How One Small Congregation Welcomes Strangers

November 25, 2019Mary Handley with Michele Braun

In the days when transportation was much slower and distances seemed longer, small Jewish communities developed in many towns. Geography and economic opportunity confront Jewish immigrants the same as all others, and in 1858, several Jewish families originally from Bohemia found their way from eastern U.S. seaports westward, into the farmlands, hills, and small towns of the Shenandoah Valley.

In 1867, this small Jewish community began renting a room for prayers in Rockingham County, VA. In 1877, the group formally incorporated as a religious congregation in Harrisonburg. The town’s Jewish population grew to about 90 people by 1890. Over the decades, immigrants, merchants and, starting in the late 1950s, faculty at local universities bolstered the congregation. The Jewish population increased slightly during the post-World War II years, growing from about 100 in 1937 to 160 by 1968. Today, the congregation comprises about 70 families.

And, yes, still today, reaching Harrisonburg requires several hours of driving from the nearest cities with substantial airports or railway lines.

Despite the “off the beaten track” location or, perhaps, because of it, just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed angels to their tent (Genesis 18:1-8), Beth El Congregation in Harrisonburg, VA, maintains the tradition and spirit of welcoming the stranger (hachnasat orchim) that the URJ calls "audacious hospitality."

Here are three of our stories.

Honeymoon Hospitality

A small group of us was setting up for the temple's pre-services potluck when we noticed two people looking at the schedule on the window – nearly ready to walk away. We convinced them to come in, then we convinced them to stay for the potluck. 

They were a young Israeli couple, in the U.S. for an extended honeymoon. They started their travels in New York, went on to Philadelphia, and then south and west into the mountains and the countryside. They told us that her family was originally from Turkey, his from Romania. He did a lot of work in the U.S. with several Jewish organizations; she was an Israeli tour guide. 

They were so sweet, so interesting – and so interested in us, our community, and our city. They were surprised to learn of our town’s large immigrant numbers and the things we do to support immigrant kids in the schools; surprised to find that our Jewish community dates back to the mid-1800s; and very vocal about how they loved our hospitality. It was so much fun to have them here – and now we all have an open invitation if we ever go to Israel!

A Father’s Yahrzeit

One Friday evening this fall, we were six at services. Three of us are Jewish, two are regular attendees but not Jewish, and the last was a visitor, a young Indian woman, dressed in beautiful, traditional Indian clothing. She was driving from New Jersey to Texas for a move and had planned to stop for the night in another town with a Hindu temple – but that temple closed at 8 p.m., and at that point, she was still more than an hour away.

She said it was the anniversary of her father's death, and her mother had told her it was important to go to a temple to honor him – so she came to us. We didn't get much chance to talk with her because we switched the order of the service and did Kaddish immediately after the candle lighting so she could get back on the road. This unexpected visitor  came to our temple to have a moment of introspection to honor her father – and she said our space felt good for it.

Service Leaders With a Timeshare

There’s a Canadian couple with a timeshare in the area who comes to services a couple of times each year. He's a cantor in their synagogue back home. We enjoyed their singing so much during their first visit that we persuaded them to lead services the next time they came to town. Now, they let us know when they will be here, and we put them on the schedule to lead lay services. 

Sometimes it seems silly to have services with only four or five people, but then things happen and it is good to be in the sanctuary enjoying fellowship on Friday evenings. With so few people, visitors stand out, and we always try to learn something about them and make them feel welcome. Based on these stories, it seems we’re doing all right.

Mary Handley is an active member of Beth El Congregation in Harrisonburg, VA, cooking for potlucks, caring for the gardens, and singing in the choir. Michele Braun sometimes leads Torah study at her congregation, Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. Earlier in their lives, Mary and Michele were college housemates.

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