Temple Rodef Shalom members connect in ‘Tents’

An in-person meeting of Grow-Getters, Temple Rodef Shalom’s Tent for gardeners. Members toured a congregant’s home garden after meeting virtually for months to share tips. (Photo courtesy of Cookie Mandell)

The Movement Mavens is for yoga fans. Grow-Getters is all about gardening. And Grape Expectations? It’s a place to sip some wine.

They’re three of the 30 “Tents” belonging to Temple Rodef Shalom. “Tents” is what the Falls Church-based Reform synagogue calls its interest groups of five-to-15 congregants who meet online for activities or discussions. The aim is to create social opportunities for the synagogue’s 1,800 member families outside of worship services, said Cookie Mandell, director of membership engagement.

“The easiest way to break the ice when you are in a group of strangers is to share a common interest or activity or stage of life,” she said. “Finding other Jews and other temple members with whom they can enjoy a hobby or a special interest is sort of  icing on the cake to their membership.”

The name “Tent” is meant to evoke the feeling of “welcoming, hospitality, gathering [and] celebration,” Mandell said. “It’s a symbol that is very much part of the Jewish narrative. Gathering in Tents has always been part of our history. It resonates with the idea of being in smaller groups.”


Every congregant is free to pitch an idea to synagogue staff, Mandell said. The farther out the name is, the better. Reservoir Fellas, for example, meets to discuss films directed by Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.

“And I have to confess when I first heard that idea, I thought it wouldn’t fly,” Mandell said. “But it’s been meeting for months and months.”

The idea for Tents goes back to a pilot program showcased at the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2015 Biennial. Mandell said Rodef Shalom took note of several congregations that adopted the program and decided to give it a try in 2019.

The congregation started with a handful of groups to test the concept. But after the pandemic hit in March 2020 and programs moved online, the number of Tents quickly grew. Today there are close to 30 Tents.

“People were isolated. They were lonely,” Mandell said. “Many of them were very anxious and fearful for what was to come. Having these opportunities to join something that was more lighthearted was a great opportunity for people who could no longer enjoy the social aspects of their lives. Fortunately, Sharon Sotsky Remirez, our Tents Coordinator, stepped in and filled that gap.”

For some Tents the name tells it all, like the groups Other names require some deciphering like The Responsible Dinkers. This Tent is for those with a passion for the game pickleball, a sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis.

Another is Bubbles and Babies, a get-together where tots blow bubbles and adults enjoy bubbly drinks. Joyful Grandparenting is for congregants looking for ideas for how to keep their grandkids engaged and having fun over Zoom.

Some groups revolve around news discussion like Today in Israel and Fans of The New Yorker. And for those interested in discussing one of Judaism’s most popular TV shows, why not give Netflix & Shtisel a try?

Congregant Sam Simon of McLean helped start two Tents: Wordsmiths, and Judaism and Theology. Wordsmiths is a group for poets, authors and creative writers to talk shop and share their work. A lot of times people will bring in their latest piece for group critique, Simon said. In Judaism and Theology, members share their thoughts on God.

Simon said the Tents are a great way to get to know other congregants.

“You get to meet people, learn and become good friends,” Simon said. “It expands our Judaism into our daily lives.”

With the lowering of COVID restrictions, some Tents have started to meet in person. And Mandell expects the number to grow with the warm summer weather and increased vaccination numbers.

As for future Tents, Mandell sees no reason to add as many as there is demand for.

“I would be delighted if we had 100 Tents,” she said.

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