Henrico County VA

‘Model congregation’ finds new life

Congregation Or Atid founding member Ron Fink (left) and Rabbi Royi Shaffin at the congregation’s new home on Patterson Avenue.
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.
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Community

‘Race to Protect Children’ scheduled for Saturday


The Race to Protect Children will be held at West Broad Village Saturday, May 2, to benefit Greater Richmond SCAN.

The 1-mile Kids Run will begin at 8:30 a.m., followed by the 5K Run/Walk at 9 a.m. The event is designed to be family friendly, and the flat course is walker-friendly.

A children’s festival will begin at 9 a.m., offering activities and performances for children and families. > Read more.

Anthem ‘LemonAid’ registration opens


Last summer, hundreds of Anthem LemonAid stands dotted Central Virginia and raised more than $100,000 in support of cancer treatment and research at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR). This July 17-19, Anthem is inviting community members to host an Anthem LemonAid stand in support of the children who are battling the disease. During the past 13 summers, Anthem LemonAid has raised more than $1 million. All funds raised support the Hematology and Oncology Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

Anthem LemonAid is Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ signature summer event. It’s free to participate and is designed for children, families, community groups and businesses alike. > Read more.

Tree seedling giveaway planned April 2-3


The Henricopolis Soil & Water Conservation District will sponsor a tree seedling giveaway on April 2 at Dorey Park Shelter 1 from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and on April 3 at Hermitage High School parking lot from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Bare-root tree seedlings are available to Henrico County residents free of charge for the spring planting season.

The following seedling species will be available: apple, kousa dogwood, red maple, river birch, red osier dogwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, bald cypress, white dogwood and redbud. Quantities are limited and trees are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Each participant is allowed up to 10 trees total, not to include more than five of the same species. > Read more.

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Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


It’s that time of year – charity races are popping up everywhere! On Saturday, St. Joseph’s Villa will be the site of the sixth annual CASA Superhero Run and the fifth annual Richmond Free to Breathe Run/Walk will be held in Innsbrook. Also in Innsbrook, the 2015 Richmond Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis will take place on Sunday. If you’re more into relaxation than exercise, check out Wine for Cure’s Dogwood Wine Festival or the Troubadours Community Theatre Group’s production of “West Side Story” at the Henrico Theatre. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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There are several fun events this weekend taking place outside including the third annual Virginia Firefighter Games at Short Pump Town Center; Twin Hickory Park’s “April Showers: A Celebration of Spring” event; the Young Life Richmond West 5k in Innsbrook; and the Gold Festival on Broad which benefits Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. Fingers crossed for no rain! For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


The University of Richmond will host its annual Global Family Concert this weekend – a free, family friendly concert featuring Japanese, Indonesian, West African, Indian, and Brazilian music and dance performances. Country music fans can head to The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen for “An Evening of Country” featuring The Honky Tonk Experience. Enjoy the spring weather at Meadow Farm for “Sheep to Shawl” or join the Henrico Hiking Club at James River Park. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

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Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will host its spring plant sale from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 2. This plant sale… Full text

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