This year marks the 13th year that Rabbi Adam Raskin has been with Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, and it’s led him to playfully refer to this as his “bar mitzvah year” with the synagogue.
Raskin says he’s proud when he looks back on the results of 13 years of effort that he and his staff have put into the congregation, which Raskin added is experiencing a large boost in engagement, an increase in religious school enrollment and a fresh sense of energy and excitement from the congregants.
“It’s just a milestone for me in terms of being in this community for 13 years, and the work and the progress and seeing the fruits of 13 years of hard work and cultivation,” Raskin said. “The way the synagogue was when I came and the way it is now are quite different. I don’t take all the credit for that for sure. But because 13 is one of those Jewish numbers, it’s a meaningful moment to reflect on what’s transpired over this time.”
One of the first areas that Raskin pointed out he was looking back at positively was the increased engagement, especially with religious services and Har Shalom’s religious school. He said that the religious school has grown five times in size over the past several years, and that was indicative of the joyful environment that the staff has been able to create.
“There’s a magnetism, there’s a sense that this is a great place to be affiliated and involved with, and there’s a tremendous amount of outreach and community, of warmth and engagement,” Raskin said.
That’s a sentiment echoed by current Har Shalom President Aimee Segal, who said she has been a member for almost 21 years and added that she didn’t feel that joy that exists today when she joined initially.
It took Segal several years to become more involved in the synagogue, and a large part of that connection she gained was due to Raskin and his staff because of the great care and involvement that they showed in the lives of their congregants.
“He’s invested in the whole community and … he invests time in getting to know and develop friendships and relationships with members of our community. And that has made all the difference,” Segal said.
Building such an environment through putting great care into the members’ involvement is part of a concerted effort made by Raskin and the staff, who feel as though they have a formula to get reciprocal engagement with people to provide them with a fulfilling Jewish experience.
“I really feel like we have zeroed in on the ingredients that people are looking for in terms of affiliation. We are an unpretentious, warm, community-oriented, family congregation that really pays attention to people at every age of life and tries to nurture that journey at every stage and every step of the way … It’s about really, at every stage and in every point in our programming, having an eye toward cultivating community relationships and deepening people’s Jewish experiences,” Raskin said.
It’s also helped that Raskin has had 13 years to cultivate these relationships, watching and helping kids and families go through all the various stages of life. He noted that this year he will be doing bar mitzvahs for children he named when they were born, and that has been a surreal thing to think about.
“Some of the most rewarding and meaningful parts of the rabbinate is to be able to accompany people through the various journeys of life. And on some level, you can only do that when you’ve been in the place for an appreciable amount of time,” Raskin said.
The work and years that Raskin has put in will be recognized by the congregation in the coming months, according to Segal. She mentioned that the synagogue is still planning exactly how to do it, and mentioned a gala in March where several people will be honored, although the details have not yet been confirmed.
But outside of the efforts to commemorate this year, Raskin is also keeping an eye on the future of the synagogue. It’s an especially important mindset to have in the post Oct. 7 world.
Raskin said that there are unique challenges facing the congregation in these times, but that the synagogue will have to be there for people and provide a stable environment for Jews. He compared the current climate for Jews to be like a desert and said that he wanted to provide a rejuvenating space.
“I’m proud to be creating a community where people can feel that sense of rejuvenation. So that’s what I look forward to continuing to do through education, programming, religious services, whatever it is that we provide. That’s the responsibility I think that the synagogue has right now,” Raskin said.