Walnut Street Shul Preserves the Future

Rabbi Kagedan proudly stands at the Walnut Street Synagogue bimah.

Unbeknown to the ten Chelsea families who founded the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Shalom in 1897, they had erected their synagogue in a city that in their lifetimes would become home to the largest percentage of Jews of any other city in the United States except New York.

 

In 1890, 82 Jews lived in Chelsea; by 1910, that number swelled to 11,000, one of every three residents. By 1930, almost half of Chelsea was Jewish, earning it the moniker, “Yerushalayim d’America.” If it seemed like there was a synagogue on almost every corner, that’s because there was: in its 1.8 square miles, Chelsea housed 18 synagogues.

 

When tragedy struck and the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 reduced most of the city, including Agudath Shalom, to ashes, the shul’s immigrant founders were undaunted. They rolled up their sleeves and in 1909 rebuilt the synagogue on Walnut Street, which inspired the new building’s nickname, the Walnut Street Shul.

 

Designed by architect Harry Justin Joll, the magnificent building boasts ceiling frescoes painted by immigrant artists and an awe-inspiring ark by Sam Katz, the renowned master woodworker from the Ukraine who made Chelsea his home in the 1920’s.

 

Fast forward to 2017, and most everything about Chelsea has changed.

 

Gone are the kosher butchers, bakeries and religious and cultural institutions. Yiddish and Hebrew have been replaced by the mother tongues of recent immigrants from Central America, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. According to the most recent Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies survey, Chelsea’s Jewish population has shrunk to statistical insignificance.

 

Of the 18 synagogues, two remain: Temple Emmanuel and the Walnut Street Synagogue.

 

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The Walnut Street Synagogues’s congregants are determined to revitalize their synagogue and, while they’re at it, to blaze a new trail for Orthodox Judaism. Last September, they hired Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first female clergy member in the United States to preside in an Orthodox synagogue using the title “Rabbi.”

 

Within the world of Orthodox Jewry, this is a big deal.

 

Rabbi Kagedan attended Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s religious training program founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the Bronx, New York. Because rabbi is a masculine word, Rabbi Weiss allows his graduates to adopt whatever title they want.

 

Some choose rabba (a feminized version of rabbi) or maharat (a Hebrew acronym Rabbi Weiss invented that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality and religious law). When Rabbi Kagedan and her two female classmates graduated in 2015, she alone chose the title rabbi.

 

“It was the title that most accurately described the work that I trained to do. Like calling a doctor ‘Doctor,’” she said. “People did try to discourage me because it hasn’t been a typical choice in Orthodoxy, but I always wanted to serve the community and use my training and knowledge to support the Jewish community with pastoral and halachik needs.”

 

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which represents over a thousand Orthodox rabbis across the United States, saw the matter differently. It adopted a policy in the fall after Rabbi Kagedan’s graduation prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.

 

 

“Should it be allowed? Who’s going to make it illegal?” asked Jonathan Sarna, the prominent author, historian and Brandeis University professor who has written extensively about American Judaism. “In America, the congregants make their own decisions. We don’t have a Chief Rabbi. We don’t have a Ministry of Religion. Every congregation is, in a sense, a law unto itself,” he said by phone from Jerusalem.

 

None of these religious politics mattered to Board Secretary Richard Zabot, whose grandparents arrived in Chelsea in 1905 from Russia and helped found the Walnut Street Synagogue. In Rabbi Kagedan, he saw a perfect fit. “She showed a willingness to work with the unknown in order to achieve our goal: the rejuvenation of our synagogue,” he said.

 

Fellow Board member Eddie Medros, who grew up in Chelsea in the 1950s and attended the Elm Street Synagogue, agrees. “She is infectious with her drive and enthusiasm. She brings warmth, passion, inclusiveness and a love of Judaism,” he said, noting she has already reached out to the local community in a meaningful way.

 

The attraction was mutual. “The shul presents a challenge, which I am always up for. I also feel committed to keeping a shul that has existed for so many years going. Continuity is powerful,” she said.

 

Devra Zabot, Richard’s daughter and events chair of the shul’s museum, described the extensive vetting process Rabbi Kagedan received before the synagogue board offered the ultimate vote of confidence. “Given that the board members are all over the age of 70 and mostly male, this was a heavily discussed decision,” she said.

 

In the ten months she has been at the spiritual helm, Rabbi Kagedan has been busy learning the ropes and making connections with the greater Jewish and local Chelsea communities. Almost immediately upon arrival, she led the High Holiday services and organized a Chanukah celebration with a klezmer band that attracted over 150 people, including Zahava Stern, a new young member.

 

“I met a lot of people who grew up in Chelsea and were bar or bat mitzvah-ed in this shul, but have since moved out to Sharon or Brookline. They were so excited to come back and see an active community in a place they hold so dear to their heart,” she said.

 

Stern also noted that Chelsea’s location attracts families from the North Shore, East Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. “It’s a secret gem right in the middle of the action,” she said.

 

The Walnut Street Synagogue offers monthly Shabbat and holiday services, classes on a variety of Jewish topics and holidays, and pastoral counseling and services. Rabbi Kagedan is the founding member of the Chelsea Interfaith Council and has met with the City Manager and other non-profit organizations about partnerships and integrating the shul with the Chelsea community.

 

The shul is supported by its board and members and by the Chelsea community at large, including citizens, city councilors and non-profit organizations. There are 120 members, and it operates as a fully Orthodox shul, with a mechitza on Shabbat and during high holidays services. The Jewish Chelsea Home generously opens its doors to the Rabbi and her family and guests to stay over on Shabbat.

 

Somehow, Rabbi Kagedan also finds time to serve on several professional and religious boards. “My peers have been largely supportive and open. Once people meet me and get to know me and see or experience the work I am doing, there is less anxiety and hype about being a woman Orthodox rabbi and people see me as just simply an Orthodox rabbi,” she said.

 

For now, Chelsea and the Walnut Street Synagogue are her prime focus. “Chelsea was at one time a real center of Jewish life in the region. My priority is to get Chelsea back on the radar of Jews in Massachusetts and to let people know the Walnut Street Synagogue is operational,” she said.

 

This is music to Richard Zabot’s ears. He remembers as a child when all 1,109 seats would be occupied during the High Holidays. “The shul hasn’t lost any of its charm or awe. We’re inviting 900 new people to join us this Yom Tov and be part of the preservation of the future,” he said.

A Living Chain of Tikkun Olam in Chelsea

CHELSEA — Aweis Hussein tends his family’s vegetables in a community garden located at Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel. He grows okra, tomatoes and corn, staples in his native Somalia.

Eleven years ago, Hussein and many from his current Chelsea Somali Bantu community lived in a Kenyan refugee camp. He arrived at the camp in 1991 at the age of 14, in need of protection and sanctuary from the relentless persecution and discrimination the minority Bantus suffered in their homeland.

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Aweis Hussein

Today, ten years after arriving in Chelsea, he is the community organizer and leader of the SCA (Shanbaro Community Association). The SCA operates under the umbrella of the Chelsea Collaborative, an organization founded in 1988 to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of the Chelsea community and its people. The SCA’s mission is to support the 400+ Somali Bantu refugees living in the greater Boston area as they forge community relationships and adjust to their new surroundings.

“I was lucky to go to refugee school in Kenya,” Hussein told the Journal by phone. He learned to read and speak English. He learned what to expect in America. Most of his Chelsea community members weren’t as fortunate. “They have never been to school. They have never been to a big village. They were mainly farmers in Somalia. They did not know about flushing toilets and lights and grocery stores.” His leadership role is his way of giving back to his people and using his special knowledge to ease their transition.

Ellen Rovner, of Brookline, is a member of the boards of directors of Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel and the Chelsea Collaborative. She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and an academic passion for food. She also has a keen interest in Chelsea’s immigrant community and in bettering the world through tikkun olam.

The idea for the community garden at Temple Emmanuel came to Rovner five years ago, when she was doing field work for her doctoral thesis, “It’s Just Like Coming Home: Food, Gender and Memory in a Jewish Community,” at Temple Emmanuel. She reached out to Roseann Bongiovanni, associate executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative and director of Chelsea Green Space.

“Ellen and I started to talk several years back about making deeper connections between the established Jewish community and the newer immigrant population in Chelsea,” said Bongiovanni, who has worked at the Collaborative for 19 years. “At the same time, Aweis’ group was looking for a place in Chelsea.”

“Roseann contacted me and said, ‘Listen, we have a community of people who are coming out of refugee camps in Kenya, many of whom have spent almost a generation there. They are farmers and they need a place to gather,’” Rovner told the Journal. Hussein pulled together some interested families and Rovner contacted Sara Lee Callahan, Temple Emmanuel president. The temple board members decided to loan the families space in its side yard to grow a community garden.

According to Rovner, Marlene Demko is the person who really made the garden happen. Demko, a lifelong Chelsea resident and a member of Temple Emmanuel since she was a child, sits on its board and acted as liaison between the temple and the Collaborative.

Bongiovanni explained that the first three garden plots were built with donated labor from the NE Carpenters Union. The Union members worked with teens from the Collaborative’s Chelsea Summer Youth Employment Initiative. Teens from YouthBuild, a Cambridge organization, came in recently to expand the garden with three additional beds. They cleared overgrown brush and provided significant landscaping work as well.

Demko worked with them to create a vibrant vegetable garden in the temple’s side yard.

“It has been great to see kids from many different backgrounds in Chelsea get excited about bettering their community at the same time a group of Somali Bantu families is becoming more integrated into the community and growing some of their own food on a property owned by a synagogue,” Rovner shared. “Given what’s going on in the world today, that a group of Somali Bantu refugees can find some solace growing food on the temple’s property is fabulous.”

Demko was thrilled to offer the Journal a personal tour of Temple Emmanuel and its community garden. She proudly pointed out the many yahrzeit (remembrance) boards lining the temple’s sanctuary walls, explaining that as the number of Chelsea’s active synagogues dwindled from almost twenty to one, Temple Emmanuel wanted to be sure the Jewish community would always have a place to say kaddish. “We do tikkun olam in so many ways because we’re so grateful that we can do these things and give back,” she explained. The temple has been holding full Passover seders for over ten years for over 130 people, enabling many who might find it otherwise difficult to gather their extended families to celebrate this important holiday.

The Somali Bantu community vegetable garden has inspired Demko to plan several enhancements for congregants, including a temple peace garden and biblical herb garden on some of the rest of the yard. She also envisions a “walk of honor” with stones engraved with donors’ names. With the help of other temple volunteers, she hopes to start this project next spring.

“This will be my mitzvah,” she beams, eyes filling with tears.” I want there to be a peaceful place for the rabbi and congregants to come outside and reflect, even during a service.” The garden will have benches and five gorgeous new trees, donated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation through a grant with the city of Chelsea, the Chelsea Collaborative and the Department of Energy.

Sara Lee Callahan, of Swampscott, has served as president of Temple Emmanuel for ten years. She is proud of the part her temple plays in helping to better the world. “Temple Emmanuel was founded in 1929 and in recent years has experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Many temple members living all over the United States maintain a connection to this area through the immigrant generations who brought them here. As Temple Emmanuel looks forward to its bright future, and in the spirit of gratitude, we want to create a living chain of tikkun olam. The Somali Bantu’s community garden reflects this concept.”

Aweis Hussein is grateful that Temple Emmanuel has given his community the space to gather and farm together, growing healthy fresh food that is not easily accessible or affordable. More than that, however, he is grateful to meet people who understand what it means to be a persecuted minority and to live in a diaspora. “Many of the temple members are older. We try to talk about our history, to share our histories. It is helping us, this new relationship. I hope it continues,” he said.

Pictured at top: Fatuma plants her garden. (Melissa Shook)