By Stacey Dresner
HOLYOKE – On March 16, Congregation Sons of Zion was full of Purim spirit – the aroma of fresh hamantaschen wafted out from the synagogue kitchen and groggers sounded loudly during the reading of the megillah by Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, which congregation president Stephen Levine called “most hilarious.”
But the celebration of Purim was not the only reason members of the community gathered at Sons of Zion that day – it was also a celebration of Sons of Zion’s 110th anniversary.
Besides the Purim activities, the anniversary celebration also included a performance in the sanctuary by Mak’hela, the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts. Under the directIon of conductor, Elaine Broad Ginsberg, the group performed a special piece that she composed especially for Sons of Zion’s anniversary.
A kosher lunch followed the concert (and featured the yummy hamantaschen prepared in the synagogue that morning). The lunch also featured testimonials to Sons of Zion from Mayor Alex Morse, State Senator Donald Humason, State Rep. Aaron Vega and State Rep. John Scibak, as well as Scott Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts.
The Paper City
While there was some organization of Jews in Holyoke during the late 1890s, Sons of Zion was formally founded in Holyoke on March 18, 1904, when it was chartered.
From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, Holyoke was the world’s biggest paper manufacturer and was even called “The Paper City.”
During the 1950s, Sons of Zion had its heyday with several hundred members who could easily fill its large 280-seat sanctuary. In those days, the number of people attending High Holiday services was so large that they often had to rent the local War Memorial Auditorium.
But over the years, as many of Holyoke’s mills were closed, members of the community were forced to relocate and, like many congregations, Sons of Zion has had to deal with a decrease in membership. Today there are around 100 member families.
In the early 1990s, Sons of Zion and the local Orthodox synagogue, Rodphey Sholom, talked about joining together, Levine said. But it didn’t work out because Sons of Zion is totally egalitarian, “There wasn’t a real meeting of minds,” Levine said. But the two congregations remain friendly and the two do share Chanukah programming and other services, collaborating when they can.
Sons of Zion’s members come from as far away as Longmeadow, Springfield, Chicopee, Granby, Northampton, Belchertown and Enfield, Conn.
“We’re really non-competitive,” Levine said. “We are not trying to win members away from anybody. We are perfectly happy with 100 members. We know that we have something to offer and the capacity to handle more members.”
Levine noted that three of Sons of Zion’s members have been honored with the Pynchon Award, the community service award given annually by the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts: Joan Kagan, director of Square One, Springfield’s early childhood education program; Attorney Ellen Freyman; and Aaron Lansky, the founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.
The retired dentist now lives with his second wife Molly, 97, who works in the office. When someone calls into Sons of Zion, Molly’s warm, grandmotherly voice is the first thing they hear.
“We are the two elders of the synagogue,” said Dr. Robbins, who works with his wife in the Sons of Zion office. “She answers the phones and I am her gopher. We put out the bulletin and do all sorts of parental things in the synagogue. We tell them what to do and what not to do,” he joked.
“In short, Sons of Zion is a family, with the trials and tribulations of being a family and the joys of being part of a family,” Dr. Robbins said. “We have extreme loyalty to it and know it is going to thrive and be here for a long time.”
Sons of Zion is the home of Holyoke Jewish Seniors, a social group that brings Jewish seniors from around the area together regularly. A few years ago, the congregation raised funds to make the building handicapped-accessible to accommodate its aging members. They also received a grant to install a new sound system to allow its seniors to hear services better. “It was a big shot in the arm for the synagogue,” Levine said. “A lot more people were able to participate and get to the services.”
But despite its aging members, the congregation also has its share of younger families.
Andrea Fox of Northampton joined Sons of Zion three years ago, with her partner Maureen Carney and son, Zachary, 11. Fox gave a speech at the anniversary celebration.
“SOZ is like a secret treasure hidden amongst the other treasures that reside in Holyoke,” Fox said. “Our synagogue is a place where there is always something good going on. We celebrate each holiday with joy, gusto and merriment, we are home to several Jewish groups and activities. My partner and I have a son who attends the Hebrew school. Our family experiences the unconditional love that is given here and we feel like we are being held in the palm of God’s hands.”
Rabbi Saul Perlmutter has served as Sons of Zion’s spiritual leader for the past ten years. He is also the longtime executive director of Hillel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“”She is very renowned and is a wonderful, charismatic rabbi,” Levine said. “We are fortunate to have him here for the past ten years as our rabbi.”
Before Perlmutter, the congregation’s rabbis included Rabbis Marc Rudolph, Jacob Malke and Mark Finkel. Max Chorowski fills in for Rabbi Perlmutter on days when he can not lead the service.
“Sons of Zion is an incredibly participatory and vibrant community,” said Rabbi Perlmutter. “It is small enough to be warm and intimate, like an extended family that is always open to someone new at the table. At the same time, Sons of Zion is large enough to be multifaceted and diverse. I love the mix of ages, backgrounds, and interests that find expression in our book club, movie and lecture series, Monday and Thursday morning minyanim (with breakfast following, of course!), garden (one of first synagogue gardens in the Valley), and Shabbat services filled with singing, spirit, and pleasant surprises.”
Joan and Michael Rosner joined Sons of Zion in 1970 and raised their three now-grown children there. Michael Rosner is a physician in Holyoke and Joan served as educational director of the synagogue’s Hebrew school. Today the Hebrew school is very small, with just a few children, who, Joan Rosner says, get “an extremely personalized and excellent education.”
“Sons of Zion is an amazing congregation. Every member really feels like they are part of an extended family,” Joan said. “We truly care about each other and within the confines of the building we are very social. If people are looking for a place where you are real individual and where people really care, this is the place.”