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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.”

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
on the CD A Jumpin' Night in the Garden of Eden
Used with permission
© The Klezmer Conservatory Band

Jumpin' Night Cover - The Klezmer Conservatory Band

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.