A Century of Shalom - History

A History of the Organized Jewish Community in Cambridge

Jewish Life in Cambridge - 1896 - 1996

A General Introduction

It is clear that there were individual Jews in Cambridge, Massachusetts as far back as the late 17th and early 18th century. Random informal Minyans (worship quorums) were certainly meeting in the latter part of the 19th century. There is an account, in fact that the first High Holiday Minyan in the Boston area, made up of nine Jewish Men from Boston and one who traveled from Worcester, met in 1842 in the home of Peter Spitz at 5 Wendell Street in Cambridge. It was not until 1896, however, that the first discussions of forming formal, permanent congregations began in the homes of Cambridge residents. The earliest discussions led to the decision to found the first congregation in Cambridge, Anshai Sfard, which was chartered in 1898. Within two decades most of the institutions necessary to support a thriving, functional Jewish community were already in place. By 1915 there were three congregations (a fourth would be chartered in 1918), a Benevolent Society, a Literary Association (with private Hebrew School) as well as various social clubs and protective associations, including a YMHA and an organization for Jewish men at MIT. Estimates of the Jewish population in Cambridge set the number at around 800 in 1907. By 1919 the estimated population was closer to 8,000.

Built on this foundation, the Jewish community in Cambridge grew throughout the century, supporting vigorous social, educational, cultural and religious programs, events and services. Jewish residents had a significant impact on the commercial life of Cambridge, especially in the Cambridgeport, Inman Square and, later, Central Square areas. The community now supports three religious communities, an independent community afternoon school, and a Child Care Center. Throughout the years the Jews of Cambridge have participated in the civic and political vitality of the city and, over time, became integrated members of the diverse community that is Cambridge.

Synagogue Life

On May 6, 1898, the first charter of a Cambridge congregation brought into existence Congregation Anshai Sfard of Cambridge. They met in homes and rented space, until February 28, 1906 when Mr. Barnet Shifres signed a mortgage for construction of a building at 83 Webster Ave., just across the city line in Somerville. The building, which no longer exists, was in a style similar to wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe and had a Mikvah (ritual bath). The congregation was small and, on June 17, 1957 the members of Beth Israel, with their 13 Torah scrolls, met members of Anshai Sfard and, carrying their Torahs and Anshai Sfard's six, marched to Beth Israel, where Anshai Sfard ceased to exist.

In 1900 (with credit for its impetus given to philanthropist Israel Nesson) a new congregation, Congregation Beth Israel was founded. On June 17th of the following year ground was broken and construction begun on a building at 238 Columbia Street, which was dedicated in 1903 and where the congregation remained until 1962. The brick structure on Columbia Street was the largest and most elaborate in Cambridge and was the site of synagogue events and community celebrations. The congregation generally followed the Sephardic (Eastern) mode of worship and liturgy.

Within a short time, with an influx of immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, a controversy arose between the adherents to the Sephardic (Eastern) and Ashkenazic ("German") modes of liturgy. In a fascinating historical foot-note, the controversy led to a suit in civil court. The judge's ruling, that each of the two modes of worship should be used for alternating six month periods, satisfied almost no one. As a result a sizable portion of the membership of Beth Israel broke away and began meeting at the home of Joshua Kaplan at 8 Tremont Street. In 1908 they took out a formal charter, creating a new entity, Congregation Agudath Ashkenazim (Temple Ashkenaz). Kaplan's house was purchased by the congregation in December of 1911 and, in August of 1924 the house was torn down and ground broken to construct the present building. The congregation thrived, but by the end of the 50's, despite the merger of Anshai Sfard into Beth Israel, affiliated Jewish population in Cambridge continued to decline.

On January 4, 1918 a fourth congregation (with its own Hebrew School) was chartered. Called Congregation and Talmud Torah Yavna, the group first met on the second floor of a three decker at 242/244 Western Ave. and then at 123 River St. In 1920 it moved into a new building at 8 Howard Street in the Riverside area. The community, however, changed quickly and the congregation closed in 1934.

With Jewish population continuing to decline and affiliation down, the decision was made in 1962 to dissolve both Temple Ashkenaz and Congregation Beth Israel forming a new congregation. In order to avoid issues raised by old disagreements, they chose, as a symbol of community harmony, the name Temple Beth Shalom (House of Peace) of Cambridge. The Tremont Street building that had been Temple Ashkenaz was considered the more viable and easier to maintain and the new congregation moved into this location. Even after this merger, membership continued to decline into the mid-80's and the synagogue was kept alive by a persistent, if small, aging membership. In 1986 the Alef-Bet Child Care Center was opened, opening the synagogue to a new, younger population. Membership began to rise and, thanks to a wide variety of religious, cultural and educational programs (including the Shul's famous Simchat Torah Celebration which draws as many as 1000 people) the congregation, the repository of the history of Jewish congregations in Cambridge, is thriving once more.

Recently two new groups have emerged. Members of the Harvard Hillel Children's School, begun in the mid-60's, re-formed their community in the early 90's into a school and community of adults, Eitz Chayim, now housed in a building on Magazine Street in Cambridgeport. Another group, also with historical ties in the Harvard Hillel School, have created a Havurah (Fellowship group) known as Havurah Or Hadash. Meeting for regular worship, holiday celebrations and life-cycle events in people's homes, Or Hadash occasionally uses other Jewish facilities for larger celebrations.

Social & Commercial Life

Very early the Jewish population of Cambridge became a integral part of City life. The majority of Jews lived in the Cambridgeport, Inman Square and Cambridge Street areas. Initially they were people who had moved from older Jewish neighborhoods in the North and South End of Boston, but in the early years of the 20th century there was a significant influx immigrants, mostly from Russia and Eastern Europe. These new Cambridge residents became involved in a wide variety of commercial endeavors: they were tradesmen, craftsmen and shop owners, opened mills and factories, ran scrap businesses and were involved in the building trades.

The Jewish presence was easily felt in the neighborhood. Walking down Cambridge Street or through Inman Square one could identify many of the Jewish-owned businesses which included pharmacies, hardware stores, furriers, groceries and even kosher butchers. The S & S Deli and Restaurant is still the spot for those in the know to hold Jewish Cambridge's version of the "power breakfast".

A significant amount of social life was centered primarily in the synagogues. Along with worship the congregations were the hub for a variety of other activities. Speaking to older members of the community brings stories of the dances, dinners, fund raisers and other events which filled the synagogue calendars. Even special personal events - birthdays, anniversaries, etc., were frequently held in the synagogues. A particularly important part of the Jewish presence was focused on the congregational Sisterhoods. These groups of women were involved in virtually all aspects of Jewish life and served as support for a wide variety of community needs. In an era when fewer women worked outside the home, these groups were an important source of "people-power" in all the congregations.

Organizational Life

It is remarkable that within only fifteen or twenty years Cambridge Jews established all of the institutions necessary to support a vibrant Jewish life. In the early years of the century social clubs and protective associations, often mirroring the organizations of other ethnic groups, arose.

In 1898, concurrent with the charter of Cambridge's first synagogue, two crucial institutions were founded. The Cambridge and Somerville Hebrew Literary Association (sometimes known as the Cambridge/Somerville Hebrew School) held classes and meetings, originally in a house at 280 Windsor Street. There is some discrepancy as to when the Association moved. Records at the Cambridge Historical Society indicate that the property at 178 Elm St., which had been purchased by Jacob Walter in 1904, was sold to the Association for $1.00 in 1911. These records indicate that the building currently on that site was erected in 1913, although some histories date the move in 1921. In any case, Elm St. became something of a "proto-JCC", a place where various classes and community meetings took place, until the early 1950's when the Association disbanded (concurrent with the beginning of the JCC) and in 1954 the building was sold to a Portuguese Social Club.

Also in 1898, nine women were granted a charter to form a corporation known as the Cambridge Hebrew Ladies Educational Society "to procure the services of suitable instructors in the Hebrew language and religion . . . . and for such other charitable and benevolent objects as shall be deemed advisable from time to time." This group, which later became the Cambridge Hebrew Women's Aid Society, committed itself to a variety of charitable works at a time when little public assistance was available. Through meetings, bazaars, card parties, donor luncheons, ad books and other projects, the Society raised funds for the poor and those who had occasional need for assistance. They supplied coal, food and even feed for the horses of peddlers, and provided food for those who could not afford it at Passover time. The Association was know to hold the names of recipients in confidence, available only to those who had to know. Until 1978, despite the availability of other public funds, the Society continued to help those who needed a bit more assistance.

In 1903 the Cambridge/Somerville Gemeleth Chesed Benevolent Society was founded, initially to help new immigrants get started in their new home. Since then the society has provided thousands of dollars in interest-free loans for those in temporary need. The Society continued to loan money into the 1970's. Meetings were first held in homes, later at the Hebrew School, JCC and Temple Beth Shalom.

In 1914 the Menorah Society, a group for Jewish men at MIT, was founded. It provided educational, social and cultural programs and in the 1930's began to admit women. It closed in the spring of 1945 and was replaced in the fall by the Hillel foundation.

In the early '30s a chapter of the Zionist youth group Young Judea enlivened Saturday evenings at Temple Ashknaz with dancing, singing and fellowship. A number of members of Young Judea went on to make Aliyah to Israel. It is of note that the Community Jewish Youth Program which was organized last year has recently affiliated with Young Judea, bringing this important piece of tradition back.

The Cambridge Post 35 and its Ladies' Auxiliary of the Jewish War Veterans of the US, first met in 1932. Over the years its members have included Jewish veterans of both World Wars. Members of Post 35 have been prominent in the national JWV movement. Harold Seidenberg, an early leader, was National Commander of JWV and Sylvia Piltch, an active member of the Cambridge Community, was National President of the Ladies Auxiliary. The Post continues to meet and holds a Memorial Day service each year at its monument in the Temple Beth Shalom courtyard.

The local chapter of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, was chartered in 1937. It has participated in many of the educational and fund raising activities of the national organization. After a decline in membership the chapter disbanded in 1988 but was revived as the Cambridge/Somerville chapter in 1990.

In 1945 the Hillel Foundation at MIT was founded and, the following year, was followed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel Foundation. Both groups continue to thrive on their campuses, offering a full spectrum of educational, religious and cultural programming.

By the early 1950's the need for a consolidation of Jewish activity was apparent. Consequently, in 1951 the Cambridge Jewish Community Center was chartered. On the last day of December 1951 the JCC purchased the building at Harvard and Lee Streets (now the Castle School) and brings in a variety of the Jewish community's organizations, meetings and activities. Until 1977, when the center sold its building, the Cambridge JCC was a hub of Jewish life in the community.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's two other groups important to the flourishing of Jewish life were founded. In 1988 Temple Beth Shalom, responding to the growth in the number of families with young children, initiated the Alef-Bet Child Care Center. Alef-Bet offers an exciting learning and growing experience to pre-school children.

In 1992, as a new generation of school-age children began to make their presence felt, a new program, Kesher, the After-school Hebrew School was started. This national model offers children a unique combination of after-school activities and Jewish/Hebrew education, in an exciting informal atmosphere. Emanating originally out of Temple Beth Shalom, the school has become independent and serves children from K through 8th grades from all branches of Judaism, representing eight synagogues and Havurot as well as unaffiliated children.

The Early Jewish Community in Cambridge

Excerpts from

The Zone of Emergence

Observations of the Lower Middle and Upper Working Class Communities of Boston, 1905-1914

by Robert A. Woods and Albert J. Kennedy

By the early years of the 20th century a significant number of Jews had settled in the Cambridgeport area. A majority of the population in this neighborhood was then made up of persons descending from "English stock." About one half of these were Irish, and "Negroes" numbered around 3,500, less than 4% of the population. Social life in the area centered around the two Catholic churches in the neighborhood. The authors group the Jews as part of the "Russian Peoples," the last wave of immigration to "overflow into the Port." They identify close to 2,000 Jews in the area including the "Americanized Jew, who has changed his name . . . and does all he can to conceal his race; the English Jew. . . and the Russian Jews of recent arrival." The following is excerpted from their observations:


At present there are two Jewish colonies; one in the north in the Cambridge-Columbia Street district, and another in the southern part of Western Avenue. The northern colony is composed of those who have moved from the North and West Ends of Boston. The southern colony tends to be largely made up of more recent arrivals from the Russias. . . . Settlements have been made in some of the worser Irish districts to the disgust of that nation . . . . At their first coming public sentiment was so outraged that it was physically dangerous for a Jew to use certain streets; children were persecuted on their way to school. . . .

Industrially the Jew continues to be a trader and keeps various kinds of small shops. Several Jewish mills and factories making clothing have been started. The rag and junk dealers abound, and the Cambridge St. district is dotted with barns and buildings wherein this filthy and dangerous business is carried on. . . . Women are beginning to work in the factories . . . .

As usual the social life of the people is already rich and varied. Two synagogues at loggerheads with one another over matters of doctrine minister to the religious life of the community; there are two relief societies which concern themselves with Passover indulgences (help to poor); a Protective and Political Association; two young men's clubs, and several more or less successful social clubs among the young people organized after the pattern of the Irish social clubs. In addition there are Jewish schools, and a night school has been maintained for teaching English. The Jews attend the city night schools and take all courses except the mechanical. Their children are rapidly filling the primary schools and kindergartens, where they are characterized as chiefly dirty, ignorant of the language, brilliant at figures, slow at other things, but with one or two representatives almost always well up toward the head of their class.

The Jew in the Port is dirty, hard-working and successful - and without doubt will in the near future almost wholly preempt a large portion of the Cambridge Street quarter to his uses. So far, however, his impression on the Port has been largely to the disadvantage of the district.

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