Jewish Neighborhoods: Washington, D.C.

Memories of Jewish life in Washington, D.C., from our Wexler Oral History Project collection

Lekoved (in honor of) Jewish American Heritage Month, we are featuring memories of Jewish neighborhoods around the United States. We are going beyond the New York neighborhoods that may first come to mind to give voice to some of the other hubs of vibrant Jewish life. Each week we'll feature a different neighborhood or theme, so check back here or on our homepage for new perspectives on the American Jewish experience all month. 

By the time Washington, D.C., was established in 1800, substantial Jewish populations already existed in other cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Increased demand for goods and services caused by the Civil War in the mid nineteenth century attracted Jewish merchants to the city, and this newly formed Jewish community differed from those in other cities in large part because Washington’s economy was based on commerce and service instead of industry. After 1880, new waves of immigrants settled in downtown neighborhoods, including Jews fleeing Eastern European’s pogroms and poverty. They formed small shuls within walking distance of their homes and opened hundreds of mom-and-pop grocery stores across the city, with 7th Street, NW, becoming the main business district and the center of Jewish residential and religious life.

In the early twentieth century, the more-established and assimilated Jews began moving north and west, away from their businesses and toward Cleveland Park and Forest Hills. Yiddish-speaking immigrants continued to live in downtown neighborhoods above or near their shops for a time, although they later moved north to the Petworth, Brightwood, and Crestwood neighborhoods. After World War Two, the growing Jewish population continued its move away from the city center, establishing communities in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. Even though they now lived outside of D.C., the Jewish community remained actively involved in politics and activism within the District, such as the civil rights movement and the movement in support of Soviet Jewish Refuseniks. 

Singer Sara Klompus remembers Washington, D.C., as the vibrant center of her Jewish and artistic beginnings, and the place where she found her voice in her neighborhood synagogue in Northwest Washington. Since her childhood, Sara has explored her Jewish identity as a singer, traveler, and Yiddish student, and as she looks back to her roots in Washington, she weaves an image of a close-knit community, brilliantly musical and familiar. Every Saturday, Sara's family would walk to synagogue, where they could find her best friend Bluma and Bluma’s father, the cantor. Here, in the awe-inspiring setting of her childhood synagogue, with the booming voice of the cantor encouraging her, Sara found her passion for song.

Sara describes her family’s Shabbos routine: munching on fresh, hot bagels in the backseat of the car after dark. Her childhood Saturday nights were filled with friends and family, as her parents drove around the city delivering bagels while she delighted in eating her share.

There were difficulties, however, in Washington, D.C.: a sometimes "virulent anti-Semitism," as Sara describes it. Her father, Charles "Babe" Silverman, won several amateur handball championships, which was unheard of in the 1930s and '40s for a Jew. His brother Aaron played minor league professional baseball and changed his name because of the anti-Semitism in the city.

Annette Epstein Jolles, a social worker, also grew up in Washington, D.C., in the early twentieth century. She remembers the racial segregation in the city and the undercurrents of anti-Semitism experienced by the small Jewish community. While this was grueling, it also fostered a sense of closeness, both among Jews in the city and between Jewish and African-American residents.

Annette describes her neighborhood, which was considered a Jewish neighborhood even though only a few Jewish families lived in the area. She recalls the feeling of uneasiness that Jews experienced in the city, as if they were on sufferance, and discusses the close relationship between Jews and African-Americans, many of whom spoke Yiddish.

Through her family’s political activism, Annette came to associate Yiddish with social action from a very young age and maintains that connection to this day.

Check out our pages on Jewish Philadelphia and Jewish Boston

Explore the entire Wexler Oral History Project collection for more stories of Jewish neighborhoods, food, holidays, historical events, and much more.

You can explore more of our Jewish neighborhood series on the Center's Wexler Oral History Project YouTube channel, where you’ll find a selection of playlists. And follow the Wexler Oral History Project on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to view these clips and more from the Project.

Pictured: Shoppers at the outdoor food market, 7th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., circa 1900