As building booms in Chelsea area, rabbis hope for Jewish renaissance
A century ago, the sight of Rabbi Sruli Baron walking through Chelsea in a yarmulke and tzitzit — fringes that symbolize religious obligations in Judaism — wouldn’t have been remarkable.
During the 1920s, Chelsea was believed to be home to the largest Jewish population per square mile in the United States outside New York City, according to Norman H. Finkelstein, who grew up in the city and has written about his hometown.
But the modern day Chelsea that Baron, 26, moved to earlier this month with his wife, Chaya, 24, and infant son is a drastically different place: The population is more than 60 percent Hispanic or Latino and the number of synagogues has dropped from about 18 to 2.
Now, with communities north of Boston growing, Baron and others face the new challenge of rebuilding the Jewish community in a place where its history runs deep.
As he prepared for his first Rosh Hashana at the newly opened Tobin Bridge Chabad Wednesday evening, the 6-foot-3-inch rabbi said he sees the residential building boom in Chelsea and the construction of a $2.4 billion resort casino in Everett as an opportunity for the Jewish community to experience a renaissance.
“It’s an area that’s experienced a lot of development and it seems like the future just holds more and more development,” Baron said. “Wherever there’s a community, there are Jews. And wherever there are Jews, there needs to be a synagogue. We’re here to build that Jewish home in this area.”
Tobin Bridge Chabad is an extension of Chabad of the North Shore and the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which is renowned for its outreach and roots in the Orthodox tradition. Generally, chabad centers welcome all types of Jews and don’t require registration or membership fees.
The center that Baron is leading operates at Congregation Tifereth Israel of Everett, which had considered closing before Chabad representatives approached its leaders two years ago, Baron said.
Leaders at Temple Emmanuel and the Walnut Street Synagogue, which have long histories in Chelsea, are also hoping to welcome new families who are moving into the communities just north of Boston.
Last year, the Walnut Street Synagogue hired Lila Kagedan, 36, as its rabbi, making her the first Orthodox woman to have her own congregation. A graduate of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, Kagedan became the first Orthodox woman to take the title of rabbi when she graduated in 2015.
Kagedan said descendants of some of the congregation’s founders continue to worship there and want to pass on their ancestors’ congregation to their children and grandchildren. The congregation was established in 1887 and its building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1909, according to its website. Then there are the newcomers, who might be craving a traditional community.
“I think people in today’s day and age are looking to connect and they are looking for something that is more meaningful,” she said. “I think that’s happening in Chelsea.”
Temple Emmanuel is undergoing renovations, said Rabbi Oksana Chapman. The congregation is also doing more to publicize itself, she said. “We are going ahead and putting ourselves out there,” said Chapman, who also serves as cantor.
Baron and his wife said they met some members from the Everett congregation when they visited last year during the high holidays. “We love that . . . they felt like this was their home and this was their synagogue that they grew up in and that’s where they want to come back to for the high holidays,” said Chaya Baron, the youngest of 13 siblings in an Orthodox Jewish family from Morristown, N.J.
The couple have a son, Mendy, who was born in January. A few weeks ago, they left their home in Brooklyn and moved into an apartment in Admirals Hill across from a senior living campus run by Chelsea Jewish Lifecare. Chaya Baron teaches first grade at New England Hebrew Academy in Brookline.
“Our building is full of young professionals, young families,” said rabbi Baron, a runner who has been exploring the city on foot. “Walking around the waterfront, there are a lot of lovely red-brick homes. It looks kind of like Brooklyn.” Baron said he plans to lead services celebrating the Jewish new year on Thursday and Friday in Everett. Thursday evening — weather permitting — the center is hosting a Tashlich service and buffet at Mary O’Malley State Park in Chelsea, in which participants cast away sins and Baron will blow the shofar, a musical horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies.
Among those who plan to attend Rosh Hashanah services in Everett is Alan Meyerson, 31, a lawyer raised on the North Shore. Meyerson said he isn’t observant, but grew up worshiping at Chabad centers and attends services on the high holidays. “I live in East Boston and it’s wonderful to have a synagogue so close,” he said. “I really do hope to help them build.” The older generation has also taken notice of Baron. Walking in Chelsea’s waterfront one day, Baron said an older man in a car pulled up beside him, slammed on the brakes, and rolled down the window.
“What’s your name? What are you doing here?” the man asked. “I can’t remember the last time I saw an Orthodox Jew walking around Chelsea.”
That history, Baron said, holds great promise for the Jewish community’s future in the area. “It’s just fascinating to imagine that so much Jewish life was here,” he said. “The history allows us to envision in real, practical ways the rich future that the community could have.”