JUNE 15, 2017 – CHELSEA – The 10 Chelsea families who founded the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Shalom in 1897 had no idea they had erected their synagogue in a city that would soon be home to the largest percentage of Jews in the United States except for New York.
In 1890, 82 Jews lived in Chelsea. By 1910, that number had swelled to 11,000 – one out of every three residents – as Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe fled oppression and poverty and came to America in search of a better life. By 1930, almost half of Chelsea was Jewish, earning it the moniker, “Yerushalayim d’America.” In its 1.8 square miles, Chelsea had 18 synagogues.
When the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 reduced most of the city – including Agudath Shalom – to ashes, the shul’s immigrant founders were undaunted. They rolled up their sleeves and in 1909 rebuilt the synagogue on Walnut Street, which inspired the new building’s nickname, the Walnut Street Shul.
Designed by architect Harry Dustin Joll, the magnificent building boasts ceiling frescoes painted by immigrant artists and an awe-inspiring ark by Sam Katz, the renowned master woodworker from the Ukraine who made Chelsea his home in the 1920s.
Fast forward to 2017, and most everything about Chelsea has changed.
Gone are the kosher butchers, bakeries, and religious and cultural institutions. Yiddish and Hebrew have been replaced by the mother tongues of immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia. According to the most recent Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University survey, Chelsea’s Jewish population has shrunk to statistical insignificance.
Of the 18 synagogues, two remain: Temple Emmanuel and the Walnut Street Synagogue.
The Walnut Street Synagogue’s congregants are determined to revitalize their synagogue and, while they’re at it, to blaze a new trail for Orthodox Judaism. Last September, they hired Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first woman in the United States to preside in an Orthodox synagogue using the title “rabbi.”
Within the world of Orthodox Jewry, this is a big deal.
Rabbi Kagedan attended Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s religious training program founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the Bronx in 2009. Born and raised in Canada, she was first hired as a member of the spiritual leadership team at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue in Randolph, NJ.
Because rabbi is a masculine word, Weiss allows his graduates to adopt whatever title they want.
Some choose rabba (a feminized version of rabbi) or maharat (a Hebrew acronym that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality, and religious law). When Kagedan and her two female classmates graduated in 2015, she alone chose the title rabbi.
“It was the title that most accurately described the work that I trained to do.” she said. “People did try to discourage me because it hasn’t been a typical choice in Orthodoxy.”
The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents over 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, saw the matter differently. It adopted a policy after Kagedan’s graduation prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.
“Should it be allowed? Who’s going to make it illegal?” asked Jonathan Sarna, the author, historian, and Brandeis professor who has written extensively about American Judaism. “In America, the congregants make their own decisions. We don’t have a Chief Rabbi. We don’t have a Ministry of Religion. Every congregation is, in a sense, a law unto itself,” he said by phone from Jerusalem.
Religious politics didn’t matter to board member Richard Zabot, whose grandparents arrived in Chelsea in 1905 from Russia and were among the early leaders of the Walnut Street Shul. In Rabbi Kagedan, he saw a perfect fit. “She showed a willingness to work with the unknown in order to achieve our goal: the rejuvenation of our synagogue,” he said.
The attraction was mutual. “The shul presents a challenge, which I am always up for,” Kagedan said. “I also feel committed to keeping a shul that has existed for so many years going. Continuity is powerful.”
Devra Zabot, Richard’s daughter and events chair of the shul’s museum, described the extensive vetting process Rabbi Kagedan received. “Given that the board members are all over the age of 70 and mostly male, this was a heavily discussed decision,” she said.
In the 10 months she has been at the spiritual helm, Rabbi Kagedan has been busy. She organized a Chanukah celebration with a klezmer band that attracted over 150 people, including Zahava Stern, a 28-year-old new member.
“I met a lot of people who grew up in Chelsea and were so excited to come back and see an active community in a place they hold so dear to their hearts,” she said, calling Chelsea “a secret gem right in the middle of the action.”
The Walnut Street Synagogue offers monthly Shabbat and holiday services, classes on a variety of Jewish topics and holidays, and pastoral counseling and services. Rabbi Kagedan is the founding member of the Chelsea Interfaith Council and is committed to integrating the shul with the Chelsea community.
The shul has 120 members, and it operates as fully Orthodox, with a mechitza separating men and women on Shabbat and during High Holiday services.
Although her interests extend to interfaith and social justice issues, Chelsea and the Walnut Street Synagogue are her immediate focus. “Chelsea was at one time a real center of Jewish life in the region. My priority is to get Chelsea back on the radar of Jews in Massachusetts,” she said.
This is music to Richard Zabot’s ears. He remembers as a child when all 1,109 seats would be occupied during the High Holidays.
“The shul hasn’t lost any of its charm or awe,” he said. “We’re inviting 900 new people to join us this Yom Tov and be part of the preservation of the future.”