7701 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012
First week in March
"Histoy of Kol Nashim / Sisterhood"
Drash by Louise kelley
Afternoon panel discussion on Women's place in Judaism.
Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC is a mid-sized Conservative synagogue which this year celebrates 100 years in the District of Columbia. With a membership that includes people of color, young families, older adults, deaf and LGBT congregants, “TI” is a vibrant and growing community in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of upper 16th Street.
In the fall of 1916, six recent immigrants from Russia, Poland and Austria met at 2328 Ontario Road, NW, to create the first congregation in their Mount Pleasant neighborhood - the congregation that would become Tifereth Israel. Other neighborhoods, often anchored by the presence of Jewish storekeepers, already had congregations. The earliest, Washington Hebrew, at Eighth and I Streets, NW, had been founded in 1852 and was Reform. There were also two orthodox synagogues near the Seventh Street corridor (Adas Israel and Ohev Sholom), and as well as congregations founded in the early 1900s that met on Capitol Hill, in Georgetown, and near H Street, NE.
The founders of the "Mount Pleasant congregation" were Yiddish-speaking small businessmen (tailors, grocers, and shopkeepers) who first met in members' homes, held High Holiday services in rented halls, and hired guest rabbis and cantors. In 1917 they incorporated as Chevrah (congregation) Tifereth Israel, an Orthodox congregation. Founding documents and early minutes were recorded in Yiddish.
The following year the congregation purchased the Gunton Temple Memorial Presbyterian Church building at 14th and R Streets, NW for $8,400 and became informally known as the 14th Street Congregation. In 1921, by then with roughly 150 members, Tifereth Israel moved to the former home of the late Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan at 1401 Euclid Street, NW, where it remained for thirty-six years. (Photo at left, courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington DC.)
Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone, an emigree from Liverpool, served as rabbi of from 1921 to 1936. When he had first arrived in Washington in 1907, he had presided as head of the Combined Jewish Congregations, and then had served as rabbi of Ohev Sholom. After living briefly in Palestine, he returned to Washington to serve as rabbi of Tifereth Israel. His son Harry succeeded him as rabbi of Tifereth Israel from 1937 through 1957 after the elder Rabbi returned to Palestine permanently.
By the 1930s, discussion began about a new and bigger synagogue that would follow congregants uptown and include adequate space for a religious school. As conditions deteriorated in Europe, Tifereth Israel members joined efforts to assist Jews abroad, including those immigrating to Palestine, and to aid the war effort.
In 1956, after a failed merger with congregations Agudath Achim and Ohev Shalom, the now 300-family synagogue bought land for a large, modern building on upper 16th Street, NW. The synagogue opened its doors in September 1957 with great fanfare, but the cost was crippling. Paying for the building nearly bankrupted the congregation.
Designing the sanctuary for a new building forced Tifereth Israel to clarify its denominational affiliation. Conservative congregations were starting to adopt mixed seating rather than the traditional separation of men and women during prayer. In 1958, the synagogue hired its third Orthodox rabbi, Shmaryahu Swirsky, but the congregation was soon suspended from membership in the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America after officially adopting mixed seating. TI joined the Conservative United Synagogue of American in 1960 and hired a new rabbi trained at the Conservative seminary. Rabbi A. Nathan Abramowitz served the congregation for more than thirty-years before becoming rabbi emeritus.
The congregation's presence in Shepherd Park attracted young couples drawn to the neighborhood's activist stance in support of integration. In 1958, synagogue member Marvin Caplan, a Jewish journalist, and Warren Van Hook, a black pharmacist, founded "Neighbors Inc.," dedicated to fighting "block busting" and establishing Shepherd Park as an integrated neighborhood.
In 1969, new young, politically active members rose in "revolution" against the "old guard" who had been in charge for decades. The young members resisted moving the congregation to the suburbs and merging the school with a suburban location, as well as the concentration of power in the hands of the trustees. They also opposed a plan to fire Rabbi Abramowitz, whose stance on social and political issues including American involvement in Vietnam was offensive to some of the older members. A 1969 article about Tifereth Israel in the Washington Star put these tensions in the context of broader congregational life: "New questions are being raised-particularly by young people-in many of our churches about how decisions are made and what factors should be considered."
During the 1970s, although the traditional service remained largely unchanged in content, cultural politics and generational shifts transformed the style of the service. In 1969 Cantor Sholom Katz, who had been leading services since 1960, resigned. The Board decided not to hire a new cantor and Rabbi Abramowitz began to train lay service leaders, beginning a tradition of lay-led services which continues to this day. Women's demands for equality introduced major changes to American Judaism, and to Tifereth Israel. Between 1971 and 1974, Tifereth Israel moved in stages, but relatively swiftly,toward what would become egalitarian practice, with women fully participating in all synagogue roles including leading prayer and being counted in the quorum required for traditional Jewish public worship. In 1975, the Washington Jewish Week reported, "For the first time in the Washington area, a woman will lead a portion of the Rosh Hashana service in a Conservative Jewish congregation."
From the 1960s through the 1990s, with active lay leadership and the support of Rabbi Abramowitz and then Rabbi Ethan Seidel (hired in 1992), Tifereth Israel embraced a commitment to social justice and charitable projects. The Social Action Committee, begun in the late 1960s, worked to address concerns in the greater Washington community such as feeding the homeless, visiting shut-ins, conducting food and clothing collections, and tutoring children from the neighborhood school, Shepherd Elementary.
Today Tifereth Israel is a vibrant community that offers a wide range of programs and services to our diverse congregation. We are part of the revitalized upper 16th St. Jewish neighborhood which includes Congregation Ohev Sholom and Fabrangen, and we welcome a number of havurot that meet in our building. This year we celebrate our 100th anniversary as well as the 25th anniversary of Rabbi Seidel’s tenure at TI, a double simcha. With a proud past we look forward to the bright future ahead.