Congregation Sons of Israel History
The first known persons of Jewish faith to settle in Peabody immigrated from Lithuania and Russia in the 1890’s. Worship services were held in private homes and children were taught Hebrew by their parents. As more families settled in Peabody, the desire to establish a congregation grew. On November 15, 1909, 18 men met at the home of Louis Glichouse on Buxton Street to plant the seed of the Congregation Sons of Israel by becoming the Charter members. Also included were Samuel Rossen, Barney Rubin, Samuel Slotnick, Harris Abelovitch, Hyman Israelovitz, Louis Altshuler, Jacob Edelstein, Harris Goldberg, Louis Karelitz, Robert Cohen, Sam Gilman, Jacob Gorenstein, Abraham Kaplan, and Abraham Perlman. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts gave the Charter to the Congregation on December 14, 1909.
While the material assets of these men were small, their determination and courage were strong as they had big hopes. New members began to join, paying monthly dues of 25 cents. On October 8, 1912, the Congregation sought out a site for the purpose of on which to erect a synagogue. Jacob Edelstein and Samuel Rossen were authorized to purchase land on Elliott Place. Through continuous fundraising efforts, a contract was made with Samuel Goldberg to construct the Synagogue for $6,500. While not the lowest bidder, he was the only one who was a member of the Congregation, and later became one of the Presidents. When more money was needed to complete the construction, a corner of land on Sanborn Street was sold where the house adjacent to the Synagogue was built. Other cost-cutting efforts included delaying the installation of a steam boiler and shortening the length of the balconies. The latter proved to be beneficial as it permitted more light to shine through and offered a broader view of the elegant front wall. Throughout construction of the Synagogue, regular services were held at the Red Men’s Hall on Foster Street. A regular Hebrew school was also established with Rev. Nathanson as the teacher.
The High Holyday services of 1913 marked the first to be held in the Synagogue, with Rev. Nathanson as the Cantor. He was also the Shochet where he had a contract with the Congregation to go to the butchers and slaughter chickens at 5 cents each. If he had to do this at a private home, he would be paid 10 cents with the Congregation subsidizing any difference up to $12 per week.
When the Synagogue was first constructed, the Bimah was located in the center of the Sanctuary and a walkway connected the Bimah and Oren Kodesh. This was done in a traditional orthodox manner, with a large brass chandelier hanging from the ceiling, moveable chairs for the men, and benches in the balcony for the women. In 1925, the Sanctuary was rebuilt with the current Bimah and Oren Kodesh. The pews were donated by Max and Rhoda Korn and the chandeliers donated by the Kirstein family. As can be expected in a Shul, there was controversy about the pews: originally, the new pews installed on each side of the Bimah extended to the front wall. When some men said they had a contract for permanent seats at the wall facing the congregation, Mr. Korn had the pews rebuilt.
The first President of the Congregation was Samuel Rossen, followed by Frank Hershenson, David Kirstein, Elihu Hershenson, Morris Isaacson, Samuel Goldberg, Allen S. Levy, Irving Sacks, Sidney Barosin, Hyman Sogoloff, Harvey Chandler, Bernie Horowitz, Sumner Greenberg, and Dan Leavitt. Harvey Chandler’s step-Grandfather was Samuel Rossen, the first President. The first spiritual leader engaged by the congregation was the Rabbi Maurice Ordman, who also served as the Chazan, the Shochet, and Mohel for the Jewish community. He was followed by the Rabbis Chaim Essrog, Irving Perlman, Samuel Langer, Arthur Oles, and Noah Goldstein. M. Irving Herbster served as Ritual Director and spiritual leader from 1962 to 1998. Bart Perlman followed, then Avrom J. Herbster, and now Bernie Horowitz is Ritual Committee Chair. The shamosim have been Jacob Morris, endearingly called the ‘Rebelle,’ Abraham Silverman, Morris Talkowsky, Rev Issac Miller, and Chaim Weisman, who was also the Torah reader from 1962 to 1979.
An important function of our Congregation was the Hebrew School . Thanks to the superlative leadership of teachers Moshe and Hilda Shiffman, along with the other excellent staff, committees, and the Sisterhood, the School has been an integral part of the synagogue and its history. A number of forces, including the advent of new temples in Peabody, the population shift to West Peabody, and the aging of the Congregation, led the School’s Board of Directors to make the difficult decision to disband in the 1970’s.
Traditional worship services were conducted daily, while an additional service called The Early Morning Sabbath Service, was started in 1953. Norman Altshuler, Edward Edelstein, M. Irving Herbster, Sol D. Hershenson, Leo Lippa, and Louis Meyerson, with the guidance of Rabbi Goldstein organized this service. It was instituted as an option for those who were unable to attend the regular Sabbath Services and has continued uninterrupted through present day. After Rabbi Goldstein left Peabody to become a professor of Talmud at the Yeshiva Yitzchak Elchanan in New York, Sabbath services were conducted by several members of the congregation including; Norman Altshuler, Irving Sacks, William Shoer, Arthur Axelrod, Robert Shaw, Jack Gold, Irving Bacherman, Melvin Zeitlan and Linda Rose. Robert Shmase and Sidney Barosin served as Torah readers. William Spatrick served as Gabbai (Assistant) for many years. Overall direction was provided by M. Irving Herbster, followed by his son, Avrom, and now by Bernie Horowitz, our Ritual Director. He is assisted by the congregants who are well versed in our morning services. Reflecting the changes in lifestyles of the congregation, the service starting time was changed to 9am.
Mixed seating of women and men was instituted in 1962, and in 1993, the Synagogue became ‘egalitarian’ by counting women in the Minyans and allowing them to receive Aliyahs. Freda Kravetz became the first woman to receive an Aliyah to be called to the Torah. Rosalyn Abrams became the highest ranking elected female when she became Vice President in 2010.
The 1970’s proved to be a difficult period for our Shul. Membership had dwindled to 30 members and the Synagogue was half-filled for the High Holydays. However, with the merging of the heritage of Congregation Anshe Sfard, and the renovations made possible by donations from the Sisterhood of the Peabody Hebrew School , the preservation of the Shul was promising. Edward Edelstein, with much insight, helped raise money for a Trust Fund to ensure the Shul would have financial security in the future. This fund was recently named in his memory.
Our sister shul, Congregation Anshe Sfard, was established in 1916 on nearby Little’s Lane to serve the ‘Russische’ community. It was commonly referred to as the ‘Little Shul’ whereas the Congregation Sons of Israel was known as the ‘Big Shul.’ When the Little Shul closed in the late 1970’s, its heritage continued with our Shul. Under Murray Tanzer’s initiative with the assistance of Ron Tanzer, the Oren Kodesh was brought to our Shul and installed in the downstairs chapel. Saul Tanzer was the President of Congregation Anshe Sfard from 1945 to 1978. Every Saturday, the Yahrzeits of the week on all of our tablets are remembered.
In 1979, the remaining members of the Sisterhood of the Peabody Hebrew School , under the leadership of Mary Madow (the first Jewish girl born in Peabody) and Sarah Bernstein, donated the dormant funds of the Sisterhood to the Shul. This generous act enabled the rehabilitation of the basement space into a combination chapel and social hall, construction of a new kitchen, and renovation of the restrooms. In 2009, the Sisterhood regrouped and has become very active and sponsored several activites while increasing their membership.
In the 1980’s Monthly Friday Night services were instituted, and were led by M. Irving Herbster, Bart Perlman, and Avrom Herbster. This tradition is continued today by Bernie Horowitz with occasional guest leaders, cantors, and speakers.
Several renovations occurred within the past 30 years. In 1980, a new heating system was installed for the social hall, chapel and kitchen. With the assistance of donations principally from the Ossoff family foundation and a few former Peabody residents who hadn’t forgotten their roots, new windows were installed along with other work done to the outside of the building in 1982. In 1983, the front wall was redecorated, along with the ceiling and side walls. In 2003, a new air conditioning system was installed. The ceiling was repainted in 2006 and work was started on remodeling the foyer.
In 1998, the chapel/social hall was dedicated in memory of M. Irving Herbster, who was considered by many people to have been the ‘heart and soul’ of the Synagogue. In 2007, it was re-named the Herbster Sanctuary for their dedicated service to the Synagogue. In addition, the sanctuary was remodeled and the bookcases were renamed the Avrom J. Herbster archives for all his Judaic books that are now in the library. Two televisons were installed in the balcony and one in the downstairs sanctuary so that everyone in the building could see the services.
In 2004, the synagogue entered the computer age. Due to the efforts of Paul Ordman, Igor Krigman, Avrom Herbster, Lesley Greenberg, and Jeremy Zafran we began notifying congregants by email, and then developing a website. We receive inquiries from all over the world, and from people who used to live in Peabody.
In 2009, the Synagogue celebrated its 100th Anniversary with a series of events. There was a Friday Night Service that was highlighted by relatives of the founding members. A gala Dinner/Dance was held featuring a talk by Judge Samuel Zoll who grew up and was educated in the shul. A Proclamation Day was held with various dignitaries and an “Ode to the Shul” was presented by Irving Sacks. Many current and former members attended these events.
Today, the Synagogue still runs as it had throughout the years with an open-door policy. Whether you are a dues paying member or guest, everyone is given the same ‘Kovid’ or honor as our members. This progress is a result of the great effort put forth by hard working committees including our Officers and Directors.
The men and women named throughout this piece are but only a few of those who helped this Congregation grow to become an important force for religious, education, and social life in this community. They gave us a great and strong heritage, which we now hold in our hands. However, a heritage is only meaningful if it is nurtured and given strength. This is our responsibility, which we will fulfill and perpetuate with the cooperation and help from all our members, the descendants of the people inscribed in our records, and from the descendants of those people whose names are engraved on the Memorial Plaques in our Synagogue. With these thoughts, we look to our future with great optimism, enthusiasm, hope and pride.
We are pleased that our Synagogue membership is now over 325 families, can seat over 400 people, and is full for the High Holydays. Our founders and many other members have put us in a position where we shall be strong and viable for the next 100 years.