created at: 2012-05-01

Editor’s Note:May is Jewish American Heritage Month. This excerpt from an article by Jonathan Sarna in The Jews of Boston offers some of the story behind Boston’s first two synagogues, the antecedents of Ohabei Shalom and Temple Israel.



created at: 2012-05-01

Ohabei Shalom Cemetery, East Boston, MA, photo by James L Woodward

The roots of the Boston Jewish community extend far back into the colonial period—back as far as “Solomon Franco, the Jew” who accompanied a cargo vessel into town in 1649. For two centuries, however, only a handful of Jews settled down long enough in Boston to establish a permanent home. The rest were Jewish transients, individuals who wandered in and out of the city. Never were there enough Jews around to form a community. This fact—the absence of any organized Jewish community in early Boston—sets the city apart from the major American port cities where Sephardic Jews settled in numbers…

It was only in the 1840’s that Boston finally housed a sufficient number of Jews to form a community, and in 1843 they formally organized as Kahal Kadosh Ohabei Shalom (The Holy Community Lovers of Peace). This became the third synagogue in New England, following those previously established in Newport and New Haven. Religious, cultural, and economic factors all help to explain the general reluctance of early American Jews to settle in Boston. They preferred more open and cosmopolitan cities where opportunities and foreign immigrants abounded—hence their affinity for New York and the cities of the frontier. Boston, by contrast, projected an image of formidable homogeneity; for a time it held the dubious distinction of being America’s most homogenous city. Until the coming of the Irish, most immigrants, and certainly most Jews, sought their fortunes elsewhere…

The great migration from Germany in the 19th century, a migration that transformed many American cities and spread Jews where none had lived before, largely passed Boston by. Only three percent of Boston’s immigrant population was German in 1850 and six percent in 1870. Perhaps fearing to compete with the Irish, the mass of German immigrants, Jews and gentiles alike, settled south and west of Boston in a belt that stretched from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland through Pennsylvania and into the Midwest. One of the most striking features of Boston Jewish history, as a result, is the absence of an entrenched, well-organized German-Jewish community of the type found in cities like New York, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. This reluctance on the part of German Jews to settle in “the Hub of the universe” explains both the Boston Jewish community’s failure to thrive in the way that Jewish communities in these other cities did during the central decades of German-Jewish immigration and the comparative lack of internal tension between Central and East European Jews later on.

Boston’s Jewish population did nevertheless grow from less than forty Jews in 1840 to approximately one thousand Jews on the eve of the Civil War. While spectacular in percentage terms, the actual growth is far less than that experienced by other major cities where Jews settled. Keeping in mind that all Jewish population figures from this period are approximations at best, it is estimated that during this same period New York City’s Jewish population grew from 7,000 to 40,000; Philadelphia’s from 1,500 to 10,000; Cincinnati’s from 1,000 to 10,000; and San Francisco’s from no Jews at all to 5,000.

Even the small number of Jews who did immigrate to Boston during these years were more often Polish than German in origin. Fleeing economic privation and religious persecution, they stemmed particularly from the province of Posen, then under Prussian sovereignty. A statistical analysis reveals that no less than forty-four percent of Boston’s Jews during this period were born in “East and West Prussia, Poland, Posen, and Pomerania”; the birthplace of another twenty-nine percent within the German-Polish lands remains uncertain. Eight percent more came from other countries, including a small but distinctive group that immigrated from Holland. Only nineteen percent hailed specifically from Southwest Germany and Bavaria. This surprising preponderance of Polish Jews stands in stark contrast to the situation in the Midwest. In Milwaukee, for example, only four percent of Jews stemmed from Polish lands, while seventy-five percent came from Southwest Germany and Bavaria, Bohemia and Austria.

The influence of Boston’s Polish Jews may readily be seen within Congregation Ohabei Shalom, which from the beginning understandably followed the Polish-Jewish rite known as Minhag Polin. The minority that preferred the German rite, known as Minhag Ashkenaz, seceded in 1853, establishing what became Kahal Kadosh Adath Israel, today Temple Israel. Henceforward, Ohabei Shalom became known in Boston as the Polish Congregation, and Adath Israel as the German one. As late as 1878, the Polish congregation was the largest in town, boasting almost two and a half times as many members as its German rival.

The Polish character of Jewish Boston also manifested itself in other ways. Not having experienced the same historical conditions that paved the way for Reform Judaism’s rise, Polish Jews in America tended to be more religiously conservative than their German counterparts; Reform spread far more slowly among them. So it was in Boston. “While all over the United States reformed Judaism began to assert itself, the Jews of Boston, of the Hub of the Universe, of the literary centre of America, took no part whatsoever.” The author of this statement, Rabbi Solomon Schindler, was himself a Reform rabbi, and it was he who introduced religious reforms into the “German Congregation” beginning in 1874, fifty years after the emergence of religious reforms in Charleston and thirty years after the first Reform congregations developed in Baltimore and New York. As for the “Polish Congregation,” although it, too, introduced religious reforms in the 1870’s, seeking to stem the flow of younger members to Adath Israel, it did not formally affiliate with the Reform Movement for another twenty-five years.


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