One Year After Move, Bet Chaverim Congregation Is Focusing on Community

Bet Chaverim’s Education Director Rabbi Faith Cantor demonstrates blowing the shofar for students. (Sam Reid)

On Sept. 18, 2022, Bet Chaverim Congregation dedicated its new building in a Columbia office park. The ceremony put an end to the synagogue’s long search for a new location, which had been stymied due to health-related restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been a number of changes for Bet Chaverim since, especially as the synagogue celebrates it 10th anniversary in 2023.

While the pandemic was initially a challenge for Bet Chaverim, its clergy and board have learned from it, and it has influenced their direction going forward. Since moving into the new building, the synagogue has implemented online streaming into its programming in hopes of making it more accessible for those who may not be able to attend in-person services and events.

“One thing we learned from the pandemic was how powerful of a tool online streaming is,” said Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, Bet Chaverim’s rabbi. “And so we’re able to livestream and offer that accommodation to people, which is something not many shuls at all were doing beforehand. We try to livestream all of our events now.”

Heiligman joining Bet Chaverim has been another change for the synagogue. A well-known rabbi in the Howard County area, she came out of retirement during the summer to become Bet Chaverim’s spiritual leader when the previous rabbi, Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, stepped down to spend more time with her family.

“For me, coming to Bet Chaverim was really very exciting,” she said. “I’ve been in the Howard County [Jewish] community for 22 years. I retired five years ago and did not expect to be back on the pulpit, but here I am. Life is full of surprises.”

Heiligman’s introduction, along with the move, has attracted new congregants to Bet Chaverim.

“We’ve seen some significant activity in terms of new congregants coming in,” said Ben Zingman, Bet Chaverim’s secretary and chair of communications. “Having a rabbi who’s well-known in the area and people who are looking for a place to be in a religious community has helped a lot. We’re an older congregation in terms of membership, so it’s exciting to see new people arriving.”

One major focus for the synagogue over the past year has been bringing its community of longtime congregants and ones who joined after the move to the new location together. Friendship and community are central tenets of Bet Chaverim’s mission. The synagogue’s name even means “House of Friends,” and it was first founded in 2013 to provide a more intimate Conservative space for its over 50 founding families.

“Our history is a labor of love,” said Marty Leshin, Bet Chaverim’s former president. “We started out as friends and we continue to be friends, hence the name of the congregation.”

In addition, Bet Chaverim is planning a celebration for its 10th anniversary, as well as smaller social events.

Zingman noted that the congregation holds dinners at congregants’ houses to have social events in a more intimate setting.

“We’re working on social events that will bring us together for reasons other than services or school,” Heiligman said.

That dedication to fostering close community relationships is what has been keeping Bet Chaverim running for the past 10 years.

“Any organization that persists for a period of time, it’s about people. It’s about your interactions and relationships with people,” Leshin said.

That valuing of relationships is something that the staff, board and chairs want congregants to feel, whether they are new or have been with Bet Chaverim since the beginning.

“We have a deep sense that Judaism enhances our inner lives and our values, and it strengthens our relationships with each other and with the wider Jewish community. Being part of that community inspires us to make the world a better place while we refresh our own spirits,” Heiligman said. “It makes us better people, but it also makes us better members of the Jewish community.”

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