Rabbi Aaron Potek believes Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington sets itself apart from other synagogues with its mixture of Judaism and popular culture.
“If you walk down the street and ask a stranger if they’ve heard of Sixth & I, odds are that they have,” Potek said. “Which is really not something that pretty much any Jewish organization can say.”
Potek, Sixth & I’s senior rabbi, came to the institution three years ago. As it prepares to celebrate its 18th anniversary this Shabbat, he extols its formula of Jewish spirituality for young adults and big name performers on the synagogue’s 110-year-old bimah.
George W. Bush visited when he was president. Comedian Norm Macdonald dissected his famous moth joke up on the stage. Singers Adele and Matisyahu performed. Potek says these events expand the sense of what’s sacred and make the synagogue a center for cultural life in Washington in addition to being a Jewish hub in the city.
In multiple years, Sixth & I was recognized in the Slingshot National Guide of innovative Jewish organizations. “I feel like the amount that we have accomplished in just these 18 years is really what’s worthy of celebration,” Potek said. “And I think what we’re actually celebrating is similar to turning 18. We’re approaching this new phase of organizational maturity and we’re excited to grow as much in our next 18 years as we have in our first 18.”
Sixth & I, he said, helps people enrich their lives through “meaningful conversations and exploring their multifaceted identities.” Potek gives credit to the arts and entertainment team, including chief brand and content officer Jackie Leventhal.
There are no synagogue dues, no building fund and no alliance with a Jewish religious movement. The building that Sixth & I occupies was built in 1908 as Adas Israel Synagogue. In 1945, Adas Israel moved to Northwest Washington, and Turner Memorial A.M.E Church assumed ownership of the building. But after Turner Memorial put the building up for sale in 2002, its future as a house of worship was uncertain. There were plans to turn it into a nightclub, but three local developers — Shelton Zuckerman, Abe Pollin, and Douglas Jemal — stepped in to purchase the building. In 2004, it was rededicated as Sixth & I.
While welcome at the new synagogue, Jewish community elders are not its focus. Sixth & I is considered a “historic” synagogue, but Potek said he also considers it a center for the next generation of Jewish life in Washington. The synagogue caters to young adults, with programs that introduce — or reintroduce — Judaism; with podcasts on religious and cultural subjects; with alternative holiday celebrations; and with always-popular happy hours.
“At the most basic level, it puts us on the map,” Potek said. “It conveys to Jew-curious or Jew-adjacent people that we are engaged in the world, that we represent a Judaism that isn’t removed or isolated from the rest of their lives.”
Potek said all of Sixth & I’s efforts add up to an expansion of the understanding of what is holy.
“And by bringing in all these different people, many of whom are not actually Jewish, I think it sends a really important message: that there’s beauty, there’s truth, there’s wisdom in broader ways than we often conceptualize it,” Potek said.
Sixth & I will hold a Friday night service on May 13 to celebrate its 18th anniversary. The synagogue is inviting and honoring people who have been connected to Jewish life at Sixth & I for the past 18 years. This includes those who have converted or explored Judaism with Sixth & I, as well as interfaith couples who have found a home at the synagogue.