Looking to the Future
The synagogue instituted a “Home Loan Incentive” campaign, whereby the shul lends money to prospective congregants looking to purchase a home in the community. With astronomical real estate prices in Greater Boston’s other Jewish neighborhoods, this campaign continues to spark a considerable amount of interest. In return, the congregation expects to boost its active membership.
The shul’s website — www.BethIsraelMalden.org — has generated over 1,000 visits per month from people interested in seeing what the inside of the synagogue looks like, taking a “neighborhood tour” — or just checking to learn if the eruv will be operational on the coming Shabbat.
In the face of compromise and abandonment of strong Torah ideals by so many Jewish communities across America, Beth Israel has remained steadfast and firm in the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. The shul’s 100-year history provides a reason: While many contemporary American Jewish leaders have been preoccupied with the dilemma of how to make the Torah’s wisdom fit the modern Jew, Beth Israel’s leaders have instead demonstrated how to make today’s Jew fit into the Torah’s way of life.
Herein lies the source of our shul’s strength and stability. And it is the banner the congregation will carry into our next century.
Founded by a small group of Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the last century, Beth Israel looks forward to a new period of growth, prosperity and uncompromising Torah commitment.
The year was 1904, and Cy Young pitched the American League’s first perfect game for the Boston Red Sox, beating the Philadelphia Athletics, 3-0.
The Russo-Japanese War began as Japanese forces attacked Port Arthur, and the curtain came down on the very first performance of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” at the Duke of York’s Theater in London.
It was also the year Congregation Beth Israel was founded in Malden to provide a spiritual home for new immigrants from Lithuania. To this day, the official name of the congregation is still Beth Israel Anshe Litte (“people of Lithuania”).
Another synagogue had already been established in Malden to serve Jewish immigrants from southern Russia, who had their own style of davening. But now Jews arriving from Lithuania wanted a place of their own.
The congregation’s first home was in two small rooms on Lombard Court. In 1905, the members purchased a former Methodist church and converted it into a synagogue.
On their first day in the new building, the small band of congregants — led by Meir Hershel Smith — quickly removed the non-Jewish religious symbols and entered their new shul to welcome in the Shabbat.
From that day until the present, Beth Israel has held minyanim every morning and evening virtually without fail. Because the building was located on the corner of Faulkner Street and Eastern Avenue, the synagogue became known as the “Faulkner Street Shul”.
The first rabbi of the congregation was Rabbi Dov Ber Boruchoff. Author of the work “Reishis Bikurim”, Rabbi Boruchoff was a well-known Torah scholar, who successfully transplanted the Lithuanian tradition of Torah study to Malden. Under his leadership, Beth Israel became known as a center for learning and prayer.
Rabbi Boruchoff was active in the Zionist movement when Zionism was still new and controversial. One of his achievements was to sponsor a convention of the ‘Agudat Harabonim of America’ at Beth Israel, which quickly put the congregation on the map.
Another one of Rabbi Boruchoff’s accomplishments probably wasn’t fully realized until long after his death. He convinced the shul’s lay leadership to purchase the land behind the synagogue building, realizing Malden would likely become a major center for Jewish immigrants fleeing the hardships and persecution that was brewing in Europe.
Rabbi Boruchoff passed away on Passover in 1939, and within a few months, the shul hired Rabbi Jacob Lifshitz, a recent arrival from Europe. He carried on the established traditions of the congregation, providing devoted leadership during the turbulent years of persecution, war, and the horrible destruction of European Jewry.
As refugees and, later on, survivors came to the United States, those who found their way to Malden were comforted and welcomed by the presence of a strong and devoted Orthodox congregation.
After a prolonged illness, Rabbi Lifshitz died in 1948.
The search for a replacement for Rabbi Lifshitz reflected the enormous demographic changes that had taken place in Malden. A young, American-born generation had emerged and was ready to take their rightful place as leaders of the congregation.
Yiddish had given way to English, and this new element demanded a spiritual leader who could address their needs and speak to them in their own language. Rabbinic sources in Europe had been all but wiped out by the Holocaust, so Beth Israel turned to the oldest institution in America dedicated to the training of Orthodox rabbis — Yeshiva University in New York.
In February 1949, Rabbi Charles Weinberg took over the pulpit of Beth Israel.
New Buildings – Weiner Community Center and Salem Towers
By now, space in the synagogue’s main building was becoming scarce. In 1952, a new community house was constructed on the land purchased under the urging of Rabbi Boruchoff.
The 1960s was a decade of prolific growth for the congregation. In 1965, in the name of urban renewal, the shul’s original building was demolished to allow the city to widen Eastern Avenue. The community house was remodeled as a synagogue, and the empty lot that had housed the original building became a parking lot.
That same year, the congregation was granted a low interest loan by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct Salem Towers — an 81-unit apartment block for low- to middle-income senior citizens. Beth Israel scored a considerable coup in becoming the first synagogue in the United States to undertake this type of building project.
With its unusual architectural design and prominent location in the center of town, Salem Towers was one of the factors in Malden receiving Look Magazine’s award for All-American City in 1969.
Beth Israel West
In the early 1960s, the congregation sought to capitalize on Jewish migratory patterns within Malden and rented a house on Maple Street in the fashionable West End of town. Initially, Shabbat services were conducted for congregants living in that neighborhood.
Later, when property became available through auction around the corner on Dexter Street, the congregation purchased a house to use as a shul, and later, the neighboring house, which was demolished to make way for a parking lot.
Plans were soon developed to build a brand new, completely modern facility on the Dexter Street site, and in 1966, the doors of the new Beth Israel were opened. The world-famous Torah scholar and dean of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Joseph Dov Ber Soloveitchik zt”l spoke at the dedication ceremony.
The building was a marvel of architectural design. Built to resemble the mishkan — the Tabernacle used by the Israelites in the desert, the new building housed not only a sanctuary, social hall, library and modern offices, but a health club complete with swimming pool, sauna and exercise room. The old synagogue building on Faulkner Street became known as Beth Israel East, while the new building was dubbed Beth Israel West.
Beth Israel Decline
But by the early 1960s, many of Malden’s younger Jews had begun to leave for the suburbs of Swampscott, Marblehead, Peabody, Brookline and elsewhere. Beth Israel West suffered as a result of the decline in the Jewish population of Malden and never attracted the numbers it was meant to.
In the following years, the congregation was saddled with a large mortgage and a declining and aging membership from which to draw its revenue. An increasingly expensive older building on the east side of town and significant attrition in its membership left the congregation facing the next decade with difficulty and uncertainty.
The 1970s and early 1980s was an especially challenging period for the congregation financially. Changes at Beth Israel were inevitable, and the first came in 1976 with the retirement of its rabbi after 27 years at the pulpit.
As national president of the Rabbinical Council of America and a recognized religious Zionist leader, Rabbi Charles Weinberg had brought prestige and credibility to Malden’s Jewish community. And now he was gone.
Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz
Following Rabbi Weinberg’s retirement, the congregation hired Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz to take over. Young and well learned, Rabbi Rabinovitz led the synagogue until 1980. Following a lapse of almost a year without a rabbi, the shul hired Rabbi Michell Geller.
Rabbi Michel Geller had been the rabbi of Congregation Brothers of Joseph in Norwich, Connecticut for 28 years, as well as a leader in the Jewish chaplaincy movement, having served as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. With his wife, Chana, Rabbi Geller brought a new vitality to the synagogue.
The Fire of ’84
Though financial problems still persisted, the congregation began to rally and take on a new spirit. But on the eighth day of Channuka, 1984, a fire broke out in the Faulkner Street synagogue, and by the end of the day, the old Beth Israel East was nothing more than a memory.
Following the fire, the bulk of the congregation’s activities were moved to Beth Israel West. The congregants remaining on the east side of town held Shabbat services in the auditorium at Malden Hebrew School for about a year, after which a small synagogue was built in the recreation room of Salem Towers. It was named the Brass Chapel after Oscar Brass — a past president and strong supporter of the shul — and it has served as a satellite of Beth Israel ever since.
In 1988, the congregation opened its doors and financial resources to Jewish immigrants just arriving from the collapsing Soviet Union. Assisted by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and the Jewish Family and Children’s Service, the “New American Resettlement Project” became an important focus for the shul. In fact, Beth Israel received the Council’s Klal Yisrael award in 1992 for its work with Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Also in 1992, the shul purchased a 15-passenger van to transport the congregation’s children to Jewish day schools in the Brookline area.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Rabinowitz
These and other efforts to revitalize the community took on a new level of significance in 1997, when the synagogue hired Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Rabinowitz to lead the congregation. Rabbi Rabinowitz’s credentials were impressive to those involved in recruiting him and his family. He attended the prestigious yeshivas in Philadelphia and Lakewood, in addition to a year of study at the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Rabinowitz had been learning and teaching full-time at the Boston Kollel for the previous five years before taking over the pulpit at Congregation Beth Israel. With his vast knowledge of Torah and Jewish law, he quickly began to influence the long-time membership, as well as a small but growing influx of transplants from other parts of Boston and elsewhere.
Rabbi Rabinowitz has made it his highest priority to aggressively recruit new members for the community. Although he and the shul’s Board of Directors realized this would be no easy task, the rabbi’s reputation as a leader in the Torah-observant population of Greater Boston preceded him, and Beth Israel’s membership has slowly begun to grow.
Under Rabbi Rabinowitz’s direction, and under the auspices and support of the Greater Boston Eruv Corporation, an eruv was built in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the shul. The eruv — a “border” of sorts, comprised of poles and twine — became functional in June 2005 and allows members of the community to carry items like house keys and prayer books on Shabbat. It also allows people to push baby carriages and wheelchairs on Shabbat, and for that reason serves as an effective draw for young families looking to move into a Jewish community.