Boston’s Jewish Renaissance

By Doug Most  |  November 6, 2005, The Boston Globe

There are ghosts in here. You can feel them in the peeling walls, the dirty floor tiles, the wooden pews, and the 100-year-old mahogany ark that holds the Torah scrolls. And if you close your eyes, you can see them. It’s a Friday night in, say, 1925. Men walk to this synagogue dressed in gray suits, crisp white shirts, and neatly knotted ties. As they step through the arched front doors, they remove their handsome black fedoras to reveal their yarmulkes. In the Orthodox tradition, women enter separately through a side door. They are dressed plainly, in long skirts and prim blouses. Upstairs, where symbols of Judaism are painted on the walls of the sanctuary and a Star of David dangles from a chandelier, the men sit in the first set of pews while the women sit in their own section. “Shalom,” says the rabbi from the elbow of the L-shaped room, and moonlight shines through the skylights as the service begins.

Open your eyes now inside Boston’s oldest synagogue, the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill, and it’s easy to imagine a time when Stars of David adorned more than 50 synagogues around the city, alongside steeples and crosses. This was the Boston of another era, because the latter half of the 20th century saw once-thriving Jewish neighborhoods in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and the West End disappear as Jews moved to the suburbs, leaving behind historic synagogues, some of which were converted into churches.

But today, Jews here, though certainly not without disagreements, are in an unfamiliar state of solidarity. A younger, increasingly active Jewish community has emerged in the last decade to restore Boston’s oldest standing synagogue, rejuvenate its biggest one, and help to re- shape a religious landscape in the city. Why now? Because for the first time in a long time, the younger generation of Jews has a clear vision that its parents’ generation supports: education.

“The largest chunk of money is going to Jewish education,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and co-editor of The Jews of Boston, a book of historical essays originally published in 1995 and rereleased this fall in a revised edition. Philanthropic money that used to go automatically to Jewish hospitals or to Israel now helps teach Jewish history, culture, and religion to children and adults. “I certainly think this has been a very exciting time in the history of Boston Jewry,” Sarna says. “You’re seeing a religious community that is transforming its priorities, refocusing its priorities and values, and has very successfully inspired wealthy Jews to invest in this community.”

To be sure, Greater Boston’s Jewish community is as diverse as any and its newfound unity relative. In addition to Reform and Conservative congregations, Orthodox and Hasidic synagogues can be found in Brookline, Allston, and Brighton, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews have settled. And no one expects Boston to supplant New York as the hub of American Jewry. But a remarkable string of recent events has helped Boston position itself to be the country’s capital of Jewish academia.

Earlier this year, a New York philanthropist gave Brandeis University $12 million to create what is intended to be a leading research center for Jewish demographics. In 2004, anonymous donors pledged $45 million to Greater Boston’s Jewish day schools, which have doubled in number during the past decade. The gift, said to be the largest of its kind, amazed Jewish leaders here who’d grown accustomed to the biggest pledges going to New York (which has roughly a million Jews, compared with Greater Boston’s 200,000-plus, as well as a Jewish mayor, even if he does hail from Medford). Boston College, a leading Jesuit university, began a Jewish studies program this fall. And, in an expansion that directly encroaches on New York’s turf, Hebrew College in Newton opened a satellite campus in Manhattan last year. This, after launching New England’s only rabbinical school in 2003, a move aimed at creating homegrown Jewish leaders.

In 1995, Jeremy Morrison, 34, didn’t have a local option. The Brookline native went to rabbinical school in Manhattan. But he returned to Boston, where he launched the Riverway Project at Temple Israel in 2001 to entice young Jews back to the synagogue. “As our generation is getting married later and having children later, there is a widening gap of participation among people in their 20s and 30s,” says Morrison, who has a boyish face, curly brown hair, and round glasses. “This generation was absent from synagogue life. Synagogues are graying. We can revitalize them.”

But there will be no revitalization without money to recruit members and add programs. (The Riverway Project exists because of one anonymous donor.) And, by and large, money is coming from people with a few more gray hairs than Morrison.

Perhaps no gray-haired Jew has done more for Boston’s Jewish community than 58-year-old Barry Shrage. Over the last two decades, he’s raised $850 million as the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which will release its latest survey of Boston’s Jewish population next spring. Though he still starts his days with Orthodox prayers, followed by coffee at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton, Shrage shakes a lot of hands and makes a lot of calls these days as he embarks on his greatest quest. If he’s successful, barely a mile apart in the heart of the city will stand two buildings: One, the Vilna Shul, made of brick and mortar, will represent the long journey of yesterday’s Jews through Boston’s history; the other, the New Center for Arts and Culture, a modern structure of glass and concrete on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, will stand as the most visible contribution from today’s Jews who want to bridge the many cultures that shape the new Boston.

It’s a warm Friday night earlier this fall. A light rain dampens Beacon Hill as men and women walk toward their synagogue. They step inside the Vilna Shul and shake off their umbrellas. There are no gray suits, crisp white shirts, or prim blouses in this group, a 20-something khaki and polo-shirt crowd. The women come in the same door as the men, sometimes holding hands with a boyfriend or husband, but more often in groups of their own. I also enter.

Passing a sign that says “Havurah on the Hill,” – “havurah” in Hebrew means a gathering or community of friends – we move upstairs to the sanctuary. On the walls are menorahs, stars, and other Judaic symbols stenciled more than half a century ago. The men and women sit together, but the Star of David still dangles over our heads. Moonlight shines through the skylights as a young man dressed in gray slacks and a black shirt steps to the bimah, or lectern. The crowd hushes.

Thirty-two years after I was born at the old Boston Lying-In Hospital, I moved back here from Manhattan. It was November 2000. When I asked around about joining a temple, I was directed to Temple Israel, a hulking Reform synagogue by the Longwood medical area and Boston’s biggest shul. When I asked where to get good bagels and knishes, I was dispatched to Coolidge Corner in Brookline – and what seemed to me the only deli anybody knew of around these parts, a place called Zaftig’s. And when I asked where to meet a nice Jewish girl, something a guy can do in New York just by tripping on the sidewalk, I was sent to the Internet, to sites for Jewish singles like and (It worked, but that’s another story.)

Around the same time, four young men, David Gerzof, Andrew Perlman, Aaron Mandell, and Marc Rubenfeld experienced the same frustrations. They had grown up in towns outside Boston, going to temple with their parents. But when they settled in the city after college, the friends felt detached from Judaism, and their old synagogues seemed awfully far away.

Then, one morning in the spring of 2002, Perlman and Mandell were walking together from the Back Bay to their jobs in Kendall Square through the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill. “I had heard from my father there was an old synagogue maybe on Phillips Street,” Perlman remembers. “When I saw the big Jewish star, I was blown away.” Twelve feet across, the star was in stained glass above wooden double doors on a brick building. A plaque on the iron fence read: “Vilna Shul: Founded in West End in 1893, this Eastern European immigrant synagogue moved to the north slope of Beacon Hill in 1906, and, finally, in 1919 to this location. It is the last remaining original synagogue building of the once thriving West End Jewish Community.”

Three years later, Gerzof is the young man at the bimah. He introduces a young woman who speaks briefly about Hurricane Katrina before leading an informal service.

Vilna Shul is full again.

Life for Jews in Boston has improved since 1649, when a court sent Solomon Franco, a scholar and Sephardic Jew, back to Holland. In 1821, Massachusetts granted full rights to men of all religions. The Jewish community grew with immigration from central and Eastern Europe, and by 1900, about 40,000 Jews lived in Boston. The West End, with 15 synagogues, was their epicenter. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson named a Jewish Boston lawyer, Louis Brandeis, to the US Supreme Court; another, Felix Frankfurter, would be appointed in 1939. Jews rose to prominent local positions as well, among them Jacob Kaplan, named chair of Boston’s finance commission in 1935.

But anti-Semitism was on the rise as well, Sarna says, souring relations between Jews and another immigrant group. “Catholic-Jewish relations in Boston half a century ago couldn’t have been worse,” Sarna says. “The battle against anti-Semitism captured a great deal of community energy.” (Much of this story is recounted in his book.) Then came Hitler, World War Two, and the Holocaust. While the exposure of Nazi war crimes did not erase anti-Semitism here, the bigotry of the prewar years – such as Father Coughlin’s hate-filled radio show – would cease to be widespread.

After the war, a wave of entrepreneurship carried Jews well into the social and political mainstream. Brandeis University opened in Waltham in 1948 – largely in response to quotas on Jewish enrollment at other schools. Jews gradually spread out to places like Newton and Brookline, and 176,000 Jews lived in Greater Boston by 1967, a watershed year.

The Six-Day War that year sparked Jews around the world to rally behind Israel as it battled Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Boston Jews marched on the Common and in Washington, D.C., volunteered to fight for Israel, and raised millions for the cause. No longer quiet or small, Boston’s Jewish community stood up as a powerful force with great resources and prominence in the city’s social and intellectual worlds.

Until recently, Israel remained the focus of Jewish philanthropy in Boston. Roughly 45 percent of money donated to Combined Jewish Philanthropies went to Israel and other overseas causes in the 1980s, but today only 33 percent does. More dollars are being reinvested locally, in outreach and education. “The new agenda,” says David Mersky, Brandeis lecturer on Jewish philanthropy, “is what is called Jewish continuity, the education agenda.”

The shift has troubled some older Jews. “They see this as a trend inward, away from larger responsibilities,” Sarna says. “And indeed they feel it’s not only bad for Jews, but bad for America,” a view he does not share. “My own sense is that if people are better and more knowledgeable Jews, they will be better Americans.”

And better Bostonians. “Young Jews, at a moment of change, are focusing less on Israel and the needs of Jews abroad and more internally on the Jewish community, spirituality, Jewish education,” Sarna says. “They are pushing for change, but the difference this time is that the leadership of the Jewish community are embracing them, and, indeed, in some ways giving them direction.”

Think of these young Jews and the older Jewish leaders like two hikers passing on a mountain trail. The one coming down has been to the mountaintop and remembers when Fridays were for synagogue, when Jews only married Jews, when the high holidays truly were holy days. But now he’s worried. Will the next generation respect their history if they have no Holocaust survivors to talk to (a 10-year-old survivor would today be about 70), if they keep marrying outside the faith (nationally, interfaith marriages accounted for almost half of Jewish marriages in recent years, compared with less than 10 percent before 1965), and if they don’t go to temple as their parents and grandparents did (less than half of Jews nationwide belong to synagogues)? He is afraid that unless something changes, his grandchildren’s children will not be Jewish.

But coming up this same trail is a younger Jew, with an assured stride. With so many new ways to meet Jewish mates, she’s confident that she will. But she also believes an interfaith marriage doesn’t mean abandoning Judaism, just compromising – especially in a year like this, when the first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas. And she finds that temple today is different from what it was with Mom and Dad, not such a boring way to spend a Friday, more alive and spiritual. That’s how it is at Brookline’s TBZ, formerly Temple Beth Zion – “like when Kentucky Fried Chicken changed to KFC,” says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks – where congregants at the nondenominational services are asked to close their eyes, reflect on the week, and softly hum or chant. At one time, being Jewish may have meant cooking traditional foods, resting on the Sabbath, and giving as much as possible to Israel, but that young hiker knows that today it can mean making friends, celebrating holidays with family, sending her children to Jewish preschool, and maybe, once in a while, going to synagogue.

If there was a year these two Jews passed each other in Boston, it was 1985. Vilna Shul, built by Jews from Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania, closed. Mendel Miller, the last member, handed its keys to the state. A court battle to preserve a treasured piece of Boston’s Jewish history dragged on for years. By 1995, the building was saved, the Boston Center for Jewish Heritage was created, and three decades after the Six-Day War, young and old Jews again united behind a single cause. The excitement only grew when an art historian discovered in 1997 that the dingy paint covered wall art from three periods of time. Since the center was established, it has raised $3.7 million from more than 2,000 donors and has spent $1.7 million of it on the land, the building, and improvements. The center’s executive director, a 55-year-old businessman from Canton named Steven M. Greenberg, estimates that another $3 million is needed to finish construction and restoration and $2 million more is needed for exhibits and maintenance.

“As word is spreading, more and more people are saying, `I used to go to that shul when I was a child – or another shul,’ ” Greenberg says. “The Vilna began to bring back the history of the Jews in Boston.” It has been a remarkable journey for the building. In the early 20th century, as the black-and-white photographs exhibited on its first floor show, the north slope of Beacon Hill and the West End were home to blacks and then Jews, garment and shoe workers, their ways of life as distant now as the horse-drawn fire engine in one of the photos.

Not everyone welcomed the new Vilna Shul. Until 1985, it had been an Orthodox synagogue. But the new center would be a museum, a cultural gathering spot, and an informal place to experience Judaism, not a synagogue that might draw members from Temple Israel or the nearby nondenominational Boston Synagogue, the only active downtown synagogue.

All of this made sense to Gerzof, Mandell, Perlman, and Rubenfeld. The now 30-year-old organizers behind the Havurah on the Hill program believed a young crowd would prefer a monthly commitment to a weekly one. But if the turnout on that rainy September Friday was any indication, they may have underestimated the enthusiasm for the Vilna Shul’s revival.

The first Havurah on the Hill event in 2002 attracted 34 people. Within two years, it was drawing 200.

“They walked in and said, `How do we get involved?’ ” says City Councilor Mike Ross, who attended that first event and fits the shul’s targeted audience: 33, Jewish, lives on Beacon Hill. “I want to see that building succeed. I don’t want it to fall apart. It’s very grass roots. Is there enough demand? Are there enough Jews in town to keep this going? I think there are.”

The night I went to the Havurah on the Hill event, I spotted a gray-haired couple in the front row who looked as if they could be the grandparents of those sitting around them. Companions Joanne Cooper, 70, and Wolf Shapiro, 77, say they live in nearby Charles River Park and feel right at home in the younger crowd. “It’s nice to see what’s happening here, to see the young people,” Cooper says. “The presence is growing and needs to continue to grow.”

I wander back to catch up with Gerzof and ask if he’s surprised to see an older couple. “Money is coming from parents and grandparents of our constituency,” he says. “They are focusing on this generation.”

But one issue still separates younger Jews from earlier generations: an increasing willingness to marry outside the faith. The first sign of just how much interfaith marriage had penetrated households came in a controversial 1990 nationwide study that found 52 percent of Jews who had married in the previous five years had married a non-Jew. The report led to predictions that Judaism was on its deathbed. Then in 1995, Combined Jewish Philanthropies came out with a local study, which revealed that 19 percent of all married Jews in Greater Boston were intermarried, and of those who married between 1991 and 1995, 34 percent were intermarried. There were 57,700 married Jewish households, and a third of those were interfaith couples. Barry Shrage says he doesn’t expect those numbers to change much when CJP’s latest population study is released next spring. “You can’t do this without reaching out to interfaith families,” he says. “There are a lot of them, and you see within those families a yearning to be part of the Jewish community.”

As Gerzof speaks, two young women standing nearby perk up. Eliana Strauss, 24, a museum exhibit designer who lives in Somerville, is visiting Vilna Shul with a childhood friend, Shoshana Fagen, 23, a special-ed teacher who lives in Brighton. “I come from a very conservative family,” Strauss says. “They’d be very displeased if I married a non-Jew.” But after her parents divorced, her mother married a woman who had been raised as a Christian. “Sooo,” she says, her voice trailing off.

Fagen shakes her head. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” she says, “and always had a sense of replenishing the Jewish population.”

A MAN WHO’S CONTENT with the toast, coffee, and clamor at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre might not feel so comfortable with the plush seats, coifed waiters, and $12 plates of fluffy scrambled eggs that are the Four Seasons experience. But Barry Shrage, in his gray slacks, blue blazer, and red tie, looks right at home. If Johnny’s is the place to gossip about schools, kids, and one another, the Four Seasons is the place where money talks, and the talk is usually about money.

There, I ask Shrage about his fund-raising efforts. Shrage grew up in Brooklyn, where Judaism played a small part in his upbringing. Only after he came to Boston to study social work – and married a Jewish woman, a child development specialist – did he get in touch with his religion. The New Yorker found Judaism in Boston. Go figure.

When Shrage talks about how the priorities of Jews have changed, he goes straight to the Six-Day War. “Nineteen sixty-seven was like an earthquake,” he says. “From 1967 to 1990, the focus is on giving money for Israel,” he notes. “If you wanted to be a good Jew, you gave $1,000. A great Jew gave $10,000. It’s about saving lives. We wanted to avoid another Holocaust.” On the other hand, he says, “there was very little attention to Jewish education and culture.” Then came another earthquake – that startling study on interfaith marriage. “In 1990,” he says, “Boston started to take a different path.”

Educating all Jews – not just the young – became the goal. In 1994, Shrage’s organization, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, teamed with Hebrew College in Newton to offer a two-year adult-education program that entails 100 hours of study of Jewish texts. Me’ah, which means 100 in Hebrew, graduated 2,000 adults in its first decade and now has 1,000 students in five cities, including the program in Manhattan. At the same time, enrollment soared at Jewish day schools locally. Seven schools opened in Greater Boston between 1992 and 2003, by which time 2,800 students – one in every five Jewish students – were enrolled in a Jewish day school, according to The Jews of Boston.

Last year, a group of local families anonymously donated, through Combined Jewish Philanthropies, $45 million to Jewish day schools – $10 million each to the region’s three biggest, Maimonides in Brookline and the Rashi and Solomon Schechter schools in Newton. The remaining $15 million will boost financial aid among all 14 day schools in Greater Boston.

This huge gift notwithstanding, the landscape for Jewish philanthropy in Boston did not change overnight. The area has long been home to major Jewish philanthropists, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his family. It is home, too, to prominent voices in Jewish public affairs, including Steve Grossman, the former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (and the Democratic National Committee), and Alan Dershowitz, the outspoken Harvard law school professor.

Politics will play a role in the greatest legacy of this wave of philanthropy: The New Center for Arts and Culture.

WHAT WALT DISNEY WORLD is to amusement parks, the 92nd Street Y in New York is to community centers. It opened in 1874 as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association but evolved over the years from a center of Jewish culture to simply a center of culture. This month alone, its calendar includes lessons on learning how to play Texas Hold ‘Em, a talk with New York Times basketball writer Harvey Araton, cooking tips from Mark Bittman, the author of How to Cook Everything, a showing of The Graduate, and a dialogue with English novelist Peter Ackroyd about his new biography of Shakespeare.

The founders of the New Center for Arts and Culture envision a similar place, home to a broad range of cultural activity. (They even dropped “Jewish” from the name of the center, set to open in 2009.) Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston have enlisted some of the city’s most prominent Jewish philanthropists and business leaders, secured one of the most desired tracts on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, set a price tag of at least $80 million, hired celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind (who designed the master plan for the site of the World Trade Center in New York), and put their faith on the shoulders of a man who makes things happen.

“It’s like the 92nd Street Y,” Shrage says. “It’s a Jewish place at its heart, with three different programs: Jewish, music, and the intersection of cultures.”

Five years after I came back to Boston, Vilna Shul’s doors have creaked open to growing numbers of young Jews who stroll up Beacon Hill on a Friday night not on the way to a bar or a movie but to sing in Hebrew or nosh on kugel. And at Temple Israel, one in five members is now under 35, thanks largely to Morrison’s Riverway Project and events like Soul Food Fridays and Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays.

And what’s happening in Boston is happening elsewhere. “Younger singles and married couples are establishing their own congregations,” says Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He says there are at least six new youth-led congregations around New York, and that Jews in Los Angeles and Chicago are doing the same. As with new Christian movements, he says, services are less somber. “People are talking about spirituality much more,” he says, “and one way to express that is through music.”

At Temple Israel, Morrison plays the guitar and leads very musical services through the Riverway Project. But it wasn’t music, he says, that first brought in his younger members.

“In the spring of 2001, I had house meetings with nonmembers. I asked, `What are your perceptions of your synagogue?’ By and large, they were seen as negative,” he says. He describes the feedback: ” `You were not allowed to think critically. Synagogues were like country clubs – they were interested in our money.’ ” Even so, he says, people wanted to talk. Within a few months, he was leading Friday night Shabbat services in homes around Boston and signing up new members younger than 35 at Temple Israel for an introductory fee of $36 for the first year. (Dues rise, but the rabbi says he works with young members’ budgets.) In 2001, Temple Israel had about 50 members under 35 without children. Now, it has more than 200. The Riverway Project not only has an e-mail list of 1,000, it also brought in $6,000 in membership fees the first year and $80,000 so far this year. And Temple Israel is using a similar approach to reach out to empty nesters.

“One big change is outreach,” Morrison says, “especially to interfaith marriages. Plenty of rabbis don’t perform interfaith weddings. I don’t know how to walk that line. I perform interfaith weddings under certain circumstances. Most interfaith couples are asking questions even Jewish couples are not asking.” Still, that doesn’t mean interfaith couples don’t make him nervous. “I think the test is going to be our generation’s children. I think synagogues are where Jews are made.”

Does any of this mean the Star of David is going to become the new religious symbol of Boston anytime soon. No.

But remember Solomon Franco, the Jew from Holland sent packing in 1649? Exactly 350 years later, an outspoken civil rights leader from Boston died of cancer, and not long after, in 2002, a spectacular new span was dedicated to honor his work bridging people of all faiths, colors, and beliefs. Today, anywhere in the city, pick up a postcard of Boston. Chances are it will show a gorgeous nighttime view of the lit-up Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which stands as Boston’s new crown in the same way the Empire State Building instantly says New York and the Washington Monument evokes D.C. Imagine that. A Jew symbolizing Boston.

Doug Most is the editor of the Globe Magazine. He can be reached at