Congregation Beth Emeth: It’s a synagogue. It’s a wildlife sanctuary.

Congregation Beth Emeth
Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon was designated a wildlife sanctuary by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. (Photo by David Stuck)

Woodchucks, tree frogs and bluebirds. Those are just some of the species documented on Congregation Beth Emeth’s eight-acre property in Herndon. In July, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia certified a three-acre portion as a wildlife sanctuary.

Beth Emeth is the first synagogue with that designation, according to the society.

“Jewish tradition has long encouraged us to take great care with our planet and the living creatures with whom we share the Earth,” Rabbi Michelle Goldsmith wrote in an email. “I am proud to serve at a congregation which takes this teaching to heart and anticipate with joy our community continuing in this manner moving forward.”

To be certified as a wildlife sanctuary means the area “embraces the principles of the National Audubon Society’s Bird-Friendly Communities and promotes citizen participation in conserving and restoring local natural habitat and biodiversity,” according to Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s website.

Barbara Tuset, of the Audubon at Home program, said the program encourages property owners to create nature-friendly habitats by avoiding the use of pesticides, removing invasive plants and planting native species. The certification process requires an on-site habitat inventory, identification of invasive plants and an inventory of bird and animal species found on the property, according to the synagogue’s September newsletter.

Work on certification was initiated by congregant Shawn Dilles. While he declined to be interviewed, Dilles wrote in an email that what started off as him spending his free time tidying up the synagogue’s grounds by removing invasive undergrowth evolved into working toward certification.

One of the requirements for certification is that a property must attract at least 10 species on a list of 42 in the region that need assistance due to loss of habitat. Ava Epstein, the synagogue’s operations manager and a member of the Northern Virginia Bird Club, was one of several people who assisted Dilles in species identification. She identified more than 20 bird species found on the property.

Upon meeting the requirements, the synagogue received a certificate and a sign indicating its wildlife sanctuary status. Epstein said she hopes the project will spur others to seek certification. She said Dilles had his backyard certified as a wildlife sanctuary and she’s considering doing the same.

“As Jews, we have a very strong understanding of tikkun olam,” Epstein said. “And it’s not just repairing what’s broken, it’s preserving what’s already there. And I think that the fact that we can call ourselves a wildlife sanctuary sends a strong message, that that’s something that we hold dear and that we’re actively participating in.”

Since 2010, more than 6,500 acres on 710 properties in Northern Virginia have been certified as wildlife sanctuaries, said Tuset. The first Jewish organization to be listed was Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax in 2010.

David Markovich, the synagogue’s executive director, said it was the work of congregants that made the congregation a wildlife — as well as a religious — sanctuary.

“I think it’s unique that we are a synagogue, yet we’re also certified as a wildlife sanctuary,” Markovich said. “It just demonstrates the initiative of the community here.”

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