BOSTON – One century ago, a leafy neighborhood south of downtown Boston was the apple of American Jewry’s eye.
Situated along a three-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue, the Jews of Roxbury and Dorchester had migrated from Boston’s cramped, central quarters – the so-called “Ends” – to try their hands in a suburb. Jewish housing – mostly wooden triple-deckers and aging Victorians – was clustered around Franklin Park, where thousands of Jews spent Shabbat in the rose garden.
The neighborhood’s turn-of-the-century boom paralleled increased immigration of Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Poland, as well as expanded electric street car service. Here, between Dorchester Bay and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system, an ephemeral Jewish community helped popularize both Conservative Judaism and Zionism, even as it broke with religious tradition.
By 1933 — the year billionaire Sheldon Adelson was born on Erie Street, into what he’s called “the slum” of Dorchester – the Jewish population along Blue Hill Avenue, plus the heavily Jewish West Roxbury, matched that of today’s Herzliya.
In addition to architecturally significant synagogues, the Blue Hill Jews built the Home for Destitute Jewish Children and the original Beth Israel Hospital. The Franklin Park Theater performed in Yiddish, and speakers of that language had seven newspapers to choose from.
During the heady, early decades of the century, it seemed like Boston’s Jews had found a permanent and expanding home along Blue Hill Avenue. Within just two generations, however, Jewish life would all but vanish from this “first suburb,” never to return in strength.
What happened to Boston’s so-called “Jew” Hill Avenue?
As explained by Hillel Levine in “The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions,” the Roxbury-Dorchester Jews were at a migration crossroads familiar to other immigrant groups. Their fabled neighborhood turned out to be one of several transition zones between Boston’s original downtown “Ends” and today’s “third ring” suburbs like Sharon, 25-miles south of Boston.
Religiously, the Blue Hill Jews helped train the country’s Hebrew teachers and set Jewish education standards. Mishkan Tefila was New England’s first Conservative synagogue, its congregation having relocated together from the South End to Roxbury. The new community built 25 synagogues, but Jews also sought to blend in with Boston’s multi-ethnic fabric through collectives and assimilation.
“Back then, it seemed as if people were trying to shake off the burdens of Orthodoxy,” said Robert Wolff, who grew up in Roxbury close to Blue Hill Avenue.
“Hebrew school afternoon programs were very popular, but they were mainly a path to get to bar mitzvah and then goodbye,” said Wolff, now retired and living in Israel.
Politically, Wolff’s childhood neighborhood ran the gamut from Jewish socialism – including the Workmen’s Circle – to ardent Zionism. Influenced by Boston-based leader Justice Louis Brandeis and a Zionist press, the community was the first in the US to adopt Zionism, despite its Orthodox leaders’ opposition.
Embodying the vision of Brandeis, Blue Hill Jews strove to be “good Americans” by being “better Jews,” which – as Brandeis said – required them to become Zionists.
Despite the neighborhood’s centrality to New England Jewry, its emerging middle class began to depart in the 1950s. In particular, families with means sought out the roomier pastures of Brookline, Brighton and Newton. Left behind, eventually, were the elderly and working class Jews.
By the time of Robert Wolff’s bar mitzvah in the mid-50s, the neighborhood was already in decline, and it was no longer safe to live along Blue Hill Avenue, he said.
“Before then, there were pockets of streets which had Irish gangs, but everyone knew where they were and those streets could easily be avoided,” said Wolff, whose family left the neighborhood after high school.
“We left because it was not safe to walk the streets and the shuls were shrinking fast,” he said. “Prior to that time, we would think nothing of walking home from Maimonides or a Dorchester shul where Bnei Akiva met. Then, it became a risk,” said Wolff.
As the better-off Jews “filtered” out to the next ring of suburbs, their housing was designated for low-income families.
“We had black neighbors for years, and they were integrated in the neighborhood,” said Wolff. “There was even a black church on my street. But the shift brought a low-income element and the ‘white flight’ began in the early 1950s. Since then, the neighborhood has been dominated by low-income families and a drug-culture that produces a lot of gang violence,” he said.
By 1960, more than half of Roxbury-Dorchester’s peak Jewish population of 90,000 had left Boston, along with their institutions and communal assets.
What happened along Blue Hill Avenue during the next 20 years remains a provocative case-study in urban engineering, as documented by Gerald Gamm in “Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed.”
As crime increased – so says the majority opinion – Boston’s development authorities and local banks conspired to “blockbust” Jewish neighborhoods. Never favored by the banks because of largely paid-off mortgages, Jewish owners were induced to “panic sell” on the cheap. Block by block, authorities converted Jewish-owned buildings into low-income housing, offering reduced mortgages.
The “blockbusting” pattern exploded in 1970, when two Mattapan synagogues were set ablaze by arsonists. Jews were also being attacked on the streets with regularity, prompting the Jewish Defense League to draw comparisons with Nazi Germany.
The year before, Mattapan rabbi Gerald Zelermyer of Temple Beth Hillel was attacked with an acid bomb by “two black youths,” as the JTA reported. Instead of using the incident to inflame Jewish-black tensions, Zelermyer implored American Jews to focus on “the needs of poor, urban Jewish communities,” a plight — he said — that should be “as important to Jews as the Six Day War.”
Through whatever combination of increased mobility, street violence and bank conspiracies, the once legendary community was in its death throes. By 1980, almost all the Blue Hill Jews had relocated, and the same, less leafy streets became the scene of actor Mark Wahlberg’s extensive, pre-Hollywood crime spree.
Fortunately for history aficionados, church groups that purchased former synagogues often kept the structures’ Jewish symbols and Hebrew inscriptions intact, both inside and out.
At first glance, it’s hard to tell that the imposing First Haitian Baptist Church is not still, in fact, the Blue Hill Avenue Synagogue, sold off in 1967. Devoid of Jews for almost half a century, the exterior retains several large Stars of David, not to mention the sanctuary’s gorgeous Ten Commandments mural in Hebrew.
Across town, on the edge of West Roxbury, the Jewish community built its most permanent monuments – two sprawling cemeteries near the winding Charles River. Closer to today’s heavily Jewish Brookline than Blue Hill Avenue, the seldom toured necropolises help visitors channel the lost neighborhood’s heyday.
To create a substantial cemetery in the 1920s, Jewish leaders chose a site that was once part of Brook Farm, a kibbutz-like, Transcendentalist experiment from the 1840s. Known as the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries, the complex includes 42 separate burial grounds for various synagogues, labor groups and other affiliations.
Best known of the thousands of Jews interred here, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik pioneered Modern Orthodoxy and had close ties to Boston. When he died in 1993 at age 90, “the Rov” was buried in Baker Street’s Beth El section, next to his wife.
As if copied and pasted from the old neighborhood, other cemeteries in the complex include Lawrence Avenue, the Roxbury Lodge, and the Independent Workmen’s Circle. Evoking the Blue Hill Jews’ mix of assimilation, socialism and Zionism, signs for the cemeteries New Palestine and Independent Pride of Boston stand out, as does one for Puritan-Mount Sinai.
Most memorable — and surprising — are ten chapels built along the access road, each belonging to a Boston shul. While some of these mourning halls are still used for funerals, others were abandoned after the dissolution of their congregations. Stained glass windows, elaborate woodwork, and abundant memorial plaques make the classroom-sized chapels improbably charming, even those in dilapidation.
Boston’s “Jew” Hill Avenue is gone forever, but the community’s influence was lasting. From altering Jewish ritual to popularizing Zionism, the neighborhood’s legacy still inspires “Dorchester Reunions” around the US, where one-time neighbors recall a fleeting Jewish mecca.