Jews passed through Beverly on their way to somewhere else. That changed in 1898 with the arrival of Nicholas and Bessie Zelinsky, who settled into their home at 71 Park St. They were followed by Barnet and Annie Albert, whose son, Samuel, was born Jan. 24, 1899, at their home at 61 Park St. This was the beginning of a permanent Jewish community in Beverly.
At first, Shabbat and holiday services were held in various homes. As the number of families grew, community gatherings were held in Burnham Hall on Cabot Street from 1905 to 1908. Outgrowing Burnham Hall, the community found a larger space in the rear of the Wood Building on Rantoul Street. It was here that the “local Hebrew colony,” as the press called it, formed a congregation known as the Sons of Abraham, incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on June 4, 1908.
Before 1912, there were three Jewish congregations in Beverly: Sons of Abraham, Sons of Israel, and Sons of Abraham and Isaac. After land was purchased and a new synagogue was built on Bow Street, the three congregations merged under the name Congregation Sons of Abraham and Isaac. The synagogue became known as the “Bow Street Shul,” the first structure built in Beverly by Jews for Jews.
In 1930, a Hebrew Community Center was erected as an annex to the synagogue. New organizations were formed; a Sisterhood group, the Hebrew Civil League, the Beverly Lodge of B’nai Brith, and AZA for teenaged boys – joined the Ladies Aid Society and Brith Abraham Lodge already in existence. Jewish religious and social life revolved around the shul and the community center: breakfasts, suppers, plays (including “Fanny the Matchmaker”), dances, and a variety of fundraisers.
1937 saw the arrival of Rabbi Meyer Finkelstein, the Jewish community’s first ordained rabbi, who was the spiritual leader of the synagogue for eight years. A new charter in 1939 shortened the synagogue’s name from Sons of Abraham and Isaac to Sons of Abraham. In 1942, the congregation purchased land on Cole Street for a Jewish cemetery. (Prior to this, Beverly’s Jews were buried in Danvers in the cemetery maintained by Salem’s Congregation Sons of Jacob). After a five-year struggle and a court case, the Sons of Abraham Cemetery was finally dedicated on July 27, 1947.
During the years of World War II, about 70 Beverly Jews served in the military. The community maintained contact with these GIs by a newsletter, Vos Hert Tsach (“What’s New” in Yiddish). The newsletter, published in 1943 and 1944 and edited by Sons of Abraham members Moses Simon, Jack Share, and Irene (Ginsberg) Jacobs, contained news of local Jewish communities as well as letters sent by Beverly servicemen from around the globe.
In 1946, Jewish War Veterans Post 486 Goldberg-Zassman was established, honoring Isadore Goldberg, who died in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines and Harry Zassman, lost at sea when the USS Franklin sank.
On Feb. 19, 1945, a fire of suspicious origin destroyed much of the synagogue and community center buildings. Not to be daunted by this tragedy, the community rebuilt a combination synagogue-community center that was dedicated in 1947. In 1948, the synagogue’s board voted that men and women would be allowed to sit together at services. The new sanctuary had been rebuilt without a balcony!
When there was standing-room-only for the High Holidays and inadequate space for the Hebrew school, the time has come to add on to the existing structure or to move. In 1960, land was purchased on East Lothrop Street and, under the leadership of Jack Weisman, Dave Gordon, and their dedicated committee, money was raised for a new synagogue. Groundbreaking took place in May 1961. Rabbi Irwin K. Botwinick led the congregation in both the old and new sanctuaries from 1959 to 1970. The celebratory dedication of the new synagogue was held in 1962, accompanied by another change of name from Congregation Sons of Abraham to Temple B’nai Abraham. The old Bow Street shul was sold to the Knights of Columbus.
Until the 1970s, the synagogue could not be called egalitarian. Although women played important roles as fund-raisers and organizers of social and cultural programs, men made all the administrative decisions. That changed a bit as women were given the right to vote at congregational meetings. Once that hurdle was cleared, it was decided that women could hold office on the board of directors and executive board. As the Conservative movement became more egalitarian, women stood on the bimah, read from the Torah, and were counted as members of a minyan. Girls’ bat mitzvahs, which usually took place on Friday night, could be held on Saturday mornings. Finally, emblematic of change, in 1975 Bette Siegel became the first woman elected president of the congregation.
Over the years, as Temple B’nai Abraham has reached out to interfaith couples, more and more have become members, presently constituting about a third of its membership. During the past decade, the interior of the building has been extensively remodeled, resulting in a beautiful sanctuary, chapel, social hall, lobby, learning center, and handicapped accessible bathrooms and an entry ramp.
In 2011, Rabbi Alison Adler became the congregation’s first female rabbi. In 2014, Temple B’nai Abraham merged with Temple Shalom (formerly Congregation Sons of Jacob) of Salem, further perpetuating the history of another century-old synagogue on the North Shore.
Now well into its second century, Temple B’nai Abraham continues to be the vibrant spiritual home to Jewish families in Beverly and its adjacent communities.
(With over a century of Jewish life to cover, the authors tried to mention as many people, businesses, and Jewish institutions past and present in order to capture the essence of our rich Jewish history. Although their intentions were to be inclusive, they may have omitted some elements of that history.)