Judaism in Greater Boston


1649    Solomon Franco, a Sephardic Jew, arrives in the Boston area and, as a stranger without money, is warned out of town. Three months after his arrival, Boston’s first Jew of record leaves the colony for Holland.

 1674    Rowland Gideon, a Jew of Portuguese ancestry, settles in Boston and establishes himself as a merchant.

1695    A list of Boston inhabitants includes a person by the name of “Samuel the Jew.”

1720    An Italian Jew named Judah Monis lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

April 30, 1722 The officers of Harvard Corporation vote that Judah Monis be approved as an instructor of the Hebrew language at the College, under the condition that he convert to Christianity. One month before assuming his post at Harvard, Monis converts before a large assembly in College Hall.

1735    One thousand copies of Judah Monis’s A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue are published, and for the next twenty-five years the book is a required text for Harvard students. It is the first Hebrew grammar guide, and the first book to use Hebrew type, to be published in America.

1763    Jews in Newport, Rhode Island dedicate New England’s first synagogue, later known as the Touro Synagogue, to serve the area’s Sephardic community.

1812    Hannah Adams, a fifth-generation New Englander and Christian missionary, publishes History of the Jews, which provides a thorough account of Jewish history and beliefs.

1840s  The first wave of Jewish immigrants begins arriving from Central Europe throughout the 1840s and 50s.

1842    Mr. and Mrs. Peter Spitz invite families to worship together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in their home on Wendell Street.

1843    The approximately eighteen worshippers present to celebrate the circumcision of Mr. and Mrs. Spitz’s first-born son decide to form a permanent congregation. They call themselves Congregation “Ohabei Shalom,” (Lovers of Peace), and become Boston’s first Jewish congregation.

1844    The first Jewish burial place in Massachusetts is established in East Boston.

March 14, 1845 Congregation Ohabei Shalom is granted a charter of incorporation by Massachusetts, giving formal possession of land to the Jewish community.

March 26, 1852 The congregation of Ohabei Shalom dedicates its own synagogue building on Warren Street, the first synagogue in Boston and the second in New England.

1854    A cultural divide leads a group of German Jews to withdraw from the congregation at Ohabei Shalom, and later take the name Adath Israel, known today as Temple Israel. The stay-behind Polish congregation is granted rights to the Ohabei Shalom name and the Warren Street synagogue.

1858    A cultural divide again leads to division within Ohabei Shalom. This time, a group of newer East Prussian members form Die Israelitische Gemeinde Mishkan Israel, the successor of which is today’s Conservative synagogue, Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill.

1870    Ohabei Shalom inaugurates confirmation of boys and girls, the first in a series of changes influenced by the Reform movement in Judaism.

1874    Solomon Schindler is elected as rabbi of Temple (Adath) Israel. He becomes a pioneer in the process of innovation and liberalization characteristic of Reform Judaism. Schindler’s changes include mixed seating of men and women, a choir and organ, English language worship, and Sunday worship. Both Ohabei Shalom and Adath Israel eventually adopt these changes, demonstrating the increasing influence of both Protestantism and Reform Judaism at that time. This period also witnesses the beginning of a new wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, primarily from Lithuania.

1875    Boston’s Jewish population is reported to be around 3,000.

 1880s  The largely German Reform population, well on its way to assimilation in Boston, meets a major challenge. The Pogroms in Russia and Poland send a second great movement of Jewish immigrants to the United States. The Eastern European Jews who arrive in the United States in the late nineteenth century scarcely recognize as Jewish the Reform Judaism that they encounter in America.

1881    Ohabei Shalom joins the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national organization of Reform synagogues.

1886    Harvard College celebrates its 250th anniversary. An estimated one dozen Jewish students graduate.

1892    The legislature of Massachusetts passes an act granting Jewish clergy the right to perform marriage ceremonies.

April 25, 1895 Boston’s German-Jewish population establishes the Federation of Jewish Charities of Boston to help the Russian-Jewish immigrants adjust to life in America. Member organizations include the United Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society, the Leopold Morse Home for the Aged and Infirm Hebrews and Orphanage, the Free Employment Bureau, and the Charitable Burial Association. Boston’s Jewish population is estimated at 20,000, including 14,000 new immigrants.

1898    A group of Orthodox Jews from the city of Vilna, Lithuania purchase a former Baptist church for a meeting house.

1900    About 7% of the freshman class at Harvard College is Jewish. Fifty-three synagogues exist in Boston at this time.

1902    The Jewish Advocate is founded, a publication which continues today. Boston’s Jewish population grows to 40,000.

1906    The Harvard Menorah Society is formed. One of its founders, Horace Kallen, becomes well known for his incisive writings on cultural pluralism.

1907    Boston’s Jewish population grows to 60,000.

1908    Adath Jeshurun, the first synagogue of the Roxbury Jewish community, known as the “Blue Hill Avenue Shul,” hires an English-speaking rabbi, Phineas Israeli, who introduces innovations later associated with Conservative Judaism, such as junior congregation and late Friday night services. In effect, the congregation splits between old and young; those who seat men and women separately and those who mix them together; those who attend Sabbath morning services and those who attend on Friday evening. Israeli loses his job in 1918. There are roughly 1,700 permanently established Jewish congregations in the United States at this time.

1910    There are an estimated 80,000 Jews in Boston and seven Yiddish newspapers.

1913    The Intercollegiate Menorah Association (IMA) is established, which expands the objectives of the Harvard Menorah Society to a national scale.

1916    Justice Louis Brandeis, a Boston lawyer, becomes the first Jew appointed to the bench of the United States Supreme Court. In total, there have been seven Jewish Justices appointed to the Supreme Court, including current justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

1917    Thirty-six founders incorporate Congregation Kehillath Israel as the (Orthodox) Jewish Congregation of Brookline. Shortly after its inception, the Congregation affiliates with the United Synagogue of America (now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism).

 1918    At the end of the war, there are an estimated 1,900 permanently established Jewish congregations in the United States.

1919    Orthodox Jews from Lithuania purchase the Phillips Street property and build what will later become known as the Vilna Shul. It remains a fine example of a small working class Orthodox synagogue from the early twentieth century.

1920    About 21.5% of the freshman class at Harvard is Jewish.

1921    Hebrew Teachers Training School, the antecedent of Hebrew College, is founded.

1922    Faculty and student debate rages over a proposal by President Abbott Lawrence Lowell to limit the number of Jews at Harvard. The faculty soundly rejects the plan, but a new admissions form, more explicit about ethnicity, is introduced and results in a de facto quota.

1924    The wave of Russian-Jewish immigration slows as the United States adopts strict immigration laws.

1925    Members of Congregation Kehillath Israel build a new synagogue on Harvard Street. In the new building, the women of the congregation are permitted to join the men on the same level of the sanctuary.

1930    Boston’s Jewish population begins moving from the South End, West End, and East Boston to Dorchester and Mattapan.

1940s Harvard Hillel has its first informal meetings in Phillips Brooks House.

1944    The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC) is founded to improve interreligious and intergroup relations in Boston. The JCRC combats anti-Semitism and promotes social and economic justice and civil rights for all.

1946    Boston’s Jewish population continues to move out of the city and begins to relocate to places such as Brookline and Newton.

1948    Brandeis University, the first Jewish-sponsored nonsectarian university in the country, is founded and named in memory of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. An estimated 137,000 Jews live in Boston.

1951    Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, arrives in Boston for a rally at Boston Garden.

1953    The congregation at Young Israel of Brookline is founded and early services are held in a small house on Fuller Street. Today, the Young Israel synagogue is one of the largest Orthodox congregations in New England.

1965    Boston’s Jewish population numbers 176,000. The intermarriage rate for Boston Jews is estimated at around 7%.

1968    Leaders of the Havurah movement in Boston, part of a larger Jewish student movement in the city, found Havurat Shalom in Somerville. The movement is known for egalitarian and lay-led worship, and for sparking a period of Jewish religious and spiritual renewal.

1975    The intermarriage rate for Boston Jews is estimated at around 13%.

1980    Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley publishes Vetaher Libenu II, the first gender-inclusive Jewish prayer book. The congregation refrains from using traditionally accepted masculine pronouns in reference to God.

1985    An estimated 170,000 Jews live in Greater Boston. A demographic survey shows that Jews are more geographically dispersed than before and that intermarriage, estimated at a rate of about 18% for Boston Jews, is increasing.

1994    Harvard University, the old Puritan university where Judah Monis needed to convert to Christianity in order to teach, sees the dedication of a striking new center for Jewish life: the Rosovsky Center, named for Harvard’s eminent Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Henry Rosovsky.

October 12, 2002 Boston College installs a copy of the Torah in the worship center, where it is expected to be used for future Friday and Saturday services.

2003    Hebrew College opens the first full-time transdenominational rabbinical program at an accredited college.

2004    There are reported to be over 200,000 Jews living in Boston.

September 22, 2005 Boston College launches a program that allows students to minor in Jewish studies, a rarity in Catholic higher education.

February 28, 2009 According to Reform Judaism magazine, Brandeis University, Harvard University and Radcliffe College, Tufts University, Boston University, and Northeastern University are among the “Top 60 Schools Jews Choose.”


Works Cited

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America: four centuries of an uneasy encounter: a history. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Olitzky, Kerry M. The American Synagogue: A historical dictionary and sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Sarna, Jonathan D., Ellen Smith and Scott-Martin Kosofsky, eds. The Jews of Boston. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.