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

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The city’s oldest synagogue, built by Adas Israel in 1876, serves as the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum at its current site at Third & G Streets, NW.
Rebecca Sheir/WAMU
The city’s oldest synagogue, built by Adas Israel in 1876, serves as the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum at its current site at Third & G Streets, NW.
Saved from the wrecking ball, the city’s oldest synagogue traveled three blocks down G Street to its current location in 1969. (Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington)

In 1969, a most distinctive invitation went out to numerous Washingtonians. It was inviting them to watch a synagogue building move.

“We have an engraved invitation in our collection,” says Wendy Turman, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s archivist. “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.’”

The Adas Israel synagogue 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 formed in 1960 to chronicle the story of the local Jewish community, arranged to have the building hoisted on to dollies and relocated.

“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 then they had to burn off the excess gas,” Turman recounts. “But they were very proud they didn't lose any bricks in the course of the three-hour move down the street.”

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 in just a few years, the synagogue/museum will be moving again.

Another, bigger move

“We're on the edge of a big new development downtown that will deck over the 395 Center Leg Freeway, as they call it,” says the Society’s Executive Director, Laura Apelbaum. “Between where our building is and Georgetown Law School, [they will] create three new city blocks. And so as part of the development, our building will be moved one block south.”

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

“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,” explains Apelbaum. “And so we tell the story here of the early congregants, and the early neighborhood: early Jewish roots.” 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.

“We've been at the National Building Museum, we've had an exhibit at White Flint Mall, at Washington Hebrew, at each of the JCCs,” Apelbaum says.

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 is thought to date back to 1795, with the arrival of a builder named Isaac Polock. Other Jews followed — first Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe and Russia and then, in the 1920s, Sephardic Jews, i.e. Jews of Spanish, Portuguese or North African descent.

The synagogue will move again, to a new home at Fourth & G Streets, NW. The Society will build a new museum adjacent to the synagogue. (Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington)

Capital community is unique

But as Laura Apelbaum will tell you, this timeline was kind of “late” compared with other east-coast cities.

“This city is not a port city,” she says. “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.”

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 around town.

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

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 tells the story: “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.’”

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. Some items are at the Society’s headquarters, while others are stored off-site. If you ask Turman whether she'd like to see everything consolidated into one space, her answer is immediate.

“I would love to be able to do that!” she says with a laugh.

Only time will tell whether her wishes come true; as of now, the earliest the 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.

Music: "Home Town" by Joe Jackson from Greatest Hits: Joe Jackson

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