In 1911, the year that Lafayette Hall became the French Church, the Jews of Nonantum were established enough to dream of building a synagogue.
They took out a charter and began raising money to construct the Adams Street Shul. This was an ambitious undertaking for such a small and not too affluent community.
The Original Charter bears the names of some of the founding families: Jacob Swartz, Joseph Mielman, Joseph Roiter, Jacob Kligman, Hyman Mielman, Benjamin Gilfix, and Morris Gilfix. Many of these names are still with the shul, through their descendents.
On the Charter, the official name of the congregation was "Congregation Agudas Achim Anshai Sfard of Newton." The leaders of the newly chartered congregation circulated a Pledge Book which began with a fascinating handwritten "History of the Community and Statement of Purpose " (see below). The Pledge Book records a very large number of very small donations, some recorded in English and some in Yiddish.
There were just a handful of large donations, each for one hundred dollars. One was from the famous New York financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff
. One was from the Honorable Sinclair Weeks
(then only eighteen years old, but later to become Mayor of Newton, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Secretary of Commerce).
Other sympathetic non-Jews, such as Dr. Thomas Gallagher and Joseph Flanagan, also made large contributions. This diversity of support accurately reflects the wonderful community spirit of Nonantum that the synagogue has enjoyed throughout the decades.
Construction began on August 4, 1912. The local newspaper report (at left) notes details. As far as we know, there was no architect; and no one can remember the name of the building contractor, but he seems to have come from outside Newton. Congregants who were able to help did so.
My father was a carpenter in the old country... My brother remembers --- he must have been about thirteen years old at the time --- going there with my father and helping laying the flooring there, nailing it, and running little errands. So I know they did a lot of the work themselves.
The completed Adams Street Shul was opened with much public celebration on Chanukah of 1912 — December 15th at 12 noon to be precise. So our annual Chanukah party is also our birthday party! The poster advertising the original Opening Day event has both an English and a Yiddish section. (The Yiddish section comes first and is larger.)
The Adams Street Shul is Newton's oldest synagogue. It is the third oldest synagogue in New England. (Some congregations may be older, but they have moved from town to town, and into new buildings.)
The Shul was built with cash donations and a mortgage that was not paid off until after the Second World War. The new congregation could not afford to hire any employees, nor to support a rabbi. Its original Constitution and By-Laws reflect its character as an all-volunteer "do-it-yourself " shul.
Today, almost one hundred years later, there are four more orthodox synagogues in Newton: Congregation Shaarei T'filah, Congregation Beth El - Ateret Yisrael, The Zhviller Beis Midrash, and The Chabad House of Newton.
Here is a transcription of the handwritten preamble in the Pledge Book
that recorded the donatons received to build the Adams Street Shul.
To whom this may concern: ―
Whereas, ― It has pleased the Almighty and the Hebrews of Newton to add great dignity and reverence to the worship of their faith, and ―
Whereas, ― The Almighty has endowed the said Hebrews of Newton with greater zeal and religious fervor than worldly goods, and ―
Whereas, ― what little could be spared by individual members of the faith has been dedicated to the founding of a Jewish Synagogue and Talmud Torah (Sabbath School), ― it has been
Resolved, ― by the members of the Congregation Agudas Achim of Newton, Mass, to make known to their friends and wellwishers, their aims and aspirations.
Ever since the Hebrews first began to settle in this community, some fifteen years ago, their potency as a religious factor has been smothered by the fact that each of means and accomodations [sic] necessitated extremely hardy measures to be adopted. Their inherent nature and nurture demanded that the Sabbath continue to be observed and that their children receive the same religious training that their fathers had received in better circumstances and perhaps more congenial surroundings. To this end, according to the Mosaic Law, religious meetings were conducted every Sabbath Day and other Holy days, despite the antagonistic means and surroundings. Now here, now there, the members of the Congregation, yet without a central place of worship, contributing occasionally the services of their homes, for religious uses.
Discouraging as such shifting methods of worship were, there was nevertheless enshrouded in this a blessing in disguise. Philosophy teaches us that the world progresses truly, only after the endurance of a pain economy. That is, the burden of trials and tribulations, however weighty, are the essentials [sic] which lead to the ultimate increase of human happiness. Thus it was with these few Hebrew endeavors. Lacking in religious atmosphere, and immediate prospects very dim, they only hoped and prayed for the time when a temple would stand in their midst that might take its place among others as a token of real reverence to the Almighty, who is One.
After all these years, under the constant leadership of their guiding spirit, a mighty effort was made and the blossom of their hope began to bear fruit. Immediate plans for the erection of a Synagogue were drawn up, even before it was known whence the funds for their purpose were to come. Disregarding this, the work was pushed, all gave what might be easily spared without detriment to the welfare of their families and soon the realization of their highest aims was a fact. Attesting to this, there now stands in our midst, a House of Worship, simple and unostentatious though it may be, a monument to those highest hopes and aspirations made the desire father to the fact.
Our message to our friends, wellwishers, benefactors, and all others interested is one of faith in mankind. We feel that you all as members of organized religion and society and everyone beleivers [sic] in the Unity of God, will do all in your power to assist a movement of this kind, that it may not fail of its ultimate success. Your beneficence will remain as a beacon-light to posterity, a veritable tower of fire in fact to guide the youth into the hallowed dominion of the Brotherhood of Man.
[ The worthiness of this movement is attested to by the written acknowledgment of leading Rabbis of Boston, proof of which may be found in the back part of this volume. Rabbi Friedman and Rabbi Rabinovitz have here testified in their own hands to the sincerity of purpose of the Hebrews of Newton. ]