Jewish congregation opens Clark County's first synagogue

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoJulia Rosenstein, of Vancouver, stands inside the new Kol Ami synagogue on Thursday.

(/The Columbian)

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Decades of gathering in church basements, private living rooms and rented Salmon Creek office space isn't exactly the same hardship as 40 years wandering in the ancient desert.

But it's been 40 years since a new Jewish synagogue rose in the Portland-Vancouver area, and the timing wasn't entirely lost on Congregation Kol Ami, Clark County's Reform Jewish congregation, which unveiled its new home in the Glenwood area on Thursday. Hundreds of local Jews and their friends and well-wishers, including elected officials and representatives from area Catholic, Protestant and Muslim congregations, turned out for celebration and ceremony.

"Excitement. Relief. All kinds of emotions," said Steve Horenstein, a local attorney and spokesman for the congregation. "It has been a labor of love for so many of us."

Southwest Washington's first synagogue sits on an eight-acre parcel at 7800 N.E. 119th St. Its 200-seat sanctuary boasts a fantastic view of Mount St. Helens (which was obscured Thursday by smoke from fires in the Columbia River Gorge), a 400-seat social hall, a six-classroom religious school, a four-office administrative center and a landscaped courtyard entryway. An organic garden to help stock local food banks is planned, too.

The building architect was Richard Brown of Portland and the construction manager was Roberston & Olson Construction of Vancouver. Construction took just over one year and followed modern energy-efficient techniques to be certified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building. Congregation Kol Ami moved in about a month ago.

"This is a very special day for the community," said Camas philanthropist David Nierenberg, who underwrote $6 million of the $9 million project. The remaining $3 million was pledged by the congregation. Horenstein pointed out that even after Nierenberg came aboard, he insisted on staying anonymous for most of the project — because he didn't want to become a distraction while fundraising continued.

At the Thursday event, Nierenberg had his say. He stepped up to the microphone wearing white robes and a tall yarmulke, and outlined a lineage of rabbis and rabbis' wives that extends all the way from Germany circa 1700 to his involvement with Kol Ami today. The nine generations he described included "radicals" who helped found the modern Jewish Reform movement, he said — including those who seceded from their Richmond, Va., congregation in 1866 because they believed men and women should be able to sit together during prayers; "radicals" like his own father, Ted, who helped govern a Jewish congregation in New Rochelle, N.Y., that was split down the middle during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Tradition or toleration? "Dad was on the side of the angels," Nierenberg was glad to report.

Nierenberg confessed that he was not heavily involved with Congregation Kol Ami before the building project came along -- but when it did, he realized he had to dig deep.

"I just decided that the eternal light is not going to burn out on my watch," he said. He now has faith that there will be at least nine more generations of Jews growing up and keeping the light alive at Kol Ami, he said.

Kol Ami, which means "voice of my people," includes about 125 local families. It started out in 1989 as the Jewish Community Association of Southwest Washington, meeting in private homes and borrowed spaces. Its official home has long been a Salmon Creek business park — until Aug. 19, when a ceremonial procession of approximately 100 members walked the group's Torah scrolls 4.9 miles, through the streets of Clark County, to the new synagogue in the Glenwood area. That's more or less the center of populated Clark County — making the location central enough to be inconvenient for most members, the joke has gone around.

Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker welcomed the "various and wonderful kinds of clergy" who were attending. She thanked Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg, from the Chabad Jewish Center of Clark County — that's Clark County's Orthodox (more conservative) Jewish congregation — for attending the festivities. In some places, she said, Orthodox and Reform rabbis would not be friendly.

"Not every synagogue in this world has this kind of ecumenical support," she said. "It is huge and wonderful to have you here."

She pointed out that Congregation Kol Ami, which has long borrowed space from the First Congregational Church in Hazel Dell, has built enough extra space into its new building to offer the same sort of hospitality to other, smaller congregations and groups.

Dunsker closed the ceremony by reprising the Biblical groundbreaking that the group shared a year ago: the passage about Jacob and his ladder to heaven.

"Surely God is in this place," she read. "This is none other than the house of God."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.