Preserving nature at Beth El Hebrew Congregation

Amarantha Flachs plants a tree in the Chapel in the Woods. (Photos courtesy of Jeremy Flachs)

At first glance, some may see an unremarkable wooded area. But according to Steve Kalin, past the brush lies a hidden gem: the Chapel in the Woods. That’s the moniker of the two-acre oak-hickory forest behind Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria.

The chapel is an event space, a backdrop for religious services and a teaching ground for students to learn about environmental science. It’s used for tot Shabbats and community gatherings like weddings.

As for Kalin, a longtime congregant, the chapel is his sanctuary. Each Shabbat, he walks 15 minutes from his house to spend his afternoon strolling down paths and relaxing on his favorite bench in the woods. The chapel is a place where he can feel secluded and surrounded by nature.

“I feel at ease, peaceful, calms me down, puts me into a reflective mood,” Kalin said. “So many of the wooded areas around here have been knocked down for development. And this is the last place I could find that has some trees and nature.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Kalin said the chapel has been even quieter. With the synagogue closed to visitors, Kalin said he typically finds himself alone in the woods.

But occasionally he will spot congregants Stuart and Nancy Davis at work. The husband and wife are part of an ongoing battle against more than 30 invasive species, which threaten the native wildlife in the woods. And at the heart of this fight is the Reform congregation’s Chapel in the Woods Committee.

The Davises and other members of the congregation’s Chapel in the Woods Committee, come out monthly to clear brush, plant native species and prevent erosion. “There’s development all around and this is quite a refuge place for wildlife, a habitat that’s undisturbed,” Stuart Davis said. “Hopefully, we’ve been enhancing it by planting more beautiful plants people can enjoy.”

Jeremy Flachs spreads mulch.

Jeremy Flachs is another committee member. He started lending a hand in the chapel about 10 years ago and said he is motivated by a desire to preserve and expand nature’s footprint in the Chapel in the Woods. The space is not only important to wildlife preservation, but also is part of the Strawberry Run watershed that provides drainage from the surrounding neighborhood.

“My work ethic in the environmental arena, which is nonprofessional for me, drives me to clear out invasive species and better the land, where and how I can,” Flachs said. “So in an effort to increase the capacity to sustain native insects, birds and animals, we’ve removed huge amounts of invasive plants that didn’t belong there.”

Flachs recalled how in 2015 the chapel was covered in English Ivy, “a horrible invasive plant that monopolizes the landscape.”

Nancy Davis said the ground was blanketed by vines that choked the trees.

“Imagine walking into a hall where there are columns that reach up to the sky, and every column is covered with green vines, and at your feet is a carpet of green that extends as far as the eye can see,” she said. ”Then you would have an accurate view of the Chapel in the Woods six years ago.”

The Davises, Flachs and others fought back against the ivy, cutting away at their foe. About three years ago, Flachs initiated the nuclear option, spending his own money to hire a company to chemically spray the ivy.

Kalin said their efforts produced a “tremendous change” in the chapel. After clearing away the ivy and porcelain berry vines, they discovered a partially buried truck chassis. The group called its removal a “watershed moment,” signaling to the neighborhood an end to the chapel being used as a garbage dump. And the efforts have produced an increase in animals and insects.

“The crown jewel was two years ago,” Flachs said. He and the others introduced milkweed and monarch butterflies laid eggs and some caterpillars hatched. “That’s a big deal in the environmental arena,” Flachs said.

In 2015, English Ivy covered the trees in the Chapel in the Woods. It has since been removed.

There’s more to be done. Nancy Davis said they will probably have to spray the woods again. And the committee will need to combat Oak Decline Syndrome, which killed at least three trees.

But there is clearly a sense of renewal in the Chapel in the Woods.

“The butterflies have come back. We have hummingbirds. We never had hummingbirds [before],” Nancy Davis said. “So you can see the results of this tremendous labor.”

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