Last week, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington held its annual meeting and celebrated its 100th anniversary. JHSGW Executive Director Laura Apelbaum spoke at the meeting and recounted a few highlights from the last 100 years of JCC history. Here are some excerpts from her talk:
Among the most treasured objects in our archival collections are 34 scrapbooks documenting the JCC from the 1920s into the 1980s. Each scrapbook is filled with invitations, programs, flyers, and newsclippings, creating a wonderfully colorful and rich compendium of the Center’s activities and our community's history.
Opening the first scrapbook page, we find a photograph of a 3-story brick townhouse at 415 M Street, NW. One hundred years ago, young Jewish men and women wanted to create a place for social interaction, cultural activities, and athletics. They formed the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations - predecessors to today's JCC. In 1913, the YMHA purchased this home as their headquarters. They fielded baseball, tennis, and bowling teams, went on picnics and beach trips, held debates and dances, and raised funds for Jewish overseas relief during World War I. In 1914, they sold the building to the newly formed Hebrew Home and moved into other rented facilities.
The next scrapbook opens to a panoramic photograph of President Calvin Coolidge speaking to a crowd assembled at the corner of 16th and Q for the cornerstone laying ceremony of the JCC's new building. The national Jewish Welfare Board provided an initial $50,000, while developer Morris Cafritz and Jewish leader Joseph Wilner led the $500,000 building campaign. In his speech, Coolidge remarked "Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy."
Another scrapbook reveals a photograph of young men in uniform dancing cheek to cheek with young women in the JCC's gym during World War II. The Center’s policy "Your uniform is your admission" made the JCC the central place to meet and socialize for Jewish servicemen and women stationed in Washington. Young women called "government girls" were flocking to DC to work in war agencies, and a JCC room registry helped them find housing in Jewish homes that provided kosher meals.
As the Jewish community grew in postwar years and began moving north and west into the suburbs, many Jewish communal organizations and synagogues followed. Turning the page, we find a smiling Charles E. Smith holding a ceremonial shovel alongside the youngest student at the JCC's nursery school and the oldest resident of the Hebrew Home at the 1967 groundbreaking for the new Rockville facility on Montrose Road.
The JCC's history showcases our community's unique relationship as the nation’s capital where presidents attend holiday events and groundbreakings. At the same time, the JCC holds many personal connections and has played a central part in the lives of many families for the past century.
Donor: Elaine Salen-Stouck Description: Teens around a table at Upsilon Lambda Phi fraternity party, Hotel Hamilton's Rainbow Room, c. 1950s.
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.
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 here).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We want to share a terrific feature on the Washington Jewish Community that appears in this month’s issue of Moment Magazine in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
The article, “Jewish Routes,” highlights Washington’s Jewish community and features images from our collection and content from interviews with me and others on our staff. In addition to the main article, there is a list of local Jewish American Heritage sites and profiles of community members, who share memories of growing up and their lives in Washington. Included are Society members Josephine Ammerman, Lois England, Irene Kaplan, Robert Kogod, Albert Small, and David Bruce Smith. You can download all of it here. Bonus content, a Jewish D.C. reading list, was posted on Moment's blog.
As we continue to plan for the future move of the synagogue and the building of a new Jewish museum in Washington, we are honored to have our role featured in Moment Magazine—a national publication of Jewish thought and culture.
Last week JHSGW staff attended the grand opening of Washington’s newest corner grocery store – the H Street NE Giant Food. As you can see, we were thrilled to receive a generous $2,500 contribution from Giant in appreciation for our work preserving Giant Food’s historical archives and photographs. With support from the Naomi & Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, JHSGW archivists spent five years cataloging Giant Food’s historical documents and photographs and conducting oral histories to help preserve Giant’s remarkable legacy in our community.
For a sneak peek into the Giant Food archives, check out this slideshow of historic Giant photos and a short film featuring memories of Giant Food and its founders, Samuel Lehrman and Nehemiah Cohen, from interviews with community leaders, former employees of Giant Food, family, and friends.
Recognize the big G? Most of these iconic Giant store signs have been replaced in recent years so we were especially delighted to receive this sign last month when the Queenstown Giant in Hyattsville, Maryland closed. Opened in 1954 on Queens Chapel Road, the store achieved a brief moment of fame in 1957 when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip stopped in for a brief tour of the store after visiting the University of Maryland.
We plan to make the GIANT sign a centerpiece of our new museum in the future - but in the meantime our costs to preserve and store the sign will come to $12,000 over the next five years. Won't you help us support the care and preservation of this GIANT piece of history? Donate to the Giant Food Sign Preservation Fund.