OGDEN -- It isn't very big. It is easy to miss if you're driving on the 2700 block of Grant Avenue. But this small synagogue -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- has been the home of Jewish worship in Northern Utah for nearly a century.
Congregation Brith Sholem is officially affiliated with the Union of Reformed Judaism, but it caters to Conservative and Orthodox Jews, too.
As synagogue president Judi Amsel puts it, "We are the only game in town."
But first, what does the name "Brith Sholem" come from, and what does it mean?
"Brith Sholem is not good Hebrew by modern Hebrew standards," Amsel said. "It is closer to the Hebrew our 19th-century Orthodox Jewish shopkeepers would have spoken, which was more of a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish. It means 'covenant of peace.' Brith is a covenant between ourselves and God. Sholem is the Yiddish pronunciation of 'Shalom' in Hebrew (meaning peace)."
"Congregation Brith Sholem is the oldest, continuously operating Jewish synagogue in Utah," Amsel said. "We are proud of that, but we have to be very careful with how we frame that. There have been other synagogues that started before us, but they later merged and are no longer in their original state."
Brith Sholem started in the 1870s and moved to its current building in 1921.
"Our congregation was founded by Jewish merchants above their 25th Street shops during the big railroad boom in the 1870s, and continued there until this building was built for us," Amsel said.
"It was put here because one of the founding members lived right next door, bought this property and built a gem of a building. It blended into the area so well that people often miss it if they blink."
A fire severely damaged the inside of the synagogue in 1989. The building was determined still structurally sound, and the inside was refurbished.
"It has made for a cozy and welcoming environment," Amsel said. "It is quite small and very inviting. The chairs are movable, and we don't have pews. That is good because it lends itself to a variety of events."
Brith Sholem's membership in the URJ brings more liberal views than Conservative or Orthodox Judaism. However, the synagogue's history is traced to Orthodox Jews.
"At that time, most of the Jews in the United States were Orthodox, very traditional in their practices," Amsel said. "We don't have any paid staff at all. We have a student rabbi who comes in once a month during the academic year. We are lay-led. Our governance and board is completely voluntary."
The synagogue's volunteers lead the services and prayers, as well as teaching young people to be ready for the bar and bat mitzvah events.
The Reformed Judaism group defines its purpose as enabling "the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship," according to www.reformjudaism.org.
Amsel describes herself as a "wandering Jew." She was born in Columbus, Ohio, and has lived in Texas, Europe and New York. She said her activity as a Jew has increased since moving to Ogden.
"One of the reasons why we chose Ogden is it has this tiny Jewish community where it makes a difference if you come or not," she said. "Literally, there are some prayers you can only say if you have at least 10 adult Jews in the room. If there are only nine in the room, you don't get to say the prayer someone wants or needs to say."
Amsel has definitely gotten involved and "grown more than anyone in her family." She has learned to read Hebrew. She leads services, prepares youth for bar and bat mitzvahs, and spends time working in leadership roles
Brith Sholem welcomes traditional and Conservative Jews as well.
"In order to be accommodating to all Jews, we have accommodated a variety of practices," Amsel said. "We do that in a variety of ways. We try to honor specific requests for particular rituals and practices. We have a variety of prayer books that we use. When I first arrived, we had two prayer books -- one for Friday night service and one for Saturday morning services. They came out of the Conservative traditions, which are somewhere between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions."
A lot of the services are the same between all three groups, she said, so "no one really feels disenfranchised." The congregation added a set of reformed prayer books several years ago.
Amsel said the congregation shares a strong relationship with other denominations in the Ogden area. The members get out in the community, talking to classes and to other groups to teach them about the Jewish religion and traditions.
"We feel privileged and honored that so many people from other houses of worship ask if they can visit, if they we can do a service project together or have a service together. We are happy to do that. Our services are open to everyone.
"All faiths are challenged in the same ways today of people coming together. ... I think our challenge going forward is to strengthen those relationship needs --one on one," Amsel said. "... If you want to be part of the Jewish world, we will work to find what works for you."
Weber State University dance professor Erik Stern is the vice president of the synagogue.