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September 3, 2015 / 19 Elul, 5775
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The Jews Of Washington During The Civil War

It is not clear what Weil hoped to accomplish with these “changes.” They certainly did not preserve the Orthodoxy of the synagogue, because the “Traditional practice [of the Washington Hebrew Congregation] soon gave way to religious reforms including the use of German and English. When the congregation added an organ to their service in 1869, some members left to form the orthodox Adas Israel Congregation.” The Washington Hebrew Congregation had become a Reform temple.

Economic Status of the Jews

“A few Jewish merchants, attracted by the business prospects of Washington, settled in the early 1850s. More came in the latter part of the decade, almost all recent arrivals from the German states and principalities.

“On the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, Washington, including the prosperous port of Georgetown, had a population of 75,000.”

All of this changed drastically after the outbreak of the war.

“Freight yards, hotels, restaurants, and barrooms carried on a rushing business. Soldiers were everywhere. The price of foodstuffs soared. The city enjoyed a new material prosperity as the war went on. Commissary and Quartermaster supplies poured into the city month after month. New warehouses went up and the Government bought, leased, or built offices, hospitals, and workshops for repair of military equipment. Twenty-five military hospitals came into existence in the Washington area.”

The Jewish population of the city also increased. The Jewish Messenger reported the following on January 24, 1862:

“The number of Israelites quartered at Washington and its vicinity (exclusive of those in the army) cannot fall short of two thousand. As an evidence of their presence, there are, at least, half a dozen kosher Restaurants, all of which appear to flourish to the satisfaction of their proprietors. At one of them in particular, about dinner hour, there were some forty guests seated at the same time, and on their departure, an equal number ready to take their places. Many are the commercial establishments, conducted under names familiar to a New Yorker. All departments of trade seem to be favored with a full representation from the metropolitan district.”

There were also “a number of Jewish-owned or operated boarding houses and hotels. Isaac Beggardt [Biggardtl, Myer May, and Alois Kohn are the boarding house operators; while William Rothschild ran the Admiral House and William Hochherz the Clinton Hotel.”

* * * * *

During the Civil War the Jewish community of Washington was a small minority of the total population of the city – about one per cent. Its members were primarily from Germany and had arrived within fifteen years prior to the outbreak of the conflict. Virtually all of Washington’s Jews at this time were in business. They shared the same hopes and beliefs concerning the issues of slavery and the preservation of the Union as the population at large. The victories and defeats of the Union Army during the Civil War affected them just as much as they did their gentile neighbors and in similar ways.

1. “The Swiss Treaty and the Washington Hebrew Congregation” by Jerry Klinger – www.jewishmag.com/110mag/swissbill/swissbill.htm

2. www.jewish-history.com/civilwar/washdc.htm

3. www.jhsgw.org/exhibitions/online/goldberg/photographs/washington-hebrew-congregation

4. www.jewish-history.com/civilwar/washdc.htm

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 llevine@stevens.edu.

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 llevine@stevens.edu.


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