AUGUST 2, 2018, CHELSEA – In front of a nondescript parking lot in Chelsea, Ken Isaacs of Kingston, N.H. reminisced about a world that no longer exists. What is now faded asphalt with an occasional pothole was once the site of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, a cultural hub of a large and thriving Jewish community. “This building was the single most important institution in my development as a kid,” said Isaacs. “This building had social events, athletic events … I can’t even begin to measure how important this building was, and when this came down, it was like it tore a piece of my heart out.”
Many of the landmarks that once comprised Chelsea’s Jewish community are no longer standing, since the majority of its Jewish population left in the decades following World War II. However, for Dr. Ellen Rovner, a cultural anthropologist and adjunct professor at Boston University, the memory and legacy of Jewish Chelsea lives on.
“I’m really seeing it now as a way to revisit early Jewish history in this country,” said Rovner. Rovner, who lived in Chelsea with her extended family until 1959, and started the monthly walking tours last year after showing the city to a group of interns at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She then applied for a grant from the city of Chelsea, and used the funds to publicize the tour.
“Jews dominated the city for the first half of the twentieth century … and I believe that the memories and stories from that time are really important. [There’s] so little that really marks it, other than memories, so this is an effort to concretize that.”
In the 1930s and 40s, roughly half of Chelsea’s resident were Jewish, and it came to be known as the “Jerusalem of America.” A compact city of only 1.8 square miles, Chelsea was home to the second highest concentration of Jews in America outside of New York City. On those congested streets, there was a humming, close-knit community.
On this day, some Chelsea natives who signed up for the tour were emotional about their return.
“The best! The best!” said Janis Fox Steigman, now of Framingham, of her childhood home. “My son is jealous of my hometown, and he’s 40. I still have friends from elementary school.” On the ground floor of the Walnut Street Synagogue, Steigman kvelled when she saw a plaque honoring her father, Abel Fox.
During its heyday, the community established 21 different synagogues, all the more impressive given Chelsea’s small size. The temples were often grouped more according to cultural affiliation than religious practice. “People organized shuls based on what villages they were from or what they did,” Rovner explained. “It was more important than religion, because every shul was Orthodox.”
For example, one of the shuls was known as the “Schmattasky Shul,” because many of its members were in the cloth recycling business (known as the “schmatta” business, after the Yiddish word for “rag”) that once supported many of Chelsea’s Jews. Rovner stopped to point out the former sites of Pa’oli Tzedek, which was once a synagogue for Lithuanian Jews, and Linus Tzedek, a synagogue for Russian Jews that was also known as the “Carpenter’s Shul” because many of its congregants were carpenters.
Rovner devotes more time to Chelsea’s two remaining active synagogues. Ed Medros gives a tour of the Walnut Street Synagogue – or Walnut Street Shul – where he is president. The shul is a grand, Romanesque Revival building modeled after the great synagogues of Central Europe. The only active Orthodox synagogue remaining in Chelsea, it was once known as the “Queen of Shuls” for its stately architecture and influential congregants. Built in 1909, it underwent extensive refurbishment in 1991, and in 1993, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. On the ground floor, there is a museum of artifacts and photos from the synagogue’s illustrious past.
The tour also visits Temple Emmanuel, Chelsea’s other active synagogue. Formed in 1932 as a Conservative synagogue, it was informally known as the “Underground Railroad of Judaism” due to its progressive policies. Unlike the Walnut Street Synagogue, Emmanuel allowed men and women to sit together, and as early as the 1930s, girls were able to have bat mitzvahs, which was rare at the time. According to Rovner, Temple Emmanuel attracted a new generation of upwardly mobile Jews who were more secular than their parents and grandparents. “This was always the place that the young professional class – the children of the rag shop owners – joined,” she said. Today, the temple continues its progressive spirit. It has inexpensive membership dues, and welcomes interfaith and LGBT members.
Other stops on the tour include the iconic Katz Bagel Bakery, the site of the former YMHA, and the Chelsea Hebrew School, a stand-alone building built in 1922 right across the street from City Hall. That a Hebrew school could be located across the street from City Hall is a testament to both the strength of the Jewish community and to the spirit of Chelsea. “This was primo property, so the fact that a group of Jewish people could buy land to build in a Hebrew school in a time when anti-Semitism was really pretty rife says a lot about the city of Chelsea,” said Rovner. “It says, one, that Jews were pretty influential in the city … and two, that the city was, and I think remains, a pretty welcoming place.”
Rovner’s organization, the Chelsea Gateway Project, helps continue that welcoming spirit. She sits on the board of the Chelsea Collaborative, an immigrant rights organization, and has participated in an ADL-sponsored bus tour of Chelsea and roundtable discussion between Jews and Latinos.
Perhaps Isaacs’s grandmother, who lived in Chelsea for much of her 108 years, said it best. “She’d sit out on the balcony on Highland Street and watch the world go by,” Isaacs recalled. “And in Jewish she would say, ‘What a country, America! There’s room for everybody!’”
The next tours will be on September 26 and October 11. For more information visit facebook.com/chelseajewishtours.