Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism

Jews Account For Less Than 1 Percent Of Our Region’s Population But Have A Remarkably Strong Presence In The Community

by Tom Robotham | Jan 16, 2018

Rabbi Michael Panitz, Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism
Rabbi Michael Panitz

And if a stranger sojourns with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shall love him as thyself.

~ from the Book of Leviticus


Whenever I reflect on my own spiritual journey, a few significant milestones stand out. At the moment—having spent the last two months exploring Judaism in Coastal Virginia—one is particularly vivid: the memory of my first Seder.

It was a clear, cool April evening in Manhattan in 1996. My boss at the time had invited me to join him and some of his friends at his spacious apartment on the Upper West Side for the sacred holiday dinner commemorating the liberation of the Jews from enslavement in Egypt.

Among the guests was actor Jerry Stiller, who led the proceedings. Though Stiller is known for his comedy, he didn’t crack many jokes that night. I don’t mean to imply that he was humorless. There were light-hearted moments. But from beginning to end, he orchestrated the rituals and prayers with the discipline of Rabbi.

I was fascinated.

Not all of the people at the table were devoutly religious. But they were bound together by a strong sense of their Jewish identity, and they seemed to place great value on the traditions associated with it. In some ways I envied them for their connection to a distinct and abundantly rich heritage. In modern America, after all, that quality is becoming increasingly rare. With each passing year our culture becomes more and more individualistic, fragmented and detached from history.

If this sense of connection among Jews is stronger than it is in any other religious group it is because Judaism has certain characteristics that all other religions lack. Rabbi Michael Panitz, of Temple Israel in the Wards Corner section of Norfolk, put it particularly well when I talked with him one Saturday in his office after a service at the synagogue.

“Unlike [Biblical times],” he said, “when Jews were the majority culture in their own lands, the Judaism we practice today—despite the existence of the state of Israel—is a religious style which has had thousands of years of practice in tending to a minority. Sometimes it’s a very small minority and sometimes a persecuted minority. So the strength of the community becomes a really important part of the experience of being Jewish.

“In this respect,” he added, “Judaism is like an ethnic church. Christianity is universalist. There’s no Jew in Christ, there’s no Greek in Christ, is how St. Paul put it. Judaism has a much higher sense of the community or the nation as the carrier of our message. So even when you have Jews who are highly assimilated, they still have a sense of being part of a nation, part of a culture, part of a community. Some people who come here [to the temple] are close to being atheist. So it’s not belief in God that brings them here on a regular basis. It’s a sense that ‘this is my platoon.’”

As I listened to Panitz, I was struck by how skewed my sense of Jewish life in America had been when I was growing up in New York City. I hadn’t fully understood just how small this minority actually is. New York, after all, is home to well over a million Jews, or about 12 percent of the city’s population. Indeed, it is the largest population of Jews outside of Israel. Nationally, it’s a very different picture. Jews account for only about 2 percent of the American population. The number of Jews in Coastal Virginia, moreover, is only about 15,000 by liberal estimates, or less than 1 percent of the total.

Perhaps because of this, as Panitz suggested, the Jewish community here remains quite strong and cohesive in spite of differences in belief and style of worship.

Most Jewish people here and elsewhere in the country—if they are religious at all— adhere to one of three branches: Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. (More on that as we go.) They also come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Panitz is from New Jersey.

“I grew up in a Rabbinic household in Paterson,” he said, “at a time when there was a fairly large Jewish community there, and my dad was the Rabbi of the largest congregation. So I grew up within this world, as it were. My own sense is very much congruent with my parents: It’s not a matter of rejecting the broader world that we live in; it’s a matter of participating in it with a multicultural sense. All the different cultures have something to contribute in making our society better. I do so as an American Jew. But I’ve always believed that we should treat each other as brothers and sisters.”

The idea of becoming a Rabbi was not “automatic,” for him, he recalled.  “For a long time,” he said, “I was really focused on becoming a scholar and working in academia. I have a Ph.D. But my love of congregational service was never absent, and it became stronger as I got older. I wanted it to be the larger part of what I do while staying in the university as an adjunct. (He continues to teach part-time at both Old Dominion University and Virginia Wesleyan.) 

Temple Israel, Judaism

Temple Israel is a conservative synagogue, but Panitz explained that this label is misleading.

“Conservative, in the Jewish tradition, is actually centrist. I prefer the newly minted Hebrew term Masorti, which means traditional. We want to conserve our traditions, but the word ‘conservative’ does not mean ‘red’ in the modern political sense. Conservative Jews tend to be purple leaning to blue. What makes them not straight blue, politically, is the sense that for the last 50 years our fellow liberals haven’t given Israel a fair shake. But on the big social issues of the day—charity as a mandate, caring about the environment, freedom of choice, and so on—most of the Jews in the congregations I’ve served have been on the left side of the aisle. I think of Conservative Judaism in relation to the Latin term via media, which means ‘middle way,’ and is often applied to the Anglican Church.”

While attending the service at Temple Israel, I could see the parallel myself. Like the Episcopal Church in which I grew up (Episcopalians being religious descendants of Anglicans in America), the people I met at Temple Israel seemed open minded about social issues but wholly devoted to ancient liturgical traditions. Indeed, much of the service was recited in Hebrew and read from a traditionally crafted—and stunningly beautiful—Torah scroll. (The Torah contains the Five Books of Moses, or the first five books of the Old Testament.)

The service was also long—about two-and-a-half hours in total—although, as I soon learned, many people do not arrive on time. In Jewish tradition, a quorum or minyan of at least 10 people must be present to even begin the service, and on that particular morning there were barely enough at the start. By the end of the service, there were nearly 60 people present. Panitz said that on high holidays there are generally four or five times that number.

Afterward, the celebration continued, as it generally does on the Shabbat, or Sabbath, with an abundance of food served in the large meeting hall outside the sanctuary. This didn’t surprise me. Food, after all, has always been important to Jewish culture, which makes sense given that breaking bread together is one of the primary ways in which we bond as humans. For Jews, such feasts are also a way of connecting with the past.

For Panitz, however, devotion to tradition does not mean interpreting the Bible literally.

“I learned at home, and it was reinforced in school, to always read [the Bible] seriously—but that this is not the same as reading it literally.” He does not believe, for example, that Moses literally split the waters when leading his people from Egypt. “I think there was an Exodus,” he said, “and I think of it as a glorious story with a kernel of historicity. I’m really not worried about whether the literary qualities of the Bible are journalistically factual or not. Because I think the Bible sometimes teaches us with prose, and sometimes with poetry, and sometimes with epic and so on.” To his mind, in short, many of the Bible’s most important passages are myths—not in the modern common usage of that word to signify something that’s false, but in the way in which the late, great Joseph Campbell used it: a story that conveys a set of values and gives meaning to our lives.

“For me,” he said, “the Bible is the indispensable first word in a conversation; it’s not the last word. There are lots of issues, after all, that the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. We have methodologies of reading the Bible that are similar to how a 21st century lawyer reads the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment, for example, doesn’t address wiretapping because it didn’t exist. Similarly, the Bible doesn’t, for instance, address in vitro fertilization. But we do have the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, who could not get pregnant. They turned to Hagar (Sarah’s servant) to carry a child. That’s surrogate motherhood; they just didn’t call it that.”

Temple Israel, Barry and Lois Einhorn, Judaism
Barry and Lois Einhorn

Temple Israel, in spite of its “conservative” label—also fully embraces women as equals in every aspect of the life of the synagogue. That wasn’t always the case, as I learned from Barry and Lois Einhorn, who joined in 1955, just three years after the temple opened. It was Lois who eventually helped lead the push for women’s equality there.

As a child, Lois was exposed to Jewish traditions at home but knew little about organized Judaism.

“My dad was born in Russia,” she told me as she and Barry chatted with me over lunch recently. “Like most of the Jewish people who came from Europe, his family was Orthodox. But he was a rebel. Organized religion just wasn’t for him. I call him the first hippy,” she added with a laugh.

Lois’ mother, born in the United States, also came from an Orthodox background, and for the first year that her parents were married, she kept a kosher home, but they didn’t belong to a synagogue, nor did they continue to keep a kosher home when she was growing up. 

“The first time I ever saw a synagogue I was 12 years old when I went to my cousin’s bar mitzvah. When I started at Blair [Middle School in Norfolk] I met more Jewish people, and they would talk about going to services on the holidays. I really wanted to see what it was like. At the time you needed a ticket to get in. I didn’t have one, but my girlfriends snuck me in. I really liked the service. I’ve always liked learning and wanted to learn more about Judaism.”

Lois and Barry, now both 88 years old, started dating when they were 16, and married when they were 22 at Congregation Beth El in Norfolk. Soon afterward, the Rabbi’s wife asked both of them to teach Sunday school.

“I said, ‘I can’t teach Sunday school. I never went myself.’ But she said, ‘That’s alright, you’ll be fine.’ So I started teaching a third-grade class. That’s how I started really learning. You learn best when you teach.”

While their experience there was a good one, Barry had become interested in Temple Israel, in large part because it was attracting a lot of young families and was led by a young Rabbi. After joining, they continued to teach Sunday school there, and Lois eventually became the head of the program. She also began learning Hebrew.

“That made all the difference in the world,” she said. “I just loved it.”

Throughout the 1960s, however, women were not even considered part of a minyan. That changed in the early ’70s—although not without some resistance. When the Rabbi asked the women how they would feel about changing the policy, some of them said, “No way.” He did it anyway.

More changes came quickly. Women had also been prohibited from helping to lead the services through readings, for example. One day, however, the Rabbi asked Lois to read the Haftarah, or prophetic text.

“Some of the older gentlemen walked out,” Barry recalled.

Today Lois regularly assists Rabbi Panitz—and the Einhorn’s daughter holds the honor of having been the first female president of the synagogue.

“That was very important to us,” Lois said. 


Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg, Ohef Sholom, Norfolk, Judaism
Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg

Reform Judaism, the most liberal of the three branches, has a slightly longer history of accepting women as equals. In fact, a well-known Reform temple in Norfolk, Ohef Sholom, is led by a woman—Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg.

Born in Los Angeles, Mandelberg had “a very strong Jewish identity while growing up,” she told me as we talked one day in her office.

“My father was from Transylvania and was a Holocaust survivor. My mother’s family was from Czechoslovakia and Latvia. Her grandparents emigrated to what was then Palestine in the late 1930s because they sensed the tide was turning. So they were really pioneers in the founding of the state of Israel.”

In spite of this sense of Jewish identity, Mandelberg said, there were “gaps” in her knowledge. Moreover, it never occurred to her that she might become a Rabbi because women were not allowed to do so.

“I’d never even seen a woman Rabbi before, so it never entered my mind that it was a possibility.”

That changed when she joined a Reform congregation after college—one that was led by a woman.

“Every time she opened her mouth,” Mandelberg said, “I felt like she was speaking directly to me. One day I was sitting in services listening to her and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that could be me.’”

Mandelberg explored the idea with her Rabbi over lunch one day, and the Rabbi urged her to reflect on why she wanted to become one as opposed to, say, a teacher or a social worker.

“I loved the idea of learning and teaching,” she said, “but I also felt like I wanted to be able to show people how Judaism could enhance the joy and meaning in their lives and also help them through difficult times. So that would involve the counseling and the lifecycle officiating as well.”

After making her decision, she began her studies, spending one year in Israel and four years in New York. She was ordained in 1996 and served for a time in Westchester County, just north of the city, then for nine years in Baltimore. She has been at Ohef Sholom since 2004, and by all accounts from people who know her she is beloved for her warmth and openness. 

“I like that Judaism places a huge emphasis on ethics on how you treat your fellows,” she said. “To me that’s really the most important thing in life—treating people with dignity and compassion and kindness. That’s how I strive to live, and that’s how I strive to lead—from a place of compassion and love and respect and kindness. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes assert truths that might be uncomfortable for people. But they all stem from a place of recognizing the dignity and really the divinity in every human being. We’re all created in the image of God.”

When I asked Mandelberg whether she ever doubts the existence of God she said she does not. In spite of all the horrors in the world, she sees the good as evidence of God’s work. “I see all the miracles—every birth, every positive thing.”

Nevertheless, she doesn’t worry too much that some Jews harbor more doubt about God’s existence.

“The belief to me is less important than how you behave,” she said. But while Reform Judaism is more modern than the Conservative and certainly the Orthodox branches, she also sees tremendous value in ritual.

“We just talked with a group of teenagers about this the other day,” she said, “and gave them a list of reasons why rituals are important: “they punctuate time and make it meaningful; they elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary; they put a frame around life’s important moments; they highlight our values; they give us an opportunity for reflection on and reenactment of our history; they help us make memories, and they focus our lives on our destiny.”

Mandelberg acknowledged that it does require effort to avoid making rituals robotic, but she said that she avoids this by performing every one—whether it’s a wedding, a funeral or what have you—“as if it were the first. Everybody’s story is different, and what it means to them is different. It’s the same with worship. When I go to lead prayer I need time to set an intention for me and for the congregation. The words may be the same, but depending on where I am or the community is, they have slightly different meanings.”

Barry Einhorn told me something very similar.

“I feel like I have a very personal relationship with God through Judaism,” he said. “The prayers set me up for a conversation with God that’s as real as my conversation with you right now. If I have a problem, and I can’t find the solution, I very often find one by talking to God. That’s from a spiritual point of view. There’s also something about being part of the Tribe, so to speak. There’s a common experience. Somebody who’s not Jewish does not really have the same appreciation for being a minority that we have. It also helps me to be a more understanding person in relation to other minorities, which is one reason Lois and I became very active in the Civil Rights movement. We’ve made many friends in the African-American community as a result.”

Rabbi Mandelberg mentioned the emphasis on social justice as well. Indeed, while Reform and Conservative services differ to some degree, I detected few if any differences in religious and social outlook between the two branches, at least as they were represented by Ohef Shalom and Temple Israel. 

Rabbi Sender Haber, Judaism
Rabbi Sender Haber

Orthodox Judaism is another matter, as I learned while talking with Rabbi Sender Haber, the leader of B’nai Israel in the Ghent section of Norfolk.

For one thing, women there, as in other Orthodox synagogues, sit in a separate side section of the sanctuary during services, just as women do in the mosques I visited while researching my article on Islam for this series. And needless to say, there are no female Rabbis. And yet, when I visited those mosques I learned that the women wholly embrace this convention. The same is true of women of Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

There’s no sense that women are inferior, Rabbi Haber told me. The convention is rooted partly in the idea that women sitting with men is a distraction. (Again, the same rationale was given to me by Muslims with whom I spoke.)

The tradition is not from the Bible, Haber told me. “It’s more Rabbinic. But people far wiser than us said that’s how we’re going to pray. It’s worked. It’s nice to have a thousand-year tradition of that.”

As for the prohibition on women becoming Rabbis, Haber said he sees the issue as a “red herring.”

“My wife counsels, answers questions about Jewish law and teaches. She’ll do just about anything that a Rabbi would do except lead the congregation in prayer.”

Haber, age 39, has been Orthodox his entire life. His father—also a Rabbi—is from Buffalo, N.Y., but had moved for a time to Jerusalem, and that’s where Haber was born. The family moved back when he was a young child, then relocated to Australia when Haber was 12. After attending school there, he moved back to the States to study, then to Israel for two years, before moving back to America permanently and settling in New Jersey.

He and his wife eventually moved to Norfolk because they liked the idea of living in a smaller community, and five years ago he became the Rabbi of B’nai Israel.

“It’s a great community,” he said, “and it’s a growing community. Just about everybody who’s a part of it wants to grow, in some way, in their relationship with God. I find that extremely inspiring.” The congregation, he added, now has about 250 members. 

Unlike many Conservative and certainly Reform Jews, members of the Orthodox believe in strict adherence to customs like keeping a kosher household and not driving on the Sabbath. The latter custom explains why so many Orthodox Jews live in Ghent—because it is so easy to get around on foot.

Rabbi Haber also differs from Panitz and Mandelberg in that he does read the Bible literally.

“God created the world and continues today. The fact that we’re meeting here today is something that God is on top of. So, basically what we believe is that The Torah is the word of God, and it’s true. We believe that Moses literally parted the sea, and we believe that God gave the Torah to him on Mount Sinai.”

He also believes in the story of Adam and Eve. And yet, he said, one has to be careful not to read the Torah superficially. Orthodox Jews, he said, read it through the lens of Rabbinic interpretations passed down through the ages.

“That is where we’re different from evangelicals or creationists,” he said. “You can’t just open up a Bible and say, OK, that’s what it says—you need to look at all the interpretations.”

As for the Theory of Evolution, he added, “there are really two approaches. One is to figure out how the theory could fit into the Bible. There have been books written trying to reconcile evolution with the creation story. Personally, I think someone could come along tomorrow with a new theory [that would displace the Theory of Evolution.] As for me, I’m confident to be able to say, look, God created the world. I don’t have to understand everything. The creation story is considered to be the most difficult part of the Bible, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand it.”

Haber gave a similar answer when I asked him whether he thinks people of other religions will go to heaven.

“I think God will sort that out,” he said.

Because Orthodox Judaism takes such a strict approach, there is a clear divide between it and the other two branches.

“There’s definitely friction between the denominations,” Rabbi Haber said. “But I’m very fortunate that I grew up in a home where I learned that I can be friends with people and respect them, while completely disagreeing with them. Thank God there’s a lot of that around here—a lot of mutual respect.”

The mutual respect appears to extend to the non-Jewish community. Everyone I talked with during the course of my research told me that they rarely if ever encounter expressions of anti-Semitism. I hear anti-Semitic comments on occasion, but not to the degree that I did while growing up in New York, ironically. This speaks especially well for our region, since expressions of anti-Semitism are reportedly on the rise in various other pockets of the country.


Phil Walzer, Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism
Phil Walzer

The primary challenge that Jewish synagogues face today—or the Conservative and Reform synagogues, at any rate—is declining membership due to changing attitudes among millennials.

Phil Walzer, a former president of Temple Israel, sees this phenomenon in the attitude of his own sons.

“They have no interest,” he said. “I think each of them would identify as Jewish, but they don’t attend synagogue. Retaining millennials is a real challenge.”

Then again, Walzer, a native of Brooklyn, never imagined when he was their age that he would eventually become so deeply involved.

“If someone had told me when I was in my 20s that I would become president of a synagogue, I would have told them they were crazy,” he said. “There was a strong sense of Jewish identity in my family when I was growing up. My father was born in Poland, but because of the intense anti-Semitism that he had experienced there before the war, he never identified as Polish.” In spite of this, he added, his parents did not attend synagogue often.

After moving to Norfolk for a job at The Virginian-Pilot, Walzer and his wife joined Temple Israel. Gradually he felt more and more drawn to it.

“It’s a good community, with a strong emphasis on social action,” he said. “And I really respect Rabbi Panitz’s efforts to reach out to other religions.” Moreover, he said, Judaism in general expresses “values that I want to embrace, and that I want my sons to embrace.”

While Walzer did not seem overly concerned that his sons have no interest in organized religion, the loss of millennials came up again and again in conversations I had. The challenge certainly isn’t unique to Judaism. It’s a problem for Christian churches, as well, particularly traditional denominations.

“Judaism in America, like every other religion in America, is a non-established religion,” Rabbi Panitz noted. “People affiliate as they wish to. But churches and synagogues are bricks and mortar institutions with institutional needs. And the way in which they try to meet their needs is usually to have a model of membership. That idea of being a member of an institution seems to be less resonant among millennials.”

Because of this, Panitz tries to remain flexible when talking with young Jewish men and women. He mentioned, for example, a 33-year-old named Danny Rubin, who grew up attending Temple Israel but didn’t attend as often when he became a young adult.

“When Danny was first married, he said that if he and his wife do anything [in the way of religious observance] it’s inviting people over on Friday night. So I said, ‘fine—why don’t you make that the norm of how your week goes.’ What I was looking for was religious engagement to become a norm in their lives—whether it’s in this building or not. There are different ways of getting there.”

Danny Rubin, Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism
Danny Rubin

Rubin told me more about his own journey during a conversation at the Simon Family Jewish Community Center in Virginia Beach, an institution with which he is deeply involved. 

“It’s hard to separate my identity from Judaism. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly religious. I don’t follow strict customs of kosher food, for example, and I don’t pray morning noon and night. I do it in my own way. But I do know how to lead a lot of the prayers, which many people don’t—or haven’t since their bar mitzvah. I try to participate in that side of it when I can.”

Rubin concentrates much of his effort on bringing the Jewish community together in social activities, for both fellowship and raising money for various Jewish organizations.

“People want to feel anchored to something; they don’t want to feel like they’re adrift. I think the reason the Jewish community has survived is that we care so much about where we came from and what came before us. We will carry on certain traditions during holidays that have been done for thousands of years. It’s unbelievable to think about that. To be Jewish is to be a student of your own history and to feel like you’re a part of that history. Everyone who grows up in that takes pride in it and wants to own it in some way.”

When he does bring people together the common ground is Jewish heritage, not one branch or another.

“Recently, we organized a bowling outing,” he said. “We had an Orthodox Rabbi, a guy who had converted, some who were Reform, and some Conservative. It doesn’t matter to me. We’re all Jewish, and we should know each other. We should socialize, do business together, spend time with our families together. We just need to be tight-knit as a Jewish people. At least in our community, it’s small enough that we need to pool our resources.”

As I reflected on Rubin’s deep commitment to the Jewish community, it occurred to me that he may represent the future of Judaism in Coastal Virginia and, indeed, across the country. Synagogues and the services they offer will survive, no doubt, albeit with some changes in institutional structure and worship style. But in time they may become less important than they once were. Indeed, after talking with Rubin, I was reminded again of Rabbi Mandelberg’s comment that it is less important to her what people believe or how they pray than it is how they live. Rubin brings the values of Judaism into his everyday life and feels called to help others do so.

“I just want this community to be here for my children,” he said, “and for me to feel like I played a role in keeping that flame burning.”


Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims, Christianity, Part 1 and Part 2Buddhism and Transcending Religion.

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