Sonny and Tina Small: A Museum at Last

Photo by Imagine Photography

On June 9, the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum will open its doors to the public for the first time at its new home at 575 3rd Street, NW in Washington, D.C.

The four-story complex will feature three floors of exhibits, as well as the original building of Adas Israel, Washington’s oldest synagogue, which moved to the location in 2019.

The museum’s transformation is thanks to the work of Albert “Sonny” Small Jr., 66, the grandson of museum founder Albert Small, and his wife, Tina Small, 62, who was involved for decades at the museum’s original iteration, the Jewish Historical Society. The couple lives in Bethesda and belongs to Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Who were Lillian and Albert Small in relation to the Washington Jewish community?

Sonny Small: My grandfather Albert was born here, raised here, raised down in the vicinity of where the museum is currently located. His family had a hardware store, not atypical of Jewish immigrant families. They were typical of German and second-generation, at the time, Russian-Jewish families that worked hard, tried to integrate into the community writ large and recognize the impact the Jewish community was having, if you will, in terms of growing itself in their later lives, etc. 

My grandfather, being part of the real estate and development community, and finance and land assemblage, etc., came to recognize that the original Jewish synagogue of Washington, was in the path of development, was going to be torn down. 

So he had it restored. And in it was housed what was then named the Jewish Historical Society, which was intended to preserve and archive the history of Jews in Washington. 

Tina Small: I sat on the board of the Jewish Historical Society for 20-25 years, and it was a wonderful, eclectic group of elderly women and men from the city. And it was such a delight to listen to them talk and reminisce about what they used to do…. That was the extent of the Jewish “history” of Washington — were these ladies and gentlemen that would meet to review and discuss the past. 

What is the significance of having Albert and Lillian’s name intertwined with the legacy of the museum?

Sonny Small: It was the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum; that’s what it was for many years, just in the synagogue itself…. My grandfather, it was very important to him, when it moved the first time, that it stayed somewhat proximate to where the original Jewish community was. 

I’m a developer, so I recognize the complexities…I gathered my family and said, “Our grandparents’ legacy is in this museum. In order for this to continue to flourish and thrive, we’re going to have to raise a lot of money, and I’d like us to collectively maintain the name the Albert and Lillian Small Jewish Museum,” which morphed into the Capital Jewish Museum.

What is the significance of having a Jewish museum in Washington?

Tina Small: Washington is a unique city. People always envisioned it, and the interpretation is it’s a transient city, that an administration comes — people come, and then they leave. There was a study done by the [Jewish Federation of Greater Washington] several years ago, and what it came out was, Washington is actually the third largest Jewish population in the country. Our DMV, it’s over 300,000 strong. And yet, here we are. We don’t have a Jewish museum. How is that possible? Every other major city in the world has a Jewish museum, but Washington doesn’t. And the answer was, “Oh, well, you have the Holocaust Museum.” Which is not a Jewish Museum. 

So given the legacy of my husband’s family, we thought it was a really, really crucial and important legacy to tell the history of the past, but also the future of our children and all the other Jewish families that are here.

What makes the Greater Washington Jewish community unique?

Sonny Small: Our community is unique in that people come here and have an impact, not just on the local community and how the city thrives, interacts as a city, but also on the federal government, and so on national events, and ultimately, international events.

In a world where so much information is at our fingertips, why is it important to have museums?

Sonny Small: One is to make sure that the information there changes, that it’s updated, that it’s relevant, that it’s exciting. And it’ll force us, as with all museums, to somewhat reinvent themselves in how they message and how they communicate with
the public. 

What we all recognize is that being together, being in a room, sharing ideas, sharing, conversation, etc., you create a more effective format. We want to bring constituencies together in a safe space to talk, to discuss, to debate, to conclude, to move on,
to inspire.

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