A History of Micah: The Search For A Home
As part of marking our congregation's 50th anniversary, the Vine is proud to publish the second in a three-part series on the history of Temple Micah adapted from Brenda Levenson's 2003 book, Derech Micah (Micah's Journey). Part One, "Sowing the Seeds," appeared in the August/September issue.
The scarcity of land available in SW Washington made the search for a permanent home for the newly-formed Southwest Hebrew Congregation (SWHC) difficult. Efforts had been made to bid on the old, dilapidated building occupied by the Friendship Baptist Church, which in turn was negotiating the purchase of land from the Redevelopment Land Agency on which they were hoping to erect a new structure. Alleging a lack of funds, the Church kept stalling until, discouraged, the Jews gave up!
An arrangement that would include separate sanctuaries, altars and even entrances had been discussed with the Episcopalians and, later, with the Presbyterians. Meanwhile, the SWHC had started a building fund, pending our long-term request for a site on which to construct a temple building.
By October 1966, the SWHC was holding Friday evening services at the Saint Augustine Episcopal Chapel at Sixth and M Streets, SW. These services were to be conducted weekly, Rabbi Richard Hirsch having agreed to lead them alternately with members of the congregation. At the time, he was the Director of the Religious Action of the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregation) now called URJ (the Union for Reform Judaism). The arrangement could only be temporary at best and interest in hiring a full-time rabbi increased. This was nothing short of audacious, given the fact that the congregation counted a total of eighty people, each paying yearly dues of thirty dollars.
The hiring of a full-time rabbi was contingent upon affiliation, an issue that Rabbi Hirsch had been pressing the congregation to address, while suggesting the advantages offered by the UAHC. That the Union made mortgage money available to groups such as ours, desperately short on cash, added to the appeal of joining the Reform moment.
On March 4, 1966, the congregation met to determine the matter of affiliation under intense lobbying efforts by the various factions among them. Proponents of the Orthodox group argued in favor of a movement which they felt would express an interest in "Jewish commonality." The Reform segment went around cajoling and extracting promises.
When the result of the election was announced, it was a close 21/20 voting to go Reform. The battle had been heated, the victory threatened to be costly. The crucial vote that tipped the scale was that of Ted Wagman who was credited with having thus "kept the flock together." Adopting the Reform prayer book would be the object of yet another battle, which was obviously won, as we became a full-fledged Reform congregation.
Less than one year after the signing of our joint agreement with St. Augustine, a menorah was placed over the doorway of the church building on May 2, 1976, followed by an afternoon ceremony to dedicate the Jewish symbols that would exist alongside the cross of the church.
It would take twenty-six years before the dream of moving to our own home would begin to take the shape.
On February 29, 1992, Rabbi Daniel Zemel would conduct havdalah services on the site of Temple Micah's future home, the first synagogue to be erected in the District of Columbia in 38 years.
"Each piece of the architectural puzzle has both an aesthetic and a symbolic meaning. Each can be `read' almost as if it were a word or a phrase or--at best--a little poem.... By no means will anyone mistake Temple Micah for a church...." wrote Benjamin Forgey, a staff writer and architecture critic of The Washington Post who was contacted and who agreed to visit and write a review of our building.