Did you know that Northern Virginia has an expansive Jewish community with over 90,000 Jews? On a trip to Fairfax, one could get more exposure to Jewish life than in New York!
Gesher Jewish Day School was the first stop on my trip, and the experience made me wish I was in school again (which isn’t supposed to happen). Director of Development Jennifer Scher gave me the grand tour, which included separate wings for the elementary school and middle school. Built 10 years ago after the school moved from the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia (JCCNV), the building has many windows to allow in natural light; in some instances, it feels like you are in a greenhouse.
The student body of 150 children is the product of dedicated expansion efforts over the years, and there is room for many more students. In fact, this particular day was “Bring a Friend to School Day,” part of a drive to increase awareness of the school’s offerings for those families currently attending local public schools.
Perhaps the unusually warm weather helped, but the atmosphere felt very relaxing and vacation-like. We passed an art and music facility, STEM lab, gym and a line of boots dedicated for the children’s use when they go outdoors for various activities. Outdoor tefillah (prayer) activities are common, and the gigantic outdoor grounds include top-notch fields for soccer and softball. Gesher competes in sports leagues and hosts many games for children and adults, said Jennifer.
As we walked around, we observed various students learning, playing and socializing. It was particularly compelling to pass one class where the students were out of their seats focusing on various tasks, including a few sitting on the floor dedicating deep concentration to their activities. Jennifer explained that, at Gesher, they believe in experiential education and that sitting in a seat all day is outdated (I again wondered why I grew up in the wrong decade). She also mentioned that Gesher will be participating in the B’yadenu Project, a program spearheaded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Boston-area organization Gateways to provide excellent Jewish day school education to all types of learners. The Student Services department at Gesher has been expanding over the past two years under the leadership of the new Head of School, Dan Finkel. "The B’yadenu program will take these efforts to the next level", said Jennifer.
I left the school feeling relaxed and well educated, without even having to take any tests!
The next stops were Wegman’s, Shoppers and Trader Joe’s, all within a few miles of each other. Each had a large selection of kosher food. Wegman’s had items that you would see in any kosher supermarket, such as rugelach, Zomick’s baked goods, Empire chicken and even a kosher takeout counter (however, there is no mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, as of yet). They even had a nice selection of kosher wine, which I was told expands (along with the kosher food selection) prior to Pesach. To my surprise, Shoppers had chalav Yisrael milk and kosher beef! Clearly there is enough of a demand for substantial kosher food here.
I stopped in briefly at the Chabad of Fairfax, which includes a pre-school and after-school program, and visited Mandy Book, whose kids have attended Gesher and the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland. She attends the Chabad of Fairfax on Shabbat and described a very close-knit community. They are close friends and share simchas (happy occasions) with members of Congregation Olam Tikvah, a conservative synagogue that is within walking distance.
A few years ago, there was a push to build an eruv in Fairfax, but that stalled due to a lack of funding and other resources. With broader community support for such an initiative, they feel there could be more success.
Jennifer feels that many people don’t understand the Northern Virginia Jewish community. There is in fact significant Jewish infrastructure here, and as the community grows there is potentially room for a Modern Orthodox synagogue. From the little that I was able to visit in one day, I was indeed surprised, and I headed home with my chalav Yisrael milk, wondering if my roommates would believe me that I purchased it in Virginia.