A peek into ‘the busiest closed building on the planet’

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Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria (File photo)

A truck driver, a DJ and a dog walker knock on the door of a synagogue. That’s no setup to a joke, but a few of the people Janet Hlatky has encountered in recent months as interim executive director at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria.

Although the congregation’s building has been closed for almost a year, that hasn’t kept people from stopping by. And greeting them is Hlatky, who said she enjoys these unexpected encounters.


“Every day is an adventure [at] the busiest closed building on the planet,” she said.

All staff work from home, but Hlatky stops by the building a couple times a week. That’s when she has her encounters.

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There was the dog walker who asked to use the bathroom.

“My answer is generally, ‘No,’ because it’s just not safe for a synagogue to let strangers in willy-nilly,” she said.


There was the homeless woman who set up camp at the front of the building.

“We had to encourage her to leave with the help of the Alexandria police.”

A DJ came by to check out the synagogue’s social hall for a couple who were planning their wedding. They knew that the synagogue was closed for the duration of the pandemic, but they asked the DJ to go see the venue, “just in case.”

And let’s not forget the trucker who asked to park his 18-wheeler in the synagogue’s lot for a few days. He was willing to pay, Hlatky said, but the synagogue declined out of safety concerns.

Hlatky said the pandemic has spawned a wave of door-to-door salesmen hawking toilet paper and hand sanitizer in bulk.

She gets a lot of phone calls, too, mostly from congregants.

“People call and complain if they don’t get their newsletter by the first of the month, which I have zero control over once it goes to the post office,” Hlatky said. “And with elderly members, I spent a lot of time answering questions about why didn’t Facebook work. You know, I don’t know why. I can’t see your screen. I can’t come to your house. I just don’t know. “

Still, most visitors are congregants looking to pay bills, browse the Judaica shop and chat.

“I’ve met so many interesting people I had never met in person before all of this,” Hlatky said. “So I’m just having a blast.”

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@EricSchucht

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