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Hill Havurah’s 2022 Ner Tamid Honoree

Sheldon J. Harris

For many of us, our first introduction to Hill Havurah was at a High Holiday service where we were greeted by a tall man with a big smile and a heart to match: “We’re really glad you’re here.” He wasn’t just thanking them for coming. As he handed them a prayer book, he hoped they would head inside with a feeling of welcome – and belonging. That greeting has been consistent for more than 15 years. The greeter has been consistent, too: Sheldon J. Harris, the 2022 recipient of Hill Havurah’s Ner Tamid [Eternal Light] award.

Sheldon first arrived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood more than 40 years ago – a young graduate student who had just landed his first job on Capitol Hill, on the House Rules Committee. He got it the old-fashioned way, with his massive intelligence and, well let’s just call it what it is, “chutzpah”.  The job set the stage for a long career in government service, law, and consulting that continues today.

Sometime in the late 1990s, a group of unaffiliated Jews began to find one another in the neighborhood and started gathering for Shabbat services in living rooms. Sheldon was among them, having been identified – as Hill Havurah lore goes – by the mezuzah posted on his front door. He didn’t know anyone else involved at the time, but felt comfortable enough to keep showing up month after month, often hosting at his own corner rowhouse. 

When the crowd outgrew living rooms, Sheldon was among those early pioneers who took the group to the next level and formalized Hill Havurah. Sheldon was its first treasurer, a position he held for nearly a dozen years. The budget was small in those early days (about $13,000 in 2007 compared to $800,000 today), but the stakes were high. Putting us on a solid footing early was so important to sustaining the havurah over the long term. Sheldon questioned each expenditure, thought through each request, and kept careful records. That early work to solidify Hill Havurah’s financials has made so many other milestones possible, including the hiring of our first Rabbi, Rabbi Hannah Spiro, in 2016.  And, when the pandemic took its toll on the havurah’s budget, Sheldon took it upon himself to lead a fundraising campaign that would ultimately wipe out the projected deficit. 

Becoming involved in a Jewish congregation came naturally to Sheldon. His grandparents immigrated to the United States and put down roots in Ohio. His parents lived a Jewish life – joining a conservative shul, sending their children to Hebrew school, and keeping a keren ami box (a tzedakah box) on the kitchen table. “Being Jewish was who I was,” Sheldon remembers. They attended services every Friday night, his mother was in the Sisterhood, and as a teen, Sheldon became involved in BBYO. Whenever he was asked to get involved, and usually when not, he never gave it a second thought. Someone had to do it and it might as well be him.

Today, generations of Hill Havurah members and families owe a debt of gratitude to Sheldon Harris for his many years of saying yes and staying involved through untold hours of enormous effort. Hill Havurah is honored to present its Ner Tamid Award for 2022 to Sheldon – a true, everlasting, and guiding light for the community. Sheldon, we’re all really glad you’re here!

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784