Fifty years ago, the foundations of Jewish Washington were shaken to their core. For millennia, the synagogue — known in many Ashkenazi communities by the Yiddish term “shul” — had always been the focal point of Jewish communal life. During the 1960s and in the decades beyond, the fitful history of the shuls of Washington reflects not only the upheaval that occurred then, but also offers a look at the great changes that shaped the community until the present day.
In the 1960s there were many thriving shuls in Washington. But conditions began to deteriorate, as formerly solid Jewish neighborhoods began to disintegrate and people moved away to the suburbs. Attendance began to slip and parents became afraid to send their children back into the District for afternoon Hebrew School. Several shuls tried to solve the problem by opening satellite schools in the suburbs, hoping to hang on to their main shuls in DC at the same time. Most shul leaders felt that the status quo could be maintained with some adjustments.
That way of thinking was destroyed by the riots of 1968. The problem was not only physical but also became psychological. While no shul was touched, the fear exploded. The riots caused a mass exodus of the Jewish community from the city, especially east of Rock Creek Park. For the Orthodox shuls, which relied on people living within walking distance, the decline was acute. The Conservative shuls suffered as well, as new congregations sprang up in the suburbs.
The few Reform shuls, located in the more affluent parts of the city, fared much better. Even so, Washington Hebrew Congregation, by far the largest Reform congregation, opened a satellite location in the early 1970s to service its members who had moved out to the suburbs.
Some shuls managed to hang on and defy the odds; the stories of their survival will be discussed in future columns. But for most, by the 1970s and 1980s, it was move or die. Here are the stories of some of the well-known and long-established shuls and what happened to them:
Beth Sholom Congregation — Once the pre-eminent Orthodox shul, its magnificent facility at 13th Street and Eastern Avenue, NW, seated over 1,100 people. It was a regal, stately shul that cost nearly a million dollars to build in 1957, when a split-level house in the suburbs could be had for $25,000! World-famous rabbis and cantors graced its bimah. The decline began in the 1970s; the congregation opened a school in Potomac, Maryland, in 1974, which expanded to a shul in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, there was barely a minyan in D.C. The shul closed and moved to Potomac in 1994. Although the shul has grown in Potomac, the glory days of the Washington shul have never been replaced.
Ohev Sholom — Never quite as large or as strong as its close-by neighbor Beth Sholom, they were blessed with a tight-knit, dedicated membership that also sought a new location in the suburbs, opening a satellite in Olney, Maryland, in the 1980s. Although there was great decline, they were able to resurrect themselves and eventually split from the Olney shul. Under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, beginning in 2004, the congregation was revived. More about this rebirth in the conclusion of this series.
Ezras Israel Congregation — For over 50 years, it was the largest congregation in Northeast Washington, but by the time of the riots Ezras Israel had moved to 7th and Dahlia Streets, NW, near Walter Reed Hospital. By the early 1970s, the loss of membership forced their move, first to the Yegher catering hall near Beth Sholom, and then by the late 1970s to Rockville. The shul is still in existence and meets in a house on Montrose Road.
Agudas Achim — This shul was located at 13th and Tuckerman Streets, NW. During the mid-1960s, they gave serious thought to building a new shul on Layhill Road, but those who wanted to stay in Washington won out. The riots devastated the shul. It limped along for a few years and closed in 1975, merging with Har Tzeon in Wheaton.
B’nai Israel — Located at 16th and Crittenden Streets, NW, it was a huge, magnificent shul. But its location far downtown doomed it as people left the area in droves in the early 1970s. Within a few years, the shul moved to Rockville.
Nothing remained as it was.
NEXT TIME: “Fifty Years Later — A Look Back, Part Four: The Jewish Institutions Leave Town”
By Larry Shor