Metro

Once the pride of Jewish Revere, temple set to be sold

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

REVERE — The kosher butchers, bakeries, and delis are long gone, and soon the last reminder of a Jewish presence on Shirley Avenue — once one of the busiest Jewish hubs in Greater Boston — will disappear, when Congregation Tifereth Israel is sold and demolished.

“We held on as long as we could, but financially we just can’t afford it and you’ve got to know when it’s time to let something go. Still, it’s like pulling the plug on someone,” said the synagogue’s president, Ira Novoselsky, as he walked through the once-grand temple that has fallen silent in recent years as members have moved away.

With no heat, a roof that’s been partially blown off, and a chimney that needs to be replaced, a handful of members kept the shul open the last five years only on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Now, Novoselsky says he is negotiating to sell the property to a developer who plans to tear down the synagogue and replace it with retail shops and veterans’ housing.

Advertisement

Even with the building in tough shape, about 100 people made their way this past fall to Yom Kippur services, which were led by Novoselsky’s son. The shul will open again on Sunday at 10 a.m., when congregants will have the opportunity to discuss the development plans, and have a last chance to tour the sanctuary and remove plaques dedicated to deceased family members.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

While some of the older prayer books are slated to be buried according to Jewish custom, Ira Novoselsky said it has not been decided what will be done with the temple’s ark and last remaining Torah.

Congregants learned about the shul’s closing earlier this month in a letter from the temple’s board. “We are at a crossroad in the history of our synagogue. . . . It is difficult to say this, but the writing is on the wall,” the board wrote. “The time has come for some straight talk from the heart. Please join us in discussion of our future.”

The synagogue, which was built as a Methodist church, was opened by Jews who fled Lithuania in 1912. With over 400 seats, a coffered ceiling, women’s balcony, and near-perfect acoustics, it drew Jews from the Revere Beach area — making it the largest synagogue in the city.

Novoselsky, 68, a Revere city councilor who lives in the same house where he was raised just a block away from the synagogue, called the closing the end of an era.

Advertisement

The building, now boarded up, sits in a neighborhood that has transformed into a melting pot of other ethnic enclaves. With its closing, just one synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel, remains in the city. Congregation Ahavas Achim closed in 1998.

Congregation Tifereth Israel.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
Congregation Tifereth Israel.

The expected sale follows a national trend, with long-established Jewish congregations throughout the country closing, merging, and downsizing as fewer Jews affiliate with synagogues. Over the last decade, synagogues have closed or merged in Swampscott, Salem, Marblehead, Lynn, Quincy, New Bedford, and in other communities. According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 5 American Jews described themselves as having no religion.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the Revere synagogue’s closing also represented a natural progression that occurs when people improve their economic base. “As Jews have moved up economically in the Boston area they have tended to move out. . . . So it has been since the early Jewish communities of Boston in the 19th century,” he said.

As Novoselsky walked through the sanctuary, he described a part of history that he fears will be lost. “It was like a little Israel around here,” he said, pointing out the ornate wooden ark that once held Torahs and bears the names of Jewish servicemen from Revere who were killed in action.

Outside, he remembers a time in the 1950s and ’60s when hundreds of congregants left their duplexes along Shirley Avenue in their finest suits and dresses and made their way to the shul on the high holidays. Jewish merchants closed their businesses, and p0lice closed off side streets to prevent traffic. Some went to pray; others stayed in the street to talk, where Jewish boys and girls flirted and the prayers of the congregants could be heard.

Advertisement

For decades, there always seemed to be activity on the corner of Shirley and Nahant avenues. If people weren’t at the synagogue, then kids could be found at the Jewish Community Center a few doors away. The hub stretched all the way down Shirley Avenue, past the restaurants and pool halls and shoe stores to the bandstand on Revere Beach — known as Punk’s Corner — where teens from Revere, Chelsea, Everett, and Lynn could be found.

‘We held on as long as we could.’

Michael Goldfarb, 61, said the synagogue was a major source of pride for the working-class Jews who lived along Shirley Avenue. The area served as a haven for his parents, who survived the Holocaust, moved from Europe to Revere, and owned Anna’s Pizza on Revere Beach.

Steven McCormack also lamented the end of a period of Massachusetts Jewish history. As a child, he remembers sitting with his great-grandfather, Joseph Schreter, during Yom Kippur services. McCormack, who is 62 and lives in Los Angeles, still recalls the sound of the shofar on the high holidays wafting through the streets of Revere.

“It instilled the message to me at a very young age of something ‘greater than ourselves,’ ” he said.

The prayer books of Congregation Tifereth Israel will be buried according to custom.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
The prayer books of Congregation Tifereth Israel will be buried according to custom.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe .com.