An unsigned history found in the synagogue indicates that the first Jews arrived in North Adams in 1867. These first immigrants, busy with the important functions of day-to-day living, had little time to contemplate any historical significance of their actions. They left no records of their religious activities that we've been able to find. But we've discovered newspaper accounts of their High Holiday services in 1888.
Our community's first members adhered to the orthodox, Ashkenazic tradition that their fathers in Eastern Europe and Russia had practiced. They followed the common practice of meeting for services in private homes, and renting halls for High Holiday services. By May 26, 1893,this small group felt itself sufficiently well established
to purchase a plot of land on Francis Street from Emily P.Witt for $500.
They took the name House of Israel and constructed North Adams' first synagogue there. Early maps illustrate access to the synagogue by way of a passage from State Street labeled Synagogue Road. At the same time, they engaged the Reverend Simon Ratner as Cantor-Shochet. In 1895, this group established a Chevra Kadisha which has continued its work throughout the history of the community.
SYNAGOGUE OF CONGREGATION CHAI ADOM ON ASHLAND STREET
(To avoid confusion, it should be noted
that this congregation is referred to variously
as Chay Yodom,the Kleisel,the Little
Shul, or the Ashland Street Shul.)
By 1920 the House of Israel, which had been meeting in the shul they built on Francis Street, was feeling cramped. In January, meeting at the Knights of Pythias Hall, the group, under the leadership of Hymon H. Kronick, pledged $20,000 toward the purchase of a larger building. In February, they purchased the Bijou Theater on Center Street from Guglielmo Lattanzi for $25,000. The building was renovated to become a synagogue with the Daughters of Israel Aid Society contributing handsomely to this endeavor. This synagogue, variously known as the Hebrew Community Building, the Bijou,the Center Street Shul, and the Big Shul, was now available for use by the community's many varied groups. (The building which became the Center Street synagogue had an interesting history. Originally built as a private residence, it was purchased in 1889 by the Father Matthew Total Abstinence Society. The Society expanded the building which was indicated on maps of the era as "F.M.Society."The good father lost the property when he was unable to keep up the payments and the North Adams Savings Bank acquired the property in 1910. The property was sold to Guglielmo Lattanzi in 1911. The building was converted to the BijouTheater and it also served as an opera house. )
On December 22, 1922,the group was incorporated
as the United House of Israel under the presidency of Jacob Cohen and the directorship of Hymon H. Kronick, Morris Kronick, Samuel Richton, Max Feder, Louis Salkin, William Less, David Bashevkin, Barnet Ark and Jacob Lenhoff. One year later (December 27, 1923), the United House of Israel was able to burn its mortgage. One year after that (January 16, 1925),under the presidency of Barnet Ark, the United House of Israel engaged its first rabbi, Rabbi Irving Miller. Rabbi Miller remained with theCongregationor only one year; he was not replaced until 1936.
SYNAGOGUE OF UNITED HOUSE OF ISRAEL ON CENTER STREET
A MERGER, A NEW SYNAGOGUE AND CHANGE
in July of 1958, Bernard Lenhoff, acting as counsel for Chai Adom, proposed a merger of the two congregations.This proposal was accepted at a special meeting of the United House of Israel. At the same time, President Harry Wein informed the membership that the Urban Renewal Authority had announced that the Congregation would be able to conduct its High Holiday services in the Center Street building, but that it would be necessary for them to be prepared to remove all personal belongings at the end of that period so that the building could be razed. By November of 1958, Joseph Shapiro, president of Chai Adom, was appointed to the Board of Directors of the United House of Israel. At this same time the merged organization, which adopted the name of the larger group, United House of Israel,began its regular meetings and services in its new /old home in the synagogue of Chai Adom on Ashland Street. Because space was limited in the little shul, and because the holidays fell on the weekend in 1959, the United House of Israel was able to use the Drury High School Auditorium to conduct High Holiday Services. In 1960 and 1961, the Masonic Temple was secured for this purpose.
From the Ashland Street synagogue, the combined group continued its search for an appropriate new home. Discussions with the City of North Adams over the suitability of offered urban renewal site locations took a lot of time. Discussions with members over other proposed sites and with architects also took much time. It was the end of May 1960 when the keys to "the Herbert B. Clark property at 265 Church Street were transferred to the Directors of the United House of Israel, signaling the conclusion of a long, arduous search. The Clark mansion was to be torn down and the new synagogue built on the site.
The same directors' meeting that heard the final step in the search for a new home learned of the necessity of still another new search. Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger had accepted a new position in Quebec, Canada. In October of 1960, Burton Shapiro proposed that the Congregation conduct a poll of its members to determine the feasibility of hiring a Conservative rabbi. The proposal was adopted by the board, but the results were not implemented until 1969. Additional problems arose during the following March when the general contractor for the construction of the new building announced insolvency, forcing the community to spend time investigating alternative builders. By April 1961, the directors selected a new contractor to complete the building and by June they selected Rabbi Earl Fishhaut, an Orthodox rabbi, to lead the Congregation.
The community was actively involved in change in many areas in the early 1960s. The president was pressing a special committee to proceed with its efforts to revise the organization's constitution. At the same time a Sisterhood committee of Ruth (Mrs. Sterling) Shapiro and Marilyn (Mrs. Harold) Less suggested changing the name of the synagogue to Congregation Beth Israel as being more reflective of the original name. The directors agreed to recommend this change to the general body and the name change was voted unanimously
at the general meeting on October 25, 1961.
As the Church Street synagogue neared completion, the Board of Directors scheduled the cornerstone laying ceremony for Sunday, October 29, 1961. The Building Committee reported that the
building would be ready for occupancy by December 1961 and the Board of Directors announced that the Dedication of the new synagogue would be held on April 8, 1962.
SYNAGOGUE OF CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL ON CHURCH STREET
By 1927,the organizations meeting in the Hebrew Community Building had expanded to include a Jewish Boy Scout Troop, organized by Harry Melcher, Scout Master, with Macy Kronick as Senior Patrol Leader; a Young Judea group under the auspices of Hadassah; and a Chapter of the Jewish War Veterans.
On September 3,1931, fire destroyed much of the Hebrew Community Building. Through the generosity of Grover Bowman, Superintendent of Schools, the city of North Adams offered the Drury High School Auditorium to the United House of Israel for its High Holiday Services.
In 1935 the Daughters of Israel Aid Society changed its name to the Ladies Auxiliary to the United House of Israel. Throughout its history, in the words of the Fiftieth Anniversary Book, "the organization has worked diligently in every endeavor both spiritually and materially for the welfare of the Community in general and the Synagogue in particular."
This history is composed in part of portions of The First Hundred Years compiled and written by Carolyn Kaplan. It was published in the Congregation Beth Israel Centennial Book published in October, 1995. Other contributors include Elma Sanders and the office of Michael Rosenfeld.
A New "Lost" Mural from North Adams Massachusetts by Samuel D. Gruber
As part of the ongoing project of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments to identify and document synagogue wall paintings, especially in North America, I was able to gain access to a remarkable mural in the attic of an apartment house in North Adams, Massachusetts, that was once a synagogue founded by Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century. I've known about this mural since 2014 and a small photo of it has been posted on the website of Congregation Beth Israel. I had no idea, however, of the size or quality of some of the detail, which seems to merge Jewish traditional art and New England folk art.
Similar to the mural of the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, this is a large and important surviving fragment of the visual culture of turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant Jews, and its relatively early date (1898) makes it of special interest, and expands our corpus of American synagogue wall painting of the period of Eastern European immigration. Other examples in New England are Sons of Jacob, Providence, Rhode Island; Vilna Shul, Boston; and the Walnut Street Shul, Chelsea, MA.
My thanks go to champion Jewish genealogist Carol Clingan (who has also compiled the impressive index of over 500 Massachusetts congregations). Carol, who has wanted to save this mural for several years, arranged access from the building owner. It is hoped that from our visit, to which we invited some other experts, that these efforts will move forward.
The mural presents the Tablets of the Law flanked by two large colorful lions, which hold American flags in their front paws. The patriotic theme is continued higher up, where a seemingly American eagle with wings spread sits atop a tower of Jewish symbols: Decalogue, Star of David, priestly blessing hands, a wreath, and the Crown of Torah; all culminating in the eagle. The lions are entwined in tendrils. They spring forward from a stylized landscape that evoke Eretz Yisrael in its palm and cypress trees.
The modest wood-frame building was the first permanent home of Congregation House of Israel, or Beth Israel. It is built on the hill overlooking the former active industrial town of North Adams, today most-widely known as the home of MassMOCA, the contemporary art museum founded in the 26 buildings of the former Sprague Electric Company factory, where once so many of the townspeople were employed.
Based on newspaper and other accounts we surmise that in 1894 the congregation purchased a house for use as a synagogue and by 1898 the congregation enlarged and modified the building, which it then occupied until 1920. Since then, the building has seen many more changes. The sanctuary was turned into apartments and porches have been added.
Thanks to local newspaper articles, we know that part-time artist, Noah Levin, an immigrant from the Vilna gubernia, painted the mural. Carol Clingan has determined that the Levin family came from Traby, which is now in Belarus. The family name was changed in later generations to "Lavine".
Above the various motifs, is written in Hebrew over the right-side lion, “Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed, (Know Before Whom You Stand). This passage is the most common applied to synagogue Arks or to the space above an Ark in a synagogue. There are several versions of this passage. In the plural it is found in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b).
Less common is the paired inscription above the left-hand lion. It is also written in Hebrew, and is the answer to the question on the right side. It quotes a well-known line from the Aleinu, the closing prayer of every synagogue service: “Lifnei melech, malchei ham'lachim (Before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers).
Underneath the Decalogue and lions is written in Hebrew “Havurah Beit Yisrael.,” the name of the congregation.
Above the Tablets, is an abbreviation in Hebrew: הקכה
which is probably an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase Ha - Kadosh Baruch hoo (the Holy One, blessed be He). Thank you, Elizabeth Berman, for pointing this out.
The patriotic aspect of the mural--lions waving American flags, also suggests an 1898 date, since American Jews were strongly in favor of the American war against Spain. An article in The North Adams Transcript (30 Apr 1898) about the expansion of the synagogue even mentions this:
"Among the Jewish population of the city are some 50 naturalized citizens who are hot for the war with Spain, as they have a bitter grudge of 400 years standing against that nation, growing out of the atrocities to which their people were subjected at the time of the inquisition. The terrible wrongs they suffered then have been remembered from generation, and today there is no love for Spain in the Jewish heart."
North Adams, MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM 2019
There were certainly other instances of Jews using American flags to indicate allegiance to and support of American ideals, but the ones I can think of are from the period of World War I and later. When we think of Jews waving banners and flags at this time it is more common to find Jewish or Zionist banners, derived from the traditions of civic parades and Simchat Torah celebrations. In the early 1900s, New Years' cards depicted men and women with flags with Jewish Stars - proto-flags of the still-distant State of Israel.
I am very grateful to the generous Samuel D. Gruber for giving me permission to place his photographs and text on our web site. - L. Radin