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‘In the Midst of a Renaissance’ The Jewish Community of Western Massachusetts takes a look at its history The first in a series of articles devoted to the history of Jewish life in the Valley

jhs.orgBy Abigail Adams

In late September, Temple Beth El in Springfield will continue the celebration of its centennial by sponsoring the exhibit One Hundred Years of Jewish Life in the Valley: From Schtetl to Suburb at the Wood Museum of Springfield History. For six months, pictures, artwork and artifacts from numerous synagogues and Jewish organizations in Western Mass will be on display—an examination and celebration of the vibrant and multi-faceted community that has evolved since the first Jewish settlers arrived in the Pioneer Valley in the mid 1800s.

“When a community starts looking at itself, something has changed,” Jane Trigere told the Jewish Ledger.  Jane, together with partner Ken Schoen, founded the Western Mass Jewish Historical Society, a nonprofit devoted to collecting and archiving documents, photographs and audio recordings of Jewish life and activity in the Valley.  They have provided exhibit organizers with many of the artifacts that will be on display in September.  In an interview with the Jewish Ledger, Schoen and Trigere shared not only the catalyst for their work recording the history of the Jewish community in Western Mass., but also their perspective on this community, which they say is, “in the midst of a renaissance.”

“People don’t think these things are important and it’s getting tossed,” Schoen told the Jewish Ledger on a tour of the shared location of Schoen Books and the Western Mass Jewish Historical Society.  The first floor of the converted firehouse in South Deerfield is a maze of bookshelves lined with rare and out-of-print books in German, Hebrew and Yiddish.

In back is an office, packed with file cabinets filled with synagogue newsletters and meeting notes, Jewish newspapers, bar mitzvah speeches, interviews, and various other documents and audio recordings.  “The truth is, this stuff is really important,” Ken Schoen continued.  “So if you don’t know what to do with it, call us.”

Archivists by nature, Schoen and Trigere embarked on their project to document and archive the Jewish history of Western Mass when the Orthodox congregations of Beth Israel, Kodimoh and Kesser Israel merged into one and changed location.  “Something has to reach you for you to start thinking about what to keep for future generations,” Trigere explained to the Jewish Ledger.  “When do documents become important?  When they’re just out of reach, or when you can’t quite remember the full story.”

Since its creation, Schoen and Trigere have amassed an impressive amount of material, and are always on the lookout for more.  “We want newsletters, bulletins, bar mitzvah announcements and speeches, Rabbi’s sermons, films of graduations,” Schoen said.  “Not so much for the present, but for people 20, 30, 40 years from now.”  Already, the Western Mass Historical Society is fielding calls from across the country from people looking for information about their ancestors in Western Mass.

In addition to the archiving of documents, the historical society is home to the oral history project that Schoen and Trigere had started years before.  The project, which was sparked by visits with an elderly family member, seeks to record the stories and experiences of members of the Jewish community.

“It’s amazing what we learned just by talking with people,” Trigere said when describing a broad sociological pattern that had become apparent during their interviews.

Before WWII, children stayed in their family’s business and remained a part of a tight-knit Jewish community.  The GI bill, however, opened new doors and opportunities for service members, who enrolled in college following the war and rarely returned to their parents’  shops.  The result was a marked decline in Main Streets—a reason why Northampton was practically a dead town in the 1970s.

The work of Schoen and Trigere is providing an important resource on the Jewish community. The couple, however, has only been in the area for a small part of that 150+ year history.  Schoen left his life as a public school teacher and counselor in New York City for the Valley in 1983, because it was an attractive place to raise his children.  Less than a decade later, he started Schoen Books, which is now one of only five Judaica booksellers in the country that reprints rare and out-of-print books.

Schoen Books has over 30,000 books on Judaica in multiple languages, and is well known for its collection on the Holocaust.  Its clientele stretches from New York to Europe.  “Sometimes they ask—what are you doing in “yemensvelt”?”  Schoen said.  “I walk outside and I’m surrounded by farms; I drive down the street and it’s like a paradise.”

The plethora of Jewish events, activities, congregations, schools, businesses, academic programs and organizations is creating what Ken and Jane call a “critical mass” that is transforming the Valley into an increasingly attractive place for Jewish people to live.   “It was just an accident,” Trigere said when talking about the current Jewish community.  “The Yiddish Book Center was the project of a Hampshire College student and it ended up a success.  It was an accident that it happened here in Western Mass.” The Valley is now home to many unique projects, people and organizations that extend the idea of the Jewish community beyond the walls of synagogues and community centers.

Around the corner from Schoen books is the area’s first kosher chicken farm, an extension of the Jewish farming movement that is becoming increasingly prominent in Western Mass. The Pioneer Valley is, also, home to a Jewish scribe, a Jewish matchmaker and monthly workshops by the founder of NeoHasid.  The havarot movement, which brings together small groups in informal settings, is, also, contributing to the transformation of the definition of the Jewish community.  There are Synagogues and congregations in every county of Western Mass.  The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and Jewish Federation have offices in the heart of Springfield.  There is a community center and a day school.  There are film festivals, music festivals, lectures and cultural events.  From the epicenter of the original Jewish settlements in Springfield’s North End, a complex, unique and constantly growing community has sprung.

Abilgail Adams is a freelance writer in Holyoke.

 

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