The Way It Was by Ethel Rosenzweig (in Collaboration with Ben Rosenzweig)

40th Anniversary Essays    

In October, 1937, the first families moved into Greenbelt, By September, 1938, a small group of Jewish families had settled here.The quota at that time maintained the ratios of various faiths in the Washington-Baltimore area.  The total number of first families was 770.

When a member of one of our first families, Mrs.  Ethel Morganstein, went to pay her rent (the office was above what is now the Ben Franklin store), she was approached by Mrs.  Rose Alpher, Greenbelt's tenant selection officer, who asked her why the Jews did not have a congregation, when all other denominations were already organized.  At this, Ethel was very much embarrassed.  She got a list of Jewish residents from Mrs.  Alpher, and since we lived very near her, she and her husband Sam visited us to find out.  how wecould organize a Hebrew congregation.

A first meeting was called and held in their apartment on Crescent Road.  To myrecollection after forty years, the following families were present:  the Isaac Schwartzes (both now deceased), the Arthur Tretters, the Bernard Feigs, the Bernard Trattlers, the Harry Fleishers (both deceased), the Joseph Loebs, and the Ben Rosenzweigs.  At this meting it was decided to organize and call ourselves the Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation and to charge fifty cents per month dues.  You should know that at that time most of the people who chose to live in Greenbelt were earning at the most $1800 a year.  The town was designed as an experiment in low-cost garden-type housing and also to create jobs for the unemployed under President Roosevelt's WPA.  I still remember the anguished cries of the families present that they couldn't afford such high dues, until it was brought to their attention that we needed the money to get started for postage, stationery, etc.  Not knowing about elections, we chose my husband, Ben, as our first president.  To get started, we began a door-to-door campaign. At that time we had about 80 families living in the area, About 15-20 became members.  Mrs.  Alpher was instrumental in getting us our first Rabbi.  He was the late Leon Ellsberg, a Reform rabbi.  Services began in 1939 and were held every Friday night in the Center School music room.  The shamus at the time was Joe Loeb.  His job was to see that prayer books were picked up every Friday night after services and taken to his home, and brought back for the next  service.  In summer services were suspended because the school was closed.

After some years, Rabbi Ellsberg resigned and services were conducted by lay leaders.  These continued through the summer in individual homes.  We had Oneg Shabbats then without knowing it, because refreshments were served after services.

Ethel Morganstein, a school teacher, organized the first Sunday School.  There were nine children enrolled.  We were a young congregation, most of us either in our late twenties or early thirties, and we were still having babies.

The first high holiday services were held in the Fire House, which is now the repair shop of the Mobil gas station.  Services were conducted by the late Rabbi Isadore Breslau.  A Torah was borrowed from the Washington Hebrew Congregation, as well as the holiday prayer books.  Those who had tallitot wore them, as at that time we did not have anyone to contribute any or money to buy them.  Yarmulkes, somehow, the men had, either from their own Bar Mitzvahs or from having attended one.  High holiday tickets were $10 per family regardless of size.  Foliage to decorate the bima was furnished by the City of Greenbelt under the direction of Mr.  MacGregor, who was the chief landscaper of the city, supervised by Buddy Attick.

The break-the-fast after Yom Kippur services was furnished by the Sisterhood. Herring, gefilte fish, challah and wine were served, and of course, the traditional sponge and honey cakes.  We women who served in the room behind where the service was being held were amazed and shocked that the very people that went home for lunch (naughty, naughty) were the very first in line to be served, and those who stayed for the entire service for the day were lucky to find a piece of challa.

We were fortunate to have a choir that first year.  The late Harry Fleisher was the choirmaster.  Participants in the choir were Joe Dalis, the late Norman Granims, the late Lillian and Ike Schwartz, Shirley and Fay Friedman (Dora's daughters), the late Mort Chwalow and Ben Rosenzweig.  Harry played the organ and later donated it to the congregation.  It was transported by truck to the firehouse from his home through the courtesy of the City.  The music made services for the High Holidays very impressive.  After a few years, one of our members, the late Bill Tredwell, whose father belonged to a synagogue in Philadelphia, offered us the use of a Torah.  Since the Torah couldn't be carried by train (unthinkable), Bill drove to Philadelphia with Ben and several other members to pick it up.  The trip then took about five hours.  Ben held the Torah the entire trip home and the men held their breaths that he shouldn't drop it, which would have meant forty days of fasting.  Since the Torah had to be kept in a kosher home, Fay and Joe Dalis graciously offered their home to house it.  Norman Granims then built the first ark and he schlepped the ark and Torah (in a child's wagon) wherever services were being held.

In 1944 the Jewish Community Center of Prince Georges County was founded by Sam Bogan and Lou Zimmet, with the purpose to have not only religious services but also to have social and educational activities.  The Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation also had social activities but some felt it was not enough.  Four or five years later, the Women's Auxiliary was formed.  Helen Chasanow was its first president and I became recording and corresponding secretary.  Congregation dues went the usual routine, increasing from fifty cents a month to $25 a year.  More anguished cries of "We can't afford it!" Some members resigned but still we managed to gain some.  Enrollment in Sunday School increased somewhat as the babies grew to childhood and more Jewish families moved in.  Classes, which went up to fourth grade, were conducted in the Center Elementary School.  We had several young adults as teachers, and if I remember correctly, Dave Fisher taught Hebrew.

Except for Dave, the teachers were not really qualified to teach Sunday School (no guidance, no rabbi) and we never really knew whether there would be classes, since it was all done by volunteers.  Among the first teachers in the school were Shirley and Fay Friedman.

Around 1945, the Hebrew Congregation merged with the new group.  The late Rabbi Morris Sandhaus was our first Rabbi.  He was employed full time as the Jewish representative of the Veteran's Administration Chaplain Service and therefore could function as Rabbi on a part-time basis only.  He moved into town after his military service, but before his family, since his wife Eunice had just given birth to their son.  They lived near me in 4 Court of Crescent Road.  I remember the surprise of some of my neighbors when they saw a bag of diapers from the diaper service on my back porch.  They all thought I had either had a baby quietly or had adopted one.  What they didn't know was that a few years later I would really have one of my own.  Maybe the rabbi was trying to tell me something.

Rabbi Sandhaus trained four boys for Bar Mitzvah.  They were Donald Grabel, Harvey Goldstein, my son Martin, and I can't remember the fourth.  The first Bar Mitzvah to be held in Greenbelt was that of our son Martin, on February 13, 1948.  Rabbi Sandhaus officiated.  I remember that day very well.  We had had a very bad snow storm a few days before, and then the sun came out and thawed the snow partially.  But then we had a freeze and the thawed snow turned to ice. On the day of the Bar Mitzvah, it was cloudy and icy, and I had prepared a large pot of arbasen (chick peas).  Since we did not have a car in those days, I had to struggle to keep my balance with that large pot of hot arbasen on the road to the elementary school where the service was held.  The Bar Mitzvah took place in the school cafeteria.  We served the traditional kiddush (herring, fish, challa, etc.) and Helen Chasanow made a beautiful centerpiece for the table from a head of red cabbage in the shape of a rose.  The attendance was unbelievable.  Despite the icy roads and sidewalks, we had standing room only 

all the way into the hallway.  The police came to tell us that we were violating the safety code because of the number of people standing in front of the stairway.  It was really very heartwarming to see so many of our friends and members come out in that kind of inclement weather.  As a first Bar Mitzvah, it was a beautiful affair (prejudiced?).  Martin did very well considering he did not even start his Bar Mitzvah training until six months 

before, but Rabbi Sandhaus was a very strict disciplinarian and the boys really had to toe the mark.

After Rabbi Sandhaus resigned, boys received their Bar Mitzvah training from our lay scholars, Harry Zubkoff, Sam Vernoff, and Charles Danish.  Rabbi Morris Gordon also gave Bar Mitzvah training at his home when he was our part-time rabbi.  The parents of the boys were charged for their services.

It was during Rabbi Sandhaus's tenure that we had our first interfaith Thanksgiving service, with the Community Church and the Methodist Church participating.  At the beginning the Catholic Church and Lutheran Church could not participate, but of late they are active in the service.  It was and still is a beautiful way of celebrating Thanksgiving with our friends and neighbors, all participating in the worship of the one God.  Dues increased to $50 a year when we hired Rabbi Sandhaus.  More "we can't afford it," but most members realized that the Rabbi's services had to be paid for.  Although we attracted more members, the attendance at Friday night services remained poor.  It was pitiful to have the services of a dedicated Rabbi conducting prayers to a lot 

of empty chairs.  I know he appealed to the poker playing group to plan their game after the service, but it was no go.

After Rabbi Sandhaus moved to Washington, D.C.  so that his son could attend the Hebrew Academy, we were again left without the services of a rabbi.  One of the rabbis that came to us on a trial basis was a bachelor.  Rabbi Zahn used to make a habit of calling on some of our kosher Sisterhood members around dinner time so that he would be invited to stay, or he would drop in on Sunday with his laundry for them to do, After a few months we graciously retired him and it was decided that we would try to hire no more bachelor rabbis, if we could help it.  Rabbi Zahn had come to us under unusual circumstances.  He filled the position for which his brother had applied.

Rabbi Waldman then followed.  At his first High Holiday services he asked Ben to read the "goyish" (English) while he read the Hebrew, so that the Congregation could participate.  After two or three years he left the area to retire.

One of our lay members, Charles Danish, took over the conducting of the Friday night services, and Sam Vernoff became principal of the Sunday and Hebrew school.  Membership, attendance at services, and school enrollment increased because of the increase of Jewish families in town during the war years.  I became registrar of the school and my job was to keep track of the enrollment (nearly 200 students), which was becoming overcrowded and going on double shifts.

Sometime between 1949 and 1950, we had an Army captain conduct the Friday night services.  He would come to Greenbelt one Friday and we would car-pool to Fort Meade the next.  The army really knew how to put on a spread for an Oneg Shabbat.  (I think that this was the first time I ever heard of Oneg Shabbat and its meaning.) They, being the military, served bagels, lox, cream cheese, and delicious Danish pastry.  After six months or so the captain was transferred and we had to look again to our lay leaders for services.  In 1955 Rabbi Morris Gordon became our part-time rabbi, and we started to have services on Saturday mornings as well as Friday nights.  High Holiday services were conducted by Sholem Pomrenze, a cantor and a colonel in the U.S.  Air Reserve, for a few years.  The ground for the new building was broken in 1952, but it wasn't until 1955 that it was finished.  Somewhere between 1949 and 1950 we were very fortunate to obtain the services of an architect.  Although his name escapes me, he was the Dean of Architecture of Howard University.  His only request for a fee was for $500 which represented out-of- pocket expenses.  To erect the building, the men worked seven days a week and gave up their vacations away from home.  They worked evenings by car headlights and hand flashlights when it got too dark to see.  Their wives became "shul widows." Ben with our two sons, Martin and Richard, worked on the building along with the other amateurs.  Contributions by the Gudelskys (Colonial Sand and Gravel) made it possible to go forward.  A contribution from Gichner's Iron Works did much for the interior of the building, especially the wall behind the bima which sets off the ark today and continues down the entire right side in stone. 

Another member of the Gichner family supplied us with bricks until his plant burned down.  Among the workers on the building were Jack Ratzkin, Sam Schwimer, Jack Sanders, Ben Herman, Elliott Bukzin, and Nat Shinderman (our own Fiddler on the Roof).  Working on the chimney got Nat closer to heaven than any of the rest of us.  I remember the men telling the story of how Jack Ratzkin was working on the roof and someone needed the ladder, leaving him stranded and perplexed as to how he was to get down.  He was so far up that no one heard or saw him.  Finally, after a while, some one saw his predicament and managed to get the ladder for him.

The men had many experiences with the building One of the workers, Milton Brandon, was so busy working on a wall that he did not realize that it was beginning to look like the "leaning tower of Pisa" until Nat Shinderman took one look and made him break it down.  Hy Gerson, who did the original electrical wiring, is still on call to redo the wiring when we run new lines around the building.  A lot of the spirit that pervades our building is due to the fact that the late Terry (Eric T.) Braund, pastor of the Community Church, and the late Frank Lastner, City Mayor and Councilman and a member of St. Hugh's Catholic Church, labored with us to erect an edifice for Kiddush HaShem (the sanctification of the Holy Name).

They were really a great group of dedicated men to work so hard and long at this huge project.  The women also were a dedicated group, furnishing cold drinks to the men during the summer months and hot drinks during the cold weather.  Our Co-op store at times during the summer had one of their members, Carnie Harper, serving coffee to the men.  After three years of effort, the shell of the building was almost complete.  The membership became impatient with the slow progress and authorized borrowing money from the local bank to finish the job.  The newly formed June Construction Company completed the job for the sum of approximately $14,000.  Ben Goldfaden and George Panagoulis were the individuals directly involved.

Before our building was constructed Norman Granims used to schlep the ark and Torah to wherever services were being held.  He was instrumental in putting up the building.  Then he became our perennial and peripatetic shamus who took care of everything from the roof leaking, ground seepage behind the building, maintenance, groundskeeping, the Rabbi's house, to "who left the lights on and the door unlocked this time." He thus aggravated his loving wife Nettie, who became a "shul widow" where another would be a "golf widow." Nettie herself kept the Sisterhood supplied with aprons for sale and was the hardest working gal in the kitchen.  Norman Granims will always be remembered for his loyal dedication and his great love for Mishkan Torah.  We who knew him loved him for the kind and sincere person he was and knew we had a friend to help us when we needed him.  Even when he and Nettie moved to Florida, we were tempted many times to pay his way back to help us solve our building problems.  But we had to learn to stand on our own feet.

To help raise funds, the late Harry Weidberg put the arm on Sam Eig, and Moe Hoffman approached Phil Lustine to contribute.  The latter provided a cover for the ark and flowers on the bimah on the High Holidays in memory of his parents.  The building was dedicated March 20, 1955.  As usual Ben was president (strictly for the koved), the keynote speaker was Judge Milton Kronheim.  The Greenbelt Choral Society, which had been formed in 1954, performed.  Synagogue members of this group included Nettie and Norman Granims, Fay and Joe Dalis, Ethel Gerring, Esther Gerson, Si Justman, Claire Kaufman, Lillian Greenbaum, Bernie Krug, Janet Parker, Adelaide Weidberg, Helen Oring, Lucille Ackerman, Sarah Gelberg and Manny Dondy.

In 1960 or 1961, the Central Prince Georges Community Center of Cheverly merged with our congregation after extended negotiations.  Robert Garin was the president at that time.  Among the leadership added were the late Cantor Harry Klion; our devoted religious chairman, the late Abe Schwartz; the Larry Wallachs; the Abe Saunders; the Klein family; and the Shapiros, among others whom I can recall.

Among the firsts that were held in the new building: 

First wedding: Barbara Karpman, daughter of the Granims 

First Bar Mitzvah: Russ Pollock, son of Ben Pollock

First Bat Mitzvah: Ruth Wagner, daughter of Evelyn Wagner

First affair to be catered: Jeffrey Horlick's Bar Mitzvah 

First catering chairperson: Ethel Rosenzweig (the charge was $15) 

First Boy Scout and only Scout of the synagogue to win the coveted Ner Tamid award: Alan Levine, son of Seymour

 Important dates that followed: 

1966-73: Rabbi Maurice Weisenberg, first full-time rabbi 

1968:    Name change from Prince Georges JCC to Mishkan Torah 

1969:    Ground broken for Karp Family Hebrew School (Ben was again president) 

1971:    Dedication of the new Hebrew School 

1974:    Rabbi Kenneth Berger hired 

1978:    Dedication of new library

At one time we almost had the building sold out from under us.  Abe Chasanow, one of our members, was in Upper Marlboro on business of his own when he decided to look in on an auction of real estate properties.  Whoever was responsible at that time had not put in for the tax exemption for synagogues and the building was put up for auction by the county.  Abe was just horrified when a man successfully bid for it.  He persuaded the man not to buy it because it was a church building.  How lucky we were that Abe was there at the right time and the right place!  You may rest assured that we were mighty careful not to repeat that kind of incident.

Diane Kritt, God bless her, asked me to contribute this article for HaKol.  Little did I realize what I was in for.  I expected to write a few paragraphs, but as I started writing the outline, I remembered little details that some of our members did not know or had forgotten.  Therefore, if I have omitted mentioning some person or detail, please forgive me, as I did try to phone some of our long-time members and interview others to search their memories, so somewhere along the line I may have unintentionally overlooked some other important people.

I hope our members enjoy reading this article as much as I have enjoyed sharing the past, and God willing, we should all be well and look to the future of Mishkan Torah.  Perhaps some one else will write the history of the next forty years.  To all our hard-working people I say again "Yasher Koach."