WASHINGTON (RNS) — The oldest synagogue building in the nation’s capital has become the anchor of a new museum highlighting the history of Jewish people in the region.
The Capital Jewish Museum is set to open its doors to the public on June 9.
“We’re standing next to the simple, original Adas Israel Synagogue, which has been merged into this striking, magnificent building,” said Esther Safran Foer, board president of the museum and a longtime member of the synagogue now located about 4 miles away from its former downtown D.C. location.
Speaking at a media preview event on Thursday (June 1), she pointed to the glass bridge connecting the almost 150-year-old red brick building to a new four-floor structure that reveals the Jewish history of the Washington area, home to nearly 300,000 Jews today, according to official estimates.
“That bridge, literally and figuratively, connects the past to the present and into the future,” she said.
Ivy L. Barsky, the museum’s executive director, said the 32,500-square-foot museum, which cost $31 million, also can serve as a bridge to both the secular and religious aspects of Judaism for the devout and the nondevout alike.
“We know that a lot of people and a lot of Jews and a lot of young Jewish folks in Washington and elsewhere really connect to their history and heritage in places like ours,” she said. “We’re not about prayer, but I think people get really curious and get answers about Jewishness, to a certain extent Judaism, and museums tend to be really unthreatening, safe places to get that information.”
The museum will house a collection — rooted in the archive of the former Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington — of more than 24,000 photographs and more than 1,000 objects.
Among the artifacts on display are a matchbox signed by President Carter that was used at the first lighting of the National Menorah in 1977; a notebook with handwritten words of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice; and the Seder plate used by President Obama’s family while at the White House.
Traditional items like mezuzahs, decorative containers on doorposts of Jewish homes that contain a small scroll with a prayer, are featured. One was on the door of the office of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, on Jan. 6. Another, a large silver version, was a gift to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is on display in a special exhibition of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” the final location of a national tour that concludes on Nov. 30.
Special exhibitions, like the one about Ginsburg, will vary in cost, but the remainder of the museum is free.
Though the overall museum highlights the broad culture of Washington Jews, it contains artifacts and stories of the famous and not so famous that relate to their faith, along with numerous other dimensions of their lives. On the museum’s second floor, there are 12-by-12-inch cubes that include images of 100 Jewish people, each labeled with three words, such as the late Washingtonian Eugene Lipman, who is noted for being a “rabbi,” “outspoken” and a “resister.” Museum curators hope the soft, movable objects will lead visitors to reflect on their own multifaceted identities.
Beyond the physical items like the cubes that visitors can touch and the objects they can view are the lesser-known tales of the Jewish people who have lived in the District for centuries.
Foer noted that Ulysses S. Grant, then an Army general in the Civil War, signed an expulsion order for Jews in the South that President Lincoln halted. Years later, as U.S. president, Grant treated the Jews of Washington far differently.
“He accepted the invitation to attend the dedication of this brick building,” said Foer, telling the story that is recounted in a video presentation in the historic sanctuary that includes three of the synagogue’s original 1876 pews. “He sat here for more than three hours in the heat — no air conditioning — and he even made a generous personal contribution.”
Barsky, the former CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, said the museum will be giving a public face to stories like that.
“I’m a Jewish museum professional for more than 30 years, and I knew very little about the story of Jewish Washington until I got here.”
The museum features a timeline of Jewish history from 1790 to the present, in an area where classrooms and a mikvah, or ritual bath, once were located. The door that previously gave access to the mikvah is among the artifacts on display there.
On the floor above is a multimedia Seder table that offers visitors an opportunity to consider issues about justice and immigration and an interactive map that allows them to search for synagogues or other points of interest over the centuries.
That floor also includes the various facets of Jewish life, starting with worship and continuing with education, work, play and food. It also highlights Jewish values such as “machloket l’shel shamayim,” or “conflict for the sake of heaven,” and “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.
Among the conflicts highlighted within the museum was a debate over the National Menorah: One rabbi said it reflected the essential public display of Hanukkah candles; another said it marked an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.
“Preserving those disagreements is important,” said curator Sarah A. Leavitt. “We look at antisemitism, we look at abortion rights, we look at immigration rights, we look at voting rights, all of these ideas. How is that about repairing the world? We want visitors to think about those ideas.”
The museum also features a “community hub” where Leavitt hopes visitors can think about what actions they might take after learning about D.C. Jewish history. That space features a large photo of a woman outside the U.S. Capitol at a rally protesting the Muslim travel ban, whose sign reads “This is the moment I trained for in Hebrew school.”
Though the historic sanctuary is currently a place where museum-goers can sit and watch a video presentation before moving on to interactive displays, museum officials said it can also become a space for lectures and rituals in the future.
“We restored the historic sanctuary in part because we wanted it to look as it originally did, but also so that it could be used,” said Jonathan Edelman, collections curator.
Barsky said private events, including some involving worship, are already planned.
“We’ve definitely had some conversations already with people who want to do that or who want to have a life cycle event or a Shabbat service and dinner or an Eruv Rosh Hashanah service and dinner,” she said. “There are a few things already scheduled by outsiders.”