Every Friday around dusk, members of Ohev Sholom National Synagogue make their way on foot from their homes to their place of worship located on 16th Street between the Shepherd Park and Colonial Village neighborhoods. In observance of their religious beliefs, members do not drive or use electricity on Shabbat from Friday evenings through Saturday sundown. For the some members of Ohev, about 1,011 strong including many children and elderly people, the journey can be downright dangerous.
Residents I talked to spoke of an obstacle course of unprotected precipices, uneven pathways, and tree branches that jut onto the street, obstructing their path and view. Some sidewalks have telephone poles and stop signs set in the middle. Other areas have craters where pavement once was.
Just one of these things would be a nuisance, but the combination poses a serious problem for walkability. Ohev Sholom has been particularly active in pressing for better walking conditions, but there are two other Jewish places of worship within a few blocks as well: Fabrangen Havurah and Tifereth Israel.
A dangerous walk and slapdash fixes
Members of Ohev Sholom and the neighboring community have no problem talking about the issues walking in their neighborhood. They have been talking about it for some time.
“It’s a major issue that some of these streets don’t have sidewalks,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom. “It’s very dangerous, especially at night.”
Herzfeld says that hundreds of his members are forced to walk in the streets in the evening on Friday and Saturday. He says he knows people who have written letters, and he was in conversation with his Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd about the issue. So far however, he says, “There’s been no helpful response.”
“I’m hopeful we’ll get results, but so far we’re waiting,” Herzfeld said.
When asked about the walkability concerns in the area, Eric Feldmen, Communications Specialist with Todd’s office, said that they’re working on the issues and are coordinating with the National Park Service (NPS) and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).
Jeffrey Burt, a resident in the area, has been trying to get some answers. First, he wrote Mayor Murial Bowser’s office in late October 2018 about a dangerous precipice on the east side of West Beach Drive NW, at the intersection of the 8000 block of W. Beach Drive NW and the 1800 block of Sudbury Lane. There were no rails or warnings or anything to warn or protect pedestrians. After getting no response, he followed up with another letter.
“To my great surprise, within a few days suddenly they had these six cones around the area,” Burt said. “They kind of taped off the sidewalk around the cones. I thought that was nice, but as you know tape doesn’t last that long.”
As Burt predicted, within a few weeks the tape had snapped apart and the cones ended up at the bottom of the ravine. “It clearly wasn’t doing anything, because if someone had a misstep, that would be the end of them,” he said. Burt called 311 and explained the urgency of the situation. Around March came another attempt at a solution: An alternative sidewalk created using heavy barriers placed along West Beach Drive.
The concrete barriers push out into the street, narrowing the lanes. More importantly for Burt, however, is the fact that the precipice is still there. “We are concerned about the time it will take to correct this problem,” Burt said. “Are we going to reach a point where neighbors are going to say ‘is this [barriers] a permanent feature?’”
Worshippers struggle to get to their synagogue safely
For Pesha Rubinstein, a resident and an observer of the Sabbath, walking to her place of worship has many man-made pitfalls: “I have a 1.3 mile walk from Woodside just off Second Avenue and walk to the synagogue,” Rubinstein says. “It’s not a terrible walk, except for that terrible circle.”
Rubinstein is referring to the Blair traffic circle, which is comprised of the intersections of Eatern Avenue, 16th Street, Colesville Road, and North Portal Drive. “Everyone complains about that circle and there’s always accidents here,” Rubinstein said. Even though there are traffic lights at the circle, “I never feel safe there.”
Late in 2018, a group of concerned Ohev members created the Ohev Sholom Pedestrian Safety and Accessibility Report, in which they laid out some of the key walkability issues on the path from Montgomery County where many members live to the synagogue on Jonquil Street in DC. They identified uneven streets, crumbling sidewalks, poles that block people’s path on the sidewalk, and of course, no sidewalks along the route.
Members of the Ohev Sholom Pedestrian Safety Committee kept in contact with managers from DDOT, Todd’s office, and even NPS. Communications provided by the committee trace dialogue about the concerns and possible solutions from November 2018 up until March 2019.
But outside of the concrete barriers on West Beach Drive and the orange barrels to warn pedestrians, there did not seem to be any other updates made to address the Ohev members’ concerns. Several attempts to reach DDOT for comment have been unsuccessful.
Ohev member Nicole Goldstein treks to the synagogue with her family, but it’s not easy. “We have a little bit of a tough situation for two reasons,” Goldstein said in a phone interview. “I have kids and I have to take a wheelchair to synagogue, and without a sidewalk it’s incredibly dangerous.”
Goldstein’s path to the synagogue includes about a block without sidewalks. But even once she reaches the point with pavement, there are several holes and uneven points to navigate.
“I think everyone’s kind of been discouraged because people feel like no one is listening, and why bother doing anything if nothing is going to come of it,” she says. “I feel like someone is going to have to be put in the hospital, god forbid, before they do anything about it.”
Update: We added that there are two other Jewish places of worship in the same neighborhood as Ohev Sholom.