Jewish Routes | Washington, DC
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.
Jewish American Heritage
Sites in DC
Moment highlights a few of the
The Lillian and Albert Small Museum/Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington tells the story of Washington’s Jewish community through exhibits, programs and archives. It’s located in the original building (1876-1907) of the Adas Israel Congregation, which later housed a Greek Orthodox Church and the Dixie Pig Carry-Out. The Jewish Historical Society began its restoration of the synagogue in 1967 and moved it to its current location at 3rd and G Streets, NW in 1969. jhsgw.org
Sixth & I Historic Synagogue was the second home of Adas Israel. The domed, 105-year-old building was a church until 2000, when a prospective buyer proposed turning it into a nightclub. Three Jewish developers, Sheldon Zuckerman, Abe Pollin and Douglas Jemal bought and lovingly restored it. Since reopening in 2004, Sixth and I, now a hub for Washington’s young Jews, is known for its extraordinary array of religious and cultural programming. sixthandi.org
The District of Columbia Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) moved back into its original classical 1925 building on 16th and Q Streets, NW, in 1997. (From 1969 until the mid-1990s, the building was a church and a college.) Today, the DCJCC is renowned for its stellar literary, cultural and arts programs, and is the home of Theater J, a nationally recognized cornerstone of the Washington theater scene. Sister JCCs—the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, MD and JCC of Northern Virginia—also have a full roster of events and programs. dcjcc.org, jccgw.org, jccnv.org
The National Museum of American Jewish Military History at 1811 R Street NW was chartered by an Act of Congress in 1958. The museum preserves and commemorates the service of Jewish Americans in the United States Armed Forces, and presents exhibits such as “Jewish War Veterans’ Protest March Against Nazi Germany—75th Anniversary.” jwv.org
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, sits on the National Mall among Washington’s monuments, and has hosted more than 30 million visitors, including nine million school children. It is located on Raul Wallenberg Place near the intersection of 14th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The goal of the museum is to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity. ushmm.org
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
The First Lincoln Monument has been standing guard outside the old City Hall on D Street, NW, since 1868. It was the first to be dedicated to Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. The Lansburgh brothers donated $500 to help construct it.
The Albert Einstein Statue sits in an elm and holly grove on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences off Constitution Avenue. Created by sculptor Robert Berks, the bronze statue is a favorite climbing spot for young “physicists-in-training.”
Arlington National Cemeteryis the resting place of more than 2,000 Jews, among them confederate soldier Moses Ezekiel, astronaut Judith Resnik and Supreme Court Justice and United Nations ambassador Arthur Goldberg.
Stories of Washington DC
Gary Abramson grew up in northwest Washington near the Maryland border, not far from the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, which he attended through sixth grade. As a teenager, he could walk to nearby downtown Silver Spring where he watched films at the Silver Theater, and met friends at the ever-popular Hot Shoppes. He also accompanied his father to Hofberg’s Deli at Georgia and Alaska. “It was a typical neighborhood deli, nothing fancy,” he says. “It had that corned beef deli smell.” His father Albert “Sonny” would share a table with other local Jewish builders. “They ate bagels and lox, and lox and eggs and onions, and talked about their families and businesses,” says Abramson. “They were making a living but they were also making a contribution to the community. It was inspiring to be part of the building and expansion of the Washington, DC area.” Real estate was one of the careers open to Jews, in which Sonny, a son of immigrants, could go from having nothing to becoming one of the city’s major developers and philanthropists. The men around the deli table often partnered with each other, a tradition that continues, says Abramson, 67, a partner in The Tower Companies, the three-generation, family-owned company located in Rockville, Maryland, that designs new office buildings, shopping centers and mixed-use developments. Abramson serves on the board of American University among other organizations.
Josephine Ammerman née Friedman, 101, was born in a house on 8th Street NW near the site of the city’s new Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Her father was a printer and engraver and her mother was a member of Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Sisterhood. The youngest of eight girls, she loved going to the bakery across from Griffith Stadium on Georgia Avenue, where she ate fresh-baked pumpernickel bagels smothered with butter. She often recounts how her mother saved her life by forbidding her to go to the movies at the Knickerbocker Theater on the January night in 1922 when the theater’s roof tragically collapsed from the weight of snow, killing 98. After attending Central High School and Temple Business School, she worked as a secretary at the Interior Department. (She recalls there were many organizations that would not hire Jews). Later she was an editor for the 1932 George Washington Bicentennial Commission, which was headed by Jewish congressman Sol Bloom (D-NY). In 1936, she married Georgetown Law School graduate Max Ammerman, who developed some of the area’s first shopping malls. “My mother always says that Washington was a very waspy town until Roosevelt and the influx of ethnic groups, and that Jewish Washington began to bloom then,” says her son Andrew Ammerman. Josephine Ammerman has been active in many Jewish organizations including the Jewish Chaplaincy at Georgetown University, and in the arts world.
Lois England née Hechinger, 87, is a fifth-generation Washingtonian. Her great-great-grandfather Emanuel Lully came to the district in 1853 after escaping the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He was one of 15 worshippers of the Washington Hebrew Congregation who petitioned the United States Congress for an act of incorporation, which was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce in 1856. His granddaughter married Jonas Hechinger, England’s grandfather. Their son Sidney went into the wrecking business in 1911 and opened the first Hechinger’s hardware retail store on Georgia Avenue in 1927. “I used to visit the stores and when I was older I worked as a sales girl,” says England. Under the direction of her brother John Hechinger, Sr. and husband, Richard England, The Hechinger Company grew into a large chain of do-it yourself home centers in 20 states. Lois England chairs the archives committee of Washington Hebrew Congregation and spent many years documenting the oldest part of the synagogue’s cemetery, founded in 1879. It’s one of four Jewish cemeteries nestled in a quiet wooded section of Anacostia in Southeast, now one of the poorest parts of the city. Grand stone family monuments mark the graves of prominent families such as the Lullys, Hechingers, Lansburghs, Hechts, Hahns and Cafritzes.
Debra Lerner Cohen is a co-owner of the Nationals, Washington’s major league baseball team. In 1971, when she was in high school, the city’s old team—the Senators—left for Minnesota. “I remember very well how upset everyone was to see them go, but I never thought it would take 33 years to bring baseball back to my hometown,” she says. “This town always had hope for a team and the town didn’t give up, and neither did my Dad [Ted Lerner, the founder and principal of Lerner Enterprises, a real estate development company] and our family.” In 2008, the new Nationals Park opened in Southeast DC, part of a plan to help reinvigorate an impoverished part of the city. For Cohen, baseball is a sport that helped Jews, through players such as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, combat anti-Semitism. She believes that baseball plays an important role locally and nationally in bringing people together. “No matter where you came from or what your differences were, baseball makes everyone feel connected as Americans.” Cohen is also active at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “I think that it is the most important [Jewish] site, not only in DC but nationwide—even worldwide,” she says. “It is an incredibly moving space and museum.”
Irene Kaplan’s father was born in Morocco and her mother in Argentina to Moroccan parents. Her father, Albert Emsellem, was the son of the chief rabbi of Fez who was also King Mohammed V of Morocco’s physician. Soon after arriving in the United States in 1928, he found work as a Fuller Brush man. “The Depression hit and no one was buying anything and he was advised to become a hairdresser,” says Kaplan. “He went to beauty school, and became a beautician and a rather renowned one.” In 1945, he bought a salon at 1224 Connecticut Ave NW, and went into business under his nom de plume, Albert de Paris, where he sold Louey Venn of London cosmetics. He also opened a beauty school at 11th and H, NW, which allowed him to obtain student visas for friends and family members in Morocco. “They all came into the business and became some of the biggest names in the city, Jean Paul in Georgetown and Norbert, who did Jackie’s [Jacqueline Kennedy] hair.” Kaplan recalls encountering anti-Semitism growing up: Her family received hate mail and death threats after moving into a house in Chevy Chase, DC. She has warm memories of Tifereth Israel Congregation, the then-Orthodox synagogue on 16th Street, NW, where as president, her father nurtured the small group of Sephardic worshippers that became the Magen David Congregation, now in its own synagogue in Rockville, Maryland. Today, a significant number of Sephardic Jews live in the metropolitan area including 300 to 500 Moroccan families.
Robert Kogod is the son of immigrants from the Ukrainian shtetls of Trochenbrod and Kolk. He grew up at 13th and Buchanan Streets, NW, and attended Orthodox Beth Shalom as a child. “I would walk to 14th Street and get on the streetcar and go to the JCC at 16th and Q.” There he learned to swim and played in a basketball league. “The JCC was part of our athletic and social life,” he recalls. His father became a business broker, and his uncle owned a small chain of theaters. Kogod married Arlene Smith, the daughter of Charles E. Smith, and joined that family’s real estate development business, helping to expand its reach into Maryland and Virginia. “At the end of World War II, Washington experienced exponential growth,” he recalls. “The Jewish community became very vital to DC’s growth and contributed politically and culturally in every respect.” Kogod serves on many boards, including the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, which offers a wide range of cultural and religious activities. “Sixth and I has a large following of young people who identify with being Jewish but are not looking for a dues-paying synagogue,” he says. He is proud of what local Jews have accomplished. “We have a wonderful Jewish community,” says Kogod. “It fulfills a dual role as a big part of the city and the nation.”
Stuart Kurlander, 50, is the youngest president ever of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and the first openly gay person to be the president of a Federation. A partner at the law firm of Latham & Watkins, Kurlander has held many leadership positions and in 2006, founded Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Outreach & Engagement (GLOE), the first and only full-time GLBT program at any JCC in North America. “I’ve focused on bringing that part of the community into the broader one and encouraging them to take more leadership roles, just as I have done,” says Kurlander. He notes that Washington’s vibrant Jewish community is diverse and inclusive, and that not only are its numbers growing but levels of engagement as well. “I have a sense that the concern over the continuity of the Jewish people, that they are assimilating or being absorbed into society is overblown,” he says. “I don’t think that is what is occurring nationwide and it is not occurring in Washington, DC.” He observes that many local Jews who are well-known on the national stage now gravitate to Jewish schools, synagogues, programs and activities, rather than downplay their Jewishness as occurred in the past. “Being Jewish is a positive in the nation’s capital.”
Albert Small became fascinated by history as a young man when he learned about the 18th-century boundary markers that surround Washington’s original perimeter. The walls of his company’s Bethesda, MD offices are covered with his collection of Washington, DC maps and memorabilia, although the 220-year-old letter from George Washington to city commissioner David Stuart inquiring about the progress of the foundation of the “president’s house” and discussing city planner Pierre L’Enfant is kept in a safe. (His Washingtoniana collection will soon move to George Washington University.) Small is the benefactor of the Lillian and Albert Small Museum that is home to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, named for his parents. The 87-year-old remembers growing up in Northwest DC at a time when the city’s public schools had fraternities, which were closed to Jews. He and his friends belonged to the junior group of a now defunct national Jewish fraternity, Pi Tau Pi. He also recalls segregation between Reform Jews like his family and Conservative and Orthodox Jews. “They went to different schools and synagogues,” he says. “We lived in different worlds and didn’t often meet, until later when Jews from east of Rock Creek Park moved west and everyone mixed.” The son of a mortgage banker, Small and his family were one of the local Jewish clans that helped build residential housing and office buildings during the city’s post-World War II boom.
David Bruce Smith was close to his grandfather, Papa Charlie, Charles E. Smith, as a boy. “We would play Putt-Putt and he would tell us stories about growing up in Russia,” says Smith. The family was active at Adas Israel, and he recalls that his grandfather, born in Lipnick in 1901, was frequently honored. “I used to hear him speak a lot and what he said over and over again was ‘Jewish survival is dependent on Jewish education. I think he was right.” Smith, an author and family historian, sent his own children to the school his grandfather and family founded, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. “If he knew that it had 1,300 students now, that was beyond what he imagined!” Papa Charlie also encouraged Smith to become involved at the DCJCC, and he is glad he did. “It feels like home and is a beautiful building with programs like Theater J.” Smith notes that until the 1970s, the city’s Jews were shut out of non-Jewish charities such as the opera, ballet, museums and universities. He recalls that his late father Robert was the first Jewish president of the board of the National Gallery of Art from 1993 to 2003. “It was a dream of his, but when he started dreaming it almost 30 years ago, it was almost impossible for a Jew to even get a position on the board,” he says. “Today there is a large percentage of Jews on boards, and that is a measure of acceptance.”