Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation is a humble synagogue in the eponymous town, with a member base consisting of 30 to 50 families. But the congregation has a storied history and holds the distinction of being the largest U.S. Army-affiliated Jewish congregation in the country.
It serves as a religious community for military families, active and retired, stationed near the Fort Belvoir Army Base. Before the congregation was founded in 1954, Jewish soldiers who relocated to the area found that there were not many synagogues nearby, with the closest still being a significant drive away from the base.
The military brought in a rabbi to fill this need, and the Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation was formed. While membership has fluctuated over the years based on the amount of people stationed at Fort Belvoir, the synagogue is still going strong almost 70 years later as the army’s longest continuously running congregation.
“All these military families and retirees were living in the area, and they would have had to drive up to [Washington] D.C. or Potomac for services and holidays,” said Madison Meljac-Lehman, Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation’s Jewish coordinator. “Synagogues in this area didn’t really start cropping up until the late 1970s, so people would gather here.”
Meljac-Lehman is an active-duty army wife, having joined the congregation with her family 23 years ago. Now, she runs its family programs.
She noted that Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation takes a multi-denominational approach to worship, accommodating all kinds of Jewish soldiers and military veterans.
“We’re primarily Conservative-Reform, but we do our best for our Orthodox and Reconstructionist congregants,” she explained. “If you are military-connected, we will do our best to support you to be able to worship as best you can here, because we know it may be hard as an enlisted army member to join a synagogue, get attached to one and pay the dues of a synagogue.”
The opportunity to experience the worship practices of different Jewish denominations can be an interesting and fulfilling one, said Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation Chair Seth Cohen.
“I’ve attended services led by lay leaders, Reform rabbis, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis … there’s a wide variety of practices we’ve accumulated and accepted into our congregation,” Cohen explained. “Coming into the army, I was exposed to other denominations and how they celebrate holidays and how they pray.”
Finding a synagogue can often be a challenge for Jewish soldiers and people with military-related careers, especially those who are currently serving. The Military Family Advisory Network estimates that on average, military families move every 2.5 years, which can make it difficult for Jewish military families to find and connect with a synagogue every time they have to relocate.
“That’s one thing that all military families have in common, the constant moving,” Cohen said. “The new schools, new friends, new environments. It can be very difficult to manage that.”
He added that for many congregants, Fort Belvoir is their last duty station, and they retire after completing their final years of service. But many choose to stay in the area once their service is complete, giving the congregation its more permanent member base.
In his case, he became involved in the synagogue after he made a permanent change of service, or PCS, to the area.
Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation also works to accommodate their army membership by combining military traditions with Jewish traditions. They hold special services and events for holidays such as Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, and they are currently planning for Veterans Day in November.
Cohen noted that while the synagogue is small, their congregation is tight-knit due to their shared experience of army service.
“Part of why Fort Belvoir is so inviting is that regardless of anyone’s background, they’re already part of the congregation and part of the community because of their military affiliation,” he explained.
“We have really diverse members,” Meljac-Lehman added. “We have people from all types of [army] service — some contractors, some civilian employees. Everyone that comes in, we’re happy to have them here. You can’t come to our synagogue and not get to know everyone right away.”