Published on July 20th, 2017 | by WMJledger0
‘How are we going to be Jews here?’
Irving Seidman tells the story of a Jewish community that grew in a quintessential New England town
By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST — “No place, no rabbi, no prayer books, no Torah, no Ark…The stakes were high.”
These are not lines from a Jewish book of mystery or Daniel Silva novel.
They are the start of the chapter, “The High Holidays are Coming” in Irving Seidman’s book The Jewish Community of Amherst: The Formative Years, 1969-1979.
And while Seidman’s goal was to tell a straight-forward story about the history of the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), his book is full of interesting stories and remembrances from founders of the congregation. These founders were Jews who in the late 1950s and early 1960s began arriving in Amherst as students and faculty members at the University of Massachusetts and who came to seek each other out in this “quintessential New England town.”
“Many grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in New York, Boston and Baltimore,” he said. “The came to Amherst and wondered, ‘How are we going to be Jews here?”
Seidman culled the information in the book from personal interviews and JCA documents from more than 40 years ago.
“What many people think are dry — committee meetings, board meetings, minutes, newsletters — I began to see as threads of a story that just built from document to document,” he said.
The book begins with the first Jews in Amherst – seven “Hebrews” living in the town in 1938. They include a couple of families who ran shops – a shoemaker, a tailor — and a Jewish student at UMass, Max Goldberg, who later became a member of the faculty.
“At first it was a trickle. Gradually it became a stream,” Goldberg is quoted as saying in the book, describing the influx of Jews who moved to Amherst with the growth of what was to become UMass.
Seidman himself was one of those Jews arriving in Amherst in the 1960s.
A native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Seidman and his wife Linda came to Amherst in 1968 with their two small children, Rachel and Ethan.
Linda was an archivist at UMass and Seidman was a professor of education at UMass and also taught and about interviewing as qualitative research – which came in handy when writing his book.
He takes the reader through years when some Amherst Jews joined Congregation B’nai Israel in neighboring Northampton and sent their children to its Hebrew School, which eventually became inconvenient for some; to the formation of the Amherst Jewish Community, a more cultural meeting ground; and the Amherst Jewish Education Organization, founded in 1966 over concern about providing a Jewish education for the town’s children.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the two groups came together over their shared love of Israel and in 1969, JCA was founded with a membership of 35 families.
Seidman weaves together the story of the JCA’s early years, from borrowing arks and Torahs from other synagogues to the support of local rabbis, including Rabbi Arthur Langenauer of B’nai Israel and Rabbi Yechiael Lander of UMass Hillel, who later became JCA’s part-time rabbi.
“B’nai Torah was very supportive of us. They did all they could to lend us books and an ark for the Torah,” he said.
The Seidmans themselves, joined JCA in 1972 when their daughter Rachel was six and ready to start Sunday school.
“I was sort of rebelling at that time in my life and moving away [from Judaism] and coming back,” he recalled. “A friend of mine, David Schimmel, who was founder, came to me and said, ‘Look, your kids are Jewish and they are going to be known as Jewish and they should know something about being Jewish. You should join the Jewish Community of Amherst.’ And we did.”
When the Seidmans joined JCA it was still going through some growing pains.
“We had no home. We went to services at the Lutheran Church. Committees met in peoples’ homes,” Seidman said. “Rev. Koenig of the Lutheran Church was just magnificent in his reaching out to us. He first said, ‘You can come into the sanctuary and have services there.” And then a group went in and there was a very prominent crucifix. He looked at it and said, ‘Maybe on second thought this isn’t the best place, how about our social hall?’”
JCA held its Friday night services at the church and its High Holiday services in Johnson Chapel at Amherst College until the congregation began to think about buying land and building some kind of “utilitarian” structure as its synagogue. But in 1976, the Second Congregational Church, whose membership had dwindled to 20 families, could no longer support their longtime building and sold it to the JCA. The church leaders wanted it to remain a religious facility.
“They had offers from businesses who wanted to convert it into offices, and they turned those offers down they lowered the price and offered it to the JCA,” Seidman said.
The book goes into some detail about the renovation of the building, halachic issues that arose in the 1970s, the purchase of JCA’s first Torah in 1973 and other milestone the congregation experienced from 1969-1979.
The idea to write the book began about six years ago when JCA member Frieda Howard went upstairs to the old social hall and found several boxes filled with paperwork.
“She knew those were the founding documents,” Seidman said.
His wife, Linda, and Elaine Trehub, another archivist from Mount Holyoke, were enlisted to help organize the papers. Irving was asked if he could possibly organize an exhibit of the materials, but he decided that he should write a book instead.
“I knew the founding members were dying now and their story had not been told. I wanted to honor the founders and tell this story,” Seidman said. “Some of us make contributions to the synagogue by reading Torah, some by leading services. This was something I could do to make a contribution.”
But just because his wife the archivist was organizing the documents didn’t mean he had carte blanche.
“She put very strict limits on me. I couldn’t pull the papers, I couldn’t copy the papers,” he laughed. “I went into the office where [the documents] were one, maybe two mornings a week for a year. And just started going through the papers and seeing what was there.”
What was there turned out to be the touching story of a community determined to come together.
“With the will to work through stumbling blocks and potentially divisive issues, the founders and early members strove to accomplish their underlying goal of becoming true to their organization’s name,” Seidman said in the book’s preface.
Seidman used his experience doing interviews for qualitative research to glean information from JCA members.
“I interviewed as many founders as I could find. People who were members in 1969 and who still were members of the JCA,” he said. “I interviewed about their background, about how they came to Amherst and what they experienced at the JCA.”
He stopped at 1979 — after JCA’s first 10 years.
“It covers almost every aspect of the JCA that we have now,” he explained. “First we started with Friday evening services once a month. By the end of 10 years we had them on a weekly basis. Then we had the High Holiday services, then we our first Torah, a significant event. Then we had a building, hired a part-time rabbi…then in 1978 and 1979 we established a cemetery. We built on that structure for the next 40 years.”
When asked what surprised him most when he was researching the book, Seidman said it was the origin of JCA’s Torah.
Purchased in late 1972 for $485 from Rabbi Moshe Eisenbach, it was rescued from a synagogue in Zdzeciol, a Polish town the Jews called “Zhetl.”
When writing the book, Seidman came across a newspaper article in Yiddish about the Torah that was part of JCA’s archive. He went to Rabbi Benjamin Weiner who was chatting with JCA gabbai Aaron Bousel at the time, and asked his if he could translate the Yiddish. The rabbi said it was about a town called Zhetl.
“Zhetl! My family is from Zhetl!” exclaimed Bousel.
“So our gabbai was reading from a Torah that was saved from his grandfather’s hometown,” Seidman said. “That was amazing and strongly moving to me.”
Seidman said it took a year to do the research and another year to write the book, which was self-published through Off the Common Book Publishing in Amherst. Proceeds of the book go the Rabbi’s discretionary fund.
Seidman, who retired in 2008 and is now professor emeritus at UMass, said he has no plans to write a follow up about JCA following 10 years.
“No, I’m going to be 80,” he laughed. “Maybe someone else will pick it up.”