CHELSEA – It was 110 years ago that the 31 Jews who founded Congregation Agudas Sholom celebrated as the Romanesque palace, modeled after the great synagogues of Europe, opened in Chelsea.
Also known as the Walnut Street Shul, it was crowned the “Queen of Shuls” in the Jerusalem of America, bustling with Jews in the first half of the 20th century. But following World War II, a combination of factors contributed to an exodus of Jews from Chelsea. Hardly any of the descendants of the original members of Agudas Sholom still live in the city where their ancestors prayed.
Now, to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the grand building’s completion a year after the previous building was destroyed in the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908, leaders are bringing some of the mishpachah back.
On Sunday, Sept. 15, the Walnut Street Shul will host the descendants of the congregation’s original 31 members for Founders’ Day, a fund-raiser that will celebrate the storied history of one of the region’s most famous congregations.
Borrowing an idea from Boston’s Vilna Shul, the congregation hired a team of genealogists to track down 225 of the founders’ living descendants, who are spread all over the world. The event, which will feature light refreshments, klezmer music, and talks by experts on architecture and Chelsea history, furthers the synagogue’s mission of preserving the past.
“We want to be a place where we can tell the immigrant story of people that came in the late 1800s and early 1900s and helped build the city,” said Ed Medros, the president of the synagogue who has attended since he was young. “We’ve had some people come in, and next thing you know, they’re crying. They’ll say, ‘There’s my bubbe, there’s my zeyde on a Yahrzeit plaque.’ One woman was upstairs on the women’s balcony and she’s sitting in a chair and a seat in a certain location crying, and she said, ‘This is where my bubbe sat, and as a young girl, I sat next to her.’”
On Founders’ Day, descendants can expect similar experiences browsing through a shul filled to the brim with historic artifacts, including old arks, menorahs, prayer books, plaques, ketubahs, and more. They also will be able to learn more about their ancestors’ congregation through local experts. Norman H. Finkelstein, a Chelsea native who has written 19 books on Jewish topics, will talk about the history of Jewish Chelsea and his own personal experiences growing up there. Samuel Gruber, an art and architectural historian and preservationist, will discuss the shul’s architectural influences and legacy.
Founders’ Day is part of an ongoing effort by current leadership to chart a way forward in a city without many Jews and in an age of declining synagogue enrollment. Medros said the synagogue aims to become handicap-accessible, host more events, and establish itself as a museum of local Jewish history as well as a synagogue.
For Herb Kupersmith, honorary chair of the Founders’ Day committee, that mission is personal. “For me, to be on the bimah 68 years ago from the time I was bar mitzvahed [is] more meaningful to me than anybody because my mother and my grandmother asked me for a favor on the day I was bar mitzvahed: That I should keep the shul open as long as I’m alive,” he said. “I have always worked towards that.”
Tickets for Founders’ Day cost $36. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and guests you’d like to bring.