Georgetown’s historic Kesher Israel synagogue set to undergo major renovation, expansion

The construction will bolster the synagogue’s security and accessibility, while modernizing the building

Kesher Israel Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., has a storied, even mythic, history among Jews of the nation’s capital. What it doesn’t have is anything approaching a modern building. That’s about to change.

For decades, Kesher was the only Orthodox synagogue in central Washington (a distinction it now shares with a Chabad House). It has been home to generations of Jewish politicians, including Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Jack Lew, now the U.S. ambassador to Israel. It’s a frequent stopping point for Jewish dignitaries visiting Washington. 

“Sometimes people walk in, they’ll be like, ‘I’ve heard so much about Kesher Israel, it has such a big place in people’s minds and in the eyes of the Jewish people,’” said Kesher Rabbi Hyim Shafner. “They’ll walk in and be like, ‘This is it?’”

Shafner is leading the congregation amid a major renovation of the synagogue’s building, which has remained largely untouched since it was built in 1931. The synagogue has no lobby, leading guests to sometimes wonder if they are at the right entrance. It is inaccessible to people with disabilities; all spaces are reachable only by climbing up or down stairs. Its social hall can fit no more than 50 people for a Shabbat dinner, despite the synagogue’s membership of more than 300 people. Critically, the building lacks the security protections that are common in many other synagogues. 

The synagogue recently won approval from the requisite zoning and governmental boards in Georgetown to begin construction, not an easy task in the preservation-obsessed neighborhood. Now Kesher’s leadership is preparing for a major renovation and expansion project that is estimated to cost at least $12 million and take more than two years to complete.

“For the first time in 100 years, after literally decades of aspirations and growth and vibrancy, the synagogue now has a real and exciting opportunity to look at what the next century of operations can look like, and the next century of Jewish Modern Orthodox life in downtown Washington and in our nation’s capital,” said Aaron Tessler, a board member at Kesher. 

He rattled off examples of people who aren’t well-served by the building’s current layout: Families with young children who would have to walk outside through the elements to take their kids to the children’s programming; people who can’t attend Shabbat meals because there isn’t space; a boy on his bar mitzvah who wants to call his grandfather to the Torah for an aliyah, but his grandfather can’t do it because he can’t walk up the stairs. 

Shari Diamond, a doctor who has been a member at Kesher for more than 20 years, is a regular attendee with her husband and their three daughters. Her 17-year-old daughter uses a wheelchair.

“Getting into the building, getting upstairs is basically not possible on her own, so every week I carry her up the stairs,” Diamond told Jewish Insider. “It’s both very undignified and not fair to her. But we love Kesher, and she and our family want to continue to be able to go there. And so the accessibility needs of the shul are really critical for us.”

Approved artistic renderings for the renovation and modernization of Kesher Israel

When Shafner arrived at the synagogue in 2017, he quickly heard from community members that the synagogue needed to adapt. The biggest barrier was space: There was nowhere for Kesher to expand unless the synagogue acquired the townhouse next door. Congregants had broached the subject in the past but never seriously considered it. And there was yet another challenge: The synagogue had never mounted a major fundraising campaign before.

“Fundraising was not something that the shul used to put stress on, and I think there even was this sense that the schlubby-ness of the building is a kind of nice thing, because it sort of creates a more friendly atmosphere,” said Shafner. He disagreed.

In 2021, the synagogue began to look into the possibility of mounting a major construction project, and the architect made clear it couldn’t happen until they acquired the building next door. Kesher convinced its owner to sell in 2022, and the synagogue purchased the adjacent townhouse for $1.6 million. (A detached townhome on the other side of the synagogue is used as its office and a space for children, but congregants can only get there by walking outside.) 

Kesher is one of several dozen small, historic religious institutions in Georgetown, but according to Gwendolyn Lohse, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Georgetown, it’s the first to undergo an expansion. 

“There’s excitement on a broader level for this project and them being able to stay here,” said Lohse, who helped the congregation navigate the daunting approval process. “I think it’s important. They do serve a national and international role, and it’s one reason why I was so supportive.”

Steve Kleinrock, the architect leading the project, also helped calm the nerves of community members when it seemed things were taking a long time to move forward. 

“This building is very important because it’s the congregation’s home, and it’s a place where people make lasting, lifelong connections, where children meet, where husbands and future husbands and wives meet and celebrate important milestones in people’s lives,” Kleinrock said. As an Orthodox congregation, with most members walking to Kesher on Shabbat, the location must be central to the community. 

Approved artistic renderings for the renovation and modernization of Kesher Israel

Once construction starts, likely next year, it is slated to take 12 to 14 months, during which time the synagogue will relocate to a temporary space. The proposed new facility will increase the synagogue’s size by more than 50%, from 8,100 square feet to 12,700 square feet.

The historic sanctuary, with the original stained glass, will still look largely the same. A beit midrash will be added next door, allowing the sanctuary to expand when needed. The project is less about expansion than modernization — meeting modern fire codes, serving congregants with children and those with disabilities and improving security. In December, a man appeared outside yelling “Gas the Jews” and spraying people who left the building with an unidentified substance. 

“It’s very top of mind, especially with Oct. 7, that we are immediately facing the street,” said Tessler. “People are hyper aware of our vulnerabilities.”

Just weeks before he died, Lieberman wrote a heartfelt letter to the Georgetown zoning board, urging its members to approve Kesher’s plans by describing the unique role the synagogue plays.

His own story — as an Orthodox politician who regularly attended Kesher during his four terms in the Senate and his vice presidential run in 2000 — highlighted “not just Kesher’s spiritual significance but also its role as a beacon of faith and community, enabling the participation of observant Jews in the life of our nation’s capital,” Lieberman wrote. “The modernization and expansion of Kesher Israel Congregation are about more than just a building project; they represent a commitment to preserving a vibrant, inclusive and accessible religious community in the heart of Georgetown.”

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