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The Whole Spiel

It’s time for D.C.’s Jewish Museum

March 9, 2020

It’s about time that D.C. had a museum that celebrates the value and meaning that the Jews contributed to the city of Washington! D.C. has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, and Jews have played a big part in the history of the city over many years, and there is an important life story to tell that is not being told in the way that it should be.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, in 2018 there were 300,000 Jews in the D.C. metropolitan area, but while other cities with far fewer Jewish people have a museum of some sort, like Baltimore, which has only 115,000 Jews, D.C. has been missing this piece of the cultural-appreciation puzzle.

Company president John Hechinger (second from left) attends the ribbon-cutting of the Alexandria store, accompanied by his mother, Sylvia, manager Leroy Bendheim (center), and Hechinger chairman Richard England (right), Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

This is especially surprising because Jews have made major contributions to the development of the Washington area for many years. For example, Giant Food, which is a large grocery store chain in this area, was started by two Jews in 1936, and the former District Grocery Store cooperative was a largely Jewish operation. Hechinger, which ran hardware stores across the Washington area for many years until other bigger competitors forced them out of business in the 1990s, was also established by a Jewish family. These stories are inspiring but without a museum, they are at risk of being forgotten.

When it opens, the Capital Jewish Museum will teach people from many backgrounds about Judaism as a whole and be a place that will give them insight into how Jews have contributed to life in Washington. The museum will be able promote understanding and appreciation of the contribution of Jews to this area, and will also spread the message to people who are afraid of change that it is a good thing and should be celebrated. This is important because it can help break down misconceptions about Jews and hopefully strengthen relations between other ethnicities and Jews, which is urgent because anti-Semitism is alive and well in the D.C. area.

Credit: Silverstein family

In addition, the museum will help prevent Jewish culture in this area from being gradually soaked up into mainstream American culture by encouraging Washington-area Jews to be proud of their individuality. People’s loyalty can waver based on where they live, if they are religious or not, or if they identify with their heritage. Without something like a museum or monument, being proud of your culture can go away and you will just be a regular citizen with nothing to set you apart from everybody else.

As the museum is being built, there is hope and excitement that people will come and take time to learn about Washington’s Jewish culture. For example, the 1876 synagogue got global media attention when the building was picked up and moved to its new location last year. At this point and time in Washington’s history, when a Jewish museum is so desperately needed, the timing couldn’t be more perfect!