The Jews' arrival in mid-nineteenth century Boston was announced
in the early 1850s when a minyan (prayer-group) constructed Temple
Shalom on Warren (now Warrenton) Street. For the next seventy-five
the Jews would maintain a presence in first the lower and then
the upper South End. During the first fifty of those seventy-five
the South End's small Jewish community, principally, consisted of
approximately 3,000 Central European "Reform" Jewish-Americans, many of
whom had early financial success in commerce. By the 1900s, that
small group was joined in the South End by larger numbers of Eastern
European "Traditional" Jewish-Americans, many of whom had yet to climb
the ladder of financial success. While most of the extant Jewish sites
in the South End reflect upon that earlier group's passage, several
of the later group's members have left memoirs about their lives
in the South End. This BostonWalks' "The Jewish Friendship Trail"
in Boston's South End is designed as a 2 hour walking tour.
Purchase our guidebook, BostonWalks The Jewish Friendship Trail Guidebook, and you'll be able to discover some of these sites on your own!
For now, let's vicariously walk, then, to these sites of Jewish Experience in
Boston's South End circa 1850s to 1920s:
- (1) Our first site is at one corner of the Boston Common, where a
small monument honors E.A. Filene. E.A. Filene is both a symbol of the
early Boston entrepreneurial Jewish-Americans of the second half of the
nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century and of that same
group's devotion to charitable works. Beside Filene, some of the members of
this group include Leopold Morse and Jacob and Lina Hecht.
- (2) Our second site is located across from and includes the Charles
Playhouse. Across the street from the once majestic playhouse building once
stood Boston's very first synagogue building. It consisted of a thirty by
forty-six feet structure which could seat about one hundred, twenty-five
families. Since, at its inception, the congregation followed traditional
worship patterns, the small facility had separate seating for men and women,
had a mikvah (bathhouse), and a Hebrew school. When the congregation
outgrew that small building, Ohabei Shalom purchased the building which
today houses the Charles Street Playhouse.
This Charles Playhouse building, originally built in 1839 as a Universalist Church, then served Ohabei Shalom from 1863 to 1886. During these years, Ohabei Shalom began the transition from its orthodoxy to reform Judaism. Also, in this
building, Boston's Young Mens' Hebrew Association (YMHA) was founded.
After 1886, Ohabei Shalom moved to another South End facility which
we'll soon visit.
(3) We'll now walk down Melrose Street from the corner of Broadway
where once stood Boston's second synagogue building, Adath Israel,
formed as a breakaway congregation from Ohabei Shalom within a short
period of time. For thirty years, Adath Israel congregated here.
Its well known reform leader, Rabbi Solomon Schindler, was hired here in
1874. Wandering down Melrose Street to Church Street, one almost
steps back in time among the many buildings dating back a century or
more. There once was at least one other synagogue here on Church Street
(at the corner of Winchester Street): Zions Holy Prophets of Israel
Memorial Synagogue (1878-1895). Other nearby shuls (houses of worship)
included Beth Eil and Anshe Poland.
(4) Just a few blocks further Westward, near the corner of Berkeley
and Appleton Streets, we can glimpse a vivid reason why Jews felt
comfortable occupying several communal buildings at this intersection.
Here, in the first floor of the Theodore Parker meeting house,
Adath Israel ran its Sunday school beginning in 1875. Nearby,
Congregation Shaaray Tefilla occupied Paine Hall off and on
during the late 1870s and early 1880s. Shaaray Tefilla later
joined with Boston's third synagogue Mishkan Israel which had been
founded in 1858 to form Mishkan Tefilla.
(5) Proceeding up East Berkeley Street (formerly known as Dover Street),
we'll meander until we discover a street sign which reads "Emerald Court."
From the 1880s to the 19teens, the largest traditional (Orthodox) shul in the
South End was commonly known as the Emerald Street Synagogue.
(6) Turning Southwesr onto Washington Street, we'll go to Union park Street. Here stands another majestic building which once served as a synagogue: this one was the third location for Ohabei Shalom. Originally the Unitarian Church of well-known Bostonian, Edward Everett Hale; Ohabei Shalom
occupied this building from 1887 until the mid-1920s. Today, it is
a Greek Orthodox Church.
(7)Along this previous walking stretch, we might discuss Harrison
Avenue. This street was compared to Arlington Street in Chelsea by Mary
Antin when she wrote about her growing up in this neighborhood in
the first decade of the twentieth century. Filled with Jewish
grocers, butchers, bakers, tailors and so on; it, like Arlington
Street, was filled with vibrant, very small commerce.
(8) Heading North, we'll cross Shawmut Avenue, on which, almost
a mile further West, the newly merged Mishkan Tefila, congregated
in a former church from 1897 to 1907.
(9) Our next site gives us a good sense of the housing stock which
the Jews of the late nineteenth century occupied as they continued their
economic climb into the upper South End. We're walking up West Canton
Street now. By the 1870s, quite a few Jewish families owned and occupied
homes here. We'll stop particularly at one house which was home to Rabbi
Raphael Lasker. Rabbi Lasker served as Temple Ohabei Shalom's rabbi from
1876 to 1895. As Ohabei Shalom transitioned from it's second location (now
the Charles Playhouse) to its third location on Union Park Street,
Rabbi Lasker was a voice of Jewish moderation, maintaining a balance
for his synagogue's practices midway between traditionalism and Reform.
(10) We're heading toward the most magnificent synagogue ediface
on this walking tour: Temple Israel (aka Adath Israel).
The congregation's former building at the corner of Columbus Avenue
and Northampton Street has been the African Methodist-Episcopal Zion
Church for much longer than it was a synagogue but its facade reminds us
well of its original design (by Louis Weissbein), construction, and use.
At its dedication ceremony in 1884, Rabbi Lasker of Ohabei Shalom and Rev.
Edward Everett Hale and well as Temple Israel's own Rabbi Schindler gave
presentations. While the building only served Temple Israel for just over
two decades until 1906, its preservation is a wonder to behold.
(11) Members from Temple Ohabei Shalom also formed one of Boston's
most successful social/business clubs,
the Elysium Club. While the Club's building no longer stands
on its site on Huntington Avenue, it was designed by the
same architect who designed the synagogue we just visited and
possibly emulated the grandeur of that building. For
quite a few years, the leadership of both Temple Israel and
the Elysium Club was under the strong guidance of Jacob
(12) Our final site, appropriately, then, on the way back to the
starting point of this walking tour of Boston's
South End is one of the homes of one of Boston's most prominent Jewish
couples in the five decades between 1870 and 1920. While the site
is technically in the Back Bay, Jacob and Lina Hecht's
involvement in Boston Jewry transcended and crossed the boundaries among
the North, West and South Ends as well as between the Central and
Eastern European Jews of that era.
Hope you enjoyed our vicarious walking tour of sites of Jewish experience in
Boston's South End. Remember that you, too, can utilize our guidebook, BostonWalks The Jewish Friendship Trail Guidebook to actually discover some of these sites on your own!