Donor: Elaine Salen-Stouck Description: Teens around a table at Upsilon Lambda Phi fraternity party, Hotel Hamilton's Rainbow Room, c. 1950s.
Background: Today's Jewish youth may find it difficult to believe that their grandparents were not welcome in clubs and social activities a half century ago. Excluded from the sororities, fraternities, and clubs of their non-Jewish classmates, Jewish teenagers created their own social sphere blending their Jewish identity with secular activities.
The social lives of Washington's Jewish teenagers revolved around more than 60 fraternities, sororities, clubs, and Zionist youth groups from the 1920s through the 1960s. These organizations provided settings where teens could mingle and forge an American identity. Jewish teens canoed on the Potomac, danced in Glen Echo's pavilion, and organized Purim Balls at the Jewish Community Center.
High school fraternity and sorority life was filled with meetings, activities, and lavish dances, often held at the city's most elegant hotels. National conventions and conclaves gave local Jewish teens a chance to travel to cities like Albany, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Here in Washington, more than 150 local delegates of Pi Tau Pi attended their fraternity's 1926 annual convention at the Mayflower Hotel (seen here).
The involvement of the teens in these social groups often served as the recipe for future community leadership. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington's exhibition, Members of the Club: Washington Jewish Teen Life, 1920s-1960s (watch accompanying video!), captured memories collected from community members about their teenage experiences. "There was something that touched us that was more than just the fun and dances… somehow we were intellectually and emotionally stirred, and for some of us it has been an intoxication throughout our lives," reflected Tamara Bernstein Handelsman, a member of Phi Delta. She has since been a member of the boards of many local Jewish organizations.
When the war came in December 1941, teen activities changed rapidly. Jewish youth pitched in, shifting their focus from dances and picnics to war bond drives and Red Cross work. In the post-war era, young baby boomers used their social events to promote and raise money for special causes. Mu Sigma cosponsored the Teddy Bear Hop, where all in attendance brought toys for Children's Hospital and Junior Village.
Signature events included Sigma Alpha Rho's Cherry Blossom Ball at the Shoreham Hotel and Sigma Kappa Sigma's Festival of Roses at the Hebrew Academy. Starting in 1933, Alpha Zadik Alpha (AZA) sponsored an annual post-Yom Kippur Dance that was the highlight of the social season for many Jewish teens. "Take it from me: you had to have a date, and the right date, at least two months ahead of time," recalled Gershon Fishbein(z'l) about his AZA days.
These shared experiences often led to lasting relationships. Sandy Levy Kouzel played bridge weekly for over 20 years with sorority sisters and Milton and Lois Kessler met at a dance and married six years later.
A menu from a Pi Tau Pi fraternity dinner dance in 1954 details a meal of cold turkey, stuffed celery, pickles, and melon fantasy for dessert. This selection is distinctly different from the salad, pasta, grilled chicken, and chocolate cake served at today's formal banquets and dances.
Many parents supported membership in teen groups as a way to build strong communal relationships in an increasingly assimilated Jewish Washington. These connections provided an enduring legacy: a sense of belonging, lifelong friendships, and preparation for community leadership.
This year, in conjunction with the Jewish Food Experience, our Objects of the Month feature DC's rich Jewish food history. For stories about this history and the latest on the local Jewish food scene – recipes, restaurants, chefs, events, and volunteer opportunities – visit jewishfoodexperience.com.
Object #: 2001.07.1 Donor: Sol Lynn Description: Flier for Aleph Zadik Aleph’s Yom Kippur dance, 1939
Background: Starting in 1933, the local Alpha Zadik Alpha (AZA), a Jewish boys' fraternity affiliated with B'nai B'rith, sponsored an annual post-Yom Kippur Dance. AZA was one of one of the more than 60 fraternities, sororities, clubs, and Zionist youth groups around which the social lives of Washington's Jewish teenagers revolved for nearly half a century. These organizations provided settings where teens could mingle and forge an American identity. Jewish teens canoed on the Potomac, danced in Glen Echo's pavilion, and organized Purim Balls at the Jewish Community Center.
Excluded from the sororities, fraternities, and clubs of their non-Jewish classmates, Jewish teenagers created their own social sphere blending their Jewish identity with secular activities. AZA's mission was "to provide athletic, social, and educational programs, to serve both community and Judaic interest, and to host oratory and debate competitions." Members met on Sunday afternoons at the Jewish Community Center at 16th & Q Streets, NW.
In 1934, the local AZA hosted more than 500 members from across the country at the 11th annual national convention at the Willard Hotel. Six years later, they welcomed some 300 members from neighboring states to the nation’s capital for a conference and party at the Raleigh Hotel (12th & Pennsylvania Ave, NW). The four-day event included oratorical and debate contests and bowling and basketball tournaments, as well as a banquet and dance.
Do you have material documenting local Jewish teen life that you'd like to donate to the Jewish Historical Society’s collection? Please contact us at email@example.com or (202) 789-0900.
I first met Harry Kramer when I interviewed him in 2000 for a video we created to accompany our exhibition on Jewish teen life in Washington. A soft-spoken and gentle man, Mr. Kramer spoke movingly about his experiences in the Jewish Lions Club, beginning in the 1930s. He also told me about the banner created by the Club during World War II; as each member entered the service, a white star was sewn onto the banner with the member’s name embroidered on it. All of the Lions Club members who served during the War returned safely home after the war, and they’ve been meeting and holding reunions ever since. The banner hung in our Teen Life exhibition, and we borrowed it again in 2005-2006 to display in our Jewish Washington exhibition at the National Building Museum.
Last year, Mr. Kramer and the Jewish Lions Club formally donated the banner to us to preserve in our archives. We spent a few hours together one day in September, recording the World War II memories of Mr. Kramer and other Club members Dave Gordin, Lou Kornhauser, Sol Gnatt, (seen from left to right; Harry Kramer second from right). Then Mr. Kramer and I carefully packed away the banner in an archival box in acid-free tissue.
When I learned today of Mr. Kramer’s recent death, I was so grateful that we had the chance to know him a bit, and that we are able to care for and preserve the physical artifacts that testify to his and others’ places in our community’s history.
To honor our 50th anniversary, we invite you to peek into our archives each month.
From the Archives...
Jewish Lions Club banner
Archives Record Object #: 2010.21.1 Donor: Jewish Lions Club Description: Banner, 33 ¼" x 53 ½"
Background: The Jewish Lions Club formed in 1937 as a social club for local teenage boys. Members were 16 to 18 years old and met on Sundays at the Jewish Community Center. The 1941 Certificate of Incorporation describes the business of the club as “social, athletic, and for the promotion of friendship.” During World War II, as each club member left to serve in the armed services, a star with his name was embroidered on this club banner. All 25 club members who served eventually returned home safely.
Learn more about the Jewish Lions Club and how the Jewish Historical Society received the banner here!
Do you have Jewish teen life material that you’d like to donate to the archival collection? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 789 0900.