“From its beginning in 1854 as a traditional German shul to its current status as the largest Reform Synagogue in New England, Temple Israel has been an important force in Boston and American Jewish life. The congregation’s ongoing efforts to adapt to changes in American society while preserving balance – between tradition and innovation, between acculturation and distinctiveness – exemplify the transformations in religious worship practices, education, and social justice that mark modern American Reform Judaism.”
– Becoming American Jews, Brandeis University Press
Temple Israel: The Hub of The Hub
In the early part of the 20th century, Rabbi Harry Levi arrived at our congregation. It was his belief that this congregation could become a model of Jewish life that would help Judaism prosper for generations to come. He planned to make Temple Israel “the hub of local Jewish life, a center of education, fellowship, and sociability.”
One century later, we continue to hold this vision by strengthening our community and by being a dynamic and creative force within the Boston Jewish community. Our programs such as the Center for Adult Jewish Learning, the Riverway Project for those in their 20s & 30s, and the Tent for Teens work cooperatively with partner organizations to leverage resources to create exciting opportunities for us all. Our story is evolving as we continue to lift and inspire each other.
Key Moments in Temple Israel History
Founding of Congregation Kehillah Kedosha Adath Israel as a traditional shul by 25 German-born families who broke away from Congregation Ohabei Shalom along with Hazan Joseph Sachs (1810-1869). When Sachs leaves in 1856, he is replaced by Hazan Joseph Shoninger (1829-1910)
Congregational cemetery established on land purchased in Wakefield, Massachusetts
Rabbi Solomon Schindler (1842-1915) hired as the synagogue’s first trained rabbi. Under his leadership, the congregation adopts Reform practices that include mixed seating, weekly sermons, a trained choir with organ accompaniment, and replacing bar mitzvah with confirmation for boys and girls
Synagogue reincorporated as Congregation Adath Israel
Columbus Avenue synagogue building dedicated. The new building reflects the growing size and status of the congregation and its leaders and attracts many new members.
Rabbi Charles Fleischer (1871-1942), Temple Adath Israel’s first rabbi ordained at Hebrew Union College, hired to replace Rabbi Schindler. First Auxiliary Society established to build community, promote interest in education and current events, and provide assistance to members in nee
Commonwealth Avenue building, designed by Clarence Blackall, dedicated. Having outgrown the Columbus Avenue building, the temple, by now the preeminent Boston synagogue, relocates to the Boston/Brookline area, where members increasingly reside, and institutes new classical Reform rituals. The Women’s Society, founded in 1903, spearheads an extremely successful capital campaign for the building and inaugurates a monthly Temple Bulletin. Henry L. Gideon, an organist and composer who published a popular religious school hymnal, becomes first Music Director and serves until 1938.
Rabbi Harry Levi (1875-1944), the first American-born rabbi of a Boston synagogue, hired after Rabbi Fleischer announces his intention to start a new religion. Rabbi Levi would serve for 28 years. Known for his pastoral skills, even-tempered optimism, and devotion to social service, he attracts a broad spectrum of new members and ushers in the era of Classical Reform Judaism in the decades surrounding World War I. Rabbi Levi establishes a very successful school programs and organizations for youth and adults to help make the synagogue the focus of Jewish life, including monthly children’s services and societies for recent confirmands and unmarried young adults that sponsored social and charitable activities.
First Congregational Seder sponsored by the Women’s Society. This, and other such community events, are designed to help congregants maintain Jewish rituals and practice them in their homes.
Women’s Society renamed the Sisterhood in 1913 when it becomes a founding member of the Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. Temple Israel Brotherhood founded to encourage men to take a more active role in the life of the temple and the larger Jewish community.
Several branch schools, financed by the Sisterhood, are established for immigrant children. For several decades they help children and their families adjust to American life and educate them in Reform practices. The first school was held in the Baldwin Place Synagogue in the North End; eventually there would be five more in Boston and others in various suburbs.
Theresa Goulston and Hennie F. Liebmann become first female trustees when bylaws changed to permit women to be elected to the Board of Trustees.
Rabbi Levi becomes Boston’s first “Radio Rabbi” in 1924, broadcasting services and sermons across New England on a monthly radio program that would eventually be sponsored by the Brotherhood. This interfaith effort to familiarize a Jewish and Christian audience across New England with Judaism set a pattern for all Temple Israel senior rabbis thereafter. In the 1930s, Rabbi Levi becomes an eloquent civic voice for religious tolerance in an era of rising anti-Semitism.
In 1924 land at the corner of the Riverway and Longwood Avenue purchased for a new “Temple Centre” campus designed by McLaughlin & Burr that could house all the educational, community, and social activities for the growing congregation. The first phase, designed to alleviate crowding at the Commonwealth Avenue site and completed in 1928, includes a “Meeting House,” an administrative wing and a larger religious school.
Rabbi Joshua Loth Leibman (1907-1948) hired by Temple Israel in 1939, when Rabbi Levi retires due to ill health and becomes Rabbi Emeritus. Rabbi Leibman encourages the congregation to embrace modern Reform Judaism by reinstating Friday night services, incorporating more Hebrew prayers into worship services and reinstating bar mitzvah (1946). A scholar and eloquent orator, he was a strong Zionist who worked with Boston’s civic and religious leaders to combat religious prejudice and racism in Boston. During the turbulent years of World War II he gives voice to a firm, psychologically-based faith.
Herbert Fromm (1905-1995), well-known German composer and conductor, hired as Music Director and organist. During his 31-year tenure at Temple Israel he produces a prolific amount of published synagogue and other Jewish music, much of which becomes part of the standard synagogue repertoire.
The Brotherhood creates the Gutman Foundation (later renamed the Simons-Gutman Foundation) to promote democratic ideals and the principles of social justice.
Rabbi Leibman publishes Peace of Mind, Insights on Human Nature That Can Change Your Life (1946). A spiritual guide to healing and forgiveness in a world shaken by the Holocaust, the book explores the relationship between religion and psychiatry and becomes an international bestseller that is still widely read today. At the height of his fame, Leibman dies suddenly of a heart attack in 1948.
Rabbi Abraham Klausner, a former Army chaplain who had worked to reunite displaced persons with family members after WWII and presided over the first Seder in Germany in 1946, hired to replace Rabbi Liebman. Rabbi Klausner continued to expand the temple’s educational programs and the pastoral aspects of his role.
Rabbi Roland B Gittelsohn (1910-1995) replaces Rabbi Klausner in 1953. Rabbi Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain in the Marine Corps, had established a world-wide reputation with a moving and oft-quoted sermon on brotherhood delivered at Iwo Jima in 1945. A lifelong activist, a proud Zionist, and a prolific writer, he, and the congregation, become deeply involved in timely political, humanitarian, and social justice issues including McCarthyism, civil rights, desegregation, and Middle-eastern policy. After his retirement in 1978, Rabbi Gittelsohn would co-found the Association of Reform Zionists (ARZA) and continue to serve as Rabbi Emeritus.
Temple Israel purchases the Berners Square parking area (future site of the MASCO parking garage) and builds an addition to the highly praised religious school to accommodate the large number of baby boom pupils. Bat mitzvah is introduced.
The Social Action committee is established: members become involved in various local and other civil rights issues, including housing, urban renewal programs, civil rights marches in the South, and the Boston Ruleville Interfaith Committee (BRIC), which helped to build a social center in rural Mississippi.
Martin Luther King preaches a sermon in the Levi Auditorium at Temple Israel’s Passover Yizkor service during a visit to Boston to address a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature and lead the first Civil Rights march in the Northeast.
Temple Israel votes to sell its Commonwealth Avenue building to Boston University and to reunite all the synagogue’s facilities on the Riverway campus. This decision solidifies the congregation’s commitment to remain an urban synagogue.
Murray Simon installed as the Temple’s first Cantor. Cantor Simon, with his religious as well as musical training, would take responsibility of much of the tone of the entire liturgy during his eleven years at Temple Israel.
Construction of the new sanctuary, chapel and skylit atrium designed by The Architects Collaborative are completed on the Riverway campus. The entrance is enhanced by Sky Covenant, a sculpture commissioned from noted artist Louise Nevelson. A social hall designed by Goody, Clancy and Associates concludes the project in 1974.
The Social Action Committee begins to advocate for Soviet refusniks denied visas to the United States and Israel; this work would become a major Temple Israel initiative in the mid-1980s
Rabbi Bernard Mehlman (1937-) hired as senior rabbi. Known as an extraordinary educator, he had been the Jewish coordinator for an experimental interfaith, interracial, urban education program while serving as rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington DC. Rabbi Mehlman’s rabbinate focuses on community building, inclusiveness, building a clergy team to help him modernize worship practices to encourage participation and dialogue, establish learning programs for members of all ages, and encourage social action initiatives. After retiring in 1999, he would remain at Temple Israel as Senior Scholar and become a professor at HUC-New York.
Qabbalat Shabbat services instituted year-round
Roy Einhorn hired as Temple Israel’s second Cantor. Cantor Einhorn would make music the central component of a more participatory, community-building worship experience, preside over the training of thousands of b’nai mitzvah and other life-cycle events, and participate fully in the pastoral work of the temple and its efforts to become more environmentally responsible. He would retire in 2020 after thirty-seven years.
Marc Maxwell and David Passer become the first gay couple to obtain a family membership to congregation of Temple Israel; in 1992, Associate Rabbi Friedman performs the congregation’s first same-sex commitment ceremony.
Frances Stieber Putnoi becomes first female Board President.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher hired as the first female Rabbi at Temple Israel.
Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center (FJECC) opens; Helen Cohen, founding director, serves until her retirement in 2021.
Rabbi Ronne Friedman (1947-) succeeds Rabbi Mehlman as Senior Rabbi. Rabbi Friedman, who had known Rabbi Mehlman since 1971, was hired in 1978 at his mentor’s suggestion as Associate Rabbi, and also became the Temple Educator in 1983. In addition to his work on Jewish education, he was deeply engaged in the resettlement of Southeast Asian and Soviet Jewish immigrants, interfaith and same sex initiatives, and equity issues. In 1994 he left to become the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, NY, but returned to Temple Israel as senior rabbi at Temple Israel when Rabbi Mehlman retired. Rabbi Friedman’s rabbinate would be marked by his warm relationships with members of all ages, his mentorship of his clergy team, and his support of interfaith social action projects in the community. Rabbi Friedman would retire in 2016 to become Rabbi Emeritus.
The Riverway Project, an outreach initiative to foster the Jewish identities of young, unaffiliated Boston Jews by holding events in the community as well as the synagogue, quickly became a popular program that deepens hundreds of young people’s connections to Judaism, and Temple Israel, through study, worship, and social activities.
Ohel Tzedek (Tent of Justice), founded to generate social action campaigns by building relationships through conversations and meetings that reveal issues that matter to the congregation and then act on them. Temple members and clergy would successfully advocate for the right of gay couples to marry (2004), and, in concert with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (established in 1998), Massachusetts health care (2006, 2018), and criminal justice reforms (2020).
Beacon Academy established as a “jump year” for a small group of bright, motivated, under-educated Boston area 8th graders. It was housed at Temple Israel until 2021, when it purchased its own building.
Kathryn Madden becomes the first Jew by choice to serve as Board Present
Rabbi Elaine Zecher becomes Temple Israel’s first female Senior Rabbi after Rabbi Ronne Friedman’s retirement.
Marc Maxwell becomes Temple Israel’s first openly gay Board President
Alicia Stillman hired as Temple Israel’s first female Cantor. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all religious services, lifecycle events, and most educational programs and other events are moved to a virtual platform. In the spring of 2021, Temple Israel partners with Beth Israel Lahey Health to set up a vaccination clinic in the building.