A Note from the Executive Director

The story of Washington’s Jewish community is often told only as a simple time-line. Jews came “late” to the city, followed the “usual” patterns of immigration, opened small shops that grew into large stores, organized synagogues and Jewish communal organizations, and then moved out to the suburbs.

Drawing on our rich community archives, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington created this landmark exhibition in 2004 to honor the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. Titled Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community, it opened on June 23, 2005, at the National Building Museum, and attracted unprecedented attendance and media attention. The exhibition’s wealth of images, many never before seen by the public, depict a Washington that is both the nation’s capital and hometown to the sixth largest Jewish community in the United States.

We were honored to receive a 2006 Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History Associations (AASLH) for the exhibition. Since 1945, this has been the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

We invite you to explore this exhibition where you will find a chronicle of the day-to-day lives and deeds of community members. Many of the images in the exhibition come from the Society’s collection of more than fifty scrapbooks, each lovingly filled with newspaper clippings, dried corsages, invitations, and photographs of the people, places, and events that illustrate our community’s dynamic development. The title fittingly takes its cue from this valuable, if informal, record of our community’s unique history and its role in American Jewish life and the nation’s history. These materials, and the rest of the Society’s collections, form the nation’s central archives for this special community and are open to the public for research.

Jews were “late” in arriving in the nation’s capital, simply because there was no town or city in which to settle before 1800, when the federal government moved into the rural, swampy, newly created District of Columbia. By that time, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston were well-established colonial cities with substantial Jewish populations. Our research shows that the first Jew to settle in Washington arrived in 1795. Other Jews followed, and after 1840, a wave of immigration began that, during the 19th and 20th centuries, brought tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants to this city. Jews from Central Europe arrived first, followed by those from Eastern Europe and Russia, with Sephardic Jews settling here in the 1920s.

While many started in business with small shops—groceries, furniture stores, tailors, jewelers—the presence of the federal government had a profound effect. Stores’ clientele included presidents, Supreme Court justices and members of Congress. The few Jews who served in the federal government for the century preceding the New Deal were joined by a wave of young intellectuals who arrived to serve a burgeoning federal government in the 1930s and 1940s. Continued growth and prosperity since World War II have created a metropolitan area that spans three jurisdictions—the District of Columbia and the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs—that include more than 215,000 members.

Creation of this online exhibition depended heavily on the help and advice of some very special people. Jeanne Krohn of Krohn Design created the original exhibition and book design that perfectly reflected our collections and our work. Designer Addison Hall has now transformed the exhibition to an exceptional virtual experience open to all on the Internet. Production of the website was overseen by Claire Uziel. James Mirabello of Spark Media, Elsie Klumpner, and Stacey Martin assisted with the website as well.

The impetus for the exhibition came from a discussion Dr. Gary Zola, Director of the American Jewish Archives, led at a conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums in Cincinnati in early 2002. Dr. Zola spoke enthusiastically about the formation of the Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History, which he chaired. Subsequently, we sought advice from Dr. Zola, as well as other commission members, particularly Dr. Michael Grunberger, then Chief of the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress, and Dr. Michael Feldberg, then Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society. We are deeply grateful to all of them.

Gifts from individuals and family foundations lay the groundwork for mounting this web-based exhibition and a capstone gift from The Samuel Burtoff, M.D. Foundation made its realization possible.

We invite you to turn the pages of the community’s scrapbook.

Laura Cohen Apelbaum
Executive Director
Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington
Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum

May 2010