Washington Hebrew Congregation – The Early Years

Sepia tone photo of WHC's 1st confirmation class

By Bill Davis, Congregational Archivist

“It is said the Hebrews, or Jews, are going to establish a synagogue in Washington.”

— Daily Telegraph, May 15, 1852

On April 25, 1852, at least 21 German Jews met at the home of Mr. H. Lisberger on Pennsylvania Avenue, near 21st Street, to form the Washington Hebrew Congregation. The group elected Solomon Pribram as our first president, and Captain Jonas P. Levy, a naval commander during the Mexican War, had the honor of making the first recorded monetary contribution.

For a few years, members met in private homes and rented quarters, the last being Harmony Hall on D Street near the present-day Commerce Department building. With the congregation already outgrowing that space and fearful that the opportunity to hold property did not extend to synagogues, Washington Hebrew members submitted a petition to the 34th U. S. Congress on February 5, 1856, asking for the same rights and privileges enjoyed by Christian churches in the District. On June 2, 1856 (can you imagine a four-month turnaround for a bill today?), President Franklin Pierce signed into law An Act for the Benefit of the Hebrew Congregation in the City of Washington. To this day, WHC is the only Jewish house of worship to operate with an act of the Congress as its charter.

By 1863, we were able to purchase the Methodist Episcopal Church at 8th and I Streets NW, our first permanent home. After refurbishing the structure, it was dedicated on July 31, 1863, at an elaborate ceremony attended by many city officials and religious leaders, including the prominent Philadelphia rabbi, Dr. Isaac Leeser, who proclaimed, “They had lived in one faith for upwards of thirty-five centuries…and they knew that God had favored them.”

During our first 20 years, WHC brought in “readers” from outside the congregation to be our spiritual leaders. We adopted the new “Reform,” with prayers recited in German and increasingly in English and introduced organ music and a choir to our services. We opened a religious school in 1861 and our first Confirmation class (all girls for the record) was honored in 1871, an annual tradition that has continued ever since.

In 1872, we hired Louis Stern, our first permanent rabbi, as “Chazan and Leader in Hebrew and Jewish Religion.” He guided us through our most formative years — acquiring a cemetery and developing the new Reform liturgy and ritual practices. A poet, musician, teacher, and pioneer, Rabbi Stern served our congregation until his death in 1920.

The 8th & I space was renovated in 1877 and again in 1886, but by the late 1890s, the congregation tore down the structure and built a new temple on the same site. On September 16, 1897, President William McKinley laid the cornerstone with his cabinet present as well as nearly 4,000 spectators jamming the nearby streets. At a cost of $62,000 (over $2 million in today’s dollars), the new building included a pipe organ, enormous Star of David windows, and seats for 1,350 individuals. That site would remain the home of Washington Hebrew for another half-century. The building still stands today and is the home of Greater New Hope Baptist Church.

As our congregation grew and made their homes further away from downtown DC, we again required a new space to serve our community. We began construction on our current temple at 3935 Macomb Street NW in November 1952, where President Harry Truman laid the cornerstone saying, “This is a happy occasion for Washington Hebrew Congregation. I am glad to take part in it.”; three years later President Dwight Eisenhower dedicated the building.

Those first 100 years established Washington Hebrew Congregation within the DC community. Our rabbis built close ties to local churches, delivered radio addresses to the entire area, and started programs like the Sunday Scholar Series that we still hold today. As we head toward our demisemiseptcentennial (175th anniversary), we look forward to sharing additional stories from our archives with you.