Washington Hebrew Congregation

:: Our History

 

In 1852, while the streets and sidewalks of the District of Columbia were unpaved, the Capitol building was only half finished, and the population of the entire city was slightly in excess of 50,000 people, a meeting was held at the home of Mr. H. Lisberger on Pennsylvania Avenue near 21st Street to form a "Hebrew Congregation in Washington." The record of the meeting was written in German, Solomon Pribram was elected the first president, and Captain Jonas P. Levy, who served as commander of the ship U.S.S. America during the Mexican War, gave the first monetary contribution. United States Capitol
1863 8th Street Temple Fearful that the opportunity to hold property would be denied a Jewish congregation, the founders of the Hebrew Congregation submitted a petition to the 34th Congress on February 5, 1856 for an Act of Incorporation. On June 2, President Franklin Pierce signed "an Act for the benefit of the Hebrew Congregation in the City of Washington." Washington Hebrew Congregation is the only Jewish congregation in America to be assured of its existence by an Act of Congress. In 1863, the members purchased the Methodist Episcopal Church at 8th and I Street for a permanent home. Inside the new building, ladies sat in the gallery and men sat on the main floor, but all notices were written in German and English, an organ was used, and a choir was formed. Prayers were read in English. Because of these Reform innovations, 35 of the 80 members resigned, including some of the founders. The congregation, however, continued to grow.
     
By 1897, the Congregation had outgrown its first building, and a new temple was built on the same site. President William McKinley laid the cornerstone, and between three and four thousand people jammed the streets to witness the event. It was not until 1952 that a new site was chosen for the present building. The cornerstone was laid by President Harry S. Truman. On May 6, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially dedicated our present home on Macomb Street. 1897 8th Street Temple
     
Louis Stern In its history of 157 years, only six senior rabbis have led Washington Hebrew Congregation. Louis Stern was engaged in 1872 as "Chazen and Leader in Hebrew and Jewish Religion" and guided the Congregation through the building of the temple, the acquisition of a cemetery, and the development of Reform liturgy and ritual. Rabbi Abram Simon came to the Congregation in 1904 and dedicated his life to scholarship and community activity. The photograph of his first Confirmation class in 1905 hangs in Ades Hall and begins a long series of pictures of every Confirmation class since.
     
Rabbi Abram Simon was a member of the Red Cross during World War I, broadcast radio lectures, and was president of both the Board of Education in Washington as well as the Conference of Christians and Jews. After his death, the Abram Simon School, a public elementary school, served as an ongoing recognition of his contributions. Rabbi Abram Simon
     
Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld, who served as an Assistant Rabbi to Rabbi Simon, succeeded Rabbi Simon in 1938. Rabbi Gerstenfeld was a brilliant orator, and he also began the Amram Sunday Scholars Series. He also guided the construction of the present temple building.
     
Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman received an invitation to become senior rabbi in 1969. He reintroduced the Congregation to many of the beautiful traditions that early Reform Judaism had discarded. His love of learning resulted in Early Torah Study, Bible Class, and the Foundation for Jewish Studies, which brings Jewish scholars to the Washington area. He also nurtured a growing connection between our Congregation and the State of Israel as well as presided over the building of the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center in Potomac, Maryland in 1976. Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman
     
Rabbi Joseph P. Weinberg Rabbi Joseph P. Weinberg became the fifth senior rabbi in 1986 and infused creativity into every facet of the Congregation. His call for social justice helped establish the Carrie Simon House, a transitional home for homeless mothers and infants. He also guided the renovation of the Kaufmann Sanctuary and the creation of the Albert and Shirley Small Chapel complex. He led our congregation's involvement in such issues as civil rights (where he marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.), Soviet Jewry, the founding of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and the security of the State of Israel.
     
Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig became senior rabbi in 1999. A creator of a sense of community, a social activist who pioneered Mitzvah Day (now adopted around the country), and a caring pastor, Rabbi Lustig will lead the congregation into an exciting and promising future. With Cantors Mikhail Manevich and Susan Bortnick, and Rabbis Susan N. Shankman and Aaron Miller, the journey of Washington Hebrew Congregation continues as a Beit Knesset, a house of communal gathering, a Beit Midrash, a house of Jewish study, and a Beit Tefilah, a house of prayer. Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig