PEABODY – At first glance, it could be any other house on the street, but inside is a synagogue that feels like home.
“You can have the most exquisite, billion-dollar temple, but to me, when you walk into our shul, it is very haimish [homey],” said Freda Kravetz, a longtime member of Congregation Sons of Israel in Peabody. “I felt love from those people, and they felt love from me.”
Kravetz, of Peabody, has been a member of the congregation for 60 years, and in 1993, she was the first woman to receive an aliyah. Kravetz’s incredible longevity at Sons of Israel is nothing unusual: According to President Roz Abrams, 75 to 80 percent of current members have attended for their entire lives.
“I think to some extent we’re the best-kept secret in Peabody, even though we’re the oldest,” said Seth Landau, the congregation’s spiritual leader.
Sons of Israel was founded in 1909 by Lithuanian and Russian immigrants who came to Peabody to work in the leather tanning industry. In 1912, it moved into its current location at Park and Spring streets, and began its Hebrew school the next year.
In the 1970s, demographic and financial changes led the synagogue to close its Hebrew school, and there were talks of closing altogether. A merger with nearby synagogue Anshe Sfard and money raised for renovations breathed new life into the synagogue, and today, Sons of Israel is going strong, with 240 families and a minyan on every Shabbat service.
The synagogue also holds celebrations for every major holiday, has a men’s club, hosts guest speakers like Albert Einstein and Anne Frank impersonators, participates in an interfaith service with other Peabody houses of worship on Thanksgiving, and gives classes.
The synagogue borrows many traditions from the Conservative movement, but because it is not affiliated, it calls itself “traditional.” Landau feels that the lack of affiliation gives the congregation freedom. “For one thing, it’s costly to affiliate with the [United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism],” he said. “But I don’t think that it was necessarily done to move away from any particular sect in a sense, but it hasn’t been something we felt has been a critical element of what we do. We like to have our freedom to do as we feel works for us.”
Though it has lay leadership with Landau, who moonlights as a software consultant, he still performs all of the same duties as a traditional rabbi or cantor. “We won the Megabucks when we hired Seth,” said Kravetz. “To me, he is the shul. He devotes so much extra time to us.” Kravetz is especially grateful to Landau because last year he trained her, in addition to Abrams and three other women, to become b’not mitzvah.
“To become a bat mitzvah – it was wow,” said Kravetz, who was 89 when she was bat mitzvahed last June. “When I got up to the Torah and I finished, I said, ‘I did it.’ I really couldn’t believe it.”
“There were five of us who had different levels of Hebrew knowledge, and Seth worked with all of us, and it all came together – between the service, reading from the Torah, the party that night,” said Abrams, who noted that the June event was the first group bat mitzvah in the synagogue’s history.
Aliyot were split up, Abrams recited the haftarah, and every one of the b’not mitzvah read a reflection.
Another unusual characteristic of Sons of Israel is its longstanding tradition of inexpensive dues, which currently amount to only $100 annually per family, and $50 per individual. “It’s like pennies,” said Kravetz. Despite that, the synagogue was recently able to raise money for extensive renovations, including installing an outside chairlift, widening the stairs, and updating the carpeting and chairs in the social hall.
Kravetz takes pride in taking care of what she sees as her second home: “It’s our home – it’s a place of love and Torah and learning.”