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Suburban Diary

Saying goodbye to an era that could not be saved

Temple Israel in Swampscott was built in 1953 by Italian architect Pietro Belluschi, with a Star of David on top and a vast sanctuary filled with natural light.

Steven A. Rosenberg/Globe Staff

Temple Israel in Swampscott was built in 1953 by Italian architect Pietro Belluschi, with a Star of David on top and a vast sanctuary filled with natural light.

Selling a house can sometimes be a simple process. A bunch of papers are signed, you hand over the keys, and you move somewhere else.

But what happens when someone else sells a place you never owned but still feel a part of?

Continue reading below

The sledgehammer came to my old temple in Swampscott last month. It was not unexpected: It had sat idle for almost a decade after its former congregation, Temple Israel, merged with another synagogue. Soon, 14 homes will be built on the site.

The temple building, once one of the grandest, most elegant open-domed Conservative sanctuaries in America, was built by the estimable Italian architect Pietro Belluschi in 1953. It represented the hopes and dreams of a new Jewish working class.

The sanctuary inside Swampscott's Temple Israel before demolition.

Herb Goldberg

The sanctuary inside Swampscott's Temple Israel before demolition.

Most were American-born Jews who had fled the congestion in places like Chelsea, Malden, Revere, and Lynn. Some had gone to college and were lawyers, doctors, and accountants. Others ran scrap metal yards, owned real estate, drove trucks and cabs, or had family businesses, such as my father, who owned a Chelsea deli. Some were wealthy, but most just made a living and wanted something better for their children.

Inside the building, there were traditional Jewish services every day, and a few pious men could be seen in the sanctuary. But Temple Israel functioned as much more than a house of prayer. It was part of a new era of the American Jewish experience: Ushering in a new society, brimming with great ambition, where people who had grown up in cold-water flats could find a home outside of the urban ring hard by the Mystic River.

Save for Hebrew School, it was largely empty most of the week. No matter. People drove by it, noticed its Star of David and took note that the Jews had a home and planned to stay. It also helped diffuse the not-so-subtle hints that we didn’t belong everywhere: As late as the 1960s, there was a nearby golf course and a beach club where Jews did not feel welcome.

The stained glass inside Temple Israel's sanctuary in Swampscott was destroyed in the recent demolition.

Herb Goldberg

The stained glass inside Temple Israel's sanctuary in Swampscott was destroyed in the recent demolition.

There was no grand religious or spiritual plan at the temple. Outside of learning the Hebrew alphabet and practicing reading, there was little focus at the Hebrew School besides preparing for our bar and bat mitzvahs. At the time, those in charge probably thought it would be unfair to burden American children with Jewish history. After all, what would be gained in describing our largely tumultuous existence, punctuated with exile, pogroms, and torture. Instead we were assigned two goals: Complete your bar/bat mitzvah and graduate from college.

If anything, it was a building that belonged to our parents. Most were hardly religious, and only a few kept kosher. But there were weddings and bar mitzvahs and brotherhood breakfasts to organize, attend, and to later reminisce about. It became a community, built on some common social values, such as giving to charity, supporting Israel, and performing good deeds. These days, modern Jewish professionals have created a whole subset of Judaism around that concept and call it Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world.

But no one ever said Tikkun Olam was a path to sustain dues-paying members, and these days there is no repairing of the temple. Its honey brick courtyards have been toppled; its burnished redwood halls where plaques once honored the dead and the founding temple members gleamed in the open-aired wreckage. Its maples have been uprooted, sawed into blocks and carted away.

During another time, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, a handful of wealthy Jews would have rushed to save the 52,000-square-foot building. But those philanthropists have long departed, like the insular group that once ran the temple.

Rubble marks a changing landscape at the place  where Temple Israel had sat empty for almost a decade.

Steven A. Rosenberg/Globe Staff

Rubble marks a changing landscape at the place where Temple Israel had sat empty for almost a decade.

In its heyday in the 1970s, when more than 2,000 people crowded into services on holidays such as Yom Kippur, or raised tens of thousands of dollars for Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the temple seemed like it would go on forever. But things were changing. America was opening its doors to Jews, and with intermarriage, Jews began the process of entering the majority religion.

A 2013 Pew Research Center study on American Judaism reported 1 in 5 American Jews by birth reported having no religion. And about 40 percent of Jewish adults said they lived in a household where just one person was a member of a temple.

When I drive by the temple, my car slows to a crawl and I realize a little piece of me is somewhere in that wreckage. Was it the 13-year-old, surrounded by Old World relatives after my bar mitzvah? Or the college student who wiped away a tear alongside my sister’s wedding canopy? Or, perhaps, it was the teen who found solace sitting alone in the vast sanctuary, filled with abundant natural light that streamed through the stained glass windows and made everything seem golden and perfect.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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