Silver Spring’s Jewish history ‘long and complicated’

David Rotenstein, a local historian, spoke at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Nov. 5. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Sol and Mona Freishtat bought their first house in the Langley Park area of Prince George’s County in the 1960s.

By then, Sol said, that area was already “on its way out” with the Jewish community. In 1977, the Freishtats followed the community — and white flight — leaving Prince George’s County for the Kemp Mill neighborhood in Montgomery County.

The Freishtats’ journey reflects the trends of the time, as about three dozen people learned Nov. 5 from historian David Rotenstein. He spoke about the history of Jews in Silver Spring at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, a traditional Conservative synagogue in Silver Spring.

“Silver Spring has a very long and complicated history,” Rotenstein said. The same founders and developers who helped create a thriving Jewish community barred nonwhites from the same housing opportunities, he said.

Developers put in place systemic discrimination through ordinances. Silver Spring was at one point a “sundown town,” meaning that nonwhites had to be off the streets by sundown. Restrictive covenants let all developers specify who could and could not reside in certain housing developments.

To be sure, Jews were barred from many places, too, Rotenstein said. “But our shared Judaism doesn’t immunize us from racism.”

Albert Small, Sam Eig, Carl Freeman, and Abraham and Jack Kay, all Jewish developers, helped turn Silver Spring into a vibrant community for Jews, Rotenstein said. All used restrictive
covenants until the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

There were exceptions. Morris Milgram started buying existing apartments in the area and integrating them in the early and mid-1960s. Jewish groups such as Jews for Urban Justice formed to picket with civil rights groups for access to housing.

A 1948 Supreme Court ruling had declared restrictive covenants unenforceable, but lacked the power of law, Rotenstein said. Still, it opened large swaths of land to African Americans in Washington. As black people moved in, he said, white people moved out, often to Montgomery County suburbs like Silver Spring.

“It’s not something people like to talk about,” he said of white flight. “But it’s an important part of our history.”

How did those city Jews adapt to the open spaces of the suburbs?

“It wasn’t easy being Jewish and moving to the suburbs,” Rotenstein said. “How do you keep your Jewish community together and vibrant in the age of suburbia? You adapt.”

They started synagogues near their new homes, for example.

Rotenstein pointed to early synagogues like Woodside Synagogue and Young Israel Shomrai Emunah, both Orthodox, that as early as the 1950s and 60s started in people’s homes or local community spaces before gaining enough members to afford their own buildings.

The area’s Orthodox Jews built tight-knit communities and used ingenuity to create eruvim, ritual boundaries that allow observant Jews to carry objects on Shabbat. They incorporated utility poles, freeway separators, fences and poles with string to create the eruv. An eruv checker — often in tzitzit, kippah and orange vest — inspects the eruv on Thursday or Friday to ensure it is kosher.

“There are signs of Jewish adaptions to the landscape everywhere if you know where to look,” Rotenstein said.

Members of the audience were quick to share their experiences going to segregated schools, or pointing out other reasons Jews moved out to the suburbs — most notably education, after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

“A lot of this was new to me,” said Har Tzeon member Barbara Kagan, who has lived in the Silver Spring area for four decades. “I was surprised because I knew Sam Eig Highway, but I didn’t even know he was Jewish.”

For the Freishtats, Rotenstein’s talk brought back memories.

“It wasn’t anything we didn’t really know, but it stirred up a few things,” said Sol Freishtat, who attended segregated schools as a kid in Washington.

hmonicken@midatlanticmedia.com

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