Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from “The Jewish Community of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War” by Robert Shosteck, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1966-Jun 1967; 56, 1-4; AJHS Journal (available online at www.ajhs.org/scholarship/adaje.cfm).
Washington, D.C. was created in 1790 as a result of a political compromise.
“Washington was a Federal city. It did not have a ‘State’ government. It was under the direct control of Congress for even the simplest of things; schools, streets, courts and land use by private individuals and corporations. Accordingly, Congress dutifully passed on the last day of the first session of the 28th Congress, June 17, 1844, ‘A Bill, concerning conveyances or devices of places of public worship in the District of Columbia.’ The bill did not specifically identify any single religious group or denomination. It did provide that the District Court system would have the ability to appoint or replace trustees overseeing the property or governance of any religious institution.
“The understanding and practice of the law was that only Christian Churches were to be recognized in the nation’s capital. A Jewish house of worship was not welcome.”
Washington Hebrew Congregation
“The Washington Hebrew Congregation was the center of Jewish religious life in the Nation’s capital during the Civil War period. It was organized on April 25, 1852, at the home of Herman Listberger on Pennsylvania Avenue near 21st Street. Solomon Pribram was chosen president of the new group. The twenty or more founders were almost all recent immigrants from Germany. Two years later the Congregation had increased to about forty and included Capt. Jonas P. Levy among its supporters.”
In light of this growth, the congregation began making plans to erect a permanent house of worship. There was one problem, however. While the 1844 law passed by the 28th Congress did not say so explicitly, it was understood that it applied only to Christian churches. Hence, members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation feared a Jewish house of worship would not be welcome. Their only recourse was to get Congress to explicitly state that the 1844 law applied to Jewish houses of worship as well.
“An important event in the life of the young congregation occurred in 1856, under the presidency of Joseph Friedenwald. They submitted through Senator Lewis Cass, a memorial [petition] to the 34th Congress on February 5, 1856, requesting an amendment to existing laws whereby the Hebrew Congregation in Washington would be granted the same rights, privileges and immunities as were granted Christian churches under a law passed [on] June 17, 1844. This bill was passed, and the act was signed by President Franklin Pierce on June 2, 1856. Now the Washington Hebrew Congregation saw its way clear to incorporate under the charter granted by Congress.”
It was not long before the congregation had a chazzan/shochet by the name of H. Melle. In July 1857 it formally adopted a constitution and by-laws, and was incorporated. By October 1860 the congregation was looking for larger quarters for its growing membership.
“A news item [Occident November, 1860] tells this story as follows:
“ ‘We are informed that the Israelites of the national capital are now about closing the purchase of a beautiful large church on Tenth Street, between E and F Streets. The building cost originally $13,000, but the price to be paid for it is $10,000; first payment $2,000…. As the Washington Congregation is neither rich nor numerous, though steadily increasing, our friends would be greatly indebted to all Israelites to assist them to obtain a suitable house of worship.’
“A Philadelphia correspondent reports on his visit to Washington: Six years ago there was not a Minyan to be found in that city; now there are about four hundred Yehudim there.… great credit should be accorded to Capt. Jonas P. Levy, through whose exertions and perseverance, not only a congregation has been formed, but a new building has just been purchased ….”
Samuel Weil was elected chazzan in 1859 and served until 1869. An anonymous correspondent for the weekly newspaper the Jewish Messenger wrote on January 24, 1862:
“There being at present no regular minister, a young man, named [Samuel] Weil, conducts the services. He has a pleasant voice, and his style of reading is not too pronounced. We observe he has introduced some changes in the Minhag – whether they are conducive to increased decorum and devoutness, we cannot say. The portion of the Prophets is read in German, and certain parts of the liturgy are omitted. The prayer for the government was likewise, by some oversight, forgotten. Strange to say, they still retain the selling of Mitzvahs [auctioning of the aliyot], which did not add, on our opinion, to the solemnity of the service. Otherwise, the congregants conducted themselves with marked decorum, and there was a pretty good attendance.”
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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