By Cindy Mindell
An estimated 10,000 Jews live in the Central Massachusetts area comprising Worcester County and the northwest corner of Middlesex County. The region is served by 11 synagogues – three Reform, one Conservative, one Independent, two traditional Orthodox, and two Chabad-Lubavitch, as well as the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts (JFCM), the Worcester JCC, and several Jewish communal agencies and programs.
The Jewish community in this area traces its earliest roots to the American Revolution, when the British occupied Newport, R.I. Several Jewish families, headed by Aaron Lopez, a wealthy shipping merchant, left Newport to live for the duration of the war in Leicester, five miles west of Worcester. After the war, the Leicester community dissolved when the Jewish families returned to Newport.
Worcester had no permanent Jewish settlement until after the Civil War, when the Straus and Gross families established stores in the city. In 1870 and again in the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began to settle in Worcester in larger numbers. As in many U.S. cities, Jews started out as peddlers and small-scale shopkeepers, and by the 1960s were engaged in every branch of industry and commerce and in all professions. At that time, much of the Worcester Jewish community began migrating from the eastern part of the city to the West Side, into the western suburbs of Holden and Paxton, and towns east of Worcester, including Westborough, Northborough, Millbury, and Shrewsbury. With the Boroughs JCC and three synagogues, Westborough is considered a second hub of Jewish life in Central Massachusetts.
A demographic study in the early 2000s confirmed that the Jewish community was shrinking in Worcester and growing in the eastern suburbs, says Natalie Rudolph, who served on the study’s steering committee and is current JFCM board president. The study inspired JFCM’s strategic-planning process launched in June 2005, to assess community needs and dynamics, and to identify the key issues the community should address over the next five years. Those leaders who devised the plan probably did not envision the amount of change about to impact the community.
Jewish Central Massachusetts is a community in flux, and the past year bears out this reality and the vision behind the strategic plan, says Howard Borer, executive director of JFCM.
As a result of the planning process, Federation changed its allocations process from a lump-sum approach to programming grants that brought several agencies and organizations into a collaborative process and outcome, Rudolph says, a model followed by many Jewish Federations around the country.
There were openings – the PaRDeS pluralistic community religious school that brings together children from three very distinct synagogue environments in a common culture.
There was tweaking: Jewish Family Service of Worcester is completing its first year of operation under a management agreement with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Boston. “For many years, Jewish Family Service of Worcester moved away from providing meaningful services that met the strategic goals of the Jewish community,” says Borer. “With the new arrangement, Federation has entered into an agreement with JFCS Boston to more meaningfully serve the needs of the Jewish community in addition to the many excellent services currently provided by JFS to the general community.”
There were closings – Perlman Funeral Home, founded by George Perlman in 1939. This leaves Worcester without a Jewish funeral home. Borer said discussions are underway to consider alternatives that would provide tahara, preparing the body for burial.
And there is still unfinished business. About a year ago, after many attempts to integrate Worcester’s two Reform temples, Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai, an initiative began in earnest. “Temple Emanuel’s building is large and was built to accommodate a membership of over one thousand,” Borer says. “A demographic shift has occurred and the membership of both congregations has declined over the years. Realizing that, by integrating both congregations, a new revitalized Reform presence could be created, the leadership of both temples agreed to begin discussions.” The past year has seen lay leaders and volunteers from the two congregations working to move the two congregations closer to integration.
With so many changes occurring at once, the community is fragile now, Borer says. “Change is hard; the status quo is much easier to deal with, and not everyone likes to see change,” he says. “But in order to deal with reality, we must! We are reshaping and recreating a new, stronger, more robust community ready and eager to meet the challenges of an ever-changing Jewish world.”
Jewish Worcester timeline
1875 B’nai Yisrael synagogue (aka Balbirishocker Shul) is established
1877 Burial society is formed
1887 B’nai Avraham synagogue is established
1892 Shaarei Tzedek (aka Tower of Truth) synagogue is established
1890s Agudas Achim (aka Good Brothers) synagogue is established
1900 Tzemach Tzedek (aka Anshe Smolian) synagogue is established (changes name to Sons of Jacob in 1923)
1904 B’nai Yaakov and Shaarai Torah (1904), which was merged with, have survived.
1905 Hebrew Free School is founded
1913 Agudas Israel (Anshe Safard) Sephardic synagogue is established
1915 Jewish Home for the Aged is founded, also serving as an orphanage until 1968
1920 A number of existing charitable organizations combine to form the United Jewish Charities, later Jewish Social Service Agency
1921 Temple Emanuel (Reform) is established; moves to permanent quarters in 1923; erects new building in 1949; expands in 1961.
1923 B’nai Yaakov synagogue established
1924 Congregation Beth Israel (Conservative) is established; erects new building in 1939, and again in 1959
1926 Jewish Civic Leader weekly is founded
1927 Ivriah School is founded, combining Hebrew Free School with the existing Orthodox congregational schools into community talmud Torah supported by Worchester Jewish Federation (closed in the 1980s)
1936 Jewish Community Council is established
1939 Jewish Welfare Fund is established
1939 George Perlman establishes Sinai Funeral Home (originally founded by Harry Jacob Perlman in Lowell, Mass.)
1940s Worcester JCC is founded
1947 Jewish Community Council and Jewish Welfare Fund merge to form Worcester Jewish Federation
1948 Congregation Beth Judah (Orthodox) is founded
1948 B’nai Avraham and Shaarai Torah merge
1950 Jewish Community Center is established in old Temple Emanuel building
1957 Temple Sinai (Reform) is founded
1959 Congregation Tifereth Israel (Orthodox / Chabad-Lubavitch) is founded
1959 Yeshiva Academy is founded by Chabad of Worcester
1965 B’nai Yaakov and Tifereth Israel merge
1966 JCC moves into new building
1967 Worcester JCC opens in newly erected (and currently occupied) building
1968 Jewish Social Service Agency renamed Jewish Family Service
1971 Westborough Jewish Women’s Club is established; renamed Westborough Jewish Association in 1973
1976 The Jewish Civic Leader is purchased by Mar-Len Publications, combined with the Jewish Chronicle, and renamed the Chronicle Leader
1977 Westborough Jewish Association founds Congregation B’nai Shalom
1987 Congregation B’nai Shalom (Westborough) moves into newly erected building
1992 The Chronicle Leader is renamed the Jewish Chronicle
1996 Beth Tikvah Synagogue is founded in Westborough
1996 Worcester JCC expands facility
1997 Worcester Jewish Federation renamed Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts to more accurately reflect its Worcester County-wide service area
2001 Chabad of Westborough opens
2005 New Jewish Academy founded (successor to Solomon Schechter Day School)
2005 Jewish Federation initiates community-wide strategic planning process
2012 PaRDes community pluralistic religious school opens
2013 Sinai (Perlman) Funeral Home closes