On Shabbat, a worshipper at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation will inevitably end up praying along with one of three choirs or the teen choral ensemble.
“Any service you come to, there’s going to be a choir there,” says Rabbi Michael Holzman. “You just never know which.”
The congregation is so enthusiastic about lifting its voices that Cantor Irena Altshul sometimes can’t sing her solo parts alone, he says.
A Reform congregation, NVHC was founded in 1967 and grew with the planned community of Reston.
“We’re deeply embedded in the culture of Reston,” with its emphasis on diversity, says Holzman, who came to the congregation in 2010.
Central to NVHC’s identity is its pursuit of strong interfaith relations. “It is left-leaning politically, egalitarian and nonhierarchical. That ethos is in the blood of this place,” Holzman says.
In fact, NVHC owes its home to a similar commitment to interfaith relations. The congregation’s property was originally owned by the neighboring Roman Catholic church. “The priest at the time pushed to have a synagogue next door.”
In the same spirit, the congregation now plays host to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, or ADAMS, for Friday night prayers and for meals during the month of Ramadan.
Holzman says the relationship allows members of each religion to learn about the other and is a tangible response to Islamophobia.
“When we began hosting them for prayers there was a lot of anti-Muslim bias [in general society],” Holzman says. “The vast majority of the congregation saw this as wrongheaded and ignorant. There were dissenting voices but the congregation decided to push ahead.”
With the Metro Silver Line due to pass nearby, NVHC is growing, the rabbi said. The congregation recently hit the 500 family member mark after plateauing at 430-475 families for several years.
The congregation’s preschool has 47 children and 330 are enrolled in the kindergarten-12th grade religious school education program, which blends formal and informal elements. Education director Moshe Ben-Lev based the program on the concept of social-emotional learning, which has a “heavy emphasis on relationships and character development,” Holzman says.
For adults there is year-round adult learning and a speaker series, which has attracted such heavy hitters as Middle East experts Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, and Peter Beinert, editor of OpenZion.com.
NVHC is a member of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, or VOICE, a social-action group, and is working to secure affordable housing in the Reston area.
Reston was brand new when a group of families from Leesburg, Herndon and Reston itself met in a nursery school in 1966 for the first Jewish religious service in western Fairfax County. They formed the Northern Virginia Jewish Congregation the next year.
Arnold Siegel became the congregation’s first full-time rabbi in 1972. He was succeeded by Rabbi Rosalind Gold in 1981, the same year that NVHC dedicated its building, which it has expanded and renovated in the decades since.
Gold served the congregation for 24 years, building relations with other faith communities and overseeing NVHC’s steady growth. After her retirement in 2004 to become rabbi emerita, Robert Nosanchuk became rabbi. Holzman succeeded him in 2010.
With the Jewish population in the area exploding, the congregation this year began an experiment in both raising Jewish affiliation in Northern Virginia and attracting Jewish young adults to NVHC. It now is the home for NOVA Tribe Series, a 2-year-old social network for Jews in their 20s and 30s that holds events across the area.
In addition, the congregation’s Building Bridges initiative will develop programs for young adults in Tysons, Reston and eastern Loudoun County. “We’re inviting Northern Virginia synagogues to gather and strategize as an ecosystem,” Holzman says.
It’s a characteristic move for a community that prefers working together to singing solo.
Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation History
1966 A group of families in western Fairfax County begins meeting for religious services, leading to the establishment of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in the new town of Reston.
1970 NVHC and other religious institutions found Reston Interfaith.
1972 With more than 80 member families, NVHC hires its first full-time rabbi, Arnold Siegel, who serves until 1980.
1979 Ground broken on Wiehle Avenue in Reston for temple’s permanent home.
1981 The 160-household congregation dedicates its new building and installs Rabbi Rosalind Gold as second full-time rabbi.
1990 NVHC has grown to 320 households.
2004 Rabbi Gold retires after 24 years, becoming rabbi emerita. Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk becomes rabbi, serving until 2010.
2007 Irena Altshul becomes NVHC’s first cantor; a major construction project is completed, including expansion of religious school and preschool.
2008 NVHC launches Tamid, designed for teens to continue learning throughout their high school years.
2010 The congregation welcomes Rabbi Michael Holzman as its new rabbi.