The Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Joanna Sloame
Immigration to Washington started off slowly. The first recorded Jew to settle in the district was Isaac Polock, the grandson of one of the founders of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1795. Alfred Mordecai came in 1828, from Savannah, Georgia and became a major and superintendent of the District of Columbia Arsenal.
In the 1840s, Washington saw an influx of German immigrants, including small numbers of young Jews with family ties to the burgeoning Jewish community of Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1852, twenty-one Washingtonian Jews established the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Within four years, the small Jewish community succeeded in getting Congress to pass an act that certified their right to incorporate and own property. By 1863, the congregation purchased a church at 8th and H Streets in NW, and remodeled it into a synagogue.
Due to the increasingly Reform practices of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, 35 leading members left the synagogue in 1869. They founded the Orthodox Adas Israel Congregation, and, in 1876, built Washington's first synagogue building. The congregation moved to 6th and I Streets, NW in 1908, and to Connecticut Avenue and Porter Street, Northwest, its current location, in 1951.
By 1898, Washington Hebrew had outgrown its small building and replaced it with an immense temple on the same site. This remained the congregation's home until 1952, when construction began on a new building at Massachusetts Avenue and Macomb Street, Northwest.
During the Civil War, from 1861-65, large numbers of temporary residents flocked to the city. These transients did little to enhance the Washington Jewish community, and by 1869, there were only 300 Jewish families within the city limits.
By the turn of the century, an influx of Eastern European immigrants had increased the Jewish population to 4,000. Many members of the Jewish community lived in Southwest Washington as storekeepers and artisans. In the same area, three Orthodox synagogues were founded to accommodate the growing community. Today, after a number of mergers, these synagogues have become the Beth Shalom and Ohev Sholom-Talmud Torah congregations.
Ohev-Sholom was founded by a group of 28 families in Southwest Washington in 1886. At first, the congregation gathered at Isaac Levy's clothing store, and then moved around the Southwest area until they built a permanent synagogue. Chazan Moshe Yoelson led services for over 30 years, and is father to famous Jewish entertainer Al Jolson. Eventually, Ohev-Sholom and congregation Talmud Torah merged, giving the synagogue over 600 families in 1958. The synagogue is now located on Jonquil Street N.W., and has been serving the DC metro area for over 37 years.
A number of philanthropic societies were established during this period, including the United Hebrew Relief Society in 1882, the Washington chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1895, the Jewish Foster Home in 1911, the Home for the Aged in 1914, and the Hebrew Free Loan Society.
Washington has always had a vibrant Zionist movement due to being the nation's capital. Its ability to attract Zionist leaders led to the creation of local Zionist groups, such as the Washington Zionist Organization in 1901, known today as the Brandeis District of the Zionist Organization of America. The Washington Poale Zion was started in 1907 and Hadassah originated in 1916 as a sewing circle. A number of national conventions and delegations to government officials were held in the district, and, after 1948, the Embassy of Israel was located in the city, reinforcing Zionist sentiments in the community.
During World War I, a wave of military and government officials arrived in Washington. In response, a group of young Jewish men founded the first Servicemen's Club in the United States. Following the war, in 1925, a Jewish Community Center was constructed at 16th and Q, Northwest. Despite the Depression, Washington continued to prosper due to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
World War II brought thousands of new civil servants to the city. However, they were only temporary residents and those who were Jewish were not active in the Washington community. The large number of single young people without connections to the Jewish community led to high rates of intermarriage.
In the post World War II era, over 50,000 Jews settled in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, which are Maryland suburbs of Washington. Additionally, government employees began to see themselves as permanent residents and became active members in the Jewish community. They made up 35 percent of the Washington area's gainfully employed Jews, and the integration of such highly educated persons significantly enriched the community.
Traditionally, German Jews joined the Reform Washington Hebrew Congregation, and focused on assimilating into Washington society. They lived on the west side of Rock Creek Park. Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews belonged to local orthodox shuls and lived in the east side of the park. At the same time, due to virulent anti-Semitism and racism, Jews and Blacks were kept out of affluent neighborhoods such as Crestwood, Spring Valley, and Wesley Heights. In response, Jews created their own communities, such as Forest Hills, referred to as "Hanukkah Heights." The restrictions were lifted in 1948, but the segregation remained. Rock Creek Park continued to be the dividing line between blacks and whites.
In the 1950s, the city's schools desegregated and large numbers of white Washingtonians, including a significant number of Jews, left the city. During the 1968 racial riots, the 16th Street DCJCC closed and Jews living on the east side of the park moved to the suburbs, and the JCC followed them. In 1969, a complex was built in Rockville, Maryland, to house three Jewish organizations: The Jewish Community Center, the Home for the Aged, and the Jewish Social Service Agency.
By the 1970s, the face of the Washington Jewish community had changed drastically. In 1945, the population was 20,000, and by 1970, had reached 110,000. The community expanded into the suburbs and left the city. Only 15 percent of the Greater Washington DC Jewish community remained in DC, while 60 percent moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, 15 percent to Prince George's County, Maryland, and ten percent to Northern Virginia.
In 1980, Congress unanimously passed an act to charter a Holocaust museum and memorial. Construction began in 1989 on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The $195 million project was completed in 1993. The museum serves as a memorial to the millions who were exterminated by the Nazis, and is devoted to the documentation and study of the Holocaust.
In the 1990s, the Jews of Washington bought back and restored the original DCJCC building, which has revitalized the Jewish community in the city. In addition, the original Adas Israel synagogue was leased to the Jewish Historical Society in the 1960s and has since been restored. It now houses the Jewish Historical Society and museum. Adas' second building was sold to a black church in 1908, when the congregation moved uptown, but has since become the Historic 6th and I synagogue.
Today, Greater Washington is home to the United States' sixth largest Jewish community, estimated at 215,000 persons. There are two major organizations central to the Jews of Washington: The Jewish Community Council, which was founded in 1938, and as over 160 affiliates, and the United Jewish Appeal of Greater Washington (UJA), founded in 1939, which became The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in 1999. These two groups work to protect and promote the local, as well as national, Jewish communities. The Jewish Week, successor to The National Jewish Ledger (1930-65), was started in 1965 by Phillip Hochstein and is still the major source for Jewish news in Washington.
United States Holocaust Museum Memorial
Historic Adas Israel Synagogue
Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum
District of Columbia JCC
States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“Washington DC,” Encyclopedia
Photo Credits: JBuff, The Historic Adas Israel Synagogue