By Rabbi Jamie Cowen, 1990
Before I even relocated to Richmond, (my family and I were traveling here weekly from Washington, DC to lead the fledgling congregation), I was told about the old synagogue on the corner of Boulevard and Grove Avenue. For many years various groups had been praying that a Messianic Jewish congregation would move in. It had been Richmond's sole Orthodox Jewish synagogue for many years, but now lay dormant after the former residents moved five miles west.
How it started
My family and I finally moved to Richmond in August, 1990. Tikvat Israel was then meeting in a small church on the Southside but was quickly outgrowing it. Someone mentioned the old synagogue across from the Virginia Art Museum was apparently available for rent. A few of us went and visited the relic, and "oh, what a mess." It hadn't been used in 15+ years and looked it. We were escorted into the furnace room where an oil power steam boiler sat with four huge empty oil tanks. I wondered whether the old boiler would even work and then how much it would cost to operate. Before the oil crisis of the 70s, oil was cheap. Possibly, escalating oil prices caused the earlier tenants to flee. Someone noticed an attachment to the burner that indicated the system used approximately 10 gallons of oil per hour. Wow!
Following the inspection, we held a congregational meeting. We had to move, but to this white elephant? Pros and cons were floated. Finally, Mo Slate, one of the pillars of the congregation to this day (Dec. 2003), shared a vision he had years before. In this vision he saw this synagogue - vacant and lifeless. Suddenly, the large stain-glassed stars of David facing the streets began to glow. People, who had been walking past, stopped and began to pour into the old building, and just as suddenly the building began to pulsate with life. The story silenced all of us, and we knew God was calling us to move into the old synagogue. Our first service was scheduled for Chanukkah week, 1990. This was the beginning of the first Persian Gulf War, and oil prices had spiked. The first order of business was to attempt to start the oil heating system. One of our leaders ordered in 150 gallons of oil. The four tanks in the furnace room had a capacity in excess of 1000 gallons. But why order in so much oil if there's no assurance of starting the system? Regardless, the system wouldn't start, so our 1st service was heated by two propane burners that sounded like jet engines. Obviously, they couldn't be run during the service, so by the end it had gotten quite cold. Later in the week the same leader was examining the heating system and was able to start it. He then examined the oil tanks and to his utter surprise the gauges on the tanks indicated they were full. This made no sense. He opened the tank, dunked in a long stick and sure enough, they were full to the brim. He quickly called me on the phone and said something very unusual had happened. I asked if he was sure he had checked the tanks' status the prior week, and he remarked he thought so. I then said maybe the oil company supplied the extra. He replied we only ordered 150 gallons. That's all we paid for, and now there's over 1000 gallons of oil in the tank. I responded, "Could this be another Chanukkah miracle?" It was still Chanukkah week.
The following Shabbat I shared this story as everyone was enjoying the warm sanctuary. I explained it in a way that left some room for error but acknowledged that the Lord quite likely reproduced the same miracle as the one 2200 years ago. After the service one of the members, who was a chemist and a skeptic, came forward and looked as white as a ghost. I asked, "What's wrong?" He replied, "I checked those tanks myself last week and they were bone dry. It's a miracle." So, that was it. The oil was sufficient for the whole winter. "God is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think."