Jewish Routes | Washington, DC
In Celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month
Jews have had a major presence in Washington, DC, ever since young land speculator Isaac Polock arrived in 1795 and built six stately homes along present-day Pennsylvania Avenue in Foggy Bottom. These buildings would later house celebrated Americans such as President James Madison and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward. Jewish merchants, many from Germany, soon followed, selling goods from small establishments along 7th Street to meet the needs of the residents of the nation’s new capital on the Potomac.
At first the trickle was slow. In 1843, there weren’t even 10 men to make a minyan at the funeral of the infant son of Captain Alfred Mordechai, the commander of the Washington Arsenal. But by 1852, Jews were plentiful enough to found the city’s first synagogue, the Orthodox Washington Hebrew Congregation. During the Civil War, Washington’s 200 Jewish inhabitants were joined by Jewish soldiers, government clerks and others seeking commercial opportunities. Among them was Adolphus Solomons (1826-1910), an observant Sephardic Jew active in politics. In 1862, his Pennsylvania Avenue bookstore served as a base for the successful protest of then-General Ulysses S. Grant’s general order No. 11 to expel Jews from the Middle Mississippi Valley. In 1871, Solomons turned down the governorship of DC because he was afraid it would require him to work on Saturdays. He later co-founded the Red Cross with Clara Barton.
By the end of the Civil War, 2,000 Jews resided in Washington. There was a B’nai B’rith Lodge, a Jewish literary society, six kosher restaurants and a plethora of expanding Jewish businesses. The Lansburgh brothers opened a shop near 7th Street NW in the central part of the city, and in 1882 constructed a department store, which boasted the city’s first elevator. The ancestors of journalist Frank Rich opened Rich’s Shoes, which became a local chain. By the turn of the century, there were many new synagogues: the by-then Reform Washington Hebrew was located at 8th and I; the Orthodox-turned-Conservative Adas Israel Congregation at 6th and G, then 6th and I; and the Orthodox Ohev Shalom at 5th and I. “You had the full spectrum of Jewish practice within three blocks,” says Laura Cohen Apelbaum, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, adding that most synagogues were identified by street intersections.
Jews were not clustered in one neighborhood the way they were in New York. “People are always asking ‘Where is Washington’s Lower East Side?’ Instead, Jews lived near their businesses along major thoroughfares in all four quadrants of the city: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast,” says Apelbaum. Synagogues sprang up alongside Jewish homes, among them Orthodox Kesher Israel in Georgetown (still an active congregation) and Talmud Torah in Southwest, the Orthodox synagogue where The Jazz Singer Al Jolson’s father was the cantor. In the 1920s, the community banded together to build the Jewish Community Center, centrally located at 16th and Q, NW, walking distance from the White House. President Calvin Coolidge spoke at the cornerstone ceremony in May 1925.
While dealings between Jews and the city’s other residents were generally cordial, there was still plenty of anti-Semitism. Jewish store proprietors faced higher prices and restrictions on advertising, leading some to form a co-op called District Grocery Stores (DGS, namesake of a trendy new delicatessen near Dupont Circle). Some of the city’s major cultural institutions kept Jews at bay, and certain neighborhoods were closed to them through restrictive deeds and gentlemen’s agreements with local banks that prevented them from getting mortgage loans. Certain professions were off limits, so most Jews found careers in business, real estate or entertainment. “You couldn’t get a job at Woodies [the now-closed Woodward and Lothrop department store] if you were Jewish,” says Apelbaum. “At private law firms, people were asked to change their name. There were Jews in government, but it varied agency by agency. You could, for example, work at Labor but not so easily at State.”
While the Depression didn’t hit Washington as hard as elsewhere, the New Deal was transformative. Young idealistic Jewish professionals and intellectuals flocked to the city and many national Jewish organizations—including B’nai B’rith—set up offices. World War II brought another massive influx of Jews. “A swarm of people arrived to work for the government, bringing new voices, skills and geographic diversity,” says Apelbaum. “It changed the whole city.” Many of the newcomers were women recruited to fill the jobs of men serving in the war. Jewish “government girls” often lived in kosher boarding houses.
Washington has always been unique in that its Jews have a front-row seat to power. “For Washington Jews, local and national politics were intertwined,” says Apelbaum, adding that local Jews learned early on to use their influence to take on political tasks for American Jewry as a whole. For example, when 700 Polish-Jewish orphans were stranded in Iran after escaping Europe in 1943, Hadassah’s Washington representative, Denise Tourover, asked the wife of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to talk to her husband. The children were released and sent to Palestine.
The city’s Jews were active behind the scenes in the formation of the State of Israel. Before the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine, neurosurgeon Harvey Ammerman convinced one of his patients who served at the Chilean embassy to encourage Chile’s ambassador to the UN to abstain rather than vote against partition. Ammerman also helped win the vote of the Guatemalan ambassador. David Ben-Gurion often traveled to Washington, and the city was abuzz with secret meetings and massive fundraising. The late Abe Pollin—philanthropist, real estate developer and one-time owner of Washington’s basketball and hockey teams—recalled accompanying his father to purchase arms for Israel as well as the boat that became the Exodus, says Apelbaum. On the day that Israel was proclaimed a state, the community gathered outside the Jewish Agency building on Massachusetts Avenue. Soon after, local Jewish developers Leo Bernstein, Abraham Kay and Garfield Kass selected a nearby building for Israel’s first embassy.
A severe housing shortage after World War II led Washingtonians of all faiths to move to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. A 1956 study showed that more than half of the region’s 81,000 Jews had moved to homes outside the city, many of them built by local Jewish real estate developers. Shopping malls followed, and soon, so did communal organizations such the Jewish Community Center, which relocated to Rockville, Maryland.
During the tumultuous 1960s, the region’s Jews strongly supported the civil rights movement, including the historic March on Washington. The riots that shook the city after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., destroyed many of the remaining Jewish-owned small businesses, leaving some neighborhoods in ruins. Jews active in local politics were among those who fought for home rule, which came in 1973, allowing city residents to elect their mayor and city council members for the first time.
It took decades for the city’s long-sought economic renaissance to occur. By the 1990s, Jews were among the vanguard changing Washington from a sleepy, provincial town to a cosmopolitan metropolis with a revitalized downtown and a rich array of neighborhoods with distinct characters and innumerable options for great food and culture. While many Jews remain in the suburbs (Northern Virginia is home to the metropolitan area’s fastest-growing Jewish population), there has been a large migration of Jews back into the city. Many of the buildings once abandoned by the Jewish community have found new life. Adas Israel’s first building at 6th and G was moved a few blocks away to become the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum. The JCC on 16th Street reopened and now flourishes in its original building. The Jewish Primary Day School has moved into the building once occupied by the Washington Hebrew Academy. Adas Israel’s second home at 6th and I has been transformed into a hub of cultural and religious activity a stone’s throw from 7th Street, now one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. With at least 215,000 Jews, the capital region is now the sixth-largest Jewish community in the United States.
All historic photos courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington