Loudoun's first Jewish citizens showed up on records before the Civil War — but it would be the 21st century before they had a place to worship.
"Two hundred forty-three years of existing and Loudoun just now is experiencing its first synagogue," said Nessa Mimberg at last weekend's open house at Congregation Sha'are Shalom in Leesburg.
Mimberg, a Potomac Falls resident, is the congregation's recording secretary, and she should know about the history of Jews in Loudoun County — after doing research for the synagogue's February dedication ceremony, she's considering writing a thesis on the topic because so little is actually recorded.
This much is known: in the late 1970s, a loose group of Jews began gathering in the county. When Beth Emeth opened in Herndon a few years later, however, the group disbanded as members left to join the new congregation. Other members traveled to Arlington, Washington, D.C., and Frederick, Md., to worship.
"They went very far for their religious needs," Mimberg said.
In 1996, a new effort started to join Jews together at home in Loudoun and the response was swift. That December, a hundred adults and children attended a Chanukah party in Leesburg.
Over the next few years, the group, which became known as the Loudoun Jewish Community — later Congregation — met in Ashburn schools, St. David's Episcopal Church and a converted garlic factory. They worshipped with the help of lay leaders, who were mainly women — a relative rarity for a Conservative congregation.
In 1998, Irwin Uran, a former Loudoun resident, donated $2 million toward the establishment of the county's first synagogue. Ground broke in 2001 and the first services were held on Rosh Hashanah in fall 2004. The building was designed by world-renown architect Dan Tully — also a member of the congregation — in his final creation before retirement. A dedication ceremony followed in February 2005, and Congregation Sha'are Shalom — Hebrew for "gates of peace" — was born.
THE SYNAGOGUE, OR "SHUL" in Yiddish, is still growing: just since last fall a dozen or more new families have joined the 96-family-unit congregation.
Still, Sha'are Shalom has a strong sense of "hamash" — the warm feeling of community that welcomes everyone who walks in the door.
"It's like a big family," said Mike Simon, a former board president and current teacher at the school. "It's getting bigger and bigger, but it's still a family."
Rabbinic intern Ilana C. Garber reports that members come to her for advice — and instead of asking for confidentiality, they ask her to share their troubles with the rest of the congregation.
Garber flies down from New York City once a month to officiate services with Sha'are Shalom. She will be ordained in May. The synagogue is not at the point where it can hire a permanent rabbi, and so Garber is the latest rabbinical student to come down as part of a pilot program with the Jewish Theological Seminary. The pilot program has worked out so well that the seminary is expanding the program to other synagogues in need of a rabbi.
WHILE THERE ARE ONLY 180 women rabbis in Conservative congregations, Garber has proved popular.
"For an old timer like me, it took some getting used to," Simon said. "I think she's just as good as any man I've had." He added that she was a perfect role model for his own daughter.
For Garber, who has been with the congregation since August, opening a synagogue is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"My first night in this building was Rosh Hashanah," she said. "Everything was a first — the first time I asked everyone to stand up, the first time I opened the ark where we keep the Torah. We were all crying, it was so momentous."
Being with a brand-new congregation meant Garber has seen many Jews coming back into the fold after years away from worship. And for Simon, a Sterling resident since 1996, it means that Jews in Loudoun finally have their own identity.
Visit www.ljc.org or call 703-737-6500.
Most of $1 million will go toward building fund.
Congregation Sha'are Shalom may be the only Jewish community with a permanent roof over its head, but Loudoun's only Reform Jewish congregation is not far behind.
Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation has received an anonymous $1 million donation, $800,000 of which has been earmarked for a new synagogue.
Beth Chaverim, which is based in Ashburn, has 130-member families. It currently meets in local churches and other public facilities.
The remaining $200,000 will go toward establishing TIKVA, or the Loudoun Center for Peace and Understanding.
Additional information about Beth Chaverim can be found at www.bethchaverim.org or 703-391-8669.
When the rezoning request for the synagogue came before the Planning Commission in 2003, one commissioner expressed surprise when 30 families came out to support the application — because, she said, according to Mimberg's research, she was not aware there "were this many Jews in Loudoun County."
"People know we're here," Simon said. "It's not like, 'What's a Jew?' It's creating a real diversity in the county."