In spite of many media reports calling Kesher Israel a “venerable” congregation, home to Washington’s Jewish VIPs, it is in fact miniscule in size. It’s the same size as a Georgetown townhouse and can only seat about 300 people, perhaps being able to add another 100 or 150 if they bring out extra chairs and stick them in all the nooks, say for High Holidays. Its size is not reflective of the size of Washington’s Jewish community. The other synagogues in Washington are either Reform or the liberal side of Conservative. The largest of any denomination by far is Washington Hebrew Congregation, a Classical German Reform Temple, which has around 3000 family memberships. Next in size are Temple Sinai, a more “earthy” Reform (think acoustic guitar, not pipe organ) and Adas Israel, a liberal Conservative synagogue, both of which have about 1000 families. Adas Israel broke off from Washington Hebrew about 140 years ago and up until around 15 years ago it had an organ player at Shabbat services and the Rabbis wore robes like in classical Reform. When the “old guard” of Rabbis retired in the late nineties, a new Rabbi David came in for a while and tried to make it more Yiddish-y by doing away with those things (and hilariously trying to get people to dance in the aisles which ended up looking like a zombie dance from “Dawn of the Living Dead”). Temple Micah is another Reform Temple, the newest, and used to share space with a church. It was very small but appears to have grown a lot recently, as it went from having one Rabbi to three in the last 20 years. Tifereth Israel, another Conservative synagogue, rounds out the bottom. I’m not familiar with it and can’t give a number for membership, but it only has one Rabbi on staff and no cantor, so you can make your own inferences.
The Washington Jewish community is reflective of the character of the city it resides in, which is very, very (and I can’t put too many very-s here) liberal. Because the federal government is the primary employer, Washington has always been a magnet for women, minorities and other groups who have at various times in history faced problems getting jobs in the private sector and experienced other forms of discrimination. (Which is not to say that Jews have always been welcome as employees of the federal government) As a result, the culture that built up is conscientiously egalitarian, almost to the point of militancy, especially about gender issues. A large part of the Jewish community that migrated there in the first half of the twentieth century were involved in the labor movement (and/or communism) and were interested in the development of the Great Society/New Deal politics.
There has never been any Orthodox community to speak of in Washington and that which there is, isn’t native. Kesher was really put on the map by Joe Lieberman. All the talk about it being the home to Jewish “VIPS” in Washington firstly implies that there are a lot Jewish VIPs, which there aren’t. The local Jewish community has the same make up as the rest of Washington’s community, which is mostly government functionaries, social activists and NGO employees. The Clintons are Jew-groupies and brought a lot of Jews into their administration, but other than that there’s just a handful of congressional representatives and high-level officials. Those people, whether Jewish or not, are for the most part transients. They move to Washington for a few years to pad their resumes with some prestigious sounding positions and then take off. They aren’t part of the community at all. Of course, a lot of this depends on what you consider to be a “VIP”. Maury Povich belongs to Adas Israel and some people might be more impressed with that than the clowns over at Kesher!
Kesher is a Potemkin synagogue, a façade, not a congregation. It plays no role in and doesn’t interact with the rest of the Washington Jewish community, which is 99% of it. (oh, right, that’s because everyone else isn’t really Jewish) Their membership is comprised of a large group of people who don’t live near the synagogue or attend it but maintain “associate” memberships either because they ideologically want to support an Orthodox presence in “the nations’s Capital” or they want to ensure they can get documentation of their Jewish status from a prominent synagogue “just in case” they ever want to make aliyah. The collective response of the Washington Jewish community if it went out of business (and I think it should) would be, “meh”. It would hardly be noticed.
About 20 years ago Chabad opened up a “center” in Kalorama. It was paid for by Ron Perelman, the Chairman of the Board of Revlon, whose hobby is apparently to buy expensive real estate and pay people to live there and do nothing. I cannot attest to its current attendance level but I know in the first few years it was open the “Rabbi” went to Saturday morning services at Kesher because he couldn’t get a minyan (or even a single person apparently, as he used to walk there alone). Both of these “synagogues” are artificially maintained by a handful of very wealthy donors and could not survive based on participants. They are a clawing, egotistical attempt to stake out territory for Orthodox Judaism where it does not organically exist because of Washington’s symbolic importance.
There’s one other “Orthodox” synagogue called Ohev Sholom which very dubiously claims to be 125 years old. This is the end of their description of their history on their web site:
“In the period beginning in the 1980’s, due to attrition in the membership caused by demographic and other issues, the Congregation began to decline. It appeared at one point that the survival of Ohev Sholom – Talmud Torah was in jeopardy, and proposals were advanced to sell the Congregation building on Sixteenth Street.
Realizing the potential for the rebirth of Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah and of Shepherd Park as a Jewish neighborhood, a relatively small group of dedicated individuals embarked on a long, intensive, and at times frustrating effort to recruit new families into the neighborhood. Eventually circumstances changed at Ohev Sholom, and nine years later, the efforts of this dedicated group were rewarded. A turning point in the history of Ohev Sholom took place in 2004 when Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld became spiritual leader of the congregation. A number of other families became affiliated with the synagogue, and the synagogue membership has continued to grow ever since, with a current membership of over 300 families.
In June of 2011, Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue celebrated its 125th year of existence.”
I like how they won’t come out and actually say that they sold their building. Ummm… no, sorry, you can’t open a new synagogue and give it the name of one that hasn’t existed for 30 years and say you’ve been around for 125 years. And adding the word “National” is completely meaningless. Anyone can do it. (mmm….maybe I’ll call this site the “National Jewish Blog” – yeah that sounds good) In the fallout from Fatso’s arrest, the competition between Kesher and Ohev became apparent when Ohev held a separate meeting with their congregants about it, which made Kesher “mad”. That’s because they know what everyone knows, which is that there is no way on the face of this planet that Washington D.C. can sustain 2 Orthodox synagogues. It can barely sustain one. One of them’s going down. However, I saw recently an opportunity for healing between the communities. Ohev posted on their web site their plans to redeem a donkey, you know, like real Jews are suppose to do. Here’s the link to their site. It states their reason for buying donkeys.
“There is a commandment in the Torah to redeem a first born male donkey. The Torah says,
“Every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a lamb” (Exodus 13:13).
The same commandment also appears in Exodus 34:20 and in Numbers 18:15. This is understood by our rabbis to refer to a male donkey that is the first issue of his mother’s womb….
….We performed sonograms on two donkeys in order to determine that they are pregnant with males. One donkey is definitely pregnant with a male; the other one is still uncertain. The cost of these sonograms was underwritten by Baruch and Rachel Roth. (Rachel Roth also found us these donkeys.) Initial money for this project was provided by members Aaron and Ahuva Orlofsky. Aaron has been designated as the Kohen from whom we will redeem the donkey. The project is being underwritten by Ron Kleinfeldt and Barbara Zakheim in loving gratitude, “Hakaras Hatov” and in memory of Ron’s parents, Dot and M.C. Kleinfeldt……
….. In order for us to redeem the donkey, the donkey needs to be owned by a Jew who is not a Kohen or Levi, and some say also cannot be a daughter of a Kohen or a Levi……”
Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m very happy to know the economy has fully recovered and people can finally afford to give their donkeys sonograms again. But secondly, and more importantly, this is the perfect way for the community to heal itself. Fatso can buy the donkeys to redeem himself and he’ll have something to fuck since his wife left him.
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