An institution is most easily considered as static object. Stability should, one expects, determine an institution’s survival. However, the synagogue, built around transiency and customizability, breaks this convention. Previous studies of the evolution of the Jewish community in Boston, like The Jews of Boston, a compilation of essays from leading scholars, have focused on population statistics. They have tracked the number of Jews in various neighborhoods and their percentage of the total population over time. This picture is incomplete. As institutions, synagogues fall under the analysis of Robert D. Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone essay. They increase civic involvement and influence, and foster trust and cooperation. Gerald Gamm adds that they act as “repositories of social capital.” The organizational structure of the institution becomes power and influence. The flexible structure of the synagogue, specifically, allowed the Jews of Boston to control and adapt its role in Jewish life. Synagogue formations and movements identify both locations of solidarity and permanency, and of discontinuity and conflict.
Synagogues are distinct from other community institutions. They are not rooted geographically, and power is dispersed across users rather than concentrated. The religious foundation of the synagogue is the Torah, a portable object, not its physical structure. Decisions regarding creation and dissolution, purchasing property, requirements for membership, and use of funds, are decided through systems set up by the congregation rather than the Rabbi. This lack of hierarchy allows congregants to feel a personal ownership over their synagogue. Breakaways from and reconstitutions of synagogues by former members are not seen as unnatural or negative.
Boston’s first Jews were educated, German and Polish, and settled in the slums of the Lower South End from the 1840s through the 1860s. They were not excluded from the workforce, but they were also not accepted openly. In 1860, nearly all of Boston’s Jews lived in a small area of the South End, Park Square but made up only 500 of the 11,000 residents. As such a small subset, individual congregations were unable and uninterested in amassing power across ethnic boundaries. As observed by a reporter in 1882, “among them, as a race, there does not exist that coherence and social union.” The Germans formed the less orthodox Adath Israel while the Polish attended Ohabei Shalom. As younger members began leaving Ohabei to join Adath, the former introduced informal reforms to try to retain them.
Starting in the 1880s and through the turn of the century, Russian Jews fleeing religious persecution immigrated to Boston in unprecedented numbers. They spread quickly through the South End into the North and West End, and for the first time constituted Jewish majorities. From 1880 to 1900, the number of Jews in Boston grew from 5,000 to 40,000. The existing Central European population began to move out of the inner city, into Dorchester, Roxbury, and Brookline, to attempt to build suburbs of their own. Institutions adapted out of necessity to serve this exponentially larger and broader population.
The synagogue was vital to the largely immigrant Jewish population of Boston in the first decades of the 20th century. First and second generation immigrants needed grounding, supportive institutions. In 1895, Ohabei Shalom and Adath Israel put aside sectarian differences to address the crisis. They began the Federation of Jewish Charities to coordinate between synagogue and other Jewish charity efforts. This action united the Jews of Boston by increasing interaction among ethnic groups. Much like and sometimes even adjacent to synagogues, Jewish financial institutions sprung up to serve a willing and active population. These institutions acted as advisors, both in finance and personal decisions, to new immigrants. Other Jewish businesses like pharmacies, kosher butchers, and food stores further turned what began as a suburb into an ethnic blue-collar neighborhood. Blue Hill Ave was both a commercial center and the location of ten or more synagogues, depending on the year. The high density of Jewish patrons ensured success to any business catering to their needs. Dorchester also happened to be located in Ward 14, the largest and most politically valuable in the county. The G&G delicatessen on Blue Hill Ave was known as one of the most important stops on any Boston politician’s campaign trail. The self-sufficiency gained through institutional infrastructure strengthened the status of the entire group.
At the same time, Jews of all descents were increasingly seen as outsiders. In 1921, the Sacco-Vanzetti Trial galvanized many Jews into feeling the need for solidarity and protection. Rising antisemitism in the 1930s led to increased efforts by local Jewish businessmen, Rabbis, and politicians to consolidate political power and self-sufficiency through the support of Jewish institutions. The rise of celebrity preacher Father Coughlin took hold of Boston in particular, as well as nationally. He preached messages of anti-semitism through suspicion of communism and bankers. Nat Hentoff’s essay Growing Up on Blue Hill Ave describes how he and his family felt “hunted;” truly in danger in the 1930s. Figures 4-5 show that from 1920 to 1930, Jews consolidated power through physically clustering synagogues along Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and in the West End. Figure 12 shows HOLC grading maps made in 1930-1940 in relation to synagogue locations. The FHA did not give any area with a synagogue the highest grade, which indicated where federally backed home loans would be granted. Most were given the two lowest grades, yellow, “Definitely Declining,” or red, “Hazardous.” This is spatial evidence that Jewish residents were seen as undesirable and of a lower quality that their Christian counterparts.
However, the second and third, or “risen generation” of upper class Jews desired status they could only attain through spatial separation from the now “ghetto” of Dorchester-Roxbury. Brookline originally became a Jewish suburb at the same time as Roxbury, in the 1910s, but it did not experience the same influx of working-class residents. Brookline’s status as an independent town kept land values and taxes high, ensuring the “respectable” status of its inhabitants. Jews there lived alongside the white wealthy classes of other religions. As early as the 1930s, Jews also began to move into the adjacent suburbs of Newton and Allston-Brighton, establishing conservative Temple Emanuel and B’nai Moshe, respectively. This departure from orthodoxy consistently characterized suburban movement. Jews who left the ethnic enclaves of Boston Proper intended to assimilate into their new communities where they only made up small percentages of residents. While these new synagogues enjoyed the financial benefits of a prosperous congregation, they lacked the political power and social support that concentration granted the Jewish communities of Roxbury-Dorchester.
In the late 1960s, bankers, developers, and city politicians external to the Jewish community redefined Roxbury and Dorchester as the site of a new African American neighborhood. Urban renewal projects had exacerbated an existing housing shortage, and in particular black residents were unable to find homes. In 1967, the Federal Housing Association (FHA) agreed to guarantee mortgages in the inner city again. In 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Junior. In 1972, the Boston Globe Spotlight team led an investigation into the events of the intervening years, between 1967 and 1972. Boston was already experiencing severe racial tensions before King was assassinated, and in the words of Robert Morgan, president of the Boston Savings Bank, “The most important thing was to cool the city.” In 1968, the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) established the BBURG line, essentially outlining Dorchester-Roxbury, within which only African Americans could get federally insured mortgages. Block-busting tactics of intimidation and fear-mongering forced Jewish residents to sell their homes at undervalued rates, which real estate agents then turned around and sold to African Americans for inflated prices.
Gerald Gamm argues that by 1968, “when the mortgage program began, Jewish neighborhoods were already in their last stages of disintegration.” It is true that the population was already moving away from Dorchester and Roxbury before 1968. However, the totality of the destruction of the homogenous Jewish neighborhood was predicated on the dispersal and removal of their institutions. This did not occur until after B-BURG actions, as illustrated in Figures 8-11. In 1950, there were 70,000 Jews in the Roxbury-Dorchester area and 30 synagogues. In 1960, 47,000 and 27 synagogues. In 1967 there were 25,200 Jews and in 1970, 15,800 Jews and 16 synagogues remained. In 1980 there were only a few hundred Jews in the area and a single synagogue, which closed in 1989. In 1967, unsuspecting of the coming turmoil, a meeting of the State Board of Rabbis discussed how the Jewish community could use its “organizational structure” to address what they saw as an “urban crisis,” specifically to enable African Americans to “lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Although degrading, this optimism toward racial cooperation suggested that Jews were not planning to evacuate Dorchester-Roxbury in the coming years. In fact, at least some leadership were looking to increase interaction with the growing black population. Even though the prosperous were already leaving, the synagogues that served the Dorchester-Roxbury community persisted up until the tactics of BBURG and related agents forcefully pushed out the remaining residents.
Had they not been forced out, some level of Jewish population may have survived, as was the case in the former strongholds of the North, West, and South End. Vilna Shul, established in 1919 in Beacon Hill, still stands. One can track the largest synagogue in Boston, Temple Israel, back to roots in Adath Israel. When Atereths Israel, Roxbury burned down in 1956, they donated their assets to Temple Beth El, Newton, to ensure that the legacy of their name lived on. Even though synagogues were not spatially continuous, they have maintained a meaningful historical continuity.
The transition from Roxbury and Dorchester to the suburbs, Jewish re-suburbanization, is unlike the transitions that occurred earlier in the evolution of the Jewish community in Boston, and marks a turning point in the spatial configuration of Jews in Boston thereafter. In previous phases, the synagogues moved early on with the migrating population, which was often a large portion of the previous settlement. At the beginning of re-suburbanization those that left did so in small numbers, over the course of many decades, and formed breakaways from their previous congregation without destroying what they left behind. It was not until BBURG intervention that larger portions of Jews left the city, and within the span of only two years. They branched out in many directions, dispersing themselves across the Greater Boston area.
A study done in 1965 by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Boston identified layers of Jewish neighborhoods. The inner core was Dorchester-Mattapan and Chelsea-Malden. The transitional areas were Central Boston and Brookline. The outer ring, newly expanding at the time of the report, consisted of Newton-Wellesley, Framingham-Natick, the South Suburbs, and Lexington-Cambridge. No area had a Jewish majority, but each had distinct needs that the CJP hoped to analyze and address. The CJP conducted surveys subsequently every decade, providing insight into the drastically changing characteristics of Jewish Boston.
The 1981 Boston Globe article “A Jewish History of Boston” observed that the suburban Jewish communities had become increasingly transient, and community institutions were struggling to hold influence. Three years later, the CJP report would confirm that 72% of Jews in Greater Boston were not members of any type of Jewish organization, including synagogue. Robb adds that half of Boston Jews were from other American cities, and the majority lived across spread out suburbs. The old tight-knit ethnic community is nowhere to be found. CJP statistics also confirm the decreasing influence of immigration. In 1965, 22% of all adult jews in boston were first generation, and 50% second generation. In 1985, 8% were first, 28% were second generation, and 61% were third or later. The Jewish community was no longer primarily an immigrant community.
The ethnic ghetto provided “clearly visible institutions and symbols with which to maintain and reinforce the ethnic identification of the next generation,” wrote sociologist Herbert Gans. Suburban Jews increasingly assimilated into life as minority groups. One can clearly visualize their dispersal by comparing Figure 5, during the wave of suburbanization that created the Dorchester-Roxbury neighborhood, to Figure 7, after re-suburbanization. Although the Jewish population grew over time, it became less interested in the benefits of institutional membership. From 1975 to 1995 the Jewish population grew by 16%. In 1965, only 20% of the Jewish population had never belonged to a synagogue. In 1975, that number rose to 24%. In 1985, 42% had never belonged. There was also less incentive to open multiple synagogues in one area because there simply were not enough Jews to support them.
Synagogue movements display the evolution of Jewish concentrations and dispersals of power. As Jewish demographics changed, they constructed synagogues that best fit their needs. In the early immigrant neighborhoods of the 1860s to1900s, synagogues served to bond groups of different heritages, provide social support, and harness power through cooperation. By establishing synagogues, connections were formed that allowed for the creation of other supporting institutions like banks, hospitals, and businesses. Antisemitism and discriminatory forces contributed to increasing solidarity and isolation of Jews and their institutions. Later generations aimed to assimilate and distanced themselves from their synagogues, or began their own, dispersed across the suburbs of greater Boston. Their preferences were for more reform practice, and less general involvement in the Jewish community. They did not need the specific support of fellow Jews because they were assimilated and accepted into the broader community.
The ideology and function of the synagogue aids in explaining the variety of patterns of movement seen in Figures 2-7. The synagogue’s religious significance has nothing to do with its physical structure, so it moves easily at the whim of its congregation. The lines that mark technical neighborhood boundaries simply support how inconsistent and irrelevant the technical definition of a “neighborhood” can be. A neighborhood’s bureaucratic jurisdiction, topography, and transportation are definitive. But there is a larger infrastructure that is not so easy to pin down. The neighborhood “satisfies emotional needs for understanding and control over structures of power.” The Jewish population spilled over boundaries and created their own forms within and across them. Its neighborhoods are not lines on a map, but networks of individual associations, shared memories, ideals, and expectations.
The basis of the maps presented come from a project by the Jewish Genealogical Society to document Massachusetts Synagogues, “Past and Present.” In this document, Carol Clingan lists synagogues with their year established, addresses used, mergers with other synagogues, and related information. Not every entry is complete, and to supplement I used Boston Directories that listed synagogues and their addresses under “Churches and Ministers,” particularly for years before 1900. I also corroborated Clingan’s addresses using historical atlases for the city of Boston that have been digitized by the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library. I used these for areas in the North and West End, to locate streets that no longer exist, and then approximate equivalent addresses that exist today.
I used the program MMQGIS to geocode the list of addresses onto a map of present day Boston, marking the locations of all the synagogues between 1860 and 1990. The neighborhoods outlined use the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s map of the Boston Neighborhoods as of 2015. I also used national census data from NHGIS to track the percent African American population in the Boston Area. Overlayed with the movement of synagogues, one can spatially identify the correlation between shifts of the Jewish and black communities in Boston.
I also looked at specific significant synagogues and compiled their individual genealogies, and used the program PointstoLine to connect each location in order. I did not include the maps that resulted from this process because I did not want to assume these few synagogues were representative of a larger pattern.
I also used georeferenced HOLC maps from the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab to identify the effects of redlining on the Jewish population in Boston, particularly because the way redlining was implemented later by BBURG was unusual availability of housing for black Bostonians.
The geography of the neighborhoods of Boston is key to understanding the movement of Jews through the city, and out of it. Hierarchy of location is a potent force in Boston, and determines the demographic of a given area, but it is not permanently defined. Areas that were once depressed are now prosperous, and vice versa. Today the slums of the West End and South end are filled with luxury apartments. The North End is now a tourist trap.
The complicated history of Boston Jews and their synagogues cannot be fully grasped without spatial orientation. The maps provide a necessary link between physical and structural evidence with historical context.