Finding faith in Fauquier County

auquier Jewish Congregation members, from left. Robin Lutsky, Paula Rabkin, Sue Gabbay and Ken Cornetsky meet at the St. James Episcopal Church in Old Town Warrenton, where the group has activities. Photo by Abby Seitz
Fauquier Jewish Congregation members, from left. Robin Lutsky, Paula Rabkin, Sue Gabbay and Ken Cornetsky meet at the St. James Episcopal Church in Old Town Warrenton, where the group has activities.
Photo by Abby Seitz

By Abby Seitz

When Yakir Lubowsky moved to the Virginia town of Warrenton from New York City in 1998, he had no illusions about finding a Jewish community there.

Warrenton, in Fauquier County, is nearly 50 miles southwest of Washington. The closest synagogues are at least a 40-minute drive away in Fredericksburg and Fairfax.

“I didn’t know anyone, and I knew there was no synagogue and didn’t think there were many Jews,” Lubowsky said. [If you are] attached to an institutional synagogue, you don’t move to a place like this.”

Soon after, Lubowsky received an invitation to his 20-year college reunion at Johns Hopkins University.

As he looked through the list of alumni who would be in attendance, he noticed a doctor, David Pfeffer, was also living in Warrenton. Lubowsky cold-called him, and they agreed to meet.

“We got together, and he got a call from his mother, and I could tell they were talking about Chanukah,” Lubowksy said. “So I said, ‘Oh, you’re a Yid too?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Pfeffer told Lubowsky that he knew of other Jews in Warrenton and he wanted to organize them into a formal community.

“We wanted to not only avoid the inconvenience of long drives, but we wanted a place to be our place,” Lubowsky said. “We didn’t want to be transient commuters of another’s place.”

Pfeffer ran advertisements in the local newspaper and received about 30 responses.

Fauquier Jewish Congregation first met for a potluck in the summer of 1999 at Pfeffer’s home. The dinner drew residents of Fauquier, Culpeper and Prince William counties. The co-founders began to lay the groundwork for a functioning community.

Today Fauquier Jewish Congregation consists of 60 families, or about 250 individual members. Every Saturday morning, they gather in the reception room of St. James Episcopal Church in Old Town Warrenton, where board member Paula Rabkin leads a discussion of the weekly Torah portion. Like any Jewish gathering, conversation drifts to a new early childhood program offered at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center and Costco’s  salmon prices. Congregants discuss upcoming events, such as a Sisterhood outing to a local winery and an end-of-summer barbeque.

It runs a Hebrew school on Sunday mornings at Highland School, a private school in Warrenton. The community’s annual Passover seder is held at a restaurant in nearby Gainesville.

“It’s an intentional community,” Rabkin said. “A lot of times, people go to temple because they feel obligated, or they’ve paid a lot of money. No one has moved out here because they’re joining a Jewish community. They move out here for other reasons, and they find they miss being part of a Jewish community.”

While the Hebrew School and many programs are lay-led, the congregation hired Rabbi Bill Rudolph as a part-time rabbi in 2015 to lead services and perform other duties. Rudolph, the retired rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, makes an hourlong drive to Warrenton once a month for the Shabbat service and also is available to congregants by email.

“Bethesda is different than Warrenton and Virginia is different than Maryland,” Rudolph said. “The people [in Virginia] are somewhat more conservative politically. There’s a higher level of intermarriage. The kids could be the only Jew in their class or even the whole school, which doesn’t happen in Bethesda.”

While the majority of members are retirees or empty-nesters, 30 children are enrolled in the Hebrew school. Laurie McNaughton, the president of the congregation, said she has seen the congregation experience growth in a variety of ways since she became a member in 2006.

“There is growth in numbers and then there’s other growth,” McNaughton said. “Numerical growth has been slow but steady. The growth I’ve seen has been in intimacy and involvement. More people are getting together during week, people are doing congregational care for each other. To me, that’s so precious.”

McNaughton experienced the kindness of the congregation the first time she went to a service.

“My mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, and as she was slipping away, I needed more family, so I wandered in to a High Holiday service,” McNaughton said. “I hadn’t grown up in a religious family, so while I felt like an odd duck, I thought, ‘These are my people.’ Two days after my mother was laid to rest, I was diagnosed with cancer.”

Although she hadn’t been part of the congregation for long, members quickly reached out to her, offering to cook meals, do housework and mow her lawn.

Rudolph said he sees that commitment, too.

“They have an active board, and the participation percentage-wise is active,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit. They could just drive to Fairfax and let someone make their congregation for them, but they don’t want to do that.”

Abby Seitz is a journalism student at Columbia College in Chicago and a native of Warrenton.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here