GLOUCESTER – For 115 years, Temple Ahavat Achim has served as the nucleus of a thriving Jewish community “at the end of the world,” as President Amy Farber refers to far-flung Cape Ann. After a devastating fire in December 2007 burned the temple to the ground, the congregation has rebuilt itself, both physically and spiritually, into a bustling group offering everything from lobster trap menorahs to a Torah study group so popular it attracts non-Jewish members of the community.
In the early years, the congregation met in various houses in Gloucester and did not have an official rabbi. But as the Jewish population of Cape Ann grew, so did its synagogue. In 1951, during a time when current member Arley Pett remembers Gloucester’s Main Street hosting one Jewish business after the next, the congregation moved into the former First Parish Church downtown, steps away from Gloucester City Hall. It would remain there until one winter night 56 years later.
When the temple and surrounding apartments were swallowed up in a massive inferno in the bitter cold early morning of Dec. 15, 2007, the Jewish community knew it wanted to rebuild. After almost three years of collective soul-searching, a new and rebranded congregation rose from the ashes.
“The crisis necessitated a reaffirmation of commitment, and I think we’re still kind of riding that wave,” said Rabbi Steven Lewis, who as a new rabbi guided the congregation through the rebuilding process that followed the fire. “When you are in the highway in snow and your car does a 360 and ends up safely in the median strip, then you start driving at the speed limit.”
Temple President Amy Farber drew parallels to the fire of 2007 and the recent fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris that destroyed its spire and two-thirds of the roof. “Although far from as grand and well-known as Notre-Dame, the Ahavat Achim building was a historic building with a local story, and it is missed by many,” said Farber. “I was heartbroken to see the horror of the fire of Notre-Dame. Thank goodness there were no deaths.”
In 2011, a gleaming, light-filled building reopened in the same spot in the heart of downtown Gloucester. In their new home, members made some important decisions: they eliminated mandatory dues and started an endowment to support high-quality Jewish education for the entire community. The Sylvia Cohen Religious School, named for the longtime Hebrew school director, is the center of Jewish learning on Cape Ann.
“People who are members of our temple come for a variety of reasons, and we want to be as open and welcoming and accessible to anybody in our vicinity … we don’t make the front steps too steep for people to come into,” said Phoebe Potts, who as director of family learning has overseen the development of a comprehensive curriculum that includes intergenerational events and outreach to the interfaith families who make up roughly three-quarters of the congregation.
The school curriculum has featured such innovations as student-animated movies based on Torah stories, workshops for hummus-making, mezuzah-building, tallit-sewing, and intergenerational Shabbat services and tutoring. After their b’nai mitzvahs, students can take part in Jewish Teen Initiative programs and a Jewish leadership training program.
Offerings for adults are similarly extensive. Rabbi Lewis hosts popular Torah study groups, in addition to classes on topics like Jewish poetry or the history of Zionism. Retired Cantor Bruce Siegel holds classes on the Book of Genesis. The synagogue presents concerts and guest speakers.
The temple also has reaffirmed its commitment to the wider Cape Ann community. Rabbi Lewis is involved in interfaith efforts with nearby churches to create a caregiver support group, host nights of song and prayer, and fund-raise for local causes. A cohort from the temple also cooks meals at the Grace Center, a nearby homeless shelter.
“There’s a lot of engagement with the community,” said Lewis. “When the building burned down, the smarter thing would’ve been to buy cheaper land near the highway with a lot of parking, where you could have a bigger building. The community adamantly decided they wanted to be in downtown Gloucester – part of the fabric of Gloucester.”
In an act that reflects the eclectic nature of the congregation and its sense of place in Gloucester, the synagogue has found a new way to celebrate Hanukkah. In recent years – in the heart of this fishing capital – 22 lobster traps have been stacked 14-feet high in front of the synagogue. At the top stand nine brightly colored buoys.
“It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, because we’re not serving lobster, and lobster isn’t kosher, but it’s also a way to have a visual handshake in the community where we live,” said Potts, who initiated the project to complement Gloucester’s existing lobster trap Christmas tree. “Gloucester is very much its own place, and we feel like we are part of that place, and we say that when we put up the lobster trap menorah every year.”