‘Model congregation’ finds new life
By Patty Kruszewski, Citizen Managing Editor 08/19/11
Twenty-five years ago, as a fledgling Jewish congregation took root and began to grow in Henrico County, it flourished first on the passion of its 40 founding families and their vision of a culture that was participatory, egalitarian, and child-inclusive.
As additional families flocked to the congregation and services began to outgrow the members’ homes, Congregation Or Atid blossomed anew with a move to a building convenient to its membership – thanks to a helping hand from others in the community.
Since 1986, Or Atid has seen rabbis come and go and membership numbers ebb and flow, while weathering events from a building fire to a second move. But two things have remained constant as the congregation enters its second quarter-century enjoying an upward swing in membership, a dynamic new rabbi, and a newly refurbished synagogue: the passion of its members, and support from the outer community.
Ron Fink, a vice president at Or Atid and one of the original “Founding 40,” has observed the transformation with delight. He remembers well the initial meetings in congregants’ homes, and the move to the first building site on Parham Road – while it was still in use by West End Assembly of God (WEAG).
[WEAG] “needed a new facility, and while they were building the new church, we were allowed to move in,” recalls Fink gratefully, adding that WEAG leaders bent over backwards to accommodate Or Atid’s needs. “We had this Saturday-Sunday coexistence for a year.”
Fink also has fond recollections of the early days, and of the bonds that formed among the founding members.
“It was such a tight community,” he says. “It was interwoven into our lives. If you didn’t show up for services one week, everyone would notice. They’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, where’s Ron?’”
Energy and spirit
Last month, Congregation Or Atid completed its move into a newly renovated facility on Patterson Avenue. And on August 1, the congregation officially welcomed Rabbi Royi Shaffin as its new spiritual leader.
In between the two moves, the congregation went through a number of “peaks and valleys,” as Fink put it, that often afflict religious organizations.
From its membership peak of 240 families, the numbers had declined to less than half that. The children of the once- young families had grown up, and many parents had drifted away. In addition to the shrinking congregation (typical of many religious institutions these days), lagging attendance and turnover in rabbis, there were administrative issues, budget pressures, and maintenance problems with the aging building on Parham Road.
Among the remaining members, says Fink, there seemed to be a creeping malaise.
“Even founding-family members were saying it’s not the place it used to be,” says Fink. “The energy was lacking; people were missing something.”
And so, one might say, the stage was set for Rabbi Shaffin.
Chosen after an extensive search that included interviews and weekend visits with candidates who led services, taught school and attended “Meet the Rabbi” socials, Shaffin might appear to be somewhat of a misfit for a congregation with Or Atid’s 50-plus demographics.
At 37, he arrived from New Jersey wielding technological tools unfamiliar to most of the members, and wasted no time establishing a blog and launching a Twitter campaign, public Facebook page and congregational Facebook page as a means of engaging the public and building community.
But from the first, says Fink, “Age was absolutely no barrier. It was a marriage – it was a match. The thing we were most missing is what comes most naturally to him; he’s injected so much energy and spirit.
“Just tying him to this chair is tough,” adds Fink, gesturing toward Shaffin as he fidgets during an interview.
Who is intelligent?
As for Rabbi Shaffin, he saw in Or Atid a congregation in need of revitalization, but with the potential – and forward-thinking members – to achieve it.
“Many congregations of all denominations, become stale, routinized, ritualized – empty of meaning and spirituality,” says Shaffin. “In the Conservative and Orthodox movements, there’s a concentration on Jewish Law. In the Reform movement, it’s about social action and changing the world for the better. In neither of those [missions] is mention of God.
“But it’s all about connection to God,” says Shaffin. “If you have done a ritual or a social action project, and it is devoid of God, then you’ve missed the point.”
At Congregation Or Atid, says Shaffin, he met members who were hungry for that spiritual connection. “I received such a positive response to the way I conduct service, and to the way I view Judaism and the future of Judaism.”
What’s more, reflects Shaffin, he observed that Or Atid is a “learning congregation.” Paraphrasing a principle from Jewish teachings, he recites, “Who is intelligent? The one who learns from every person.”
“I heard the history,” says Shaffin. “And [this congregation] has learned from its past, and learned from its present.
“I was looking for a synagogue with a future,” concludes Shaffin. “And I believe this congregation is uniquely positioned. . . It’s a model congregation of the 21st century – a congregation of visionaries.”
Bursting at the seams
With the move to its new location – the former home of E. Carlton Wilton Properties on Patterson Avenue – Or Atid now has the flexibility to grow again. The space that was Wilton’s loading dock has been transformed into an entryway, lined with bricks from the Parham Road building. In the space that was Wilton’s warehouse is the sanctuary and multi-purpose room, which features retractable walls that allow expansion to a patio and the potential for tented space to accommodate large crowds.
And just as WEAG offered a hand up 25 years ago, community members and other organizations have stepped forward to help Or Atid with the transition to the new space.
Before the renovations on Patterson Avenue were complete, Jewish Community Center leaders told Or Atid members not to fret about the possibility of having to vacate the Parham Road facility (now owned by Richmond Montessori School) and do without meeting space.
“You’ll have a roof,” JCC leaders assured the congregation.
In addition, the members at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, located adjacent to Or Atid, have offered the use of their parking lot on High Holy Days.
On a tour of the repurposed building, Shaffin and Fink point with pride to a foyer highlighted by Jerusalem stone, a painting commissioned for the new space, and memorial plaques brought from the Parham Road site. The facility also boasts a full meat and dairy kitchen, and ample classroom space to house the congregation’s nationally recognized school.
The Helen and Sam Kornblau Religious School, recognized as a “Framework for Excellence School,” is the first and only religious school in the Commonwealth and one of only 88 schools in the nation to receive the honor from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
In the multi-purpose room, Shaffin and Fink describe the growing crowds that are attending popular social events, such as the “Shabarbeques” celebrating the Sabbath.
As the congregation’s growth cycle continues on its latest surge, says Fink, synagogue leaders are already looking at ways to expand the building – which was fashioned with that flexibility in mind.
“This synagogue can only go up,” says Rabbi Shaffin. “It’s going to be bursting at the seams.”
“For me, as a founding member,” reflects Fink, “this is bringing back the same feeling as when we were starting.
“I have a lot of pride in where we’ve come in 25 years.”
For details, visit OrAtid.org or call 968-5131.
More than 300 participants took the plunge for charity Feb. 25 at The Shops at Willow Lawn, raising $40,000 for the Special Olympics of Virginia as part of the 2017 RVA Polar Plunge Fest. Participants jumped into frigid water as part of the event, having raised money through donations leading up to the event.
“At Special Olympics Virginia, our vision is to inspire the first unified generation; a generation of people who respectfully include each other in the school, in the workplace, in the community,” said Rick Jeffrey, Special Olympics Virginia President. “Plunging this past Saturday included people with intellectual disabilities and those without; people of all ages, genders, races and religions; students and teachers; doctors and lawyers; military and law enforcement; one for all; all for one." > Read more.
CancerLINC's 11th annual "It’s in the Bag" event raised more than $50,000. The event, presented by Virginia Cancer Institute, was held at The Westin Richmond in Henrico Feb. 2 and was attended by more than 200 people.
“It's in the Bag” included handbag designer Thaddeus DuBois and his family from Syracuse, Ind. DuBois brought four handcrafted handbags, which were auctioned off and raised more than $4,000. Three autographed handbags from “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker also brought funds. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 02/28/2017 Features
Above, Varina’s Andre Watkins drives to the basket during the Blue Devils’ 52-51 win against Hampton in the Group 5A third-place game at Hermitage High School Feb. 25. Below, Tyrese Jenkins drives to the basket during the game. The Blue Devils (21-6 on the season), who earlier last month defeated Hermitage, 53-34, to earn a spot in the 5A state tournament, next will face Albemarle in that tournament. It is the program’s first trip to the state tournament since 2001 and first under fourth-year coach Andrew Lacey, who has turned around a team that was 6-14 during his first season. > Read more.
For the past two months, they showed up every day at the state Capitol, dressed in matching blazers and carrying pen and paper at the ready – the next generation of public servants carefully observing their superiors.
These young adults are known as pages. They are middle school and high school students from around Virginia who assist in everyday tasks at the General Assembly to experience firsthand how the legislative process works.
The program dates as far back as 1850, when the one page who worked was paid $2 a day. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 02/27/2017 Features
The Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC) is seeking to raise $100,000 in 30 days to cover due diligence and closing costs associated with the historic Malvern Hill Farm. These include boundary survey, Phase I ESA, title search and insurance, recording fees, taxes, and legal work as well as a Section 106 review.
CRLC is scheduled to close on the purchase of the property May 31, and is asking community members to help support the site's acquisition. All donations will help CRLC leverage $1 million in matching funds. > Read more.
St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.
Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.
Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Given the warm weather lately, Saturday’s RVA Polar Plunge Winter Fest, benefiting Special Olympics Virginia, might actually be enjoyable! Other weekend events you’re sure to enjoy include the 14th annual Richmond Kids Expo at the Richmond Raceway Complex, the Richmond Symphony and The Taters in concert at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, and the Richmond Ballet Minds in Motion Team XXL performing at the Henrico Theatre. This is also the last weekend to check out HATTheatre’s production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.” For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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CalendarNorth Park Library’s “I Am Not My Hair” series wraps up with a screening and discussion of “In Our Heads About Our Hair” from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. This documentary from Hemamset Angaza examines issues black women confront regarding hair, culture and self-esteem. For details, call 501-1970 or visit http://www.henricolibrary.org. Full text