Last year, I got a really good taste of the genius, generosity and extraordinary vision of Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin—who died yesterday at age 85—when I wrote a series of articles about the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown district.
If you haven’t been there, get over to the Sixth & I as soon as you can. It’s something else. Housed in the gorgeous, 101-year-old former home of Adas Israel Congregation, Sixth & I is known throughout the region for its innovative services and programming, ranging from the hottest speakers of the day (from the political, religious, literary and entertainment realms) to a plethora of cutting-edge performers and happenings.
It’s more than a shul. It’s an experience, a decidedly Jewish one, without boundaries, hang-ups or labels.
Sixth & I wouldn’t exist without Abe Pollin, his wife, Irene, and his friends and fellow real estate developers Shelton Zuckerman and Douglas Jemal. Back in 2002, these prominent folks were concerned about the lack of a Jewish house of worship and Jewish cultural center in downtown D.C. They wanted to get a Jewish renaissance going in the nation’s capital.
More importantly, they wanted to get young, urban Jews jazzed about Jewish life and culture, according to their own particular generation’s needs and desires. Many of these young Jews in D.C. come from other areas around the country to work in the most powerful city on Earth, and they barely have time to eat, much less have a Jewish experience or go to shul.
Simply put, Mr. Pollin and company saw a need, and they were willing and able to put their money and muscle behind their dream. They weren’t just schmoozin’.
So they purchased the old Adas Israel—which had been a church and was going to become a nightclub—spent millions on restoring the building to its former glory (and it is glorious), hired some really good people to run the place, and generously spent countless dollars on superb programming that would interest young Jews and others from the city, suburbs and exurbs. And they weren’t afraid to try new stuff, even if it failed.
Today, more than 125,000 people every year have a positive Jewish experience of some sort at Sixth & I, whether it’s a concert, a literary discussion, a class, a Shabbat service or otherwise. And no one’s talking at them about membership dues, building campaigns, Hebrew school tuition or continuity concerns.
I know some people here in Baltimore might not be wild about Abe Pollin. After all, he is the man who moved our Bullets to Landover back in ’73, more than a decade before that Irsay guy famously ran the Colts out of town. (We’re pretty good with grudges here in Charm City.)
But after spending some time at Sixth & I and witnessing the wonders there, I can honestly say that Pollin was a true visionary and mentsch. Our community could use a few more Abe Pollins.