The Capital’s Kosher Showplace: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

Tinariwen perform at Sixth & I. Photo by asicophoto/Joy Asico
Tinariwen perform at Sixth & I. Photo by asicophoto/Joy Asico

By Dennis McDonough

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue
Washington, D.C.

Sixth and I exterior. Photo by Brian Levey
Sixth and I exterior. Photo by Brian Levey

It is beautiful to behold and the place to be in Washington, D.C. for the ultimate, intimate live music experience…except on Friday nights. That’s because the historic, grand temple at 6th and I Streets is first and foremost a functioning synagogue, though it now also thrives as a performance venue. Downtown, on the corner of 6th & I, is where Jewish and secular cultures meet.

First known as the home of the Adas Israel Congregation when dedicated on January 6, 1908, the impressive Moorish, Romanesque, and Byzantine-styled edifice of vitrified (glazed) brick boating four terra cotta-tiled domes has remained a house of worship ever since—although not always for the same kind of worship. In 1951, the synagogue was bought and converted by the Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church.

When Turner Memorial moved to Maryland in 2003, the realtor’s ad included a “suitable for a nightclub” selling point that had one potential buyer negotiating with city authorities for the necessary permit to convert the building. Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington executive director Laura Cohen Apelbaum urgently sought to preserve the building’s storied past, immediately contacting local developers with ties to the original Adas Israel Congregation. Within 24 hours, Apelbaum’s developers—Shelton Zuckerman, Abe Pollin (owner of the Washington Wizards) and Douglas Jemal— bought the building. The three wise men then sought out former Adas Israel members and their descendants to help restore the building back to its original synagogue state. The developers couldn’t find a single photo of the building’s original interior until one former congregant came forward with photos of his 1949 wedding at the synagogue.

With this stroke of luck as their guide, area architects Shalom Baranes Associates oversaw the restorations and local artist Gary Goldberg painted the 69-foot high cathedral style dome ceiling in a new, sky-blue, gold-leaf, Star of David motif, in his words, “reminiscent of a Faberge egg”—it is astonishing. With the renovations complete, “Sixth & I Historic Synagogue” the rededication ceremony was held on April 22, 2004.

A year and a half later, reggae/rap/alt rock musician Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller, his Hebrew and stage name means “Gift Of God”) appropriately christened Sixth & I as a new, cutting-edge live entertainment space with a sold-out show. In the nine years since, Sixth and I has continued to function part-time as a first-rate performance venue. The pillared main floor and three-sided balcony seats hold up to 830 patrons, pilgrims or proselytes in the original wooden pews, still functional and comfortable even after 106 years of use. The sightlines and acoustics ensure that anyone standing on the Bimah, the elevated platform from which the Torah is read, can be easily seen and clearly heard by the entire audience. Recently, the eclectic, mixed-media band Cloud Cult (six multi-instrumentalist/singers and two painters!) took advantage of Sixth and I’s acoustics and sightlines, using both aspects of their audio/visual prowess during an amazing set.

If seeing is believing and hearing is endearing then Sixth & I (for “Ideal!”) is the perfect place to come and connect spiritually, emotionally, viscerally with Almighty God and lesser, mortal gods of the performing arts. Say Amen, somebody!

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