Shaarei Shamayim Turns Church Into Synagogue

Shaarei Shamayim Turns Church Into Synagogue

Above: A building that served two churches is now Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.

Rabbi Mark Kunis blew a shofar near North Druid Hills Road on Wednesday, Sept. 14, and led his congregants down a tree-lined path to their new home, a church they bought and turned into a synagogue.

The closing on the property took place Monday, Sept. 12. The congregation moved in Tuesday and put up mezuzot and held the first service Wednesday at 1600 Mount Mariah Road.

Rabbi Mark Kunis leads Mincha on Sept. 14, the first service in Shaarei Shamayim’s permanent home.
Rabbi Mark Kunis leads Mincha on Sept. 14, the first service in Shaarei Shamayim’s permanent home.

Since March 2002, Shaarei Shamayim had held services and events on Briarcliff Road in a studio built for a television evangelist. The studio was attached to an old mansion, the ancestral home of the Shepard family.

Once occupied by Channel 46, the studio was surrounded by 11 satellite dishes, which Rabbi Kunis often said gave the traditional congregation “a direct connection to shamayim (heaven).” Still, it was leased space.

Over 10 years ago, Shaarei Shamayim purchased a large, wooded lot on North Druid Hills Road in the hope of building there. In 2010, with the downturn of the economy, the congregation sold the site to an assisted living facility.

Other potential buyers alerted the congregants that behind their wooded lot was a site owned by Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, which moved to Tucker years earlier and wanted to sell the property but leased the building to some members who preferred to stay in the area. These members called their new church Mount Cavalry First Baptist Church.

For more than five years, Shaarei Shamayim searched for a permanent home.

“I knew that it was all in Hashem’s time, not in our time, when we would have our own home,” Rabbi Kunis said. About six months ago, the time seemed right, and he and his congregants remembered that the owners of the church behind their former lot wanted to sell.

“It wasn’t even on the market,” the rabbi said.

The Shaarei Shamayim sefer Torahs reach their new sanctuary.
The Shaarei Shamayim sefer Torahs reach their new sanctuary.

Former congregation President Steve Brown and member and real estate agent Rose Anne Schulman represented the synagogue at the real estate closing. Then Shaarei Shamayim had 24 hours to move from its old building to its new one and turn the church into a shul.

“We are elated to finally be in a home of our own,” Shulman said after Wednesday’s dedication.

As for Mount Cavalry Baptist, which lost its rented space, Rabbi Kunis found a way to help. He called them “sweet people” who couldn’t afford an expensive lease.

“It was a chesed opportunity,” said Rabbi Kunis, who negotiated to help them lease Shaarei Shamayim’s former building with the 11 satellite dishes. “I helped them switch places with us.”

Two miles north of its former building and close to Holly Lane and other residential areas in Toco Hills, Shaarei Shamayim is looking forward to being a place to go for Jews in the area.

“We want to welcome the Orthodox community to Friday night services and Mincha/Shalosh Seudas on Saturday afternoon,” Rabbi Kunis said.

Although the traditional synagogue, which uses an Orthodox ArtScroll siddur, will keep mixed seating on Shabbat morning, Rabbi Kunis plans to use a full mechitza (a separation for men and women during prayer) for the evening and afternoon Shabbat services to encourage all of the community to attend.

On Sept. 14, as the sun was setting and the Torahs were carried under a chuppah, members of Shaarei Shamayim sang “Heyveinu Shalom Aleichem,” the traditional song of welcome. Then they walked up the steps of their new home and watched their rabbi place a mezuzah on the front door.

Photos by R.M. Grossblatt

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