What is Jewish Washington? It’s a good question with a lot of different answers. And one is likely to find many of them here at the brand-new Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum.
“Every region has a million stories, right? There’s one for every person, and that’s what we’re trying to say here,” Sarah Leavitt, the museum’s curator, told JNS during a recent museum tour.
Upon entering the four-story building on Third Street NW, visitors pass the lobby’s cafe cart, known as the Nosh Pit. The Gewirz Family Museum Shop features miniature Albert Einstein magnets and a collection of books about iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is featured prominently during the museum’s opening months.
It’s then onto a trip through the region’s Jewish history through a ground-floor exhibit full of photographs and artifacts introducing the people, organizations and communities that built Jewish life in the Capital Region, now home to some 300,000 Jews.
“In this gallery, we’re tracking the Jewish history in the D.C. area from the first Jewish family during the founding of the city in 1790, and we take it all the way to 2023 and the opening of the museum,” Leavitt said. “We’re telling lots of different stories. Some of them will be familiar to our visitors, and many will not be.”
The museum’s reach covers the district and well beyond, including Maryland and Virginia. Leavitt said some of the earliest Jewish communities in the larger region settled in Richmond and Baltimore, and Northern Virginia is now home to the area’s largest Jewish population.
The exhibits include a history of everything from local Jewish small-business owners to the Jewish role in racial desegregation. It focuses on both Jewish unity and divisions, including a Civil War exhibit.
“Jews, of course, fought on both sides of the Civil War, and in D.C., we have a couple of stories of a Confederate spy and of a Union soldier who distinguished himself during the war,” Leavitt explained. “Throughout the war experience, a lot of people just came to work. It was a period of big growth for Washington.”
A celebration of 100 Jewish Washingtonian
The museum draws connections from the past to the present, touching on hot-button topics like immigration, with exhibits on the subject spanning two floors.
“Jewish Washingtonians have been on all sides of immigration reform. So we talk about and about the Jewish response,” Leavitt said. “What is the Jewish response? What is the D.C. response? That’s something we’re always looking for in this museum and what values inform those responses to immigration.”
Adjacent to that ground-floor exhibit hall is the museum’s crowning jewel. The Adas Israel synagogue, which opened in 1876 and jumped from location to location to accommodate a growing city, now resides within the museum in a refurbished, reconstructed fashion.
That exhibit includes a restored pew from one of Washington’s earliest congregations. Visitors can sit and view an educational film about the synagogue’s architecture and stories of children who grew up in the burgeoning Jewish community.
The museum’s architecture combines the original synagogue’s red brick with a modern glass facade.
Upstairs is the “Connect. Reflect. Act.” interactive exhibition, which explores local Jewish perspectives on societal issues and a celebration of 100 Jewish Washingtonians from all walks of life.
Leavitt walked JNS to the Am Yisrael Chai section of the exhibit, which focuses on “this idea of diversity and change and difference amongst the Jewish community.”
The walls are peppered with pictures, artifacts and captioned information about the celebrated 100, while the center of the section features oversized blocks with keywords printed on each side, including “daughter,” “developer,” “donor,” “stylish,” “son,” “advocate” and more.
The idea, Leavitt told JNS, is for visitors to find something in common with the 100 “by finding a block with a word that you identify with and piling them up.”
“The thought is that you realize that your identity has many facets, as do all of these people that you might learn about in the museum,” she added.
But how did the museum select those 100?
“You try to pick people from different aspects of life: sports, government, musicians, chefs,” she said.
Some of the names will be familiar and others likely won’t be, according to Leavitt. “We said the idea was that they would be interesting. Famous, notorious, not famous,” she said. (She noted the not-famous are the ones she prefers.)
Artifacts include Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich’s typewriter, real estate developer Robert Israel Silverman’s hard hat, a basketball presented to women’s rights attorney Marcia Greenberger (who advocated for women’s athletics) and a piece of Judaica from Solomon Ereza, the son of Constantinople’s head rabbi, who helped to found Washington’s first Sephardic congregation.
Leavitt told JNS that the museum is relentless in tracking down such artifacts, about which it usually learns via word of mouth.
“We just keep talking to people and someone says, ‘You should talk to my friend. He has an attic full of stuff,’” Leavitt said. “We have a collections curator who spends many days going into people’s houses and talks to them about what they might be willing to donate.”
Further down the exhibition hall is a “Tikkun Olam” section, featuring a selection of six social issues for discussion. Each has a small activity that patrons are asked to participate in to gauge their responses to that issue. Those topics include, among others, voting rights, abortion and immigration.
In the voting rights section, guests are asked to take a small wooden chip and place it in a corresponding slot as a top choice for what that guest feels is an initiative that can be used to increase (or decrease) voter access.
“Again, we look at the Jewish response. Why is voting access featured in the Jewish Museum, as opposed to a D.C. history museum?” Leavitt said. “Those are the questions that we’re asking in all these sections. And we’re hoping for visitor participation and engagement.”
‘Bring some of these stories into the present’
An oversized interactive tabletop map displays decade-by-decade growth and dispersal of the region’s Jewish community, and visitors can hone in on select areas, with the map displaying nearby synagogues, Jewish organizations and centers, cemeteries and kosher grocery stores.
It’s then on to an enormous seder table, centered in a walled roundabout.
“For the festival of Passover, we tell stories about the biblical liberation from Egypt. But a lot of families go further than that,” Leavitt said. “Here we talk about different stories of liberation, from the Freedom Seder to Soviet Jewry to the story of the Exodus.”
The exhibit offers the opportunity to “do our other favorite thing that we do at the seder table, which is to argue and discuss,” Leavitt said. “So, we talk about illegal immigration and what that meant then and what it might mean for us now. That’s one way where we’re trying to bring some of these stories into the present.”
Until November, the museum is housing an exhibition titled “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” on loan from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Based on a bestselling book by the same name, the show looks at Ginsburg’s life and work, using archival photographs and documents, video interviews, interactives and modern art.
For the exhibit’s Washington run, the Capital Jewish Museum added artifacts connecting Ginsburg’s life to the district. That includes the mezuzah to her Supreme Court chambers door, a special collar commissioned for her by Moment magazine and items from area public memorials following Ginsburg’s passing.
Leavitt told JNS that several of Ginsburg’s law clerks and a housekeeper visited the exhibit in Washington and became emotional after seeing it.
The museum’s Community Action Lab, still a work in progress, features an area for special programming related to exhibitions. Right now, guests have an opportunity to construct from paper, markers and crafts a “dissent collar,” like the one Ginsburg wore on days that she gave powerful and pointed opinions at odds with the Supreme Court’s majority.
All in all, the museum features more than 24,000 photos and 1,000 objects—from the historical to the heartbreaking to the downright kitschy, like the “Bagelman” sign from the old Bethesda Bagels in Dupont Circle.
Since its opening last month, Leavitt said the museum has drawn groups and tourists, and many locals after “somebody in their synagogue talked about it. We’re thrilled to just have the doors open and have people coming in.”