PEABODY — On Sunday, about 80 members of Peabody’s Congregation Tifereth Israel will mark their synagogue’s 100th anniversary with a meal at the Continental in Saugus. Stories will be told about bar mitzvahs, weddings and other milestones that took place at the modest two-floor white temple that has served the congregation since 1955.
But much of conversation will likely be about family – since many of the congregants are related to one another, or have known each other so long that they feel like family. On Sunday, they will also honor their immediate past president and his wife, Elliot and Doris Hershoff.
“Once you walk through those doors you become family,” explained Jerry Pressman, who is just the second president of the temple to have Ashkenazi roots. All of the others have been Sephardic.
If there is a curator at the temple, it is Pressman’s wife, Joanne, who is also the congregation’s cantorial soloist, shul secretary and historian. Joanne, who has led services at the temple since 1990, is also the granddaughter of Joseph Pernitchi and Joseph Havian – two of the seven men who founded the temple in the early 20th century. In Peabody, they found a fledgling Jewish community, and set down roots after arriving from Turkey. Soon, they were joined by other Turkish natives who also helped found the temple: Leon Eskenas, Nissim Eskenazi, Morris Gibely, Robert Hasday, and David Leon.
That group included peddlers and small business owners who wanted to keep their culture alive in a part of the country where a majority of Jewish immigrants spoke Yiddish.
Joanne grew up in Peabody, and spent much of her childhood in Tifereth Israel, and with its congregants – many of whom were related to one another, or whose families were part of the original founder’s group. They spoke Ladino, a language that combined Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, French, Italian, Arabic, Greek, Turkish and Hebrew.
“That was the language of choice growing up in my house. With my grandparents, there was not a word of Yiddish,” said Joanne. “It was a very close-knit Turkish community.”
That group gathered in homes to hold a minyan, and rented space to pray over a gas station on Boston Road on the Salem-Peabody line. The founders purchased land and considered building a temple on Boston Street, but eventually settled on Pierpont Street in 1955. Meanwhile, they eventually sold that land – allowing the congregation to continue for decades with modest dues.
On the High Holidays, instead of wishing some “L’Shana Tova,” or Happy New Year in Hebrew, congregants say, “Para muchos años!” Yahrzeits, or anniversaries of a death of a relative or friend, are called Meldathos. And when someone is called for Aliyah to the Torah, congregants call out “Bekhavod,” or “honor.” During the Aliyah, those who are related to the person stand as a sign of respect.
In its heyday, there were celebrations at the temple that helped keep the small Sephardic population on the North Shore close-knit. But for decades, the temple has met just once a month on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath. These days, there are about 60 couples and 30 singles who belong to Tifereth Israel, and since Covid began, the temple has been streaming services in addition to its in-person services. While they have been a bonus to members who live locally and also to those who now live across the country, it has limited face-to-face communication.
“Our future is a huge question mark,” said Joanne. “Our members are loyal but they are far-flung and it’s become very convenient to participate on Zoom. I would love to see more in-person participation. On the High Holidays they come. It’s important that they have that place and that connection to their grandparents and in some cases, great grandparents, so it’s very meaningful.”
While the congregation is getting older, and is now half Sephardic and half Ashkenazi, the years seem to stand still when Joanne stands at the bimah and leads the prayer. “When I’m leading services I can remember my grandfather conducting services,” she said. “There’s such a connection that I can’t even begin to describe.”