Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington | Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum

Collections: Objects of the Month

Photo of Upsilon Lambda Phi fraternity party, 1950sMay 2013

Object No: 2010.27.1
Donor: Elaine Salen-Stouck
Description: Teens around a table at Upsilon Lambda Phi fraternity party, Hotel Hamilton's Rainbow Room, c. 1945
Left to right: Elaine Klawans & Morton Funger; Margie Blanken & Robert Funger; Phyllis Lidoff & Sonny Feldman; Lillian Witt and unknown.

Background: Today's Jewish youth may find it difficult to believe that their grandparents were not welcome in clubs and social activities a half century ago. Excluded from the sororities, fraternities, and clubs of their non-Jewish classmates, Jewish teenagers created their own social sphere blending their Jewish identity with secular activities. 

The social lives of Washington's Jewish teenagers revolved around more than 60 fraternities, sororities, clubs, and Zionist youth groups from the 1920s through the 1960s. These organizations provided settings where teens could mingle and forge an American identity. Jewish teens canoed on the Potomac, danced in Glen Echo's pavilion, and organized Purim Balls at the Jewish Community Center

Panoramic sepia photo of Pi Tau Pi's opening ball, 1926

Opening ball of four-day conclave of Pi Tau Pi fraternity, Mayflower Hotel, December 27, 1926. JHSGW Collections, gift of Albert H. Small

High school fraternity and sorority life was filled with meetings, activities, and lavish dances, often held at the city's most elegant hotels. National conventions and conclaves gave local Jewish teens a chance to travel to cities like Albany, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Here in Washington, more than 150 local delegates of Pi Tau Pi attended their fraternity's 1926 annual convention at the Mayflower Hotel (seen at left).

The involvement of the teens in these social groups often served as the recipe for future community leadership. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington's exhibition, Members of the Club: Washington Jewish Teen Life, 1920s-1960s (watch accompanying video!), captured memories collected from community members about their teenage experiences. "There was something that touched us that was more than just the fun and dances… somehow we were intellectually and emotionally stirred, and for some of us it has been an intoxication throughout our lives," reflected Tamara Bernstein Handelsman, a member of Phi Delta. She has since been a member of the boards of many local Jewish organizations.

Hand-drawn Flyer for AZA Yom Kippur dance, 1939

Flyer for AZA's annual Yom Kippur dance, 1939.
JHSGW Collections,
gift of Sol Lynn

Signature events included Sigma Alpha Rho's Cherry Blossom Ball at the Shoreham Hotel and Sigma Kappa Sigma's Festival of Roses at the Hebrew Academy. Starting in 1933, Alpha Zadik Alpha (AZA) sponsored an annual post-Yom Kippur Dance that was the highlight of the social season for many Jewish teens. "Take it from me: you had to have a date, and the right date, at least two months ahead of time," recalled Gershon Fishbein (z'l) about his AZA days.

When the war came in December 1941, teen activities changed rapidly. Jewish youth pitched in, shifting their focus from dances and picnics to war bond drives and Red Cross work. In the post-war era, young baby boomers used their social events to promote and raise money for special causes. Mu Sigma cosponsored the Teddy Bear Hop, where all in attendance brought toys for Children's Hospital and Junior Village.

Black and white photo of banquet, 1948

Alumni Luncheon, Kappa Sigma chapter of Phi Delta Sorority, Mayflower Hotel's Chinese Room, April 3, 1948.
JHSGW Collections, gift of Margot Heckman.

A menu from a Pi Tau Pi fraternity dinner dance in 1954 details a meal of cold turkey, stuffed celery, pickles, and melon fantasy for dessert. This selection is distinctly different from  the salad, pasta, grilled chicken, and chocolate cake served at today's formal banquets and dances.

These shared experiences often led to lasting relationships. Sandy Levy Kouzel played bridge weekly for over 20 years with sorority sisters and Milton and Lois Kessler met at a dance and married six years later.

Many parents supported membership in teen groups as a way to build strong communal relationships in an increasingly assimilated Jewish Washington. These connections provided an enduring legacy: a sense of belonging, lifelong friendships, and preparation for community leadership. 

This year, in conjunction with the Jewish Food Experience, our Objects of the Month feature DC's rich Jewish food history. For stories about this history and the latest on the local Jewish food scene – recipes, restaurants, chefs, events, and volunteer opportunities – visit jewishfoodexperience.com.