They looked like pioneers as they made their three-mile pilgrimage amid the suburban sprawl of Leesburg yesterday, some pushing baby strollers along the W&OD Trail, through a new subdivision, across a highway overpass. The elderly followed in a small procession of cars, playing traditional Jewish music.
In their hands, the walkers cradled two Torahs, sacred scrolls containing the Hebrew scripture, as the march began. A third Torah rode on a man's lap in the back seat of a Toyota convertible.
Yesterday, a new building in Leesburg became a holy space.
Forty families from Loudoun Jewish Congregation, some wearing shorts and sneakers and grasping their children's hands, consecrated the county's first synagogue with a Torah service. They marked the end of an eight-year search for a permanent home, after worshiping in living rooms, community centers, schools, a church and a storefront, with their move to a new temple on Evergreen Mill Road.
Dumpsters brimming with construction debris and mounds of gravel stood on the property, and only scaffolding was visible through the elegant arched windows. But the first glimpse of their temple filled the families with the kind of intense joy that comes when a collective goal is finally in sight, literally.
"It's just overwhelming, incredible," Pam Manas said as she prepared to enter the sanctuary, recalling how hers was one of three Jewish families when she settled in Sterling 32 years ago.
"The idea that you could take a piece of land and turn it into something like this. . . . It's almost like getting married," she said.
"It's a big day for us," added Mort Libarkin, a retired nuclear engineer who also has deep roots in Loudoun County. Reflecting on its journey from a handful of families to 85 today, the congregation imbued yesterday's ceremony with religious symbolism. Starting at 9:10 a.m., members removed their three Torahs from the ark in their storefront at Cardinal Park Drive for the trip to the new space.
The Torahs were passed around as the march continued. At an approximate halfway point on an overpass above the Dulles Greenway, the congregants stopped by the side of the road, joined hands and danced to "Hava Nagila," the Hebrew song whose name means "let us rejoice and be glad," around three women holding the Torahs.
Officially, the temple is still under construction, with unpainted ceilings, iffy plumbing and plastic covering the inside doors. But the congregation wanted desperately to use the sanctuary for its first High Holiday services, which begin Wednesday night with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Architect Daniel Tully rushed his construction crew to complete the sanctuary. The county supplied a temporary occupancy permit, and in the next few days a moving truck will bring tables, chairs, bookcases and desks from the old building.
As of yesterday, 160 people were signed up for Wednesday's services. Libarkin and Barry Memberg, the president, marveled at how quickly the congregation has grown.
The congregation is marking its new beginning with a new name, Sha'are Shalom, or "gates of peace."
It's a Conservative congregation that "conserves tradition in a creative way," said Debbie Immerman, a lay leader making yesterday's journey. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, and services are performed in English and Hebrew. Families come mostly from Loudoun but from as far as West Virginia. The county has another congregation, part of the Reform movement, that worships in rented space.
Sha'are Shalom is missing a permanent rabbi and relies on lay leaders and part-time rabbis from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. A full-time rabbi who would live close enough to walk to the temple in keeping with Jewish tradition is the next goal.
By 11 a.m. yesterday, the first of the group turned into the driveway at 19357 Evergreen Mill Rd., where the temple's three adjoining hexagons came into view. The copper roof gleamed in the morning sun. The outside walls stood elegantly in beige stone that looked as if it had stood for centuries.
"Shalom!" the first arrivals said as others walked up and stared at the temple. A few cried. The crowd fell silent as Immerman introduced the man responsible for the building before them, Irwin Uran, a multimillionaire investor who lived in Leesburg in the late 1990s and donated more than $3 million. As a blessing was read, Uran attached a mezuza to a strip of Velcro on the right side of the door, a makeshift perch for the ornament containing a sacred text that adorns the entrance to homes of observant Jews.
Inside, Mindy Walbesser, whose great-grandfather owned one of the Torahs in Upstate New York in the 1920s, handed out prayer books fresh from boxes. Everyone walked into the circular sanctuary, whose distinct feature is its domelike roof -- with six sides, one point for each point of the Star of David. People could not help looking up at the light-filled ceiling of longleaf pine.
Betsy Uran, Irwin Uran's wife and an Episcopal minister, proudly recounted the moment when she suggested to her husband another gift of philanthropy he could offer to his community.
Perry Immerman, Debbie Immerman's husband, blew the shofar, a ram's horn used on the High Holidays, and the congregation joined hands for another round of "Hava Nagila."
Then everyone repaired to the recreation room for celebratory cookies and apple juice.