Bob Wiener described the earliest gathering as a "miracle."
Not a bad choice of words, considering the religious connection.
And when the Jewish High Holy days begin at sundown Sunday, the crowd that comes together to observe Rosh Hashanah may continue to react to the turnout with words like "miraculous," or "extraordinary," or, dare we say, "an act of God."
The people represent Temple Oseh Shalom, a congregation founded by Wiener and his wife, Sue, and one that has established a great presence in Bluffton in just six years. What started as a group of Jewish people getting together at homes for coffee, companionship and conversation, has evolved into an active, older congregation with a membership of more than 520 people.
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Oseh Shalom (which translates to "doers of peace") is not affiliated with the Reform, Cons1ervative or Orthodox branches of Judaism, but rather is described as "a congregation without walls." Barry Zweiban, vice president of the board of directors, said there are no plans to become affiliated.
"We try to run services that will make everyone happy, whether they are Reform or Conservative," Zweiban said. "We welcome anyone who wants to come at anytime."
The congregation has been meeting at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church on Simmonsville Road since June 16, 2006. Much to the Wieners' amazement, 167 people attended the first service, although they were expecting between 15 and 40, Sue Wiener recounted.
Sabbath services are held the third Friday of every month. The upcoming days are the most solemn for Jews, with the start of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) through the concluding Yom Kippur (day of atonement) service at 7 p.m. Sept. 28. During the course of the holy days, services are scheduled on four dates. Tickets are not required. Annual dues at Congregation Oseh Shalom are $27.50 a person.
Services are conducted by Rabbi Steve Kirschner, who was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in June 2004. The movement is an offshoot of the Conservative branch. Kirschner lives in Durham, N.C., and travels to Bluffton to lead the monthly service and head Saturday morning adult education classes.
The rabbi was a practicing lawyer before changing his profession and has been with the temple about one year. He's the third leader of the congregation, following Rabbi Robert Seigel and Bob Wiener, who conducted services as a lay rabbi until 2009.
The Reform prayer book "Mishkan T'filah" is used for Sabbath services, and "Gates of Prayer" is read from during the High Holy days. The congregation has three torahs (books of the Jewish bible), which were donated.
"We try to fulfill everybody's religious needs, regardless of their background, and we think we are doing a good job," said Jackie Katz, president of the board of directors. "We include things people are wanting in the service. We include enough Hebrew, yet we try to balance it out with enough English. We also try to include music people are familiar with."
The music is performed by Kenneth Rosenberg, a volunteer cantor (singer or chanter of prayers), along with the choir, which is led by Terrie Weintraub. Members also have witnessed one bat mitzvah and two groups of adult b'nai mitzvah. The coming-of-age ritual is traditionally performed when a Jewish boy or girl turns 13.
Oseh Shalom also has established a Jewish section in Saul's cemetery in Bluffton.
"Sadly, we have already buried a number of congregants there," Sue Wiener said in an e-mail. "But this makes our presence in the Lowcountry complete and 'official' -- having a place to live, to worship, to volunteer in the greater community and to be put to rest."
Unlike the earliest Jewish families on Hilton Head Island, who dedicated Congregation Beth Yam's own building on Meeting Street in 1990, Oseh Shalom leaders said there are no plans to follow that path. Many of the congregants are Sun City Hilton Head residents and have gone through the rigors of fundraising and building synagogues in other cities.
"People are retired, we're not looking for a building," Katz said. "The price is right, the venue is right. It's a spiritual getting together, and it's also a community."