About Chelsea, MA
During the first part of the twentieth century, between 1890 and 1910, Chelsea, Massachusetts was haven and home to more than 10,000 European Jewish immigrants. Teeming with Jewish life, culture, music, and business, Chelsea boasted more than a dozen synagogues. It’s no wonder Chelsea Jews claimed it “Yerushalyim d’America.”
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This family-owned business was famous for its billboard facing the Mystic Bridge that read, "Drive carefully, we can wait.” Courtesy of George Ostler and the Chelsea Public Library
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Demb Family in front of their store (Suffolk Hardware), March 1931 From left, Augusta Bernice "Bernice" Demb, Minnie Demb, Hyman Demb (owner), unidentified child, Ruth Rosalind Demb. Courtesy of Barry Kirshon
Temple Emmanuel, undated. Courtesy of George Ostler and the Chelsea Public Library
This building, formerly Congregation Shomrei Linas Hazedek (Shurtleff St. Shul) is now Iglesia Pentecostal Unida Lationamericana (IPUL), c. 2008. Courtesy of Sylvia Glassman
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Chelsea Square, undated. Courtesy of George Ostler and the Chelsea Public Library
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Kirshon Paint and Wallpaper Co., Chelsea, 1948. Courtesy of Barry Kirshon
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Nat Weiner’s Men’s Wear Store at 310 Broadway sported a broad array of merchandise and a neon sign that lit up on Friday nights when the store remained open until 9:00 PM and “it seemed as if the whole city were out on the streets.”
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Inside of Nat Weiner's Men's Store in Chelsea.
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Congregation Ahavas Achim Anshe Sephard located on Everett Ave. and Elm St. Organized in 1901, it was the second oldest in the city of Chelsea. It was destroyed in the 1908 and 1973 fires. Courtesy of George Ostler and the Chelsea Public Library
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Shefshick’s was located at 35 Central Ave. in Chelsea. Gittel Shefshick took over the store in the 1920's, when the owner was planning to close. A widow with four children, Gittel needed to buy the store or be out of work. Gittel came from Russia with her husband Besha, who died in Chelsea during the flu epidemic of 1916. Three of her children - Alec, Israel and Minnie worked in the store. They opened a summer store in Old Orchard Beach in the 1940's to serve the Jewish community and hotels with kosher dining rooms. The original store was sold in the 1970's and eventually became a Chinese Restaurant. Courtesy of Bernard Blotner
State Guard, Chelsea, 9th Company, c. 1940s. Reuben Bunick is pictured in the back row, center. Reuben Bunick was born in East Boston in 1906 a few months after his family arrived from Ukraine. After he married, he lived in Chelsea until his death in 2001. Courtesy of Reisa Bunick
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Yiddish-English flyer advertising Palestine expo at Williams School Hall, June 4, 1924. © American Jewish Historical Society
Chelsea YMHA and YWHA, early 1940s. Courtesy of Reisa Bunick
Goldie and Harry Poretsky, c. 1950s. Harry Poretsky owned Harry’s Shoe Store on the corner of Broadway and Chelsea. Courtesy of Stanley Kaplan
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Congregation Beth Hamidrash Hagodol. Located on Third St. near the corner of Arlington St., this building was constructed in 1912. Courtesy of George Ostler and the Chelsea Public Library
Israel Atkins, a carpenter, in 1927. According to Ellis Island records, Atkins arrived aboard the Compania from Liverpool on March 17, 1907 at the age of 45. He was accompanied by one of his sons and the rest of the family followed later. He died on February 3, 1932. Courtesy of Reisa Bunick
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Reuben Bunick on the bimah at Congregation Shaare Zion, aka “The Orange Street Shul,” 1983. Courtesy of Reisa Bunick
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Yiddish flyer advertising Cantor Yosele Ginzberg at Congregation Linas Hazedek Beit Yisrael. © American Jewish Historical Society
Imagine yourself walking down the main street and being surrounded by kosher butchers, Jewish bakeries, merchants, and synagogues on every corner. This closely woven community was driven by a common desire to prosper from its former life in the shtetls of Europe, and reinvent itself into a vibrant, empowered community. Chelsea’s Jewish cultural and religious heritage was the glue that bonded people to each other. This was life in Chelsea!
First settled in 1624 by Samuel Maverick, Chelsea was part of Boston and was called Winnisimmet, Rumney Marsh, and Pullin Point. On January 10, 1739 it officially became known as the town of Chelsea and by 1847, it contained nearly 5,000 inhabitants.
According to local historical records, Nathan Morse, the first Jewish resident of Chelsea, arrived in 1864. In 1890 there were eighty-two Jews living in Chelsea. Some of the many Jews from Russia
Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn
and Eastern Europe who immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1920 settled in Chelsea. Between 1890-1900 Chelsea’s Jewish population grew from 100-3,000 and by 1910, around 10,000 Jews lived in Chelsea, nearly one-third of the entire population of the city. In the 1930s there were about 20,000 Jewish residents in Chelsea out of a total population of almost 46,000. Given the area of the city, Chelsea may have had the most Jews per square mile of any city outside of New York.
During the 1930s the first exodus of Jews from Chelsea to the suburbs began. As the community prospered and grew, many wanted to seek new opportunities in the more affluent communities of Newton and Brookline. By the 1950s the Jewish population had decreased to about 8,000 and more people began to establish roots in the seaside towns of Swampscott and Marblehead. The Jewish population of Chelsea continued to dwindle, and in 1979 the Chelsea Hebrew School closed its doors. Today, only a remnant of Chelsea Jews remain and Temple Emanuel and the Walnut Street Shul (Agudas Sholom) still exist, continuing to serve the present day Chelsea Jewish community.
Chelsea is still a place where immigrants arrive and build their new lives in America. However, rather than arriving on steamships from Russia and Poland, they are landing at Logan Airport from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala), Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand) and Africa (Somalia, Sudan, Congo). The kosher bakeries have been replaced with panaderías, the abundant synagogues with churches and the YMHA with a YMCA. However, if you look closely, you can still see evidence of Chelsea’s once vibrant Jewish presence and the impact it created. Although the people and places have changed, the spirit of Chelsea has remained constant. It provides an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance in which immigrants are infused with a sense of possibility.