By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
She needed a spiritual home.
'If you're Jewish, you don't have that many options as to where to worship,' said Caren Cohen of Harker Heights.
That's because the nearest synagogues are about an hour away. There's one in Waco, one in Austin and another on the Fort Hood military base.
'That pretty much well limits it for the rest of us,' Mrs. Cohen said. So she and her husband, Larry, spearheaded the effort to form a Jewish congregation for the local community. Based in Harker Heights, it's called Simcha Sinai, which in English means 'Joy where the Torah was received.'
So far it's got about 30 members.
'And we get more each week as word gets out,' Mr. Cohen said. They meet for worship and a homemade Sabbath meal at 7 p.m. the second and fourth Fridays of the month at various members' homes. To obtain specific locations, people should contact the Cohens at 254-231-4930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Currently the congregation is lay led.
'The members take turns in leading worship,' Mr. Cohen said. 'It keeps it lively. It allows them to put their own spin on it.'
Each worship service includes traditional Jewish prayers and rituals, but they way it is presented can vary.
'Some incorporate more of the Hebrew language,' Mr. Cohen said. 'Others don't. So things never get dull.'
His wife nodded her head.
'It's been real educational,' Mrs. Cohen said. 'It's caused everyone to learn that conducting a service is not as easy as it looks.'
But obtaining a full-time rabbi, of course, is the congregation's goal. That should happen within two years after the group's application to the Union of Reform Judaism is complete.
As a leadership entity, the Union provides vision and leadership to Reform Jew congregations on spiritual, ethical and managerial issues.
'It makes you a bigger part of the Jewish community, instead of a lone Central Texas group out there on the sidelines,' Mr. Cohen said. 'With the Union, we'll be part of a bigger community that's got thousands and thousands of members.'
Membership won't be finalized until Simcha Sinai demonstrates two years of stability in finances and membership.
'You've also got to have a board of directors and be active in community service,' Mr. Cohen said. 'And we're well on our way to meeting those goals.'
The Simcha Sinai congregation has an eight-man board of directors with Mr. Cohen serving as president.
'We've got a charter drawn up, and we've got the non-profit tax ID,' Mr. Cohen said. 'We've even got our own Torah and Hebrew teacher.'
And by 2010, Mrs. Cohen said the group should be equipped to perform Bar Mitzvah ceremonies.
'And, of course, a goal is to build a structure where we can meet,' Mrs. Cohen said. 'But not right now. That's in the future. We're taking baby steps.'
With the distribution of formal prayer books and educational materials, the Union has already recognized Simcha Sinai as an up-and-coming congregation.
'And this summer, they're talking about sending over a student rabbi for services,' Mr. Cohen said.
The group's got a Sunday school program in place. Set to launch April 12, it will meet at 1 p.m. Sundays. For the location, call 254-231-4930.
Crissy Moran of Fort Hood will be the Sunday school teacher.
'We'll talk about Jewish history and the Jewish experience in America and how it started,' Mrs. Moran said. 'The kids will learn about the principles of the Torah, the traditional holidays and what it all means.'
The children will use 'Our Land Israel,' a storybook about the Torah, as their resource. Geared for kids, it's uses fun pictures and easy-to-understand language.
The teacher is thrilled to be working with the Simcha Sinai congregation.
'When we moved here in February, we didn't have a synagogue to go to,' Mrs. Moran said. 'Our children are close to Bar Mitzvah age, so it was important to us to find one. So my husband and I value our work in starting this congregation. It's giving other families resources that we didn't have when we got here.'
That sentiment aligns with Mrs. Cohen's goals.
'That's why we started it,' Mrs. Cohen said. 'We want to be able to meet the needs of local Jews.'
Upcoming events for the Simcha Sinai congregation are the April 5 Chocolate Seder and a 6:30 p.m. April 9 Second Night Passover Seder. All meals, including the ones at regular Friday night worship, are kosher.
'The Chocolate Seder is a learning tool,' Mrs. Cohen said. 'Jews believe learning should be sweet, not drudgery, so in this lesson transforms the Seder and everything becomes chocolate.'
Only special events like the Chocolate Seder will have an admission charge. That's how the group will do its fund-raising.
'There will be no dues at worship,' Mrs. Cohen said. 'If you want to come and worship, come. Money can't become an issue that will prevent worship.'
Simcha Sinai is open to new members of any residential area.