Have you ever been in a new city during Passover? Maybe you looked for a Seder table to join. As the nation’s capital, Washington often serves as a temporary home for federal workers and members of the military in that very situation.
With the start of World War I, a new Jewish population came to Washington, DC, and these members of the military generally did not know anyone in the city. Beginning in 1918, Adas Israel and Washington Hebrew Congregation began welcoming service members to their Seders. This Passover hospitality continued into the 1920s for those who remained stationed or hospitalized in the region following the war. Often a communal organization such as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association or Hebrew Relief Society helped organize the ceremonial dinner.
The community ballooned again with President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Thousands of new government jobs brought droves of idealistic Jewish men and women to the nation’s capital. Like members of the military who had arrived 15 years earlier during World War I, they often didn’t have local family to join for holidays.
Consequent Seders required larger spaces, and so in the mid-1930s, they relocated to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) at 16th and Q Streets, NW. Co-sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), these Seders were led by JCC board member Abe Shefferman. Shefferman often modeled them after the 1919 Seder for the American Expeditionary Forces soldiers in Paris in which he had participated. He had remained in France after serving in World War I to work with Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) resettling displaced persons.
When the United States joined World War II, Washington once again experienced accelerated growth. Thousands of Jewish men and women flocked to Washington to work in new wartime jobs and serve in the military. Just as it had a decade before, the annual Seder outgrew its venue and relocated, this time to the great banquet rooms of DC’s downtown hotels.
Now sponsored by the JWB’s Washington Army and Navy Committee and the JWV’s Washington Post No. 58, the Seders were conducted by Rabbi Aryeh Lev from the Chief of Chaplains office of the War Department. The 1942 Seder at the Mayflower Hotel had 800 participants, and attendance only grew as the war continued. In 1945, JWB set up Seders at two hotels in order to accommodate the crowd, and Beth Sholom in Petworth held a “warworkers Seder.” Remember this if you worry that your Seder table is too crowded!
The booming demand for these communal Seders, however, faded with the war’s end. In 1948, the Seder for servicemen was held at Hoffman’s Restaurant (near 16th and V Streets, NW) and led again by Abe Shefferman. This is the last mention of the annual event in The Washington Post. Perhaps the Seders served as meeting places where participants made new friends or even met future spouses with whom they later hosted their own—smaller—Seders.
Top photo: Seder for members of the military, Mayflower Hotel, April 1946. JHSGW Collections.