Judaism in D.C.: How Jewish Communities Made their Home in the Capital City

November 17, 2017

Egan Barnett

As Georgetown students reached the center of the stage to receive their degrees at the 1869 commencement, they were greeted by Catholic chaplains, university administrators, and the 18th president of the United States. President Ulysses S. Grant stood front and center, congratulating the students and personally handing them their degrees. The last of the students left the stage and the first-year commander-in-chief sat back down as Fr. Bernard Maguire, SJ., president of the college, addressed the crowd.

John Gilmary Shea includes Maguire’s speech in his 1891 book History of Georgetown College:  “Cicero said a man could confer no greater favor than to educate the youth. This is our mission. We teach them to be true to religion and liberty, and from whatever section they come, to love each other.”

Four months later, across the city, 38 members of D.C.’s first Jewish congregation, Washington Hebrew, embraced a similar goal. They officially split off to form their own congregation, Adas Israel, to preserve a traditional form of their faith and build the first permanent synagogue in the city. They opened their building seven years later in 1876, and Grant, in the final year of his second term, sat in the front row at the dedication. His presence that day has allowed the original synagogue to endure municipal threats of demolition over 140 years later. However, as a Civil War general just 14 years earlier, Grant ordered the expulsion of all Jewish residents from his territory of control.


For Jewish Student Alliance (JSA) member Madeline Cunnings (COL ’18), when most people think about Jewish people in the DMV, their minds instinctively drift to the prominent communities in Baltimore and Silver Spring, often overlooking the nation’s capital.

“Contrary to popular belief, D.C. has a thriving Jewish community,” Cunnings said.

“Detroit has cars, we have politics, and a lot of really active politics,” said Samuel Aronson, assistant dean in the SFS and a docent at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “That over-shadows everything.”

Today, Georgetown’s Jewish students have access to religious resources both on and off campus. In addition to weekly Shabbat services on campus, the District has at least 15 congregations ranging across denominations, four Jewish preschools, and a Jewish Community Center. The center sponsors Theater J, the largest professional Jewish theater company, which performs in the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater in Dupont Circle.

There is no single Jewish community in D.C. Within the religion, there are not only subsets in terms of religious orthodoxy, including reform, conservative, and orthodox sects, but also divisions that exist between ethnic groups, with descendants ranging from Eastern European Ashkenazim to Iberian, North African, and the Middle Eastern Sephardim. Even within these ethnic groups, each nationality features its own distinct religious and cultural traditions.

Cunnings believes that resources on campus are mostly geared toward reform Jewish students. However, she explains that there are still communal events that bring a more diverse group together. For example, a wide variety of Jewish students often coordinate to visit senior citizens at Georgetown MedStar Hospital and offer comfort and companionship.

“The Jewish community isn’t monolithic,” Aronson said. “The Jewish community is many, many, many things. For some people, it has a lot to do with religion. For some people, it has almost nothing to do with religion. For some people, it has a lot to do with history. For some, it has a lot to do with the contemporary and the present.”

University founder John Carroll planned for Georgetown to welcome people of all faiths as early as his original proposal document in 1787. “Agreeably to the liberal principle of our constitution, the seminary will be open to students of every religious profession,” he wrote. “They, who in this respect differ from the superintendents of the academy, will be at liberty to frequent the places of worship and instruction appointed by their parents.”

Still, it took almost 40 years after the university’s founding in 1789 for Carroll’s interreligious proposal to be put into practice.

Georgetown’s first Jewish student, Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, enrolled on Sept. 19, 1834, according to Fr. Robert Emmett Curran, S.J. in 1993’s The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University. He was the heir to two distinguished Wilmington, North Carolina families. His mother Rachel was a member of the influential Mordecai family and his father was a successful slave-holding merchant. Lazarus was a fierce and outspoken abolitionist, though he fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

He attended Georgetown at a time when he, along with all other non-Catholic students, were required to participate in daily Mass, public prayers, and recitations of the rosary, though they were not obligated to give confession or receive communion. However, there was no synagogue in D. C. for Lazarus to practice his own religion. Dr. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history and the chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, explained that Washington Hebrew first organized in 1852 and began to petition Congress for permission to build a synagogue. According to Robert Shosteck in Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City, they convened in churches and temporary locations as their congregation grew while the Civil War raged around them.

Jews accounted for fewer than 200 of 75,000 D.C. residents in 1860, working mostly as merchants, Shosteck wrote. It wasn’t until the Reconstruction period that a flood of Eastern European Jews journeyed to America in search of economic opportunity and refuge from violent persecution. These immigrants settled in the mostly German neighborhoods in Foggy Bottom, and a more visible Jewish presence in D.C. began to take shape.

“We’re a pretty small minority,” Aronson said. “We’re a small group of people, one of the smallest minorities in the world. So, we’re just going to be outnumbered. I don’t mean that in a negative way, it’s just arithmetically true.”

Jews counted for less than 0.2 percent of the world population last year, and less than two percent of the U.S. population. In D.C., Jewish residents constitute between three and four percent of the city’s population.

Despite its small size, the Jewish minority on Georgetown’s campus has successfully organized together. A 1963 Hoya article reported on the first Jewish club on campus, B’nai Sholom, a group that set up debates, lectures, forums, discussion groups, and social events for Jewish students to explore their faith and their shared challenges at Georgetown. In 1967, 125 students on campus created their own chapter of Hillel, the largest Jewish university organization in the world. Georgetown also welcomed Rabbi Saul Kraft as their first Jewish chaplain in 1967. Rabbi Harold White, who became the first full-time Jewish chaplain in 1976, worked until 2010.

This kind of formal community would have been foreign to Lazarus. He left campus in 1835, 41 years before the capital’s first permanent synagogue would weave itself into the tapestry of the city.


President Grant sat in the front row at Adas Israel’s dedication ceremony and settled in for the three-hour service. It was June 9, 1876, and Grant was in the waning months of his second term. According to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, he donated $10 to the synagogue’s dedication fund, the equivalent of a little over $200 to-day, and stayed throughout the entire service.

At 619 6th St. NW, Adas was in the heart of a young and growing city. The newly expanded Capitol dome loomed less than a mile away as congregants left after the service.


Adas is now the oldest of D.C.’s synagogues and the largest of the conservative denomination.

“The fact that just a couple of decades later, the president actually comes to the dedication of the synagogue building really is a signal of how much has changed from days where you wondered whether a synagogue could be built at all,” Sarna, the Brandeis historian, said.

The original synagogue building still stands today, but not in the same location, which is now occupied by Absolute Thai Restaurant in Washington’s Chinatown. As post-Civil War immigration led to a ballooning congregation, Adas began to look for a larger space.

The congregation moved to 6th and I Streets NW in 1908 and then to Cleveland Park in 1951, according to the Jewish historical society. Though the District marked the original building for demolition, the historical society managed to save it by tearing the historic structure from its foundation and driving it by truck to a new location at 3rd Street NW in 1969, where it became the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum.

In 2016, the landmark fell into a District construction zone once again, this time for the Capitol Crossing Project, and moved down the street on a truck for a second time. Next year, the museum will move again, this time to F Street NW.

In Sarna’s opinion, the building would surely have been destroyed if not for Grant.   

“The fact that Grant was there saved the synagogue,” Sarna said. “Meaning, had it not been for that connection to Grant, they certainly would have knocked it down, rather than moving it now twice.”

Back in Adas’ current home in Cleveland Park, the congregation has boomed. Long past the days when Jews had to petition Congress to build a synagogue, over 5,000 Adas members across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia now enjoy a recently renovated, state-of-the-art development for both religious and community purposes. The grounds include the Charles E. Smith Sanctuary, which seats 1,200, a more intimate sanctuary for traditional services, a pre-school, a playground, a coffee bar, a study room, and social rooms.  Community events include adult classes, mindfulness yoga, programming for young professionals, and happy hours.

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the Dalai Lama have all spoken in Adas sanctuaries to address the international Jewish community, catapulting the congregation into the political sphere.

Adas congregation president Ricki Gerger and her staff have embraced Adas’ intersection with politics, organizing interfaith social action groups including food pantry collections, drives for the homeless, and climate projects to engage with the wider Washington community.

“I think, at least in recent memory, we have thought of ourselves as a change leader and a thought leader, not only in Judaism, but in the city,” Gerger said.

Maj. Gen. Grant’s orders flew across his area of command via telegraph on Dec. 17, 1862. According to the historical society, Union officers throughout the Department of Tennessee, the area of Grant’s command including parts of southern Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, went door-to-door to distribute General Order No. 11:

“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within 24 hours from the receipt of this order.”

Grant believed expelling all the Jewish residents from the area of his command would shut down the illegal Confederate cotton trade infiltrating his department. Though some Jews were involved, there were many other participants. Grant’s own father, Jesse R. Grant, had been involved in the scheme, according to Sarna. However, to the Union general, the distinct ethnic names of first and second-generation Jewish immigrants stuck out among the rest.

The order did not stand long. Days later, prominent Cincinnati Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and Prussian immigrant and Kentucky businessman Cesar Kaskel, along with other Jewish leaders, journeyed to Washington as a delegation to take the issue up directly with President Abraham Lincoln, who willingly met with them. Lincoln had no prior knowledge of the situation, and immediately promised to force Grant to rescind the order.

Though the Jewish community has grown both at Georgetown and in the wider city, neither has been immune to acts of anti-Semitism.

GUPD reported the fourth swastika found on campus this semester on Sept. 20, the night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. The swastika, discovered on an LXR bathroom wall, was paired with threatening messages promoting violence toward women.

University President John DeGioia condemned the graffiti in an email to the student body:

“There is never a time or place for these acts, and this incident is even more disturbing during Rosh Hashanah. We stand in solidarity with our Jewish community and strongly condemn this act of hate, anti-Semitism, and sexism.”

Georgetown is not alone. Northwest Washington’s Without Walls High School discovered a swastika drawn on the wall of a boy’s restroom in early March.

According to the FBI’s 2015 hate crime statistics, almost 20 percent of hate crimes were due to bias against religion, the second highest motivation. Of anti-religious hate crimes, anti-Jewish bias was the most common motivator, responsible for 52 percent of all incidents.

“It’s not just Grant. There’s a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism in the world,” Gerger said. “We have not, thank God, been directly affected, but we have had congregations in this area have anti-Semitic slogans written on their buildings. So it’s heartbreaking. We hear so often, the United States of America has given the Jewish people boundless opportunities in this country. And yet, we have Nazis marching 100 miles away from here … It’s part of the Jewish people, sadly.”

“Bigotry in all its various forms will never disappear, be it anti-Semitism or misogyny or racism or homophobia,” Aronson said. “I don’t think it’s going away.”

Cunnings believes the campus response has been positive, as religious clubs have joined together for interreligious displays of mutual support and solidarity.

“Every element of this is important to our values, and I don’t care about what that one person did. I care deeply about what everyone else did,” Aronson explained. “I thought it was beautiful.”


Republican presidential candidate Grant took a break from his campaign to write a private letter to Rep. Isaac Newton Morris, a Democrat from Illinois. The 1868 election was fast approaching, the first since the Civil War, and the popular Union war hero hoped to defeat former New York governor Horatio Seymour for the oval office.

Jews across the country had not forgotten Order No. 11 and neither had southern Democrats. Grant waited until after his election to allow his letter explaining his regrets to be published. Sarna believes Grant wanted it be clear he was not pandering for the Jewish vote.

“I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit,” Grant wrote. “Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order. It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”

Grant went on to appoint many Jews to federal and local Washington positions. He made German immigrant and Ohio attorney Simon Wolf the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Grant also chose Edward S. Salomon to be governor of Washington, as the city was administered as a territory at the time. The Civil War veteran and German immigrant was the first Jew to serve as a sitting American governor, Sarna said.

At the advice of Wolf and other Jewish-American leaders, Grant intervened in Russian and Romanian internal politics to try to negotiate the end of Jewish discrimination and persecution abroad, even dispatching an American Jewish consul to the region.


After establishing a general Jewish studies program in 2003, Georgetown expanded the program into a formal Center for Jewish Civilization within the SFS last year due to a $10 million donation for Holocaust research from Norma and Irma Braman.

But just as the Jewish community is not monolithic, neither is Jewish scholarship. While some academics actively engage with histories of anti-Semitism, others believe a narrow focus ignores the wider world of Jewish religion and culture.

Aronson experiences this debate specifically in the context of the Holocaust. While he believes it is important to honor the victims of acts of anti-Semitism, he is also conscious of other, often undervalued stories.

“On one hand, telling their stories is very vital,” Aronson said. “On the other hand, when you’re talking about a thousand upon thousand year culture of literature and art and poetry and architecture and you give so much power to about 12 years and to a slaughter, why?”

“We are a lot more than the oppression,” Cunnings added. “Look beyond the swastikas, anti-Semitism, Israel.”

The Hilltop has transformed since Lazarus first stepped foot on campus in 1834. Georgetown is not only the first Catholic and Jesuit university in the country to employ a full-time rabbi, but also the first university in the nation to employ a full-time imam. The theology department currently features professors of a variety of religious beliefs alongside atheists.

For Aronson, Georgetown is not simply a Catholic institution in the religious sense. He pointed out that “catholic” also has an underused dictionary definition, meaning “universal.”

“We’re here for our Catholic students and students of every other faith and no faith at all,” Aronson said. “Being the first Catholic and Jesuit school to have a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi for over 40 years on our staff reflects the fact that certainly Judaism is not just tolerated but actively welcomed and embraced.”

Jewish students only account for a few hundred members of the student body, and the anti-Semitic incidents on campus this semester have added to a deplorably long list that is not unique to the Hilltop.  But if the history of Jewish communities on campus and in D.C. has proven anything, it’s that they will continue to make their voices heard.

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