By Adrienne Usher
Planning a trip to Jewish cemeteries in Washington, DC, is not as simple as one might think. On a map, it looks like there is one, called Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, bordered by Alabama Avenue SE, 15th Place SE, Congress Heights Metro Station and the infamous St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
Luckily for us, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies provided a different perspective.
Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery is the largest of the four contiguous cemeteries collectively known as the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery: Washington Hebrew Congregation, Adas Israel (also includes Agudas Achim Congregation), Ohev Sholom, and Elisavetgrad – the latter representing the congregations of Beth Sholom (old), DC Hebrew Beneficial Association and District of Columbia Lodge (merged and now closed), Kesher Israel Congregation, The Georgetown Synagogue (Old), Southeast Hebrew Congregation (old) and Tifereth Israel Congregation, aka 14th St. Shul (old). The easiest way in is through Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery – which features a welcome center and parking spaces to the left and the oldest part of the cemetery to the right as you enter from Alabama Avenue, SE.
The oldest portion of the cemetery is on a hill, and many of the tombstones are leaning. Some show signs of repair. Some of the unmarked children’s stones were colorful with lichen, but overall, the cemetery is remarkably well maintained and we saw no evidence of vandalism.
Our goal was to take photos of the tombstones of men who were of the right age to serve in the Civil War so we could look them up later and perhaps add a new soldier to our roster. Usually, we have to find evidence that a soldier was Jewish, but with these names, we have to figure out if they have a military record.
Ferdinand J. Linz was a soldier we knew about and hoped to find – which we did within 15 minutes of arriving! An auspicious beginning to our adventure, we decided.
Walking up the hill to the newer section of the Washington Hebrew Congregation cemetery, we were quite surprised to find another soldier’s name we recognized.
From left to right: Kim Packett, Caitlin Eichner and Alex Skerry.
On November 18, 1861, Adajah Behrend, not quite 21, enlisted in the US Army as a Hospital Steward with his father’s permission. On December 4th, 1892, his father, Bernard Behrend, wrote a letter to The Occident, a Jewish monthly periodical, addressed to Abraham Lincoln. He asked Lincoln to issue an order so that “all those in the army who celebrate another day as the Sunday may be allowed to celebrate that day which they think is the right day according to their own conscience” and then added that “I taught [my son] also to observe the Sabbath on Saturday, when it would not hinder him from fulfilling his duty in the army.”
Adajah Behrend was the first soldier I “met” three years ago when I began working on the Shapell Roster. He and his family were quite prominent in Washington, DC. I suppose he spoiled me in a way, not every soldier leaves such a rich and plentiful historical record.
The next tombstone we found was that of Simon Wolf – the author of The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.
Counter-clockwise from top left: Alex Skerry, Caitlin Eichner, Adrienne Usher, Kim Packett, Adam Geibel.
I sincerely hope our slightly irreverent group “selfie” with Simon’s tombstone can be forgiven, but we all have a love/hate relationship with Wolf. On the one hand, the roster he published in 1895 of Jewish soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War is nothing short of amazing. He did not have the internet, or the military service records at the National Archives. He was well connected in Washington, and many of the soldiers he sought to include in his roster were still living, so that must have helped. On the other hand, I can’t tell you exactly how he found Jewish soldiers – he left no record of his methodology, no notes or references to his work in his personal papers. We are continually scratching our heads over why he included one brother but not another… why he included soldiers who were baptized Lutherans but excluded other soldiers whose application for a Pension he personally handled. We suspect he engaged in the then-common practice of name profiling. So, we respect Simon Wolf, but we really wish we knew what he knew back in 1895.
The next exciting surprise was finding Cherrie Moise Levy’s tombstone! I suppose I should preface the following with *research geek alert* warning, because surely this story would only interest a limited audience…
In a letter to Secretary of War Stanton dated November 4, 1862, Abraham Lincoln specifically mentions a “C.M. Levy” in the context of commissioning him as a Quartermaster because he believed he had “not yet appointed a Hebrew.” Our team spent hours trying to figure out what the names were behind the “C.M.” abbreviation. Finally, my colleague Adam asked me for the name of the “big book of Jewish genealogy.” Also known as Malcolm Stern’s First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies, 1654-1988, a search for “C.M. Levy” produced more of the same: nothing. Then we tried searching on Levy’s famous father-in-law, Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, whose daughter married… a Cherie Moise Levy! The good news was, having two actual names instead of initials opened the door to hundreds of historical documents, including military records, a court martial file or two, and a fair amount of newspaper articles… the bad news was that good old fashioned human error recorded C.M. Levy as Cherie, Cherrie, and worse, Cheme! Adam, Caitlin and I argued back and forth on what his actual name was, and how it was spelled. As of today, C.M. Levy is officially Cherrie Moise Levy. See, I told you that was geeky! PS: Me and Cherrie have the same birthday :0)
To the best of our knowledge, Leopold Karpeles is the only Medal of Honor recipient in any section of the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery. The sun was a bit too bright to get a better image, but he has a memorial on the website findagrave.com.
At the back end of the cemetery, a gate separates Washington Hebrew Congregation and Ohev Sholom, which is also identified by a beautiful engraved arch.
My favorite tombstone in Ohev Sholom was most likely for a child, given the size. In another 50 years, I suppose the tree will envelope the tombstone. Will anyone remember this grave once existed?
Another gate and a plaque separates Ohev Sholomand Elisavetgrad.
Elisavetgrad is a long and narrow cemetery compared to the others, and unfortunately, most of the burials were outside of the age range we sought. That left Adas Israel as our final stop. Which, by the way, you should know is only accessible from Alabama Avenue if the gates are open or from Washington Hebrew Congregation through a gate on the right before you leave.
We gathered more names to research, from tombstones in various styles and degrees of age:
Upon completing our tour of the cemetery, we headed off to lunch and compared photos and names we discovered. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the office!