Earlier this week, our friends at The Forward published a list of 10 facts about Jewish Washington, D.C. called "Of Goldie Hawn, Theater J and 8 Other Things About (Jewish) Washington D.C." We’re adding our hometown voice with ten things you might not know about Washington’s Jewish history.
1. Home to the Only Congressionally-Chartered Shul
1856: Washington Hebrew—the city’s first Jewish congregation—successfully petitioned Congress (then constitutionally responsible for D.C. law) for legislation ensuring its right to purchase property.
2. The Civil War Couldn’t Keep the Jewish Community Apart
1862: Because Civil War travel restrictions prevented Washingtonian Henry Baum from traveling to his bride, Virginian Bettie Dreifus’s home in Alexandria, the marriage took place in D.C.
20th Century: From hundreds of Jewish immigrant-owned "mom and pop" liquor stores to producer-distributor-powerbroker Milton Kronheim, Jewish Washingtonians have helped quench the thirsts of Washington’s denizens for over a century.
6. First Israeli Flag-Raising on Embassy Row
1948: President Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948, spurred hundreds to stream to Embassy Row to cheer and dance as the new state’s flag was first raised.
7. Ferris Bueller Actor Bar-Mitzvahed in Maryland Suburbs
1957: Years before Ben Stein became a speechwriter for President Nixon, an actor, and game show host, his family sent this invitation to celebrate his bar mitzvah at the Montgomery County Jewish Community Center (today’s Ohr Kodesh Congregation) in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
8. The Beatles’ First U.S. Concert
1964: Washington Coliseum owner Harry Lynn hosted the "Fab Four" for their first U.S. concert on February 11, 1964, the day after the band's roaring introduction on the Ed Sullivan Show.
9. Eruv Encloses All Three Branches of the Federal Government
Today: Built in 1876, the historic Adas Israel synagogue was saved from demolition in 1969 by moving it three city blocks, where it now stands as the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. The synagogue will move again: once to a temporary location, and finally to the corner of 3rd and F Streets, NW, where it will be the focal point for the Society’s new Jewish museum;
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.
Longtime JHSGW member Paul Pascal led a tour of the history of Union Terminal Market and former sites of Jewish merchants. Check out the pictures! We plan to offer this tour again soon, so keep an eye out.
If you attended the tour, please comment here or email to tell what you thought! If a friend was on the tour, please share this request.
Object #: 2011.7 Donor: Leo M. Bernstein Family Foundation Description: Leo M. Bernstein Archival Collection, which includes biographical materials, correspondence, family history, professional & community recognition, photographs, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia about the life and work of Leo M. Bernstein, D.C. banker, real estate broker, Zionist, civil rights promoter, philanthropist, American history enthusiast and collector.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1915, Leo Bernstein graduated from the city’s Central High School. He received an informal education in real estate while working with his father’s real estate investments. The 1906 deed for his grandfather’s kosher butcher shop and home at 816 Sixth Street, NW, is in the collection. He founded his own real estate company at age 18. Within a year, Bernstein challenged racial and religious covenants, which barred the sale of properties to persons of color or to Jews, selling a house in a “whites only” neighborhood near Howard University to an African-American professor.
While working in real estate, Bernstein went to night law school, graduating in 1936 from the Columbus Law School (now Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law). Over the next few decades, Bernstein owned and ran several D.C. banks. Seen here, Bernstein (right) and D.C. Commissioner Gilbert Hahn, Jr., raise the District of Columbia flag at the D.C. National Bank headquarters at 18th & K Streets, NW, in 1971.
Bernstein enjoyed collecting historic documents, especially those relating to American presidents; furniture; and other objects, exhibiting some of them in the lobbies of his banks. This interest led him to become involved in historic preservation in the Shenandoah Valley communities of Middletown and Strasburg, Virginia starting in 1960. There, Bernstein helped save and restore several buildings, including the 18th-century Wayside Inn. As documented by itineraries, correspondence, and photographs, Bernstein organized and hosted family reunions and getaway weekends for friends and colleagues there and at other hotels he owned in the region. Among the groups Bernstein welcomed was the Washington Board of Rabbis, which met at the Wayside Inn many times during the 1970s and 1980s.
As a young man, Bernstein was active locally in the cause of Zionism. In a 1999 oral history, Bernstein told of secret meetings attended by community leaders like Abraham Kay, Joe Cherner, and Morris Pollin: “Before Israel was a state, we had many Haganah meetings. We were getting ready to help Jews get into Palestine. They needed money for guns, ammunition and ships. We met at my office at 718 Fifth Street.” One highlight of the collection is a 1948 letter from Joseph Cherner, president of the Louis D. Brandeis District of the Zionist Organization of America, appointing Bernstein chair of the Embassy Building Committee, charged with finding a suitable building for the first Israeli Embassy.
Donation of Collection
Bernstein passed away 2008 at the age of 93. The following year, the Jewish Historical Society started a major archival project funded by the Leo M. Bernstein Family Foundation to organize and preserve this extensive collection of Bernstein’s business and personal papers. The Society completed the project in 2010 and was honored to accept the Leo M. Bernstein Archival Collection when the Foundation formally donated it last month.
Do you have material documenting local Jewish individual that you’d like to donate to the Jewish Historical Society’s collection? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 789-0900.
To honor our 50th anniversary, we invite you to peek into our archives each month.
From the Archives...
Flag of Israel, 1948
Archives Record Object #: 2003.22.1 Donor: Ruthe Katz Description: Israeli flag signed by local Zionist leaders, May 14, 1948
Background: Leaders of Washington's Zionist community signed this Israeli flag at Isador and Bessie Turover's celebration of Israel's independence. Signers included Ruth and Joseph Cherner, Rebecca and John Safer, Minnie and Abe Kay, and Louis Grossberg.
Click here to see enlarged signature area of the flag.
Learn more about community celebrations of Israel's independence!