Beth El Hebrew Congregation has a long and storied past. From its inception during the middle of the 19th century in the port city of Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, to its present 21st century vibrancy, it has borne witness to the events of town, country, and world, as well as changes in religious observances.
Alexandria, then, was a thriving community with bright prospects for the future, and, by 1856, more than thirty Jews took up residence in Alexandria. These immigrants came primarily from Germany, and sought to attain freedom and dignity, as well as their fortunes, in America. Virtually all were in some phase of retail trade—clothing, dry goods, shoes, groceries, scrap—and they soon played active roles in the civic affairs of the city. In 1856 they organized the Alexandria Literary Society, and in 1857 established a Hebrew Benevolent Society to provide a Jewish burial ground. In 1859, two Congregations were formed, one reform and one Orthodox. These Congregations resolved their basic differences before the High Holy Days of 1860 and held their holiday services together.
After an influx of Jewish families, Beth El decided to obtain permanent quarters for worship and a religious school, resulting in the establishment of their own Temple on Washington Street in Old Town Alexandria in 1871. In the beginning, congregants carried out the role of leader or “teacher”. This permanent home, established for purposes of assembly, prayer, and religious instruction, served the Congregation for the next 84 years. A rabbi was soon hired, and in 1871, a major step was taken in the Americanization of Beth El as he began to deliver his sermons in English. Services were conducted in both Hebrew and German until 1882, when German was eliminated from the services.
Between 1883 and 1938, Beth El was essentially a “family” Congregation. Membership was just under 20 families during most of that time. The Beth El building served mainly as a house of worship and a small religious school. With or without a rabbi, services were held weekly. Music was always a featured part of the service as it is today. Rabbinical students from HUC (Hebrew Union College) assisted during the High Holy Days, and Washington, DC, rabbis assisted with life cycle events. The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods was founded in 1913, and Beth El’s chapter was established that year.
In spite of the small numbers of congregants, they continued to meet religious and life cycle needs, provide for education, as well as retain an active interest in the outside community. Beth El members served in the Civil War, First and Second World Wars, Korean and Vietnam conflicts. They were involved in debate about moral and ethical issues, political protests, and many became politicians and business people who served and were well known within the larger community.
Around 1933, two historic events influenced local Jewish growth: the election of Franklin Roosevelt, with the expanse of federal programs, and the fall of Germany to Hitler and the Nazis, resulting in the death of more than 6 million Jews. Because of this influx of Jews into the area (and into our congregation), in 1938, following Kristallnacht, the congregation engaged a rabbi from Germany to become the spiritual leader of the congregation--the first in over 50 years. His tenure was followed by many devoted rabbis who led us through decades of growth, both numeric and in service and programming—Brotherhood, Chavurot, Youth Groups, Social Action Committees, and a burgeoning Religious School, to name a few. However, the Old Town building did not have space for these growing numbers of congregants and activities. Thus, the land for the present building on Seminary Road was purchased and building began in 1956. This building has been remodeled and updated several times, in order to meet on-going congregational needs.
From its inception as a Reform Congregation, Beth El has followed the trend of the movement as a whole and kept pace with innovation, as well as with the more recent reintroduction of traditional modes of prayer.
We can look back with pride at where we began, where we are now, and where we are going.
~ Enid Liess
For a more indepth look at Beth El's history, click on the link below.
Published in celebration of the 125th Anniversay of the congregation in Alexandria, VA