In 1962, Rabbi Simon Burnstein lamented to a Washington Post reporter that in his nearly 20 years as head of the Southeast Hebrew Congregation at 417 Ninth St. SE, four Capitol Hill Jewish congregations had decamped to the suburbs. Southeast Hebrew was the neighborhood’s only synagogue, which made Burnstein the last rabbi on the Hill.
In 1971, he moved the congregation to Silver Spring, Md., leaving Capitol Hill rabbi-less.
Until now. Last month, Rabbi Hannah Spiro took up her newly created position with the Hill Havurah. There’s a new rabbi in town.
“Havurah” is a Hebrew word that means a gathering of friends. That’s how this group started 15 years ago, as a lay-led congregation whose members prized the neighborly walkability of Capitol Hill but felt something was missing.
“We find a lot of what we need in a very small area,” said Allison May Rosen, chair of the Hill Havurah board of directors. “I grew up in suburban Houston. You got in the car to go to the grocery store. Now we have kids who can walk to their sports practices, walk to their dance lessons, walk to school . . .”
Why not, they thought, walk somewhere to engage their spirituality?
“To be honest, some of the early appeal was probably convenience,” said Allison, who lives near Lincoln Park. “If you wanted your kid to go to Hebrew school, maybe you didn’t want to go very far.”
Or, as the motto on T-shirts the Hill Havurah printed up a few years ago put it, “Why Schlep?”
At first, members gathered in each others’ homes. Then they started worshiping in neighborhood churches that welcomed the opportunity to fill sanctuaries on the Jewish sabbath, Saturday, in addition to the Christian one, Sunday.
In the past year, Hill Havurah has held most of its services at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on East Capitol Street NE. That’s where Rabbi Hannah has her office.
“They are amazing people to share space with,” she said. “Pastor Mike [Wilker] is wonderful and so welcoming to us. Hopefully we can do more things together as a congregation.”
While the last rabbi on the Hill was the 25th generation of rabbis in his family, Rabbi Hannah, 26, is the first in hers. She grew up in North Bethesda and is a graduate of Richard Montgomery High and the University of Maryland. Once a week she travels to Wyncote, Pa., outside Philadelphia, where she’s in her final year of study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
What sort of rabbi will Rabbi Hannah prove to be? She said one of her teachers, Rabbi Jacob Staub, has been an inspiration.
“He always talks about different spiritual types,” she said. “Some people get their spiritual nourishment through singing and through prayer to God. Some people through being together in a group of people who know each other and care about each other. Some people get their spiritual high through community service or volunteerism.”
The members of Hill Havurah? All of the above.
“My goal is to help to support all of that happening at the Havurah, from the meditative to the really dynamic,” Rabbi Hannah said.
This being Washington, and this being the Hill, it’s a diverse, highflying flock. Allison does communications in the health-care field. Other members include journalists and federal workers. They’re from across the political spectrum — and the spiritual one.
Said Allison: “We have a membership that is very bent on not defining itself by a particular sect of the religion, but rather focusing in on the values and being really welcoming, celebrating and sharing, and raising kids in the Jewish way.”
The congregation has 130 “member units” — individuals and families — with about 100 children in its various religious school programs. It’s a modern group — brought together by social media and the Web — but in a way an old one, too: walking to shabbat on Friday nights or Saturday mornings, observing ancient rituals.
But if a havurah is a gathering a friends — informal, lightly structured — what does it mean that there’s now a rabbi on the payroll? Does the name still fit?
Said Rabbi Hannah: “What the leadership and I have been saying is that if we can maintain a really high level of lay leadership and volunteerism, if we can stay away from a sort of top-down structure and really engage the community in big decisions, I think we can still call ourselves a havurah.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.