In the Beginning: Temple B’nai Shalom
In early winter of 1986, dreaming of a Reform Jewish presence close to home in Burke for their families and their neighbors, three families began to talk about an exciting adventure. Tired of shlepping to services and religious school around the Beltway, they envisioned a nearby place where their families could worship together and where their children could attend religious school with their friends and neighbors. Though it was daunting to think about the work involved in starting a congregation from nothing, they pursued their dream. One family had experience in starting a new temple in Atlanta, and another had experience in setting up a religious school. Most importantly, they all possessed the excitement and enthusiasm to create a special and unique temple in their neighborhood.
Three other families came to share their goals, and the group began to meet regularly in living rooms to plan for what would become Temple B’nai Shalom. They quickly agreed on the kind of temple they wanted to create: a friendly, welcoming place where everyone was encouraged to participate in all aspects of temple life; where they could all pray, learn, celebrate life-cycle events; and where they could share a sense of community. They wanted to provide opportunities for everyone to be involved because they were convinced that when people took part in making Temple B’nai Shalom a reality, they would develop meaningful friendships and a special caring community would evolve. Though they were unaware of it at that time, more than 20 years later the values of a caring community and volunteerism still make TBS so special to all of its members.
Addressing practical concerns, the core families recognized that they needed a place to hold services, establish a religious school, and hold youth group activities. Their children varied in age from preschool to high school, so it was vital for the religious school to include instruction in kindergarten through confirmation.
Early on, the founders had no idea how many members to plan for or even how to recruit new members. During the spring and summer of 1986, however, they began to discuss the new temple with friends and neighbors, advertise in local newspapers and stores, and hold coffees in homes to encourage people to join in this wonderful dream! They were surprised about how many people were willing to listen and then to come along on the journey! The more conservative planners thought they would have 25–50 members by September; the optimists thought 75. No one anticipated that Temple B’nai Shalom would open in September 1986 with 125 families and 176 kids in religious school.
As the planning progressed and more people joined the congregation, the need for a rabbi became even more important. Fortunately, Rabbi Amy Perlin was available. The founders contacted her, and she agreed to serve as a part-time volunteer rabbi. She led the first High Holy Day services and Friday night services twice a month that first year. Fortunately, the membership was able to recognize her support and guidance with an honorarium at the end of the year. Rabbi Michael Mellen served as Assistant Rabbi and Director of Education from 1998 to 2003. Rabbi Shoshana Nyer held this position from 2003 until 2012. In July of 2015, Rabbi Laura Rappaport became our Associate Rabbi and Educator.
The founders followed the name selection guidelines of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and decided on the name Temple B’nai Shalom, which means a house of worship for “children of peace.
Planning for Services
Temple B’nai Shalom held its first High Holy Days services in Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Burke, Virginia. Despite the many symbols of Christianity that adorned the building, everyone shared the sense of creating a new and wonderful Jewish community. It was fortunate that their “friends-to be” at Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in Burke subsequently made their space available to the new TBS for two Friday nights a month. Abiding Presence had a portable cross that was removed each service to make the “church space” into a “temple space.” Each week the “Levites,” as Rabbi Perlin called the founders, replaced the cross with a tapestry wall hanging and replaced the church’s pulpit cloth and prayer books with a TBS tablecloth and a set of Gates of Prayer books donated by the Jewish chaplain at West Point Military Academy. Later TBS’s new Sisterhood donated a blue velvet cloth to cover the table. Two congregants built a portable ark of cherry wood, and another congregant lovingly made the ark curtain. A congregation in Upstate New York (of which one TBS member’s father was a member) donated a Torah. How fortunate were the Temple founders to have so many others who also donated their time and effort to make Temple B’nai Shalom happen. It was truly a labor of love for all the volunteers who helped each week. For nine years, they transformed that church space into a temple space for Friday night Shabbat and later Saturday morning Bar/Bat Mitzvah services. The close connection between the Abiding Presence Lutheran Church and Temple B’nai Shalom continues to this day with a combined service on Thanksgiving and occasions when the religious leaders of one congregation provide a sermon to the other congregation.
For the first seven years, TBS went on the road to many different hotels in Northern Virginia to celebrate its member’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. On each occasion, the “Levites” transported the ark, Torah, wall hanging, and prayer books to create a Temple B’nai Shalom wherever the family chose to hold their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Members quickly learned that TBS could be created wherever they went––the people and community were important, not the physical space.
During the planning stages and during the first year, congregants held many discussions about the nature of the services. Early on, members decided that the congregation would participate in prayer and in song with a significant amount of Hebrew. Only the rabbis and song leaders would sit on the bima in order for all congregants to feel equal and an important part of the worship service. It was also decided that there would be no organ or choir, which some members felt made the service feel too much like church or too performance oriented. In later years the use of guitars, and occasionally other instruments, were added. Lay song leaders were also added. Wonderful adult and children’s choirs currently lead the congregation in song at special services during the year and members may come early and be moved by a 15-minute musical meditation prior to services once or twice a month. The rabbis also instituted and continue to hold separate monthly services for young children that feature singing and special stories. Very early in its existence, the Temple initiated a program to have distinguished Jewish musicians either lead services or give special performances several times a year. Artists such as Debbie Friedman, Rick Recht, and Sheldon Low have been part of the program.
From the beginning, Hebrew, music, and active participation in services have been important to this congregation!
Planning for Religious School and Youth Group
To attract the best volunteer teachers from among its members, religious school began with an unusual model––one day of Hebrew and one day of Jewish studies each week. Even though the founding members were unsure that children could learn Hebrew well with only one class a week, TBS’s cadre of excellent teachers made the model work, and this model has continued to work for more than 20 years.
In early planning, the founders decided to hold religious school classes in Burke Centre’s community centers, but by mid-summer, enrollment had grown too large for that space, so arrangements were made to use the Terra Centre Elementary School in Burke. School started that first year with 176 children. Later, as enrollment grew even larger, the religious school was moved to Oakview and Fairview Elementary Schools, and then later to the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax.
Temple B’nai Shalom established a senior youth group for teenagers immediately. Although there were few members in the group, they participated in Temple-sponsored events as well as regional events of the National Reform Jewish Youth Movement, now called the North American Federation of Temple Youth-Mid-Atlantic Region (NFTY MAR). Many TBS teens have served as active members and officers of this organization’s regional youth board.
The Quest Continued
From the beginning, the search for land on which to build a structure was an important activity. After nine years, Temple B’nai Shalom’s building opened in 1995. A successful fundraising campaign had included most members of the congregation, including the children. The young people coordinated a “brick-by- brick” campaign––children made bricks out of shoeboxes and raised $18 per brick. The entire congregation felt the thrill of having created the building.
Later as the needs of the temple family grew, TBS added many more worship services and programs, expanded the adult and children’s education programs, and instituted support groups (mother’s support and grief support, for example).
Throughout the years, TBS’s participatory, caring community where all can feel welcome, involved, and cared for has grown and flourished.