Digital History of the Jews of Boston

By Simon Rabinovitch.

This past fall I taught for the first time Northeastern’s introductory course to Jewish religion, history, and culture (JWSS/PHIL 1285) and took the students to a couple of spots in Boston relevant to Jewish history in the city. We strolled down the street from where our class met, to the Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, which was built in 1885 as Temple Israel, Boston’s first Reform synagogue. The prosperous German Jews who built the synagogue hired a German Jewish architect, Louis Weissbein, to design a building in the Bavarian Rundbogenstil (round-arch) style, but with the local New England Protestant flourish of two added steep peaked steeples. The Temple Israel congregation did not stay put in their South End location very long before building a new and even grander building on Commonwealth Avenue (today Boston University’s Morse Auditorium) completed in 1906. The congregation started planning their new home within a couple decades, and moved into their current building on Riverway in 1928 (for more on this see David Kaufman, “Temples in the American Athens: A History of Synagogues in Boston” in the book The Jews of Boston, full reference at the bottom of the post).

We talked about what we saw in the exterior of the AME Zion Church and what the Jews in the 1880s who planned this building as a symbol of their prosperity and integration in the city might have been thinking about in the design. We also talked about the changes in the city itself and the African-American congregation that has made the building its home ever since. The A.M.E. Zion Church was founded in 1838 (as a breakaway from an even older congregation) by seventeen members of Boston’s free black community, including its first minister, the abolitionist and temperance activist Rev. Jehiel C. Beman. Since its move into the Columbus Avenue building, the A.M.E. Zion Church has been the birth place of key African American civil rights movements as well as some of its most contentious internal debates (see this short article in blackpast.org and the History page on the church’s website).

We took another trip to Boston’s North End, the neighborhood that absorbed much of Boston’s Eastern European Jewish migration (in addition to the West End, bulldozed to create today’s Government Center). We talked about the economics of migration and the social and religious life of the neighborhood. We found the sites of commerce such as the Segel Building, a wholesale and retail building built in 1896, and the “Greenie Store,” a grocery store founded in 1892 by the Rabb family, who would expand this business into what is today the Stop & Shop grocery chain. We found the sites of the old bath house, the Hevra Kadisha (burial society), the Jewish Settlement House for new immigrants, the Hebrew Industrial School, and what were once the schools and synagogues on the little alley known as Jerusalem Place. In putting this walking tour together (the map I sketched is here for those interested) I relied in part on records put together by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston in a spreadsheet that tracked “Massachusetts Synagogues and their Records, Past and Present.” This spreadsheet, which captures in raw data the migration of Boston’s Jews within the city over a century, and the excitement my students and I had in walking the neighborhoods, provided the inspiration for a new class I am offering in fall 2020 called Digital History of the Jews of Boston.

The main idea behind Digital History of the Jews of Boston is that the class will alternate between learning how to use and create digital humanities (DH) tools and going out into the streets and neighborhoods in person to learn about the history of the Jews in Boston, as well as their interaction with the city’s other ethnic and religious groups. We’ll explore why Jews moved in and out of different neighborhoods in Boston and the impact of economic and cultural changes, suburbanization, and government policies such as “redlining.” And we’ll think about what DH tools can and cannot do to enhance our understanding of social and historical changes.

Throughout the semester the students and I will work collaboratively on a DH project of the students’ own design. Those of us at Northeastern interested in digital humanities are extremely fortunate for the resources available for DH teaching and scholarship created within the University. NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks is a major center for DH research and pedagogy and helped me to design a course that would integrate modules led by their Digital Integration Teaching Initiative (DITI) about text and data analysis as well as using DH tools for mapping, story-telling, and visualization (we will be focusing on the tools Tableau and StoryMap). In cooperation with the Northeastern University Library, we will be creating a website that will integrate our data into the library database. Northeastern has already created several important resources for digital history and social science focused on Boston, such as the Boston Research Center (BRC) and the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI).

Stay tuned for what these creative Northeastern students build! Below are a few resources we will be using in our class.

Books and Articles:

Matt Lebovic, “What Happened to the Jews of Boston’s ‘Jew’ Hill Avenue?” Times of Israel (23 November, 2014).

Gerald Gamm, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed (Harvard University Press, 1999). Gamm’s sociological study includes a wealth of data that will be useful for digital projects.

Jonathan Sarna, Ellen Smith, and Scott-Martin Kosofsky eds., The Jews of Boston 2nd ed (Yale University Press, 2005).

Stephan Thernstrom, The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880-1970 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

Digital Resources:

Global Boston. A project run by the Boston College History Department and Boston College Libraries: “Global Boston is a digital project chronicling the history of immigration to greater Boston since the early nineteenth century. Examining different time periods and ethnic groups, the site features capsule histories, photographs, maps, documents, and oral histories documenting the history of a city where immigrants have long been a vital force in shaping economic, social and political life.” 

Jewish Neighborhoods: Boston. The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project collects memories of Jewish Life in Boston. 

Boston Research Center. “The Boston Research Center (BRC), based in the Northeastern University Library, is a digital community history lab where Boston’s deep neighborhood and community histories are brought to light through the creation and use of new technology.”

Digital Collections of the Jewish Heritage Center at New England Historic Genealogical Society. “The JHC serves as the archival repository for the documentary record of Jewish life in the Greater Boston area and New England communities… The Center’s extensive holdings include personal papers, organizational records, photographs, reports and other materials for researching the history of the Jewish community of Boston, including the records of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, the Rabb Family/Stop & Shop archive, and the personal papers of Abraham C. Ratshetsky, Rabbi Albert I. Gordon and many others.”

Simon Rabinovitch is Associate Professor of History. You can follow him on Twitter @sjrabinov.

1 thought on “Digital History of the Jews of Boston”

  1. This kind of experiential learning brings history to life, animating the landscapes in which we move, and illuminating how aesthetics, social class and mobility, communal priorities, race, and ethnicity and various forms of knowledge are mutually implicated, transforming life over time. Lucky students. And lucky Jewish Studies at Northeastern to have Simon Rabinovitch on our faculty. NU Students–enroll in this new course!

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