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Our History

In the winter of 1910, six merchants living in Georgetown, met to discuss the “possibility of forming a Hebrew society for worship and other communal activities.” Joseph Bremmer, Joseph Scher, Max Whitkin, L. Brenner, Mr. Rakysen, and Mr. Gamzy, all Eastern European immigrants, founded the Georgetown Hebrew Benevolent Society, based out of the home of Harris Levy on 28th and M Streets, NW, with “about 25 persons.”  On March 16, their registration application to the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs as a domestic non-profit corporation was approved. Their first president was a man named Abe Mostow. We don’t know much about Mr. Mostow and the other founding families, but we do know that thanks to their efforts, we enjoy a wonderful Modern Orthodox shul and can celebrate the seeds of community that they planted a century ago.

By 1911, for their first High Holidays together, they moved to 3062 M Street, NW, a larger space located above a storefront. They borrowed a sefer Torah, hired a cantor, sold tickets for $3 each, and began holding religious services. Over time, their numbers increased, and “out of a small khevre grew a large farein”—from a small group of 25 people, they became united as one community.

In 1915, the leaders of the community purchased a small house at 2801 N Street NW, converted it into a shul, and renamed themselves “Kesher Israel Congregation.”   Over time, the society outgrew the small house and the need to expand became apparent. With a membership of 150 people, and a Ladies Auxiliary that raised $10,000 (a lot of money in those days!) for the building, the cornerstone of the new building was laid on February 1, 1931 and a new chapter began to unfold. On September 6, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, the new Kesher Israel Synagogue of Georgetown formally opened its doors.

Kesher Israel hired its first rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Dubrow, in 1925. He was quickly embraced by the community as their spiritual leader. He learned daf yomi with the congregation and at the Hebrew Home for the Aged every morning and established a Talmud Torah school under the leadership of Rabbi Oscar Summer.

After Rabbi Dubrow’s passing in 1944, two different rabbis served the congregation until 1950, when Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz “brought the traditions of the disappearing world of the shtetl” to Kesher Israel. For 34 years, until his most untimely death and tragic murder in 1984, Rabbi Rabinowitz tended to the needs of his congregants—through the lean years of the 1950s and 1960s, when a morning minyan wasn’t close to guaranteed, to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the community just started experiencing a rebirth. A man of extraordinary loving-kindness, humility, and decency, Rabbi Rabinowitz spent his years at Kesher focused on three things: to study and teach Torah, to sustain the daily minyanim, and to watch over the welfare of his community. His home was always open to anyone in need, even strangers, and he helped assure that the community was immeasurably enriched in many ways.

Rabbi Rod Glogower served as rabbi for a few years and Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel was selected to be the next rabbi of Kesher Israel in 1988.

Throughout the next two decades, Kesher Israel became a beacon of Modern Orthodoxy and a community that sees traditional Judaism as essential, while also appreciating the value of modern society. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Kesher Israel – renowned for its warmth and hospitality, and its atmosphere of sacred learning and intellectual rigor – experienced a continued growth in membership and the expansion of the congregant demographic to include undergraduate and graduate students, recently-graduated young professionals, interns, couples, families, and retirees. During the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, the synagogue attracted international media attention with the nomination of its longtime member, Senator Joseph Lieberman, to be the Vice President of the United States.

Kesher Israel enjoys visitors daily from all over the world, including government ministers, Knesset Members, and Supreme Court jurists from Israel.  Most famously, Israeli generals and then-cabinet officers Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, along with members of the Israeli delegation, attended Yom Kippur services at Kesher Israel on October 10, 1978. Each was honored by being called to open the Ark. Two days later, they commenced discussions with Egypt at Blair House in an effort to find solutions to the unresolved issues following the Camp David negotiations. All eventually led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed on March 26, 1979.

Kesher Israel’s membership includes multiple current and former elected officials, Ambassadors (both to and from the United States), Cabinet members, and several distinguished authors. The many writers who have prayed at Kesher Israel have characteristically applied memorable words to our synagogue, including the words of longtime member and acclaimed author, Herman Wouk, calling Kesher “the best little shul in America.”

Over the past ten years, Kesher Israel has continued to grow and diversify its membership. Having recently recorded an all-time high of 300 member families, the Kesher synagogue building remains a steadfast home for daily prayer services, educational offerings, social programs, and lifecycle events for members and guests. The Kesher community has established itself as a natural home for both flocks of young professionals coming to Washington at the early stages of their careers, as well as older members returning to downtown life as “empty nesters”.

In 2017, Kesher Israel hired Rabbi Hyim Shafner, ushering in a new era for the historic congregation. Building on the growth of recent years, Rabbi Shafner’s passion for building community imbued with the values of inclusion, access, and warmth will continue to take Kesher Israel to new heights. Rabbi Shafner and synagogue leadership take immense pride in Kesher’s role as not just a Jewish home for the residents of Georgetown and Washington, but also as a place from which the best of Jewish values emanate to enrich the surrounding neighborhood, city, and society.

Kesher Israel is proud to be a place of warmth and hospitality, and a Modern Orthodox synagogue for all people. In few other houses of worship across the world can recent college graduates and young growing families gather and pray as equals alongside Cabinet secretaries, Ambassadors, and the leading thinkers of our time - all in a historic location at the heart of our nation’s capital.

This is the heritage Kesher Israel Congregation will carry proudly into its second centennial.

Wed, May 29 2024 21 Iyyar 5784