JEWISH CHELSEA TOUR

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In the late nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants escaping persecution and miserable poverty in Eastern Europe began to arrive in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  These newcomers transformed this small community on the Boston harbor. From a Protestant, pastoral suburb, Chelsea became a vibrant, working class center of Jewish cultural, economic, social, and religious life. 

By the 1920s, over half of Chelsea’s population identified as Jewish, earning the city the nickname “Little Jerusalem.” Yiddish was spoken in most Jewish homes and on the streets. Rag and metal salvage businesses offered jobs and business opportunities to newly arrived immigrants. Small, family-owned stores provided a ladder for those aspiring to the middle-class. The smells of deli foods, pickles, and freshly baked challah filled the air. Theatres, social clubs, schools, and synagogues (also called shuls), were important community centers, strengthening ties and defining Chelsea’s neighborhoods.

After World War II, upward socio-economic mobility and expanding American highways led to Jewish migrations from Chelsea. These second and third generation immigrant families moved to surrounding suburban communities like Brookline, Newton, Marblehead, and Swampscott, as well as to other parts of the country.  By the 1990’s, Chelsea’s Jewish community existed mostly in memories.     

Congregation Agudath Sholom-Walnut Stree

This tour was researched and developed by Ellen Rovner.  Since 2015 Ellen has presented tours of Chelsea as part of the Chelsea Gateway Project. The project's mission is to share the landscape of Chelsea's one-time Jewish community as a forum to understand the immigrant experience.  She was raised in Chelsea as the third generation of an immigrant family, Ellen is a cultural anthropologist. Along with her community based work she has taught at Boston University and is a former Visiting Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. 

Walking Stop #1

77 chestnut street

dillon's russian steam bath

Affectionately known as “the Shvitz” (Yiddish for “sweat”), Russian Jewish immigrant, Israel Dillon opened Dillon’s Russian Steam Bath in 1885. The longest running Russian Steam Bath in the United States, Dillon’s still boasts wet and dry steam rooms, and offers a “platza” massage. A “platza” is a rigorous brushing with a bunch of oak leaves that have been soaked in oil, guaranteed to remove bodily toxins.  Dillon’s remains a place to relax, refresh, and catch up with friends.

Dillons Steam Bath
Dillons Steam Bath

Inside the sauna at Dillon's
Inside the sauna at Dillon's

The platza at Dillon's
The platza at Dillon's

Dillons Steam Bath
Dillons Steam Bath

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Walking Stop #2

86 chestnut street

chestnut street synagogue

Founded in 1907, as Congregation Paoli Zedek by Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, the synagogue was more popularly known as the Chestnut Street Litvak Shul. Vilna, Lithuania, was a major Jewish cultural and educational center, thus “Litvaks” were regarded as a “higher” class of Jewish immigrants. The Shul was sold to the Kangaroo Pouch Pre-School in 1973, its few remaining congregants pleased that the building would be used for educational purposes.

86 Chestnut St in 2021
86 Chestnut St in 2021

86 Chestnut in undated photo
86 Chestnut in undated photo

86 Chestnut St in 2021
86 Chestnut St in 2021

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Walking Stop #3

131 Chestnut street

carpenters' shul

Congregation Linas Zedek was founded in 1928 by Russian Ukrainian immigrants who were members of the local carpenters’ union, and became known as the Carpenters’ Shul or the Chestnut Street Russhisha Shul, differentiating itself from its Litvak neighbor down the street. Its active Ladies Auxiliary formed in 1928 “to help the synagogue and every good cause”. The synagogue was sold to a church in the 1980s.

131 Chestnut Street detail
131 Chestnut Street detail

131 Chestnut Street
131 Chestnut Street

131 Chestnut Street detail
131 Chestnut Street detail

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Walking Stop # 4

19 Everett Avenue

Young Men's hebrew association/young women's hebrew association (YMHA/ywha)

The YMHA/YWHA was founded in New York City in 1874 to serve the social, physical, intellectual, and cultural needs of Jewish immigrants. The Chelsea chapter launched in 1903.  In 1913, Louis Brandeis came to address members at the Y’s tenth anniversary, and to garner support for the growing American Zionist Federation. 

By the 1930’s, the YMHA/YWHA had grown and moved to a large building on Crescent Ave. There the organization offered employment, housing, benevolent services, and educational and cultural classes. The YMHA/YWHA youth programs were part of the American Zionist Association (AZA). The Y served meals for seniors, ran Bingo nights, and was the beloved social and cultural hub for generations of Chelsea’s Jewish community, young and old, until the building was demolished in 1998.

YMHA, 1951
YMHA, 1951

YMHA, 1951
YMHA, 1951

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Walking Stop #5

139 park street

katz bagels

Katz Bagel Bakery opened in 1938 when Harry Katz took over a failing bakery. Harry learned the bakery trade from his uncle, moved his family into the apartment over the bakery, and quickly grew a successful business. He supplied Chelsea with the iconic Jewish bagel, hand-rolled and hot from his ovens. In the 1970s, Harry created the “pizza bagel” to appeal to his Jewish and non-Jewish customers’ American tastes. Today, still in the original location, Harry’s son Richard continues the tradition with a wide selection of bagels, pizza bagels, desserts and Richard’s own “hot dog bagel.”

Storefront of Katz Bagel Bakery
Storefront of Katz Bagel Bakery

Katz Bagels property
Katz Bagels property

Katz Bagels has always had a home on the ground level of the property on the corner of Park Street and Congress Avenue.

Tour to Katz Bagels
Tour to Katz Bagels

Tour leader Ellen Rovner poses with Richard Katz during a tour.

Storefront of Katz Bagel Bakery
Storefront of Katz Bagel Bakery

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Walking Stop #6

Central ave at Shurtleff

Murray & eddie's delicatessen

Returning home after World War II, brothers Murray, Eddy, and Sam Rosenberg opened a small deli. Store-brined corned beef, half-sour pickles, and homemade potato salad attracted a steady stream of “fressers” (Yiddish for hearty eaters), and in the early 1960s the brothers moved to a larger location at 339 Broadway. They expanded the menu to include more “American” dishes and began catering. The deli continued to be a political and social meeting place for Chelsea’s leaders until closing in 1979.

Brothers Murray, Eddie and Sam in1970
Brothers Murray, Eddie and Sam in1970

This photo by Arnie Jarmak, the former photographer for the Chelsea Record newspaper, captures the brothers behind the corner at their iconic deli.

Brothers Murray, Eddie and Sam in1970
Brothers Murray, Eddie and Sam in1970

This photo by Arnie Jarmak, the former photographer for the Chelsea Record newspaper, captures the brothers behind the corner at their iconic deli.

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Walking Stop # 7

362 Broadway

The Olympia theater

The Olympia, opened in 1910 as Gordon’s Theater Chelsea, MA., offering early movies and “High Class Vaudeville.” With the Chelsea and the Strand Theaters, it was one of at least three cinemas in Chelsea’s downtown in the 20th century. Owner Nathan Gordon later partnered with Louis B. Mayer, a young Russian Jewish immigrant peddler in Chelsea, to open theaters across New England. The Chelsea Theater was across the street at 376 Broadway, and the Strand was in Chelsea Square, in the same block as Bloomberg’s Furniture.  By the 1960’s, they were gone.

Gordon's Theatre, 362 Broadway
Gordon's Theatre, 362 Broadway

Gordon's Theatre was demolished. The main hall remains vacant. It is the parking lot at Luther Place on Cherry Street behind what is now the Chelsea Bank.

Broadway Theater, 420 Broadway early 1950
Broadway Theater, 420 Broadway early 1950

Chelsea once boasted at least four theatres on Broadway. In the days of vaudeville and before TV live performances were the primary means of entertainment. The Broadway Theatre was just a few doors down from the Gordon Theatre.

Broadway Theatre 420 Broadway Historic T
Broadway Theatre 420 Broadway Historic T

Gordon's Theatre, 362 Broadway
Gordon's Theatre, 362 Broadway

Gordon's Theatre was demolished. The main hall remains vacant. It is the parking lot at Luther Place on Cherry Street behind what is now the Chelsea Bank.

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Walking Stop #8

375 Broadway

chelsea yiddish theater

The Chelsea Theater housed a Yiddish Theater from 1916-1946, and provided Jewish audiences with a steady stream of singers, vaudeville troupes, comedians, plays and movies, all in Yiddish. The theater’s entertainment offered immigrants artistic vehicles through which they could reflect on their own tribulations, tensions, losses, and the joys of Jewish immigrant life in a new country. 

Yiddish Theatre
Yiddish Theatre

1941 photo of the exterior of the Chelsea Theatre on Broadway

Theatre Historical Society of America
Theatre Historical Society of America

This information card from the Theatre Historical Society of America documents thesite of Chelsea Theatre.

Business directory
Business directory

Business directories from 1916 through until the 1940s show the Chelsea Theatre's place on Broadway.

Yiddish Theatre
Yiddish Theatre

1941 photo of the exterior of the Chelsea Theatre on Broadway

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Walking Stop #9

453 Broadway

chelsea labor lyceum

“Dedicated to the Workers’ interests,” the Chelsea Labor Lyceum was an arm of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish labor and political organization. In 1927, the Chelsea Labor Lyceum supported workers’ rights in Chelsea and beyond. Sam Levin, an active member of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, described the scene in Chelsea:

“Chelsea was loaded with shoe workers … and in Peabody, you had leather workers. The source of the activity in organizing unions was the Workmen’s Circle center, the Chelsea Labor Lyceum. The workers were Italian, Armenian, Irish, Jewish --  we had a lot of people who did picketing. For the big national strikes, we gave tons of food -- we were famous for that. Not only that, we had a social hall where they could play cards. And we had a beautiful library run by some members.”

Abolish Child Labor protest
Abolish Child Labor protest

Photo provided by the Boston Workmen's Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice.

Abolish Child Labor protest
Abolish Child Labor protest

Photo provided by the Boston Workmen's Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice.

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Walking Stop #10

40 crescent avenue

yeshiva academy

The Yeshiva Academy, Yeshiva, or Yisroel Or Talmudical Academy, opened in 1941 because prominent Orthodox Jews in Chelsea and Boston  feared that too many young people were defecting from Orthodoxy, and not getting properly educated in religion. Mayor Bernard L. Sullivan cut the ribbon at the dedication and encouraged the community to support the new school. 

Yeshiva Academy on Crescent Ave
Yeshiva Academy on Crescent Ave

Yeshiva Academy on Crescent Ave
Yeshiva Academy on Crescent Ave

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Walking Stop #11

27 crescent avenue

onichty society

The Onichty Society was formed in 1905 by Jewish immigrants from a town in Lithuania whose name translated into English as “Onichty”.  At first the Society offered sick and death benefits, a credit union, and a cemetery for its members. It may also have hosted social events and occasional religious services.   Eventually, its services were available to all Jewish people in Chelsea and elsewhere. 

 

For members who left Chelsea, banking visits to the Onichty’s credit union were a time to catch up on the latest Chelsea news, visit with friends, and patronize area businesses to stock up up on favorite foods. Errands were not a chore if it meant a visit to Murray and Eddy’s Deli for a corned beef sandwich! The Onichty Society closed in 1984.  Its cemetery is now in Melrose and is run by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM).   

The vacant lot next door (now used as a parking lot) was the former home of YMHA/YWHA. (The organization is featured on the tour at another its locations on Everett Ave.) The building, now lost, might also have been the original Temple Beth-El, organized in 1927. Its members disbanded after the stock market crash. Later, some of them reorganized, and with the remaining assets, established Temple Emmanuel.  

 

27 Crescent Avenue
27 Crescent Avenue

Formerly home of the Onichty Society
Formerly home of the Onichty Society

Now vacant lot was home of the YMHA/YWHA
Now vacant lot was home of the YMHA/YWHA

27 Crescent Avenue
27 Crescent Avenue

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walking stop #12

48 washington stREET

chelsea hebrew school

The Chelsea Hebrew School was founded in 1896 with 25 students, by Moses and Gootie Berlin, at their home on 23 Medford St. With the large influx of Jewish immigrants to Chelsea over the next decades, the School moved to a free-standing, impressive building across from City Hall in 1925. 

 

At its peak in the 1940’s, The Hebrew School graduated over 400 young persons a year.  Chelsea’s Jewish population began to decline after World War II, although the Jewish presence in Chelsea remained strong. The Hebrew School hosted a speech by Senator John F. Kennedy in 1958, on the occasion of a large parade and celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the State of Israel held in Chelsea. 

 

The Chelsea Hebrew School closed in 1979.  The building was sold to condominium developers in 1981.

48 Washington Ave
48 Washington Ave

48 Washington Ave
48 Washington Ave

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walking stop #13

145 walnut street

walnut street synagogue

The first synagogue founded in Chelsea was Congregation Ohab Shalom on Winnisimmet Street in 1894. Its growing Jewish community became Congregation Agudath Sholom, moving into its grand building in 1909, after earlier construction was destroyed by the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908.  It is known as the “Queen of Synagogues,'' because of its majestic, spectacular sanctuary, and elaborate hand painted decorative ceilings and walls. The Walnut Street Shul is also home to a Torah Ark by Sam Katz, a renowned ark and cabinet maker of the early 20th century. The Walnut Street Shul is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Walnut Street Synagogue Sanctuary
Walnut Street Synagogue Sanctuary

The dramatic paintings decorate the ceiling of the sanctuary.

Sanctuary at Walnut Street Synagogue
Sanctuary at Walnut Street Synagogue

A view from the balcony.

Weekday Minyan Room at Walnut Street Synagogue
Weekday Minyan Room at Walnut Street Synagogue

Walnut Street Synagogue Sanctuary
Walnut Street Synagogue Sanctuary

The dramatic paintings decorate the ceiling of the sanctuary.

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60 Tudor street

temple emmanuel

Known as Temple Beth-El when founded in 1927 on Crescent Avenue, Temple Emmanuel was established on Tudor Street in 1932 as a “modern” American Conservative synagogue. Making a home in a former Methodist Church in the quieter section of the city at Cary Square, the group spoke to the needs of a younger, American born generation. Temple Emmanuel broke with tradition. Here men and women sat together to pray, and English was included in the liturgy. 


The property at 60 Tudor Street where Temple Emmanuel continues to worship today has long been used by religious groups. In the 1770s, the Second Baptist Church built part of the Cary Square structure. In the early 1860s, a large addition was added. In 1904, a Methodist Episcopal congregation in Chelsea purchased the property. In 1932 it was sold to the Jewish community prayer group who founded here Temple Emmanuel.

Entrance to Temple Emmanuel
Entrance to Temple Emmanuel

First Methodist Church
First Methodist Church

The property was once the home of the First Methodist Church. The congregation of Temple Emmanuel purchased the property to serve as their synagogue.

Exterior of Temple Emmanuel
Exterior of Temple Emmanuel

undated image.

Entrance to Temple Emmanuel
Entrance to Temple Emmanuel

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17 LaFayette avenue

society for visiting the sick

Charity and good deeds are major tenets of Judaism. In 1919, Mrs. Lena Goldberg  began Chevra Bikur Cholim, Society for Visiting the Sick, and began taking elders into her home on Lafayette Ave.

 

Over the last century the organization grew into several senior care homes. Today, under the united name of Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, it is a foremost healthcare organization in the region. Locations include the Katzman Center for Living here on the original site, as well as on Admiral’s Hill in Chelsea, Peabody and Winthrop.  The mission has expanded to include rehabilitation, skilled nursing services, and residences for the elderly and people living with disabilities.

17 Lafayette St, site of Chevra Bikur Cholim
17 Lafayette St, site of Chevra Bikur Cholim

17 lafayette st expansion 1963
17 lafayette st expansion 1963

Katzman Family Center for Living 17 lafa
Katzman Family Center for Living 17 lafa

17 Lafayette St, site of Chevra Bikur Cholim
17 Lafayette St, site of Chevra Bikur Cholim

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318 Broadway

La Colaborativa

La Colaborativa is a community organization that serves the immigrants of Chelsea today. 

 

La Colaborativa’s grass-roots work focuses on the needs of the Latinx community. La Colaborativa empowers youth and adults through organizing, job readiness training, ESL, computer literacy classes, and advocacy. The group’s care for the social, economic and educational needs of newcomers continues the tradition of Chelsea’s Jewish immigrants to take care of the community’s most vulnerable. 

La Colaborativa staff and volunteers
La Colaborativa staff and volunteers

ESL Classes at La Colaborativa
ESL Classes at La Colaborativa

Protest for Living Wages by La Colaborativa
Protest for Living Wages by La Colaborativa

La Colaborativa staff and volunteers
La Colaborativa staff and volunteers

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