The excitement in Northwest D.C. was palpable on the morning of Oct. 4, as one of the oldest Torah scrolls in our nation’s capital returned home. The Torah was paraded from D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation to the new Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum (CJM), where it will remain on permanent loan.
The Torah, which is known as the “Gotthelf Torah,” returned to its original home inside the CJM, which houses a restored part of Adas Israel’s first permanent synagogue building that was dedicated in 1876, with President Ulysses S. Grant in attendance.
The move of the Gotthelf Torah, which was gifted to Adas Israel in 1876 by Nathaniel Gotthelf, the congregation’s second president, comes after 147 years of the scroll being used by Adas Israel.
“We just thought that’s where it belongs. Reunited with the first purpose-built synagogue that was established [in D.C.],” said Ricki Gerger, a CJM and Adas Israel board member who played a pivotal role in organizing the ceremony.
A large group assembled outside the site of the original Adas Israel building on a cool, sunny, fall day, and began their march at 9:00 a.m. toward the Capital Jewish Museum.
The group was buoyed by a celebratory mood as the parade got underway and participants began clapping loudly as a Klezmer band filled the air with music in the middle of the procession. The Torah scroll led the way as it was carried under a Huppah, a Jewish wedding canopy.
A police escort flanked the group while they marched, providing traffic control and safety measures as the parade made its way to the location of Sixth & I Synagogue, the Torah scroll’s third home. Adas Israel Rabbis Lauren Holtzblatt and Aaron Alexander used the stop as an opportunity to share the history of the building and its importance in the story of the D.C. Jewish community.
“After we acquired this Torah in 1876, Adas Israel began to grow. And by the early 20th century, the community could no longer fit in the building we will end at today. High Holiday services were so packed that Adas Israel congregants were going to other synagogues to find places to pray,” Rabbi Alexander said to the crowd. “So, in 1906, the cornerstone was laid for this building at Sixth & I, and in 1908, Adas Israel moved.”
The parade continued through the streets, catching the attention of D.C. residents and prompting some impromptu dancing by spectators as they enjoyed the upbeat music played by the Klezmer band.
Eventually, the procession arrived at CJM and slowly filed inside, preparing for the ceremony of welcoming the Torah.
The rabbis provided additional historical notes about the Torah before ceding way to the ceremony. The audience stood from their seats and sang a prayer as the Torah was handed over to CJM President Esther Safran by Adas Israel President Beth Heifetz. Additionally, in keeping with the festive tone of the event, Senior Cantor Susan R.A. Bortnick of Washington Hebrew Congregation, which is the first Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C., played the guitar during the program and sang together with Cantor Ariane Brown of Adas Israel.
Safran then took the stage and thanked Adas Israel for the opportunity to host the scroll, saying that it was being returned to “what was the heart of Jewish Washington.”
She spoke of the neighboring streets in Northwest D.C. that used to be filled with Jewish stores, with Jewish families often sleeping on the second story above their businesses.
A major theme of the ceremony was the return of a significant religious item to the core of the historic D.C. Jewish community and the unity it could engender.
The Gotthelf Torah serves as an important representation of the burgeoning D.C. Jewish community and a means through which the community can preserve its strong legacy by making this historic religious item available for public use and knowledge.
“The fact is, we’re a community coming together, back to our home. This is where we started, we’re now one of the largest Jewish communities in the country,” Safran said. “It’s telling the story of Jewish Washington.”
Putting the Gotthelf Torah on public display will also invite conversation and greater thinking about the Jewish community, its evolution and the long-standing roots it has in D.C., according to Rabbi Holtzblatt.
“With an object like that, a lot comes from it. The idea that Torahs were not available then, that we lent Torahs between communities, where they were written,” Holtzblatt said. “It gives back to the larger Jewish community and allows it to be an object that opens up conversation.”
Those conversations have already begun. Nechama Liss-Levinson, an Adas Israel board member who attended the ceremony, said that she was moved by what she saw and reflected on the impact of such an item.
“It’s extraordinary in this time of soundbites on Facebook or the news to have something that’s lasted over 150 years that’s been so lovingly cared for and studied, and not just as a short soundbite,” Liss-Levinson said.
The Gotthelf Torah is now on display at the Capital Jewish Museum.