When Congregation Ner Shalom, in Woodbridge, has a fundraiser, they usually design a T-shirt for congregants to buy. This year, with a new accessory suddenly in vogue, they opted for custom face masks. Each one bears the synagogue’s name and the hashtag SaveALife written in a mixture of English and Hebrew.
“They’re not exactly N95 masks, but they help. Any face-covering helps,” said Rabbi Lizz Goldstein. “And they get our name out there. They’re cute, so it’s been good.”
The synagogue launched its campaign in early May and sold more than 50 masks, raising $720, Goldstein said. The Lillian & Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum even reached out to acquire a mask for its COVID-19 archive. Goldstein said the secondary goal of the masks was to raise awareness for the Reform congregation.
Congregation Ner Shalom is located in what Goldstein called the southernmost part of Northern Virginia. It’s one of two established Jewish communities in Prince William County. (The other is Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Gainesville & Manassas.) So Goldstein has made it her mission to reach out to the area’s unaffiliated Jews and make Ner Shalom’s services available to them.
“Even though we are Reform affiliated, and that comes with certain values and convictions, we are really equipped to serve a pretty wide range of Jewish expressions,” Goldstein said. “So a big goal right now is trying to reach out to those in the county that we know are there, but they are like, in hiding.”
The United States Census Bureau estimates the current population of Prince William is about 470,000, making it the second most populated county in Virginia, after Fairfax. The 2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study put the number of Jews in Loudoun and Prince William counties at 19,400, or 6.6 percent of the total Jewish population of Greater Washington.
Goldstein said Ner Shalom has 70 member households and described the community as transient. While the number of members has been consistent, many have come and gone. She attributes this to the many military families in the area. The Marine Corps Base Quantico and the FBI Academy straddle Prince William and Stafford counties. And Fort Belvoir Army Base is also nearby. So many young Jews move from around the country to the area, but only stay for a short time.
Goldstein wears a lot of hats as the synagogue’s only staff member. She said she gets called upon a lot to represent the Jewish community at local interfaith or civic events.
“For a small congregation, that ends up being a not insignificant part of my job,” she said.
Ner Shalom was created in 1985 from a merger of two congregations. Ner Tamid and Bayis Shalom were formed around 1970. Ner Shalom, meaning “Light of Peace,” moved into its own building in 1994.
In 1985, the two groups merged and became Congregation Ner Shalom or “Light of Peace” and met at a local church. It wasn’t until 1994 that the group had a building of their own in Woodbridge. Goldstein joined the congregation in 2016.
Goldstein said she hopes the masks bring awareness to the synagogue and help it to grow and support those it serves. The synagogue’s Summer Series of guest lectures and educational modules livestreamed over Zoom is another project she hopes gets Congregation Ner Shalom’s name out there.
“The biggest thing that we want people to know is that we exist here. There is a functioning synagogue with its own building and a real rabbi nearby on call, full time,” Goldstein said. “We are uniquely positioned to serve a wide range of Jews, and we’re always trying to come up with new and interesting ways to reach out like these masks.”