Nurturing Community Relationships in Loudoun County: Interview with Rabbi Amy Sappowith

Rabbi Amy Sapowith is the Rabbi at Beth Chavarim reform Congregation in Ashburn. She is both a community and interfaith leader in Loudoun County who is nurturing partnerships to contribute to positive relationships among all who live in the region. She shared some of her experiences and challenges in an interview with Ebaadah Martínez-Jaka, a Student Editor for Loudoun County Magazine.

Q: What is your biggest challenge being a rabbi?

A: I think it’s a challenge being a woman in the field. There are ongoing investigations into the struggles that Jewish women have had in the Jewish movements, especially in the Reform movement, which is sort of more conscious of these things. To the degree that it’s been an ongoing problem with the rest of the country, it’s been subtle enough that you don’t know it’s a problem until afterwards. Looking back, you think, “Why did I have that barrier, or why was that so hard?” Because you go in thinking everything’s equal, and so when something’s not, you think maybe you’ve done something wrong or you’re not doing something right. So there is probably a little bit of that, like most women feel. 

But barring that, I think the biggest challenge for me is my personality. I am an introvert and an extrovert, and so sometimes it’s challenging to be in a position that is mostly dominated by extroverts while being my introverted self. It requires a certain degree of outgoing energy that gets you energized by being around other people. And for me that gets draining and I have to put the barriers away. I need to recharge differently.

Q: How do you want Loudoun residents to see you?

A: In Loudoun County we are the only Reform congregation, so we call ourselves an outpost of Judaism and Jewish life in this part of Northern Virginia. In that respect, we help our Jewish members to live Jewish. You can do it alone, you can do it with some influence from online, but Judaism is meant to be lived in person with a community.

Personally, my goal is to represent a certain ability to hear people with different opinions, different life stories, different priorities, and to be trusted to be able to see the humanity in everybody without being polarized. I don’t want to be seen as somebody just on this side or just on that side. I would prefer to be seen as somebody that can be counted on to be a mediator or peacemaker in that sense. Even though I might have certain opinions at least one way or the other, I would like to be seen in the way I see myself: as being able to hear and respect, and trying to maintain relationships across so many different worldviews.

Q: What is an example of when you felt disrespected?

A: Being a woman, sometimes I feel in some of the movements, whether it’s Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, women are not afforded the same status. We just can’t be heard. Then I have the added liability of being in the LGBTQ community, being bisexual, and who would know that since I’m with a woman? If my being bisexual becomes known, their barriers come up. I do feel the disrespect that comes with that kind of discrimination and it can come from anywhere. It’s mostly not being heard in a dialogue, or you’re not reached out to. I can understand not being reached out to because we’re a small synagogue, because some people may be looking for a synagogue that has more outreach to a larger community. And in that case it’s, well then maybe you want to talk to somebody who has a bigger synagogue. 

Sometimes it feels like the setting I’m in, it’s the woman thing. I don’t know if it’s also being in the LGBTQ community, because that’s only if they know. Even in the Interfaith Clergy Group, there are certain pastors whose movement does not allow them to talk with people in the LGBTQ community for support in a formal way. Sometimes I feel disrespected by that. But I also look at that differently because I do understand why people have trouble with it. I do feel like there’s a level of disrespect but I don’t know that it’s meant to be disrespectful. I think it’s more like a lack about how humanity can be. The woman thing, I think, is more about justice and respect. Because at this point, you have your mother, your sister, your daughter, and if you’re not giving them the equal time of day, then that’s just disrespect. You could apply the same logic to the LGBTQ community if your daughter or whoever is a part of that community, but it is a smaller community.

Q: What is your most important value, and how does it correspond with what your religion has taught you?

A: One of the biggest ones is the idea of debate. That’s what has always attracted me and intrigued me about Judaism. I see our traditions and our sacred texts as sacred arguments. Debate is an ability that implies there is a freedom of thought, and some boundaries, in the encouragement of questioning. That is a respect and understanding of freedom in the sensuality of debate, which means more than one point of view is delivered in a respectful way in order to understand a broader truth. Nobody has the full truth. We all have partial truth as individuals and as communities, and we need to work together to contribute what we know to be true in order to find something greater. 

It’s not to say that you can’t have our smaller areas where we get to live out the truth as we see them. But when we come to solve bigger issues and communal issues, we need to be able to have these conversations in respectful ways to arrive at broader truths that are bigger than any single one of us. That’s the foundational value I see. In Judaism, that presents hope for our communities. But that’s one that seems high on my list as it’s central to the tradition; especially given the times we live in, or anytime in history. Even within the Jewish community, we don’t live up to that. We need to do just as much work in that area as interfaith and secular communities, because human beings are not good at this.

Q: What interfaith partnerships do you have with the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) and the Christian Fellowship Church (CFC)?

A: I inherited those wonderful relationships. We’re looking forward to renewing some activities with ADAMS, and we hosted a vaccination clinic with ADAMS recently. CFC moved somewhere else because of COVID, and I’m not sure where that part of the ABC [ADAMS, Beth Chaverim, and CFC], as we call ourselves, is headed. On that level, there’s a camaraderie that comes with being neighbors. I look forward to some more programs, both educational and social. In that regard, I’ve been in touch with the imam from ADAMS on a number of different occasions, and I look forward to working on more programs with him. One great effort was when we worked with Pastor Michelle from the Loudoun Interfaith Clergy Group in putting together a car caravan to local African-American sites for a tour. 

I think it’s important that we as a community are continually aware of, and educating ourselves about, our history here — African-American history specifically, and all American history. I have appreciated the support we’ve gotten in times when the Jewish community, thankfully not us specifically, but the Jewish community either in Virginia, Pittsburgh, or Poway were attacked. When certain crises come up, acts of violence or injustice, it’s important to know that we can count on each other to show support. It has been part of what we do, what I do, and what I will continue to do.

Article and photos by Ebaadah Martinez-Jaka

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