Room to grow in NoVa

Temple Rodef Shalom purchased adjoining land in June 2014 and tore down three aging structures on the property in August. Photo courtesy of Temple Rodef Shalom
Temple Rodef Shalom purchased adjoining land in June 2014 and tore down three aging structures on the property in August. Photo courtesy of Temple Rodef Shalom

Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church is planning for the future with a recent land acquisition that will allow Virginia’s largest Jewish congregation to accommodate an expected increase in families as Northern Virginia’s Jewish community continues to grow.

The Reform congregation was started by 36 families in 1962 and underwent a major renovation in 2001 that expanded the main building to 65,000 square feet. The synagogue now serves more than 1,500 households and more than 5,000 members. The recent land purchase will likely enable the synagogue to expand its facilities even more, although a final decision hasn’t been made yet. Fairfax County zoning rules permit only a certain amount of development in relation to overall property size, so the nearly one acre of land purchased in June would allow for an expansion of the main building.

“We recently acquired some land adjacent to the temple and that’s going to help us to dream bigger than we have,” said Temple Rodef Shalom Adjunct Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein. “We are a very vibrant congregation with lots of things going on, and we need to be able to think about the future. This enables us to do that in a way that we hadn’t before.”

The land was purchased for $699,000, according to public documents obtained from the Fairfax County Department of Tax Administration, Real Estate Division. Temple Rodef Shalom dipped into its capital reserve fund to pay for the land.

“We got very lucky. I guess timing is everything with real estate and this opportunity opened up for us,” said Temple Rodef Shalom President Mindy Facenda. “We were able to work something out pretty quickly and make it happen.”

Facenda said the congregation will decide during the next six months what its collective vision will be. Meanwhile, the men’s club and women’s club recently engaged in a friendly competition to raise awareness of the land purchase and donate the proceeds to helping replenish the reserves. The first-ever Brisket and Kugel Throw-Down (ala Bobby Flay) pitted the men versus the women in a contest to see who could make the best brisket and noodle kugel recipe. There was also a silent auction. More than 180 people attended the sold-out event and the synagogue made a $5,000 profit.

Andrea Meehan won for brisket and Debbie Droller for kugel. Meehan said her brisket recipe made its way to Northern Virginia via the West Coast and New York while the roots of Droller’s kugel trace back to her hometown of The Bronx.

Congregation Olam Tikvah and Gesher Jewish Day School, both in Fairfax, have also made land purchases, and their experiences could provide a blueprint for Temple Rodef Shalom as the congregation decides what to do next.

In 2003, Olam Tikvah purchased six acres of land for $750,000 that the synagogue used to build a bigger social hall and kitchen, rabbinical suite library and to renovate the existing social halls into religious school classrooms, according to Rachelle Palley, Olam Tikvah executive director. Also, some of the acres were left undeveloped as part of the Fairfax County Conservancy.

“The ultimate outcome for buying the land is that we were able to expand. If we didn’t buy the land, we would never have been able to expand the way that we did,” said Palley.

Gesher made three land purchases, the first being the original 28-acre acquisition for $1.25 million in 2002 that was used to build the school. The other two parcels are “available to fulfill the vision of a community campus for the Northern Virginia Jewish community,” according to former Gesher board member and parent Michelle Stravitz. The second 19 acres was bought in 2003 for $1.25 million and the third 10 acres was purchased in 2007 for $1 million.

“When there is a vision there is a way. You can make it work,” said Stravitz. “We are now exploring options for that additional land. It’s not without a price. It’s a risk. You are taking a risk of buying an asset before you are sure of all the pieces, but on the other hand it’s a visionary idea. And a lot of good projects begin with a leap of faith, and sometimes you just have to take that leap.”

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