At Beth El Hebrew Congregation, David Spinrad keeps a ‘radically local’ focus

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Rabbi David Spinrad.
Photo courtesy of David Spinrad.

If nothing else, Rabbi David Spinrad — the new senior rabbi at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria — is a cheerleader for Judaism. Still settling into his first senior role, Spinrad talks with an infectious passion, as if he considers himself the luckiest person in the world because he gets to talk about Judaism all day.

“To be honest, I love being a Jew,” he said. “I love our tradition. I commit my entire being to being a Jew and teaching Judaism and doing right in every way I can by the Jewish people.”


But that doesn’t mean Spinrad, 47, is naïve about the challenges Jewish institutions face in 2018. He cited a recent demographic study of the Washington area’s Jewish community showing that, while the Northern Virginia Jewish population is growing, membership rates at synagogues are relatively low.

He said that it’s incumbent on synagogues to make Judaism “attractive and relevant,” and that his predecessor, Brett Isserow, did a great job of just that. Membership at Beth El Hebrew Congregation is about 580 families.

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“There’s no ‘have to’ being a progressive Jew,” he said. “With anything non-Orthodox, there’s no compulsion. Guilt doesn’t work. We’re too far removed from the Holocaust to use that as a point of leverage, and it’s a negative leverage point anyway. The question in 2018 is always: why be Jewish?”

But before he can get to making things attractive for outsiders, Spinrad said he first needs to get to know those currently within the synagogue’s walls. He likes to meet congregants one on one, giving them a list of about 250 values and seeing if they can narrow it down to just the five that are most important and relevant in their lives right now.


On top of that, Spinrad wanted to be an active and engaged Alexandria citizen.

“I want to be Alexandria first,” Spinrad said. “D.C. is really neat, but first and foremost, I want to be here, almost radically local. I want to be really focused on where we are, because this is a really neat place. I want to be a citizen at City Council meetings. I really feel like I can be a part of the community.”

Spinrad came to Beth El Hebrew Congregation from The Temple in Atlanta, where Isserow served as assistant rabbi before coming to Alexandria. The Temple has a storied place in Atlanta history. Spinrad would like to play up Beth El’s history a bit more, saying that many people don’t realize it’s 160 years old. But he’d like the synagogue to remain nimble and, of course, relevant.

For now, though, he’ll settle for remembering everyone’s name.

 

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