African-American Jew named synagogue president

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For Sampson, the opportunity to serve as synagogue president caps a natural progression.

Sampson grew up in Cherry Hill, N.C. After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., he was stationed at the Pentagon.

Sampson left the Air Force in 1990 and now works for MCI Communications as a systems manager.

Growing up, Sampson said, he was a "Lutheran by family, not by practice." His wife, who had been raised in a Reform Jewish household, did not have much interest in Judaism, he said.

At the Air Force Academy, however, he learned about Judaism in a comparative religion course, and found that the ideas espoused by Judaism, "how you treat people," were akin to his own.

"I had always taken a more humanist approach," Sampson said. "I always had a basic belief in God, but I lacked the means or method [for that belief] to make sense."

A friend of Sampson's in Rosslyn, Va. noticed the volumes of Jewish books on Sampson's shelf and suggested he attend Friday night services at Arlington-Fairfax, Sampson said.

"I talked to the rabbi several times before I realized that I would be converting. It seemed like a natural connection — who I was and what I wanted to be."

Rabbi Marvin Bash, who has been spiritual leader of Arlington-Fairfax for more than 30 years, helped Sampson study and, in October 1991, converted Sampson to Judaism.

That same year, the Sampsons joined Arlington-Fairfax. His rise to the top, Sampson said, was "an eventuality. I did not aspire to it."

Since his election, Sampson said, the synagogue has voiced nothing but support. "No one has made a statement about race."

Should there be any concerns, Sampson said, "people will vocalize them. If anything, the [synagogue] regulars are sincere people. I expect to see that sincerity coming out. I'm sure there will be some interesting times."

During his two-year tenure, Sampson said he intends to work on bringing young families and young people back to the synagogue.

Bash said Sampson's installation is in keeping with President Bill Clinton's recent focus on racial harmony.

"Our congregation welcomes Jews from every background," Bash said. Sampson's leadership "will provide a model for how people from all backgrounds can work together, pray together and live together as one community."