Immigrant photos take refuge in D.C. sukkah

A photo of Alana Eichner’s maternal grandfather and his family was part of the exhibit.
Photo courtesy of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

The vintage black and white studio portrait depicts a father and mother stiffly seated in the foreground, surrounded by their four sons standing ramrod in suit jackets, starched collars, and ties. The son standing at the far right is Mount Pleasant resident Alana Eichner’s grandfather, Isaac Maged.

Maged, who died in 2001, was the only grandparent Eichner ever knew. And so she chose to contribute his photograph to an exhibit honoring the immigrant experiences of local families on display last week in Sixth & I Historic Synagogue’s Give Me Shelter immigration-themed sukkah.

“He lived with us for a time and had that fantastic Jewish sense of humor,” she says of Maged, who emigrated from London by way of Canada, then as a young man moved to the United States, where took up sign painting for his entire working life. “He was playful and loving and was a beautiful artist. “

The sukkah, built on the sidewalk of I Street, is sparsely decorated — no fruit or decorations hanging from the ceiling. The exhibit’s two dozen photos are encased in vinyl sleeves to protect against the
rainy weather.

According to Kira Doar, assistant director for religious programming, the synagogue wanted to connect the Sukkot theme of the Israelites wandering in the desert seeking refuge to the contemporary issue of refugees and immigration.

“These are not stories that we usually tell and we came up with this creative way to give people the opportunity to share their families’ histories and connect to their own immigration
experiences,” she says.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue’s Give Me Shelter
immigration-themed sukkah displayed two-dozen photos.
Photo by Louis Nayman

While most of the photographs deal with Eastern European Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the period immediately before and after the Shoah, others depict stories of non-Jews also escaping poverty, violence and oppression from places such as Lebanon, Venezuela and Cuba.

An undated sepia photograph depicts the immigrant congregation of the District of Columbia Chinese Community Church — which for a time hosted Sixth & I’s High Holiday services.

In addition, the Give Me Shelter project was intended to be interactive. Visitors were encouraged not only to view the photographs and family stories, but to write personal notes and post them inside.

For Eichner, American Jews need look no further than their own family history for guidance about how to treat those seeking to come the United States in search of safety and
economic opportunity.

Says Eichner, “There is no value more Jewish than welcoming a stranger.”

Louis Nayman is a Washington-area writer.

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