The Capital Jewish Museum—set to open June 9 at Third and F streets, Northwest—will finally fill a hole in Washington’s cultural life. “We’re really the only region with a major Jewish population that hasn’t been telling its own story,” says executive director Ivy Barsky. Here are five reasons we’re excited about the project.
A Very Old Synagogue
The 32,500-square-foot museum combines a large new structure with a historic building: DC’s oldest purpose-built synagogue. Opened in 1876 and originally located at Sixth and G streets, Northwest, the synagogue has been moved several times, arriving at its current site three years ago. Now it’s the centerpiece of the new museum, with a first-floor exhibit that traces the history of Judaism in the District. The upstairs sanctuary, which has been preserved and restored, gives a taste of 19th-century Jewish life.
“If it’s Jewish, we have it!” blazes a neon sign that once hung at the now-defunct Abe’s Jewish Books in Wheaton. Today it’s on display at the museum, along with signs from Comet Liquor, District Grocery Stores, and even the recently closed Bethesda Bagels location in Dupont. One cool feature: an interactive map that lets you trace Jewish-owned businesses throughout DC’s history.
In addition to the permanent exhibitions, a 3,100-square-foot space is devoted to temporary exhibits. The first will be “The Notorious RBG,” about the life of the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Future shows haven’t been finalized, but something like “I’ll Have What She’s Having!,” a popular recent Los Angeles exhibit about Jewish delis, seems like it could be a great fit.
Long before the idea for a museum came along, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington spent decades collecting old photographs, documents, artifacts, and oral histories related to the area’s Jewish history. Now this vital archive will be easily accessible for the first time, with an onsite space where researchers and academics can explore the museum’s resources.
Activism and Education
The museum isn’t just backward-looking: The idea is to engage visitors on all sorts of issues, including voting and reproductive rights. One room is devoted to a “community action lab” where people can, for example, write postcards to elected officials. But there’s plenty of more lighthearted fare, too. Exercise classes with RBG’s trainer are in the works, for example. And the name of the cafe offers a note of humor: the Nosh Pit.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Washingtonian.