Before Susan and Shawn Dilles moved to the Washington area in the 1980s, a relative gave them a piece of advice.
“Jews don’t go to Virginia.”
After all, conventional wisdom was that the institutions, services and conveniences of Jewish life were centered in the growing suburbs of Montgomery County, in Maryland. For Jews, Northern Virginia was terra incognita.
Forty years later, they’re thankful they ignored that piece of advice. Any remaining doubts that Northern Virginia is a good place to be an active Jew, raise a Jewish family and live a fully Jewish life — any misconceptions still held across the river in Maryland and the District — were swept away in 2017, when a demographic survey of the Greater Washington Jewish community found that Northern Virginia’s 120,000 Jews made it the largest segment in the region.
Now, as if to seal their community’s place on the map, the Dilleses have written a book, “The Jewish Community of Northern Virginia,” as a tribute to their adopted home.
From the first, they were smitten by the area, said Shawn. “Coming from New Jersey, we liked the quality of life — the greenery, the relatively small amount of traffic compared to our earlier home,” Shawn, a retired federal employee, said recently.
In addition, the area “had a lot of high-end employment” and they lived close to their jobs — Susan worked in the pharmaceutical industry.
Living in Vienna, they were some 15 minutes away from four synagogues and what is now the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. The Dilleses have been members of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon for 22 years.
The sixtyish couple took advantage of retirement and, during the COVID pandemic, researched and wrote their book. Susan contacted about 25 congregations and interviewed many longtime members; Shawn did research in libraries and historical societies.
“I did a lot of the writing, Susan did a lot of the outreach,” he said.
The book is a showcase of photos of people — leaders, celebrities and ordinary citizens — schools, commercial establishments, Jewish rituals and synagogues from the earliest Jewish presence in the area to the 21st century.
Each chapter begins with a short discussion of what is to follow.
Northern Virginia, according to the writers, “extends from Alexandria in the east to Winchester in the west, and south to Fredericksburg and Warrenton.”
The couple want to educate readers about the community’s past — which the book traces back to the 1850s — and provide moments of nostalgia.
In addition, the Dilleses hope their book will correct some misconceptions.
“We have come across the perception of people living outside the area that NoVa is less a community and just Jews living in the suburbs, that they are transient and not visibly religious,” Shawn said. “Those are gross misperceptions, inaccurate in many ways.”
The couple believes that there is sometimes a tendency to underestimate the Northern Virginia Jewish community.
Take the time in 2016, when Susan decided to get more involved with the Jewish National Fund. However, she said, all the activities were in Maryland and the District.
She said that when she suggested JNF hold an event in Northern Virginia, the organization was skeptical she could find enough people to attend.
“They said, if you can get 30 people, we’ll do a breakfast,” said Susan, who now sits on JNF’s Washington, D.C., regional board. “We got 300 people to that first breakfast.”
Since then — with a timeout for the pandemic — the breakfast has been an annual affair, with the next one scheduled for Dec. 18 at Congregation Olam Tikvah.
Susan Dilles opened JNF’s eyes about what lay untapped in Northern Virginia, said Adam Tennen, executive director of JNF’s MidAtlantic region.
“We didn’t realize the full potential of this gem of the Greater Washington Jewish community,” he said in an email. “Susan Dilles, along with a small group of supporters at the time, was instrumental in putting Jewish National Fund-USA on the map in Northern Virginia — inspiring others to become involved and, in general, increasing our supporter base in the region.”
The moral of this story is that Jewish organizations profit from learning that the NoVa community is large and active, Susan noted.
That story illustrates the belief among some Northern Virginia Jews that they have been “treated like stepchildren” by the Jews of the Maryland suburbs and the District, the couple said.
Northern Virginia is home to an archipelago of synagogues — Conservative, Reform, Chabad, Reconstructionist. The Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and Gesher Jewish Day School, both in Fairfax, are non-denominational hubs of the region. There are Jewish preschools, summer day camps and teen and adult programming. The community has a mikveh and, most recently, an eruv, a ritual boundary that allows the Shabbat observant to carry objects from their homes on the Sabbath.
And while there are no kosher markets, kosher items, including meat and chicken, are obtainable in some mainstream supermarkets.
Visibility is important, Shawn said, because it helps to show people — in and outside Northern Virginia — that this is a Jewish area with what Jews need from soup to nuts.There are two communal elements missing in NoVa, Shawn said. There is not a visible presence of social service agencies. They’re represented here but they are “kind of commuters,” renting space but having their head offices elsewhere. “Services are provided, but it’s not very visible,” Shawn said.
In addition, “we don’t have a Jewish home for elderly folks,” he said.
Todd Schenk, CEO of JSSA, the Jewish community’s central social service agency, says he “validates that perspective.”
The balance between Northern Virginia and the other segments of the Jewish community “is not quite equitable yet,” Schenk said. “Nevertheless, we’ve had a physical presence in Northern Virginia for decades.”
From its site in Fairfax, JSSA has provided services to more than 1,000 individuals, Schenk said. Services include, senior care, employment for people with disabilities, and a community support line together with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. The services are overseen by 25 Northern Virginia-based staff members.
In his forward to “The Jewish Community of Northern Virginia,” Rabbi Daniel Novick, executive director of George Mason University Hillel and a Northern Virginia native, writes that his great-great grandfather Max called the area “a land of religious opportunity,” when he settled there in 1908.
Northern Virginia “provided us with connection and people — in my case, friends who I went to Jewish preschool with, and stood with me as groomsmen at my wedding, and who are now starting families alongside my own in this same area.”
It took the imposed isolation of the COVID pandemic for Shawn and Susan Dilles to be able to step back and gather the history of Northern Virginia. As they write in their book, they’re glad to be part of it.