Moving The Synagogue... Again: A New Museum For D.c.'s Jewish Community (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Moving The Synagogue... Again: A New Museum For D.C.'s Jewish Community

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're returning to square one, with a show we're calling "Origins." We'll seek the roots of local landmarks.

MR. DAVID POLLACK

00:00:20
I can't believe that this church has existed since 1706.

SHEIR

00:00:26
And we'll go back in time in local Bardolotry.

MR. STEPHEN H. GRANT

00:00:28
He was always afraid that if it got out that he was looking for Shakespeare treasures the prices would just go sky high.

SHEIR

00:00:39
Plus, we'll explore the building blocks of reading, and learn how DCPS is trying to strengthen that skill.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN

00:00:44
Students definitely understand that each time we're going to read we may look at a different craft or look at a different piece of it.

SHEIR

00:00:54
But we're going to begin today's show in a place whose origins extend back in time, 138 years, and space, three city blocks.

MS. WENDY TURMAN

00:01:03
We have an engraved invitation in our collection, inviting people to come watch the synagogue building move. I've got it right over here.

SHEIR

00:01:10
Really?

TURMAN

00:01:11
Yeah.

SHEIR

00:01:12
Wendy Turman is the archivist at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

SHEIR

00:01:16
So what does it say?

TURMAN

00:01:17
So it says, "The officers and directors of the Jewish Historical Society and the Adas Israel Congregation cordially invite you and your family to witness the moving of Washington's oldest synagogue, from 6th to 3rd on G Street Northwest, Thursday, Dec. 18, 1969, 10:30 a.m."

SHEIR

00:01:33
And that new 3rd and G location is where Wendy and I are standing now, in the sanctuary of the Adas Israel synagogue. It was built at 6th and G in 1876, but in 1969, it was threatened by demolition. So the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which, by the way, formed in 1960 to chronicle the story of the local Jewish community, they arranged to have the building hoisted onto dollies and relocated.

TURMAN

00:01:57
Because it was so heavy, the tractors actually broke a gas line and so they had to stop the move and the gas company had to come and turn off the gas, and then they had to burn off the excess gas. But they were very proud they didn't lose any bricks in the course of the three-hour move down the street.

SHEIR

00:02:13
So a three-hour move for three blocks. That's about an average of an hour a block.

TURMAN

00:02:16
Exactly.

SHEIR

00:02:18
Not bad.

TURMAN

00:02:18
Exactly.

SHEIR

00:02:18
For a building.

SHEIR

00:02:21
After a ton of renovation and restoration, the synagogue was rededicated and opened to the public, as the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum. But get this, in a few years, the synagogue/museum will be moving again. Here's the Society's executive director, Laura Apelbaum.

MS. LAURA APELBAUM

00:02:38
So we're on the edge of a big new development downtown that will deck over the 395 Center Leg Freeway, as they call it, between where our building is and Georgetown Law School, and create three new city blocks. And so as part of the development, our building will be moved one block south.

SHEIR

00:02:57
And adjacent to it, the Society will build a brand new, much bigger museum.

APELBAUM

00:03:02
Right now it's a small building, it's a historic site, it's the only Jewish building in the city on the National Register, and we have no gallery space. So we tell the story here of the early congregants, and the early neighborhood -- early Jewish roots.

SHEIR

00:03:17
To tell a fuller, richer story of Jewish life in D.C., though, the Society has always had to take its shows on the road.

APELBAUM

00:03:23
We've been at the National Building Museum, we've had an exhibit at White Flint Mall, Washington Hebrew, at each of the JCCs.

SHEIR

00:03:30
But the new Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum will include galleries for permanent and traveling exhibitions, as well as classrooms, archives, offices, even a roof garden. And all of it will help the Society paint a fuller picture of Washington's Jewish community, which, by the way, is thought to date back to 1795, with the arrival of a builder named Isaac Polock.

SHEIR

00:03:49
Other Jews followed, first Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe and Russia and then, in the 1920s, Sephardic Jews, that is Jews of Spanish, Portuguese or North African descent. But as Laura Apelbaum will tell you, this timeline was kind of late compared with other east-coast cities.

APELBAUM

00:04:06
This city is not a port city. A lot of other cities -- New York, Boston, Philly, Charleston, Baltimore, that are all ports -- they had an early Sephardic community. We didn't have an early Sephardic community. People went into other ports, other places, and then they kind of found their way here for all kinds of opportunities around the economy fueled by the government.

SHEIR

00:04:29
Indeed, many Jews wound up working for the federal government, while others wound up working for themselves. 7th Street Northwest, for instance, used to be bustling with Jewish-owned shops and stores. And in the 1920s, you could find more than 300 Jewish grocers all around town.

APELBAUM

00:04:44
One of the things we're particularly interested and wanting to focus on is that larger story of Washington as the nation's capital. A place where local business owners, Jewish shopkeepers, interact with the federal government in unusual ways.

SHEIR

00:04:57
And those unusual ways have led to some terrific stories, says archivist Wendy Turman. Like the one about the party-supplies-shop owner who got a phone call requesting 750 miniature, satin, heart-shaped wedding-cake boxes.

TURMAN

00:05:10
And she said, "Okay. Can I know who's going to pay the bill?" And she was told, "Oh, the bride's father will take care of it. It's President Lyndon Johnson."

SHEIR

00:05:19
And some of those satin boxes are now in the Society's collection, along with loads of letters, flyers, photographs, business records, invitations, diaries, scrapbooks, family trees, immigration documents, even ceremonial and ritual objects from Jewish homes and synagogues.

SHEIR

00:05:33
Where are you storing all of these things?

TURMAN

00:05:36
So we have some materials stored here, some materials stored off-site.

SHEIR

00:05:39
And once you have your new facility, will you be able to bring everything in the same place?

TURMAN

00:05:44
I would love to be able to do that.

SHEIR

00:05:47
Only time will tell whether her wishes come true. As of now, the earliest the new Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum will open is the year 2020. But in the meantime, The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington will continue its mission to explore, share and preserve the distinctive Jewish heritage of Washington, D.C., as both the hometown of a community, and the capital of a nation.

SHEIR

00:06:23
The Society's exhibit, "Through the Lens: Jeremy Goldberg's Washington," is now on display at Ohev Shalom, the National Synagogue in Northwest D.C. For more on this collection of photos of original and current sites of synagogues and other Jewish buildings, visit our website, metroconnection.org. And if you're curious as to what a 270-ton synagogue-on-wheels looks like, we have photos from that three-block move back in 1969 on our website, too. Just head to metroconnection.org.
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