Today’s Jewish youth may find it difficult to believe that their grandparents were not welcome in many clubs and social activities just a half century ago. Excluded from the sororities, fraternities and other groups of their non-Jewish classmates, Jewish teenagers created their own social sphere, blending their Jewish identities with secular activities.
The social lives of Washington’s Jewish teenagers revolved around more than 60 fraternities, sororities, clubs and Zionist youth groups from the 1920s through the 1960s. These organizations provided settings where teens could mingle and forge both a Jewish and an American identity. Jewish teens canoed on the Potomac, danced in Glen Echo’s pavilion and organized Purim Balls at the Jewish Community Center.
High school fraternity and sorority life was filled with meetings, activities and lavish dances, often held at the city’s most elegant hotels. National conventions and conclaves gave local Jewish teens a chance to travel to cities like Albany, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Here in Washington, more than 150 local delegates of Pi Tau Pi attended their fraternity’s 1926 annual convention at the Mayflower Hotel.
The involvement of teens in these social groups often served as the recipe for future community leadership. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s exhibition, Members of the Club: Washington Jewish Teen Life, 1920s-1960s (watch accompanying video), captured memories collected from community members about their teenage experiences.
“There was something that touched us that was more than just the fun and dances…somehow we were intellectually and emotionally stirred, and for some of us it has been an intoxication throughout our lives,” reflected Tamara Bernstein Handelsman, a member of Phi Delta. She has since served actively on boards of many local Jewish organizations.
Signature events included Sigma Alpha Rho’s Cherry Blossom Ball at the Shoreham Hotel and Sigma Kappa Sigma’s Festival of Roses at the Hebrew Academy. Starting in 1933, Alpha Zadik Alpha (AZA) sponsored an annual post-Yom Kippur Dance that was the highlight of the social season for many Jewish teens. “Take it from me: you had to have a date, and the right date, at least two months ahead of time,” recalled Gershon Fishbein (z’l) about his AZA days.
When the war came in December 1941, teen activities changed rapidly. Jewish youth pitched in, shifting their focus from dances and picnics to war bond drives and Red Cross work. In the post-war era, young baby boomers used their social events to promote and raise money for special causes. Mu Sigma cosponsored the Teddy Bear Hop, where all in attendance brought toys for Children’s Hospital and Junior Village.
This menu from a Pi Tau Pi Fraternity dinner dance in 1954 details a meal of cold turkey, stuffed celery, pickles, and melon fantasy for dessert. This selection is distinctly different from the salad, pasta, grilled chicken and chocolate cake served at today’s formal banquets and dances.
These shared experiences often led to lasting relationships. Sandy Levy Kouzel played bridge weekly for over 20 years with sorority sisters and Milton and Lois Kessler met at a dance and married six years later.
Many parents supported membership in teen groups as a way to build strong communal relationships in an increasingly assimilated Jewish Washington. These connections provided an enduring legacy: a sense of belonging, lifelong friendships and preparation for community leadership.
This year, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, in conjunction with the Jewish Food Experience, is featuring DC’s rich Jewish food history as its Objects of the Month. For information on DC’s Jewish history–including programs, exhibitions and publications–visit jhsgw.org.