Both the makeup and the needs of Jewish communities in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia have evolved over recent decades. At three town hall gatherings held over the course of May by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, residents provided input that will go toward developing a vision for the institution’s future.
“Federations around the country are about 100 years old. They were designed for a time when the Jewish community was very different and the issues were very different,” said Federation CEO Gil Preuss. “We have some of the most innovative, interesting agencies, synagogues, and organizations in the Washington area compared to any other part of the country. What we’re trying to do is find out what the needs of the community are, articulate a vision and where we are trying to go,” he said.
While each area identified its own distinctive issues, the common message from participants at the three town halls was that Greater Washington is and should continue to be a welcoming, inclusive, and diversity-celebrating community, said a spokesperson for Federation. Israel was also a major topic of discussion — specifically, the notion that Israel has started to divide the Jewish community rather than bring it together. All groups discussed how Federation can play a role in bringing people back together in these divisive times.
The Maryland town hall was held May 6 at the Federation building, the DC town hall May 10 at the Edlavitch DCJCC, and the Virginia town hall May 23 at the JCC of Northern Virginia. The town halls are part of a larger strategic plan and one of four ways that Federation is seeking input for this vision. The other three include one-on-one interviews, a community-wide survey that ran from May 1 to June 1 and received responses from more than 800 community members, and community forums (smaller gatherings of 15-20 people) running until June 15. All are vehicles for residents across the Greater Washington area to become actively involved in Federation and the community at large moving forward, especially if they were not engaged previously.
Preuss kicked off each town hall with an assignment for the attendees: asking them to choose one word that represents their imagined ideal Jewish community. “With all these words together, we get the idea of what a vibrant Jewish life would look like,” he said. “What is the role of the Federation to help move toward that?”
Orly Ben-Eliyahu, regional director of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) in Washington, D.C., was born and raised in Israel but currently resides in Rockville, Maryland. Ben-Eliyahu attended the Maryland town hall.
“After listening to some key speakers at the event, I was happy to learn that both the Israeli and the Jewish American communities share a lot of the core Jewish values, especially around the idea of community and klal Yisrael [the Jewish people].” The desire for a central “meeting place” for the Jewish community was one of the actionable items identified at the Maryland town hall.
One desire emphasized by NoVa residents was for more physical services, specifically Jewish social services, across the area. Another concern was the lack of physical spaces and opportunities for engagement and gatherings between different NoVa neighborhoods. Because of Arlington and Alexandria’s close proximity to downtown DC, for instance, many residents are used to coming into DC for events rather than staying in Virginia. Falls Church and Fairfax residents, meanwhile, are in a different boat.
At the DC town hall, residents noted that while Jewish programming and ammenities for young professionals are emphasized in their community, Baby Boomers are also a vital part of the population and could use opportunities for more engagement.
“I believe collaboration between different Jewish organizations, as is demonstrated in these kinds of events, is essential to the growth and prosperity of the Jewish community,” said Ben-Eliyahu. “I believe that continuing the discussion led by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and involving other Jewish organizations in a collaborative way is vital to achieving our mutual goal.”
By Kami Troy
Kami Troy is senior editor of Kol HaBirah