Thursday, May 31, 2012

Synagogue Story Focus @ White House

Who could imagine that a long ago research inquiry would culminate with the President speaking at the White House about how President Ulysses S. Grant became the first sitting president to attend a synagogue service when he attended the dedication of Adas Israel's first synagogue--now the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum?

In 1994, I contacted Dr. John Y. Simon, the editor of the Grant papers, to ask if there were any documents among those papers that related to Grant's visit to the synagogue. That's how I first learned that among Grant's papers housed at the Library of Congress was an original receipt for the $10 donation the president made to the synagogue's building fund in June 1876.

Since then we have used a facsimile copy of this marvelous document in our exhibits and educational programs. When we learned that the Library of Congress was mounting a comprehensive exhibit about American Jewish life in 2004, we alerted the curators to the existence of the receipt in their collection. It was included in their exhibit, From Haven to Home, next to Grant's Civil War expulsion order, the infamous Orders No. 11.

Earlier this year, I met the new national coordinator for Jewish American Heritage Month, Jennifer Mooney. I suggested to Jennifer that perhaps an appropriate theme this year would be Grant's issuance of Orders No. 11 and President Abraham Lincoln's revocation of that order. This is after all the 150th anniversary year of General Orders No. 11 issued December 17, 1862.
Me with Gary P. Zola, Director of the American Jewish Archives--and the Library of Congress documents relating to General Orders No. 11!
Our staff, board members, and supporters should be gratified to know that yesterday the story of Orders No. 11 was front and center at the White House's annual reception celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month. Upon entering the White House, the Library of Congress' Hebraic Section Chief and past president of JHSGW, Peggy Pearlstein, stood watch over a case of precious documents from the LOC--a letter of complaint from a Missouri B'nai B'rith chapter, the back of the envelope from that letter on which Abraham Lincoln wrote his revocation instructions, and the receipt from the Adas Israel Congregation thanking President Grant for his donation to the building fund of its new synagogue!!

Upstairs in the East Room as members of Congress and dignitaries gathered, President Obama spoke about this little known chapter in American history--giving it context by explaining each of the documents and calling on us to remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in our country.

This is such a wonderful validation of our work at the Society and Museum. We work to uncover, tell, and educate lesser known chapters in American Jewish history for our visitors and the general public. We should be proud that our message is receiving national attention and our role on the national stage is bringing these stories to the fore.

And we should be most proud of our ongoing work to protect and preserve our special historic synagogue--the one that President Grant attended--which has this powerful story to tell.

Here's the president's speech.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Touring Historic Jewish Washington with Jewish Professionals

David displays a picture of Washington
Hebrew Congregation when it used to reside
at Greater New Hope Baptist Church
One of the Historical Society’s most popular events is tours of downtown Jewish Washington. Open to the public in the fall and spring, staff members are also on hand for private events. This morning, Interpretive Programs Manager David McKenzie and I met with a group of 17 Jewish communal professionals for a tour organized by The Jewish Federations of North America.

We started at the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, formerly the home of Adas Israel Congregation and the first synagogue in the Washington area, to discuss the migration of Jewish groups into the capital and the literal migration of this building from 6th and G to 3rd and G streets in 1969. Outside, we braved the humidity to walk around 7th Street, once a neighborhood with a sizeable Jewish minority in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We also saw the sites of former synagogues-turned-churches as well as the revitalized Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Perhaps the most quirky, if not momentous historical artifact was when David showed us an iron rung for tying up horses on the side of the road, one of the few still left standing in the city.

David also talked about plans in the works to move the historic 1876 Adas Israel synagogue yet again, this time to 3rd and F streets, and answered a few questions for a Ha’aretz reporter. For more information on setting up walking tours with the Society in Washington or Alexandria, click here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Residents connect to Jewish Washington

This post is by JHSGW's new archival intern, Rachel Mauro. In addition to her internship here, she runs a blog about Jewish life in Washington.

Barely three hours into my internship at the Jewish Historical Society, I suddenly found myself heading out to the Five Star Premier Residences in Chevy Chase, Md., to assist with a talk given by Interpretive Programs Manager David McKenzie.

Residents filled up the community hall to hear about local history. David’s talk, aided by a PowerPoint presentation of archival images, touched upon broad events, like the founding of the first synagogues in the District, and profiles of esteemed Jewish Washingtonians. It was a great way for me, personally, to get a scope of what the Society is all about.

For residents who lived through much of what David talked about, the talk was noticeably more personal. We learned as much about them as they did about us. One woman relayed that her husband’s grandfather was Moshe Yoelson, cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation at 467 E Street, SW, from 1892 to the 1920s, and entertainer Al Jolson’s father.

We quickly ran out of copies of the accompanying book, Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community, which is available for sale. To view the online exhibition, click here

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Object of the Month: May 2012

Object No.: C1-21    
Description: Photograph of Arthur Welsh, at the controls of a Wright brothers airplane, and smoking cigar, 1909-1912.

Background: Born in Russia in 1881, Laibel Wellcher immigrated with his family to Philadelphia and moved to Washington as a teen. His family lived above the grocery store his mother ran at 900 G Street, SW. When he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1901, Wellcher changed his name to Arthur Welsh. His marriage to Anna Harmel in 1907 was the first wedding in Adas Israel’s new synagogue at 6th and I Streets, NW.

After watching Orville Wright’s flight demonstrations at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1909, Welsh joined the Wright brothers’ first training class. A skilled pilot, Welsh trained many of America’s first aviators.  One of his students was Hap Arnold (seen here at far left, with Welsh), who went on to become the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces during World War II.   Arnold later remembered, “Welsh taught me all he knew. Or rather, he taught me all he could teach. He knew much more.”

In 1912, Welsh was tragically killed in a crash at the College Park Airfield during a test flight of a new military plane designed by the Wright brothers. He was buried in the Adas Israel cemetery in southeast Washington.  The Yiddish newspaper Forward reported, “All present were in tears including Mr. Orville Wright and his sister who were doing all they could to console the mother and wife of the deceased.”

Commemorate Welsh’s centennial and legacy with a special medal commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society. This limited edition, 2 ¼” medal is available in several finishes including Bronze ($50), Silver-plated ($75), and Gold-plated ($100). For more information, contact (202) 789-0900 or

To learn more about Arthur Welsh, join us on Tuesday, June 12th at 7:00 p.m. at the College Park Aviation Museum when we’ll celebrate his centennial with a special program, exhibition, and dedication of commemorative plaque. A reception follows the program.

Transportation: Free parking at the Aviation Museum or reserve seats on a private motorcoach from Adas Israel Congregation for $20 per person. Bus departs at 6:00 p.m., returns at 9:30 p.m. Advance registration and payment required online or (202) 789-0900.