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A New Acquisition and the Vigil for Alan Gross 0 Comment(s)

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman gives "Free Alan Gross" sign to Executive Director Laura Cohen Apelbaum. The sign shows Gross and his wife, Judy, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Alan Gross's recent release from captivity in Cuba marks a moment of celebration and reflection for the Washington-area Jewish community. Among the many activists celebrating is Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, a leader of a weekly vigil for three years in front of the Cuban embassy.

In the days following Alan Gross's release, Rabbi Saltzman donated a "Free Alan Gross" sign to the Society's archival collections. We took this special opportunity to record his first-hand experience of the weekly vigil as well as his perspective on the Jewish community's responsibility to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

JHSGW (Q): What was your reaction when you first heard about Alan Gross's arrest and imprisonment, and at what point did you decide to act?

Rabbi Saltzman (A): I heard about Alan Gross's imprisonment over four years ago. My friend and neighbor, Gwen Zuares, is Judy Gross's sister. Early on, she asked if I knew about Alan, and then she kept me informed. She was distraught and greatly concerned for his well-being and for his family's well-being. Gwen let me know when the demonstrations were beginning, and I got involved as I thought this type of demonstration could have positive results.

Q: With so many worthy advocacy causes swirling around us, how were you able to attract people to this issue and get them involved in the vigil? 

A: The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), its executive director Ron Halber, and staff (especially Adina Remz) deserve credit as does the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington for helping get people to the vigil in the beginning. 

We do not know why some people chose to participate nor could we make it their priority. I shared some of my previous activism experience in order to interest people. From the beginning, I wrote statements to be read at the vigil. These gave focus, reminding people over and over what we were there for, what we were trying to accomplish, and how it fulfilled both a religious and civic responsibility. 

Q: What is the story behind the sign that you recently donated to the Society? 

A: These signs were carried every week at the vigil and were in synagogue lobbies around the Washington area. We brought one to the State Department so they would see Alan's photo – a reminder. 

Originally, The Jewish Federation provided a grant to print the posters. We began to run short, though, so I spoke to one of my congregants, Ed Apple, who owns Prince Frederick Graphics. I asked him for a price for reprinting, but he said he knew Alan Gross and gave us a gift. In addition, Gwen said she would find the money to print it, but I don't think it was needed. 

I donated this "Free Alan Gross" sign to the archives of the Jewish Historical Society to remind our community, now and in the future, of what we can accomplish together. Engagement with the government as well as asserting our rights to demonstrate as citizens are essential to finding a responsible resolution to a difficulty which otherwise might have been ignored or lost on someone's desk.

Q: Your leadership in this kind of advocacy work began long before the vigil in front of the Cuban embassy. How did your involvement with the vigils on behalf of Soviet Jewry, both in New York and in Washington, shape your tactics in Alan Gross's case? 

A: We learned from earlier demonstrations, including those for desegregating the New York City School system, and demonstrating for Soviet Jewry both in NYC and in Washington, D.C., that there were many good results. 

As a high school student, I marched in Harlem, and people applauded at the doors of their brownstone buildings. They were looking for a positive change. That was accomplished. When we demonstrated in Washington, D.C. opposite the Soviet Embassy, we demonstrated in silence. It was just the presence of demonstrators of every age group, from all walks of life, sent a message to those at the embassy. People who cared could be found at these vigils. Those who returned more than once, and those from our congregations and from the interfaith community. 

Once, in front of the Soviet Embassy, we sang the "Hush of Midnight," a contemporary S'lichot service prior to Rosh Hashanah, including the prayer Ashre -- "Happy are they who dwell in Thy house, they will ever praise Thy name." We sang Sh'ma Koleinu -- "Hear our Voice, accept our prayer in mercy, have mercy upon us." We sang Mi She'anah Avraham Avinu, Hu Ya'aneinu -- "May the One who answered Abraham, May that One answer us." After that day, we were asked not to sing anymore. Perhaps they were listening at the Embassy?  

We learned that there would always be individuals who said what we were doing was a waste of time and energy. We read such opinions in the press. Yet, I never believed that, as I saw us a community strengthened by these demonstrations. Everyone sought a way to express their concern. I made sure that my children, Josh and Michael, participated in the Soviet Jewry vigil, so that they could have that experience, continuing my experience and their grandparents' experience.

Read Rabbi Saltzman's memories of his involvement with the local Soviet Jewry movement.

In this recent situation, it was more difficult in that there was misinformation coming from some media originating from the Cuban government. That created some reluctance and doubt among some in the community who did not show up or discontinued their participation. From previous experience, I knew this could be a long process requiring persistence and belief that Alan Gross and his family had a spotless record of work and commitment to the Jewish community and humanitarian work. 

Q: The vigil that you lead was a critical part of a much larger effort. Where did it fit within the broader context of organizations and government institutions fighting for Alan Gross's release? 

A: Most importantly, this vigil gave Alan Gross himself the hope that people cared and were not going to let up. How does one keep sane for five years in a high security prison, while you're ill, losing weight, knowing of the emotional and physical deterioration of many loved ones at home, and unable to do anything about it? 

Our vigil let the Cubans know we were serious in our concern, and you know they recorded and taped us every time we were there, and their employees and diplomats exited the building as the sound of voices magnified by the bullhorn penetrated the walls of the building. Our vigil was seen by Cubans and people going to Cuba as they applied for visas across the street. This vigil let our government know that this was urgent – a priority that needed attention. We are citizens who spoke up for a fellow citizen who was not politically connected. 

The JCRC and Jewish Federation used their advocacy and connections to make this a priority in the halls of Congress. We coordinated with the JCRC and the Gross family's wishes and the requests of their legal representatives, and we tried to do what was helpful and supportive while their legal team worked other channels. A group of us from the vigil went to meet with a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba, Deputy Secretary of State Alex Lee, to express our concern, and inquire what else they were doing for Alan Gross and what else they thought we might do. 

At that meeting, I communicated that the message Alan Gross had done nothing wrong was getting lost in media coverage and that they had to find a way to correct that. Without that assurance that he was innocent, people were reluctant to act on his behalf. Shortly afterwards, there were news stories and statements steering the conversation back to where it needed to be - Alan Gross is in prison and needed to be freed. He had been sentenced unjustly. 

Q: Alan Gross's release came alongside a monumental breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations. How do you perceive your role and the role of the Washington-area Jewish community in contributing to this change? 

A: Our vigil to free Alan Gross was part of a much broader strategy to gain his release. For some it may be insignificant, but for those who participated, it has left an indelible impression. We used our right to demonstrate and assemble to good effect. We spoke out. We continued a time-honored American and Jewish tradition of not accepting the stern outcome as final, and we were determined to overcome this cruel and unjust imprisonment. 

Along the way, we discovered something we already knew from previous vigils like the one for Soviet Jewry: there is a community in more than name and it does not care which denomination you belong to. We had Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanistic Jews, Catholics and all participate in these vigils.

We found a caring community for Alan Gross and his family. We found people with Cuban roots, such as Carlos Lumpuy who translated my words into Spanish at the demonstrations. Students from the Hebrew Academy, BBYO, and public high schools joined us and brought our concerns back to their fellow classmates. Educational Directors brought the issue to their students. 

We established that even though it was difficult to park near the Cuban embassy, we could find parking, we could show up, and we could learn from each other. Some brought prayers recited by rabbis, some brought songs, sung by their cantors, some brought presence. Our message was Hineni! -- "I am here!" -- and willing to do whatever is necessary to resolve this matter, and to give thanks when it happens. We learned that it can be a lonely occupation to do this when you return every week.  

Q: Now that Alan has returned to the U.S., how do you suggest we preserve this story for future generations? What are the core lessons we need to ensure future generations learn from this story? 

A: The first lesson is one of religious and philosophical responsibility. As Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) teaches, while we are not required to finish our efforts, we are not free from trying. Phyllis Margolius, Dr. Richard Morgenstein, and Daniel Mann joined us and believed in this, yet they did not live to see this wonderful day of Alan Gross's freedom.  

We learn that Pidyon Shvuyim, rescuing the hostage or captive, is the responsibility of the community and a great mitzvah. We learn that "to Save a Life, is to Save a World." We know that Alan Gross will not be the only person to be treated in this manner. Alan Gross can enjoy his life in freedom and rescuing one American gives us confidence that our government values its citizens and will do whatever is necessary to protect and defend them.  

Our government listened and responded to our concern and the concerns of the family of Alan Gross as articulated so eloquently by Judy Gross. Ultimately, President Barack Obama had to make the decision to do this, removing a stumbling block for a new day in Cuban-American relations. Alan Gross originally went to Cuba to help Cubans, and ironically, his unjust imprisonment and his being freed will result in helping Cubans by changing American policy.

Saving a good man who strongly identifies as both American and Jewish, whose first words to the public were "Chag Sam'e'ach" should give us something to ponder. The lesson of history is that we cannot be silent. Saving one man and participating in that cause gives us a reason to rejoice. There are times when good people need to know what is right and how to act on those beliefs. There are those who will minimize the relationship of our presence, and I do not want to exaggerate its importance either.

Object of the Month: December 2014 0 Comment(s)

Interior of Friendship grocery, ca. 1950s.

Accession No. 2014.33
Donor: Ronald S. Levine
Description: Collection of photographs documenting Friendship Deli, 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, mid-1940s-1950s.

This December, will you join the collective shopping frenzy around Friendship Heights? As you meander past bustling shopping malls and boutiques, remember the neighborhood's quieter past as a home to small, mom-and-pop businesses. One of those businesses was a grocery and later a luncheonette called ‘Friendship.'

Herman Levine opened Friendship grocery shortly after the Second World War, in a small, two-story building at 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, between Fessenden and Ellicott Streets. Like many mom-and-pop groceries, the store was on the first floor, and the family lived in an apartment on the second floor. "It was a typical mom-and-pop store," remembers Herman Levine's son Ron who, with his older sister Maxine, spent part of his childhood living ‘above the store.' "It was open 7 days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. And my mother worked in the store, but would run upstairs to fix lunch and meals, and then go back to the store." Levine remembers being called home from school to help. "They would call the principal who would come into my classroom, and I knew that someone didn't show up for work that day." Herman usually took off Monday afternoons, and he and Ron would fish near the current site of the Kennedy Center.

Herman, Lillian, and Maxine Levine in front of Friendship grocery, ca. 1940s

From its beginnings, Friendship was a family affair. Levine, who was born in Brooklyn, NY, served as an airplane mechanic in Hawaii during the war and spent some time training in D.C. He met his wife, Lillian Furash, while staying at a boarding house for government workers on Nebraska Avenue, which Lillain's family owned. Lillian was born in Washington to immigrant parents originally from Pinsk, Russia. Shortly after the war, Herman and Lillian married. Lillian's father Jacob urged Herman to go into business, and helped him establish the grocery.

Friendship grocery was nestled within a strip of shops owned by Jewish, Greek, and Italian families. "The Kahn family ran a shoe store down the street," recalls Ron Levine. "Next to my father's store was a barber shop, and that was an Italian family. The toy store was next door, and next to them were Henry and Rose Greenbaum, and they had three kids. They lived above the shop, and were in business with Henry's brother. Both were survivors of Auschwitz. Next to them was a Greek florist. All of their children would run into each other's stores, and all of our parents watched us. On summer evenings we'd all be sitting out on Wisconsin Avenue and get together and talk. Our fathers were, of course, still in the businesses, still working."

Children whose parents owned stores adjacent to Friendship grocery
on the 4900 block of Wisconsin Ave, NW, ca. 1950s

Herman Levine and patron at Friendship when it was a grocery, ca. 1950s

In the early 1950s, a Safeway supermarket opened on the next block (it's still there). Unable to compete, Levine converted the grocery into the Friendship Delicatessen, a luncheonette that served breakfast and ‘kosher-inspired' sandwiches. Friendship Delicatessen offered signature items, including a version of a familiar D.C. favorite of the time. "Hot Shoppes came out with the Mighty Mo," recalls Ron, "and my dad came out with the Mighty Hy – because his nickname was Hy," short for his Yiddish name, Hyman. "It was a triple burger," similar to the Mighty Mo.

The Friendship Delicatessen flourished. Most of its regulars worked nearby at the WTTG (Channel 5) and WRC (Channel 4) studios, as well as at other offices and stores along Wisconsin Avenue. Within a few years, the family could afford to move to a house. They purchased and remodeled Lillian's childhood home on Nebraska Avenue – the same house where Herman and Lillian met.

"Once my dad changed the business to a deli, he worked Monday through Friday, and then closed up on the weekends," remembers Ron Levine. "After about 15 years, he had his weekends off." No longer needing to man the store on Saturdays and Sundays, Herman followed his passion for fishing. He purchased several progressively larger boats, which the family would take for deep-sea fishing excursions.

Herman retired in 1977 and sold his business. Similar to other Jewish Washingtonians, the Levines' mom-and-pop business helped the family to settle and prosper. The Levines and the Furashes live in the D.C. area.

Today, 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, is home to the National Diving Center, which outfits SCUBA diving enthusiasts. The block continues to reflect the city's ethnic diversity, with Chinese, Thai, Mexican, French, and pizza restaurants, in addition to a bank, yoga studio, and pet groomer.

Making a Museum - Issue 1 0 Comment(s)

On Site

First move, 1969

Saved from demolition and relocated from its original site in December 1969, the Jewish Historical Society's 1876 synagogue building--the oldest such structure in Washington, D.C--will move again, becoming the focal point of a state-of-the-art Jewish museum at the corner of Third and F Streets, NW.

Our new museum complex will anchor a $1.3-billion mixed-used project called Capitol Crossing, adjacent to one of D.C.'s most vibrantly renewed neighborhoods.

Construction at Fourth & H Streets at Massachusetts Avenue, NW. 

Courtesy 3rdstreettunnel.com

Capitol Crossing--a six-building office, retail, and residential complex developed by Property Group Partners--will extend onto a newly-built platform over Interstate 395. By restoring F and G Street, part of the original L'Enfant Plan, the project will reconnect Capitol Hill and the East End.

Infrastructure work began in April. Utility relocation and upgrades, roadwork, and platform construction are expected to take five years. Making a Museum will continue to report as construction progresses. Follow project news at www.3rdsttunnel.com.

Just Announced

Property Group Partners has confirmed Eataly, a high-end Italian market and restaurant with six worldwide locations, will be joining our new neighborhood.

A New Jewish Museum

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the Capitol Crossing project will enable the Jewish Historical Society to write the next chapter in its history. Our new museum will be a welcoming place, showcasing the Washington region's Jewish life and heritage and reinterpreting our historic synagogue in engaging ways.

Our all-star team of preeminent consultants includes:

The new spaces will contain galleries, classrooms, an archival reading room, an oral history studio, offices, and a green-roof garden terrace. Look for more about our plans in future issues of Making a Museum.

Meet the Neighbors: Georgetown University Law Center

Wallace J. Mlyniec

Courtesy of Georgetown University Law Center

Always separate from the main campus, Georgetown University Law Center arrived at its current location between First and Second Streets in 1971, a year or so after the relocation of the 1876 synagogue. According to Wallace J. Mlyniec, Lupo-Ricci Professor of Clinical Legal Studies: "When we moved here, most of residents of the old East End-Italian, Jewish, and African American middle-class families-had been moved out for the I-395 highway project."

Mlyniec has been involved in all of the Law Center's expansions since 1980. Pointing out that while construction projects are always somewhat disruptive to those living and working nearby, he predicts that Capitol Crossing "will bring an immense benefit to our students, staff, and faculty...making the entire neighborhood livelier 24 hours a day."

For several years, the Jewish Historical Society has organized walking tours for incoming Jewish students led by the Law Center's Jewish Chaplain Michael Goldman, a Society member. Other partnerships are likely once the highway is no longer a barrier and the new museum is completed.

Catching Up With… Henry and Sam Brylawski

Making a Museum chatted with the Jewish Historical Society's first presidential father-son pair, current president Sam Brylawski and his father, Henry Brylawski, 101. A few excerpts:

MaM: Soon after you became President in 1969, Henry, you took on the challenge of rescuing the former Adas Israel building.

Henry Brylawski: It was at the site of the Metro building, a full block between Sixth, Fifth, G, and F. In the end, the only building standing there was this synagogue on the corner. And of course they wanted us to get rid of it.

MaM: What was it like the day of the move?

Henry: It was greeted with astonishment by everybody that saw it. It was in the paper. And then after we got it on the foundation, we all breathed a sigh of relief. We have the building. We don't have the money to restore it, but we've got the building, we have the site.

MaM: For both of you: What is it about Washington Jewish history that interests you the most?

Henry: My wife's great-grandfather [Solomon M. Lansburgh] was the first ordained rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation and that was the 1850s. So that always interested me.

Sam Brylawski: My father had an interest in the history of this city my whole lifetime, and that affected me. And to me the historic synagogue represents post-Civil War Washington, when, as throughout America, all these immigrants are coming and they're establishing themselves in the United States.

MaM: How has the Jewish Historical Society changed over the years?

Sam: When my father was president, it was still, even after the building moved, a Society primarily of volunteers. We now have a professional staff, collecting the material culture of the Washington-area Jewish community, and preserving it, and interpreting it in new ways every year with new exhibitions and publications and public programs. It's extraordinarily active, with lectures and concerts and even singles gatherings. But we're bursting at the seams.

We've had a dream of having a museum for 10 years, even before the Capitol Crossing development opportunity. But then to have someone say, "You're going to move and we're going to provide you with a footprint to build an accompanying museum." Remember, the synagogue isn't even accessible to anyone disabled and now it will be. And now it will be in a setting that provides it some breathing room and with museum spaces that can help interpret the synagogue itself and vice-versa.

Henry: It will be more visible too. Because nobody really sees [the original] Adas Israel as they pass by.

Sam: And we'll be a central part of the redevelopment of this section of Washington. It will be an attraction.

Collection Connection

Photograph from Synagogue Rededication, 1975
Albert and Lillian Small, key supporters of the synagogue restoration, greet Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg (left), at the building's rededication as a museum. Albert Small grew up in the neighborhood, and his father, Isadore, was a member of the synagogue.

Did You Know?

Adas Israel Building Committee at the construction site, Sixth & I Streets, NW, 1906. 

Courtesy of Washington Post.

The 1876 synagogue is the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue's big brother! When Adas Israel outgrew its original synagogue, the congregation erected a new synagogue up the street at Sixth & I Streets, NW. It was dedicated in 1908.