Sunday, September 25, 2011

September 1861 Observance of the Jewish New Year in Washington

When the Civil War began, the Jewish population of Washington numbered only about 200 to 300 individuals.  However, their numbers increased as soldiers and civilians flocked to the wartime capital.  On the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (September 5, 1861), they observed Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Union Army chaplain Michael M. Allen probably best captured their hopes for a better year (5622) when he wrote in his dairy, "... hoping and trusting in the One above that the coming year may be one of health and prosperity not only to my dear family, but of peace to us all and also to our distracted country."

On September 5, 1861 the Washington Star noted, "Yesterday afternoon our citizens of the Israelitsh faith closed their stores and repaired to their several places of worship to participate in the religious ceremonies usual at the beginning of their civil year... The religious observances will be continued three days, and the business of Israelites generally will be suspended four, including the Christian Sabbath"  The Washington National Republican provided its readers a vivid description of how the local Jewish community observed "The Jewish Feast of Rosh Hashana":

"The opening ceremonies of this feast were celebrated on Wednesday evening (5 September), at sunset, in the Jewish synagogues of this city, whither almost every Jew repaired to pay homage to G-d.  On the same night, the ceremonies consisted of chanting the holiday evening prayer, after which the congregation dispersed to their homes, to receive the salutations of their friends, expressed in the following language: "May they name be written in the book of a good year... the services will be continued today, during which time the synagogues will be open.." 

In 1861, Washington Hebrew Congregation, the only organized congregation in Washington,  held services on  D Street NW, between 12th and 13th Streets, in a rented room on the second floor of a civic meeting hall known as Harmony Hall.  Isaac Leeser later remarked that the rented synagogue space was "so little in accordance with what it ought to be, that it was not abandoned a moment too soon."  The spacious room, which could hold over 200 people, was packed for the High Holidays.  The local Jewish community consisted almost exclusively of Jews from the German states of Bavaria, Baden and Hesse.  In addition to its regular members, the congregation welcomed Jewish military members stationed in Washington, such as Michael M. Allen, to its high holiday services.

In 1861, the Washington Hebrew Congregation did not yet have its own edifice, but held services at Harmony Hall, a meeting center on D Street NW between 12th and 13th streets.  The arrow marks the general location of where Harmony Hall probably stood.  This area, which today is covered by Federal Triangle, was not the best part of town in 1861.  1857 Boshke Map of Washington (Library of Congress)

Michael M. Allen (AJA)
 Although  non-Christian military chaplains had not yet been authorized by Congress, September 1861 found Michael M. Allen, an observant Philadelphia Jew, serving as chaplain for the 65th Regiment of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry.  The regiment, which was commanded by a Jewish colonel and had at least 20 Jewish members, was posted on the outskirts of Washington.  Allen-- who was a Hebrew school teacher, but not an ordained rabbi-- was elected by the regiment to minister to both Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers.  Each Saturday, Allen observed the Jewish sabbath downtown with the Washington Hebrew Congregation and returned to camp to lead a non-denominational service the following day.

In his diary, Allen noted his disappointment that he was unable to secure a furlough to return home to Philadelphia to observe the holiday.  However, he went on to record how he spent Rosh Hashanah with his Washington coreligionists at the synagogue on D Street NW:

 "...Being eve of Rosh Hashanah, went to Washington at 4 1/2 P.M. and at 6 went to Shool, a very nice room, just consecrated in D Street near 12th.  Returned to camp at 10 P.M., having supped with friend A. Solomons."

"Rosh Hashanah, 1st day.  A New Year has commenced.  Weather heavy and rain all day.  Arose at 51/2 A.M., and started for town at 61/2 A.M. went to Shool.  The Shool very full, and order pretty good.  Shool out at 12 M."

"Arose at 5 AM, and went into town and to Shool... Left Shool at 91/2 o'c, took breakfast with a friend at Willards.  Walked up Penna Av., saw Saul Scott (a probable reference to General Winfield Scott) and staff, on the portico of his house, in full dress uniform, just about having is Photograph taken."

By 1861, the Washington Hebrew Congregation had adopted the Roedelheim (Frankfurt on the Main) prayer book, which included German translations to accompany Hebrew prayers.  The congregation now read the prayer for the safety of the national government in English and the haftarah in German rather than Hebrew.  These liturgical changes would continue throughout the decade and eventually result in the more traditional members splitting off to form Adas Israel in 1869.  The Jewish community of Washington would observe three more Rosh Hashanahs before peace returned to the capital and the nation.

The red arrow shows approximately where Washington Hebrew Congregation held services in 1861 on D Street NW between 12th and 13th Streets.  This once somewhat seedy block of D street has been built over by Federal Triangle.

Applebaum, Laura Cohen and Claire Uziel, eds.  Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City.  Washington, D.C.:  Jeiwish Historical Society of Washington:  2009.
The National Republican (Washington, D.C.), September 6, 1861.
Jewish-American History Foundation, "Michael Mitchell Allen,"
Korn, Rabbi. Bertram W. "Jewish Chaplains During the Civil War," The American Jewish Archives Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1948.
The Jewish Messenger, January 24, 1862.
Pool, D. De Sola, "The Diary of Chaplain Michael M. Allen, September 1861," American Jewish Historical Society Journal, Sep 1949, p. 177. 
Raphael, Marc Lee.  Towards a National Shrine:  A Centennial History of Washington Hebrew Congregation, 1855-1955.  Williamsburg, Virginia:  The College of William and Mary, 2005.
"Rosh Hashanah," Washington Star, September 5, 1861.


  1. Steven--I really find this type of post interesting. I mean, how many Civil War enthusiasts are even aware of the Jewish side of the story, let alone what was happening in DC at the time with respect to the Jewish New Year? Fascinating stuff.

  2. My great great grandfather, Jonas Glick (or Gluck on some papers) was the first treasurer of Washington Hebrew Congregation. We have letters saying that he carried the/one of the Torahs to the new building when they moved. And there is a family story about my great grandmother talking back to Mary Lincoln as she passed in her carriage. That one may be "urban legend" but the other is documented.

  3. Thanks for posting on The Immigrants' Civil War.
    The Jewish community in Washington was an important resource for Jews in the Army of the Potomac who otherwise rarely had access to religious services.