By Maggie Miles / Correspondent
March 5, 2021
For many years, Jewish people who lived and vacationed on the Outer Banks had few options when it came to observing their faith with others and celebrating high holidays.
They could drive roughly two hours to attend services at synagogues in Norfolk or Virginia Beach or tap a rabbi from the Tidewater area to head south to lead special gatherings. But members of the small local Jewish community thought they could do more to serve the needs of residents and visitors alike.
And so, in 2004, the Jewish Community of the Outer Banks was born. Getting started required a little ingenuity, however.
George Lurie, a retired engineer, had recently moved to the Outer Banks. He’d trained as a lay leader at his former synagogue in Pennsylvania and was a natural fit for the new effort.
“I can do that,” he recalls saying when asked to fill the role he’s now held for nearly two decades.
They rented a space from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation’s church on Herbert Perry Road in Kitty Hawk and acquired Reform Judaism prayer books from a synagogue in Kentucky that was updating its collection.
The goal was to make Jewish people of different backgrounds feel comfortable.
Lurie says he found their Torah on eBay. “It was residing in San Antonio, Texas, but it came from Israel,” he says, adding that it had originally been in an Israeli-built settlement in Gaza that the Israelis vacated as part of a post-war agreement.
Traditionally the Torah ark – the ornamental cabinet or chamber that houses the holy scrolls – is built into a synagogue. The Jewish Community of the Outer Banks’ ark was a gift from Gomley Chesed, a synagogue in Portsmouth that was closing. It’s 75 years old. The group painted it blue and white and attached a base and legs to make it easier to roll out for services. The eternal light, which typically hangs above the ark, is attached with an adjustable support system.
“When you come from a congregation of 500 people you might say, ‘What is that?!’” says Lurie.
Lurie has always skewed a bit nontraditional. Before moving to the Outer Banks and becoming lay leader of the Jewish Community, he had left the Jewish religion for around 23 years. But he felt called to return. He married a Presbyterian woman and when their children were around 10 and 8, the couple told them it was time to go to church. The children could pick Jewish or Presbyterian, he recalls telling them, but “nothing” was not an option.
“So, my daughter, who was older, liked me more and became Jewish. And my son, who liked my wife more, became Presbyterian,” says Lurie. “My daughter went all the way through to the bat mitzvah and even took a trip to Israel, and my son got baptized and confirmed.”
Now, after 17 years of taking as lay leader for the community on the Outer Banks, Lurie has only missed four services, and one of those was to attend his daughter’s wedding.
Jane Vercruysse has been a member since 2005 when she retired with her husband to Avon from Virginia Beach.
“It has been wonderful having George as the lay leader of our congregation and always having monthly and holiday services available to me,” she says. “I think it is very important for the Jewish population of the Outer Banks to be able to reach out to other Jews in the community, to be able to worship, and to be able to celebrate Jewish holidays.”
Lurie says they have 44 members. Around 6 to 12 people attend services regularly with more coming out for high holidays, including up to 10 visitors to the Outer Banks from out of town. They don’t charge for services and everyone is welcome. In fact, they have two non-Jewish couples who attend.
There are six regular members who travel from Rodanthe every month, so Lurie makes a point to travel down there twice a year to lead services.
Services are held on either the third Friday or Saturday of the month and for all of the major holidays, Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Passover, Purim and Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is especially poignant. In big cities, it’s a large community event that lasts 24 hours. Lurie says he knows he can’t expect people to be involved here like they would in larger communities, so a one-hour version of the ceremony is observed in conjunction with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.
David Morris, the Unitarian minister, reads half the service and Lurie reads the other half. Then they have people come up and recite names of Holocaust victims.
“So that’s a very powerful thing, and it’s different,” says Lurie.
An Elie Wiesel Essay Contest, in which local middle and high school students are asked to reflect on topics related to the Holocaust, is part of the annual remembrance. Lurie says it’s important to engage young people in the history of the Holocaust and how it relates to what’s happening in the here and now.
Inspired by the insurrection on the U.S. Capital on Jan. 6 and clothing worn by some displaying neo-Nazi slogans, this year’s essay topic is on the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and worldwide and what state and federal governments should do about it.
“I’m curious to see what we’ll get,” says Lurie.
Students and their families are typically invited to the Holocaust Remembrance Day service in April where the students get to read their essays, but COVID-19 prevents that from happening this year.
Lurie has also helped young people learn Hebrew and organizes volunteer opportunities at all seven food pantries on the Outer Banks. The congregation also has a small fund made up of membership dues that donated at the end of each year to the local foodbanks.
Lurie figures the Jewish population on the Outer Banks is around two-tenths of a percent, but no matter if you are Jewish or not, the story of the Jewish Community of the Outer Banks is a testament to faith and the human spirit.
“I look forward to doing this once a month, and doing the other things, because it seems like the right thing to do,” says Lurie. “It’s a great opportunity to keep Judaism alive on the Outer Banks, so from that viewpoint I take it very seriously.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Jewish Community of the Outer Banks’ services will be held via Zoom at 7:30 p.m. the third Friday of each month.
Visit www.jcobx.com to learn more and look for @JCOBX on Facebook.