was also there at the founding of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. The fledgling school met in the synagogue basement in 1965 with seven students and an annual budget of $17,000, according to a 2015 WJW story on its 50th anniversary. Porath told The Post that school was one of his proudest accomplishments.

Simms remembers being welcomed with open arms by what he called the synagogue’s old guard in the 1970s. He said he and his wife see it as their “obligation and enjoyment” to do the same for the young families coming to the congregation in recent years.

Barbara Libbin, current president of the synagogue and mother of two recent Ohr Kodesh preschool graduates, is a part of one of those young families. The synagogue is family-friendly, she said, from allowing kids up on the bimah to programming for every age group.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase started out in 1948 as the Montgomery County Jewish Community.

“What we like to call our stroller parking lot is now full,” she said, referring to the area in the synagogue where families leave their strollers during services. Fishman joked they should start stroller valet parking as a fundraiser.

Congregants look out for each other, Libbin said. People will check in with congregants if they don’t show up for services as they normally do, or stop by the homes of people who are sick or just had a baby to see how they can help. It’s just that kind of place, she said.

A lot of members don’t have roots in the Washington area, Fishman said, and the congregation is able to provide them with a sense of community.

Libbin said she and her husband visited Ohr Kodesh 10 years ago while shul shopping and immediately were able to picture themselves as a part of the synagogue.

“I really knew this could be a home for my family for a long time,” she said.

The congregation will celebrate its 70th anniversary on May 6 with a gala that will feature the political satire group the Capitol Steps, along with a dessert reception and raffle.

But it doesn’t take a party to bring the congregation together.

“Everybody truly cares about each other here,” Libbin said. “It’s more than a congregation. Maybe that’s what’s sustained Ohr Kodesh for 70 years. It’s a family.”

hmonicken@midatlanticmedia.com

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