First Jews, First Congregation
In 1843, there were too few Jews to form a ten-man minyan. Less than a decade later, the capital’s first Jewish congregation was formed.
Washington’s first known Jewish resident, Isaac Polock, arrived from Savannah in 1795. An early land speculator in the new capital city, he built stately homes. In 1828, Captain Alfred Mordecai was assigned to the Washington Arsenal. His daughter, Rosa, born in 1839, was the first Jewish child born in Washington.
Dwindling economic prospects and failed revolutionary movements in Central Europe precipitated a wave of immigration in the 1840s and ‘50s. Some immigrants who arrived in port cities like New York and Baltimore later moved to Washington. Brothers Amnon and Bendiza Behrend immigrated to New York from the German city of Rodenberg in 1849. By the 1850s, each brother had opened a business along Seventh Street, NW. The new arrivals became part of the small but thriving German immigrant community in Washington.
In 1852, 21 men met in a Pennsylvania Avenue home to form Washington’s first Jewish congregation. Each contributed one dollar in dues.
The Rev. S. Weil recite[d] the prayer for the Government in both Hebrew and English. The Haphtorah is read in German . . . The Congregation is prospering greatly, numbering about ninety members.
The Jewish Messenger, December 11, 1863
Late 1700s: Washington’s first Jewish resident, Isaac Polock, built these brick mansions at 21st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, west of the White House. Known as the Six Buildings, they initially housed the U.S. State Department and Secretary of the Navy. Later they were home to Secretaries of State James Madison and William Seward, and to General Sam Houston.
Courtesy of The Historical Society of Washington, D.C
1828: New arrival Captain Alfred Mordecai was assigned to the Washington Arsenal. When his infant son Frank died in 1843, the city lacked a minyan of ten Jewish men to say the memorial prayer, Kaddish, at the funeral. Mordecai resigned his position in 1861 and left Washington rather than serve against his native North Carolina in the Civil War.
Courtesy of West Point Museum Art Collection, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.
1845: This “Reise-Pass” exemplifies the restrictions faced by Jews in German states. While Bernhard Behrend was traveling from his native Rodenberg to Frankfurt, he was required to carry this pass. Behrend’s physical characteristics are listed on the left—including his age, height, and hair color.
JHSGW Collections. Nordlinger-Behrend-Goldstein Family Archives. 2000.04
Early 1850s: Hungarian freedom fighter Emanuel Lulley immigrated to New York and, by 1853, had moved to Washington with his wife Cecilia and their children. Their granddaughter Bertha married Jonas Hechinger. The Hechingers’ first child, Sidney, later founded the Washington chain of hardware stores.
JHSGW Collections. Gift of Lois Hechinger England.