One hundred years ago, a small group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants — tailors, grocers and shopkeepers — gathered for prayer in a rented room above a bank at 14th and U streets in Washington.
Today, Tifereth Israel Congregation — the Hebrew word means “beauty” — makes its home on 16th Street just south of the Maryland-District of Columbia line. Next month, the Conservative congregation, which has more than 350 families as members, will begin a year of centennial celebrations.
As members look back, they see a history of social activism and an ongoing attempt to balance Jewish tradition and progressive innovations.
The 14th Street Corridor
Washington’s Jewish community numbered fewer than 10,000 people in 1916. The community was a mix: one part second-generation Americans who practiced Reform Judaism, another part Eastern European immigrants fleeing persecution and poverty in Russia.
“Tifereth Israel was formed at a time of growth related to new immigration,” said Wendy Turman, deputy director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. “The city was expanding and the Jewish community was expanding.”
In 1918, the congregation moved to what had been the Gunton Temple Memorial Presbyterian Church at 14th and R streets, and took the name “14th Street Congregation.”
Three years later, the congregation moved again, buying a house at 14th and Euclid streets that had belonged to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.
“Harlan was the lone dissenter in Plessy v Ferguson,” the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation under the “separate but equal” principle, said Cynthia Peterman, who chairs Tifereth Israel’s Centennial Planning Committee. “We think it’s interesting because one of the hallmarks of our congregation today is social action.”
Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone, who was called the “chief rabbi of Washington,” was Tifereth Israel’s first rabbi,
serving from 1921 until 1936, when he moved to what was then Palestine. His son, Rabbi Harry Silverstone, led the synagogue until 1957.
Shifts in the city
In the late 1940s, Tifereth Israel was an Orthodox congregation. So were two other synagogues: Agudath Achim and Ohev Sholom. Tifereth Israel was looking to move uptown, following the migration of Washington’s Jews. Congregants also wanted adequate space for a religious school. So the three congregations began planning a merger.
They drew up articles of incorporation, chose a site at 13th and Tuckerman streets and recruited an architect to design the building.
“Everything was going forward,” Peterman said. “And then it began to flounder.”
One sticking point: Who was going to be the rabbi of the united congregation?
One unanswered question seemed only to bring others.
Tifereth Israel had already been moving away from Orthodoxy with its use of mixed seating. By the mid-1950s, each synagogue was constructing its own building. Merger plans, never implemented, faded into history.
Tifereth Israel was still left with serious identity questions. Was it Orthodox or Conservative?
Rabbi A. Nathan Abramowitz was tapped as the congregation’s first Conservative rabbi in 1960, following the decision to move to a more progressive form of Judaism. He wanted to make services more participatory, and he began teaching members how to lead the service.
“None of this was the practice of the synagogue when I came,” said Abramowitz, who is now rabbi emeritus.
This was one of Tifereth Israel’s big steps in embracing Conservative Judaism. Another was involving women in reading Torah and leading services. But Abramowitz’s leadership also included a stance that extended outside of the synagogue.
“I felt from the beginning that issues of justice, fairness and equality were moral issues, and as such they were Jewish issues,” Abramowitz said.
As one of Abramowitz’s first steps as rabbi, Tifereth Israel joined Neighbors Inc., an organization formed in 1958 to stop the blockbusting — a real estate practice that exploited racism by pressing whites into selling their homes at depressed prices out of fear that blacks were moving into neighborhoods — that was prevalent in Washington. Neighbors Inc.’s first president, Marvin Caplan, was a member of Tifereth Israel.
“It involved the synagogue in an effort to stabilize community and continue to serve the community to befriend our black neighbors,” said Abramowitz.
On the pulpit Abramowitz was outspoken in his support of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. The synagogue also housed people who had traveled to participate in the March on Washington in 1963.
By the time Abramowitz was ready to retire in 1996, Tifereth Israel was a solidly Conservative synagogue committed to progressive social causes. That led to early problems for his successor.
An ‘anti-clerical’ feeling
Along with the synagogue’s centennial, Rabbi Ethan Seidel is preparing to celebrate his 25th anniversary at Tifereth Israel. After he came to Washington from Lincoln, Neb., in 1992 to serve alongside Abramowitz as a co-rabbi, he found the congregation’s eagerness to be progressive and what he describes as an anti-clerical feeling — “a feeling that my role should be extremely limited and should not involve any decisions that limited anyone else’s choices” —challenging.
Seidel said he wanted the synagogue kitchen to have Orthodox kashrut certification so that any Jew who visited the synagogue would be able to eat there. The congregation disagreed and in the end kept Conservative certification.
The congregation had begun grappling with same-sex marriages around the time that Seidel came on board. When in 2006 the Conservative movement ruled that it favored “the establishment of committed and loving relationships for gay and lesbian Jews,” Seidel found himself in an awkward position.
“I really wasn’t ready to [officiate a same-sex wedding] at that point,” he said.
Instead of discussing the movement’s position, Seidel, offered his own opinion on the issue. “People screamed at me,” he said.
Seidel has since officiated at two same-sex marriages, and he has given a sermon where he described the conflicts he felt on his way to reaching the decision. He credits his quarter-century tenure at Tifereth Israel, as well as his own changes, to the synagogue’s tolerance for trying new things.
“I think [the congregation] has done for me what I’ve tried to do for the congregation,” said Seidel, “which is allow them to grow in a positive Jewish way, and they’ve allowed me to grow in that way.”
Over the coming year, Tifereth Israel Congregation will celebrate its centennial through a variety of events and programs that will culminate in a gala in May for Rabbi Ethan Seidel.
The rabbi is celebrating his 25th anniversary as the congregation’s rabbi.
Centennial events will begin Oct. 22 with a presentation on Tifereth Israel’s history by Pamela Nadell, a history professor at American University.
Other events include presentations by Tifereth Israel Rabbi Emeritus A. Nathan Abramowitz, Chef Michael Twitty and Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt.
There will also be a tour of Tifereth Israel’s several locations in Washington.
For more information about the upcoming events, call 202-882-1605.