By Laura Porter
Congregation Shaarai Torah in Worcester has played a significant role in the city’s Jewish community for decades.
Its history reflects the shifting dynamics of a century of Jewish life: from a population of immigrants to second and third generation Americans; a move from East Side to West Side; the evolution from Orthodox identity to Conservative and back again.
In 2010, facing what seemed like certain extinction in the wake of a severe financial crisis, members of the small Modern Orthodox congregation made the decision to salvage it.
“The Yeshiva was having major financial problems; there was a tiny shul up the street, Beth Judah, that rarely had services. Shaarai Torah was the last man standing in terms of Orthodoxy in Worcester,” says Bernie Rotman, who, along with Alan Cooper, has been an essential part of that decision. “We drew a line in the sand and said, ‘we’ll rebuild.’”
Now, four years later, the congregation, albeit small, is active and dedicated to keeping things going.
“We have services on most Shabbos; 95 percent of the time we can get a minyan,” says Rabbi Yaakov Blotner, who serves as part-time rabbi. “We’re open for all the holidays. We have some community programs, such as adult education lectures on kashrut or on prayer. I’m also available to the community and to members for religious counseling and support.”
There has been a positive response to the synagogue’s renewal.
“We are pleased to see that Shaarai Torah is once again playing an important role in our community,” says Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
The resurgence is part of a long and vibrant Jewish life in Worcester.
The city’s Jewish community emerged in the late nineteenth century, with immigrants primarily from Russia settling on the East Side and creating a world that centered around Water Street. In 1924, there were eight synagogues listed in the city directory. One of them, Shaarai Torah, was built in 1906 on Providence Street.
As fortunes changed, people began to move up and out. In 1920, Temple Emanuel emerged as the first congregation on the East Side. Four years later, a house at 835 Pleasant Street became the second, Congregation Beth Israel. In the mid-1930s, the imposing building that exists today was constructed at that address.
Beth Israel remained an Orthodox synagogue until the mid-1940s, when it became officially Conservative. In the early 1960s, needing more space, the congregation constructed a new, modern building on Jamesbury Drive, where it is today.
At the same time, Shaarai Torah on Providence Street was losing members as the East Side community dwindled. In 1960, it divided into Shaarai Torah East and Shaarai Torah West, the second congregation moving to 835 Pleasant Street as Beth Israel left.
“Some of the members of Shaarai Torah East had moved to the West Side and needed to be able to walk to shul,” says Rabbi Blotner. “Others in the area were looking for an Orthodox synagogue.”
The two Shaarai Torahs existed concurrently from 1960 to 1995, when the Providence Street shul, the last on the East Side, closed its doors at last. Rabbi Blotner himself was its last rabbi, serving from 1977 to 1988. Though still standing, the former synagogue now houses condominiums.
Bernie Rotman, who became a bar mitzvah on Pleasant Street in 1957 when the congregation was Beth Israel, remembers the building as “the address of the Jewish community for so many, many years. It’s an established religious institution in town.”
The crisis emerged in 2008, when evolving financial difficulties reached a peak. A flood in the rabbi’s house on Midland Street was the breaking point. The synagogue could no longer pay its bills, and the decision was made to sell the building.
“There was no Plan B,” says Rotman. “There were 25 families at that point.”
However, when a church stepped forward as the only interested buyer, there was an immediate protest in the Orthodox community.
Rotman was asked to get a halachic ruling on the matter. Traveling back and forth to Yeshiva University to confer with Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rotman was eventually told that “[the rabbi] wouldn’t give his permission, but said that it could happen. There was an uproar. We got letters from all over the country.”
In 2010, the membership met and decided “to make a go of it,” says Rotman. “We took down the For Sale sign, and we worked on attitude.”
Critically, a benefactor stepped forward to take over the rabbi’s house, rehab it completely and sell it. Shaarai Torah could then repay the mortgage without expenditure or losing money.
They hired Rabbi Blotner, who had been reading Torah at the synagogue since 2004. His background includes thirty years as a mental health chaplain, and he continues to serve as a part-time prison chaplain as well as the rabbinic authority for the local kashrut authority.
“He really cares about Jews,” says Rotman. “It shows in a lot of his outreach.”
With its bills paid, the congregation has been careful with expenditures, with members doing a lot of the work on the building themselves.
They held fundraising parties and shifted the concept of members to one of “supporters,” says Rotman.
Today, there are a variety of members, from many different backgrounds.
“It’s a smallish congregation, but they come in all flavors,” says Rabbi Blotner. “Not that many are died-in-the-wool Shaarai Torah people in upbringing or lifelong affiliation. Some had been unhappy where they were; others wanted to start getting more involved in Shabbos in general.”
Though Modern Orthodox in identification, Shaarai Torah is “welcoming to people of all backgrounds,” he continues. “I do outreach to Jews of all backgrounds. I try not to get hung up on affiliation – there are few enough Jews without further divisions.”
He remains “cautiously optimistic” that people will continue to be interested in preserving the synagogue. Rotman notes that the focus needs to be on “making people aware that we are here.”
Long-range plans will require new ideas and creativity. There has been some discussion of creating a Jewish museum. For now, however, “I’m hopeful we can turn the page and make some positive choices for the community,” says Bernie Rotman.