For the small Jewish community of the Westminster area, Westminster Adat Chaverim has been a warm home of religious support for 15 years. Barry and Laura Steinberg, a couple in their 70s who founded the congregation, have been at the center of it as lay leaders and homemakers.
But between the time required of their roles and the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the couple recently decided it was time to step away from their roles and close the book on Westminster.
Now, congregants are saying goodbye to the synagogue.
In mid-June, the Steinbergs sent out an email to announce the closure. Members reached out to thank the couple and wish them luck.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” said one congregant, Chris Lillibridge, 47, of Finksburg. “At the same time, I understand that it is quite a task to organize and maintain and go through the daily functions of the synagogue and preparing services. I definitely understand why they’d want to take a break. At the same time, I know we’ll never have something like that again.”
The Synagogue’s Story
The congregation got its start in 2005, when the Steinbergs asked Carroll Lutheran Village Chapel to allow them to host High Holiday services. Ever since the couple settled in rural Pennsylvania, they had craved a way to connect to their Judaism.
“Services were important to us,” Barry Steinberg said. The Steinbergs had never lived in an area with a large Jewish population. “We’re country people, not big city folk,” he explained. Still, Jewish services were essential for them. Barry Steinberg also spent his free time reading prayer books and other literature to feel connected.
Westminster Adat Chaverim’s services attracted participants from throughout five different counties, who drove in from as far away as Pennsylvania or Montgomery County. Around 20 members gathered there twice a month for Shabbat, every second and fourth Friday evening.
Laura Steinberg always prepared refreshments for after services for the family-like congregation.
The community was most lively during holidays. During Sukkot, a member of the congregation would build a sukkah, and they’d all go to their house. For the High Holidays, Westminster partnered with Eldersberg Jewish Congregation, about half an hour away, for services, bringing about 90 people together. In return, Eldersberg lent Westminster its extra Torah for bar and bat mitzvah use.
“We did have seder at the Carroll Lutheran facilities, which only fit around 30, but as many as 40 people would show up,” said Barry Steinberg. Passover was a big deal, as they had to do most of the cooking and travel with fresh food.
But for Laura Steinberg and other members to cook the kiddish refreshments for everyone ahead of time was tiring. “I’m in my upper 70s, and I won’t talk about my wife’s age, but she’s close to my age,” said Barry Steinberg. “My wife worked her tail off. But it was a labor of love.”
Running the congregation also meant the couple didn’t have as much time to spend with their sons and grandchildren, who live out of state. “We didn’t get a chance to see them very often,” Steinberg said. “We made a commitment to the synagogue, so we worked our visits around the synagogue.”
They planned to make these upcoming High Holidays the congregation’s last, but the pandemic got in the way.
“Given [the location] would be a nursing home, and folks are at risk for COVID-19, it makes things very difficult and dangerous,” Steinberg said. “Combined with the first two reasons, we decided we couldn’t do High Holidays for our last services.”
Memories of Westminster
While it was difficult, the effort was what made Westminster so appealing.
“We were informal, we didn’t have a dress code, we welcomed everyone,” Barry Steinberg said.
Some members were Christian or interfaith couples, so Steinberg would explain the prayers during services. “I did the services as if I was sitting in the congregation,” he said.
Lillibridge joined 12 years ago when she was looking for a small synagogue that would welcome her Catholic husband and Jewish daughter.
“Barry and Laura were very genuine,” Lillibridge said. “We definitely got a warm feeling from the first service we attended. I did like the fact that it was small and not overwhelming, because you did make relationships with the congregants. As we were going through the years, Barry gave my daughter bat mitzvah lessons. We became close with them, and we became friendly with the other congregants who are our lifelong friends now.”
Mike Rosner of Westminster, 60, said his favorite memories as a congregant were of last year’s High Holiday services, which he attended with his son, his son’s girlfriend, and his granddaughter. He, like many other congregants, said that the Steinbergs are extremely welcoming. For Rosner, that special touch of sincerity made Westminster reminiscent of his own childhood in Pittsburgh. “They’d ask about my kids often, and about my grandchild, Violet. We’d share photos. It was nice.”
“A few years ago I built the sukkah and people came and we shared a potluck,” reminisced Jerry Diamond, 69, of Westminster. “We’d do a little service but it was really more social.”
He also will miss the special role he played. “One of my tasks was to blow the shofar because I had one from Jerusalem. It was fun for me but it was nerve-racking,” he laughed.
The congregation was also sometimes joined by students staying with the Steinbergs. “Once the kids flew the nest, we’d welcome German exchange students for the school year. Without exception they all enjoyed going to our services,” said Barry Steinberg. “We had a Muslim girl from Germany who was wonderful and enjoyed the services.”
Some of his favorite memories include the b’nai mitzvahs they held, especially the one for his own grandson. Steinberg did the tutoring. Most came from Sykesville and Eldersberg for tutoring, he said, or he would go to them.
“For the most part, these folks would not have been able to belong to a synagogue were we not in the middle of this area,” noted Steinberg.
The Next Chapter
Diamond values having the community rather than a location for services, and is unsure whether he will join another synagogue.
Rosner plans to attend Adat Chaim in Owings Mills to find another small congregation atmosphere. “I cannot express how much the work they did as a couple went so far. It’ll be hard to find something like it,” he said.
The Steinbergs plan to donate Westminster’s books to a synagogue who could use the Conservative texts (they weren’t affiliated officially but used the movement’s books). There won’t be any future services, but Laura Steinberg is planning a final social and potluck for members to watch “The Catcher was a Spy.”
The Steinbergs are also looking for a new synagogue.
“We feel bad because we’re leaving 30 families without a synagogue, but the other thing is we feel that it’s more than enough time that we see our families more than we had been doing,” Barry Steinberg said. “We feel good about that.”