PEABODY – Next month, if you happen to pass by Congregation Tifereth Israel in Peabody, someone might call out, “Para muchos años!”
That is the equivalent of “L’Shana Tova” in Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew spoken by Sephardic Jews. Ladino blessings are still recited after many prayers at Tifereth Israel, the only Sephardic congregation on the North Shore. Though intermarriage with the larger Ashkenazi community has changed the original makeup of the congregation, it retains a Sephardic identity.
“On a Friday night when we light the candles, I say the original Hebrew blessing, but then I follow it up with a Ladino blessing,” said Joanne Pressman, the cantorial soloist who is also descended from two of the original founders. “The Sephardic prayer book has a lot of extra words – if people come and are singing along and not looking at the book, they’re like, ‘Wow, the Kaddish is much longer’… There’s other prayers that even though you recognize the prayer and the melody, all of a sudden, the words change.”
Tifereth Israel still observes uniquely Sephardic customs. “We have a Sephardic tradition where when someone is called for an Aliyah to the Torah, those who are related to them stand up as a sign of respect for them,” said Pressman. “There would be times when half the congregation would stand.”
The Tifereth Israel of Pressman’s youth was a tight-knit congregation of Turkish Jews, many of whom had immigrated to Peabody to work in the city’s leather industry and avoid conscription in the Ottoman military. It was founded on Feb. 15, 1922 by seven Turkish immigrants, including both of Pressman’s grandfathers, Joseph Pernitchi and Joseph Havian. In the early years, the congregation had no permanent building, and services were conducted in private homes.
“They were like wanderers – they didn’t have their own shul, so they went to different places, and used their facilities,” said the temple’s president and spiritual leader, Elliot Hershoff, who is both the longest-serving and the first Ashkenazi president. “Many years ago when they came to this country, they bought a piece of land, and were going to build a synagogue there, but that never came to fruition.”
In 1955, the congregation purchased a house on Pierpont Street, where it continues to this day.
Doris Hershoff, who is Elliot’s wife and has attended the congregation her entire life, said that she felt excluded from the Peabody’s Ashkenazi Jewish community in her youth. “I did feel separate, like they didn’t understand us,” said Doris, who grew up in a Sephardic Turkish family, but married an Ashkenazi man. “I always tell the story of when Elliot took me to meet his mother, and she thought I wasn’t Jewish, and she told Elliot he couldn’t marry me. He said, ‘Mom, she’s more religious than we are!’”
Many Sephardim married Ashkenazim, which was inevitable due to the small size of the Jewish community. However, Doris Hershoff and many others brought their Ashkenazi spouses back to Tifereth Israel, and today, more than half of the congregation is Ashkenazi. Though unaffiliated, it is a traditional, egalitarian Conservative congregation that incorporates Sephardic elements into its services.
Inside a stately renovated sanctuary, Shabbat services are led on the first Friday of every Hebrew month by Elliot Hershoff and Pressman. The small, intimate congregation is full of people who have been there for decades, and a network of donors across the country keep the synagogue afloat and dues very low. The congregation has a Ladies’ Auxiliary, holiday parties and movie nights throughout the year, and packed High Holiday services.
“I wish my father could see us now,” said Doris. “They were so devoted to their Sephardic background and traditions, and we’ve kept it going.”