Leaps of faith can be frightening. Particularly when they are actually about faith, in this case welcoming the first rabbi to Capitol Hill in decades.
But that’s the situation we faced as leaders of an unaffiliated group of Jews who first started gathering for services in Capitol Hill living rooms around the turn of the century. Why living rooms? Because while once there had been at least two Jewish congregations in the neighborhood, by the 1970s, they and their longtime rabbis had moved to the suburbs. And the Jews who remained on the Hill? Well, they too went to the burbs or Northwest or, for a time, to the Southwest home of Temple Micah for their organized religion.
And by and large, this was the situation for Jews living on the Hill for about three decades. We were literally “wandering Jews.” Wandering, until the founding of Hill Havurah, a lay-led “gathering of friends.” It turned out that just as we liked the feeling of community when we walked to school, shopped at Eastern Market or got a bite to eat on almost any corner of the Hill, we were eager to practice our faith in our community, too.
We might have been initially drawn by the convenience of meeting in a nearby living room or, after a few years, at this local church or that one. But we stayed because of the warmth. We did not get hung up on formalities or worry too much about the liturgy.
For many years, we relied exclusively on volunteers to lead services, and do everything else for that matter. From buying bagels to help break the High Holiday fast to chanting from the Torah. We became a classic, “if you see a need, you fill a need” organization. When parents wanted a Shabbat service for their little ones, they created “Tot Shabbat.” When “empty-nesters” decided they needed a Saturday evening service-cum-social gathering, our SAGES program was born.
The return of organized Jewish life to Capitol Hill started small, but soon we began to attract crowds, especially on the High Holidays. And we’ve seen steady growth over the years despite the lack of a building of our own. Instead, we’ve been warmly welcomed in area churches who open their doors to us for services, religious school and holiday events. This rebirth of Jewish congregational life coincided with, or perhaps was made possible by, the dramatic growth in the number of young families who moved to the Hill and stayed, even as their children grew to school age.
We couldn’t – and still don’t – offer everything a bricks-and-mortar synagogue can, but our volunteer service leaders developed a loyal following because they were authentic and committed to an idea larger than themselves – community-based Judaism.
But as leaders of our community, we started wondering…Had we taken our grass-roots approach to Judaism as far as we could on our own? We built a community, developed ritual and established our own traditions.
But to go any farther, we asked ourselves privately, could it be that we needed a rabbi to guide us? How would we choose one? From what sect of Judaism and which rabbinical school was best? Our members have extremely diverse backgrounds – from those with traditional orthodox upbringings to other, completely “cultural” Jews who often self-identify as Jew-“ish.”
We have capital D democrats and capital R republicans. This was the heart of Washington, DC, for goodness sakes. In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Was there any chance we could bring this spectrum together?
Would members support this great departure from our lay-led heritage? And would they invest both the time and money we knew it would take to actually make this idea a reality?
In short, we feared stepping into the unknown. We feared this leap of faith.
In the end, we found that we were not taking a leap so much as filling a gap.
To our delight, we discovered our members too were searching for more and deeper opportunities to express their faith. Through several weekends of interviews and rabbi auditions, for lack of a better word, our community grew closer. Our diverse backgrounds did not divide us and together, we selected a rabbi to help bring new meaning to our spiritual lives.
And so Rabbi Hannah Spiro is now on board, discovering a new community and neighborhood just a stone’s throw from the Capitol. We think her dynamism, her musical ability and evident talent in the pulpit will take us to new heights. And her presence will give added meaning to the informal, somewhat tongue-in-cheek motto we printed on T-shirts a few years back: Why schlep?
Mark Sherman and Allison May Rosen are, respectively, the outgoing and incoming chairs of the Hill Havurah Board of directors.