A combination of hard times and vigilant optimism is the recipe for the Jewish community cocktail across the country these days. Congregation Kol Ami, Woodinville’s Reform congregation, is no exception.
The 90-member congregation has experienced an approximate 10 percent membership decline over the past few years. “Sadly, but understandably,” synagogue membership becomes a discretionary expense when families and individuals rein in their spending, said Kol Ami’s part-time rabbi, Mark Glickman.
With membership down and a lower percentage of giving among existing members, Congregation Kol Ami had to let go of its administrative assistant and has not recently been able to plan any large-scale programming initiatives. A significant turnover on the board this past year has additionally left Kol Ami’s leadership in a tentative state of “gelling,” according to its president, Beverly Conrad.
That said, both Conrad and Glickman praise the congregation for its inclusiveness and liveliness.
“This is a delightful group of people,” said Glickman. “We pride ourselves on what we see as a core set of Jewish values in the context of a culture that sometimes tries to challenge them.”
The religious school and adult education are particularly strong.
“Sunday afternoon is a pretty vibrant time for us,” Conrad said. While students attend religious school, adults gather for committee meetings and study sessions. According to Glickman, his weekly Torah study yields “fascinating and very vibrant discussions.” Among ideas for the coming year, Glickman added that “we’re going to be exploring some new annual study themes that hopefully will drive our learning and our programming.” The strong sisterhood, Kol Isha, is holding a women’s Torah study series this fall on Genesis, and recently a brotherhood has begun to take shape.
The religious school educates 50-55 students, who are an active part of the congregation.
As opposed to being exclusive events for families and friends, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are “a congregational event,” said Glickman. “We pride ourselves on everyone being there to support the young person.”
Kol Ami hosts its own chapter of the National Federation of Temple Youth, Kol Ami Temple Youth, and KOLBO, a youth group for 8th graders.
Congregation Kol Ami is doing the best it can given that it lacks its own building and full-time staff. It rents space from the Bear Creek Methodist Church and shares Rabbi Glickman with Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island. High Holiday services alternate between Glickman and Rabbi David Fine of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Shabbat services rotate among Glickman and lay leaders. While acknowledging the limitations imposed on the congregation’s growth by this arrangement, Glickman keeps his sense of humor, joking he’d like to merge the two congregations into one — called Kol Salami.
“We’re always trying to embrace new traditions,” added Glickman.
According to Conrad, “Our congregation might be unique in that we have a fair amount of mixed marriages. But our non-Jewish spouses are frequently as active as the Jewish spouses.”
She described the congregation as down-to-earth. “We’re very open to new faces and new members. It’s not a very cliquish community at all.”
In addition to providing a tight-knit, welcoming environment, Kol Ami members are heavily involved in interfaith activities and programming with area religious institutions.
“We’re trying to become more visible,” Conrad said. Kol Ami leaders try ardently to promote awareness of a vibrant Jewish presence to the surrounding community.
Despite Kol Ami’s small size, it does have a choir that not only performs at some services, but also teams up with the Bear Creek Methodist choir for an interfaith choir festival, performing alongside various Christian choruses. As for sharing the church space, “even though we are tenants, it feels like a home to us,” Conrad said, “they’re very accommodating. We try to do some programming together periodically.”
Congregants are also excited about the emerging partnership with the Islamic Center of Eastside, also known as the Bellevue Masjid. In April, Imam Humza Chaudhry gave the sermon at a Friday night Shabbat service, and the following Sunday Kol Ami members joined the mosque for a presentation, tour, reception and question-and-answer session.
“It was truly wonderful,” said Conrad.
“Wherever we go, we want to continue to build upon that relationship,” he said. As the relationship forges ahead, though, he acknowledges that it will call for asking tougher questions.
While the tikkun olam committee chair is vacant at the moment, the congregation is involved with social action projects such as Tent City 4, a temporary neighborhood of homeless individuals. Kol Ami’s host, Bear Creek Methodist Church, is presently hosting Tent City 4. Kol Ami members have participated by providing volunteer services, supplies, and a dinner on October 7.
Helping in times of need is a hallmark of the community. Congregants are proud of their caring committee, which tends to community members suffering from ill health.
“The congregation invariably steps up to one another when things get rough,” said Glickman.
Conrad emphasized that no one would be turned away from programming or membership due to lack of funds. Although time, money and involvement are hard to come by, Kol Ami is working hard to keep itself afloat, particularly through its strong member core.
“The congregation consists of a group of people that is compassionate in some of the most wonderful and inspirational ways I can imagine,” she said.