A late 1950's Article by one of our founders, Dr. Lee Spetner.
A History of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah
Genesis of a Washington Synagogue
Greater Washington, with the nation's capital at its center, is unique among American metropolitan areas in several ways. The government is the chief and practically only major industry, and as a consequence the proportion of professionals, i.e. lawyers, engineers, scientists, etc., is unusually high. Very few Washingtonians are "natives," practically everyone having his "home town" elsewhere. This results in a partially transient population but also creates a greater feeling of mutual dependence and makes Washington a particularly effective "melting pot" area.
These factors are, if anything, intensified among the Jewish population. Here the proportion of professionals, particularly among the more recent arrivals, is unusually high, with the result that in many new areas the traditional financial backbone of the Jewish community, the businessman, is scarcely found at all. In the present configuration of the American Jewish community, the impact of these conditions on the formation of an Orthodox synagogue is especially striking.
On the negative side, because new synagogues or community centers must now have a very broad financial base, with hundreds of member families, the compromise which frequently occurs results in, at the very least, a "right wing Conservative" congregation. On the positive side, if the young professionals who would be the backbone of any new synagogue in the Washington area are determined to build it in the spirit of Torah-true Judaism, they have the G-d-given opportunity to make it something unique on the American scene. They are orthodox Jews by complete conviction, having tasted and even excelled in secular learning and scientific endeavor and emerged with their faith, if anything, stronger than ever. They have seen the failures of the old city shul, particularly with young people, and are determined not to repeat its mistakes. If, as in Washington, a larger than usual proportion are scientists and engineers, they teach by example that in the "Space Age" one can be at the same time a fervent Torah-true Jew and a capable, or in fact an outstanding, scientist. This circumstance, when coupled with the sincerity indispensable to such an undertaking, attracts to them people whose souls still have the true Jewish spark, whether they have been "Shomrei Torah U'mitzvoth" in the past or not. The influence of these factors, both human and environmental, on the forging of a new synagogue is well illustrated, we believe, by the history of Washington, D.C.'s Congregation Shomrai Emunah.
Our story begins in 1951 when Riggs Park, a section in the northeast portion of Washington, D.C. was just beginning to be developed with semi-detached brick homes, which were priced to attract middle-income families. That the new home owners attracted there from apartments in all parts of Washington were predominantly young families with small children is not surprising. But for some unfathomable reason, perhaps discoverable by anthropologists of a later generation, the overwhelming majority of these families were Jewish. This is all the more surprising in view of the fact that Riggs Park turned out to be the first such "Jewish section" in Washington's modern history.
Since no synagogue existed in the area, a movement soon arose to organize one, though the various organizers were in many respects inspired by markedly differing motives. As in so many other communities, those who were actively interested comprised only a very small portion of the total Jewish population; it was an unemployed non-orthodox clergyman in search of a position who initiated the first organizational meeting. The question of motivation very soon caused a split in the fledgling congregation along the now all too familiar lines of Torah-true Judaism vs. "community centerites," focusing sharply on the question of mixed seating. Although among the active workers the two ideologies had about equal numbers of adherents, the mixed seating proponents kept hammering away at the issue and by what can only be called a rabble-rousing technique, finally secured the necessary majority. As a result the orthodox elements withdrew and organized Congregation Shomrai Emunah.
The founding group of this new congregation was by no means itself homogeneous. The ideological core consisted of a dedicated group of scientists and engineers whose earnestness attracted many other professionals, not all of whom were strictly observant Jews. All felt, however, that the only type of synagogue which made sense was an orthodox one. There were also a number of regular shul-going Jews, some old, some younger, who were naturally attracted to Shomrai Emunah and have helped considerably in its maintenance. As time went on the basic nature of the membership remained about the same, although the total has increased quite considerably.
Before the splitting of the original nascent congregation, and while the controversy of mixed versus separate seating was raging, the orthodox faction had proceeded to establish a Shabbos minyon in private homes on a rotating basis. Bookcases seemed to be the style for the mechitzah. It was quietly arranged that the services should always be held in the home of one of the orthodox, pending establishment of a synagogue.
After the organization of Congregation Shomrai Emunah the Shabbos minyon continued for a time to be held in private homes. Then in a series of ascending steps which took five years to complete, it was successively moved to an old V.F.W. clubhouse, to an apartment project basement, to a condemned house awaiting demolition, to a Masonic building, and finally into its own newly constructed edifice. Among the many vicissitudes encountered during these "Goliyos" was a rather spectacular fire in an oil stove used to heat the condemned building mentioned above. This occurred just before minchah on an erev Shabbos and necessitated davening in the open air. It is worthy to mention that our Hebrew School, like the Shechinah perhaps, followed us from "Golus" to "Golus".
A few words should be said about the nature of the Shabbos services in Shomrai Emunah in those early days. In order to demonstrate to the community that services could be both orthodox and understandable at the same time, several of the members would take turns reviewing the sedrah in English and interpreting various prayers.
It was certainly on inspiration to all to hear the 19th chapter of Tehillim, Hashomayim M'saprim Kevod Kel, profoundly interpreted by an outstanding nuclear physicist or to have the ethical code of "Kedoshim" applied to "modern" lives by a senior staff member of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. And we dare say that few will ever forget how the intricacies of the "Molod" and "Kiddush Hachodesh" were put into understandable terms by one of the U.S. Navy's mathematical physicists with the aid of orange and grapefruit models. These explanations were, it should be pointed out, in the nature of experiments and were in the main successful in attracting to the services many who had rarely attended a shool since childhood.
From the beginning, Shomrai Emunah literally catered to the children and being in a young community, children often outnumbered adults at services. The children had a "cola and cookie" Kiddush every Shabbos with a chazan, usually age 3 or 4, leading the berochoth; they "took over the services" from the singing of "Eyn Kelokeynu" to "Adon Olam". A unique innovation was the chanting of the Shema with "trop". Within a few weeks, children who could not yet read, knew not only the words by heart but the cantillations as well!
Even before Shomrai Emunah was officially organized, a unique shiur was instituted in the area. Although led by Musmochim who were also scientists, the majority of the active participants were scientists and engineers many of whom had never had the advantages of a yeshivah education. As a result, they brought to the study of Gemora not the traditional Talmudic logic, but that of mathematics and science. Not a whit less devout in their learning nor any the less interested in resolving a difficult "inyon", they nevertheless thought in terms of equations and mathematical models rather than in those of "pilpul". As a result, although learning Maseches Shabbos in this way at first disconcerted those used to traditional shiur, it proved to be peculiarly attractive to those of a scientific turn of mind and opened to them new vistas on the "Sea of Talmud".
This Shiur eventually became a part of the permanent program of Shomrai Emunah, and today attracts many from other parts of the Washington area as well as the congregation's own members. In addition there has recently been instituted in Shomrai Emunah, along with its regular adult education classes, a weekly Talmud Night. At that time, those who are able to learn come and learn in the Beis Hamedrash. For beginners, the Rabbi teaches a first-course in Gemora, lecturing on Bava Metziah.
The formation of a young orthodox synagogue in the Washington area stimulated not only its organizers but the Washington Rabbinate as well. The leaders of the local Vaad HaRabbonim were extremely helpful and actively aided in obtaining a donation of land for the synagogue. Rabbi Abraham Kellner, then executive director of the Washington Hebrew Academy, agreed to serve as part-time rabbi of Shomrai Emunah and was greatly instrumental in stimulating its growth spiritually, numerically, and financially.
Raising money for the new building was, as expected, a difficult task. The idealistic spirit that prevailed, however, was responsible for causing most of the members to pledge and to pay sums of from $360 to $500. It should be understood that these sums were in addition to the few hundred dollars per year many of them were already contributing for running expenses. Approximately $15,000 in cash was raised this way, which with a $35,000 mortgage covered the cost of construction of a modest synagogue structure (at 811 University Boulevard).
In its new building, Congregation Shomrai Emunah has continued to grow and to act as a focus for Jewish life in the area. Newcomers to Washington, particularly if young professionals of a religious bent, almost invariably try to settle in its vicinity. In fact, if Shomrai Emunah did not exist many of them would probably not accept positions in the area at all. This steady influx has helped to keep alive the original spirit of its founders and this is manifest in many ways. When a full-time rabbi was engaged, a true-Talmid Chochom and scholar, Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer, a graduate of the Telshe Yeshiva, was chosen for the position, certainly a reversal of the usual suburban trend. On a recent visit to Washington by one of the authors, who had left it in 1956, he found a bio-chemist teaching Perek and a State Department linguist as the regular Baal Koreh. Another young man, who had accepted a position on the mathematics faculty of Catholic University, was arranging to live near Shomrai Emunah.
In other respects it is perhaps more difficult to determine accurately all that Shomrai Emunah has contributed to the strengthening of Torah Judaism in its locality. It has been the cause of some families starting to observe Kashruth, to others it has helped introduce Taharas Hamishpochah, while for a still larger number Shabbos observance has been greatly elevated.
In its brief history this congregation has become known from coast to coast and even abroad. Articles describing the shul have even appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle, and in the Israeli paper HaAretz. If the existence and success of Shomrai Emunah will serve as encouragement to other faithful Jews attempting to establish orthodox synagogues throughout the country, then those who worked so hard to establish this congregation in the nation's capital will feel that their efforts have had more than just local significance and that theirs is a contribution to all Israel.