In the spring of 2017 when my now husband and I began looking for houses, we came across a neighborhood neither of us had ever been to called Congress Heights. Congress Heights is a tiny neighborhood in Southeast below Anacostia, the last DC stop on the greenline metro before you cross into Maryland. We fell in love with the residential feel of the neighborhood and wonderful neighbors we met while moving in. But something I did not expect out of my new home was to find two Jewish cemeteries across the street from my new metro stop. I had just begun work at the Capital Jewish Museum, formerly the Jewish Historical Society, so I immediately recognized the congregation’s names on the cemetery gates…Adas Israel and Washington Hebrew Congregation.
I was curious to learn why these historic congregations, the first two in Washington DC, had cemeteries so far from any of the physical locations of their Synagogues. Because I gave walking tours for the Jewish Historical Society when I was an intern in 2016 I was familiar with the original locations of both Adas Israel and Washington Hebrew in the Chinatown neighborhood.
I learned from a 1991 article by Cynthia Wolloch and Susan Wynne from the Jewish Historical Society’s publication, The Record, that originally Washington Hebrew had a small cemetery near their downtown location but quickly found it to be inadequate. The newer congregation Adas Israel recently acquired their cemetery on Alabama Ave. in SE, and Washington Hebrew decided to acquire the adjacent land and move their graves to this new site. The suburbs in SE DC provided more space for congregations. Eventually two other early congregations joined Adas and WHC at this location, Talmud Torah and Ohev Shalom. Thus most of Washington’s early Jewish residents are buried in my Congress Heights neighborhood.
An ongoing theme of our programming, especially walking tours, has been the everyday things we can learn from looking around our neighborhoods. It was a coincidence that I moved to a neighborhood that housed these cemeteries while also being able to look into our archives to learn more. I am fascinated by the changing natures of communities, and how different Congress Heights may have been when they cemeteries were purchased and used. I hope that when the museum opens we can provide more information for folks who are interested in my neighborhood, and give special tours of the cemeteries as a way to connect and learn about Congress Heights today.
Author: Jaclyn Bivens, Program Associate