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Object of the Month: December 2012 0 Comment(s)

Collection: JHSGW Institutional Records
Description: Invitation to the move of the 1876 historic synagogue, December 1969

Background: On December 18, 1969, after a series of urgent letters, frantic preparations, and collaboration from D.C. and federal government agencies, the Jewish Historical Society saved a historic structure from the wrecking ball. Moving the 270-ton building was a complicated feat and took three hours. Along the way, a gas main ruptured. The gas company burned off excess gas to prevent it from accumulating in nearby buildings, causing small fires in the manholes, which provided curious spectators with a bit of warmth on the bitterly cold day.

Built by Adas Israel Congregation and dedicated on June 9, 1876, the building originally stood at Sixth & G Streets, NW, in the heart of the city’s residential and commercial center. The congregation outgrew the building by 1906 and sold it to a real estate investor. Over the next 60 years, the first floor housed a bicycle shop, barber, a grocery store, delicatessen, and other businesses. A succession of churches worshipped upstairs in the sanctuary.

Over the years, the building’s original purpose faded from memory. By the late 1950s, a few members of the community started bringing the former synagogue’s history to the attention of JHSGW. Support was gathered for the building’s preservation, but a crisis soon struck. Metro, the new subway system, planned to demolish the entire block of buildings on which the synagogue stood in order to erect its headquarters. 

Today, the historic building is home to the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. Educational programs, school field trips, walking tours, and private events such as bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings take place in the former sanctuary.

Object of the Month: October 2012 0 Comment(s)

Object No. 2012.08.01
Donor: Rabbi Arnold Saltzman
Description: Tallit bag (15"x10.5") made of burgundy velvet with a red, yellow, green, and blue flower trim. Features Star of David design.

Background: This hand-sewn tallit bag was used by three generations of Rabbi Saltzman's family. The bag, which likely dates to the 19th century, was handmade by Saltzman's maternal grandfather, Samuel Holzman, a tailor who emigrated from Russia to the United States.

In Holzman's bequest, each of his 18 grandchildren received something he had made for them from fabric. Their grandmother presented an  item to each grandchild after their grandfather's death. Saltzman received the bag prior to his bar mitzvah in 1961.

Saltzman’s father, Max, was a tailor who left Poland for America in 1904. By age 18, he owned a clothing manufacturing business in New York. As a fellow artisan, Max so admired his father-in-law's tallit bag that he soon "borrowed" it from his son. Not until Max's death in 1983 did his son reclaim the precious object.

Rabbi Saltzman used it through his remaining 22 years as Adas Israel Congregation's cantor and it accompanied him on his numerous trips to Israel. Once it became too fragile to use, Saltzman, now a rabbi, donated it to the Jewish Historical Society. The tallit bag is a wonderful reminder of beloved relatives and a world gone by.

Kaddish for America’s First Jewish Aviator 0 Comment(s)

Last week, a crowd recited the Kaddish in memory of an unlikely aviation pioneer—a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Arthur L. Welsh. The occasion was the centennial of his tragic death at the College Park Airfield. Among those gathered were great grand-nieces and nephews of the little-known pioneering aviator. On June 11, 1912, Welsh was killed while testing a Wright-designed plane for military use.

The notion of a Jewish immigrant penetrating the Wright brothers’ inner circle seems improbable. Yet Welsh distinguished himself as one of the earliest and most respected pilots in our country. Unlike the Wright brothers, whose ancestors arrived in Massachusetts just 20 years after the Pilgrims, Al Welsh’s story began as one typical of a working class Jewish immigrant.

America’s first Jewish airman was born Laibel Willcher in Russia, where he lived until he came to this country with his parents as a boy. The family settled in Philadelphia. Shortly after Laibel's father died, his mother remarried.

In 1898, the family moved to Washington’s 4 ½ Street, Southwest, neighborhood—home to a small enclave of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century. This was the same neighborhood where another young Jewish immigrant was growing up—Asa Yoelson, a cantor's son who later changed his name to Al Jolson.

Like so many other Jewish families, Laibel and his family lived above the grocery store that his mother ran. His stepfather worked as a cutter in a tailor shop.

When Laibel joined the Navy in 1901, he gave his name as Arthur L. Welsh—perhaps to escape anti-Semitism. After his honorable discharge, Welsh returned to Washington and worked as a bookkeeper. He attended meetings of the Young Zionist Union, where he met his future bride, Anna Harmel. Their 1907 wedding was the first held at the then-Orthodox Adas Israel’s second synagogue at 6th and I Streets.

When the Wright brothers came to Fort Myer in 1908 and 1909, Al Welsh was among the throng who watched in fascination as the famous brothers tested their military flier.

Welsh chased and realized his dream of flying with the Wright brothers. Though he did not have the mechanical knowledge required, he embarked on a letter-writing campaign to gain the attention of the Wrights. After initial rejection, Welsh traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to appeal to the Wrights in person.

Arthur Welsh at the controls of a Wright C Flyer at College Park, MD, 1912.

Photo courtesy of College Park Aviation Museum, Jesse Ayer Collection

His persistence eventually overcame his lack of qualifications. Welsh trained directly under Orville Wright and became a trusted and skilled pilot—a notable achievement given the difficulties of flying a Wright plane. This young Jewish immigrant also gave lessons to the first military pilots, including the famed Henry "Hap" Arnold, later a five-star general and U.S. Army Air Chief of Staff during World War II.

In 1912, the Wrights sent Welsh home to test a new military plane at College Park Airport. He lived with his in-laws in his Southwest neighborhood, commuting on the streetcar from the family home on H Street.

During a test flight on June 11, 1912, Welsh and Lieutenant Leighton Hazlehurst crashed into a field of daisies. Both died instantly.

The funeral service, held at the Harmel family home, was delayed so Orville Wright and his sister Katherine would have time to arrive from Dayton. Orville served as a pallbearer, along with Hap Arnold and several of Welsh’s Jewish friends from the neighborhood. His coffin was draped in a silken tallis. The Yiddish newspaper The Forward reported, “All present were in tears including Mr. Orville Wright and his sister who were doing all they could to console the wife and mother of the deceased.”

Welsh was buried in the Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia. Welsh's wife Anna died in 1925 “of a broken heart,” as the family remembered. Their daughter, just two years old at the time of her father’s death, grew up in Southwest and later moved to London.

In the early 1930s, Welsh’s sister, Clara Wiseman, campaigned to gain public recognition for her brother. She urged the military to name an airfield in his honor, as they had done for Welsh’s copilot. But since Welsh had flown as a civilian, no such honor was forthcoming.

Today, perhaps her efforts have been vindicated. Last week the College Park Aviation Museum unveiled a new interpretive sign telling Welsh's story at the edge of the airfield where this young Jewish immigrant turned pioneer pilot lost his life a century ago.

Touring Historic Jewish Washington with Jewish Professionals 0 Comment(s)

One of the Historical Society’s most popular events is tours of downtown Jewish Washington. Open to the public in the fall and spring, staff members are also on hand for private events. This morning, Interpretive Programs Manager David McKenzie and I met with a group of 17 Jewish communal professionals for a tour organized by The Jewish Federations of North America.

Standing in front of Greater New Hope Baptist Church, David displays a picture of the building when it housed Washington Hebrew Congregation

We started at the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, formerly the home of Adas Israel Congregation and the first synagogue in the Washington area, to discuss the migration of Jewish groups into the capital and the literal migration of this building from 6th and G to 3rd and G streets in 1969. Outside, we braved the humidity to walk around 7th Street, once a neighborhood with a sizeable Jewish minority in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We also saw the sites of former synagogues-turned-churches as well as the revitalized Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Perhaps the most quirky, if not momentous historical artifact was when David showed us an iron rung for tying up horses on the side of the road, one of the few still left standing in the city.

David also talked about plans in the works to move the historic 1876 Adas Israel synagogue yet again, this time to 3rd and F streets, and answered a few questions for a Ha’aretz reporter. For more information on setting up walking tours with the Society in Washington, Old Town Alexandria, or Arlington National Cemetery, click here.

Intern Rachel Mauro is a Master of Library Science candidate at the University of Maryland.

Remembering Arthur Welsh 0 Comment(s)

This coming June will mark the centennial of Arthur Welsh's death in an airplane crash.

The story of Welsh, a Russian Jewish immigrant who settled in Washington, is one of our favorites. Likely after seeing an airplane demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1908, he asked the Wright Brothers to hire him. After he persisted, they eventually agreed. He became one of their most trusted pilots and instructors, training several pilots (including "Hap" Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II) and demonstrating the new technology of flight until his untimely death when his Wright Flyer C crashed at College Park airfield on June 11, 1912.

At the cemetery, from the left, Paul, Tiffany, me, and Lisa

To commemorate the centennial of his death, we are collaborating with the College Park Aviation Museum to create a small exhibition and hold a special program. As part of the prep, we recently met with Paul Glenshaw, the exhibition's researcher and designer, and Tiffany Davis, Collection Curator at the Museum. We ventured together to pay our respects to Welsh at Southeast Washington's Adas Israel Cemetery. 

Interested in learning more about this remarkable Jewish Washingtonian? Visit the online exhibition we created several years ago, and come join us at the program in June!