Two decades ago, Jewish families in the southern part of Fairfax County were gathering in living rooms and a local church for their services. Now, the congregation at Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station is celebrating 20 years of hard work, faith and fellowship.
"This is a wonderful way to make history," said Rabbi Amy Perlin, who has been with Temple B'nai Shalom since the beginning.
Starting with a special shabbat service Friday night, Nov. 17, the 400 families in the congregation had a three-day party celebrating their synagogue, which included the reading of prayers written by congregants, a memory book detailing the history of the group and three consecutive birthday cakes.
"This has become everything I dreamed it could be," said Perlin, who will be celebrating her 25th anniversary of becoming a rabbi next year in addition to completing her doctorate. "This is a community of learners, of knowledgeable and participating Jews. I've accomplished my dream."
It's the community Lynne Sprung helped dream up.
"There wasn't a reform temple in the Burke-Fairfax Station area and as more and more Jewish people moved in here, I was approached by a friend of mine to see if I was interested in starting one," said Sprung. "I realized that my kids were growing up and soon I'd be an empty nester, so the value of having a temple close to my heart was really important to me."
A SMALL GROUP began to meet on Friday nights, rotating among members' houses each week. Eventually, they were allowed to use the sanctuary at the Church of the Abiding Presence in Burke for their bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings, a friendship that continues to this day with interfaith services for Thanksgiving.
"We used their space for nine years until our temple was built," Sprung said. "Now we share Thanksgiving dinner with them. When it's at our temple, their pastor does the service and when it's at their church, one of our rabbis says the prayers."
Sprung was responsible for assembling a memory book to commemorate the anniversary, including a list of names for the families that joined the congregation each year.
"The book tells the story of how we started, from the beginning of the congregation to all the volunteers we've had," she said.
Short vignettes from members of the congregation are also included, as are notes from Rabbi Perlin and lots of photos from the past 20 years. Sprung said she made several hundred copies of the book so each family has one to take home.
"We have the basic information together now, and we're looking to do a more expanded version when we reach our 25th anniversary," she said.
About 400 families attend B'nai Shalom, many of whom include people who were children when the temple opened.
"We now have bar or bat mitzvahs just about every Saturday," she said. "Other than that, things haven't changed much."
Sprung said the anniversary is a meaningful time for her, looking back on the friends she's made and the celebrations she's shared in the past two decades.
Donna Courtney, another member of B'nai Shalom since its creation and currently the vice president of the congregation, said she has been happy to raise her children in that temple and now enjoys watching her grandchildren learn there.
Courtney was asked by Perlin to piece together a series of prayers written by members of the congregation for the service Friday night.
"When I was first asked, I figured Rabbi Perlin would tell me what to do, but she wanted me to find what I thought was appropriate for the service," Courtney said. After digging through dozens of prayers from the past 20 years, Courtney narrowed it down to 12, many of which were read Friday night by their original authors.
"We also asked five current members to write little passages for the shabbat," she said.
Courtney said the congregation at B'nai Shalom has always been inclusive, encouraging everyone who attends to participate in some way.
She believes the reason so many people have become actively involved in the synagogue is the infectious enthusiasm and caring dedication of Perlin.
"She's very warm and loving and caring and she always knows the right thing to do or say in any sort of crisis," Courtney said. "When I was growing up, rabbis were always old men that seemed very imposing. With Rabbi Perlin, children are always running up and hugging her. She's just great."
ON MONDAY morning, B'nai Shalom president had rave reviews for the weekend's festivities.
"We had 170 people at our dinner dance in Tysons Saturday night," said Cheryl Litman. "Everyone stayed on the dance floor until 11 p.m., which doesn't happen around here."
Litman said this was the first time a celebration like this has been planned by B'nai Shalom, and she was pleased with the results.
"Twenty years ago, we started from nothing," she said. "To build all this from scratch is a huge undertaking. We've been so busy building for the past 20 years, from hiring staff to starting our religious school to constructing our temple, we don't get the chance to celebrate together very often."
Litman said she was happy to see members of the congregation from every age group involved in the celebration, including the religious school students who sang songs and enjoyed cake during their Saturday classes.
"There are lots of people here who were 10-years-old when we started, who now have their children learning from the same religious school teachers they had," she said. "We've literally seen a whole generation grow up here."
Maybe it's the dedication to inclusion that inspired so many young people from B'nai Shalom to enter rabbinical school: the temple sponsors more students than any other synagogue in the area.
"I hope that's something we can continue to do, to train and grow the leaders of tomorrow," Perlin said.
Looking to the future, she hopes to see the congregation continue to grow and bring in more of the unaffiliated Jews in the area.
"I'm so thankful to God that I've been around long enough to see this congregation grow and become a light in our community," she said.