Congregation Kol Ami preparing to build Southwest Washington’s first synagogue

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter





Groundbreaking: 6 p.m. Aug. 29.

Where: 7800 N.E. 119th St.

Still home for now: 1006-B N.E. 146th St.

Regular services: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. Saturdays.

Contact: 360-896-8088.

On the web: http://www.jewish...

Cheryl Richards was surprised to learn that a demographic survey conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland found approximately 3,000 households with at least one Jewish person in Clark County.

That’s more than she expected, and good news for Clark County’s sole reform Jewish group, Congregation Kol Ami, which is looking forward to growth.

The congregation is getting ready to build the first synagogue in Southwest Washington. Kol Ami has 125 member families. Richards, the congregation president, said it needs 150 to 160 member families to support the building and the rich programming the group wants to offer.

After three years of fundraising — and receiving a mammoth $6 million gift from an anonymous donor — Richards said construction is ready to begin. Groundbreaking on the $8 million, 17,600-square-foot building at 7800 N.E. 119th St. is set for 6 p.m. Aug. 29.

“If we wait, it’s only going to grow more expensive,” she said. If all goes according to plan, construction will take eight months, she said. Site preparations are already under way to rebuild a driveway that’ll be shared by Congregation Kol Ami and its next door neighbor, Glenwood Community Church.

“We have our services and holidays at different times, so we can share parking,” Richards said.

Congregation Kol Ami is based in leased offices and meeting space at an industrial park in Salmon Creek, with larger family functions and High Holy Days services offered at the First Congregational Church in Hazel Dell.

The group’s members are almost evenly distributed among the county’s 10 zip codes, Richards said, so the new Glenwood-area location will be “equally inconvenient for all of us.”

Even without trying, she said, Congregation Kol Ami attracts about 10 new families per year — and it does aim to market its new location and extensive offerings. Sunday school, Hebrew school, teen and adult groups of all sorts, routine services and more keep the Salmon Creek offices busy all week long, she said, and that should increase when Kol Ami owns its own home.

“There are still companies moving here,” she said, “and people are arriving with their families and wanting to know about Jewish services and communities in the area. They’ll be excited to know they don’t have to drive an hour and 15 minutes into Portland.”

The single-story building will house a sanctuary that seats 200 people and an adjoining social hall that can seat 200 for dinner, or hold as many as 400 for special events; a library, foyer and four administrative offices; and six classrooms. The builder is Robertson and Olson Construction of Vancouver; the architect is Richard Brown of Portland.

Richards said she was born in Brooklyn, New York — “the other Jewish homeland,” she quipped — but grew up in the Midwest, where there were only two things she didn’t like: summer and winter. She first visited Clark County in the late 1960s and immediately fell in love, she said.

“It smelled like home,” she said.

She was aware of Jewish families playing an important role in the community — local names like Horenstein and Koplan — but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that those people came together to form the Jewish Community Association of Southwest Washington. That’s what eventually became Congregation Kol Ami.

“We were in a church basement. Then we hired our first rabbi, and moved into a better church basement,” Richards said. The group has been consigned to church basements for so long that when Kol Ami members were doing their “visioning” for the future building, Richards voted for no basement at all. “Basements are depressing,” she said.

The new building has a basement, but it’s limited to physical plant needs only; there’ll be no more underground gatherings at Kol Ami, Richards said with satisfaction.

“The First Congregational Church has been an amazing partner through years of growth,” she added. “We can’t say enough about them.”

Accepting the anonymous $6 million gift and deciding to press ahead with construction was a daunting decision, Richards said, because it means a commitment to growth. Many modern Jews are satisfied not joining up, she noted.

“We don’t need all this, but we like it,” she said. “Judaism is a portable, do-it-yourself religion. We had temples and we had the destruction of the temples, which we’re going to remember next week,” she said, referring to the holiday of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people — particularly the destruction of the Two Temples. Tisha B’Av is observed this year from sunset on Aug. 8 to sunset Aug. 9.

“After that, we were wandering around in the desert. That’s part of our heritage. We are more home-based. But people still want to come out Friday night and gather together,” she said.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or