Escaping a vicious Central European crackdown in the mid-19th century, Jews started migrating to the United States in record numbers during the late 1840s. At first, they arrived at major port cities, filling New York and Philadelphia with thriving Jewish communities. But over time they started to seek other opportunities. By the 1850s, many Jews made their way to Washington, D.C. and nearby Alexandria.
"It’s the same thing that still drives people here, the federal government and business opportunities," said Laura Applebaum, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. "A few decades later there was another wave of Jewish intellectuals that came to work in the New Deal."
Alexandria is known for its colonial history and its ties to George Washington. But the city also has proud history of welcoming religious minorities, first Quakers then Jews. By 1859, the city had enough Jewish residents to found Beth El Congregation, which will be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Three of the four Jewish members in the Virginia General Assembly represent Alexandria, with the fourth representing Arlington.
"As the birthplace of religious freedom, Virginia has a powerful heritage of respecting religious minorities," said Del. David Englin (D-45). "Even Thomas Jefferson questioned the religious establishment of his time by rewriting the Bible."
<b>THE STORY OF</b> Jewish life in the Washington region is at the center of a new exhibit that opens this week at the Lyceum. Originally conceived by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington in 2004 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in North America, the exhibit originally opened at the National Building Museum before traveling to the White Flint Mall in Maryland and the Russell Senate Office Building in the District. The Alexandria version of the exhibition will feature banners that are specific to Northern Virginia as well as several historic artifacts from Beth El.
"This is a different side of the past that don’t get a lot of play in local history" said Jim Mackay, director of the Lyceum. "We feel this is a good way to do that."
Mackay said the Beth El items will include a 10-foot-by-17-foot stained glass window, a register of the Hebrew Benevolent Society featuring a decorative shied and a cast metal mezuzah used during the 1959 dedication of Beth El’s current facility on Seminary Road. The March 15 opening reception will feature a one-woman living history performance about immigrant life during the 1930s called "Anna Shulman: Queen of H Street."
"It’s really a huge bonus for us to be able to offer a performance for the opening celebration," said Amy Bertsch, spokewoman for the Office of Historic Alexandria. "You don’t typically see an interpretation during an opening reception, so we’re really excited about this."