Forward Thinking

Can Washington D.C. Save This Rare Synagogue Mural?

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Washington’s Synagogue Mural / Jewish Historical Society

Stephanie Slewka was peeling layers of paint and plaster from her just-purchased house in downtown Washington, D.C. when she spied a blue patch — unusual in the mildewy mess of browns and beiges. Removing a few more gunky strata revealed a Star of David. And tearing off even more exposed an arc of Hebrew letters across a sky-blue background speckled with stars. “We didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed awfully cool,” she told the Forward.

The artwork turned out to be a 1920s mural commissioned by Shomrei Shabbos, an Orthodox congregation that occupied the house in the early 20th century. To understand its history, Slewka called on the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. To restore it, she tapped local artist Nicholas Kahn, who also added a Venice-inspired winged lion. And so the non-Jewish homeowner became the unlikely guardian of a rare and valuable piece of the region’s Jewish history. “It just became part of the house,” Slewka said.

That was 1993. Now, ten years after Slewka sold the house, the mural is facing a new threat to its survival. A developer plans to convert the house to condominiums. And the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is mounting a last-ditch effort to save the artwork, believed to be the only surviving synagogue mural in Washington.

Venice-inspired winged lion

Through a hastily built web site, Save the Mural, the Society is seeking at least $20,000 in donations “to preserve this remnant of our past for generations to come…. JHSGW hopes to save the mural before construction starts in July. We commissioned a photographer to document the mural, and have a proposal in hand from a conservation firm to remove and conserve its original portions. But we need to act quickly.”

The campaign follows last year’s discovery of a long-lost synagogue mural in a Burlington, Vermont building that had been converted to apartments. According to Washington weekly The Intowner, that mural — believed to be the work of a Lithuanian-born artist — had been walled off by sheetrock. The ceiling-height mural was behind the original location of a Torah ark, and features two lions of Judah beside a tablet of the Ten Commandments. When the mural was recently uncovered to see about preserving it, it was still considered the only one of its kind left in the world.

The murals “are a unique form of Jewish folk art distinct to Eastern European communities, and you only find them in a small number of synagogues,” said Zachary Levine, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s curator. “It surprises me that it’s still around in the first place,” Levine told the Forward. “There’s been so much ethnic succession in D.C., just like other American cities. If the former owner hadn’t peeled back that wallpaper, this thing would have been lost.”

If the campaign succeeds, “our intent is to include the mural in some fashion in our collection,” Levine said. As the Forward has reported, the Society is expanding from a smallish non-profit to a major museum dedicated to D.C.’s Jewish history.

Built in the 1860s, the story of the house reflects D.C.’s changing urban fabric. Originally a private house, the building became the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1914. A year later, it morphed into the region’s first Hebrew Home for the Aged. Shomrei Shabbos bought the building in the 1920s before decamping in the 1930s. The Baptist Church of Jesus Christ bought the building and in 1984 the LGBT-oriented Metropolitan Community Church took over the space. When Slewka acquired the building in 1993, it once again became a private home.

Along with their own historical significance, the mural and house tell bigger stories about D.C.’s rich Jewish heritage, Levine said.

“The house is just one of several buildings that share this history of being home to the Jewish community and the African-American community,” he said. “It’s one of five former synagogues in a small area that once was the historical center of Jewish D.C. And for decades, the neighborhood had almost no Jews in it.”

The film below tells the story of 415 M Street, the building that houses the mural. Produced by Stephanie Slewka


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: synagogue, mural, Washington, DC

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.