Housed in one of the oldest synagogues in the Washington area, the museum tells the story of the local Jewish community through historic materials, educational programs and exhibits.
Just a few moments in the tranquil sanctuary of the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum will calm your spirit. A longer stay may renew it entirely -- but you'll risk losing any desire to re-enter chaotic city life. The pale lime color of the walls, the wooden floors and heaps of sunlight shining through tall rectangular windows provide a simplicity usually found in Quaker meeting rooms, rather than in 19th-century urban temples. In the case of this one, the original Adas Israel Synagogue, the plainness reflects the early congregation's modest means and its wish to remain inconspicuous in the community. This was the first building in Washington constructed to be a synagogue. The exhibit area is in the basement below the sanctuary. Local Jewish history is the theme, often portrayed through life-size photographs, documents and personal memorabilia donated by members of the community. The building's history tells much of its community's story, beginning with Bavarian immigrants who broke from the Washington Hebrew Congregation in an effort to maintain their orthodoxy. After five years of worshiping in members' living rooms, the congregation raised enough money to build the synagogue, which was completed in 1876. Its location at Sixth and G streets NW was then the heart of Washington's Jewish community. Since 1907, the growing congregation has moved two times and now resides in Cleveland Park; its original home went on to serve twice as a Christian church, then as a grocery store and carryout shop. When the city block was selected for the site of Washington Metro headquarters in 1968, members of the Jewish community campaigned to save the structure -- which entailed transporting it to a new site, three blocks away. The cupola atop the red- brick building has been painted in the original red and the ark bay off the main sanctuary, which held the Torahs, is still intact. Reproductions of pews align with several original ones. The space can be rented for weddings, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. What was once the seating area for women the third-floor balcony with a knee-high railing currently holds the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington's archives and the museum curator's office. On weekends, a docent can also answer questions or walk you through the building. The Jewish Historical Society incorporates the museum in its many educational programs for children, which include outreach to other religious communities. If you can, prolong your retreat in the museum's small garden outside a slice of paradise between Judiciary Square and Interstate 395. Margaret Hutton
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