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The Hill and its Havurah

We were not yet the ten required for a minyan when we first gathered, more than 20 years ago, in a Hill dining room to discuss building a Jewish congregation where none had existed for some time. A full-time rabbi and a crowd of 500+ for the high holidays on the Hill seemed absurd goals to me at the time. But Sig and Susan Cohen, recently returned from foreign service and looking for Jewish community in their neighborhood, were determined.

Today, the group, which once fit around a single table, has roughly 175 official member units (individuals, couples, and families), 125 children in its Hebrew school, and many others who participate in worship, learning, social action, and other activities of the Hill Havurah [fellowship]. Once a rare and ad hoc event, the congregation now welcomes an average of five young people as Jewish adults [bar/bat mitzvah] each year, with that number expected to grow dramatically as children now in the religious school come of age.

Birthing a Congregation
“Yes, that mezuzah story is true,” the Cohens told the crowd at the “All Together Now” gala last fall. With no easy way to identify and gather potential participants, the couple walked the streets in search of doors with a mezuzah, the small ritual scroll-box often marking a home as Jewish. They knocked on doors, asked friends of friends, and slowly gathered enough Jews for a regular monthly potluck and Friday evening Shabbat service.

It’s no joke, that “two Jews, three opinions” line. Gathering Jews who were prepared to lead, even participate, in worship services meant working through a plethora of decisions, from which prayers to include in which language to appropriate [kosher] food. The Cohens kept at it, recruiting people to lead and participate, organize and teach. The crowd morphed over time, through moves and shifting interests, children’s growth and elders’ deaths.

Many people have contributed different energies over the decades and served essential roles. But it’s no exaggeration to say Hill Havurah would simply not exist without the Cohens. At its annual gala, the congregation celebrated its 20th anniversary by recognizing them with the 2018 “Ner Tamid” [eternal light] award.

“It was wonderful to see so many people from the Hill and beyond,” says Rabbi Hannah Spiro, who has been with the congregation for two years now. “It felt good to recognize Sig and Susan Cohen’s important work to birth the congregation, help it become what it is today, and lead us in becoming good neighbors in the wider community as well.”

All Together Then and Now
“When I was very young, my parents brought me, even if I would object,” says Nate Crystal, a lifelong havurah member. He recalls small gatherings, “sometimes only six or seven people,” with potluck meals and services led by Laurie Skolnik, long-time volunteer and later staff member.

“My parents said it was important to be there for the community,” Crystal explains. In turn, he says, “the community was really supportive when I was bar mitzvah. It was a great experience, with important connections and wonderful people….and those early services trained me to sing and made me realize that I like to sing.”

Early on, long-time Hill resident Dick Frankel was involved intermittently. He and Sheryl Segal organized Hill Havurah’s first bar mitzvah for their son, Steven, with help from members of Fabrangen Havurah. The service was held at Christ Our Shepherd Church, the havurah’s earliest church host.

For decades, Frankel has enjoyed leading a favorite poem at high holiday services but has found himself more engaged since Rabbi Hannah came on board. In addition to participating in classes, he says, “I have joined a small singing group that does songs at events like the Menorah dedication on Hill, and some at services….I am very pleased with the Rabbi and the way she has led, without being directive.”

Martin Luther King interfaith program and service project, 1/20/19. Credit: Nate Crystal

A Moment 20 Years in the Making
Your correspondent helped lead Steven Frankel’s bar mitzvah service but missed Nate Crystal’s. I wasn’t a member of the havurah when the congregation hired its first rabbi, but I did participate in audition services and was rooting for Rabbi Hannah. I, too, have been more involved since her arrival.

Rabbi Hannah has been teaching and leading worship and community activities, forging relationships with neighboring Christian and Muslim congregations for text study, anti-racism efforts, gun violence awareness and prevention, and general community building. She and the Hill seem made for each other. And this was never more evident than Saturday morning, Nov. 3.

The week before, eleven Jews celebrating Shabbat at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh had been murdered in an anti-refugee rampage. A few days earlier, two African American elders were murdered after an attempted disruption at a Baptist church near Louisville. Many faith communities suffered and feared, and every Jewish congregation gathering that morning was all too aware of the violent attack on a similar sanctuary a week to the moment before.

The relationships Rabbi Hannah and so many Hill Havurah leaders built over the years helped bring a capacity crowd, composed of a thriving Jewish congregation, in a neighborhood which had been without one for many years, as well as non-Jewish neighbors. Among those joining in support were Rev. Michael Wilker, Senior Pastor at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which currently hosts havurah activities and its office; Jenn Hosler, minister at Washington City Church of the Brethren, former host of havurah activities; and members and leaders of other faith communities on the Hill.

Rabbi Hannah led study and service with grace and strength and compassion, in the face of immense pressures and grief. Among the powerful additions that morning was a sort of resistance anthem in the Jewish world. Even months later, I can still feel the vibrations of the community joining with Rabbi Hannah’s voice and guitar to sing, “We will build this world with love.” So many long-term efforts go into the creation of such momentary vibrations. I am grateful for every one of them and believe they both reflect the best of Capitol Hill and nourish it.

Vision and Investment
“I’d been looking for a shul for awhile,” says Randi Spivak, using a Yiddish term for congregation and  noting that she’d searched as far as Silver Spring but wanted “something closer to home.” The 14-year resident of the Hill decided to explore Hill Havurah after a conversation with the attorney in the next office, who happens to be president of the congregation.

“Howard [Crystal] was telling me all their plans for rejuvenation…that they have a Saturday morning service now.” So, in January, Spivak showed up. “It was a great crowd. Rabbi Hannah is a delight. She has a beautiful voice and way of leading the services…just set a great tone and has a lot of good energy. [Refreshment fellowship] afterward was nice, a chance to get to know people.”

Spivak said that she is planning to return, adding that Crystal (Nate’s father, for the record) gave her a tour of the havurah’s newly refurbished offices at the Church of the Reformation. “I was impressed with the vision and the leadership…investment in a shul on the Hill.”

Hill Havurah has an office and holds many services and activities at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capitol Street, NE. Visit www.HillHavurah.org to learn more.

Virginia Avniel Spatz, an early and returning havurah member, was a regular reporter for Capital Community News for many years. Her Jewish writing can be found at songeveryday.org. Nate Crystal, lifelong resident of the Hill and graduate of Washington Latin Public Charter, is working this year as a local photographer.

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