Judaism in Greater Boston

One of the world’s oldest living traditions, JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol... traces its historical roots to the confederation of tribes living over 3,000 years ago in the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The five books of the TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh. and the twenty-four booksThe Analects, Book of Mencius, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean have been the central texts for the Confucian tradition since the 12th century, when the Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi (1130-1200) grouped them together as the Four Books. They gained the statu... that compose the HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written. BibleThe Greek term biblia means the “books.” Bible is used in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to refer to the book which gathers together their sacred writings. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—a collection re... are central to the historical development of Judaism. The study and interpretation of the TorahTorah, meaning teaching or instruction, refers in its most specific sense to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or books of Moses, and to the scrolls on which these teachings are written. More broadly, Torah refers to the whole of the Hebre... continues to play a central role in Jewish life. Jewish immigration to the United States from Poland, Russia, and Germany during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries solidified Judaism’s place as one of the most prominent religious traditions in Greater Boston. Today, there are over 200,000 Jews living in Boston, representing every major denomination.

On a Friday evening, couples and families dressed in business casual attire sit together reciting prayersPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. and Scripture and greet each other with “ShabbatShabbat or sabbath is the day of rest, the seventh day, recalling the Biblical creation narrative in which God rested from the labors of creation on the seventh day. In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and runs through sundown... Shalom!” On a Saturday morning, men in suits, covered with tallitA tallit is a large, four-cornered shawl with fringes and special knots at the extremities, worn during Jewish morning prayers. The fringes, according to the Bible (Numbers 15.38-39), remind the worshiper of God’s commandments. In many communities today... (prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. shawls), and women in long skirts or dresses also celebrate Shabbat through prayer recitation and Torah study. During the week, Jews can gather at the Jewish Community Center, shop at kosherKosher means, literally, “proper” or “correct” and refers to food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws (kashrut). These dietary laws prescribe what foods may be eaten, how animals must be slaughtered etc. butcheries, attend events planned by Jewish organizations, study at Jewish-affiliated colleges and rabbinical schools, and engage in ritual immersion at women’s and men’s mikva’ot. These snapshots of contemporary Jewish life represent the tradition as it stands today in Greater Boston–a diverse infusion of the spiritual, ritual, educational and social, encompassing Jews from a wide range of traditions and perspectives.

Historical Overview

Judaism’s earliest history in Boston, detailed more extensively in this timeline, rests primarily with individuals, and lacks any form of organized Jewish community. In 1649, a SephardicSephardic is an adjective used to refer to the Jewish culture which developed in Spain and the Mediterranean, in contradistinction to Ashkenazic Jewry, which has its distinctive roots in Germany and Eastern Europe. The culture and practices of Sephardic J... Jew named Solomon Franco arrived from New Amsterdam (later New York City) and became the first Jew to live in the Boston area; however, he soon left the PuritanThe Puritans were Christians who, in the sixteenth century, called for the purification of the Church of England from what they considered the vestiges of Roman Catholic hierarchy and practice. Like other Reformers, they stressed the authority of the Bibl... colony for Holland. Historical records from 1674 and 1695 indicate persons by the names of Rowland Gideon, “the Jew,” and “Samuel the Jew.” Years later, in 1720, an Italian Jew named Judah Monis settled in Boston and in 1735 he published A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue, the first Hebrew grammar guide, and the first book to use Hebrew type, to be published in America. Monis began teaching at Harvard, but only after he publicly converted to ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church. before a large crowd gathered at the University’s College Hall.

In 1843, more than a century after Monis’ conversion, Bostonian Jews formed the congregation of Ohabei Shalom, meaning “Lovers of Peace.” In 1852, TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... Ohabei Shalom became the first synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... in the Boston area, marking the transition in Boston Jewish history between a record of Jewish individuals to a record of Jewish congregations and organizations. Ohabei Shalom was followed by Adath IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien... in 1854, founded by a group of German Jews who decided to break away from Temple Ohabei Shalom. Likewise, Mishkan Israel (now Mishkan Tefila) was founded in 1858 by Polish families who left Ohabei Shalom. Though all have since moved from their original locations, Temple Ohabei Shalom, Adath Israel (known today as Temple Israel) and Congregation Mishkan Tefila continue to be part of the thriving Jewish communities in Greater Boston. The unique foundation and history of each congregation foreshadows the subsequent expansion and diversification of the Jewish community in Boston, largely fueled by immigration from Germany, Russia, Poland, and Lithuania.

Contemporary Judaism in Greater Boston

As of 2004, there are 200,000 Jews living in Boston. This number includes Reform, Conservative, OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion., ReconstructionistThe Reconstructionist movement is a recent development in American Judaism, beginning with Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881 - 1982) who understood Judaism to be a civilization and culture, kept vibrant by constantly changing and adapting to new situations. The ce..., Sephardic, ChabadLubavitchers are members of a branch of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic movement. They take their name from a Russian town called Lubavitch and follow a line of spiritual masters or rebbes, the last of whom was Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), w.../LubavitchLubavitchers are members of a branch of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic movement. They take their name from a Russian town called Lubavitch and follow a line of spiritual masters or rebbes, the last of whom was Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), w..., and unaffiliated Jews. The World Religions in Greater Boston directory lists over 100 Jewish organizations, including synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ..., campus associations, Jewish advocacy groups, and centers of ritual observance, such as mikva’ot and Torah study groups; such a vast array of organizations is representative of the diversity of the Jewish population in Greater Boston. This resource captures the modern offshoots of foundational Jewish synagogues, as well as some of the more contemporary Jewish groups and organizations.

Temple Ohabei Shalom, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, and Temple (Adath) Israel hold a unique place in Boston’s history and the contemporary experience of Judaism in Boston. Temple Ohabei Shalom, the oldest synagogue in Boston, continues to be a vibrant congregation and is now located in the heart of Brookline. “Progressive in attitude, yet traditional in practice,” Ohabei Shalom proudly celebrates its history, while also making history through its elevation of a woman to the rank of senior rabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat...; welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenderTransgender is a term that refers to a range of unconventional relationships to gender. Transgender people do not identify with the sex and gender roles they were assigned at birth, and they may feel that their psychological gender and physical bodies are... people; and accepting interfaith families. Congregation Mishkan Tefila stands as the oldest Conservative synagogue in Boston. Now located in Chestnut Hill, its twenty-six acres include a library and museum, which detail its history and contemporary reality. Temple (Adath) Israel, like Ohabei Shalom, has transitioned from an Orthodox to a Reform synagogue. Now located on Longwood Avenue in Boston, it explicitly welcomes interfaith families, convert Jews, multiracial families, gays and lesbians, and members of all generations.

More recent synagogues and centers in Greater Boston have also been pivotal in shaping the contemporary Jewish experience, including the notable Havurat Shalom, Young Israel of Brookline, and Mayyim Hayyim. Havurat Shalom, founded in 1968 and located in Somerville, was one of the pioneers in the ChavurahA havurah is a Jewish community in which roles, leadership, and responsibility for worship and study are shared among members as opposed to hiring a rabbi, hazzan, or other trained leaders. movement. The Chavurah movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, rooting itself in entirely lay-led services and remaining unaffiliated with traditional Jewish denominations. Havurat Shalom conducts egalitarian services using its own prayerbook and places a strong emphasis on the pursuit of social justice. Young Israel of Brookline is one of the largest Orthodox congregations in New England; the congregation functions as a space for numerous groups, from Israeli Jews studying in America to families with young children who play games among the pews while their parents study Scripture and pray. Finally, Mayyim Hayyim is a contemporary women’s and men’s mikvahA mikveh is a ritual bath, used for purposes of purification and conversion in the Jewish tradition. located in Newton. Historically, Jewish women were required to immerse themselves in a mikvah following menstruation. Mayyim Hayyim, however, practices ritual immersion of both women and men. Some perform this ritual immersion to fulfill a divine commandment and purify the body, others do so out of a sense of empowerment or a desire to mark a particular transitional period.

Organizations such as the Jewish Community Relations Council, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Historical Society, and schools such as the Jewish-affiliated Brandeis University and Hebrew College work to build bridges and create bonds between those of differing philosophies and denominations. Each provides social, educational, and/or advocacy resources for Jews living in the Greater Boston area. The Jewish Community Relations Council is also an active member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, working with other religious organizations to campaign for affordable housing and universal healthcare. Similarly, in 2003, Hebrew College established a transdenominational rabbinical school, which actively partners with Andover Newton Theological School to engage in interfaith dialogue and study, shaping future religious leaders who are well-versed in their own religious traditions, and the religious traditions of others.


At the 2009 annual luncheon of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Executive Director Nancy Kaufman laid out a five year plan for JCRC and the Jews in Boston which the organization represents. This plan includes relationship building, leadership training among both lay and clergyClergy are the body of ordained men (and in some cases women) who are authorized to perform the priestly, pastoral, or rabbinical duties of the community—as distinct from the laity whom they serve., and social activism. It is clear that the Jewish community in Boston continually and actively engages in each. Throughout its long history, Judaism in Boston has evolved into the diverse reality of today, briefly outlined here, but lived and celebrated in far more complexity in the daily lives of Boston’s Jews. Indeed, Boston’s Jewish history shows a transition from a history of individuals to a history of synagogues and, finally, to an expansive network of centers, groups, and organizations that inform the lived experience of Judaism in Greater Boston.

Resources for Judaism in Boston