The downtown Boston neighborhoods used to be the apple of American Jewry’s eye a century ago. Looking to try their hands in the suburbs, Jews of Roxbury and Dorchester migrated to Boston’s cramped, central quarters popularly known as “Ends,” where thousands of Jews clustered around Franklin Park, and moved to mostly wooden triple-decker Victorian houses. This turn-of-the-century boom expanded even more with the immigration of Jews from Russia and Poland, and it seemed as if Jews had found a permanent and expanding home. However, within the next two generations, Jewish life had vanished from this first suburb, and since then it has never fully returned its strength.
Back then the newly settled Jewish community was able to build over 25 synagogues, but they also made serious efforts in order to blend in with Boston’s multi-ethnic population, and create closeness with the locals through collectives and assimilation. Embodying the vision by being better Jews, people were trying to shake off the burdens of Orthodoxy, while the Jewish community helped popularize both Conservative Judaism and Zionism. By the 1950s this emerging middle class began to depart and most of the Jewish population was heading toward Brookline, Brighton and Newton, the centers for working-class Jews. As the ’50s came to an end, the neighborhood was already in decline, and Jews felt it was no longer safe to live in. Around that time my parents, both Holocaust survivors, settled in Borough Park.
By the time the ’60s kicked in, more than half of the Jewish population in Boston had left, along with their communal assets. At its peak, Boston was the home of over 90,000 Jews. Once they were out of the city, their buildings were turned into low-income housing, as the bank offered reduced mortgages. As crime rates drastically increased in Boston, making it a less safe place to live, within the ’80s almost the entire Jewish population had relocated. Despite that the Jewish influence has remained everlasting, and until this day Dorchester has its elaborate woodwork, glass windows and many memorials which bear witness to the once upon a time vibrant Jewish life.
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