CHELSEA – Last month, Tom Barth of West Bloomfield, Mich., stood proudly, imbued with a strong sense of belonging. He was surrounded by his siblings and their descendants, reveling with newfound relatives and friends at the Founder’s Day centennial celebration at Chelsea’s Walnut Street Shul.
About 16 years ago, Tom met cousins of his father’s family he never knew existed. They originated in Newburyport, descended from his paternal great-grandfather’s siblings.
After hearing their tales of stranger-than-fiction coincidences, Tom eagerly sought to learn about his mother’s roots.
In 2017, after speaking by phone with his mother’s cousin, Tom learned his grandmother’s brothers attended Harvard and settled in Brookline, Chestnut Hill, and Salem, while his grandparents migrated to Michigan.
Eager to learn more, he contacted Ed Medros, president of Chelsea’s Walnut Street Shul. “I was curious that 100 years after my grandmother left Chelsea, there was still a shul that was functioning. They had a congregation and [ongoing] services,” he said.
Tom traveled to Chelsea and met Medros, who showed him the shul and the city of Chelsea. Tom was dazzled by the synagogue’s magnificence. “It’s a hidden gem of Chelsea. The sanctuary is spectacular. It looks like it did in 1909,” he said. “It’s an historic landmark worth preserving.” On the trip, Tom also discovered that the house of his great-grandparents, Niman and Emma Freedman, managed to survive the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 and still stands today.
Medros invited Tom to be on the Walnut Street Synagogue’s Founders Day committee, which Tom eagerly accepted, working online. He made several trips to Chelsea and worked with the events’ nine planners, who were all able to teach him more about his roots. A committeewoman told him that his great-grandfather was one of the shul’s founders, and its first president 100 years ago. Medros also handed Tom a 1911 Boston Globe story that featured Niman’s dedication of the synagogue.
“My mother, Ann [Freedman], didn’t even know her grandfather was a founder of the shul. She never mentioned him. Her grandmother left Chelsea at age 19, 20,” he said.
Tom’s enthusiasm over Founder’s Day spread to his entire family, prompting them to experience the event themselves. In attendance were their children Dan and wife, Ellen, of Michigan; their children, Adam and Rachel, both from New York; brother David and his wife, Adina, of Michigan, and their daughter, Rivka, of Baltimore, Md.; his sister, Ellen Alster of Virginia, and her children, Eli and Isabel, from Washington, D.C. and Georgia.
“Tom has inspired people – even great-grandchildren throughout the U.S.,” said his brother, David Barth. ”We’re all fascinated by his historic discoveries. I remember hearing about the shul from my grandmother, but I didn’t realize how involved my great-grandparents were. It’s the type of thing you think is lost from history, and there it is!”
David was pleased to discover that the women’s balcony has a seat with a metal plaque bearing his great-grandmother’s name. Meanwhile, Rifka visited the shul during a layover to Israel, and had the emotional experience of sitting in her great-great-grandfather’s chair.
“This [event] was the beginning of the process of the rebirth of the shul, not the end,” said Tom. “Besides services, our goal is to have more cultural programs and historical exhibits that cover the entire Jewish Chelsea community and its history … I think it’s important to keep a Jewish historic landmark preserved.”