Is there a proper Jewish blessing for lifting up a building from its foundation and wheeling it someplace else?
At first, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf wasn’t sure of the blessing for such a feat of engineering. But then he remembered an unusual spot in the Torah, two sentences in the Book of Numbers bracketed by an upside-down letter on either side.
They’re the sentences meant to be said when the ancient Jews lifted their holy ark, the aron ha’kodesh containing the Torah scroll, to carry it through the desert.
“Those two verses really capture the experience of the Jewish people in many generations,” Steinlauf said. “Today, so many thousands of years later, another portable sanctuary with its aron ha’kodesh is being lifted and transported again.”
Behind him, construction vehicles whirred, and the oldest synagogue in the nation’s capital slowly swung into motion.
When Adas Israel was built in 1876, no one imagined the brick structure was meant to be portable. But Washington’s first synagogue has turned out to be a building on the move. After almost falling prey to the wrecking ball, the building moved in 1969, and became a museum of local Jewish history at its new location. Now, caught in the construction zone of the new Capitol Crossing project over Interstate 395, the building is being relocated for a second time.
The small brick building’s continued survival was enough to bring Paula Goldman to tears on Thursday morning, when she saw the structure lifted off its foundation onto steel beams supported by 11 wheeled dollies underneath.
Goldman, 80, pointed toward the sky as she spoke of her late husband Aaron, who died in 2000. The couple both grew up in Washington’s Jewish community, and Goldman served as president of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which owns the old Adas Israel building.
“I said to Aaron, because I always talk to him, ‘I’m gonna be here for you,’ ” she said at the ceremony marking the building’s move. “I can’t stop crying — it brings memories of my husband. It brings back the memories of old Washington.”
The synagogue was first built at Sixth and G streets NW, just in time for the nation’s centennial. The small local Jewish community felt the country’s capital ought to have a synagogue before its hundredth birthday.
The 1890s brought a surge of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to Washington, and Adas Israel quickly outgrew the modest brick building. The congregation moved down the street in 1908, to what is now Sixth & I synagogue, and vacated that building for Cleveland Park in 1951.
Left behind, the original brick building served many purposes — several churches used the upstairs sanctuary, while offices, retailers to a decidedly non-kosher barbecue joint occupied the lower level at one point or another, the Jewish Historical Society’s deputy director, Wendy Turman, said.
In the late 1960s, when the Metro system was born, WMATA came along to turn the entire block into its headquarters. The old synagogue building, WMATA said, would have to be torn down.
Bernard Glassman was a board member at Adas Israel and an active member of the Jewish Historical Society. He was determined not to let that happen.
The society managed to get the building designated a National Historic Landmark, which afforded it some protection. But it still couldn’t stay at 6th and G. WMATA was coming in.
Glassman, now 95, still remembers a call he got from a WMATA official. “This guy was tough. His words were: ‘Historic building or not, if you don’t get that damn building out of here, you’re going to be looking at a pile of bricks.’ And I knew he wasn’t kidding.”
Glassman secured a spot at the corner of Third and G streets NW, and the building moved down the road in 1969 — the first time. “It was the most important project of my entire life. This is the one thing I accomplished that I’m truly proud of,” he said. He never imagined it would have to move again.
But today, Third and G sits right at the center of a massive construction project: the Capitol Crossing development, which will create three city blocks on top of I-395. The developer made a deal with the Jewish Historical Society — Property Group Partners would pay the cost of moving the building, about $500,000, and would contribute $9 million for the historical society to build a museum alongside the old synagogue at its new location one block south.
Glassman was shocked to find out the Adas Israel building would be relocated. “I was crestfallen. I was not a happy camper. You’re messing with my baby!”
The current leaders of the society, however, were pleased with the arrangement. The funds from the developer would go a very long way toward building the new Jewish history museum they have dreamed of, which they will also finance with a capital campaign. In their current quiet phase, treasurer Howard Morse said, they’ve tallied 20 pledges totaling $1.3 million.
On Thursday, the building moved about 40 feet, just a little ways west of its foundation at the corner of G Street to make way for construction work. Two years from now, it will move once again to the corner of 3rd and F Streets NW, where it will eventually be surrounded by the much-larger structure of the museum.
“We’re going to be able to build a museum that really sets the synagogue off as the jewel in the crown,” Turman said. “The synagogue is the largest object in our collection.”
She spoke of the value of keeping the synagogue itself, not just photographs and documents of that time. “You can go inside and get a sense of what it was like for Jewish immigrants in the United States in the 1870s, who were trying to find a place to pray,” she said. “When I walk on the floorboards of this building, I know there were people here in 1876. I hear the echoes of their voices.”
Hundreds of schoolchildren visit the museum each year to experience that up-close history lesson, she said. They hear about the building’s dedication in 1876, attended by President Ulysses S. Grant — by no means a favorite in the Jewish community, ever since his General Order No. 11 during the Civil War, which immediately expelled all Jews from the Tennessee territory. Grant showed up at the dedication, sat through a three-hour-long Orthodox service, and contributed $10 to the building fund.
This week, experts from Wolfe House and Building Movers cut through the foundation of that building that Grant chipped in to pay for. They gradually elevated it with hydraulic lifts and slid a temporary foundation made of steel beams underneath. They put it on dollies whose wheels were simultaneously steered by a remote-controlled system. As Steinlauf blessed their efforts, the dollies rolled, about a foot a minute, so slowly the motion was almost imperceptible.
Within an hour, the foundation was left empty, and Washington’s oldest synagogue had completed the latest step of its wandering.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the treasurer of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. He is Howard Morse, not Harold.