A poster board display of photos at the Chelsea Jewish Museum.

New museum opens doors to Chelsea’s vibrant Jewish history



New museum opens doors to Chelsea’s vibrant Jewish history

A poster board display of photos at the Chelsea Jewish Museum.

At the turn of the 20th century, when thousands of Jews were flooding out of Central and Eastern Europe and landing in Chelsea, the first thing they did was think about dying.

“The first thing that says, ‘We’re here and we’re staying’ is to buy land for a cemetery,” said Ellen Rovner of Somerville, a scholar of Jewish history in Chelsea. The Jewish funeral home in Chelsea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – when the Jewish population was racing upward from a few dozen to several thousand – was Torf Funeral Services, a business still serving a much-changed Jewish community today. As the century progressed, Jews moved to towns like Swampscott, Marblehead and Brookline, and now – along with Temple Emmanuel in Cary Square and the Walnut Street Synagogue – Torf remains one of the few reminders of a vibrant Jewish community that has all but evaporated.

Rovner is president of a new project documenting this past: the Jewish Chelsea Museum, inside Temple Emmanuel. On Sunday, May 5, the museum will host its grand opening, allowing all to come and see the collection of artifacts, digital and print photos, and oral histories recording the lives of Jews in Chelsea that the team has collected over the last year.

The grand opening is a part of the Cary Square Day of History, a commemoration of Chelsea’s 400th year. The day will feature a walking tour, speeches from various public officials, a town marketplace presented by the Chamber of Commerce, and an open house at the new museum from 2-6 p.m.

“Chelsea was really the center,” Rovner said, describing the Jewish communities in the area at the time. By the 1930s, nearly half of the city’s population was Jewish. It was the second-largest Jewish population in the U.S. per square mile, after New York City. Yiddish was commonly heard on city streets, and it was reportedly called “the Jerusalem of America.”

“Those memories, those facts need to be archived,” said Rovner, who is a fourth-generation Jew from Chelsea. “I think they need to be honored and I think that’s what this museum does.”

Rose and Morris Wolper’s son Bill owned and operated Wolper’s Clothing Store on Broadway for generations.

At the grand opening of the Jewish Chelsea Museum, viewers will be able to see numerous physical artifacts donated by descendants of Jewish past residents – glass ashtrays from Murray & Eddy’s delicatessen on Broadway; an antique sewing machine from the Jewish founder of a Willow Street sportswear manufacturing company; a scale from a Jewish-owned Spruce Street pharmacy; and framed press clippings and audio and video files, which will be playing on two large screens throughout the afternoon. There also will be 17 posters with mini-biographies and photos of past Jewish Chelsea residents and samplings of traditional Jewish foods.

The museum project sprung from a previous endeavor – back in 2009 – when present and passed Temple Emmanuel members (and their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) donated press clippings documenting Jewish life in Chelsea. In 2022, Temple Emmanuel applied for and received a grant from the Congregation Ahabat Sholom Religious Fund, a fund administered by a Boston-based trust, to transform cardboard-backed displays into 34 framed posters, mounted on easels in the back half of the sanctuary. The group didn’t stop there.

In 2023, members applied for and received a second grant from the CAS fund, and the board of directors – comprised of volunteers from the temple and the wider Jewish Chelsea community – is using that money to create a website for the Jewish Chelsea Museum.

The website, expected to launch in September, will feature digital artifacts – audio and video files acquired with publication permissions from the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center in Boston and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst – and creative audiovisual products contributed by the museum’s board members.

“The core purpose, of course, is to memorialize a time when Chelsea was in the home of a vibrant community of Jewish immigrants and their first-generation descendants,” said Herb Selesnick, Temple Emmanuel’s community engagement coordinator and secretary of the Jewish Chelsea Museum. Selesnick, like many of those in the region (he now lives in Salem), has his own roots in the city – he lived in Chelsea for his first 25 years, and all four of his grandparents and his mother immigrated from Lithuania and Ukraine to Chelsea in the early 20th century.

“We have so much history that we just haven’t explored,” said Devra Sari Zabot of Chelsea, another founding member of the museum who works in creative production. Zabot also has deep roots in Chelsea, though she didn’t grow up there; generations of her family spent their lives in Chelsea, and she herself moved back in recent years after her father returned to his hometown. A school essay from his adolescence is one of the artifacts in the museum.

“For me and my sisters, because there were always stories about Chelsea – my grandparents, my parents, the aunts and uncles, everybody – all roads led to Chelsea,” she said. “It was a very special place.” Θ

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