Our Place in History, Then and Now

The streets near the Capitol were not even paved in Washington, D.C. in 1852.  That same year, the first public baths opened in New York City, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, and Fredrick Douglass delivered a speech to a women’s anti-slavery gathering entitled, “What is the Fourth of July to the Slave?” Millard Fillmore was president, serving on the heels of General Zachary Taylor; and race, poverty, and concerns about America’s place in the world were the political issues of the day. The Washington Evening Star reported on the local and national news, which have always been confluent in this, our nation’s capital. That same year, Washington Hebrew Congregation had its humble beginnings, and it too has been a confluence – for Judaism – for local and national concerns. Washington Hebrew has been engaged in the life of this nation for more than 164 years. Since our founding, we have seen 31 presidents stand on the threshold of history as they take the oath of office. We have had a front row seat to both the triumphs and tragedies of the American Story.

Ours is a unique role in this nation’s capital as its first and still largest Jewish congregation. Washington Hebrew Congregation has not only been on the sidelines of history, we have been part of its making. We were the starting place for thousands who came to Washington to march on Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews in 1987. We were the first congregation in America to hold an Abrahamic Summit gathering Christians, Muslims, and Jews post-9/11. And we were the finish line for the NAACP’s historic Journey for Justice from Selma to Washington in 2015. From our engagement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – father of the Civil Rights Movement, to Elijah Muhammad – founder of the Nation of Islam, to the more than 40 clergy who will grace our MLK celebration this coming weekend, we have been a house of worship for all, a gathering place for ideas and ideals, and a builder of bridges in interfaith relationships. We have and have had elected officials from both sides of the aisle as members of our Congregation, and from the time of the Civil War, we have always been a haven for our men and women in uniform.

As the inauguration approaches, we will again take our rightful place in history. Our clergy have been asked to participate once again in the inaugural prayer service on January 21 at the National Cathedral, which honors the new members of Congress and the president. That same morning, our clergy will lead services for all of the Women of Reform Judaism and their supporters who will come to D.C. to march for religious freedom and women’s rights. And the night before, on Friday, January 20, we will hold a Shabbat service celebrating the unique place in history we have held for the past 164 years. We invite you to join us!

As rabbis of Washington Hebrew Congregation, we are often afforded such powerful opportunities to be part of the national conversation about critical issues of social justice and religious life in America. We too have often been the amalgamator, leading the way to challenge the issues of our day. In that vein, just days after all the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration, WHC will host the first in a series of interfaith dialogues – Faith over Fear – where people of all faiths will gather in fellowship to gain a greater understanding of each other’s faith traditions and teachings.  Together, we will build a better day where we can see each other as God intended – in God’s image. This is our place in history, living the covenant that God fashioned with Abraham long ago; a covenant that has guided humanity in each generation to better days.