Sign up for our free newsletter
On a glorious spring day, Lois England is standing across the street from Malcolm X Elementary School surveying a row of weathered, marble gravestones. Go-go music blares from cars stopped on Alabama Avenue SE outside the wrought-iron fence that guards seven lush acres and five generations of dead Washington Jews.
“This is the machpelah, this whole area,’’ she says, pointing to a sloping hill graced with magnolia trees in full bloom. The machpelah refers to the oldest part of the Washington Hebrew Congregation cemetery, so named after the biblical plot Abraham bought in Hebron to bury his wife, Sarah. The cemetery, which broke ground for its first grave in 1879, is one of four Jewish cemeteries nestled in a quiet, wooded preserve between the Stanton Dwellings public housing tract and St. Elizabeths Hospital in Anacostia.
An elegant 70-year-old, England is the archivist of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and a fifth-generation Washingtonian—her brother is John Hechinger Sr. Her great-great-grandfather, Emanuel Lully, was one of the incorporators of the congregation, which is now housed at the other end of the city at 34th and Macomb Street NW.
Separated from the Northwest synagogue by the Anacostia River and a vast psychological gulf, the Southeast cemetery doesn’t get many visitors other than the occasional funeral procession. “In my parent’s day, it was the tradition to come out on Sundays with flowers. But they don’t do that much anymore,” says England.
She notices that someone has placed a small rock on a headstone tucked back in the corner of the machpelah, evidence of at least one recent visitor. A little farther along, England spots another sign of life—an empty 40-ouncer of Olde English—which she picks up and carries around as she wanders among the headstones in search of a family member. She points to a flat marble headstone that reads, “Amelia, daughter of Gottlieb and Adele Hechinger, died February 1917.” Gottlieb was England’s great uncle.
Moving down the row, she finds Albertine Cohen, who died in 1861. Her grave is thought to be the cemetery’s oldest, but England suspects that Cohen’s body was moved down from Baltimore several years after her death, as the cemetery didn’t open until 18 years later. “I don’t think anybody knows who she is,” England says as we walk past.
In the cemetery’s early years, people were not buried in family plots. Instead, the oldest graves lie chronologically, in a hodgepodge of uneven rows. “In this cemetery, they just buried them as they died,” England explains. The newer sections are filled with grand, stone family monuments that serve as landmarks to Washington nonfederal history. There are Lansburghs, Hechts, Hahns. Somewhere among the magnolias, too, are philanthropist Morris Cafritz and Joseph Danzansky, the late chairman of Giant Foods.
England seems to know a little tidbit about everyone here, including juicy ancient gossip about why some wives are buried with their first husbands and not their third. Darting between headstones, she speaks of them with familiarity and humor—and a bit of Yiddish when referring to her extended family, the mishpocheh, or her brother’s wife’s relatives, the machetayne (in-laws), who are buried along with her parents in the Hechinger family plot. Passing the grave of her aunt Leona Hechinger Hacke, England exclaims, “Oh, she was a fabulous lady!”
On the other side of England’s family are the Lullys, who occupy a huge site on the hill overlooking the machpelah. Emanuel Lully had 10 children, one of whom had a son, Julius Lully, who opened the old Harvey’s restaurant next to the Mayflower Hotel, where years later J. Edgar Hoover ate lunch every day. Another grandson, Mark Lully, is buried here even though he died in Tucson, Ariz., in 1916. He had a silver mine in Nogales that he christened the “Wandering Jew Mine,” according to England.
Hiking over a fresh grave or two, England locates a huge granite slab that marks the spot of Rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld, a senior rabbi who used to have his own radio show. “He was great for Jewish-Christian relations,” says England. “He had a terrific following. He had this gorgeous voice.” Gerstenfeld died in 1968, but not before giving the eulogy for England’s father, Sidney Hechinger, buried here in 1958. A few lines from Gerstenfeld’s speech adorn the elder Hechinger’s gravestone.
The land surrounding the cemetery is hardly consecrated ground—it’s home to 11 public housing projects, a sprawling city mental hospital, a sewage treatment plant, and a healthy crime rate. And from a demographic and cultural perspective, Anacostia seems an unlikely resting ground for Washington’s prominent Jewish families. There’s never been an established Jewish community east of the river. (A small band of Jewish communists settled there shortly after World War II, but they didn’t stay long.)
According to the 1990 census, the residents of Anacostia are 91-percent African-American. But the old Jewish cemeteries have peacefully coexisted with their black neighbors for more than 100 years. The cemeteries have been left largely undisturbed, and they’ve never been subjected to anti-Semitic vandalism as have some of their counterparts in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. “As far as I know, nobody has ever scaled the fence,” says England.
Retired Adas Israel Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, author of a book on his congregation’s history, says he’s not sure why the old Jewish cemeteries were founded in Southeast. Nineteenth-century Anacostia was a long way from the city’s Jewish neighborhoods in Southwest and what is now Chinatown, but he says the land was cheap. And, says Rabinowitz, “it is the most beautiful part of the District. The capital should have been built there. You see a magnificent view of the city.”
The first Jewish community in Washington was established in the 1850s, with about 20 German Jews who met in members’ houses for services. In 1854, the group was incorporated as the Washington Hebrew Congregation. It would be many years before it would get a rabbi or a synagogue. In 1869, 35 members of Washington Hebrew split off because they did not support the synagogue’s decision to include a choir and organ in its service. The anti-choir faction became Adas Israel.
“But we’ve always gotten along with them, even since we split,” says England, noting that the cemeteries are now operated jointly by the two congregations. “The first president of Adas Israel was buried in our cemetery. I think he had some relatives there, and I guess he just decided to stay.”
Eight years before Frederick Douglass bought his famous Anacostia farm, Adas Israel purchased six acres of land next door to the National Race Track that occupied the front lawn of St. Elizabeths Hospital. It cost $1,000, with $500 down, and came with a gravel pit that the congregation ran to make money for the synagogue.
Rabinowitz says that for immigrant Jews, “cemeteries were more important than the synagogue. They needed a place to bury their people. That came first. As an outgrowth of the cemetery came the synagogue. They needed something to offer their members.”
When Washington Hebrew outgrew its old downtown cemetery (whose exact location is unknown), it chose to relocate next to Adas Israel. Later, two other adjacent plots were established by Talmud Torah and Ohev Sholom congregations and the other by Kesher Israel and several burial societies.
The city eventually grew up around the cemeteries. Some of the oldest grave sites had to be moved to accommodate widening Alabama Avenue in the 1920s, and again 30 years later. The Stanton Dwellings came in next door in the early 1950s. Between 1950 and 1967, the population of Anacostia grew by 50 percent and Anacostia residents went from 82-percent white to 66-percent black. The changing demographics have framed the cemeteries differently, but the burial grounds themselves are much as they were prior to the urbanization of Anacostia.
But the passage of time is wearing away some of the history embodied in the headstones themselves. In 1988, the Jewish Genealogical Society launched a project to document the headstones in the machpelah because the historical record was deteriorating. The headstones were a primary source of information about Jewish history in Washington because some of the congregation’s burial records were thought to have been lost in a fire in the late 19th century. Suzan Wynne, a genealogist who spearheaded the project, says volunteers used shaving cream and squeegees to help read the less legible inscriptions on the old marble stones, some of which are nearly smooth, and many of which are entirely in Hebrew. “Some of the stuff we just couldn’t read at all,” says Wynne.
The project grew to include neighboring Adas Israel, which had better burial records than Washington Hebrew. The records present a remarkable picture of Washington life at the turn of the century. According to Rabinowitz’s book, of the 57 burials between 1870 and 1879 at Adas Israel, 49 were children under 10 who died from illnesses like measles and diphtheria. There were also an unusual number of suicides—mostly young men who died with their heads in ovens—and by 1910, a couple of murder victims.
The most notable burials in Adas Israel’s cemetery are people such as Manuel Mordecai Noah, a Washington reporter for the New York Herald who died from “nervous prostration” in 1873 in St. Elizabeths after he “became insane from excessive use of liquor and opium.” Noah’s father was Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), a prominent journalist, playwright, philanthropist, Tammany politician, ambassador, and early Zionist.
Arthur Welsh, the first Jewish aviator, who learned his trade from his friend Orville Wright, landed at Adas Israel as well. According to cemetery records, Welsh died from a “fracture, due to fall” in 1912 after plunging a thousand feet in an experimental airplane over the College Park Airport. And in 1946, Stephen Theodore Norman was buried in Anacostia after jumping off the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. Norman was the grandson of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. His fatal leap ended the Herzl lineage.
While the lives of some of the more famous occupants of Adas Israel and Washington Hebrew’s cemeteries came to violent ends, their final resting place couldn’t be more peaceful—despite its buzzing urban surroundings. England thinks it would be nice if the repose was enjoyed by some Washington Jews who aren’t dead. “It would be nice if we could get all our congregation out here to see how wonderful it is, how safe and beautiful.” —Stephanie Mencimer