We've Come a Long Way by Joe Dalis

40th Anniversary Essays

When Fay and I came to Greenbelt in late March, 1942, one of the first ideas we had was to meet other Jewish families.  We were advised that the Greenbelt Hebrew Congregation usually met Friday nights in a basement room of the Greenbelt Center School.  From the first time we attended services, there was a feeling of friendliness and togetherness that exists to this very day.

Even like many present-day newcomers, it wasn't long before I found myself an elected officer of the congregation.  During the war, this area had a very high transient population.  Consequently, when our president transferred from Greenbelt, I took over from my position as vice-president.

About this time, some of us wondered why we couldn't hold laymen conducted High Holiday services.  Mort Chwalow consented to officiate at these services, and Harry Fleisher offered to train and conduct a mixed choir.  But what would all this be without the shofar?  Since no one volunteered, you guessed it - I offered to learn the art of shofar blowing.

Oh boy, do I remember that first High Holiday service.  If any Bar or Bat Mitzvah thinks he or she ever had butterflies - well, was I surprised that those in my tummy didn't carry me up, up and away!!  Many of us had our parents here for the holidays.  Remember, in those days we were the younger generation raising families.  All went well, and from the pleased looks on the faces of many visitors, I decided to continue shofar blowing in the future.  They told me that this part of the service was unexpected.  In 1961, 1 coached Alan Levine who became our shofar blower for several years.  Depending on the available facility, our services shifted back and forth from the movie house to the school auditorium or the community church.

When the Tredwell family donated our first Torah, it was brought back from Philadelphia.  Bill Tredwell drove the car, while Ben Rosenzweig held the Torah on his lap all the way back.  Since our home was kosher, we had the honor of retaining the Torah until Norm Granims built a portable ark.  You'll recall that a portable Ark was used in our early Jewish history until the Temple was built in Jerusalem.  When Rabbi Morris Sandhaus moved to Greenbelt, he conducted Friday night services.  He also represented our congregation at various functions for several years before he moved from town.

Learning a Trade

In due course of time the thoughts of the congregation turned towards building a synagogue.  Because of my architectural background I was asked to join a newly formed building committee.  After many meetings we approved the building plans of a professor of architecture at Howard University.  Needless to say, funds were not sufficient to put up a synagogue.  Through the efforts of several active members, an unexpected miracle happened.  Many contractors donated various types of building materials.  Then came the back-breaking work of erecting our building, as members learned different building trades the hard way - through trial and error.  Unexpected help came from the community as word spread about the efforts of do-it-yourselfers to erect a synagogue.  So in their spare time Catholics, Protestants and others sweated alongside our members, all working to build a House of God.  At long last, their labors were rewarded when our synagogue was dedicated on March 20, 1955, with appropriate ceremonies.  Previously I had been asked to design a permanent ark.  My original design was considered too long, taking up too much wall space.  The redesign took very little space, as the doors when opened slid on tracks into the slanted side walls.

Rabbi Morris Gordon soon came to our aid.  He conducted Friday night services as well as Bar Mitzvahs.  He also represented us whenever the community requested the presence of a rabbi, such as Decoration Day and Fourth of July. Also, Rabbi Gordon was present during Brotherhood Week and Thanksgiving Day services for several years.  This service alternated yearly between the synagogue and the Community and Methodist churches.  He often urged us to think in terms of a full-time rabbi.  This culminated in our hiring of Rabbi Weisenberg.

During Rabbi Gordon's stay with us I served as Religious Committee chairman for several years.  During this time, Cantor Sholom Pomrenze conducted High Holiday Services.  I assisted with some chanting and shofar blowing.  I still get a thrill when recalling the honor of chanting Kol Nidre.  When Rabbi Weisenberg came, Cantor Pomeranze's services (as well as mine) were no longer required.

Early in 1967, Marlene Mollerick learned that a British synagogue had custody of twelve hundred Torahs from Czechoslovakia.  These had been saved by British troops from Nazi destruction, and they were available on permanent loan to worthy synagogues.  Marlene promptly applied for a Torah on our behalf.  She was advised that ours was indeed considered to be a worthy synagogue.  So, thanks to Marlene and Ralph, who also paid postage and all the fees, we were getting a preserved Torah on permanent loan.  About this time, I was asked to redesign the ark, hopefully in time to house the awaited Torah.  Luckily the workmen met the deadline.  The present ark is the result of their efforts. Rabbi Gordon had been invited to speak at the ceremonial acceptance of the Torah.  However, that day he must have had a hunch about the forthcoming Six Day War.  He made such an emotional speech on behalf of Israel that his audience was moved to tears.  The sum of $14,000 was raised that day.  A short time later, the Jewish Week cited the small Greenbelt community that had so quickly raised $14,000 for Israel bonds.  Donald Weisman was hired as our cantor in 1969.  It was with great satisfaction that Fay and I recently saw him accept his well-deserved plaque, an honor long overdue.  As we watched, I couldn't help but appreciate how far our congregation had come since our earlier efforts of long ago.