On the first two days of my internship at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, I was very pleasantly surprised to dive into the archival materials of Rabbi Tzvi Porath. I had the opportunity to learn archival organizational skills by sorting a special selection of his materials. Rabbi Porath was a prominent Jewish figure in Greater Washington in the second half of the twentieth century. His letters and other archival material reveal a man who reached out to community members at times of celebration, such as anniversaries and holidays, as well as times of sorrow, such as death and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. As the spiritual leader of the Ohr Kodesh Congregation from 1952 through 1984, Rabbi Porath displayed boundless charisma. He brought together community members and corresponded with American Presidents, Israeli Prime Ministers, and other important leaders.
I have sorted Rabbi Porath’s archival material into categories, including the presidential administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton; the presidential inaugurations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; correspondence with Israeli Prime Ministers Meir, Begin, and Rabin; correspondence with United States Supreme Court Justices O’Connor and Arthur Goldberg; a category for family or personal correspondence; and then I sorted the significant pile of remaining material, according to decade.
Although Rabbi Porath seems to have written most of his correspondence during the 1970s, the material from the 1957 Inauguration of President Eisenhower stands out to me. There is so much material from this historic moment that after I finished sorting, I actually felt as if I had attended the Presidential Inauguration of 1957. I learned that both the rabbi and his wife had tickets to the ball, ceremony, and parade, but only one ticket permitted entrance into the Capitol rotunda. Furthermore, I found that the guidebook, invitation, press release, program, and tickets from the weekend are each unique pieces of history. Rabbi Porath had all these items because he proudly served as Co-Chairman of the Religious Participation Committee. Here is a card from the Inaugural Committee of 1957 thanking Rabbi Porath for his valuable contributions in that role.
In the fall of 1975, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir addressed Rabbi Porath in Hebrew, “I was impressed with the artistic work of Ms. Marker and naturally am pleased… I send you and your congregation greetings for a good year, a year of peace for our people.” She referred to a photograph of a bust of Meir that the rabbi had sent to her. I visited the final resting place of Meir at Mount Herzl in Israel last January, and I admire her as a strong female leader, so I appreciated the opportunity to engage in her correspondence with charismatic American spiritual leader Rabbi Porath.
Overall, Rabbi Porath emerges from this material as a lively figure who consistently reached out to community members in need. The archives contain various cards and letters that he wrote to community members who lost a loved one or needed his help. Strikingly, there was little to no change in his attitude or tone, whether he was addressing community members or world leaders. Rabbi Porath engaged members of his congregation and the surrounding community with the same level of earnestness that he used to address Americans Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers. With invaluable hand-written notes and various content, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is fortunate to possess the archival material of this extraordinary Washingtonian Jew.
Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.