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Signs and wonders

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on May 18th, 2014

As I write, thousands of GW students and their families gather excitedly on the Mall to celebrate their graduation. Flanked on one side by the U.S. Capitol and on the other by the Washington Monument, they face a galaxy of notables on the dais whose words of both praise and exhortation will fill the air. This is Washington at its most Washingtonian — grand, exultant, enduring.

Synagogue mural

Credit: Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington/The InTowner

A few miles away, at 415 M Street, there’s another kind of Washington, one which increasing numbers of GW students have come to discover through their classes and internships. This part of town, known to many as Mt. Vernon Square, is humble, modest and in a continuous state of flux. It’s a monument to change.

Consider 415 M Street, whose very address — so direct and to the point — underscores the neighborhood’s lack of pretension. Built in the 1860s as a family dwelling, this brick row house subsequently became home to a succession of institutions: The Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the Hebrew Home for the Aged, an Orthodox synagogue known, with no muss or fuss, as Shomrei Shabbos (Keepers of the Sabbath). Later still, before reverting back to private ownership, it housed the Church of Jesus Christ as well as the Metropolitan Community Church. These days, having changed hands once again, 415 M is about to be converted into a condominium.

Taken as a whole, the building’s history is a familiar story of changing demographics, urban succession and gentrification. What renders its history more poignant still is the fairly recent discovery of a second floor mural, whose starry blue sky and half moon of Hebrew letters once hovered above the synagogue’s Ark, anchoring it in space and within the collective imagination of Shomrei Shabbos’s small band of congregants.

Over time, a window was inserted into the wall that contained the mural, disrupting its visual integrity. Its colors have faded, too. What’s more, in a well-intentioned but historically suspect attempt to restore the mural to its full glory, a recent owner of 415 M added a winged lion to the display, complicating matters.

What will become of the mural is anyone’s guess. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has expressed a keen interest in safeguarding the artifact’s future. Toward that noble end, this steward of Washington’s Jewish past has launched a fund-raising campaign to secure the necessary funds with which to remove, stabilize, conserve and preserve it. Let’s hope the organization’s efforts will be successful and that this colorful fragment of American Jewish history will be able to take its rightful place among the signs and wonders of the nation’s capital.

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