Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Va., is preparing to celebrate the 18th anniversary of its synagogue building on Dec. 9 with an inclusive ceremony for all ages that will bring back previous leadership and important members from over the years to celebrate the memories and history of the synagogue.
The event will feature a variety of games and activities to draw in every member of the congregation and will overlap with Chanukah with the goal of allowing the celebration to serve as a rededication of their temple, similar to the Chanukah story.
“The notion always was for it to be a very broad-based gathering, to show that the building has been a home for all ages, from the pre-K students and their families all the way up to our senior members and everyone in between them. We wanted it to be at a time when all people could attend, and all ages could attend at that time of day and participate actively,” said Rabbi Neil Tow of Sha’are Shalom.
The event will consist of a formal program but will also feature a lot of fun activities as well. There will be a menorah lighting, materials shown about the history of the congregation, and fun activities for kids, including a dreidel tournament, cupcake decorating and trivia, according to Executive Director Laurie Mangold.
Having the celebration be accessible and bringing the community together is a point of pride and will be great for the community, Sha’are Shalom President Dan Hampton said.
“The reaction so far has been very positive. I know people are looking forward to it and are signing up. I think this is good for our community, especially now with everything going on, every chance we have to come together is amazing,” Hampton said.
The event brings things full circle for Rabbi Tow, who served at Sha’are Shalom as one of its last part-time student rabbis in 2005-2006 and reflected on the changes to the congregation over the past 18 years, and sometimes the lack thereof.
“When I look back to that time, a number of people who were involved at that time are still involved today, which is amazing,” Tow said.
The ceremony will celebrate the rich history of the building and the congregation, dating back to the mid-1990’s. It will show the journey the congregation took to become the first-ever synagogue building built in Loudoun County and a home for Jews in Northern Virginia.
The congregation began as a group of people in Loudoun County doing readings in each other’s homes and getting together, according to former Sha’are Shalom President Perry Immerman.
Eventually the group became bigger, and then they got a helping hand that gave them the ability to eventually establish the synagogue after they received a sizable donation from Jewish philanthropist Irwin Uran in 1997.
“He [Irwin] wanted to see a permanent Jewish congregation in Loudoun County, in his own words. He wanted a home where Jewish children could grow and be proud to be Jewish,” Immerman said.
After that, the congregation was able to rent out an industrial space for a couple of years and establish a regular religious school for the children and have greater Shabbat services and holiday activities.
The congregation finally purchased land after they moved out of the rental property in 2000, and then laid out their plans to create the first synagogue building in Loudoun County, which was completed in 2005.
“We did a groundbreaking and we had representatives from [the] state, county and churches. It was a tremendous amount of coming together of the Jewish people as well as our neighbors. We had a lot of support from a lot of organizations,” Immerman said.
The building sparked life into the congregation and gave it more room to grow, with increased membership and growing excitement about the synagogue in the years following its creation, according to former Membership Committee Chair Deb Immerman.
“A lot of people liked the concept of a dedicated building. It was a safe place, a place where people helped each other. They liked the concept of coming to a safe space that was Jewish,” Deb Immerman said.
That sense of community and security helped shape the congregation into what it is today, with people like Perry and Deb Immerman playing fundamental roles.
The couple is excited to be a part of this event, celebrating the history they helped create with other members of the community.
“We had a vision for a place where people could raise their children and come together as families and friends. We had that vision 20-odd years ago and for us it’s a great homecoming … it’s a matter of great joy and pride to have had a vision and to see the fulfillment of that vision,” Perry Immerman said.
The event will allow the congregation to look to the past to see hope for its future, and to see the ways the synagogue can continue to be a beacon of support in the Loudoun County community.
Hampton added that it’s increasingly important as they look to the future for Sha’are Shalom to be welcoming and expanding, as there is a small Jewish presence in the area.
“We’re making it as whole as a community as we can. Fortunately, we’re growing, and things like this hopefully keep our membership numbers up because people come to events like this, see who we are, see the benefit of how they connect with Jewish life, especially here in Loudoun County where there’s not a synagogue in every town in every corner,” Hampton said.
Rabbi Tow agreed, noting that the synagogue can stand as a show of the welcoming nature of the local Jewish community.
“As Loudoun grows and as the community grows, God willing, looking ahead to many years in the future, the building will continue to provide that home for members of our congregation,” he said.