Two stately mahogany doors, inlaid with ornate design and a gold Jewish star, tell a remarkable story. It is an old story, dating back hundreds of years. A story of warmth and acceptance, of vibrance and commitment to a Torah lifestyle. It is the story of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and the resilience of the Jewish people throughout the ages.
One member of Shaarei Shamayim, Israel Peljovich, is a master cabinet maker. He once went to one of his suppliers and noticed a set of wooden doors lying in disrepair. Struck by the Jewish stars on the doors, Israel took them to his shop, where he refurbished and fashioned them into an aron kodesh — a holy ark — for the shul.
Sometime later, Peljovich traveled to Toledo, Spain, and to his amazement, discovered an identical pair of doors adorning a church! Israel realized that this church had once been a shul. At that moment, everything became clear: the doors he had rescued and refurbished must have been part of a Spanish shul dating back before the Inquisition. They stand in silent testimony to the attachment of Jews to Torah and mitzvot throughout the ages, proclaiming that this spirit of commitment is still alive at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis has served as the congregation’s rabbi since its inception 22 years ago. Now he is seeing it through the transition from a Traditional to a Modern Orthodox congregation. The services won’t change; the shul has always used the Orthodox ArtScroll siddur and chumash, and the Koren machzor. Only the mechitzah, the divider separating men from women during services, precluded its classification as an Orthodox institution. Several months ago, Rabbi Kunis decided to take the plunge and incorporate a full mechitzah into the shul.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Rabbi Kunis says. “When we moved to our current location six years ago, we had a proper mechitza davening Friday night and Saturday night. Now we have a proper mechitza for all services. Thankfully, our members have welcomed the transition.
“What has happened over the years is that our general membership has not grown significantly despite strong efforts by the membership committee and Executive Board,” Rabbi Kunis continued. “It is my hope that our location in the heart of the Orthodox community will attract new members in search of connection.”
It has become challenging to find affordable housing in the Toco Hills neighborhood. “But,” Rabbi Kunis posits, “there is a whole area nearby in back of the shul, including Childerlee Lane, waiting to be settled by religious Jews. The homes are more available and affordable, affording a perfect opportunity for expansion of the Jewish community.”
Years ago, Rabbi Kunis had members of his congregation residing on these small streets off North Druid Hills Road. “Streets like Knob Hill Dr., High Haven Ct. and Berkeley Lane were once a Jewish area,” Rabbi Kunis recalls, “and they can be once again.”
Currently, many young Orthodox families are seeking alternatives to La Vista Road, and Shaarei Shamayim anticipates accommodating this constituency.
“To some extent, Shaarei Shamayim as a full-mechitzah shul will be a great selling point to the 337 apartments being built next door. The new residents will have a much better chance of finding a home in walking distance of a shul — our shul!” Rabbi Kunis beams with joyful anticipation.
The expansion of Shaarei Shamayim is exciting. A special pathway has been constructed to connect Childerlee to the shul and is wheelchair- and stroller-accessible. In addition, construction of a brand-new playground is in progress. The shul will also host Shabbos groups, keeping the children productively occupied while their parents attend services.
“We hope to have a daily minyan by the time the construction of the apartments is finished,” says Rabbi Kunis.
The congregation is proud of its diversity. All Jews are welcome — Ashkenazi, Sephardic, African American, Latin, Asian, et al. And with the mechitzah in place, they hope to draw even more positive energy from the Orthodox community. With their knowledge and strong background, they can supplement the shul’s daveners, gabbai and Torah readers, helping Shaarei Shamayim build a solid foundation for the future.
“My overarching goal,” Rabbi Kunis concludes, “is for our doors to be open to all Jews, no matter how lost they may feel. In time, I hope they will find Shaarei Shamayim is their home, a place they can live life to the fullest, connect with G-d and discover their essence and who they can become.”