WINTHROP – “Where there’s water, you’ll find Jewish people,” said Sandy Pellegrino, president of Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop for many years.
The small, seaside peninsula just north of Boston Harbor was teeming with Jewish life for much of the 20th century. In the span of a few blocks, there was a Jewish community center, two permanent synagogues, and several seasonal ones based in hotels, kosher butcher shops, kosher bakeries, and generations of Jewish families.
“Everybody knew everybody else, and not only did they know everybody, they knew the parents, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles – in that time, whole families lived in the town,” said Judi Simmons, who grew up in Winthrop and now lives in Swampscott. “We all sat together on the beach, and the conversation was generally [about] the temple.”
The temple to which Simmons referred is Temple Tifereth Israel. The story of the temple is the story of Jewish Winthrop. In 1908, a massive fire in Chelsea forced hundreds of Jewish families to relocate, and many of them chose Winthrop. In 1912, the newly settled Jews decided to build a synagogue. More families moved into town, more funds were raised, and a charter was granted in early 1913. Soon after, a grand synagogue was built on Shirley Street in 1916.
At its peak in the 1970s, Tifereth Israel boasted about 1,000 members. Winthrop resident Burt Figler remembers a synagogue that was so full on the high holidays that some people had to sit on the bimah.
The Jewish population nearly quadrupled during the summer, when Jews from Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Chelsea rented houses near the ocean or stayed in kosher hotels that offered Jewish services.
“Each of the Jewish hotels along the beach would hire a rabbi and set up a shul for themselves,” said Leon Schiff, who began attending those hotels in 1929. “There were an awful lot of Jews who would stay till the end of the summer to go to the [High Holiday services].”
Schiff also attended Congregation Tifereth Abraham nearby on Shirley Street, which broke away from Tifereth Israel in 1923. The “Little Shul,” as it came to be known, started as a small gathering of Syrian Jews who wanted to observe Sephardic traditions in a rented apartment above a store. Over the years, Tifereth Abraham grew into a thriving synagogue of 120 families with its own sisterhood, brotherhood, and religious school. Over the years, the “Big Shul” and the “Little Shul” often loaned each other members when they needed to complete minyans.
“My brother and I used to go to Tifereth Israel, and around the time I was 10 or so, while he was going to shul, they stopped him outside Tifereth Abraham – they needed an extra person for the minyan, and they said ‘Can you read the Torah?’” recalled Amihai Zippor, who grew up in Winthrop and now lives in Jerusalem. While Tifereth Israel shifted toward Conservative practices, Tifereth Abraham remained Orthodox.
“Everything focused around the temple – there were so many Jewish kids, and so many activities – Hebrew school at that time was five days a week,” said Simmons as she thumbed through a book of photos compiled in the 1960s, when Tifereth Israel moved to its current building on Veterans Road. “What really struck me about this book was that it showed a board of directors meeting, and there were probably about 30 men, there’s a choral group, and a catering group, and it’s huge, and there’s like 20, 30 people at every meeting. Years ago, they had a sisterhood meeting, it would be 75 people. You couldn’t find that now anywhere.”
A Facebook group – Jews from Winthrop, MA – has close to 400 members from around the country. The Jewish community in the town of about 18,500 residents is now just a small fraction of what it was when congregants spilled onto the bimah during the High Holidays. As baby boomers began starting families of their own in the 1970s, they decided not to stay in Winthrop, and joined an exodus out of urban areas toward suburbs like Marblehead, Swampscott, and Peabody.
Yet both synagogues continue to survive. Tifereth Abraham only hosts services on the High Holidays, but Tifereth Israel still has services every Shabbat, a Hebrew school with 14 students, an active sisterhood, speakers, and parties on holidays. Pellegrino, the Tifereth Israel president, thinks her synagogue can attract some of the millennials moving into the ring close to Boston.
“We just kept working at it, trying to do what we could do, with God’s help, here we are,” she said. “We’re an icon of the Jewish community. We welcome everybody, and it seems to be working out. There’s been life.”