A History of Temple Beth-El

Posted on March 7, 2018

Before Temple Beth-El

Simon Weil was the first Jew in Somerville, arriving in 1864. In 1892, Weil and others organized the Anshe Chesed Cemetery Association which, in 1907, became Congregation Anshe Chesed, an Orthodox synagogue with some 40 members.

Between the two World Wars, many Jews focused their activities on Jewish communal organizations outside the synagogue. The year 1921 saw the incorporation of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) of Somerville; the Jewish Community Center Association was formed in 1941.

After World War II, the Jewish community grew from several sources. Some young Jewish families came directly from New York or Newark. Others continued the slow movement west from the inner ring of suburbs. They followed the companies that built or expanded facilities in the area.

The Origins of Temple Beth-El

This expanding, youthful Jewish community began to bump up against the Orthodox strictures of Anshe Chesed. These Jews wanted a faith that was accessible, involving and relevant. Determined not to let their children become a lost generation of American Jews, they sought a Judaism consistent with their own modernity. A Committee of Sponsors organized a community-wide meeting on July 27, 1953, with over 140 people in attendance. Rabbi Daniel Davis, New York regional director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, spoke.

Some among the group glimpsed a vision bright enough to undertake the challenge of building a Reform congregation. On August 27, 1953, 15 families founded Temple Beth-El. Dr. David Tapper was the first president, and the congregation’s first affiliate, the Sisterhood, elected Jane Tapper as its president. The first Shabbat service was held on September 4, 1953, in a room above the A&P at 149 West Main Street, Somerville. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services attracted significant crowds, and, most important to the founders, a religious school was established, with volunteer teachers and 27 students.

Temple Beth-El quickly found more appropriate space above the Price & Co. women’s wear store on the third floor of 30 West Main Street. The congregation pitched in to make its new space suitable. Floors were re-planked and walls painted. Sheets were hung to become classroom walls, and the entire space was used for fundraising, for parties, for bazaars, for whatever was needed. By that first fall, 25 families were considered members.

Social Justice at the Core

So much of what Temple Beth-El now values could be glimpsed at the beginning. The early members were activists and builders, traits that have continued. Serious about their Judaism, they met weekly for Shabbat services, established a partnership with their rabbi, and studied with the student rabbis to better prepare for their roles as teachers. They enjoyed each other’s company. There was no parking lot to meet in after the meeting or service, so the members often adjourned to Howard Johnson’s or Johnny’s Diner to continue the discussion. Committed to the Jewish community and to social justice, these members provided leadership in the community for both these concerns. They had a common vision.

As membership grew, so did the need for larger quarters, especially for the school. The temple was fortunate to acquire 228 Altamont Place, a three-story mansion well past its prime, and its carriage house. Once again, the congregants scrubbed, painted and repaired the facilities. Bedrooms became classrooms, and sitting rooms gave way to an assembly hall. The feathers and dirt in the carriage house gave way to a professionally designed bimah and a kitchen. The new buildings were dedicated on September 9, 1960. In June 1961, the congregation named Rabbi David Klein as its first full-time rabbi, and confirmation class became the capstone of the religious school. Sisterhood established the nursery school, and the Temple Beth-El youth group became integral to the congregation’s programming.

To Hillsborough We Go

With the continued economic development of the area through the ‘60s, Jews joined in the ongoing push into the suburbs. New roads aided this movement, as did the increasing acceptance of Jews in companies and professions that had been closed to their parents. Once again, temple leadership sought additional space for the rapidly growing congregation, especially for the school, which led to the purchase of an office building at 67 Route 206 in Hillsborough. In one great leap, Temple Beth-El had more classroom space, more worship and social space, and, by the standards of the time, more parking space. And there was land on which to grow. The congregation began school and worship in the fall of 1969, with a formal dedication on January 24, 1970. The religious and nursery schools reveled in their new facilities, the annual temple art show reached new dimensions, and the Sisterhood got a room for the Judaica shop and a full kitchen.

The concerns of the ‘70s and the temple’s long-standing values were reflected in the congregation’s activities. Adult forums and sermons focused on housing discrimination in Somerville and the issues of war, peace and protest. The Social Action Committee advised the congregation on a wide range of matters. Educating our children remained at the core. A building campaign created a new religious school wing with 10 classrooms, which opened in the fall of 1978.

Other significant changes didn’t show up on the floor plan or schedule of activities. As residential development continued in Hillsborough, the Jewish population grew apace. A search for Jewish meaning brought many to Temple Beth-El. And, as women increasingly began to work outside the home, they were no longer willing to settle for auxiliary status. These women were naturally drawn into the leadership of Temple Beth-El, with the first female president of the congregation serving in 1978. Female voices have filled our pulpit from the mid-1970s, and nearly all our student and invested cantors have been women. These talented women have been powerful Jewish role models for our congregational family.

Our rabbinic leadership strengthened with the long tenures of Rabbis Michael Abraham and Bill Krauss. In 1991, the congregation welcomed a young, energetic rabbi, Arnold Gluck, and his family. The community built a permanent sanctuary for its increasingly diverse Reform congregation in 1996, and a new two-story education wing and a new social hall in 2002.

With a visionary rabbi, committed lay partners, and an increased staff, we were now able to expand our programming to address the challenges of Temple Beth-El’s world. Adult Torah study, serious Hebrew education, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, outreach, social action, professional staffing, leadership development, and staff development all worked hand in hand to make a difference in the Jewish lives of the temple’s membership.

Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirke Avot: You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it. The many people who, over the course of 65 years, have embodied that teaching, have written, and are writing, the history of this congregation. We share this history and these memories as we continue to work, so that this house, which they named for God, this Beit Eil, will always honor that dedication.

Adapted from “The History of Temple Beth-El,” written by Ed Malberg for the community’s Jubilee in 2004.

Republished in the March-April issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.