Three shul buildings stand today in Boston's West End, reminders of the 15
predominantly traditional shuls in which Shabbos was welcomed weekly from the 1890s
through the 1920s in this section of our city.
In one of these shuls, the Boston
Synagogue, descendent of the amalgamated North Russell Street Shul (Beit Hamidrash
Hagadol) and of the Wall Street Shul (Beit Yaakov), we still welcome Shabbos in 1999.
The Boston Synagogue, now in a contemporary building at 55 Martha Road in
Charles River Park, is located only a few blocks from where its predecessors once stood
at 31 North Russell Street and at 24 Wall Street.
Those two shuls were ushered into the West End by a burgeoning Eastern European
Jewish immigrant population transitioning from both the North End as well as directly
from arrival at customs. By 1895, the Jewish population of the West End matched in
numbers the approximately 6.5 thousand Jews of the North End. With much more
available housing stock, the West End would welcome another 30+/- thousand Jews over
the following 25 years.
Upon their arrival in the West End, many Jews sought out landtsmen from the towns
and villages which they had left behind in Eastern Europe. Forming landtsmenshaften,
these geographically-based meetings frequently became emotional, social, cultural,
educational, political, and, finally, religious mutual support groups. Two of the many
landtsmenshaften which evolved into shuls were Anshe Libawitz and Anshe Vilner.
Anshe Libawitz's West End premises at 8 Smith Court, served the congregation from
1898 to 1972. Inside its entryway, a climb up the steeply winding staircase to the former
women's section of the shul is a worthwhile effort in order to view the beautiful
simplicity of this building. Prior to 1898, the building had a ninety years landmark
history as an African-American church, a schoolhouse, and a center of abolitionist
activity. Even today, in its present incarnation as a museum of African-American history
and without its aron kodish in place, a visitor still can perceive how it was used for 74
years as a shul.
Anshe Vilner's 3rd West End site at 16 Phillips Street actively served its
congregation from 1920 to the 1970s.
Some of its hard-working congregants manually
participated in parts of the 1919-1920 new construction of their 3rd premises. Its intact
and exquisite aron kodish possibly is wholly or in part the carpentry handiwork of Eastern
European Jewish immigrant Sam Katz. Today, the building is being restored with the
intentions of its serving as a historical and cultural Jewish center.
It was the North Russell Street Shul, though, which served as the largest and most
prominent, congregation in Boston's West End during the 1st 3 decades of the 20th
century. While its building was demolished in the 1950s-60s West End reconstruction,
some of Beit HaMidrash HaGadol Beit Yaakov's memorial plaques are preserved in the
Boston Synagogue's foyer.
The North Russell Street Shul particularly is remembered by some for its guest
cantors and its Jewish holiday parties. One of the many visiting cantors was Yossele
Rosenblatt. One Hannukah party attracted 3,000 children.
The Wall Street Shul opened in 1888 and merged with the North Russell Street Shul
in 1941. For over 50 years, it served the neighborhood immediately adjacent to today's
TD BankNorth Garden, the area at the West end of Causeway Street.
From a similar vantage point today, the Boston Synagogue, with over one hundred
members, welcomes all to vibrant West End Jewish services, educational lectures, and
holiday celebrations. When you pray in or visit the Boston Synagogue, note one of its
unique features: the seating layout which allows a davener either to follow an Orthodox
minhag of men and women sitting in separate sections or to follow a Conservative
minhag of mixed seating even while all daveners pray together in one prayer service.
Close in time to the establishment of these West End shuls, were the establishment
and/or relocation to the West End from the North End of Talmud Torahs and an Ivrio
Ivrit Hebrew school - the latter utilizing Hebrew as its spoken, teaching language. By the
end of the 1st decade of the 20th century; in addition, there was a Hebrew high school in
the West End. Unfortunately, none of the Hebrew school buildings in this section of
Boston survived the reconstruction of the West End.
We've walked what little remains of the once thriving Jewish communities of Boston's West and North Ends and the South End. The few surviving sites
make for a fascinating walking tour.