After 150 Years, Beth El Remains True to Founders


It was in 1859, in the years of mounting tension between the north and south before the Civil War, when the small Jewish community in Alexandria formed the Beth El Hebrew Congregation and gathered in a rented room on the corner of King and Pitt streets in Old Town.

What began as a religious community of German-Jewish immigrants connecting over their common faith became a congregation in a broader sense: An internal communal support system and one that was outwardly focused on its surrounding community as well the city where its been for 150 years.

Beth Els celebration of their century-spanning existence commenced last September and culminates this Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning tomorrow. As the last portion of the yearlong recognition, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincolns City, an exhibit chronicling the role of Jews in the area during the Civil War, dons the hallways at Beth El at its more modern home on Seminary Road.

Its incredible that a congregation has been a living, growing, evolving organism since its inception, said Beth El Executive Director Moshe Teichman. In 150 years, the congregation has seen a lot of history. And the congregation has experienced each period of history and reacted to that period of history.

Combined with Beth Els own archivists, the exhibit reveals an otherwise obscure part of history in the uber-historical city known more for its traditional dignitaries like George Washington and Robert E. Lee than its Jewish residents, who lived, worked and fought alongside other Alexandrians in the Civil War period, some heading up significant military and government posts more often held by Christians.

The Civil War actually catalyzed the growth of the citys Jewish population. Between 30 and 40 Jewish families resided in Alexandria before the war, according to the exhibit, provided by the Jewish Historic Society of Greater Washington. More than 300 inhabited, worked and owned shops in the city following the start of the war.  

Sgt. Isaac Schwarz was one of the citys earlier Jewish residents and a founding member of Beth El. After being honorably discharged following a wound he received at the Second Battle of Bull Run, he settled down and ran his dry goods shop at 132 King Street a prominent area then as it is now. 

Perhaps counterintuitively, the Jewish community back then did not seem to have trouble integrating and thriving in the city, despite being a small minority in both religion and nationality. 

Its a community that has some substance, has some place around the time of the Civil War, and right after that becomes easily established and comfortably established, said Melissa Miller a historian and part of Beth Els archives committee. Miller researches and records oral histories of families and individuals linked to the congregation throughout history.

Similarly, we hear with some consistency that there was always a sense that these folks were easily received in the community, comfortably situated, did not perceive themselves to have economic barriers among their fellow folks in Alexandria.

It also seems counterintuitive that a group of people so often persecuted throughout history would sympathize with the Confederacy because of its stance on slavery. Indeed, founding members of Beth El likely joined both the Union Army and the Confederate Army, Miller said, And yet, when we hear about the history of these people working together over many years subsequent to that period of time, theres never any sense of longstanding animosity not even a sense of people joking about it from having been on opposing sides.

On May 24, 1861, a month after the war began, Union forces occupied Alexandria, securing the hills overlooking the Potomac River in a city literally in the middle of what represented north and south. Some scholars relate a sense of new identity for Jews in Alexandria one based on duty and honor to their new home, which was, despite individual protests, against the Union notwithstanding the citys proximity to Washington.

Many of the immigrants felt compelled by a feeling that was expressed by other folks in Alexandria that while the initial vote among Alexandrians may have been more towards trying to see what they could do to keep the union together, when it came down to the final vote about secession, they may have sided with the Confederacy out of a sense of duty and honor, Miller said. After just a few years of being here thats kind of remarkable I think.

A few years was all the Jewish community needed to begin as a benevolent society, convert to the official Beth El Hebrew Congregation a year later, and continue as a religious and community-based organization for 150 years.

These families relied on each other a lot and reinforced things for each other a lot, Miller said.
The 150-years passed is a benchmark for the congregations growth, but also its consistency as something more than a religious organization. As it helped others in the past, Beth El works with the local ALIVE! food bank on a regular basis and started Beth El House, which helps the homeless achieve social mobility.

It is very, very much a community organization, and its tied in through social action to every single element of the greater community, Teichman said. But the values that Judaism teaches is what drives this social action. Its to help those who are less fortunate than we are, regardless of their nationality or skin color or religion. And thats really what drives this congregation.

If the congregation is able to adapt to the challenges that confront us in the future, Teichman said it should and could be around for another 150 years.