January-February 2022

The growth of the Jewish community in Montgomery County

From restrictive beginnings to an expansive present, the Jewish community has been a vital part of the county for over a century

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse

Bethesda in the early 20th century was built in part on restrictive covenants. Land deeds in some suburban neighborhoods barred property ownership by any Black family—no surprise to people who faced segregation in every corner of county life, from schools to restaurants to movie theaters. Jews were also barred from owning homes in some Bethesda-area communities, all in an effort to keep neighborhoods exclusively white and Christian.

Jewish exclusion clauses, appearing in land deeds in the early 20th century, were supposed to remain in force through successive property ownerships. As a result, fewer than 10 Jewish families were living in Montgomery County in 1920, according to Sam Eig, a wealthy 20th century county land developer, as quoted in the Montgomery County Sentinel.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.’s Jewish population was small but active, with synagogues and social organizations being established around the city, including the Town and Country Club, founded exclusively by Jews. (Jews were excluded from membership in the various white clubs in the Bethesda area.)

By 1921, the Town and Country Club had outgrown its cramped downtown locations and moved that year to a large, undeveloped tract of land off of Rockville Pike, just north of Bethesda’s town center. In 1930, the club grounds, now sporting a golf course, were renamed Woodmont Country Club. The property was later acquired as part of the National Institutes of Health, and ground on the club’s old golf course was broken in 1959 for the National Library of Medicine.

Despite the restrictive covenants in some neighborhoods, Montgomery County’s Jewish community grew in the 1930s, spurred by the influx of thousands of new government employees who took federal posts in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Still, according to Eig, even though covenants had been stricken from the land deeds, there were only about 200 Jewish families living in the Silver Spring-Bethesda area by the end of World War II.

Even with its small size, the county’s Jewish community during the 1940s became energized, organizing the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group in 1941 to teach children about Jewish history, culture and customs—a reaction to the growing loss of heritage in a county that for decades had pushed for total assimilation into white Protestant culture. Around the same time, the Montgomery Lodge of B’nai B’rith, the Jewish service organization, was formed in Silver Spring.

The Jewish population of the Bethesda-Silver Spring area grew rapidly in the years after World War II, largely due to the accelerated arrival of young Jewish professionals coming to work for the federal government. Washington retained a lively Jewish population, but, according to a survey conducted by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in 1956, half of the 81,000 Jews in the metropolitan area lived in the suburbs—and more than half of those lived in Montgomery County.

The growth of the county’s Jewish community prompted other organizations to leave D.C. for a home in the suburbs. In 1964, the Jewish Community Center began planning a move from its downtown location to a new campus in Rockville. And by the end of the 20th century, the more than 65,000 people in the county’s Jewish community supported 23 synagogues and dozens of social and cultural groups.

From restrictive beginnings to an expansive present, the Jewish community, now numbering more than 100,000, or about 10% of the county’s population, has been a vital part of county life for more than a century.