Ten and Thirty Years Ago by David P. Stern

40th Anniversary Essays    

Thirty years ago this month - the exact date, unfortunately, now forgotten - a group of Jewish residents formed Greenbelt's first Jewish congregation.  The city itself was less than a year and a half old at the time.  Founded as a low-cost housing project and owned by the Federal Government, Greenbelt had in those days a population of 885 families - mostly young couples - about 50 of whom were Jewish.

One of the founding fathers of the congregation was Ben Rosenzweig, our present president.  Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to call former Greenbelter Ethel Morgenstein the founding mother.  As Ben tells it, everything started one day when Ethel went to pay the rent (monthly rents ranged from $18 to $41, by the way).  The manager, who knew she was Jewish, asked her how come that, while various Christian denominations had already established churches in town, there was no Jewish congregation?

Monthly Dues of 25 Cents

Spurred to action, Ethel obtained a list of Jewish families and their addresses and went from door to door, inviting them to an organizational meeting.  They met at her home at 16 Crescent Road, and it was then and there decided to establish the "Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation." A heated debate raged for a while as to whether the monthly dues would be fixed at 25 or 50 cents; finally, the majority decided in favor of the lower figure.  Initially, there were about 30 member families in the group, and their spiritual leader was the late Rabbi Leon Ellsberg, then a young man with ambitious plans.  Regular Friday night services were held in the music room of the Center School in Greenbelt and in the social room, now the location of the school's cafeteria.  As the "Greenbelt Cooperator" - forerunner of the Greenbelt News Review - noted (23 February '39):

The Hebrew Congregation held services last Friday night at 8:30 p.m., in the music room of the Elementary School, with Mr.  Leon Ellsberg officiating.

The sermon was on the topic of the "Masks of the War Mongers" and was delivered to an attentive audience, which included Mr.  and Mrs.  Blue of the Community Church, who graciously expressed their appreciation of the quality of the service.

In addition to his regular activities, Rabbi Ellsberg - together with Rev. Robert Kincheloe of the Greenbelt Community Church and Rev.  Leo Feeley of Holy Redeemer - helped organize an interfaith council, which (among other things) initiated the practice of holding joint services for all faiths before Thanksgiving every year.  The council was also active in planning for Greenbelt a large religious center to house all faiths, side by side, It was hoped that funding would come from the Fisher family - of "Body by Fisher" - but this never materialized.

The first High Holy Day services were held in the firehouse, behind what is now the parking lot of the Consumers' Supermarket (a repair garage occupies the building at present), Rabbi Isadore Breslau - now living in Washington and still very active in Jewish affairs - officiated at the services, a choir organized by Harry Fleisher gave musical support, and the City of Greenbelt (with help from the town gardener) provided plants and decorations.  In later years, the High Holy Day services alternated between the social room of Center School and a frame building on Northway which at that time housed the Mowatt Memorial Methodist Church, with Norman Granims filling in for the Levites and transporting the ark and the Torah scroll from one place to the other.  The scroll itself was contributed through the father of congregation member Bill Treadwell and was carefully carried by some of the early members from Philadelphia to Greenbelt.

By 1943, the Greenbelt phone directory could inform its readers that The Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation holds weekly services in the Elementary School each Friday evening at 8:30 p.m.

Services are always followed by a program of social nature to give the members and their friends a chance to get together...  The Greenbelt Women's chapter of B'nai B'rith is a new Jewish organization here.  Its purpose is to supplement    the work of the Hebrew Congregation and to participate in such activities as are helpful to the Community and the War Effort.

Founding of the JCC

After the war, though, the Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation fell on hard times and, due to lack of active interest, was forced to restrict its activities.  As the "Cooperator" sadly reported (25 Jan '46)

At a special meeting of the congregation, the executive committee agreed that since there were no nominations presented either in writing or from the floor, the congregation is at present without duly elected officers, as the incumbent officers are not permitted themselves to be renominated.

Because of lack of attendance, services will be curtailed at the school and will be continued in the homes of those individuals who will retain their affiliation with the group.

As so often happens, new strength appeared from a new direction.  In November of the same year, a group of Jewish residents founded the "Jewish Community Center of Prince Georges County," dedicating themselves not only to religious observance, but also to social activity in the community.

A month later, the JCC enlisted a Rabbi of its own - Rabbi Morris A.  Sandhaus. Rabbi Sandhaus had worked for nine years with a Jewish congregation in Yonkers, N.Y.; he joined the U.S.  Army as Jewish chaplain shortly after the outbreak of war and was one of the first to touch French soil following D-Day.  At the time he joined the JCC, he had just been discharged with the rank of Major and was working for the Chaplains' Division of the Veterans Administration; shortly afterwards, he moved to Greenbelt with his family.  For a while, Greenbelt enjoyed the luxury of two Jewish congregations (a few residents belonged to both).  The 1947 phone book listed the Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation, with services in members' homes and a sisterhood to take care of the needs of the distaff side, the JCC - with regular Friday night services in the music room of Center School and a membership meeting every second Monday; and in addition, a Sunday School sponsored by the ladies of B'nai B'rith.

This situation did not last long; the Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation soon joined the JCC, turning over all its assets to the younger group.

United, the congregation prospered.  On February 13, 1943, it celebrated Greenbelt's first Bar Mitzvah - appropriately, that of Martin Rosenzweig, Ben's son.  A year later, on January 11, 1949, it took the first step towards establishing its "permanent residence" in Greenbelt and acquired from the Federal government a tract of 0.79 acres for the grand sum of $1,000.  With this purchase began the dream of a new building, to house all its activities - a dream that took two years to take shape and four more to complete.  That, however, is another story again.