Fifth in a series
Of all the insights the recent Brandeis University demographic study of Jewish Washington provided, none was more surprising than what it showed about Northern Virginia — namely, that its Jewish population had grown to the point of surpassing both Maryland and Washington.
The study found that 121,500 Jews now live in Northern Virginia, nearly 5,000 more than in Maryland, long considered to be the institutional anchor of Jewish life in the region. According to the study, the new numbers represent an 80 percent increase from 2003.
“There’s always been a feeling that there’s more significant Jewish community in Northern Virginia than perhaps the community in, say, Montgomery County fully appreciated,” said Jeff Dannick, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. “So I think the study is maybe a validation that, yes, we are a significant Jewish community unto ourselves.”
The study was conducted in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and funded by The Morningstar Foundation established by Susie and Michael Gelman. (Susie and Michael Gelman are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
There are major differences, though, in the way Jewish life has developed in Greater Washington’s three major areas. Northern Virginia, which encompasses Fairfax, Prince WIlliam, and Loudoun Counties (as well as the independent cities within),, makes up the largest land mass. Its Jewish population sprawls across more than 1,500 square miles, in stark contrast to the relatively concentrated Jewish community in Montgomery County.
With that sprawl comes transportation complications. According to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Northern Virginia is home to three of the nation’s 50 worst bottlenecks.
And with only a few of the area’s 24 congregations located near a Metro stop, deciding whether to go to a Jewish institution often requires a cost-benefit analysis.
In response, a number of the area’s Jewish institutions have taken a different approach. The Fairfax-based JCC, for example, is moving forward with a “hub and spoke strategy,” as Dannick calls it, prioritizing partnership with synagogues and cultural centers for its programming rather than building more brick-and-mortar locations.
“We want to create a presence within pockets of the Jewish community and make people feel like there is Jewish community close to where they live, regardless of where in Northern Virginia they live,” Dannick said. “It’s a challenge. It’s a geography challenge, it’s a traffic challenge, and it’s a scale challenge. But we have to be smart about it.”
It’s the kind of approach the JCC hopes will keep people like Diane Greenbaum involved. She moved to Northern Virginia in 2007 and has recently been taking advantage of some of the community center’s offerings for her and her almost 2-year-old son.
But she hasn’t joined because of the distance.
“We haven’t belonged to the JCC because it’s a fairly big commute to get over there,” Greenbaum said. “We live south of Old Town Alexandria, and we have horrible commutes. So it’s like, where’s the time?”
Gesher Day School, a K-8 institution in Fairfax — Northern Virginia’s only Jewish day school — is making similar considerations. Dan Finkel, the head of school, said the study brings some new data for the school’s administration to mull as it begins a new planning process.
According to the study, 2 percent of Northern Virginia’s Jewish households had a child in a Jewish day school. But 9 percent had kids in non-Jewish independent schools. Finkel said Gesher’s leadership will be exploring ways to attract that population.
“We’re situated in Fairfax County, where the public schools are excellent,” Finkel said. “A lot of the conversations that we have with folks are about making a decision between a public school and Gesher. But what the data is telling us is, in fact, there are a lot of families who are choosing private schools to send their children, and maybe we should be having more of a conversation about those.”
Again, much of the challenge with that, he said, comes back to commuting. In a place where the morning rush dicates so much, there’s a balance for parents to strike. The school, like independent schools nationwide, is facing a declining enrollment. But Finkel said it will consider adding bus routes to draw from the dispersed Jewish population.
“With a little bit more investment, we could add routes that would significantly decrease travel time and probably reduce that barrier for some families who really like what we’re doing,” Finkel said.
Joan Sacarob represents a different part of the Northern Virginia community. She just moved to the Greenspring Village retirement community in Springfield.
But she’s been in Northern Virginia for more than 60 years, and has been one of the region’s biggest proponents through its development, serving on boards and committees at synagogues like Etz Hayim and Olam Tikvah, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the JCC of Northern Virginia.
First and foremost, she’s been a concerned community member, and she said the study makes her think of how far the community has come.
When her husband took a job with the Navy and the two first moved to the area, she said her sense of the Jewish community didn’t extend far beyond her own synagogue.
“It was small,” she said. “There was not a lot more than what you saw at temple.”
But she brimmed with pride recounting a night last month when Eva Schloss, whose mother married Anne Frank’s father after the Holocaust, came to speak at George Mason University in Fairfax. Some 1,200 people attended the event, organized by Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia.
“On a rainy, horrible night where you’d think that no one would be there, everyone came together,” said Sacarob, 81. “It was beautiful, and that’s what the Northern Virginia community is. It’s welcoming, it’s diverse. And it still has a lot of room to grow.”
Finkel said he hopes that the study opens the eyes of people to how much Jewish life there is in Northern Virginia.
If Montgomery County has the legacy Jewish institutions of the region, and Washington synagogues have the best access to national programming, Northern Virginia has, at times, had something of a chip on its shoulder.
“I think there’s been a sense that it’s a little unfair that Jewish life has felt so centered elsewhere, so maybe there was a sense that we weren’t getting the attention we deserved,” Finkel said. “I think with [the study], that will change.”