Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

When I chose Friday night to hit the county fair, I had no inkling I would encounter this sign at a vacant booth: “It’s not that we don’t want to be at the county fair…but we’re celebrating Shabbat at Congregation Etz Hayim.”

On the table was a stack of maps with directions to “Arlington’s only Conservative synagogue.” The document reminded me not only of our county’s vibrant community of practicing Jews, but also that its history has flourished too often under-noticed by many of us gentiles who grew up alongside it.

My friend Lore Schneider, age 88 and German-born, recently recalled how when her family arrived in Arlington in 1960, they knew of no synagogue, having heard of one that once met near the (still open) Public Shoe Store in Clarendon. A look in the phonebook introduced her to the Arlington Jewish Center on Route 50.

Thus began a decades-long relationship that included sending her son, as a sixth and seventh-grader, twice a week via the public bus from North Arlington to the center’s Hebrew school and its countless Boy Scout meetings. Anti-Semitism was more flagrant in those days, and more than once kids in her neighborhood near Nottingham Elementary School threw rocks at the bus.

An old Jewish canard has it that every community must have two types of temples, one you join and another “you won’t set foot in.” Hence many Arlington Jews of the Reform persuasion began commuting to Alexandria to worship at Temple Beth El on Seminary Road (founded in 1859, but at its present site since 1956).

In 1962, a slice of them (36 families), some of them disillusioned with the leadership at Beth El, joined with Fairfaxian co-congregants and opened the Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

There many of my Arlington friends over the decades held confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs to which I was invited. To this day as I drive by on Westmoreland Street I continue to marvel at the beauty of that expanded edifice.

In the early 1990s, organizers from the Reconstructionist Jewish community Kol Ami began what continues as religious services and community outreach in the library and fellowship rooms at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, at Route 50 and George Mason Drive. Its mission is to “celebrate our Jewish souls; expand our Jewish minds; and reconstruct our Jewish hearts.”

There is no Orthodox congregation in our county. But the oldest congregation is the Conservative Etz Hayim, a capsule history of which was provided to me by its past president, Jerold Jacobs. The rumor about old-timers meeting above the shoe store is true, he said, describing how from 1940-47 what then was called the Ohev Shalom Congregation met for high services in the Jones building on Wilson Boulevard.

Then ground was broken at Arlington Boulevard and South Fenwick Street. for what began as a below-ground structure called the Arlington Jewish Center. By 1952, the name had morphed into the Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Center, and two years later construction began to create the building in use today, which was dedicated in 1955.

“At its largest size in the 1960s, the congregation had almost 300 members and some 200 students in our religious school,” Jacobs told me, referring to baby-boom days when Lore Schneider’s family was active there. “We are striving to regain that stature.”


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com