This morning, President Barack Obama spoke at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month. Watch the speech in its entirety.
U.S. presidents have participated in the affairs of the Washington Jewish community since the founding of Washington’s first congregation. Indeed, President Obama is the second president to visit Adas Israel’s synagogue; the first was President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876! The following timeline features some of those presidential connections with Washington’s Jewish community.
Have a story of a national leader’s visit to your synagogue? Tell us about it at email@example.com.
1856: President Franklin Pierce signed “An Act for the Benefit of the Hebrew Congregation in the city of Washington”, which ensured the right for Jews to purchase land for a synagogue in the District of Columbia. With this act, Washington Hebrew Congregation became the only congregation in the country with a Congressional charter.
1876: President Ulysses S. Grant became the first U.S. president to attend synagogue services when he attended the dedication of Adas Israel Synagogue at 6th & G Streets, NW. Grant stayed for the entire three-hour service and made a subsequent gift of $10 to the building fund. Learn more about President Grant’s visit to the synagogue and Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious General Orders No. 11 issued during the Civil War.
1898: President William McKinley attended the cornerstone laying of Washington Hebrew Congregation at 8th & I Streets, NW, attended by over 3,000 people. Learn more about Washington’s earliest synagogues.
1925: President Calvin Coolidge spoke during the cornerstone-laying ceremony of the Jewish Community Center at 16th & Q Streets, NW.
1926: Orthodox Zionists met with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
1930: The first issue of the National Jewish Ledger (now called Washington Jewish Week), featured a Rosh Hashanah message to Washington Jews from President Herbert Hoover. Explore Jewish Washington in the 1930s.
1952: President Harry Truman attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Washington Hebrew Congregation’s new building at Massachusetts & Macomb Streets, NW.
1955: President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the dedication of Washington Hebrew’s new synagogue. During his speech, President Eisenhower mused that it is incumbent upon his office that he should attend “such a great and significant event in the lives of one part of the great faiths that have made this country what it is, to pay his respects to that faith and to this event and to the people who have made it possible.” Read President Eisenhower’s entire dedication speech.
1983: President Ronald Reagan visited a Hanukkah celebration and met with Soviet Jewish emigres at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. During the visit, President Reagan remarked, “To every religious dissident trapped in this cold and cruel land, let us pray that the warm lights of Hanukkah will spread out the spirit of freedom and comfort and sustain every person who is suffering tonight.” Read President Reagan’s complete speech. Learn more about the Washington area's movement to free Soviet Jewry.
2005: President George W. Bush visited the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue just prior to a major event celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in North America. Read President Bush’s remarks.
2011: Former President Bill Clinton visited the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue for a wedding. Read about the visit in The Washington Post.
Object No.: L-21 Description: Black-and-white panoramic photograph of a huge crowd and small band standing outside the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The Neo-Moorish building was the Hebrew Home for the Aged from 1925 to 1969. Text on the photograph reads: "Dedication Ceremonies at the Hebrew Home for the Aged - Nov. 29, 1925.” The property and the house in the middle-right background behind the row of cars belonged to John Yeabower (1827-1919), a mounted guard for President Abraham Lincoln. Photograph by Fenschert and Flack studio.
Building the Home
The Hebrew Home for the Aged, founded in 1910, opened its first facility in 1914. Its mission was “to provide a home where food, clothing and shelter shall be furnished free of charge to indigent aged persons of the Hebrew faith.” Most were homeless, elderly Jewish immigrants who spoke little or no English. The Hebrew Home’s first location, a townhouse at 415 M Street, NW, accommodated 10 people when it opened in 1914. A caretaker was the only fulltime staff on site. Within a few years, a long waiting list illustrated the need for a larger site with medical facilities.
In 1922, the Hebrew Home’s board of directors announced plans to build a new, state of the art facility on Spring Road, NW. “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith (1871-1971), Chair of the Building Fund Committee, opened a drive that, within a few weeks, raised the money necessary to start construction. The building’s future site on the former Yeabower estate was in the center of a growing Jewish community in Columbia Heights and Petworth.
The new structure was meant to be a premier facility of its kind in the United States. It illustrated the ability of Washington’s Jewish community to look after some of its most vulnerable residents. Designed by local architect Harry A. Brandt, the building was described as “pure American style.” Its exterior combined maroon brick with buff limestone trim. In February 1924, a less ambitious set of plans by architect Appleton P. Clark, Jr. replaced Brandt’s initial design. Other examples of Clark’s work include the Washington Post Building, the Owl's Nest, and houses throughout D.C.
Building commenced later that year with the laying of a corner stone for the first wing of the complex. Construction lasted for over year and was completed in late 1925.
Shortly after construction began, the Building Committee started planning the building’s dedication. For weeks leading up to the event, The Washington Post covered preparations, as well as last-minute fundraising. A month before the dedication, the Building Committee held a Halloween party in the facility during the final stages of construction to raise money for furniture and supplies.
The dedication ceremonies for the Hebrew Home for the Aged’s new facility on Spring Road were held on November 29, 1925. The festivities attracted leaders from Jewish organizations, and local and national government. A 60-member chorus comprised of members from different synagogues sang patriotic and Hebrew folk songs. Members of an American Legion post raised the colors, and Maryland Congressional Representative Fred N. Zihlman, chairman of the House District Committee, closed the dedication ceremonies. Following the dedication, the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Hebrew Home held a two-day housewarming in the building.
The new building included sun porches and balconies, sitting rooms and a social hall, and recreation rooms. Decorations identified the Jewish character of the building: six-pointed “Jewish” star motifs ringed the building between the second and third floors, similar star windows were prominent on the penthouse level, and Hebrew was visible on the building’s cornerstone.
As Washington’s Jewish community grew in the 1930s and 1940s, so too did the number of elderly Jews who needed assistance from the Hebrew Home. By 1950, the facility had become overcrowded, with some residents sleeping in hallways and enclosed porches. Additionally, many residents required more sophisticated nursing and hospital facilities. In 1953, an addition significantly increased capacity and added a nursing home section, medical facilities, a chapel and synagogue, and additional recreational areas. Designed by architect William St. Cyr Barrington, the addition emulated the earlier building’s materials and style.
In spite of the added space and services, the addition was unable to meet the needs the community’s needs. A new facility was built outside of D.C., in Rockville, MD, adjacent to the newly-constructed Jewish Community Center and Jewish Social Service Agency buildings. That building opened in 1969, renamed the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. The DC National Guard and American Red Cross were among the teams that helped move residents to the new facility.
The Spring Road property was sold to the District of Columbia, which converted the property into a community health center. After years of deferred maintenance, the building became dilapidated and closed in 2009.
A New Phase
Since 2009, neighborhood residents and city officials debated plans for the building, including a homeless shelter, senior housing, and condos. In 2014, the site was added to the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, D.C.’s government finalized plans to redevelop the site, preserving the existing structure, while constructing an addition. Once completed, the building will be a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.
In February 2015, JHSGW staff toured the current, derelict building to identify artifacts from its time as a Hebrew Home for the Aged. While renovations in the 1970s and later erased most of the building’s original details, we did note some vestiges from the past.
This Object of the Month is dedicated to the memory of Laurie England.
A great-granddaughter of “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith, Laurie had a keen interest in local Jewish history and was a generous supporter of our Object of the Month series.
We are grateful for the assistance from Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kent Boese, and Michelle J. Chin and Stephen Campbell of the D.C. Department of General Services in facilitating our tour of the former Hebrew Home building on Spring Street, NW.
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.
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.
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:
Scholars from The George Washington University, American University, George Mason University, and University of Richmond
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
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.
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?
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.
Early yesterday morning, Marion Barry, D.C. City Councilmember and former mayor, passed away at the age of 78.
We remember him with these archival highlights:
When JHSGW interviewed Barry in 2006 as part of an oral history project documenting the history of Giant Food, he spoke about the 1979 opening of the Giant store at Eighth & O Streets, NW, and its significance in rebuilding the city:
As you can imagine, the city had been devastated with the disorders of '68. Things were burned down, it was a shell of a city, people were depressed, and jobs had been lost from these establishments. So we were anxious to get some consumer goods...and my recollection, I don't even know where the closest Safeway was, but it certainly wasn't around that area of D.C. And we were very ecstatic about that store [Giant at Eighth & O] being opened.
These two items are from the collection of Janice Eichhorn, an activist for Washington, D.C.'s political rights. Eichhorn worked on Barry's staff starting with his 1978 mayorial campaign until 1992, when she retired from her position as a senior policy analyst.
Her papers were contributed to our archives by her sister in 2011.
In a 2010 oral history recorded by Glenn Richter, Ruth Newman, longtime leader of D.C.'s Soviet Jewry movement, recalled seeing Barry at the 1987 Freedom Sunday March for Soviet Jewry on the National Mall:
When we were...marching down Constitution Avenue, out of nowhere came the then Mayor of the City of Washington, Marion Barry. He said, "Washington," [upon seeing] our banner -- 'Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry.' He said, "That's where I belong," and all of a sudden he puts himself between those of us who were carrying the banner. He walked a couple of blocks with us and then he saw somebody else he knew and off he went.
Accession No. 2004.13 Donor: Constance Tobriner Povich Description: Walter Tobriner and Fair Housing in Washington, D.C.
Fighting Persistent Housing Discrimination
Walter N. Tobriner was a native Washingtonian and lawyer whose career was distinguished by his service to his hometown. While serving on the Board of Education from 1952-1961, he was responsible for carrying out desegregation of D.C.'s public schools. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Tobriner to the city's Board of Commissioners. At that time, the Commissioners were D.C.'s governing body whose three members were Presidential appointees. Tobriner served as its president for six years.
During that same period, Tobriner was Chairman of the National Capital Housing Authority. Ending housing discrimination in Washington, D.C. was among his priorities. In the early 1960s, real estate agents, developers, banks, and landlords had a "gentlemen's agreement" not to sell houses to non-whites.
In addition to fighting this informal discrimination, Tobriner sought to end discrimination in housing contracts. Some house deeds and neighborhood-association agreements included restrictive covenants that prevented residents from renting or selling to certain minorities. Even after the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants unconstitutional in 1948 (Shelly v. Kraemer), a handful of prominent developers and neighborhood associations continued to include these covenants in contracts with homebuyers.
Consequently, many African-American, Jewish, and other District residents, as well as several foreign visitors, were unable to rent or purchase housing in some buildings and neighborhoods. It was an issue that had both a local and global resonance. Tobriner argued this point in his testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962:
"In certain sections of our city, persons are still denied equal access to housing for no reason other than that of their religion or the color of their skin. With the emergence of a score of African nations, the problem of African diplomats in finding housing has added a new dimension to what is already a matter of concern."
Many African states had won independence from their European colonizers over the previous decade. In Washington, their new diplomats were unable to rent or purchase homes in the same neighborhoods as their counterparts from other countries.
Tobriner brought about fair housing ordinances aimed at ending this discrimination. But it was only in 1968, the year after he left the Board of Commissioners, that federal law followed suit. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
A Regional Dimension: Restrictive Covenants
Housing discrimination was not confined to Washington, D.C. As thousands of Jews migrated to suburban Maryland and Virginia in the 1940s−1960s, many encountered restrictive covenants in deeds and contracts. Although legally unenforceable after 1948, even deeds for some new homes included such clauses.
This 1949 covenant in a deed for a house in Bethesda, MD stipulates that the property could not be sold or even leased to African Americans, "Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians, and Syrians." However, this restriction did not apply to servants living in the house.
Many homeowners have since had restrictive-covenant clauses legally removed from their deeds. Still, the deeds for some houses throughout the Washington area continue to include similar clauses – although they are legally unenforceable. The current owner of this house in Bethesda decided to keep the clause in her deed as a testament to the history of housing discrimination in the D.C. area.
Have a story about facing housing discrimination in the D.C. area? We want to hear it: firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 789-0900