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100 Years of Jewish Community Life 0 Comment(s)

Last week, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington held its annual meeting and celebrated its 100th anniversary. JHSGW Executive Director Laura Apelbaum spoke at the meeting and recounted a few highlights from the last 100 years of JCC history. Here are some excerpts from her talk:

Among the most treasured objects in our archival collections are 34 scrapbooks documenting the JCC from the 1920s into the 1980s. Each scrapbook is filled with invitations, programs, flyers, and newsclippings, creating a wonderfully colorful and rich compendium of the Center’s activities and our community's history.

Opening the first scrapbook page, we find a photograph of a 3-story brick townhouse at 415 M Street, NW. One hundred years ago, young Jewish men and women wanted to create a place for social interaction, cultural activities, and athletics. They formed the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations - predecessors to today's JCC. In 1913, the YMHA purchased this home as their headquarters. They fielded baseball, tennis, and bowling teams, went on picnics and beach trips, held debates and dances, and raised funds for Jewish overseas relief during World War I. In 1914, they sold the building to the newly formed Hebrew Home and moved into other rented facilities.

The next scrapbook opens to a panoramic photograph of President Calvin Coolidge speaking to a crowd assembled at the corner of 16th and Q for the cornerstone laying ceremony of the JCC's new building. The national Jewish Welfare Board provided an initial $50,000, while developer Morris Cafritz and Jewish leader Joseph Wilner led the $500,000 building campaign.  In his speech, Coolidge remarked "Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy."

Another scrapbook reveals a photograph of young men in uniform dancing cheek to cheek with young women in the JCC's gym during World War II. The Center’s policy "Your uniform is your admission" made the JCC the central place to meet and socialize for Jewish servicemen and women stationed in Washington. Young women called "government girls" were flocking to DC to work in war agencies, and a JCC room registry helped them find housing in Jewish homes that provided kosher meals.

As the Jewish community grew in postwar years and began moving north and west into the suburbs, many Jewish communal organizations and synagogues followed. Turning the page, we find a smiling Charles E. Smith holding a ceremonial shovel alongside the youngest student at the JCC's nursery school and the oldest resident of the Hebrew Home at the 1967 groundbreaking for the new Rockville facility on Montrose Road.

The JCC's history showcases our community's unique relationship as the nation’s capital where presidents attend holiday events and groundbreakings. At the same time, the JCC holds many personal connections and has played a central part in the lives of many families for the past century.

What are your memories from the JCC?