Rabbi Bruce Aft arrives at the Congregation Adat Reyim synagogue in a simple black suit jacket, two rubber bracelets and one made of rope on his right wrist. After opening the doors to the temple, he reaches into his pocket and takes out a black yarmulke, securing it into place on his head. Even in prayer, the Rabbi has baseball on his mind: written on his yarmulke, the words "Go White Sox!" can clearly be seen in bright white letters.
A native of Chicago, Rabbi Aft and his wife, Sue, came to Springfield in 1991 to make their home in the Adat Reyim congregation, he said. In the past 14 years, the congregation has more than doubled in size to around 330 families, he said, but the focus on creating a community of faith and service remains.
"The name, Adat Reyim, translates to mean 'community of friends,'" Aft said, sitting in his office, which is packed with baseball memorabilia. "The founders of the congregation used to translate it as 'a gathering of neighbors,' but this congregation has grown to show its desire to reach out to all people in the community," he said.
2005 is a banner year for both the congregation and Aft, as both are celebrating their 25th anniversaries.
In his first long-term assignment here, Aft said he's seen things change only in small ways over the past quarter-century. "The congregation still provides a home where people can learn about their Jewish identity," he said. "There's a desire to learn about the community and interfaith dialogue, there's an increased desire to learn about each other."
LIKE MOST religious communities, the fours years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have strengthened his congregation's desire to have a place to come together and provide a center for themselves as individuals and members of a family, said Aft. "People around the country began to realize that life really is fragile. They've started to rely on us more. I find I'm doing more counseling than I used to."
Families have begun to use the synagogue as "an anchor" for their lives, Aft said, and not just another activity to fit into an increasingly busy weekly schedule.
To draw in more participation, Aft said the congregation is launching an education initiative as part of the anniversary celebration. Recently, a professor from American University gave a presentation on the history of Jews in America, also commemorating the 350th anniversary of the first congregation here.
"We are facing many of the same challenges now that we did, as a community, 100 years ago," Aft said. "We struggle to maintain an identity in a world that's becoming increasingly secular and blended. We are working to welcome people into our community from various places around the world. There are still concerns over interfaith marriages and the children born into those marriages, to make sure their Jewish identities are preserved."
Another initiative provides scholarships for various experiences that would further enrich the meaning of being Jewish in America, Aft said, including funding for trips to Israel, colleges, adult education programs, camps and national seminars.
Part of the celebration will take place early next month, when the congregation will host a Casino Night, complete with Rabbi Aft wearing an Elvis suit to allow interested couples in reconsecrating their wedding vows in the "Chapel of Love."
To continue the congregation's dedication to service and helping the community, members have pledged to commit a mitzvah, or a good deed.
THE FIRST opportunity to help is underway, as the congregation is currently running a food drive. "The recent disasters along the Gulf Coast have reminded us of the great need in this country and in Fairfax County," Aft said. "Now that we're 25 years old, we're an adult, we need to take a wider place in the community and help our neighbors."
A series of 10 events have been planned during the year, according to Laurie Rosen, chair of the steering committee for the anniversary celebration.
"We planned our events to incorporate all ages of the congregation," she said.
Early events range from services observing the high holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah to a bake sale sponsored by the congregation's youth group. A weekend retreat has been planned for April in West Virginia, based on the success of one held last spring, Rosen said.
"A lot of people have become involved in the congregation in ways they haven't been before," she said. "We're trying to plan and combine different kinds of events to attract different kinds of people."
The celebration will culminate in March with a gala event, coordinated by Eileen Kugler.
"On Friday, March 3 there will be a special shabbat service which will honor members of the congregation that have helped to make it grow and thrive," Kugler said. A dinner dance will take place the next day, during which Rabbi Aft will be honored for his service, she said, along with some of the synagogue's major donors. On Sunday, March 5, the weekend celebration will conclude with a shabbat led by "the young adults of the congregation who have left for or graduated college," Kugler said.
A few other events, including a one-day retreat at Lake Fairfax Park on Saturday, Oct. 29, featuring outdoor activities and discussion groups, will take place during the course of the year. To celebrate Sukkot, which Aft describes as a festival of thanksgiving for the harvest, the congregation will offer "Sukkah-hopping."
"People will set up tent-like tabernacles at their homes and will open their doors for their neighbors and friends to stop by," Kugler said.
This is a nostalgic time for Aft and his congregation, he said, as he reflects on the people he has worked in the course of the past 25 years and the progression of the Jewish people in America.
"We need to continue to move to the future while keeping our commitment to the past," Aft said. Part of that commitment to the past made itself available 10 years ago, when the congregation received on permanent loan a Torah, the Jewish holy book, that was saved from Sedlcany, Czechoslovakia by Nazis during World War II for inclusion in a museum.
"They were going to build a museum to show what they had destroyed," Aft said. The Nazi practice of tattooing everything Jewish extended to the Torah, which has numbers etched in the wooden handles of the scroll. "We were able to restore it and we've been able to use it for several services," he said.
Celebrating an achievement like a 25th anniversary has led Aft to remember those who helped him get where he is today, and those who have died and can't celebrate with him.
He mentions a section of green wooden seats, taken from Comiskey Park, a "late bar mitzvah gift" from members of the congregation. "Someone used to say that next to baseball, religion was the heart and soul of America. I like to compare baseball and religion so much because the end goal is the same, people want to go home."
As the White Sox take their first run at the World Series since the 1950s, Aft wonders if the green seats are ones he may have sat in with his parents at a game growing up.
Looking to the future, Aft said he hopes members of his congregation continue to make their faith a central part of their lives. "This is more than just another activity to fit in. Religious school used to be held three times a week, now it's just one night during the week and one day on the weekend," he said. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to balance the religious world with the secular world."
Aft does not question the need or importance of the spiritual life, however. "People spend a lot of time making a living, but not much time making a life," he said. "Attending services shows the draw and desire to be a part of a community. Twenty-five years ago, families may have been a little tighter, but the desire to be part of a community has expanded."
Someday, Aft said, he and his wife may return to their Midwestern roots. He believes that their children, Mimi, 25; Aaron, 23; Adam, 21; and Michael, 15, may follow them. The three oldest children grew up near Detroit but Michael doesn't have many memories of his early life there, something Aft said he wishes he could provide.
Here in Northern Virginia, Aft has found a home and a community that welcomed him with open arms.
Aft was the first full-time rabbi for Congregation Adat Reyim, Kugler said. "He has been a driving force in making the congregation what it is today. We knew right away when we met him he was perfect for us," she said.
Proudly displaying his love of baseball makes Aft more accessible to some members of the congregation, said Kugler, but he recognizes that not everyone has the same passion. "He's careful about not overwhelming people with it, but he knows it's a wonderful way to connect with people," she said.