Congregation Olam Tikvah transforms for High Holidays

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Synagogue sanctuary
The sanctuary at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax. Photo by Jacqueline Hyman.

About 225 people show up for a typical Shabbat service at Congregation Olam Tikvah when there isn’t a bar or bat mitzvah.

On the High Holidays, so many congregants come for services at the Conservative congregation in Fairfax, that the rabbis run two parallel services — one in the sanctuary, which holds 800 people, and one in the social hall, which holds 600.


Rabbi David Kalender and Assistant Rabbi Evan Ravski spend half the time in each service, then switch places.

“The services are exactly the same, so it’s purely a function of number of people. I love the opportunity to see everybody,” Kalender said. “If I was only in one room the whole time, there are people who I wouldn’t get to be with on the holidays. I’m grateful that I get to be with everybody and not feel like I’m missing out on anyone.”

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Both spaces are expanded with extra seating to accommodate the large number of holiday worshippers. Ravski said the sanctuary, which is the more formal space, sees more of a transformation. The bimah and Torah scrolls are covered in white, and the curtains in the ark are changed to white as well.

“This idea of white on the holidays is we stand before God, repenting, asking God to remove our sins from us. So there’s that sort of visual transformation,” Ravski said. “It’s also meant to represent purity, similar to a wedding dress.”


Services at Olam Tikvah are often lay led, so volunteers from the congregation lead as cantors and blow the shofar on the High Holidays. This year, said Ravski, there are four shofar blowers signed up for services. At the end of Yom Kippur, more than a dozen people stand up for the tekiah gadolah.

“We have people all over the sanctuary actually,” said Ravski, “so the sound really resonates and comes at us from all directions, that one last wakeup call.”

There are also High Holiday services for teens and children, and babysitting services for young kids, which host about 250 people. Ravski said he and Kalender work and consult with Debra Beland Ackerman, director of education and youth activities.

“We do take detours through the youth services and stop in for a couple minutes to say hello, to do a little bit of teaching,” Ravski said. “We talk about why we’re dressed in a kittel, a long white robe, that symbolism of not just purity but also because it’s simple, it’s meant to say that we’re not [preoccupied with] fancy adornments.”

With the synagogue so busy, how do the rabbis manage to finish on time?

Kalender said that running time isn’t even on their minds.

“As long as people are engaging in some meaningful kind of way — it’s not about how long were you there,” Kalender said, “It’s about, what did you do, how did it feel, how did you experience the day while you were here?”

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Twitter: @jacqbh58

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