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The Whole Spiel

The Synagogue That Could

April 20, 2020

I just got an email saying our historic synagogue has a case of the COVID. Or at least, it’s been exposed. So its brick walls and pocked wood floors are getting a good cleaning, which it needed anyway. And we’re to stay clear for now. 

To be sure, we haven’t spent much time inside its walls for the past few years. Our relationship with the 144-year-old building (it shares a springtime birthday with my mom, on June 9) has been one of planning and moving and preparing. A ritual mikvah is just what it needs now as it readies itself for reemergence into public life. (Wouldn’t you know… the synagogue once hosted a zinc-lined basement mikvah… Coincidence?) 

Historic 1876 Synagogue on construction site

It’s been a long road for the tiny building that could, from its history as a synagogue cum church/grocery/bike shop/coffee store to its future as the cornerstone of a public museum. Today, its vantage point from the corner of 3rd and F St. NW gives it a good view into Judiciary Square, toward the one-time-Pension Building now-National Building Museum. If it squints hard enough, it can probably make out the ghosts of the old 7th St. corridor (beyond the Capitol One Arena) that has always been the lifeblood of this neighborhood. 

Thinking about that building sitting empty, awaiting its purification, calls to mind the many people who have visited its walls and the many more still to come. But for now, all’s quiet.  

Just a few years ago, I was working at the most-visited natural history museum in the world, where at this time of year, cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin draw shoulder-to-shoulder spring break visitorsshudder to imagine the empty exhibition galleries there and in museums around the worldtheir stories and objects unseen and unspeaking, their power to inspire powered down. When I was a child, I remember heading downtown with my parents to the Capital Children’s Museum, pounding out tortillas by hand, sipping bitter Mexican hot chocolate, and glimpsing a more complex world. It’s those memories that drive my view of museums as places that connect us to each other, that encourage us to ask questions and that motivate us to want to learn more.   

Brick mock-up for restoration

As we prepare to bring the 1876 synagogue back to life, we’ve spent hours upon hours matching brick repairs to the historic fabricselecting wood for the stairwells whose knot-size matches the original, and reading the clues from the peeling paint chips to determine what color its walls should be. We’re researching to learn more about the people who prayed and worked here, and discover evidence of their lives in the neighborhood. We’re collecting objects that tell these stories, and conserving the ones already in our collection. We’re designing miniature models of the building with openings that reveal dioramas, objects and video to bring its stories back to life. We’re working with historic preservationists, architects, filmmakers, exhibit designers, and artists to give the building tools to speak once again. 

Rendering of historic synagogue exhibit experience, Evidence Design

But it won’t be until the people arrive, when the community comes back together and tourists start making their trips back to our capital city, that the magic will return. In the meantime, steer clear and stay healthy.