BOSTON — Within the ceremonial heart of Boston’s oldest Jewish cemetery, a center for new immigrants is taking shape.
Since its establishment in 1844, the Ohabei Shalom (“Lovers of Peace”) Cemetery has evolved in tandem with American Jewry. A walk through the sloping graveyard reveals ways in which Boston Jews both preserved and let go of old traditions — from the early use of Hebrew on most tombstones, to the eventual adaptation of Christian burial motifs.
Located in East Boston — affectionately called “Eastie” — the cemetery’s Gothic Revival burial chapel will soon play host to the neighborhood’s newest immigrants, as they follow in the footsteps of the area’s former “new” communities, including Jews from Eastern Europe.
Four years ago, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM) announced plans to convert the chapel — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and turn it into the East Boston Immigration Center. Partnering with advocacy groups, JCAM is running a $2.5 million capital campaign to cover the restoration and retrofit.
According to JCAM, the burial chapel has not been used since the 1960s, and there has been no opposition from the Jewish community to its conversion. The date of the reopening has not yet been set.
Among the activities set to take place at the new center are citizenship and naturalization classes, along with English lessons. To help newcomers follow in the path of some former Eastie residents — whether of Italian, Irish, or Jewish descent — guidance on small businesses will be offered.
A permanent exhibition will highlight East Boston’s Jewish heyday, along with the history of other once-large Jewish communities along the region’s Mystic River.
As the city’s densest immigrant enclave, East Boston has welcomed most of its newcomers from Columbia and El Salvador in recent years. More than half of the neighborhood’s families speak only Spanish at home, and poverty affects much of the neighborhood. On the other hand, facing a wave of “gentrification,” long-time renters are being priced out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades.
According to JCAM officials, the creation of the East Boston Immigration Center will assist some of the neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents. With Logan International Airport’s runways dominating views from East Boston’s small Constitution Beach, most of the community’s jobs are in warehousing and transportation. By most accounts, the neighborhood is under-served, and some portion of Greater Boston’s 180,000 undocumented immigrants live there.
In addition to serving Boston’s newcomers, the immigrant center might draw more local Jews to visit Ohabei Shalom Cemetery. Currently, annual visitors to the cemetery can only be counted in the dozens, according to JCAM executive director Stan Kaplan.
“We hope this revitalized immigrant center will bring many Jews back to East Boston, where they can explore their heritage and their common experience with other immigrant groups,” Kaplan told The Times of Israel.
From ‘the Pale’ to Eastie
In 1844, the Jews of Boston decided they needed their own burial ground. For decades, the only Jewish cemetery available was in Providence, Rhode Island. Some Jews were buried as far away as the West Indies.
After a failed attempt or two, Brookline’s Ohabei Shalom congregation purchased a one-quarter acre burial ground for $200. The community’s 40 families were still not in possession of a synagogue, but acquiring a burial ground in the backwater of East Boston proved more urgent.
By the end of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism in Europe and Russia was prompting a wave of Jews to seek American shores. The streets surrounding Ohabei Shalom Cemetery became filled with new Jewish families from the Russian-speaking Pale of Settlement, many of them skilled in needle trades.
On the eve of World War I, the East Boston Jews maintained five synagogues, all clustered close to each other, and the community was New England’s largest. Life for these immigrants revolved around Jewish observance and numerous voluntary associations, most of which were based on professions or cities of origin. Meetings were conducted in Yiddish, a common bond between Jews from Warsaw, Vilna, or Odessa.
The early burials at Ohabei Shalom Cemetery reflected the community’s affinity for tradition. As in Eastern Europe, grave markers were tall and narrow, and Hebrew was used extensively. Jewish symbols including the priest’s “hands” blessing and menorahs appeared, along with “felled trees of life.” When English was used in the oldest, and highest, part of the cemetery, it usually appeared on the backside of tombstones.
As Boston’s Jewish community gained confidence, later sections of the cemetery started to reflect assimilation. Among the Victorian-era grave markers at Ohabei Shalom, several Christian motifs — including sheaves and wheat — can be found, along with Classical-inspired obelisks, columns, and urns. The use of Hebrew dwindled, until that tongue replaced English as the “second” language for the backside of tombstones.
Boston’s ‘Ellis Island’
Like the Jews who settled in East Boston more than a century ago, today’s immigrants living in Eastie face socioeconomic challenges, including discrimination. The digital-based exhibition at the East Boston Immigration Center will highlight the neighborhood’s role as a landing pad for successive waves of migration, from the Kennedy family of Ireland to some of Boston’s Jewish political leaders.
East Boston’s Jewish heyday was not long-lived, in line with the trajectory of other downtown Boston Jewish enclaves. During the 1920s, families started to move to neighborhoods removed from the urban core — including Dorchester — and to the suburbs. The GI Bill’s passage following World War II helped more families leave East Boston by giving them the means to relocate.
Today, only Ohabei Shalom Cemetery remains of Eastie’s Jewish past. Several years ago, activists attempted to save a dilapidated building called the East Boston Immigration Center. Once known as “the Ellis Island of Boston,” the port facility processed thousands of newcomers during the boom years of American immigration, including many Jewish families.
Ultimately, the dream of preserving the water-logged structure as an immigration museum gave way to wrecking balls. Eastie is not a neighborhood that attracts many tourists, so the East Boston Immigration Center is widely viewed as a positive development, according to JCAM leaders.
“There will be an interactive exhibit hall dedicated to the neighborhood and the early Jewish communities of the Mystic River area, including East Boston, Chelsea, and Revere,” said Lisa Berenson of JCAM. “We’re going to make it a community resource center where people are going to come in and use it. It’ll be lively and interactive, and boost the neighborhood,” said Berenson.