Washington’s Jewish Story

Every Jewish community has a story worth telling. Each one offers its own chronology of pioneering, settlement, and institution building. Each one can enumerate its own local heroes and notable events. Each has a stirring list of “firsts,” its chronicle of worthwhile accomplishments, of daughters and sons, nurtured in the community, who left a special legacy. Each claims uniqueness.

Yet, even a quick perusal of the literally hundreds of local communal histories of Jewish America indicates that communities, despite variations in region and size and density of Jewish settlement, bore a striking resemblance one to the other, with differences being those of degree rather than kind. All across America a pattern repeated itself. A small group of Jews arrived in a community, struggled to build the first tenuous institutions, usually a synagogue and a cemetery, and despite—or, perhaps, because of—their sparse numbers, managed to carve a respected place for themselves in the life of the community, engendering little hostility from their non-Jewish neighbors. Successive waves of migration, first from Central Europe and then from regions eastward, created cleavages within the totality of the Jewish people, while the religious reforms, and the traditionalists’ reactions to them in the late-nineteenth century threatened the unity of K’lal Yisrael (the congregation of Israel). The increase in the number of Jews pushed latent anti-Jewish feelings to the surface of public awareness at this stage in the development of almost any American Jewish community.

Jews, as permanent immigrants to the United States, be it Dubuque or Detroit, Pittsburgh or Paducah, rushed to build a dazzling array of communal institutions and scampered to climb out of their relative poverty to relative wealth. Jews across America strove to prove their loyalty to their new American home, and searched for ways to balance their Jewish and their American fidelities.

Despite this almost universal pattern, communities did differ, and their institutions reflected the dynamics of the particular place. Variations in the local economy and the size of the Jewish community left an identifying stamp on each Jewish community.

Washington’s Jewish community boldly bears such a stamp. While it conformed in every way to the formula of American Jewish local history and went through the same stages of growth and development that every other Jewish enclave experienced, Washington was different.

Jewish Washington’s uniqueness sprang from the uniqueness of the District of Columbia, itself. The national capital on the Potomac, with an economy based on commerce and service, never became home to either mass employment industries or teeming immigrant enclaves. Its physical location robbed it of the possibility of being a port city, like Baltimore, its larger neighbor to the north. Although many ambitious nineteenth-century backers and speculators hoped that the Potomac would become a major inland waterway, the city never took off as an entrepot for shipping and hauling.

As a result, Jews who made their way here were not the garment workers, cap makers, cigar rollers and machine operators who flocked instead to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, where factory jobs abounded. Washington’s Jewish newcomers, many of whom seemed to have lived elsewhere in the United States before striking down roots in the District, had their eyes on business and commerce. Many of them may have been former factory workers yearning for the freedom and economic opportunity of self-employment. This meant that for most of its history, Washington’s Jews were overwhelmingly business people, rather than laborers. The unionism and radicalism which swept through the Jewish working classes in other cities barely reared its head in the “ten miles square” of the federal city.

To conduct business one had to know English and understand American ways to a greater degree than one did to operate a sewing machine in a factory where Jewish bosses and Jewish fellow workers spoke Yiddish. Similarly, the absence of other well-organized ethnic groups created a situation in which Jews did not have to compete for jobs and political patronage with other unskilled newcomers.

Politically, residents of the District of Columbia differed from all other Americans, particularly after 1878 when, by act of Congress, they lost the right to elect their own local officials, make their own laws, or vote for president or representatives to Congress. For Jews, seeking to create a community within a community, this particular political configuration would be significant. Washington, through the 1960s, lacked the municipal politics of a “normal” city. No local office holders or political bosses appealed to voters from diverse ethnic groups, currying favor with them, passing out patronage, balancing tickets, and hoping for their votes in return. Not only did Washington’s Jews not develop a local Jewish political infrastructure, such as sprang up in New York, Chicago, and Baltimore, but, if they sought help, they had to turn to Congress. If they had local needs, they had to seek national assistance.

This blurring of the local and the national in Washington constitutes the most striking characteristic of public life, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the capital city. Local issues demanded national solutions. Local problems were addressed by a national body. Jewish Washington, from the late-nineteenth century on, has played a role in national Jewish affairs far beyond what its numbers would have warranted. Jewish Washington took on tasks for American Jews as a whole.

From the 1860s on, Washington’s Jews as individuals, and through their self-appointed leaders—like Simon Wolf and Adolphus Solomons—expressed their solidarity and sympathy with their sisters and brothers enduring oppression elsewhere. While Jews around the United States joined in various ways in the chorus of protests over anti-semitism abroad, the direct negotiations with Presidents and Secretaries of States fell to the Washington power brokers, who in essence became American Jewry’s ambassadors-at-large.

In the twentieth century Jews flocked to Washington not just for small business, but for work in the federal government. With the advent of the New Deal, Jews like Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and labor-leader Sidney Hillman, to name but two, played a prominent role in national affairs. Jewish social scientists, social workers, lawyers, accountants, and bureaucrats were becoming as common in Washington as Jewish grocers and haberdashers had been a generation earlier.

Equally important, by the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, the eyes of Jewish America were taking on more and more of a national and international focus. Since the days of Simon Wolf, Jews had pleaded with the United States government to provide assistance to their Jewish sisters and brothers in distress abroad. The dynamics of the post-World War I world seemed to call for more systematic and intense efforts in dealing with the government and in mobilizing the Jewish community. The ravages of the war on the Jewish communities of Europe had given rise to the Joint Distribution Committee, a decidedly non-Zionist body, while the flowering of Zionist sentiment in America and the burgeoning Jewish settlements in Palestine propelled American Jews into founding the United Palestine Appeal. The ascendancy to power of Hitler in 1933 and the barring of Jewish emigration to Palestine brought the developing international perspective into even sharper focus.

Washington thus took on even greater significance in American Jewish affairs. In 1938 the B’nai B’rith moved its national offices to Washington, D.C., and over the course of the next decades the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Jewish Labor Committee set up national offices in the capital. A cadre of national Jewish agency officials now worked and lived in the capital.

As the community grew, organizational life became more centralized. In 1933, the various synagogue charities and other social-service groups united to form the Jewish Social Service Agency. In 1937 the United Jewish Appeal initiated coordination of all local fundraising for overseas and some local purposes. The Jewish Community Council was founded in 1938 as a form of democratically elected, voluntary Jewish “government” empowered to address issues of concern to the entire Jewish community and to coordinate Jews’ relations with non-Jewish Washington.

During and after World War II Washington’s Jewish population continued to grow rapidly. Even as Jewish institutional life in Washington flowered in the 1950s, Jews joined the general migration out of the city and into the suburbs. This relocation transformed Washington from the hub of Jewish life to the periphery, as Jewish institutions and the bulk of the area’s rapidly growing Jewish population shifted to Montgomery County and Northern Virginia.

Numerous synagogues decided to follow the population into the suburban areas. Significantly, in 1969 the Jewish Community Center sold its Sixteenth Street building and relocated, along with the Jewish Social Services Agency and the Hebrew Home for the Aged, to a large complex in Rockville, Maryland. By 1977, a Jewish Community Center had been established in Fairfax, Virginia, as well.

Despite the fact that Jewish institutional life had moved beyond the beltway, events of importance to Jews still took place within the District. Jews worldwide agitated on behalf of Soviet Jewry, but only in Washington could a daily vigil at noon, started in 1970, be mounted by the Jewish Community Council in front of the Soviet Embassy. Indeed, the community council and other organizations continued to play a national role in Jewish affairs.

Even as the locus of local Jewish life shifted to the suburbs, a significant number of Jews still remained strongly committed to the city. Some institutions, including many synagogues, affirmatively chose not to leave Washington.

A dramatic sign of a resurgent and assertive Jewish community in the city was the founding of a new District of Columbia Jewish Community Center in 1979. In 1988 the center began negotiations with District officials to buy back the Sixteenth Street building, which had been sold to the city in 1969, in order to transform it once again into a hub of Jewish life in Washington. Center officials signed the sales contract in the summer of 1990 and after a major restoration, the Washington DCJCC opened in 1997. Other Jewish institutions have followed in moving back to the city.

The renaissance of Jewish cultural life in the city in the 1970s and 1980s paralleled a literal rebirth of political life with the advent of home rule. As Washingtonians plunged into electoral politics for the first time in a century, individual Jews and Jewish organizations quickly became a part of the political scene. As political life returned to the city, Jews extended their longtime involvement with federal issues to the local government.

From the start, Jews built a highly self-conscious community, aware of their special visibility in the capital area.

Hasia Diner, Ph.D.
Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History
The Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies
New York University

Adapted from Hasia Diner, Fifty Years of Jewish Self-Governance: The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, 1989 and from Hasia R. Diner and Steven J. Diner, “Washington’s Jewish Community: Separate But Not Apart” in Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C., 1996.

Reprinted with permission of the author.