My wife was the rabbi of a small congregation in the Virginia Piedmont for about ten years. She loved them, and they loved her. Then some particularly crazy folk came on the synagogue board of directors, and decided that they didn’t like her. She was gone after a very unhappy year of harassment during which the congregation tried to keep her, and the board explained that it was their decision.
The area isn’t exactly seeded with congregations, and we weren’t inclined to move, but she did continue to conduct weddings, funerals, and baby namings. As the High Holidays approached, I told her that I thought we should rent a hall, invite every Jew we knew, and put on services. At first she was skeptical. We had neither prayer books nor Torah nor any other necessary furniture of a synagogue.
Nevertheless we decided to make a go of it. We found the former base theater at what was once the Army Intel Command Vint Hill Farms Station at a reasonable price.
My wife went to work putting together our own machzor. Instead of wondering how many pages the rabbi would skip, the congregation would get a crisp, compact prayer book, with plenty of English and Hebrew transliteration, easy to understand, with some nice illustrations. The built-from-the-ground-up prayer book would be readable, because it would be large enough to fit in an 8.5 x 11 loose leaf notebook, and it would contain only those pages used in the service – no wondering about how many of those 300+ pages the rabbi might skip.
We had no web or Facebook™ pages, but we did have a pretty good mailing list, in spite of our old synagogue’s membership director’s position that ‘the rabbi has no need to email congregants.’ We sent out announcements, and hoped for the best.
Attendance seriously exceeded our expectations. If we had made back our expenses, we would have been happy, but we did much better than that, so we went back the next year.
But the theater we rented was not ideal. It was meant for movies and plays. The lights were ‘house lights,’ too dim to comfortably read by. The rabbi found another place, an auditorium at the Community Center in Marshall, Virginia. It had big windows, bright lights, great parking right in front of the building. Heck, you could almost mistake it for a synagogue. We moved there in year three, and things were great. We continued to make a small but tidy profit to go along with my wife’s wedding and funeral work.
Putting on the services took a lot of effort. We had to schlep lots of paraphernalia up to Marshall at the last minute, but the results were worth it.
More and more Jews were moving to the central Piedmont, however. Chabad moved a couple up to Gainesville from Tennessee. At first they were only part time while they got settled, but they held Purim and Hanukkah celebrations for the community. When the young couple was settled, they actually invited us to lunch in their sukkah.
This year we heard Chabad was holding High Holiday Services at a club house right in the midst of the area where much of our congregants came from. Rosh Hashanah would include a dinner. Sure enough, our attendance was down to about half, less than that for some services.
Now I know how local merchants feel when Walmart comes to town. Chabad is a juggernaut. We offered a service. They offered a service with a dinner, and pushed it out there with plenty of publicity.
It was nice while it lasted. There was a difference between the two. My wife offered a beautiful service, highly accessible, even to interfaith couples, with superb sermons. But I think this will be the last year.