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About East Boston

Historians date the founding of East Boston to 1636 when Boston itself was within its first decade of European settlement.  In many ways, the story of East Boston became the story of immigration into the Boston area. East Boston, one of the first neighborhoods established in the “City on the Hill,” quite often became home to the immigrants whose first glimpse of America was seen through the port of Boston. Though East Boston’s colonial history was typical of a Boston neighborhood, its uniqueness as a nexus of immigration began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Cunard Line, a major transatlantic shipping company, established its U.S. port in East Boston in 1839.  With this new port of entry and a burgeoning shipping industry led by ship builder Donald McKay, industries came to line East Boston’s waterfront.  The extensive development of the shipping industry made Boston one of the leading ports in the country.

The influx of immigrants from Canada and Ireland, which began in the middle of the 1800’s, was followed by an even greater migration of Russian Jews and Italians towards the end of the century.  Between 1885 and 1919, Boston became the second largest port of entry into the U.S., with a majority of new immigrants coming in through the port in East Boston.  On April 14, 1909 property at 293 Marginal St. was acquired for an immigration center in East Boston.  After its erection in 1920, the East Boston Immigrant Building was the direct point of entry for immigrants into Boston. 

The role of East Boston as the epicenter of Boston immigration has in some ways remained unchanged over the past one hundred and fifty years. Steamliners on the water now have been traded in for jetliners at Logan International Airport, but East Boston, remarkably, remains the entry point.  Though the immigrant communities have shifted with yesterday’s Italians and Jews replaced by today’s Southeast Asians and Central Americans, the neighborhoods of East Boston continue to be a starting place for those on the path to becoming Americans.

Vilna
on the CD Yiddishe Renaissance
Used with permission
© The Klezmer Conservatory Band

Yiddishe Renaissance  Cover - The Klezmer Conservatory Band

Before Jews were living in East Boston, there were Jews being buried in East Boston. Years before the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants made their way into East Boston, the first Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts was acquired there.  In 1844 Congregation Ohabei Shalom (Boston’s first Jewish synagogue) purchased and consecrated land on Wordsworth Street in East Boston, so as to have a uniquely Jewish resting place for its congregants.  Today, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts owns and maintains this quaint little cemetery in the midst of an urban setting, nestled away at the end Wordsworth Street, amongst modest row houses. The 1903 Chapel situated at the grand entrance to this historic cemetery will soon be host to a permanent exhibit dedicated to the early immigrant experience that is uniquely East Boston and to the Jewish Communities that were established along the Mystic River.

Eastern European Jewish immigrants began arriving en masse in the 1890s, and by the first years of the 20th century, East Boston had what may have been the largest Jewish community in New England.  As was so often the case, upon arriving in East Boston, the first thing Jewish immigrants did was to reconstruct the communities that they had left behind. Congregation Ohel Jacob, East Boston’s first synagogue was founded in 1893 in the early years of the immigration from the Pale of Settlement.  By 1910 there were approximately five thousand Jews living in East Boston.  This meant that there would need to be schools, cemeteries and, perhaps most importantly, more synagogues to anchor the various Jewish communities.  As of 1913 there were five synagogues in East Boston: Beth David, Ohel Jacob, Linath Hazedek, Keser Israel, and Choreh Mismaeth. 

While East Boston was the neighborhood in which Jewish immigrants got their feet firmly planted on American soil, once their footing was assured these new Americans ventured beyond their old neighborhood.  The Jewish population that had soared at the turn of the twentieth century began to dwindle by mid-century.  After World War II, assisted by the GI Bill, Jews moved from East Boston and other “first-stop” neighborhoods to the communities of Roxbury, Dorchester, Brookline and Newton.  The old neighborhood that welcomed them so long ago became home to other groups seeking a better life. East Boston continues to fulfill its destiny as it embraces newly arrived immigrants to this day.