After A Century, Revere Synagogue Readies To Close

Download Audio

From the outside, the synagogue on Nahant Street is a sad sight, in desperate need of repair. The chimney collapsed years ago, and the roof is caving in.

But inside, it's a different story.

Until 1912 this was a Methodist church. The wood-beam ceiling still soars high overhead: a gap between heaven and earth and space enough for two balconies. Women sat upstairs, separate from men, as was the custom of the Orthodox Jews who fled Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century and founded Congregation Tifereth Israel.

The pews are solid oak; there are two gold-leaf lions standing atop the mahogany sacred arc — all hand-carved by local craftsmen.

"A lot of this stuff is wonderful," says Elizabeth Berman, one of the few certified Judaica appraisers in the United States, as she walks around the synagogue. "Look at that pendant under the chandelier. It has a rosette with an inscription in it. I think we'd find a lot of interest on the auction market or certainly for a historical society or a Jewish museum."

Ira Novolesky, Congregation Teferith Israel's president, stands by the menorah his father donated. (Courtesy of Marc Pitler)
Ira Novoselsky, Congregation Teferith Israel's president, stands by the menorah his father donated. (Courtesy of Marc Pitler)

What can be salvaged before this building is demolished will be sold at auction, the money used to maintain the synagogue's two cemeteries in Everett, or reclaimed by those who still remember Tifereth Israel as a vibrant place of worship.

"This menorah, we donated for my dad, memory of my dad, when he passed on, so that's something we'll be taking," says Ira Novoselsky, whose father served as vice president of the congregation. For the past decade Novoselsky has been president. He'll be the last one.

"I just been keeping it going as long as I could," he says. "Now I can't. We can't afford it anymore. We ran out of money. We just don't have the membership. Of the 30 members that we have, if we have 10 that actually live in Revere, that's a lot. When the families left, they left."

In the mid-20th century, a quarter of Revere's population was Jewish. And there were three synagogues. Soon there will be just one.

"When I was a kid this would be filled. There would be people outside waiting. The streets would be blocked off," says Bill Lipman, 73, the vice president of the synagogue. "There's another one over on Walnut Ave. that's now a Spanish church. It had been a shul. And as kids we'd go from this one to that one, that one to this one. You'd have everybody there."

The exodus began in the 1960s. A familiar immigrant story: Jews who created a cultural enclave in Revere prospered and assimilated.

"Families who moved here in the '30s and '40s want their children to move out to Newton, down to Sharon, up to Peabody," Lipman says. "Always do better than what your parents did — that's the whole idea, up and out."

Lipman calls the synagogue closing a "sad success story."

For the past five years the synagogue has held services only on the High Holy Days. Daily prayers ended long before. Members couldn't find 10 men to make a minyan, the minimum needed. Women were permitted to participate, but it didn't help. Novoselsky even tried a minyan hunter.

"If we needed a minyan during the week he'd go outside," Novoselsky says. "If he saw a Jewish kid, or even a non-Jewish kid sometimes, he'd say 'coom, coom, minyan minyan' and bring 'em in so we'd have 10 so they could say Kaddish downstairs."

Kaddish, the mourners' prayer, is an obligation no longer fulfilled at Tifereth Israel. The synagogue's executive committee made the difficult decision not to delay the inevitable.

The call went out to those who had memorial plaques on the walls, honoring family members who had died, to claim them.

Lipman uses a pocket screwdriver to remove Yahrzeit Memorial Plaques bearing lifetimes of memories for Pam Pressen. "We have a plague for my father," she says. "We have a plaque for my grandmother, his mother, his sister and, you know, people we grew up with."

Pressen moved out of Revere decades ago, but holding the memorial plaque in her hands, the memories of the shul, and the Jewish Community Center just down the block, rush back.

"At the JCC, I took Hebrew school but then I quit so I could see the Beatles cartoons on Saturday," she says. "I didn't want to go to the temple."

For many congregants, the real rock star was a rabbi, who presided over Tifereth Israel for nearly half a century:

"Rabbi Landes — very famous, very famous," Novoselsky says. "He has the iconic photograph walking on Revere Beach with the sun shining on him. He's a tall guy, about 6-foot-4, and he had this long white beard."

"Oh my God, he was an icon," says Susan Peck, who grew up in Revere and is now a judge in Connecticut. "He would always wear a hat and a long black coat and he had the most incredible gray beard. He was revered. I mean literally. I don't mean to pun on the name 'Revere' but I mean this: He was revered by everyone."

As the Revere temple closes, the memories flow, from the sacred to the sublime — including the food.

"I remember at Schwartz's Delicatessen they had hand-cut Romanian pastrami, and it's never been replicated," Peck says.

Revere's Kosher restaurants and bakeries are gone. Today there are bodegas, Asian stores and halal markets.

Novoselsky hoped Congregation Tifereth Israel, which started more than a century ago, could find new life as a mosque. "I talked to the imam and I told him, 'It's a perfect spot for you. It holds over 400 people in here. The problem is, when 450 people come, you will have 400 cars. Where are we going to put them around here? We have no parking here.' And he was very common-sensible, and he says, 'Ira, you're right.' "

Soon the building that was the sacred home to generations of European Jews that settled in Revere will be no more. Tifereth Israel will be demolished. But in the hearts and minds of those old enough to recall are memories of prayers for a better life that were answered.

Music info: Thanks to Cantor Ken Richmond and Rabbi Shira Shazeer for performing "The Somerviller Doyne" from the Klezmaniac's album Oy Vey, Rebenyu!

This article was originally published on June 16, 2015.

This segment aired on June 16, 2015.

Headshot of Bruce Gellerman

Bruce Gellerman Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.



More from WBUR

Listen Live