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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.     

This tour is also available in Spanish. 

Directorio de Recorridos a Pie en Español

Congregation Agudath Sholom-Walnut Stree

In-Person Tour with Ellen Rovner

Free for Chelsea Residents

Wednesday, November 9, 2022 at 10:30 am

Register here

In the early 20th century, Chelsea was "Little Jerusalem," rivaled only by New York City as the most populous Jewish city per capita in the United States.   Visit historic synagogues, taste artisan bagels, and learn about the unique Chelsea immigrant community where Jewish immigrants prayed, raised families, conducted business, and laid the foundation for Jewish life in America today. The tour lasts for two hours, indoors and outdoors, and is conducted by Ellen Rovner, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist and Chelsea native.  

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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. 

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.”

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. 

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.  


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.

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. Designed by Chelsea architect Harry Dustin Joll, it is known as the “Queen of Synagogues,'' because of its majestic, spectacular sanctuary, and elaborate hand painted decorative ceilings and walls. It is one of the most intact synagogue interiors of its time in the Boston area. The Walnut Street Shul is 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.

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.

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.

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. 

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