Washington's first Jewish congregation began in 1852 when twenty-one German-speaking immigrants met in a home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Fearful that the opportunity to hold property would be denied a Jewish congregation, our founders petitioned Congress, and on June 2, 1856, President Franklin Pierce signed an Act of Incorporation establishing Washington Hebrew Congregation.
After renting space for nearly a decade, the Congregation purchased and converted a church at 8th and I Streets NW, in 1863 as WHC's first permanent home. The new site was near the city's emerging retail core, where many members lived and worked. Inside the new building, women sat in the gallery and men on the main floor. Traditional practice, however, soon gave way to religious reforms including the use of German and English during services. When an organ was added in 1869, some members left to form an Orthodox congregation. Nevertheless, we continued to grow, and by 1897, a new, larger building was erected on the same site. President William McKinley laid the cornerstone and more than 3,000 people lined the streets to witness the event.
By the 1930s and '40s, many members had established themselves financially and professionally. They began leaving downtown for new, more spacious neighborhoods. It was not until 1952 that a site was chosen for our present building on Macomb Street. The cornerstone was laid by President Harry S. Truman, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated Washington Hebrew's new home in 1955.
Today, with more than 2,800 members, Washington Hebrew Congregation is the area's largest Jewish congregation and among the largest Reform congregations in the world.