In 2021, with the pandemic in its second year, WJW’s online readers were most likely to turn to our hyperlocal coverage of people and events. Still it was hard to avoid one local event that was watched around the world. Here are the 5 stories that got the most buzz on washingtonjewishweek.com.
Rereading the reactions of members of the Jewish community in the days after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol is to be reminded how much fear and confusion accompanied the violence. It’s also a reminder, nearly a year later, that the threat to democracy has not passed. That day, the world looked on in horror and disbelief as pro-Trump, white supremacist rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. They broke in as Congress was debating an attempt to overturn a free and fair election of Joe Biden as president.
When it was all over, Congress had certified the Electoral College vote electing Biden. But in the process, five people died.
“I was horrified,” said Rabbi Adam Raskin, of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. “And frankly, I had images in my mind of fascist takeovers and coups.”
Raskin quickly went into pastoral mode. He tried to comfort and reassure congregants. He emailed guidance to members on how to not frighten children and how to keep up with the events without exposing children to unnecessary fear.
Schools tried to “provide space for students to process what they’ve been hearing through the news,” said Eliana Lipsky, middle school principal of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, which gathered virtually to pray and reflect on the morning after the attack.
Lipsky said students asked why people continued to question the election results. Would Capitol Police have responded in the same way if protesters had been predominantly Black instead of White? Was Trump culpable in the riot? And were the events of Jan. 6 acceptable, according to Jewish tradition?
Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg said small-d democrats have some hard work ahead of them.
“We have to be vigilant,” he said, “that for this country to remain a democracy, it is not self-reinforcing. We, as citizens, have to make sure that this country remains free and remains a democracy.”
In an April interview, Stuart Lessans, a philanthropist and member of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, talked about how he got the Washington area’s annual Good Deeds Day of community service rolling in 2014, along with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Over the years Lessans has dedicated his own good deeds in the Jewish community to the memory of his parents, Sara and Samuel J. Lessans. “Some feel the commandment to Honor Thy Father and Mother only applies when parents are alive,” he explained. “I feel the true meaning of this commandment is that every day of our lives, in all we do, we reflect on the impact our parents have had on us.”
While extolling his parents, Lessans was characteristically self-effacing about his own accomplishments.
“My claim to fame is that I’m 78 and the father of 20-year-old twins, Matthew and Faye,” he said.
But he was also beginning to think of what his own legacy would be. Since we published the interview, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School announced that its annual senior class siyum ceremony would be named for Lessans, in honor of a legacy gift to the school.
And B’nai Israel Congregation inaugurated the Dr. Stuart Lessans Talmud Torah.
“My connection to our Jewish community is very emotional and personal,” he said in April. “And the older I get, the feeling gets stronger.”
At the end of June, Rabbi Shira Stutman left Sixth & I Historic Synagogue after 11 years at the non-denominational, non-membership, non-traditional synagogue in the District. Stutman was best known for working with interfaith couples and people considering becoming Jewish.
“I’ve learned that interfaith couples can be some of the biggest blessings to the Jewish community, and that I don’t have a right to dictate what other people should do with their lives,” she said in an interview with WJW.
Sixth & I is aimed at young adults and offers a full roster of secular programming, in addition to its services and Jewish events. She calls being open to those who walk in the door “radical welcoming.”
“Jewish communities can often be perceived as or actually be unwelcoming to outsiders,” she explained. “And I think that comes from the fact that Jews are a traumatized people, that we don’t trust outsiders, especially for outsiders who look different than what we imagined a white Ashkenazi Jew looks like. There is a level of distrust.”
At Sixth & I, she aimed to practice the opposite.
“Worried? Repulsed? Intrigued? The emergence of Brood X is eliciting a whole host of emotions and has left people wondering what to do about them. Or with them.” So we wrote in late May as what turned out to be a brief but intense cicada season was gaining steam.
“They have a buttery texture, a delicious, nutty flavor, probably from the tannins, from the roots of the trees on which they fed,” AP quoted University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp as saying. “And they’re going to be really good with a Merlot.”
Regardless of taste and texture, cicadas are not kosher. “There are kosher insects, but they’re all species of grasshoppers and locusts,” explained Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, a neuroscience professor at Bar Ilan University who explores exotic kosher food on the side. “There are no kosher cicadas.”
Two weeks later, area residents shared with WJW their experiences with the large winged bugs. Jeff Mendelsohn, of Shepherd Park in the District, said he had been at a funeral when the cicadas started to swarm.
“They were there on the chairs. They were in our hair. They were on our clothes. They were buzzing around everywhere,” he said.
One cicada crawled underneath Mendelsohn’s collar and made a loud screeching sound. He said he remained calm and flicked the cicada away. He marvels at how “amazing” the sound was. But he felt bad for the mourners.
Sari Carp, the executive director of Sustainability Matters, a Virginia-based, conservation nonprofit, urged patience. “They can be deeply annoying to humans, but it’s an awesome phenomenon and it only comes once every 17 years.”
The Washington Jewish community lost a teacher who touched many lives when Avi West died Aug. 4 at the age of 68. Despite being vaccinated, West died due to complications caused by COVID-19.
A humble, devout Jew for whom teaching and punning were both natural proclivities, West was an important figure in the Washington-area Jewish community’s central education institutions for more than 40 years.
West was defined by his humor, his compassion, his scholarship and his ability to build bridges, said those who knew him well.
“I don’t believe that any educator in our community was not touched by the work Avi did,” said Rabbi JoHanna Potts, who worked with West while she was on the Board of Jewish Education and with the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. “Avi was a master teacher, a teacher of teachers, but he was also such a creator of content used by Jewish teachers in this community.”
“He was brilliant,” said Rabbi Evan Krame, of the Jewish Studio. “He had an amazing command of the Jewish texts, but more importantly, how to apply them, how to make Judaism come alive for people.”
Chaim Lauer, who knew West for some 44 years and worked with West when Lauer was executive director of the Board of Jewish Education, said West liked to open discussions with humor.
“One of the things we enjoyed together was punning like ping pong, in three or four different languages — English, Hebrew, Aramaic, French, Yiddish,” said Lauer. “In its own way, it was an educational process which we used to sharpen each other.”
West was also known for his compassion and willingness to help others. Lauer recalled a story West once told him about why he became an educator.
“It took place when he was in elementary school. In class, the teacher asked a question and one of the girls got the answer — which had just been taught — all wrong. The other children laughed at her and she cried,” Lauer recalled West telling him.
The teacher sat the girl on his lap and retaught the lesson, and this time she got the answer correct, Lauer said.
“The lesson of compassion and perseverance in teaching — not just the transference of data — touched Avi in his neshamah [soul] — and he became that model for others in his personal and professional career,” Lauer said.