There is general agreement that Temple Micah was started in 1963 by a few families in Southwest Washington, DC. But the memories of the earliest members differ on the precise circumstances and reasons for its founding. To have a nearby place to observe the High Holy days, says one. To provide a religious education for their children, says another. Or simply to have a synagogue in the new community of high rise apartment buildings and town houses that resulted from the federal urban renewal program.
The founders called their synagogue the Southwest Hebrew Congregation and held High Holy Day services that year. Next they joined together for lay-led Friday night services at various local churches. Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch (z”l), recently arrived from Chicago to head the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center advocacy program began to lead services once a month. But the congregation had not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism; it used both a Conservative and Reform prayer book for services. In 1966, members decided by one vote to join the Reform movement. The following year, the temple began to hold services exclusively at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church at 600 M St., SW, across the street from Arena Stage. Bernard H. Mehlman, the first full-time rabbi, began his 11-year tenure with High Holy Days in 1967. The following year, the congregation changed its name to
Temple Micah. In 1971, Micah moved into St. Augustine’s in a rare synagogue-church space-sharing arrangement. A sign was erected outside to match the St. Augustine’s sign, and Micah built a permanent ark for the sanctuary. The rabbi and secretary had offices and Micah had a home for the next 24 years.(That building was demolished in 2014 as part of a major neighborhood redevelopment plan.)
Ted Schuchat (z”l),Temple Micah’s first president, talks about the earliest days of the temple, how it became Reform and why it considered locating on a boat in the Potomac River. Among other services for the temple, he was instrumental in securing the Wisconsin Ave. property on which the temple is built. A native of Baltimore, Schuchat had a varied career in Washington including speech writer for Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, author of books on Hebrew and other subjects and syndicated columnist on health issues. He died at age 91 in December 2014, in Seattle, where he had spent his last years.
The Ferry Boat Story
Land was very difficult to find and about this time, they finished a bridge across the Delaware River and surplused the ferry boats…One Sunday, some members and Rabbi Hirsch took a drive and found one of these ferry boats rocking gently in an inlet in Maryland. We decided this ferry boat would make a wonderful synagogue!
Typical ferry boat
Ted Schuchat Interview
We had grown enough that it was decided we needed a full time rabbi. So, we had to vote to affiliate as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. Orthodox was not really considered, Reconstructionists did not show up and this meeting went Reform by one vote.
Longer Interview of Ted Schuchat on Feb. 9, 2012
Shirley Kallek (z”l), an outspoken New Yorker of many talents, was a major force in creating the vision that became Temple Micah. Not only was she involved in the early temple’s budgeting, fundraising and policy making, she initiated the volunteer approach to onegs that still prevails. An excellent baker, she determined that to be truly welcoming, onegs should feature home-baked cakes and pastries. In order to participate, some members learned how to bake. In an era when women’s role in government was still behind a typewriter, she became Associate Director of the Census Bureau and developed many of the economic statistics considered essential today.
Rabbi Mehlman About Shirley Kallek
Without Shirley Kallek, there would never have been a Temple Micah!
Sid Booth, who joined the congregation a few months after it formed, describes his early experiences at what was then called the Southwest Hebrew Congregation and how the synagogue became a Reform temple. He served as the congregation’s fourth president, edited the Vine (newsletter), co-chaired the fundraising committee for the building extension and volunteers for the Hineni program visiting and helping the sick.A native of Chicago, Booth earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Prior to moving to Washington, he served as the 11 pm news anchor for a Florida television station. In Washington, he covered Congress for Broadcasting Magazine and then reported on federal policy development and counseled corporate clients at a government relations firm until he retired in 1999.
Sid Booth on The Early Days
“We found ourselves in a small church in SW…It had a reform and conservative officiant – each with their own prayerbook. It was a little confusing but it was heimish!”
Interview of Sid Booth on Jan. 14, 2015
Shelley Grossman (aka Rochelle Stanfield), also a Chicago native with a masters in journalism from Northwestern, arrived in Washington in 1966 and joined the temple in 1967, For the next 40-plus years she worked on the newsdesk of the Voice of America, as press secretary for state and local organizations, and as a correspondent for National Journal. Among other Micah posts, she edited or co-edited the Vine, the temple’s newsletter, five times and served on the Temple’s Board of Directors twice.
Shelley Grossman on Her Early Days and Social Action
Rabbi Mehlman set the stage for many of the values we still cherish today – no confirmation, no sisterhood, no brotherhood, no plaques. As we say, “If you donate a whole lot of money to Micah, your secret is safe.”…The Temple became very active opposing the Vietnam War. We had some young people arrested but we bailed them out…It was sort of a great adventure.
A Houston native, Bayla White earned degrees from Cornell and Manchester University in England. She moved to Washington in the 1960s to work for the Civil Rights Commission. Over the years she held positions at the Urban Institute, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the Office of Management and Budget, among other agencies. She was director of the Office of Migrant Education in the Education Department when she retired.
Bayla White, First Woman President, Shares Her Memories of Micah’s Beginnings
We had to pick a name. It was 1967 – the height of the protest movement and the sentiments of Micah and Isaiah made those two the preferred names and Micah was chosen…When Rabbi Mehlman and his family were in Israel in 1972, fear of flooding made us organize an effort to move his library upstairs from his study in the Temple provided house. And, of course, there was no flood and we had to move all the books back downstairs.
Nancy Elisburg, Our Tenth President, Talks About How She Came to Micah and Worked with St. Augustine’s
At High Holy Days, I noticed two things. Everyone was wearing last year’s clothes – there was no fashion show. And, when it came time for the rabbi’s sermon, not one person left the room. We never looked anywhere else.