CJC in the Beginning

by Pearl Laufer

Long before the coronavirus hit us, I had signed up to write a blog – to be ready in May ‘20 – on the very earliest days of CJC, starting at the very beginning in late 1969. I began by making a list of people I wanted to interview, people who were present at the creation of CJC and others, like our family, who joined a bit later. Then, the virus hit and I set aside my project-and forgot about the blog.

Having just been reminded of the due date, I will start with some of what I have gleaned so far – with the expectation that I will continue this project as I get to talk to more people on my list. If you are someone who would like to share memories, please feel free to contact me. I’m interested in gleaning memories, highlights and experiences that made CJC special for you.

In the beginning, before Columbia became a reality, there were a few Jewish families living in Howard County – among them Sigi and Edith Rowe and Marty and Harriet Chaitovitz. Jim Rouse approached Sigi Rowe about having an organized Jewish presence in Columbia- and the Jewish Council, comprised of 50 members, was given a small room in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

For our first Yom Kippur service as a Jewish community – there were, as yet, no congregations – a Reconstructionist rabbinical student came down from Philadelphia with two harpists and, for Kol Nidre, played a recording of the Electric Prunes singing the prayer. At the post-Yom Kippur follow-up meeting, there were people who were angry with the service. Some decided to affiliate with the Reform movement and became Temple Isaiah; others wanted to be Conservative and became Beth Shalom.

Those who did not want to affiliate, and were satisfied with the innovative service, met at the home of Gerson and Chaya Kaplan – and decided to form a kehilah, a congregation.
The founding members were: Jacques and Ruth Pessin, Shep and Helaine Jeffries, Sigi and Edith Rowe, Helen and Martin Ruther, Norma and Hank Eigles, Marty and Bobbi Fagan, David and Janet Herman, Gerson and Chaya Kaplan, and Jerry Block and his wife. As they were deciding on a name for this new, unaffiliated congregation, Shep, who had taught at Baltimore Hebrew, suggested Columbia Jewish Congregation – and the name stuck.

We owe all of our founders a big debt of gratitude for their willingness to put in the time, effort and money that goes into creating a community – which they did with vision and zeal. CJC’s first president was David Herman (z”l). He was followed by George Klein, Gerson Kaplan, Hank Eigles and Sigi Rowe (z”l).

Services were lay-conducted and, as we were innovative and unaffiliated, open to constant change to meet the needs of the congregants. Because we had no rabbi or cantor, everything was done by volunteers. Everybody owned the congregation and there was tremendous involvement. We enjoyed being unaffiliated and writing our own prayer books. (The Friday night prayer book we still use was put together by congregants.)

For the High Holidays, we had a loose leaf prayer book and we assembled it by amalgamating readings and prayers from many different sources. We opened High Holiday services to everyone, without charge, a startlingly innovative practice. I vividly remember Shep and Judy Porecki serving as volunteer cantors and I looked forward to their wonderful rendition of the Shehechiyanu every year. And, of course, Helen Ruther’s hauntingly beautiful Eli Eli. High Holiday services included small discussion groups, with adolescent group discussion led by Jessica Rowe. Our Neilah service was beloved by so many – congregants would come with readings, poems and musings they wanted to share. Sometimes, we couldn’t fit all the readings in before nightfall and the final shofar blowing, as we wanted to break our fast.

Our congregants came to CJC with different Jewish and religious backgrounds – some of us, like me, came with a yeshiva education and an orthodox background. Others had had little or no formal Jewish education and were raised in secular Jewish homes. We were all learning from each other. Our shared goal was to have participatory Judaism that we could share and pass on to our children.

Our first Bar Mitzvah was Neil Fagan, and Neil and his family are still members today. For Bnai Mitzvah, each family put together their own, personalized Bar/Bat Mitzvah book and that was the service we used for that particular Shabbat. All congregants were there, as it was a regular Shabbat morning service with the highlight being the Bar/Bar Mitzvah. I keenly remember our family working together on our children’s Bnai Mitzvah books. Each book was a precious family project – enhanced by contributions and drawings from friends in the congregation.

Amongst the many highlights and memories that congregants shared with me and which I so fondly remember are: Our first adult Bnai Mitzvah, of which I was a part. We studied Bereshit for a year in a weekly Shabbat study group. The day of the service was a wonderful milestone for all of us.

Retreats – with different themes and guided meditations
Israeli nights – always delicious and huge successes
Latke making as a congregation for Chanukah
The annual Latke-Hamantaschen debate (introduced to us by Paul Ephross, who’s been involved with them at the University of Chicago)
Fiddler on the Roof – so successful that a few of us went on to write and produce a play we
titled Tradition – using music from Fiddler with spoofy lyrics about CJC
Israeli folk dancing
CJC book club
Shabbat at the table – matching families
CJC Talent Show
And so much more.

As the congregation grew, we were more ready for a rabbinical presence and, serendipitously, Suzanne Waller read a piece in New York magazine about a Rebel Rabbi – Martin Siegel. Hank Eigles invited Martin to visit us in Columbia – and Martin recalls also being welcomed by Jim Rouse and Mal Sherman, a VP at the Rouse Company and also a CJC member. It quickly became clear that CJC and Rabbi Siegel were perfectly aligned in terms of our innovative practices and our liturgy. He was, at first, hired for half-time and, eventually, as a full time Rabbi with whom we had not a contract, but a covenant.

Martin tells a story of his early days with CJC that pretty much sums up the congregation’s ethos. He and his wife, Judith, were adopting a baby, Toby. Martin had been out that afternoon and came home to find many cars parked around and near his home. He entered the house to see many CJC members there. We were throwing a baby shower for the new baby. Martin and Judith had just joined the community and found out, very quickly, about the soul of CJC and who we are as a kehilah.