Reflections and a Look Ahead From Washington Hebrew Congregation as We Begin 2024

Washington Hebrew Congregation. Photo Courtesy

As we closed out 2023 and prepared to welcome in 2024, Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Senior Communications Manager Ori Hoffer reflected on the previous year’s events and shared his hopes for the new year.

Can you describe several highlights (events, good news, good memories) from this year that you experienced with the congregation?

We had two major events with our clergy – in May, we installed Rabbi Susan Shankman as senior rabbi – the first woman to hold the position in WHC’s 172-year history. Then we hired and installed Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin. She fills out our clergy team and brings a wealth of experience in the study of toxic polarization as well as a singing voice that creates wonderful harmonies with our talented cantors. The year was filled with great events, but we’re quite proud of those that represent the inclusive and welcoming community we have here at WHC. MLK Shabbat brought dozens of churches and mosques to our temple on Macomb Street to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King. We also connected Black and Jewish communities the week of Juneteenth, as we had a film screening, invited Black churches to Shabbat services and then returned the favor, as we worshipped at John Wesley AME Zion Church on Sunday and worked with Scotland AME Church at their Juneteenth festival. Musically, we had a great year, welcoming the duo Lapidus & Myles to share their message of love, respect, peace, and justice; singer-songwriter Jacob Spike Kraus joined our cantors for a great night; our Cantors’ Concert paid tribute to the great Stephen Sondheim; and the Israel Relief Concert brought over a dozen cantors from around the DMV together for a heartfelt night of song.

How did the congregation deal with Oct. 7 and its aftermath?

Unfortunately, we had been dealing with the rise in antisemitism long before Oct. 7. We had participated in a number of community events earlier in the year addressing the issue, but when the war began, we took a new tack. We quickly launched the Israel Hesed Fund, which raised nearly $600,000 (and counting), with the funds going directly to organizations on the ground in Israel. The fund helped pay for a new ambulance, relief for Israelis displaced by the attacks, and rebuilding funds for Kibbutz Nahal Oz. We had scheduled a five-week class on Israel prior to October, and we instantly changed the curriculum to include conversations with diplomats and other experts who could provide updates directly from Israel. As there was still so much happening, we extended the class for another few weeks. As mentioned before, our cantors teamed with their colleagues from over a dozen area temples for the Israel Relief Concert. Our clergy have been out front in trying to create meaningful dialogue with their Muslim counterparts, appearing on CNN, NPR and local media with local imams to share a hope for peace and understanding.

How did the synagogue work to provide a meaningful and supportive religious and community experience this year?

We continued to host one of the most engaging Friday nights around with our Shabbat@WHC experience. Each week, we have a catered dinner, open bar and then a service that often addresses an important subject – whether it’s Repro Shabbat, Refugee Shabbat, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, Pride, Juneteenth and more. We have made a concerted effort in the past few years to create a welcoming environment for all who want to join us, whether for services, or other events. We launched Mondays@Macomb a weekly adult education night where the community (not just WHC members) can take one of three great classes. This fall we offered 12 Jewish Questions – a (re)introduction to adult-level Judaism; 8 Jewish Rituals, which looked at how to bring Judaism into your daily life; and 5 Conversations on Israel, which as I mentioned, turned into 8 or 9 conversations. Again, a catered dinner from a local restaurant helps bring the whole community together to engage with each other and learn. Our Young Professionals group, 2239, has been very active all year, with Havdalah Yoga events, deep dive classes, and the monthly Metro Minyan Shabbat. In November, the group went to the Lilian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum, and with a full house in the restored synagogue, held the first worship service in that space in 115 years (seats are already filling fast for the repeat event in February).

What are some positive takeaways from 2023 that the synagogue would like to carry into 2024?

This has been an incredibly difficult year for Jews with the rise in antisemitism locally, nationally, and globally and then the war with Hamas. If there can be a silver lining to all of that it is that Jews have never been more aware of being Jewish, and many are looking for ways to connect and engage with the Jewish community. We’ve seen an increase in attendance at events and classes as people are standing up and standing together. A great example was our Shabbat Ha-NEON-ukkah a few weeks ago. It’s always a fun time and draws a crowd, but this may have been one of the largest non-High Holy Day events we’ve had in years. Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish resilience, and this was a great way for people to represent that in a joyful, safe and empowering way.

How will the synagogue work to continue to provide spiritual benefit to the congregants as we move into 2024?

With a full clergy team, there is always someone available in a time of need – whether for a life cycle event (birth, b’nei mitzvah, etc.) or just to talk about how to deal with the world around us. We’ve got great classes, lectures, and author talks planned, with new things being added all the time to help folks look at things through a Jewish lens. Upcoming events will continue to provide a welcoming environment for everyone. We’re gearing up for our annual Shabbat Purim extravaganza as Cantor Susan Bortnick is hard at work putting together some Broadway parodies for Megillah! The Musical.

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