Beth Israel was the first synagogue in Worcester to celebrate girls becoming a bat mitzvah. I was the second girl to become a bat mitzvah at Beth Israel and in Worcester!
A city of immigrants, Worcester and surrounding towns have been home to Jews since colonial times. A small Sephardic Jewish community settled in Leicester in 1776, after Newport, R.I., was captured by the British. A few German Jews came to Worcester in the latter half of the 19th century.
East Side Roots on Water Street
But it wasn’t until the 1880s, when Eastern European Jews immigrated in large numbers to the United States, seeking a haven from pogroms triggered by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, that Worcester’s Jewish population swelled. Many of the new immigrants came from the Pale of Russia—significantly, from what had once been Lithuania—and settled on the city’s East Side, around Water Street.
A bustling, tightly-knit Jewish community, Water Street was home to kosher bakeries, butchers, a mikvah (ritual bath), many small businesses, Jewish communal institutions and Hebrew schools. In 1924, there were also eight synagogues on the East Side. But as Jewish families moved up the socioeconomic ladder, they also began to move across town, to the more spacious, greener West Side.
The Move to the West Side
As the Jews moved, so did their houses of worship. In 1924, Congregation Beth Israel opened its doors as an Orthodox synagogue in a house at 835 Pleasant Street, with enough room for 75 people to observe the High Holidays and a Sunday School.
Our first permanent rabbi joined us in 1938. Three years later, the congregation had grown large enough to build a new home at the same location, with seating for 450. (That building now houses Congregation Shaarai Torah West.)
By the end of World War II, Beth Israel had evolved once again. Orthodox Judaism no longer met the needs of the congregation, and in 1945 we decided to become a Conservative synagogue. Formal affiliation with United Synagogue of America followed in 1949.
Evolving with the Times
During the post-War Baby Boom, Beth Israel grew rapidly. In 1953, the congregation purchased 12.9 acres of land from the Ellis Estate for a new facility. We broke ground for our current home at 15 Jamesbury Drive in 1958 and dedicated our completed building, which included a wing for what became the Zvi Plich Hebrew School, the following year.
The only Conservative congregation in Greater Worcester, we have undergone many changes since that time. Where once only men could lead services and be counted in a minyan, we now are led by a woman rabbi.
Our 250 member families, including about 400 adults, come from Worcester and surrounding communities; we welcome families, singles and those who come to our congregation from different religious backgrounds. We host the Rimon Religious School, open to Jewish families throughout Central Massachusetts. Remaining true to our roots in Jewish tradition, we continue as a vibrant congregation, on the move.