Esther S. Foer

Reflecting on the Past, Connecting to Shared Heritage, and Inspiring Action

Rendering by SmithGroup. Courtesy of the Capital Jewish Museum
Rendering by SmithGroup. Courtesy of the Capital Jewish Museum

The Capital Jewish Museum Embodies Jewish History and Culture

The area’s newest museum, which opened downtown June 9, represents a historic opportunity to reflect on Jewish history and culture in both Washington, DC and in America more broadly. The Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum includes the first home of DC’s oldest synagogue, built by Adas Israel congregation, which also happens to be the first Jewish house of worship visited by a sitting president, Ulysses S. Grant.

The historic red brick building has been moved (again!) and is now connected to a new facility via a glass bridge, a visual metaphor for how the museum interweaves past, present, and future. The entire design breathes life into the Museum’s mission to connect, reflect, and act: connect personally and collectively, reflect on the relevance of the past to today, and act on behalf of their communities and values.

The historic Adas Israel Synagogue was moved for the third and final time in 2019. It is now the centerpiece of the Capital Jewish Museum. Photo courtesy of the Capital Jewish Museum.

Until now, Washington was one of the largest US cities that despite its vast array of world-class museums, did not have a Jewish museum. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, a vital place of education, does not run the whole gamut of Jewish history. We wanted to tell the history of our community.

The Washington, DC metro area counts the third largest Jewish community in America and is a composite of many diverse populations. This includes the part of our community that comes here to work in government, whether for Congress, for the administration or in the agencies; those whose families have been here for generations; or those like my ancestors, Holocaust survivors who came directly to Washington after passing Ellis Island. All of us live a unique story. This historic building has had many lives, first as a synagogue, and then as a church, a bike shop and, yes, even a home for pork barbeque. In a way, it reflects the pluralism and fluctuation that our community and its neighbors have known through the ages.

The museum is committed not only to history, but stories – stories of individuals who bring history to life. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, pointed out that the Hebrew language has no actual word for history – the word used instead is Zakhor – meaning, “memory.”

Here is a story: During the civil war, US Army General U.S. Grant, signed an order expelling the Jews from much of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky in the Civil War South. Yes, the only expulsion of Jews in American history. But President Abraham Lincoln intervened and forced the order to be rescinded. A few years later, the same U.S. Grant was himself president of the United States and accepted an invitation to attend the dedication of the narrow, two-story brick synagogue building which now sits inside the Capital Jewish Museum. He sat here for more than three hours in the heat, and he even made a generous personal contribution. That story is among the many recounted here.

This museum also commemorates the achievements and lives of the capital’s Jews. My family comes from a shtetl that was entirely wiped out in the Holocaust. A team of Jewish artists who create mezuzahs from Eastern Europe went to our family’s shtetl, Trochenbrod, Ukraine (formerly Poland), and found absolutely nothing. So they took an imprint of the bark of the oldest tree, the tree that they describe as “remembering,” and they created a mezuzah that one can now see on the doorpost of the museum. It is another kind of story about Jewish Washington.

The museum also features mezuzahs from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s chamber door at the United States Supreme Court and from the office of Congressman Jamie Raskin. Ritual objects have pride of place at the museum, which after all includes a former shul. Visitors will also be able to see items from the region’s earliest synagogues, a sort of Jewish time capsule of our community. A special exhibit is dedicated to the life and times of Justice Ginsburg.  And programs are offered for children and people of all ages. Our museum, like the Hebrew term for synagogue, beit knesset, will be a place of assembly for all.

About the Author
Esther Safran Foer is President of the Board of Directors of the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum. She founded FM Strategic Communications in 2002 and for 10 years she was the CEO of Sixth & I, where she helped develop a nationally recognized model for young professional engagement within a historic synagogue and cultural center. She was named one of the Forward 50 Jewish leaders. In 2020 she published the post Holocaust memoir I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, which has been translated into 8 languages.