1876 Synagogue, DC's Oldest, Moving on Path to New Museum
Moving a 273-ton building is not something one undertakes lightly. To move it twice says something about the building’s significance.
Enlarge image Moving Washington, DC's oldest synagogue--a second time--Nov. 3, 2016. (© Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz) The Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum is a special building indeed. Washington, DC’s oldest synagogue, built by the Adas Israel congregation and dedicated in 1876 at a ceremony attended by President Ulysses S. Grant, embodies the rich Jewish heritage of the U.S. capital—home to the sixth largest Jewish community in the United States.
In the 1960s, when development of the Metro headquarters threatened the historic house of worship, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington organized to preserve it. On a frigid December day in 1969, the simple yet elegant red brick structure was carefully moved three blocks to a corner of land at 3rd and G Streets, NW, where it remained.
Until now. With the winds of change blowing, and a major new development, Capitol Crossing, rising above Interstate 395, the synagogue endured a second move on the morning of Nov. 3, 2016. This time, however, there is the promise of not just lateral, but upward movement, in the forecast.
The synagogue is scheduled to become the centerpiece of a new Small Jewish Museum—a major cultural center in the heart of a redeveloped district of Washington. When it moves once again in a few years’ time, it will be to a final home in an exciting new museum district in the city.
Enlarge image (© Germany.info / Jacob Comenetz) The repeated “lifting and transporting” of the synagogue serves as a “symbol of the ongoing experience of the Jewish people,” said Senior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of the Adas Israel Congregation, today located in DC’s Cleveland Park.
Indeed, the synagogue’s founders, 30 German-speaking Jewish immigrant families, had left central Europe in search of a better life in America. Their path to the young nation’s capital in the mid-nineteenth century was often by way of larger port cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.
The newcomers were part of a larger, thriving German-speaking population in the federal city, including many Jews and non-Jews. This community was centered around 7th Street NW, which in the late nineteenth century had three synagogues located within three blocks of each other.
By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the growing population and developing city led to shifting communities, new buildings, and nascent suburbanization. The original Adas Israel synagogue was repurposed as a church, a BBQ joint, and more.
Moving to a Brighter Future
The reimagined Small Jewish Museum will add a new chapter to the long and illustrious history, both of the red brick synagogue and of Jewish life in Washington. To learn about the early German-Jewish immigrants and their successors to the present day promises a truly “moving” experience.
By Jacob Comenetz, Cultural Affairs Officer, German Embassy Washington