News & Politics

Born Again

It Was Built as a Synagogue. As the Area Changed, It Became an African-American Church. Now, Through Events That Might Be Called Providential, It Has Returned to Its Original Glory.

Doug Jemal and Abe Pollin were walking together along a downtown street when Jemal brought up his yearning to establish a place for Jews to pray in the District's revitalized center city. That was five years ago.

"I want to put a synagogue downtown," said Jemal, a rough and rowdy developer who's been a driving force in the redevelopment of DC's East End.

"I'll help you," said Pollin, in many ways Jemal's opposite. Pollin is a buttoned-down pillar of the community who owns the Washington Wizards and the MCI Center.

In the winter of 2002, a church on the edge of Chinatown was about to be sold to a nightclub owner. It had been the home of Turner Memorial AME Church since 1951. But the pale brick building at Sixth and I streets, Northwest, originally had been a synagogue. It was built by the Adas Israel congregation in 1908 when the neighborhood was a Jewish shtetl–a village within the city packed with families who ran storefront shops and lived upstairs.

Jemal wanted the building. He'd put down roots in the area in 1966, when he moved into an apartment on Third Street and started a discount store on Seventh–the first Jew to return to the former shtetl. Jemal may be a high roller, but he has a deep respect for his ancestry and for the city that has made him wealthy. He had been bidding on the building for but couldn't close the deal.

Laura Apelbaum, meanwhile, was desperate to save the old temple. A native Washingtonian, she was executive director of the local Jewish Historical Society. Like Jemal, the group had set up shop in the old downtown, blocks from the former synagogue.

"I was calling anyone who had anything to do with preservation," says Apelbaum, whose grandparents were married in the synagogue.

She took her board members there one day late in 2002. Member Stuart Zuckerman was so affected by the sanctuary's vaulted dome and grand curves that he asked his father, Shelton, a successful developer, to tour the building.

"I walked through the building and fell in love," says the elder Zuckerman. "They'd taken beautiful care of it. I knew we had to do something."

He called Abe Pollin, whom he knew only as a fellow businessman. Zuckerman explained that the former synagogue was about to be turned into a nightclub and asked if he'd be willing to help buy it.

"I'll call back in ten minutes," Pollin said.

Pollin called Jemal. They agreed to work together. Pollin called Zuckerman. "I'll take a third, you take a third, Doug will take a third," he said. None of the three would call himself a devout Jew, but all have strong connections to Jewish culture and community. A month later, Jemal closed the deal.

"Abe never looked at it," says Zuckerman. "We bought it on an emotional thing."

Al ittle more than a year later, the historic Sixth & I Synagogue has started holding services and hosting community events. The inside has new paint. The long oak benches, curved like a sliver moon, have new cushions. The stained-glass windows, which featured a cross during the building's decades as a church, now depict a Star of David. The result is a space that is at once expansive and intimate. Some sanctuaries are gaudy, some are austere. This new temple manages to be visually alive and warm at the same time.

The synagogue will be rededicated on April 22. The Turner Memorial choir is scheduled to sing.

The reformed temple will be the only sanctuary on the East Coast to begin as a synagogue, become a church, then return to use as a synagogue, says Sam Gruber of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in Syracuse, New York.

The re-creation of the synagogue has been "an emotional thing" for everyone involved, from the Turner Memorial church members who left for a new home in Hyattsville to the Washingtonians who recovered pieces of their past in bringing back the synagogue.

Washington, it is said, is a transient town, but the reclaiming of the temple shows it to be a city of deep roots and surprising connections, so deep that they could give nonbelievers second thoughts or at least lead them to marvel at the nature of serendipity.

Fi rst there was the matter of theorgan. When Turner Memorial sold the building, its new home wasn't ready, so it asked to lease the church back for a few months. No problem. Turner had maintained strong connections with Adas Israel, the original owner of the building. Each year Turner and Adas celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day together.

At a meeting with Jemal after the deal was done, church officials asked whether they could take the organ. But Jemal replied that he and his partners had bought the church "as is," meaning the organ went with the deal. Then Turner Memorial rector John Todd asked whether the church could buy it.

Jemal paused. "Take it," he said.

Wh en the three partners took over the church building, Jemal was taking care of his many real-estate deals and Pollin was taking care of his sports interests, so Shelton Zuckerman took the lead in reclaiming the synagogue.

"First problem," he says, "we didn't know what the synagogue looked like in 1908 and the next 43 years."

Enter Stanley Warsaw. Zuckerman happened to call Warsaw, a retired kitchen designer, to ask him for help renovating his bathroom. Warsaw, 76, agreed to help his old friend. He knew that Zuckerman was one of the people who had bought the former synagogue on the edge of Chinatown.

"We have no idea what was there," Zuckerman told him.

"I have a present for you," Warsaw said.

Warsaw had married Selma Linchuck in the old Adas Israel in 1949. For their 50th wedding anniversary, they had dusted off their photo album. Among the portraits was a black-and-white photo of the "bimah," the pulpit where the rabbi administered the vows to the couple.

"It was a key piece of the architectural puzzle," says Zuckerman. "That picture gave us the basis for the whole thing."

Zuckerman put a magnifying glass on the photo to make out the lettering on the left of the Torah case: REMEMBER YE THE LAW OF MOSES. And to the right: FAITH IN GOD IS HAPPINESS.

He then gave a copy of the photo to Jemal, who handed it to his chief carpenter, who took one look and began the re-creation of the synagogue.

The photo also sparked a hunt for the synagogue's original furnishings and religious objects. It showed two large brass menorahs flanking the ark that held the Torah scrolls. Where were they?

Laura Apelbaum found them stashed under the stairs of the Adas Israel congregation's basement on Porter Street in Cleveland Park.

The brass wall sconces with the simple trio of teardrop bulbs?

Apelbaum had been storing them in the historical society since one of her members had donated them years ago. The society lent them to the Sixth & I Synagogue.

The eternal light that hung over the Torah case? It also had been stored with Apelbaum's group.

As the synagogue began to take shape, Jemal approached architect Shalom Baranes to consult on the interior. Like Jemal, Baranes is a Sephardic Jew, which means his roots are in Spain and northern Africa. Baranes is from Libya; Jemal's people come from Syria and Egypt.

Baranes had been researching European synagogue design as part of another project. He donated his time to this one.

"Many synagogues were of Moorish design, like Sixth & I," he says. "There was a saturation of color in those spaces, not unlike some of the synagogues I remember growing up in New York state. For me this was like re-creating a space from my childhood. We did it all with paint."

The church left the walls clean and whitewashed. Baranes chose warm hues for the walls and mocha tones to accentuate the detail of the vaulted arches.

How should they handle the dome, the synagogue's uplifting central architectural detail? Jemal wanted to paint it a simple blue with clouds. Zuckerman's wife, Rory, had a different idea. She convinced her husband to call her cousin, Gary Goldberg, an artist specializing in murals. He'd done walls for Saudi princes, private residences in New York'sTrump Tower, and mansions in Potomac.

Goldberg's family settled in Washington in the late 1800s. He knew he had connections to the synagogue–his mother had been confirmed there–but he was about to learn just how deep the connections were.

Together with Baranes, Goldberg researched archival material about European synagogues with onion domes. They proposed a complicated design that combined stencils and gold leaf.

"We wanted it to be colorful, like a Fabergé egg," he says. "We wanted to bring alive motifs from synagogues that had been destroyed in the Holocaust."

The top of the dome is 69 feet above the floor. The dome is 25 feet high and 40 feet in diameter. It took 82 square feet of gold leaf to cover the center medallion and paint 400 gold stars. The centerpiece is a six-pointed star intertwined with a circle, giving it a Byzantine flourish.

While Goldberg, 47, was researching the history of the synagogue, he came across the names of the three men who arranged to buy the property in 1905. One was Simon Atlas. He had owned Atlas Sporting Goods. He was Goldberg's great-grandfather.

Th e outside of the dome needed attention, too. The hundreds of numbered red tiles–assembled on the rounded top like an intricate puzzle–needed to be examined to find a leak.

Zuckerman called his favorite roofer, Chuck Wagner, a Washingtonian whose family has been in roofing for generations. The developer explained the problem and asked Wagner to send someone to check it out.

"I'm not sending anyone," he said. "I'm doing it myself."

Wagner's first job as an apprentice to his father had been to take every tile off the dome and replace the steel nails with copper ones. After taking one look at the new synagogue, he offered to fabricate a copper Star of David and install it on the top of a rod at the apex of the dome, just as it had looked in 1908.

"It is incredible the web this place has created," says Zuckerman.

Pr eservation projects typically require years. It has taken about one year, at a cost of some $2 million, to re-create the Sixth & I Synagogue.

The synagogue built in the bustling community of 1908 is coming back to life in a part of Washington that is itself being reborn. Pollin's MCI Center is around the corner. The new Shakespeare Theatre annex will be a few blocks away. The Gallery Place project will soon be complete with shops, offices, and apartments. As many as 4,000 apartments, condos, and lofts will be filling up along Massachusetts Avenue.

"We imagine some of those new residents will be Jewish and might want to connect," says Judith Levy, executive director of Sixth & I Synagogue.

The new temple will not be a typical synagogue: It will not have a congregation or a rabbi, as the new owners and organizers build a following and a funding source.

Says Levy: "I've never found a model for what we're doing, where a sacred space has been reclaimed at the center of a city. It has historic as well as spiritual significance. I am working to combine all the models."

Its downstairs will be open to community groups. In addition to the main sanctuary, there are two smaller spaces where Jews can hold services. The historical society will help create an exhibit to celebrate the history of the old neighborhood. Jemal is hoping Jews will gather for daily prayers.

Says Shelton Zuckerman, "We hope it will become part of the infrastructure of the city."

As the renovation neared completion, Shelton Zuckerman asked his friend Rick Zitelman to tour the synagogue. The need for a Torah came up.

Zitelman said he knew Menachem Youlus, a scribe in Wheaton who rescues Torahs rediscovered after the Holocaust. They arranged to meet with Youlus, who had just finished work on a Torah from a synagogue in Poland that had been destroyed. They bought it for Sixth & I.

"Perhaps the Torah would never have been used again," says Zuckerman. "Perhaps the synagogue that became a church would have become a nightclub."

Now both Torah and synagogue live again.