Sonia Saltzman, Temple Ohabei Shalom’s senior rabbi, invites anyone who has been associated with the synagogue to come celebrate its 175th anniversary during Shabbat services on May 19. “I hear from people all the time who are in some way part of the history of our congregation,” she said. “I want to say to everyone, please join us so we can mark this milestone together!”

The Shabbat celebration is part of a year-long anniversary tribute to the venerable temple and will feature Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who will deliver the sermon. The festivities will continue in November with professor Jonathan Sarna, who will be a scholar-in-residence at the temple, and Neshama Carlebach, who will give a Hanukkah concert in December.

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Temple Ohabei Shalom’s rich history began in 1842 at a private home in Roxbury. The next year, the founding minyan purchased land in East Boston and established a Jewish cemetery. In 1852, 80 families came together and formed the Warren Street Shul—a precursor to Ohabei Shalom. By 1868, the shul accommodated 400 people in its sanctuary, had a working mikveh and oversaw its first confirmation class of boys and girls. For the next decade, Ohabei Shalom was the largest synagogue in Boston, and its growth necessitated another move to a third home in Boston’s South End. The congregation formally affiliated with the Reform movement in the 1890s.

In 1928, the congregation moved again, to its current location on Beacon Street in Brookline. According to Temple Ohabei Shalom’s website, the building, with its distinctive dome, was modeled after the Hagia Sophia and the Great Synagogue of Florence. At the time, the community was described as “modern Reform and classically Conservative.” In yet another groundbreaking first for the temple, Saltzman’s predecessor, Rabbi Emily Gopen Lipof, was named senior rabbi in 1988, making her the first woman to become a senior rabbi of a major congregation in the United States. Days after same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, Lipof performed a same-sex marriage in the chapel.

Today, Saltzman says inclusivity is the watchword at the temple. Saltzman, who was born and raised in Chile, revels in her temple’s diversity and its commitment to social justice. “We have so many different initiatives,” she noted. “Family Table was born here, and we have daily worship, which is not a minyan, per se, but if people want someone to say the Kaddish with them, we have volunteers to guide them. The daily worship is also for people who are not necessarily affiliated with a particular synagogue. During the High Holidays we open our doors and are mindful of ticket costs. We take very seriously the idea of welcoming the stranger.”

Rabbi-Sonia-Saltzman
Rabbi Sonia Saltzman

Saltzman has had her own experiences of being a stranger. At 17, she arrived from Santiago, Chile, to attend Tufts University. Although she describes her upbringing as “very Jewish,” she did not have a formal Jewish education. Yet she was one of the first young women to have a bat mitzvah in her community. She recalls that when she approached the rabbi, he said he was too busy teaching the boys for their b’nei mitzvot. “He told me I could do the blessing for lighting Shabbat candles and say a few words,” she said. “Rather than teach me how to read Hebrew, he taught me the blessing in transliteration. At the time, I was happy to have even that limited opportunity.”

That early bat mitzvah experience had a lifelong impact on Saltzman. When her two sons attended Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, she enrolled in an adult learning class for Schechter parents who wanted to learn to read and write Hebrew along with their children. The experience was so positive that she went on to have an adult bat mitzvah in 1999 at Temple Emanuel in Newton, where she was a member at the time. All the while Saltzman, who also has a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, was working in microfinance. But the desire to take her Jewish learning to the next level brought her to adult education classes at Hebrew College.

Saltzman became so engrossed in her Jewish studies that she left her economics job to study for a second master’s degree at Brandeis University. This time the subjects were Bible and Jewish thought. Among her teachers was professor Art Green, who at the time was starting a rabbinical school at Hebrew College. He tapped Saltzman to enroll in the first rabbinical school class, from which she graduated in 2008.

Saltzman says that one of the many joys she experiences as a rabbi are the conversions she performs. “The stories are so interesting and inspiring,” she said. “And they are so varied. For example, I recently went to Mayyim Hayyim with a young person transitioning to become gender fluid, and who was also converting to Judaism on the same day. The immersions, which were back to back, were so moving. They were an opportunity to acknowledge two important transitions.”

More hallmarks of Saltzman’s rabbinate include bringing new learning opportunities to the congregation, encouraging community-wide trips to Israel, inspiring parents to chant Torah on the occasion of their children’s b’nei mitzvot and partnering with institutions locally and overseas in the work of social justice. As she affirmed, “I’m very proud to be a part of the Temple Ohabei Shalom community and its long tradition of serving members of our temple and beyond.”

Find more information about Temple Ohabei Shalom’s anniversary celebration here.