Building on a Strong Foundation: Introducing Project Cornerstone

Silver trowel and image of 8th & I temple

What’s in this box?” I asked Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC) Archivist Bill Davis, picking up what looked like a film reel container off a shelf in the basement archives of the Macomb Street Temple. Little did I know, but that simple question would set the two of us on a quest for the physical pieces from Washington Hebrew’s rich, 170-year history. The journey wound from Hollywood to the Library of Congress and some amazing treasures turned up along the way.

Some of those treasures are now on display at Temple and the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center (JBSC) as part of Project Cornerstone, an initiative to take WHC’s past off dusty, hidden shelves and make it come alive.

As Davis and I gave the box a closer inspection, the label said it was a Paramount Newsreel of President Dwight Eisenhower’s attendance at the dedication of the Macomb Street building in 1955. There was only one problem — the box was empty. Thankfully, Davis spent his career at the National Archives and knew just where to start digging to find the footage. A few phone calls and emails later, he excitedly shared the news that not only had he found the footage of Eisenhower, but he also had footage of President Harry Truman laying the building’s cornerstone three years earlier.

A cornerstone serves two roles — as the foundation for future activities in the building and as a memory of those who made the building possible in the first place. As we approach our 175th anniversary, with a new president, executive director, and senior rabbi in place, what better way to look ahead than by looking at how far we’ve come.

Introduced at Rosh HaShanah and continuing for the next few weeks, visitors to both Temple and JBSC can explore some of the artifacts Davis uncovered and brought out to share. See the original chair the Temple president sat in back in the 1800s (just don’t sit in it yourself), sculpted lions from above the ark at our first building at 8th & I, or read the minutes from one of our earliest member meetings. Moving into the 1940s and ‘50s, you’ll hear a radio address from Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld, marvel at those presidential videos, and get a sense of congregational life 70-plus years ago. As you get closer to today, relive the construction of JBSC, feel the collective energy of the Rally to Free Soviet Jewry, and see the vibrant energy the Congregation has today.

Our archives are filled with items like these — reel-to-reel audio recordings, VHS videotapes, pages and pages of documents, photographs, and more — many of which are in danger of being lost to future generations if we can’t get them preserved digitally. Project Cornerstone hopes to change that over the next five years, possibly creating a permanent display, with more interactive elements, but it will need your help.

If you’d like to volunteer, make this a mitzvah project, or donate to support our preservation efforts, please email