A Century in the Life of The Adas Israel Hebrew Congregation
of Washington, D.C.
By Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz
Review by Nathan Weissler
I was very interested to read this book because the author--Rabbi Stanley
Rabinowitz, the retired rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation a renowned
Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. was for years my paternal
grandparents’ rabbi. . He also presided at my father’s Bar Mitzvah in 1967. More
recently, I myself met Rabbi Rabinowitz at a Selichot service and dessert
reception at Adas Israel in September 2008.
This is a fascinating and well written memoir which I very much enjoyed. The
book covers both the rabbi’s life experiences and the history of the Washington
and American Jewish communities. Rabbi Rabinowitz discusses the early history of
the Washington, DC Jewish Community covering the late 18th and early to mid 19th
century. The 1852 founding of the city’s first synagogue--Washington Hebrew
Congregation is discussed. The rift between members who favored traditional
Jewish observances and those who supported the rising Reform movement in Judaism
is eloquently documented. Thus, Washington Hebrew Congregation was split. This
directly led to the founding in 1869 of Adas Israel Congregation which for many
years was an Orthodox synagogue.
Rabbi Rabinowitz summed up the significance of the founding of Adas Israel well:
“In retrospect, it was fortunate that Adas Israel came into being when it did,
for a few years later, with the beginning of the great influx of Russian Jews,
new immigrants settling in Washington found a traditional synagogue awaiting
them; a Reform congregation would not have met their needs.”
The narrative continues by explaining the gradual development of Adas Israel as
a synagogue--including the purchase of its first cemetery as well as the hiring
and firing of a variety of rabbis and cantors. Ultimately, the synagogue joined
the Conservative movement and the Conservative seminary--the Jewish Theological
Seminary (JTS) located in New York City.
There is also an engaging discussion of the rabbi’s life and career. Indeed,
after serving as a pulpit rabbi in a few American cities including Minneapolis,
Minnesota--Rabbi Rabinowitz was offered and accepted the rabbinate at Adas
Israel in Washington, D.C. He assumed the rabbinate in Washington in 1960.
Memorable moments during the rabbi’s career at Adas Israel--until his retirement
in 1986--included the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Six days
after the assassination--Thanksgiving Day 1963--the rabbi delivered a
Thanksgiving sermon at an interfaith service at the Mount Vernon Methodist
Church attended by the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Rabbi Rabinowitz also
took a decisive moral stand on the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. spoke at a city meeting hosted at Adas Israel in 1963. Then-Israeli
Ambassador to the United States Yitzhak Rabin and his family were members of
Adas Israel while living in Washington, D.C.
One story I found particularly meaningful was one in which an African-American
student at St. Alban’s Episcopal School in Washington, D.C. was refused entry
into a Washington apartment building. The apartment building owner was of Rabbi
Rabinowitz’s congregants. I was especially moved by the rabbi’s statement to a
meeting of real estate developers and apartment building owners from Adas Israel
,”…that it was unworthy for a Jew to practice discrimination and that the group
should take the initiative in announcing a non-discriminatory open-housing
policy in their buildings.”
I find it heart-warming that the rabbi was not only exemplifying the Jewish
ideals of social justice beautifully but in an era when doing the right thing
could well have gotten him into political trouble.
Finally, the book’s message is invaluable largely because it provides a window
into the past which, as we advance into the 21st century, is especially
important. Furthermore, Rabbi Rabinowitz challenges us to take strong moral
stands on issues affecting both the contemporary Jewish and secular world (which
he did when he protested housing discrimination in Washington, D.C.) I encourage
anyone interested not only in recent American Jewish History but in how to lead
our lives today and in the future to read this wonderful book!