LAWRENCE – On the last Friday of October, the prayers rose once again inside Congregation Ansha Sholum in Lawrence. In this city’s last bastion of Judaism – where thousands of Jews put down roots and established businesses early last century – around 75 people cradled prayer books and marveled at the ornate ark in the center of the sanctuary where congregants first began to pray 103 years ago.
It was the first Friday night Shabbat service since COVID began, and most likely it will be the final one. The modest synagogue is the last in Lawrence, and is known as “The Little Shul.” Built as a two-decker, it was converted into a synagogue in 1919 by immigrants who lived and worked in the bustling Jewish neighborhood.
While most of the Jews in Lawrence moved out over 50 years ago, the shul has found a way to survive. Its last full-time rabbi died in 1950, and since then volunteers have run the services. But attendance has slowed over the last decade, and these days, a handful of women handle all of the shul’s affairs. In recent months, they came to the conclusion that the shul would have to close.
Enter Rabbi Idan Irelander, an Israeli-born musician who helped launch Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover last summer. Irelander and Ahavat Olam’s president Marc Freedman met with Ansha Sholum’s president, Frayda Koffman, and discussed its future. Irelander needed a Torah for his new congregation. Instead of one, he got two, and Koffman received a promise that once the new congregation found a permanent home, the old shul’s yahrzeit plaques would be hung on its walls, and the ark from Lawrence’s last shul would be moved to the new temple in North Andover.
“I had such of feeling of relief that we were going to close it the right way, and I didn’t want anything to end up in a storage closet,” said Koffman, who attended the shul as a child on the High Holidays when she lived in the Tower Hill neighborhood of Lawrence. After her mother died, Koffman – who had married and raised a family in Andover – returned to the shul to say Kaddish, and stayed. About seven years ago, she became its president. It has helped sustain her faith. “I have found such peace there,” she said.
No one knows when The Little Shul will shut its doors, but the signs of change are evident. The heat has been shut off for the fall and winter. One of the second floor windows is broken, and the social hall ark – which was used during weekday minyans – has been disassembled and brought to Ahavat Olam.
Outside, Latino neighbors have placed stones on the shul’s wooden steps – in a nod to the Jewish tradition of respect and mourning – and padlocks secure the gates of its wrought iron fence.
Close your eyes, and you can imagine a different era when Yiddish-speaking families rushed to this shul to honor the Sabbath, to say Kaddish for their loved ones, or just to talk to God.
They were merchants and mill workers, and many worked or had businesses near the Arlington Mills. According to “Sketches of the Lawrence Jewish Community” by George M. Goodwin, many of the early Jews in the city worked in mills, and by 1912 – the year of the Bread and Roses Strike – Jews who were employed in the mills made less than $10 per week.
Eventually, Hebrew free loan societies and credit unions were created to aid the new immigrants, who settled around Common, Valley, Lowell, Hampshire, and Concord streets. Many Lawrence Jews served in World War 1, and 18 died in battle. Meanwhile, parents stressed the importance of an education to their children, and by 1920, 26 members of the graduating high school class were Jewish.
As the years went on, more and more Jews prospered, and the downtown was lined with Jewish shops. There were Jewish pharmacies and there were bakeries, butchers, and even Jewish bars, like Pinky’s Café.
Lawrence had its own Hadassah and Workmen’s Circle Chapters, and a YMHA – which changed its named to the Jewish Community Center in 1956. In addition to The Little Shul, there were several other temples, including Sons of Israel, Anshai Sfard, Temple Emanuel and Tefereth Anshai Sfard. All were swallowed up before or during urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. By then, many of the remaining Jews living on Tower Hill were making plans to leave. Temple Emanuel moved to Andover, where it continues as one of the largest reform synagogues in Greater Boston.
Just as the sun was setting that last Friday of October, Elizabeth Beraha moved to the bimah to light Shabbat candles. Beraha, who made Aliyah as a teen with her family and served in the Israeli Defense Forces, has been The Little Shul’s spiritual leader for 15 years. She discovered it around the time of her youngest son’s bar mitzvah. The intimacy of the tiny sanctuary, the ark, and the light all drew her in. And when the congregation learned that she was fluent in Hebrew, they asked her to read the Torah on Shabbat.
“It spoke to me more than modern shuls. It felt more spiritual,” she said. “It was very much easier to connect to God there than in larger shuls.”
When Irelander took to the bimah, he offered up the “Shehecheyanu” prayer. Most of those in attendance were members of Irelander’s shul, but in his sermon he said the two congregations would always be intertwined.
“Many memories were created in this holy space and I know that together, many more will be created,” he said.
After an hour and one last “Alenu” recitation, a challah was brought out and members of The Little Shul said the prayer over the bread. Soon, dozens were schmoozing near the burnished ark where so many celebrations had taken place.
Linda Siegenthaler, who grew up in a triple-decker on Tower Hill and went on to become an economist, said she likes to sit in the balcony – with its brass guardrails – and look out over the shul. She said it was a sanctuary for her father, who attended the shul to recite the mourner’s Kaddish for her mother.
“The light comes in sometimes in that shul and it really makes you think about a lot of different things,” she said. “It will be tremendously missed.” Θ
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.