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Worcester Renaissance

Jewish community keeps pace with city’s revival

By Laura Porter

The city of Worcester is quickly becoming a destination.

There’s its growing number of superb restaurants, bakeries and bars, its thriving music and art scene and a magnificent downtown theater that rivals the best of Boston.

With the development of new and restored housing, as well as retail in the form of eclectic shops and the pull of hometown hockey and baseball teams, this former mill town is now a place where people want to be.

And the Greater Worcester Jewish community is more than keeping pace with the city’s revival.

“There is a real energy, a sense of optimism, energy and enthusiasm that matches what’s going on in town,” says Temple Emanuel Sinai president Jeff Greenberg.

Cantor Rachel Reef-Simpson and Rabbi Valerie Cohen breaking ground for the reconstruction of Temple Emanuel Sinai’s building.

Greenberg is describing TES in the wake of its grand reopening in early June, but the words apply across the entire Jewish community.

In the past year, both Temple Emanuel Sinai and Congregation Beth Israel have undergone wildly successful capital campaigns and celebrated significant building renovations.

“There are a lot of positive feelings right now in the community,” says Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. “Seeing the successful campaigns at the [two] congregations played a big role in that.”

So, too, is Congregation Sharaai Torah West more stable after several years of uncertainty.

The recent renovation of its social hall has given the synagogue, built in the early 1940s, a bright and fresh look.

Central Mass. Chabad “continues to do a fine job keeping the community active and engaged as well. Their events are very well attended,” says Schimmel.

But the energy and enthusiasm reaches beyond the city’s synagogues; Jewish agencies in and around Worcester are also experiencing growing interest in their programming.

Emily Rosenbaum, new executive director, has been at the forefront of renovations and new programming at the Worcester JCC.

Emily Rosenbaum began her tenure at the Worcester JCC last winter. With her arrival, the Center has moved forward with new programming as well as key renovations – a more secure front lobby, new flooring and new playgrounds. The JCC’s preschool, sports, camp and senior adult programs continue to flourish, as does the popular Central Massachusetts International Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Author Series.

If there’s one thing all Jewish organizations stress these days it’s outreach. And Federation outreach programs are thriving under Outreach Director Mindy Hall. From the PJ Library to the Young Adult Division (YAD), Shalom Newcomers and Chaverim, geared to adults 40 and up, JFCM is reaching people of all ages and stages.

The religious schools at TES and Beth Israel are in full swing; Kehillah High, the new Worcester community high school that will open this fall, will introduce a flexible and creative program for high school students wishing to continue their Jewish education.

Such optimism hasn’t always been the case, either in Jewish Worcester or the city at large. Late twentieth-century Worcester was faded, its downtown tired, the attempts at reinvigoration not especially successful. The Jewish community, too, had grown smaller and older, past the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. The community could no longer support the multiple synagogues and congregations of 1,000 families of the past. There has been a temptation to give in to resignation about dwindling numbers, both demographic and financial.

Critical changes do reflect and acknowledge that shift: Temple Emanuel Sinai represents the integration of the former Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai. Sharaai Torah East on Providence Street, the last remaining shul in the original Jewish neighborhoods on the east side of the city, closed in the 1980s; it has been adapted into condominiums.

Yet today it seems evident that Jewish Worcester has moved on into a new future, pushing through its challenges to create an energetic community on the cusp of real change.

Certainly, the renewed strength of the synagogues is a key element of that evolution.

So, however, is secular life. For many, the synagogue is no longer the first avenue of choice in connecting to the Jewish community or embracing Judaism. Instead, other Jewish activities are drawing Jews of all ages, and particularly young people and young families.

Fun was had by all at the PJ Library Field Day in June at the Worcester JCC.

The JCC has always represented the full spectrum of the community, and it continues to grow and adapt to changing needs and demands.

Rosenbaum is especially excited about two new programs. The JCC will be the first pilot site in the United States for The Tribe, a monthly family program that brings parents and children together for “an intimate bonding experience,” she says.

Families with children from kindergarten to third grade will embark on “different weekend adventures, taking part in activities they can do together that are all related to Jewish values.”

In addition, this fall will mark the kickoff of JCC Cares, a service program that will make the JCC a clearinghouse for volunteer activities in the general community.

“We will be interfacing with people in our community and the greater community who want to volunteer but need to be connected with the right agency,” says Rosenbaum.

A coordinator at the JCC will work with those looking for the right service opportunity. “We will screen them and then match them and help manage the volunteer service for the organizations,” she says.

Relationships have already been developed with the Worcester public schools, Rachel’s Table, the Worcester County Food Bank, the Worcester Literacy Project, Eisenberg Assisted Living and the Jewish Healthcare Center, and “there will be others,” Rosenbaum says.

Federation has also been actively involved in creating a broad and vibrant sense of Jewish commonality, tailoring its local programs to meet a range of interests and demographics.

The PJ Library Program, supported by the Harold N. Grinspoon Foundation, reaches families with young children by providing them with monthly deliveries of age-appropriate books with Jewish themes. PJ Our Way does the same for children ages 9-11.

Federation’s Young Adult Division, or YAD, revolves around social activities as well as Shabbat and holiday celebrations organized by and for adults from 22 to 45. Two-year-old Chaverim gives adults 40s and up a chance to get together.

Mindy Hall notes that the lines between programs are often blurred.

“Each gives a platform for people in different phases of their lives, but a lot of them overlap; some people do it all because they fit in everywhere,” she says.

Outreach has “recreated a foundation for engagement for young people, either parents or not parents, empty nesters or not empty nesters,” Hall says. “It is another opportunity to connect with the greater community other than a synagogue.”

Rabbi Aviva Fellman and young Beth Israel members stand amidst renovations of the synagogue’s sanctuary.

There is currently a 50-person waiting list for PJ Library, and 50 new people joined in January. In the past two years, PJ has had close to 150 new requests. “That’s huge for the size of our community,” Hall says.

In addition to their own separate activities, all of the programs sponsor community events, sometimes jointly. A recent Latino cooking event, for example, was both a YAD and a Chaverim event, drawing from both groups. For last year’s historical tour of Jewish Worcester, YAD was one of the sponsoring groups.

Hall actively tries to engage everyone, but she is particularly quick to reach out to newcomers to the area. During the course of her nine years at Federation, she has seen continual growth.

“People in their 20s, 30s, 40s are coming; more seniors are also coming to be with their children,” she says.

The population has become more diverse, both culturally and economically, and there is a large percentage of interfaith families. Hall estimates that outreach has brought 1,500 people into the community. “You can’t track everybody, but the Federation list has probably doubled.”

One of the newest ventures in the Jewish community seeks to move forward by looking backward. The Central Massachusetts Jewish Historical Society, formed late last spring under the aegis of JFCM and in association with the Worcester Historical Museum, is committed to preserving the community’s Jewish past.

Its first event, a breakfast held at Sharaai Torah in May to gauge general interest, drew over 60 people. Current efforts are geared toward asking people to come forward with photographs, documents and artifacts that can be recorded and preserved at the Worcester Historical Museum. A celebration of Worcester Jewish History is planned for late November.

Clearly, times are changing.

“When I talk to people about the number of new PJ subscriptions, the numbers in YAD and Chaverim and just the amount of activity going on in the Jewish community, it’s clear that they recognize that there is something different taking place here,” says Steven Schimmel. “Couple that with the renaissance going on in Worcester, and it makes sense that people would be feeling so good about it.”

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