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About Medford

The first wave of Jewish residents to settle in the City of Medford was between 1901 and 1910. Henry Risman, arriving to the United States from Eastern Europe with his wife and four year old daughter, was Medford’s first Jewish immigrant family to settle there. Other Jewish families, many of them coming from Chelsea and the West End, did not arrive until after 1910.

The early Medford Jews were an entrepreneurial mix of merchants and business owners engaged in real estate and insurance. Risman’s real estate business was recorded as among the city’s fastest growing and today, is owned by his great grandson. 

Because there was no synagogue at the time in Medford, most residents went outside of the city, many to their previous hometowns, to fulfill their communal and religious needs. By the fall of 1939 a group of Jewish businessmen and professionals began meeting at a local Chinese restaurant to discuss the future of Medford’s Jewish community.  These meetings ultimately led to the organization of the Medford Jewish Community Center, which would evolve into the city’s first and only synagogue, Temple Shalom.

By 1940, there were more than 100 Jewish families living in Medford.  The group quickly outgrew their rented space at the American Legion and purchased a house on Water Street.  This location was dedicated in October 1945 with more than 140 Jewish families in attendance. While many Jewish communities in the area were experiencing a decline, Medford continued to grow and prosper.  While other synagogues were closing their doors due to demographic shifts, the Medford synagogue was growing at an exponential rate.

Adese Mame (Odessa Mame)
Used with permission
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Like many of the Mystic River Jewish communities with a singular house of worship, the center of Jewish life in Medford was its synagogue.  It was a place for adults and children alike to gather for prayer, mark life cycle events, socialize and study.  In the 1950s, the Hebrew School boasted over 200 students.  Temple Shalom prided itself on fostering an intergenerational, warm and welcoming community. Rabbi Alvin M. Poplak became the congregation’s first spiritual leader and by the 1950s Temple Shalom had once again outgrown its space.  The congregation moved to its Winthrop Street building in 1958, and it was formally dedicated in 1959 with 1500 people in attendance.

Community members recall that while Medford never had an overwhelmingly large Jewish population, it was a strong and supportive community. Experiencing the larger community as well, it never felt insulated.

Over time, as most of the early immigrant Jewish communities along the Mystic River began to age and the next generation became more upwardly mobile, many families moved away. However, a remnant of Medford’s Jews remained and the synagogue today continues to serve them, as well as attracting members from the neighboring towns of Arlington, Belmont, Winchester, Stoneham, Somerville, Peabody, Revere, and Andover. Temple Shalom of Medford has been described as a “true Mystic Valley temple.”

To learn more about the early days of the Medford Jewish community, read the following article written by Jennifer M. Berkley of the Medford Transcript (2000) and posted on Temple Sholom's website.

CREATING A COMMUNITY

By Jennifer M. Berkley, Transcript Staff

It was 1901 when Marshall Adler's grandfather, Henry Risman, immigrated to the United States from Kusmine, Russia, near the city of Kiev in the Ukraine. He came to the City of Medford with his young wife, Jennie, and their 4-year-old daughter, Rose, and settled in the small community.

The young family lived in a small apartment in the home of a distant cousin, Philip Bornstein, on Riverside Avenue, near the Fellsway. As the Risman family grew to include four more children, the family moved to a three-family house on the corner of Grant and Central avenues.

"My mother was just a little girl when she came to the United States from Eastern Europe," says Marshall, 73, the youngest child of Rose Risman Adler and Samuel Adler, who married in 1916. "I don't have the vaguest idea why my grandparents came to Medford. It certainly was not because of the Jewish population."

The first Jewish families did not begin to move into Medford until after 1910. Many of the city's first Jewish families came to Medford from Chelsea and Boston's West End neighborhood.

"My father's family, his sister and brother, all came here and my mother's younger siblings were all born in Medford," says Marshall who lives on Pine Ridge Road with his wife, Selma.

At that time, most of the city's Jewish families went outside Medford for their religious needs and many returned to their home communities to attend synagogue.

"There was not enough of a group to start a synagogue," explains Selma Adler.

However, there was no shortage of eager, young Jewish businessmen. In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of small Jewish businesses opened their doors in Medford.

"They opened their businesses here because they lived here," says Marshall. "Transportation wasn't what it is now."

Risman's real estate company was among the city's fastest-growing businesses, alongside New England Bedding Company on Amaranth Avenue, which was owned by Dorchester's Henry Mintz.

"We produced the largest amount of emergency rescue equipment during World War II and Korea," says Allen Mintz, now a Cambridge resident, who worked in his father's business.

Mintz recalls a few other Jewish-owned businesses in Medford, including Worcester Paper Box, which was owned by Harry Posner. He remembers a gas station owned by Eddie Wishnauer and a liquor store in Medford Square that was owned by Al Segal.

Building for the Future

It was not until the fall of 1939 that a group of Jewish businessmen and professionals began meeting in the Rose Room of a local Chinese restaurant on Riverside Avenue. The group included Risman, as well as his son, A. David Risman, Sam Weinter, Henry Kassel and Samuel Bolan.

Ultimately, the meetings would lead to the organization of the Medford Jewish Community Center, which would later evolve into the city's first and only synagogue, Temple Shalom.

By 1940, there were more than 100 Jewish families living in Medford. The group was quickly outgrowing their rented space at the American Legion, which was over Leahy's store on Main Street at the time.

"As a kid, I remember having High Holiday services at the women's club on Governor's Avenue," Marshall recalls. "There were just a handful of Jewish kids in my classes at school."

By the end of World War II, the club had changed its name to the Medford Community Center and purchased a house on 42 Water St. in 1944. The Water Street home was remodeled and the building was dedicated in October 1945 with more than 140 Jewish families in attendance.

Rabbi Alvin M. Poplack became the temple's first spiritual leader in 1949. The Water Street location served as the city's Jewish Community Center and synagogue through 1957.

"All of my uncles and my mother and father were involved in the building of the new community center," says Marshall, who went to synagogue at Temple Israel in Boston and at Temple B'nai Brith in Somerville.

By the 1950s, the Water Street Jewish Community Center was bursting at its seams, as the number of Jewish families moving into Medford rapidly increased. It was time to look for more space.

"It was very exciting for the community to be forming something for future generations," says Selma, who was already living in Medford with her husband.

She says the city was extremely helpful in the group's effort to purchase six acres of land on Winthrop Street from the Metropolitan District Commission to build a new facility.

"Medford's community worked hard, physically and financially, to support the new temple," says Selma.

The first service was held in the Winthrop Street building in 1958 and the new temple was dedicated a year later on a very rainy New England day. There were 1,500 people in attendance, as the synagogue's first spiritual leader, Rabbi Jordan Shepard, led a Torah procession service.

Moving Up

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, substantial numbers of Jewish families were settling in Medford. "There were larger front and back yards than there were in Malden, Everett or Somerville," says Selma, who witnessed the increase in the Jewish population.

"These families were living in multi-family houses and they wanted single-family homes. The times were better and people could afford single-family homes," Selma says.

She also suggests the construction of the Mystic River Bridge displaced a lot of people who decided to move to Medford.

"Medford was a step up," Selma explains. "It was a newer community and it was not as congested."

Selma says she even remembers a kosher butcher shop on High Street in Medford Square which catered to the Jewish population.

"A lot of people had friends here and there was a lot of available housing," she says. "It was the hey day of the temple. The Jewish community was really flourishing and it was kind of an exciting place. There were always things to do."

Selma, who raised three children in Medford, says there were youth programs and active Hebrew and Sunday School programs for Jewish children. She says the temple hosted programs with other cities and always participated in inter-faith services in the community.

Although Selma says there were not enough Jewish school-age children to warrant closing the public schools on the major Jewish holidays, she adds the superintendent of schools mandated that no tests were to be given on those days.

"We do not remember any anti-Semitism," recalls Marshall. "We've never heard a bad remark."

"It's a very diverse city, a harmonious city," adds Selma.

Changes on the horizon

At the height of the city's Jewish community, Ben Averbook and his wife, Mary, moved to Medford in 1957. Averbook, who was in the jewelry business, says he knew Rabbi Shepard before he moved to the city because Shepard had been a salesman prior to becoming a rabbi.

"There was a lot of activity at the temple and there were a lot of people involved," recalls Averbook. He names Max and Freda Singer and Frank Feldman as two prominent members of the Temple Shalom community.

Averbook also credits Cantor Charles Lew, who was very popular in Medford, with getting a lot of people involved in the temple community. Averbook says "there was no end to the activities and goings on at the temple," which included a very successful Hebrew School and a social club for couples.

During his tenure as president of the synagogue, Averbook persuaded Broadway star Theodore Bikel, who was well-known for his role in 'Fiddler on the Roof,' to come and perform at the temple.

"About 15 years ago, things started to change," says Averbook.

Harriet Sandberg, who has lived in Medford for 32 years, says she moved to the city when it was a "very vibrant place" because she thought it would be a wonderful place to raise her children.

Today, Sandberg agrees with Averbook's assessment that a change in the city's Jewish community has occurred.

"The community was changing as I was living here," says Sandberg, who lives on Whittier Road with her husband, Herb Sandberg, current president of Temple Shalom.

"As a teenager, I looked at Medford as a step up. If you moved to Medford, you made a big jump economically and socially. It was a cohesive, Jewish community and this is where you wanted to be," she explains.

"It was the pinnacle for us, but not for the next generation," says Herb Sandberg. "People who were in their 30s and 40s in the late 1960s and 1970s stayed in Medford and raised their children here. Their children grew up in the 1980s and not one of them decided to stay. The children of the city's original Jewish community moved to Lexington or Winchester or further north to Swampscott or Marblehead."

Temple Shalom's revival

Today, the Sandbergs are working hard to attract younger families to Temple Shalom.

Four years ago, Harriet revived the synagogue's Hebrew School and this year, the temple hired a part-time education director. She said the Hebrew School is the beginning of a new foundation for Temple Shalom.

"In order to survive, we need to have an authentic Hebrew School," says Harriet Sandberg. "We're developing family education programs and holiday programs for adults and families."

"We're reaching out to the neighboring communities and hoping to become more of a regional synagogue," said Herb Sandberg.

"We are now in a period of reorganization in a sense," says Averbook. "We're getting more of a turnout at Friday evening services and more young families are joining the temple."

Rabbi Eliot Marrus said Temple Shalom is attracting members from neighborhood communities who never had synagogues in their communities.

"We're reaching out to those people and more young Jewish families are settling in Medford and are considering membership," said Marrus, who became the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom in September 1999.

Marrus said he is seeing an increasing number of different types of families, such as inter-married families, who he hopes will feel comfortable in the temple and become active in the community.

"I think there is certainly a small growth pattern," said Marrus. "I'm optimistic that it will continue."