REVERE – The kosher butchers are gone, the delis long ago served their last corned beef sandwich, and the shoe shops that lined the city are no longer. Revere, one of the seminal Jewish communities in Greater Boston, is now losing its last official tie to Judaism and the Eastern European immigrants who helped build one of the strongest communities north of Boston early last century. In the coming months, Temple B’nai Israel – Revere’s last synagogue – will close.
“For everybody, it’s just a huge loss,” said Debby Cherry, the temple’s president. “I think we put it off as long as we could. But we wanted to do it right, with respect and dignity – as you’d treat an aging parent.”
For over a century, three synagogues served working class Jews who owned mom and pop stores on the city’s vaunted Shirley Ave, Revere Beach and other deeply rooted neighborhoods by the ocean. Those Jews – who mostly came from Poland, Russia and Lithuania – also built a Jewish Community Center off of Shirley Ave. Teens gathered at the temple, the JCC and at “Punk’s Corner” at Revere Beach, where they were joined by other Jews from Chelsea, Malden, Winthrop, Everett and Boston. By 1940, about one-quarter of the city’s population – or 8,600 people – was Jewish.
The melting pot produced legal experts, Torah scholars, educators, working stiffs, and actors such as the late Madeline Kahn. But by the 1970s, most families had moved to more comfortable suburbs and the once-vibrant synagogues began to grow dark. In 1998, Congregation Ahavis Achim closed, and in 2015 Congregation Tifereth Israel shut down.
But Temple B’nai Israel, which opened in 1906, tried to hang on. The synagogue, housed in a modest brick and concrete two-story building adorned with Stars of David and the Ten Commandments, seemed to have a promising future just 20 years ago when it had 200 members. But membership dropped in recent decades and despite efforts to entice Jews to join, few came.
“We tried to find the hidden Jews but we couldn’t find them. They were well-hidden,” said Cherry, who has been attending the temple nearly every Shabbat since she first started helping to prepare the Oneg Shabbat repast in 1962. Cherry, whose father was a temple president and whose mother helped lead B’nai Israel’s sisterhood, became the temple’s first female president in 1998.
With its stained glass windows, honoring past presidents and local luminaries such as “King” Halikman, Abraham Shulkin, Minnie Aronson and Simon Dreyer, the temple is a throwback to the neighborhood shuls that once dotted Jewish communities hard by the Mystic River. Pews engraved with Stars of David fill the main sanctuary; stained glass windows and a skylight bathe the synagogue in a golden hue in the afternoon; the bimah, flanked by American and Israeli flags, is anchored with a mahogany ark, where several Torahs stand. And the balcony, where women once davened when it was an Orthodox temple in the 1920s, is now silent.
For decades after World War II, the synagogue thrived. Many, like Cherry, were drawn to the simple edifice because it provided a sense of place and community. “Our theme has always been the people and the community. We’ve always been a haimish [home-like or unpretentious] community. That’s who we are,” said Cherry, a high school English teacher.
These days, much of the planning to close the synagogue is being done by Cherry, and Jamie Farrell, a past temple president. Farrell grew up Catholic and converted to Judaism and joined the shul when she moved to Beachmont with her husband, Alex, and son, Kolya. Last year, Kolya celebrated his bar mitzvah at the temple, where it was live-streamed to St. Petersburg to allow his father’s relatives to experience the service.
“The minute we walked through the door we felt like we belonged. My husband was so comfortable and embraced his Jewish identity more fully. Here he could be Jewish and relax. He felt like he could be himself,” said Farrell.
Cherry and Farrell say there has already been interest in the building, and expects that it will remain a house of worship after it is sold. In the meantime, the temple will hold an open house on May 19 for Jews who want to see the shul again; the last service will be held on Friday night, May 24, and in June, the temple will hold additional open houses for people who want their family’s yahrzeit plaques.
Two of the temple’s five Torahs will be sent to a congregation in Washington, and a synagogue in Kenya. And the other Torahs, the ark and remaining Judaica will be disseminated to synagogues in need. After the temple is sold, the proceeds will be used to establish an endowment to honor the legacy of the congregation.
While Cherry is focused on preserving the dignity and memory of the temple, it has proved to be an overwhelming experience at times. Said Cherry, who wiped away tears as she spoke: “It’s bittersweet because I know we are the doing the right thing and I appreciate every minute we still have but it’s harder and harder to ignore that we’re wrapping things up. This is family. This is my Jewish family.”
Email Steven A. Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.