Good Neighbors

Rabbi Jessica Lott
June 22, 2014
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I live in a neighborhood of churches.  Within a two block radius of my home you can find the United House of Prayer for All People, Mount Joy Soul Saving Station, Church of the Living God, Third Street Church of God, Galbraith AME Zion Church, Church of God and Saints of Christ (Temple Beth El), Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, First Rising Mt Zion Baptist Church, Miles Memorial CME Church, and if I expanded the radius another block I’d include 9 more.

Nestled among these faithful DC neighbors is one of my favorite buildings. 415 M St NW was built in the 1860s. When I moved into the neighborhood I noticed a placard for the DC Neighborhood Heritage Trails that told the story of this seemingly unremarkable little orange house that used to count itself among the buildings of faith.

It started as the home of a local butcher. In 1913 it became the home of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), the precursor to the local JCCs. After just a couple of years it morphed in the Hebrew Home for the Aged (now in the suburbs) and a decade later Shomrei Shabbos synagogue. Twenty years later (we’re at 1947) a lady preacher who wasn’t allowed to take leadership at nearby Bible Way started an offshoot ministry in the building. In the 1980s it was the start-up home of the Metropolitan Community Church, DC’s (now) robust LGBT-friendly church.

Every building tells a story, and this one tells the story of my neighborhood, of the District of Columbia, and of the ebbs and flows of urban communities in which Jews have been a vital part since arriving in the United States. There is even a great video about the house made by a DC filmmaker. For its next chapter, my neighbor is becoming a condo building. This brings me a great deal of sadness. If I had $2 million, maybe I could have purchased it and reclaimed it for Jewish community. Last month I learned about an effort started by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington to save a mural that was uncovered during construction.

As I walk by every day, I feel the presence of these former neighbors. If the walls could talk they would echo the stories of life during the war exchanged by young Jewish men gathering before a baseball game. They would whisper the family secrets shared between elderly grandparents and their visiting grandchildren. They would sing niggunim in harmony with gospel hymns, whispering at shouting to the Lord.

I hope the next neighbors are as good as the ones in the past.

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Rabbi Jessica Lott , Maryland Hillel’s Associate Director for Jewish Life and Learning, is a Chicago native who received rabbinical ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. She loves to teach Torah and has done so with people of all kinds - from toddlers to seniors, at synagogues and summer camps, on Israel trips, in interfaith dialogue groups, and on college campuses. Her interest in stories, how we tell them, and what we learn from hearing and telling them is what led her to the rabbinate. A deep investment in innovation and pluralism lead her to Hillel. During rabbinical school she worked at the Hillels at the University of Delaware and at Temple University, as well as at Hillel’s Schusterman International Center. She also went on an AJWS delegation to Ghana, worked as a chaplain in urban medical clinics in Chicago, taught adult education classes, and lead teen trips to Israel. She holds a bachelors in Jewish and Near Eastern Studies from Washington University in St Louis and a masters in Social and Cultural Foundations of Education from DePaul University in Chicago. In her spare time (ha!) she likes to ride her bicycle, read, do New York Times crossword puzzles, and make up band names.

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