For the first 10 years Barbara Thiede lived in Cabarrus County, she joked that she and her son were the only Jews around.
Eventually they met the Cutlers, a family who lived in Concord and were part of the same Jewish community in Charlotte.
Brian Culter began to help Thiede's son prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, and Thiede dreamed of having a prayer group that met in a home in Cabarrus County.
So Cutler and Thiede brainstormed to find other Jews in the area, and they each came up with one name - the same name. Cutler suggested that Thiede write about being Jewish in her longtime weekly column for The Charlotte Observer.
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"I wrote about things I missed because I had no Jewish community," Thiede said. "I loved Cabarrus County, but this is one thing that was missing.
"I got more response to that column than anything (else) I've ever written."
Last month, after leading what started as a small home group to become a full-fledged Jewish congregation, Thiede was ordained as a rabbi. Temple Or Olam, the only Jewish congregation in Cabarrus County.
The original core group was about six families who met in Cutler's and Thiede's houses for prayer. Cutler and Thiede took turns leading.
"The problem was that Brian knew a lot but couldn't sing," Thiede said. "I knew nothing and could sing and play the guitar."
As the meetings went on, the group grew to about 10 families, and Thiede became the regular leader.
Congregants said it was obvious very early that Thiede would head the group.
"She has the combination of a commitment to Jewish learning, which a rabbi needs, and she has a beautiful singing voice," said Ginger Jensen, a longtime Temple Or Olam member.
Thiede said she decided to become a rabbi after giving a presentation about Judaism at McGill Baptist Church in Concord. She expected to stay an hour but left after three.
"The questions just kept coming ... and I realized I need to know a lot more than I do," she said. "The need to communicate with people of other faiths about my own led me to need to know much more about my own."
She enrolled in rabbinical school, taking classes online and during the summer while teaching at UNCCharlotte.
Thiede completed the required 60 classes, plus extra classes in Hebrew.
This weekend, Or Olam congregation celebrated her ordination with a party. Several families flew to Boulder, Colo., in January for the ordination ceremony.
Between 35 and 40 families now attend Temple Or Olam, a non-denominational Jewish congregation affiliated with Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Thiede said she loves the group's diversity, both ethnic and socio-economic.
"She's very devoted, very people-oriented, and she greets everyone with an open heart," said Arthur H. Kingberg, one of the congregation's first members. "She gives outstanding sermons about Jewish history and current events."
Thiede often uses music at Or Olam services. At a recent Bat Mitzvah, she placed children's instruments on chairs so non-Jews who couldn't sing in Hebrew could participate.
The instruments were so well received that she plans to buy more and continue offering them at special services.
"Barbara has the gift to be the rabbi that many different people at different stages of their lives need," Jensen said. "The children love her. She can do counseling. ...She can intellectually engage people who want to do more advanced Torah study, and she leads very joyful services.
"We are very lucky, as a small congregation who can only have one rabbi, to have one who is able to meet the needs of everybody."
Kingberg said the congregation is keeping its eyes open for a place for its own building. Thiede envisions that place as a community space that draws together people of all faiths.
"I love my congregation and care deeply about them all," she said. "I want to grow old with these people," she said, "and I want the Jewish community that we've built to be a permanent fixture, with people who care for and love each other and who know what it is to create a spiritual community."