The upheaval that gripped the Jewish community of Washington, D.C., after the riots that occurred 50 years ago did not only affect the merchants and houses of worship, as we described in previous installments; even the institutions that were the backbone of Jewish life in the city were now faced with terrible uncertainty. In many cases, they would move on to new places and new futures, leaving the city behind.
Among the many buildings lying in smoking ruins in the aftermath of the riots was the community mikvah (ritual bath) at 14th and Euclid Streets, NW. It had been hard enough to go in prior years as the area declined and safety became a concern, but now there was no mikvah in the city at all. Women were now forced to travel to Baltimore (where there had been terrible riots as well). Within a year, a new mikvah was built on Georgia Avenue and Ballard Street in Silver Spring, Maryland, and went on to serve the community for many decades.
At 14th Street and Park Road, NW, was the thrift store run by Beth Sholom Congregation. It was very large, and the congregation’s members kept it well stocked with a wide variety of items, most of which were more or less given away to the local residents. Despite good relations with the community, it was burned to the ground and never reopened.
About six blocks to the north was the Danzansky Funeral Home, which was located there since 1920, and was the pre-eminent Jewish funeral home in the city. They had merged with the Goldberg Funeral Home, located on 9th Street, NW, earlier in the 1960s, as that neighborhood had faced a decline as well. Although not damaged in the riots, people were afraid to go. Parking was in short supply and people were wary of parking on the side streets. Despite their very nice facility they had to leave the area. They relocated to Rockville, Maryland, in 1976, and have been there ever since.
There was one day school in the area at that time. Known today as the Berman Hebrew Academy, it was then called the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, and was located on 16th Street, NW. Again, the fear created by the riots and the soaring crime rate thereafter forced the school’s hand. In 1976, they moved to the old Montgomery Hills Junior High School building in Silver Spring.
But the most awesome change and the one that really tore the kishkas out of the District’s Jewish community occurred when not one, but three of the city’s leading Jewish organizations moved to the suburbs. In one year, 1969, the city lost the Jewish Community Center, located at 16th and Q Streets, NW, the Hebrew Home for the Aged, and the Jewish Social Service Agency, both located at 14th Street and Spring Road, NW.
In the 1960s, the Jewish Social Service Agency had opened a branch in Wheaton, Maryland. But in the wake of the riots, visionary builder Charles E. Smith realized that the major future of the Washington Jewish Community would be in the suburbs. Using all the considerable resources at his command, he secured large tracts of land off of Rockville Pike, Montrose Road, and East Jefferson Street. In land that had only a decade before been woods and farmland, the new base of community operations was established as all three organizations were moved to that area. He even moved a fledgling day school there as well. Today it bears his name: The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. In their new location, all of these organizations grew exponentially and are the backbone of the Jewish community to the present day.
By the late 1970s, Jewish life in DC was in serious decline, as was the city itself. It seemed that a golden age had ended in the fires and destruction. But as we have seen so often in Jewish history, things would change in ways that were unimaginable then, and give us the thriving community we have today.
NEXT TIME, the conclusion of the
series: “Fifty Years Later, A Look Back: Part 5 —Rebirth and Renewal
By Larry Shor