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The Mysterious Past And Uncertain Future Of D.C.'s Only Known Synagogue Mural

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The mural is painted directly onto the plaster walls of 415 M Street, squeezed between a window and a fireplace. When Black Rock Holdings took possession of the building, they avoided removing the mural in their initial demolition, thinking that it held some historical significance.
Image by Patricia Fisher
The mural is painted directly onto the plaster walls of 415 M Street, squeezed between a window and a fireplace. When Black Rock Holdings took possession of the building, they avoided removing the mural in their initial demolition, thinking that it held some historical significance.

In the 1860s, 415 M Street NW was built as the private home of a neighborhood butcher. But over the past 140-plus years it’s been the site of the Young Men Hebrew Association, an orthodox synagogue, a church, and the Metropolitan Community Church, one of the city’s first ministries to D.C.’s LGBT community.

The building is now a shell, waiting for local developer BlackRock Holdings to convert the space into six condominiums later this summer. But within the home's brick walls is a unique and irreplaceable part of the city's Jewish history.

It’s a mural created in the 1920s by an Orthodox Synagogue named “Shomrei Shabbas,” which once held services here. In centuries past, it was common in Lithuania and Poland to paint their wooden synagogues, but most of the murals, and the synagogues themselves were destroyed in the Holocaust. A similar preservation effort is underway in Burlington, Vermont, where a mural was found on the ceiling of a carpet store.

This is the only example that’s been uncovered in D.C.

The mural was hidden behind wallpaper and paint until the early 1990s, when D.C.-based filmmaker Stephanie Slewka moved in and started renovating. She kept scraping away at the plaster and revealed the mural. “The Star of David was almost all there, and it was obvious that the blue sky had been there," she says. In a semi circle, there is a quotation from the Book of Exodus: “Wherever I allow my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.”

Some of the mural was intact, but the middle had crumbled away. Sluka contacted the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which tracked down someone who had gone to services at Shomrei Shabbas back in the 1920s, and would have seen the mural in person. But he couldn’t quite remember. He sat in the men’s section below, and the mural was above, in the women’s seating area.

So, Slewka got creative. She went to the library and researched what might have been in the center of the mural, and what sort of motifs were common in Eastern European synagogue murals. She then hired an artist to paint a winged lion — a nod to a phrase in Jewish teachings that devotion to God should be brave like a lion and light like an eagle.

But before she made any changes, she asked for the Jewish Historical Society’s blessing. “I said is it any way offensive or sacrilegious to have this in my living room. Should we cover it back up?” she asked.

Zach Levine, curator of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, says no. “We told her that Judaism is a religion of time and not of place. Once Jews leave a place it’s not really a Jewish place." It’s an important historical object, Levine says, but not a sacred one. “This mural was hers to do whatever she wanted.“

With a month left, there’s about $9,000 yet to raise. But Levine says he’s confident they story of this mural and the Jewish community that created it will be told for years to come.

Music: "The Mural" by Orenda Fink" from Ask the Night

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