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Launching our online catalog 0 Comment(s)

Today, more than 30 people came to our historic synagogue to learn about our new online archival catalog. Our archivist, Wendy, didn't just show everyone how to navigate the catalog, but also some of the treasures in our collections.

Among those who braved the heat were staff members from some of our sister organizations, including the National Building Museum, German-American Heritage Museum, Montgomery County Historical Society, and Library of Congress. The event was also a special tribute to Janice Goldblum, our volunteer Collections Committee Chair and an archivist for the National Academies of Science. We were proud to honor Janice's 20 years of service!

Miss the event? Never to fear -- I live-tweeted it, so you can catch up here.

Object of the Month: June 2011 0 Comment(s)

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.

Professional Life
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.
History Enthusiast
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.

Jewish Community Involvement
Bernstein’s involvement in Jewish causes and organizations was local, national, and international. These included Adas Israel Congregation, United Jewish Appeal, Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, Anti-Defamation League, and Yeshiva University. Bernstein served on the board of the Jewish Historical Society for nine years in the 1970s and ‘80s. This 1983 certificate of appreciation from the D.C. Section of the National Council of Jewish Women was awarded for his support on the occasion of NCJW’s 90th birthday in 1983.

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 info@jhsgw.org or (202) 789-0900.

Annual Meeting (or, JHSGW, you don’t look a day over 50!) 0 Comment(s)

On June 9, 1960, ten Jewish Washingtonians met in a living room to discuss founding a historical society that would help preserve the story of Jewish life in Washington. Each year since, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has held an annual meeting, an open session of the executive board. This year’s annual meeting, convened on November 14, was a particularly special one, as we celebrated our 50th anniversary.

The Society used the meeting and the lovely space at Congregation Adas Israel, as an opportunity to showcase our progress over the past fifty years to the hundred and fifty members and guests who attended. Through banners, posters, photo albums, and objects, we looked back at some of our favorite exhibitions, guest speakers, and programs, as well as looked ahead at the impending synagogue move and where the Society is headed in its next 50 years. I certainly learned a lot in researching and reading the materials, and, judging by the lively conversation that followed the meeting, many of our guests were intrigued as well.

We were fortunate this year to be joined by Marvin Kalb (pictured left), host of The Kalb Report and the last newsman hired by the incomparable Edward R. Murrow. In his keynote address, Kalb discussed the changes he’s seen in the Washington, DC area and in the journalism profession in the last 50 years. Most notably to his eye, the profession has been diverted from a focus on reporting news with honesty and respect to a focus on taking sides and being the first to break a story.

During the board meeting portion of the afternoon’s festivities, we did take care of some necessary business, including voting on by-laws about the size of the board and term limits for the board president. We also elected a new slate of board members, appointed honorary directors, and bid a fond farewell to the departing members of the board.

Following the official proceedings, all in attendance partook of a delectable spread, including a giant, amply-frosted cake, which I had the joyous—and messy—task of slicing and serving. (For the 51st, I’ll remember to bring an apron!)

We look forward to seeing you at next year’s meeting—and to sharing the Society’s next 50 years with you!

Joel’s Retirement—Happy and Sad 0 Comment(s)

The staff all gathered on June 30 for a final luncheon in honor of our colleague of eight years, Joel Wind (that's Joel in the back row in the center). Joel served as the Society's Administrator a.k.a my right hand. He handled everything -- from bank deposits, to restoration projects and our Homeland Security grant. He saw and could do it all. Joel excelled at giving tours of the historic synagogue and I often received lovely thank you notes from visitors extolling Joel's tours. So it's with sadness that we say good bye to Joel as he retires from the Society. But we are happy to have Joel continue as an active member and part of the JHSGW family.

White House Reception a First 0 Comment(s)

Nearly forgot to write about the amazing experience I had at the first ever Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM -- pronounced "JAM") reception hosted at the White House by President and Mrs. Obama. In the photo at right, I'm with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (4th from the left), the original cosponsor of the JAHM resolution.

In the photo at left, I'm on the far right with the JAHM national steering committee in the Blue Room. A total thrill to be included among the smallish crowd-- I serve on the national steering committee for JAHM-- the only representative from a local Jewish museum or historical society. Since JAHM's inception four years ago, JHSGW has been at the forefront -- annually cosponsoring an event on Capitol Hill.

Along with colleagues from across the country, we continue to plan activities to get the word out about JAHM and the contribution of our community to our country. Thrilling at this event to be in the same room as baseball great Sandy Koufax, baseketball great Dolph Schayes, TeaEO of Honest Tea Seth Goldman and even the CEO of Spanx not to mention the owners of Manischewitz.