MAY 10, 2018 – It’s a scene many residents of the North Shore can recall in some variation or another. Off a busy street, a winding road meanders up a steep hill. The further up you go, the better the ocean views get. At the parking lot on top, you see a couple on their way to synagogue dressed in their finest clothes. A boy in a karate uniform runs to class, and his little sister in a ballerina tutu runs after him. Two old women pass by carrying tennis rackets. A group of toddlers in matching shirts walk by holding hands, singing “David Melech Yisrael.”
You haven’t reached the summit of just any hill – rather, you’re on the top of “The Hill,” as it’s come to be known: the aptly named Community Road in Marblehead, where the JCC, Temple Sinai, and Epstein Hillel converge to form the nucleus of the Jewish community of the North Shore.
Community Road as we now know it began 60 years ago in 1958, when philanthropist Eli Cohen and realtor Samuel Backman spearheaded a campaign to purchase 11 acres of land on a rocky cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as a site for Temple Sinai, a rapidly expanding synagogue. At the time, Jews were leaving Lynn, Chelsea and Revere, and moving to Swampscott, Marblehead and Peabody.
“Everyone north of the Mystic River started to migrate as circumstances changed in their lives,” said Alan Kalikow, a long-time congregant at Sinai. “As the community started to leave, they wanted to re-establish themselves and have facilities.”
Temple Sinai began as a Hebrew school that broke off from a Lynn synagogue in 1953 due to various internal disagreements. The dissenting congregants purchased “the Mansion,” a stately home on Atlantic Avenue that quickly evolved from a Hebrew school into a full-blown conservative congregation that needed more space. In 1962, the new facility atop Community Road was complete. Jessie Lipson, who has been a member of Temple Sinai since 1961 and became its first female president in 1987, remembers both a weekend of festivities to celebrate the new synagogue, and an overflow of young families joining. “In the early years, there were somewhere around 250 families,” she recalled. “It was mostly young families. When I served as president of the temple, we had a couple of second-generation board members – kids that grew up in the temple, and then grew up to lead it.”
At the same time, plans were being drawn to build a new Jewish Community Center on the same 11-acre site. Until that point, the JCC had been housed in various locations in Lynn, most notably on 120 Market Street. Jack Stahl, a founder and former JCC president, fondly remembers the Lynn JCC as the invaluable epicenter of a thriving community working hard to establish itself in a new country. “At the time, in the 1940s and ’50s, there was a lot of anti-Semitism, and all the Jewish kids would use the JCC as a second home,” he said. “We all congregated there, had dances there, clubs there – nothing can compare to how important the JCC was in Lynn.”
However, by the 1960s, many of the Jews had left Lynn, and the JCC had fallen on hard times. “The building was old and decrepit, and parents weren’t anxious to bring their children there,” recalls Lipson. “They’d have to come where the demographics were.”
In 1960, the outdoor pool was built in its current location at the bottom of the hill near the old railroad tracks. Many of the activities formerly conducted in Lynn were moved to Temple Israel in Swampscott while community leaders like Harold O. Zimman and Sam Stahl worked hard to raise the million dollars necessary to build the sprawling, state-of-the-art JCC they envisioned. By 1969, the capital campaign was complete, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held. The new center was completed in 1972.
Though a powerful symbol of Jewish success, the JCC of the North Shore has served as a gathering point for Jews and non-Jews alike from a variety of places, who are attracted to its facilities and programming. Stahl, who is a lifetime member of the Board of Directors, is just as pleased with the current JCC as he was with the Lynn JCC of his youth. “I’m so proud that we did it,” he said. “It’s a fabulous building. They have the best health club, the best preschool, the best camp right now. It’s still a great place for Jewish kids and Jewish people.”
The last addition to the Hill followed a similar path to that of Sinai and the JCC – it began in Lynn under a different name, and moved to various makeshift locations before settling into its current incarnation on Community Road. What is now known as the Epstein Hillel School began in 1955 as the Lynn Hebrew Day School, which was housed in the same building as the Lynn Hebrew School. In 1962 it changed its name to the Hillel Academy of the North Shore and moved into the “Mansion” on Atlantic Avenue in Swampscott that had once held Temple Sinai. As enrollment grew, the school began renting out space in Temple Israel classrooms until the late 1970s, when a campaign was started to build a permanent school.
“Eli Cohen spent his summers at a cottage near Tel Noar, and in the late ’70s a group of us went up to see him and asked for a freestanding school for Hillel,” remembers George Freedman. “So he gave the first major gift, and we had a community campaign.”
Community Road was a natural fit for the site of the new school, because there was still land available, and a Jewish day school would surely benefit from close proximity to the JCC and a synagogue. The JCC gave Hillel a 100-year lease on the property next door. Groundbreaking began in 1985, and the current school was completed in 1987. It was renamed the Eli and Bessie Cohen Hillel Academy to honor the Cohens’ generosity. As with Temple Sinai and the JCC, a surge of enrollment followed the construction of the new building. The combination of a new facility, affordable tuition, and the dedicated, passionate leadership of principal Bennett Solomon led to a golden age for Cohen Hillel.
“There was excitement,” recalls Freedman, who sent both his kids to Hillel. “Solomon went and recruited families – he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was so well-liked. Plus after being in a basement, the newness of the school made it an exciting place – there was a lot of momentum.”
Various factors led to a gradual drop in enrollment over the years, but the combination of a recent gift from philanthropist Arthur Epstein, (which led to the school’s name change in 2017), and the leadership of principal Amy Gold have ensured that the school will remain viable for years to come.
The congruence of three venerable yet dynamic institutions has led to an entire generation of Jewish kids who spent their childhoods on The Hill overlooking the ocean. “My entire life took place on Community Road from first to eighth grade,” recalls a local resident who went to Hillel, Temple Sinai and attended programs at the JCC. “Whenever I conjure up a memory from my childhood, chances are it took place there.”
When the land was purchased 60 years ago, that’s likely exactly what everyone had in mind.