Reprinted with permission from the Brockton Enterprise Newspaper.
BROCKTON ENTERPRISE April 17, 1999
Congregation Agudas Achim Ready To Mark 100th Birthday
The oldest Orthodox synagogue on the South Shore will celebrate this
important milestone with an observance in May
by Morton Feinberg
special to the Enterprise
BROCKTON The 100th anniversary of Congregation Agudas Achim, the oldest Orthodox synagogue on the South Shore, will be celebrated on the weekend of May 22-23 at its current location on Belmont Avenue.
This historic event will bring a gathering of current members and their families, as well as former members now living outside of Brockton. The hard-working committee under leadership of Beth Richman has mailed invitations outlining the festivities scheduled for that weekend.
Sabbath observations will start on Friday evening, May 21, followed by the traditional Sabbath service on Saturday morning, May 22. A special Kiddush meal will follow this service. On Sunday evening, May 23, a grand banquet will be held in the main sanctuary of the synagogue.
The history of Agudas Achim is part of a greater history of the Jewish community that began arriving in Brockton in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, the Jewish community, then largely located on the East Side of Brockton, realized its need for a place of worship. In 1903, a cornerstone for a synagogue on the original Stillman Avenue was laid at impressive ceremonies. Brocktons mayor and other dignitaries were present. In September of 1903, the new building was dedicated. A smaller synagogue joined forces with the original pioneers to become Agudas Achim-United Brothers. In a short period of time, a Hebrew school and a ladies auxiliary was formed. Rabbi Joseph Salesky served as one of the first leaders.
Continued growth called for a larger building that could house a school and facilities for social events and religious services. Land was purchased on Crescent Street near Salisbury Park (now the home of Capeway Aluminum and Vinyl Inc.) In 1927 the new building was dedicated with Harry A. Stone accepting the presidency and Rabbi Abraham S. Borvick serving the congregation.
In 1930 the Sisterhood of Congregation Agudas Achim was organized and met regularly to help raise funds for the beautification and upkeep of the synagogue. The very first Sisterhood president, elected in 1932, was Mrs. Allan (Annette) Rosen. Throughout the 1930s, the Sisterhood conducted traditional projects as well as community projects such as visits to service camps and veterans hospitals.
During the war years, many members of the congregation went on military duty and some gave their lives.
In 1944, a mortgage redemption ceremony took place. The president was Attorney Albert K. Shimelovich and the rabbi was Herman F. Spiro.
The 50th anniversary celebration was attended at that time by then Governor Paul Dever and other dignitaries.
In the late 1950s, the need for a larger and more modern facility resulted in the purchase of land on Belmont Avenue. In 1960, a building contract was awarded to the T.F. Crowell Company. The architect was Jacob Chaskes. From March 16 to 18, 1962, the building was dedicated with religious services, dances, dining and a procession of the Sacred Scrolls (Torah). In 1965, a farewell reception was given to Rabbi Herman Spiro, who retired after 25 years of service.
Following the retirement of Rabbi Spiro, Rabbi Saul Weiss and his wife, Peggy, joined the synagogue. Synagogue youth under the leadership of Rabbi Weiss became involved in a national youth chapter, which was a first in the history of the synagogue.
In 1969, a mortgage-burning ceremony and a testimonial to dedicated members of the congregation was held. Special recognition was given to Max Berger, Joseph Berman, George Crowell, Jacob Chaskes, Mrs. Kenneth (Dorothy) Remer, Mrs. Morris (Fannie) Hurwitz, Jacob Winneg, Simon Stengel, Harry Kalman, Margaret Kelleher, Harry Sidman, Attorney A. K. Shimelovich, James Siskind, Mrs. Charles (Rose) Smolensky, Harold Solomon, Joseph B. Jacobson, Samuel Fish and Mrs. Abraham Leona) Worobey.
Synagogue growth became significant during the 1970s. A South Shore Hebrew Academy was developed and housed in the synagogue. Fundraising began in the form of bingo games.
From the mid-1980s to the present time, a gradual shift of families from Brockton to neighboring communities and states depleted the membership ranks.
However, a determined number of members including the officers and board of directors of the synagogue focused their attention on Sabbath evening and morning services continued to conduct services for major and minor holy days from Passover to the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, joined the Brockton Interfaith Community, instituted an active adult education program, continued Sisterhood and Brotherhood join meetings and special breakfast meetings, continued the weekly bingo games and selected a Centennial Program Committee.
On the committee are: Beth Richard, chairperson, and Roberta Richman, Morton Feinberg, Rita Spiegelman, Stanley Spiegelman, Phyllis Spiegel, Lottie Cohen, Barbara Harpel, Michael Ferber, Joanne Matulsky, Rhoda Shurman, Rosyln Bruce, Marlene Perkins, Sandy Shore, Attorney Lawrence Siskind, Arlene Rudenstein, Rita Berg, Helen Schwartz, Morris Cooper, Yale Newman, Phil Logvin and Isador Gaffin.
Reprinted with permission by The Jewish Advocate of Boston
The JEWISH ADVOCATE OF BOSTON, June 18-24, 1999
IN BROCKTON, CELEBRATION AND REFLECTION
By Chana Shavelson
BROCKTON On Belmont Avenue in Brockton a gala event, a special kiddush meal, a Sunday evening banquet and voices from the citys Jewish past as Congregation Agudas Achim, one of the oldest Orthodox synagogues on the South Shore, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Over 200 members and former members, along with local notables like Mayor Jack Yunits, House Representative Thomas Kennedy and Councilor Martha Crowell, joined in commemorating the staying power of the shul. The citys other local synagogues, Temple Beth Emunah and Temple Israel, also sent greetings, as did President Clinton and Itzhak Levanon, the consul general of Israel to New England.
Questionable, however, is what the shul was actually celebrating. The 100 members cited by Agudas Achim Vice President Mort Feinberg seem more taken than actual. The median age of congregations is 73 to 78, and Saturday morning services attract 12 to 14 people, "exclusive of a few women who come", according to Feinberg. There are no children in the synagogue community.
Yet "a determined number of members" are keeping the shul afloat, he asserts, and he is right. In a city that has seen a Jewish mass exodus in past decades with the decline of the shoe trade and the dispersion of wealth into an expanding suburban network, that Aguda Achim exists at all is impressive. Add to these factors a general move away from Orthodoxy and a total Brockton population of approximately 1,500 Jews, and the gala event seems well merited indeed.
A talk with Agudas Achim "alums" and other Brockton odd-timers reveals that there is much to remember. All point to Bay Street, the center of Jewish life for decades in this manufacturing town. "You didnt have to go out of Brockton (in the 1920s and 30s) to provide for a Jewish home" declares Rose Richman, 83. You had three or four kosher butchers on Bay Street; two chicken dealers, Mr. Freedman and Mrs. Peterovsky, who sold fowl from her house on Plymouth Street; a haberdashery for mens clothing and accessories, a millinery for the ladies; Mrs. Cohen for domestics or dry goods; and Mrs. Levine, the corsetiere, because "these women from Eastern Europe had big bosoms and big bellies", explains Richman.
And dont forget Mr. Swartzs delicatessen and the local cheder or Jewish kindergarten, also on Bay Street.
In these golden days of Brockton Jewry, Agudas Achim was expanding. From its original site on Stillman Avenue and a merging with the rusische or Russian Congregation Anshei Sfard in 1903, to a larger building on Crescent Street in 1927 and then its final locale on Belmont Avenue in 1962, the shul grew with the times. Rabbi David Werb of Brocktons Temple Beth Emunah puts the citys Jewish population in the 40s, 50s and 60s at around 4,000 to 5,000. In the 80s, he says, the community was cut in half as Easton, Stoughton, Bridgewater, Sharon, Randolph, Whitman and Mansfield opened up and became attractive to buyers.
In Brocktons heyday, though, the women still shopped on Bay Street and the men owned shoe factories or worked in the industry. Walk Over Shoe Co., W. L. Douglas, Diamond Shoe Co., Stacey Adams and Victory Shoe employed both Jews and non-Jews. Lithuanian and Polish gentiles worked alongside Russian Jews from the Caspian and Black Sea areas, as well as Litvisch or Lithuanian and Polish Jews.
What did the non-Jews think of all this?
If blacks wanted a good chicken, they would go to Mrs. Peterovsky", says Richman, whose father donated a sefer Torah to Agudas Achim in the 1950s. (Of course, Rfchie the chicken lady" was Richmans cousin, too, so lets take this observation with a grain of salt.
Today, Bay Street is called "commercial Street", and houses a credit union, the main post office, Department of Social Services and "remnants (of Jewish Brockton) few and far between, " laments Feinberg.
Urban renewal swept the city in the late 60s and 70s when the shoe business went out and cheap housing began to bring in low-income communities. Richman, remembering her Irish and Italian neighbors growing up in the 20s and 30s, also mentions good race relations and "relations between the faiths" as an attraction for these groups.
Commenting on the Jewish demographics of the times, Werb, half of whose congregants hail for outside of Brockton, makes an almost counter-intuitive claim regarding the loss of the citys Jews. "Its not that the Jews are moving out", he says, but that they are "just not moving in." The current population is largely senior citizen, and "young people", he concludes, "have moved into surrounding communities.".
Werbs reasoning may be right, but the fact remains that Brocktons Jews are aging and dying. He estimates a remaining 1,500 but is not bleak about the future. Temple Beth Emunah is the largest of Brocktons three congregations with 400 families, and young people who were raised at the synagogue, says the rabbi, are "coming back to Brockton and its surrounding towns to educate and bring up their children in the temple they grew up in."
Young people do not seem to be returning to Agudas Achim, but the shuls 100th is in fact an important event in the citys Jewish history. Brockton, like so many towns with almost ghettoized Jewish populations in the early days of this century, is fading into memory.
Such events occur almost daily in our nation as communities, like Brockton, look back and remember their roots in the countrys urban immigrant centers and hang their hats on the assimilation of Americas suburban sprawl.