Former members of Phi Delta, a Jewish high school sorority founded here in 1922 that was part of the fabric of teen-age social life in the area for half a century, met for a reunion last week at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville. The organization disbanded in 1972 after decades of social and demographic change in Washington.
Bethesda resident Estelle Wolowitz Jacobs, 62, who helped organize the reunion attended by 230 women, talked afterward to Washington Post staff writer Eugene L. Meyer about what life was like for Jewish youngsters growing into adulthood here in the 1940s. Jacobs graduated from the old Central High school in 1941 and the University of Maryland in 1944.
When I was in school, we were not allowed to belong to Christian sororities and fraternities, which were permitted by the schools, acknowledged and assigned [faculty] advisers.
Jewish sororities were not officially allowed. Because it was a surreptitious kind of thing, we enjoyed it even more . . . .
Basically, it started out as a social thing, the fact that we were segregated by religion . It then became necessary to make our own social life. And that's exactly why it came into being -- because we were not allowed into any of the other social organizations.
Besides socializing, we also did our own form of community service, fund raising. We raised money to buy an ambulance during the war. It wasn't a tremendous group, because the Jewish population wasn't that large. But we were cohesive, dedicated and, I think, overachievers. You sort of had to be in that situation . . . .
I don't even think we felt segregated or the pressures of being unwanted. I think we liked being together. It wasn't something you talked about or were made aware of. It was a fact of life.
You had to be separated out from society. It was part of our Jewish history, I guess. I don't know we even realized we were being discriminated against.
I lived in the 1300 block of Newton Street NW and went to Central now Cardozo High School, at 13th and Euclid. It was the largest in the city at the time, with 2,500 students.
I think Central had the least amount of Jews of all the schools. Also, Central didn't have a boundary per se. It had a special academic course that other schools didn't have.
But all the students were white. Washington was racially segregated at the time. There were black schools, and there were white schools . . . .
The Jewish community moved as a group practically -- you know, in little pockets. I think originally the Jewish community started out in Southwest, around Half Street and environs.
Jews lived over grocery stores, then they moved to Northwest and uptown.
There were four Jewish sororities, three on the east side of Rock Creek Park and one on the west side. On the west, the members were all "German" Jews. The "Russian" Jews all lived east of the park. Rock Creek Park was like the River Jordan.
Today, it's the River Jordan for blacks.
Before the sorority, we had a group called Sochar. Its activities were a combination of social and charitable. We were carefree but we took things seriously. It was our Jewish ethic.
Whatever we did for ourselves, we did for others. One outgrowth of that, the Hebrew Home, was started by people my mother's age.
Look what the Vietnamese are doing today. They're called "the new Jews." Society forces you into that. We weren't included, so we made our own life.
But at the same time, we grew up with security. We never worried about crime, or being mugged. The worst that could happen to you was being hit by a car, which I was -- three times.
We lived in a row house; practically everyone did. When I took my kids back to Newton Street to look at the house, they said, "You must have had a terrible childhood."
It was quite the opposite: I had a wonderful childhood. We had neighborhoods; every house had a front porch and a stoop. Later, air conditioning and television brought people into the houses and off the stoops.
After World War II, I taught at Deal Junior High School, where, except for two students, I was the only Jew. After I got married, I taught at Paul Junior High at Eighth and Oglethorpe streets NW, on the other side of the River Jordan. There were no Christians. It was an all-Jewish school. I felt very compatible. I also taught at Kramer Junior High in Anacostia.
After the war, there was a new pride in being Jewish, because of the Holocaust. And, as restrictive housing covenants began being lifted, people moved to Silver Spring, Chevy Chase. I live in Bethesda near five country clubs, none of which I could then belong to.
Once we had this freedom and pride and lack of discrimination, Jews could live anywhere they wanted, where before Jews had to live in Jewish neighborhoods.
Blair High School in Silver Spring was the only one in Maryland that had a Jewish sorority. Sororities and fraternities were banned in Maryland high schools, and the Blair chapter was short-lived.
My kids, who later were to go to Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, took a much broader view of the world than we had. Social life was not as important. They were committed to black issues and freedom. At the same time, sororities and fraternities were banned from suburban high schools. People lost interest.
Fraternities and sororities served their purpose at the time, as most things do. They sort of mirror society. But if you asked my daughters about a high school sorority, they wouldn't know what you were talking about.