Two years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, congregants of Congregation Beth Israel outside of New Orleans hired Rabbi Uri Topolosky to help rebuild their nearly destroyed synagogue and community. Now Topolosky is in the Washington area at the behest of another small community.
In August, Topolosky became rabbi of Beth Joshua Congregation in the Aspen Hill section of Rockville. His aim is to energize and expand the 25-family modern Orthodox community; to that end, he has what he believes are tempting offers to prospective members.
The pitch is simple: “In a community of large communities, here’s a chance to be a part of a small community and make a difference,” the 35-year-old rabbi said.
Beth Joshua is housed inside the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, and offers several amenities, including a mikvah, an eruv and proximity to Rock Creek Park.
Housing in Aspen Hill is also less expensive than near some of the larger synagogues, Topolosky explained. Thanks to a donor, new members who move into the neighborhood are entitled to a $20,000, no-interest loan toward a down payment on a house that’s within the borders of the eruv. The loan, Topolosky said, is forgivable for those who spend 10 years in the community. In addition, community members receive a discount on tuition to the Berman Academy.
To introduce itself the community, Beth Joshua will host a prospective member weekend Feb. 21-22. Nine families have signed up for the weekend, which will be co-chaired by Barbara Chalom, a resident in the area since 2006. She said that the experience of taking part in community activities should be enough for many potential members to get hooked.
“Even though we’re small, we make up for it in enthusiasm,” she said. “The main thing is being ourselves and showing the people that are coming to visit who we are and how we embrace our Jewish neighbors.”
Chalom said Topolosky has already made a difference in her life. A mother of two, she now has the chance to attend Shabbat services weekly, since the rabbi instituted a babysitting program.
“The rabbi and his wife [Dahlia] have really reached out to multiple people in the community,” she said, adding that the Topoloskys’ various initiatives have motivated people who previously weren’t as heavily involved in the community to being more active.
Topolosky said the challenge of building a community is an exciting one, and he serves as mentor, leader and friend to his congregants. In a small congregation, everyone can be involved at a high level, and at the same time, Topolosky and Beth Joshua have access to the resources of the Greater Washington-area Jewish community with its many other synagogues and day schools.
When Topolosky was 12, his family moved from Boston to Silver Spring, where he attended what was then the Hebrew Academy. He said he is excited to “breathe life into the community,” and hopes to broaden the reach of Beth Joshua’s programming and bring other modern Orthodox Jews together.
The rabbi has also begun building relationships with other area synagogues and rabbis. He and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue were assistant rabbis in Riverdale, N.Y., and he attended rabbinical school with Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah.
He believes that his and his members’ responsibilities are not just to Beth Joshua or to the greater Jewish community.
“[We are] not just taking responsibility for our community, but for who we are civically,” he said.
One example of the congregation’s giving back was a program that they did together with the Montgomery County Weed Warriors and a local Boy Scouts of America troop. Through educational and hands-on work, they learned about the dangers of invasive plant species and began removing them from the area.
Topolosky has also been working to strengthen interdenominational and interfaith cooperation.
“We’re part of a larger Aspen Hill community,” he said, “which isn’t all Jewish.”
Topolosky keeps reminders of several personal philosophies in his office. His desk clock is positioned next to a wooden cloud on his desk to illustrate two different kinds of dilemmas. Some questions, he explained, are clocks – they are straightforward and have a definite either/or answer. Others, however, are clouds; they’re not just black and white, and require a deeper level of thinking.
The personalized hard hat he wore while working in New Orleans sits atop his bookshelf as a reminder of the sense of accomplishment he feels from building something together with a group of people.
“Building a community,” said Topolosky, “isn’t always about building a building.”
To find out more about the prospective members weekend, visit bethjoshua.org.