Objects of the Month

April 2014: Photograph of Seder for Military at Mayflower Hotel, 1946

Photograph of Seder for Military at Mayflower Hotel, 1946
  • Object No.: 2011.23.41
  • Donor: Douglas Sherman
  • Description:

    Photograph of Jewish servicemen and servicewomen at a community seder at the Mayflower Hotel in 1946 from a time when thousands of Jewish who had come to Washington to work for the federal government found a feeling of community through massive holiday celebrations.

Have you ever been in a new city during Passover, worried about finding a community to join for the seder (the ceremonial meal at the start of Passover)? Many people who come to Washington to work for the federal government find themselves in the same boat. The city historically serves as a temporary home for federal workers and members of the military, many of whom arrive knowing nobody. During the first half of the 20th century, local Jewish organizations brought the community to these workers, with programs like large, communal seders. 

With the start of World War I, a new Jewish population came to Washington, D.C., and these members of the military generally did not know anyone in the city. Beginning in 1918, Adas Israel and Washington Hebrew Congregation began welcoming service members to their seders. This Passover hospitality continued into the 1920s for those who remained stationed or hospitalized in the region following the war. Often a communal organization such as theYoung Men's Hebrew Association or Hebrew Relief Society helped organize the ceremonial dinner.

Washington Post excerpt, 1932. Washington Hebrew Congregation's Brotherhood sponsored the first seder, and the Jewish Community Center conducted the seder on the second night.

Yet, an influx of Jewish workers a decade later required substantially larger seders.  The community again ballooned with President Roosevelt's New Deal. Dozens of new government programs and agencies attracted droves of idealistic Jewish men and women to the nation's capital. Like the World War I members of the military who arrived 15 years earlier, they often had no local family to join for holidays. However, the influx of Jews in the 1930s was much larger and would be for a much longer period.

By the mid-1930s, having run out of space in synagogues, the communal seders relocated to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) at 16th & Q Streets, NW. Co-sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), these seders were led by JCC board member Abe Shefferman. Shefferman often modeled them after the 1919 sederhe'd participated in for the American Expeditionary Forces soldiers in Paris. He had remained in France after serving in World War I to work with Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) resettling displaced persons.

When the United States joined World War II, Washington once again experienced even more and faster growth. Thousands more Jewish men and women flocked to Washington to work in new wartime jobs and serve in the military. Just as it had a decade before, the annual seder outgrew its venue and relocated -- this time to the great banquet rooms of D.C.'s downtown hotels.

Seder for the members of the military, Willard Hotel, April 1943.

JHSGW Collections.

Now sponsored by the JWB's Washington Army and Navy Committee and the JWV's Washington Post No. 58, the seders were conducted by Rabbi Aryeh Lev from the Chief of Chaplains office of the War Department. The 1942 seder at the Mayflower Hotel had 800 participants, and attendance only grew as the war continued. In 1945, JWB set up seders at two hotels in order to accommodate the crowd, and Beth Sholom in Petworth held a “war workers seder.” Remember this if you worry your seder table is too crowded!

The booming demand for these communal seders, however, slowly faded with the war's end. The 1946 seder at the Mayflower Hotel hosted hundreds of young soldiers, celebrating the freedom of Europe from Nazi oppression just a year earlier. Yet, as the country demobilized, soldiers were discharged and went home, and wartime agencies were dissolved. Within two years, the seder for servicemen was held at Hoffman's Restaurant (near 16th & V Streets, NW) and led again by Abe Shefferman. It was significantly smaller than just a few years earlier. This is the last mention of the annual event in The Washington Post.

Certainly many Jews probably left the city after the war. But, just as likely, perhaps the communal seders of the 1930s and 1940s had not only helped their participants to find community, but to create one. Maybe they found partners and made friends, then settled in Washington, and hosted their own seders.