Southeast Hebrew Congregation 100 years of community commitment

Congregants outside “The White House”. | Photo courtesy of Southeast Hebrew Congregation.

The 15 families that helped Southeast Hebrew Congregation move from the District to the White Oak area of Silver Spring will be honored at the synagogue’s 100th anniversary banquet on June 19. The synagogue will also memorialize past rabbis Simon Burnstein and Kalman Winter.

“This is where [the congregants] want to be and this is how they want things to be,” said current Rabbi Meir Bulman, who joined the Orthodox synagogue in 2021. “And really having that strong sense of identity with Orthodoxy and the values that the synagogue stands for.”

For the banquet, Devorah Slater, daughter of the late Rabbi Winter, who led the congregation from 1981 to 2012, collected historic photos of the synagogue to display in an exhibit.

Slater said the exhibit will include a timeline, beginning in 1901 when a group began meeting in homes near Capitol Hill.

During its early years, the informal group also met in a rented loft on 8th St. SE in Washington. In 1921, they established a formal congregation.

Rabbi Simon Burnstein, right, along with shul supporters Ben and Harry Weiner, break ground on Phase I of the White Oak building. | Photo courtesy of Southeast Hebrew Congregation

By the 1960s, Washington’s small Jewish community was moving to the suburbs. The riots following the murder in 1968 of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. accelerated the move. In 1971, the remaining members of the Southeast Hebrew Congregation relocated to White Oak. They purchased a house to be their new spiritual home.

“Moving forward from that point, the members were just very firm in their commitment to making sure that there was a place that was going to continue on all of the traditions of the synagogue and keep things running in that traditional way,” Bulman said.

The White Oak house they initially held services in was built in 1865 and was nicknamed “The White House.” Due to the growth of the community, they broke ground on an expansion of the building in 1975. Then, in 1983, the White House was torn down to make way for construction of the initial portion of today’s building.

Rabbi Simon Burnstein, who had led the congregation since 1941 and accompanied it during its growth and move to White Oak, died in 1980.

What is the Southeast Hebrew Congregation today? Bulman said it is “a synagogue where there are prayers three times a day, every day. And when you talk about an Orthodox community and synagogue where nobody’s driving on Shabbos, it’s a commitment to living in the area and making sure that there is always a minyan, making sure that there are classes that are being given and being attended.”

Bulman said that when he first came to the synagogue, the “strong sense of community” and history of commitment is what initially stuck out to him.

“I mean, honestly, it drew me here,” Bulman said. “It really gave me a strong feeling that this is a place where I would be honored to continue on the legacy that they have.”

The centennial is “not something that you get to be a part of and experience often,” he said. “There is this real strong sense of being part of a continuum. That is a very powerful feeling.”

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