Congregation B’nai Shalom celebrates 40th years in Westborough

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The original Charles Street location Photos/courtesy Congregation B’nai Shalom
The original Charles Street location
Photos/courtesy Congregation B’nai Shalom

By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer

Westborough – Combing through old newspaper clippings and photos, B’nai Shalom’s Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz said, “What do you count as the beginning? We decided that it would be now.”

According to Gurevitz, the roots of B’nai Shalom were first planted 40 years ago by pharmacists Harold Feldman and Eli Levitton, who both lived in Worcester, but had a business in Westborough.

“They would pass on the names of other Jewish people so that we could call each other and meet. We were all strangers in town. It was social at the beginning,” recalled Toby Federman, who still lives in Westborough.

The result was the Westborough Jewish Woman’s Club, which was written about in the Worcester Gazette in April 1972.

By 1974, the club welcomed men, and changed its name to the Westborough Jewish Association.

Rabbi Debra Hachen (l) and Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz Photos/courtesy Congregation B’nai Shalom
Rabbi Debra Hachen (l) and Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
Photos/courtesy Congregation B’nai Shalom

During those early years, a small group of local Jews met at the YMCA, Good Shepard Lutheran Church, and other venues.

Hebrew School classes were launched in 1977, for 20 5 to 7-year-olds.

They held their first High-Holy Day festival in 1978 at the Congregational Church in Westborough, according to Rabbi Gurevitz.

In August 1979, after fundraising, they bought a house at 9 Charles St., near Westborough’s downtown. The home had belonged to Louis Denfield, who had served as an admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Michael Bacher of Southborough remembers the Charles Street building as, “… very homey and comfortable. We were able to turn it into a house of worship. There was a lot of sweat equity back in those days. The living room and dining room became a sanctuary, and the bedrooms were classrooms.”

“Glen and Jean Kessler donated a scroll from Jean’s mother’s Worcester synagogue, Sons of Jacob, which was closing down,” Gurevitz said.

In 1980, the group hired a part time rabbi, Debra Hachen.

“It was a milestone in American Jewish history,” said Gurevitz. “Rabbi Hachen was the 22nd woman to be ordained as a rabbi, and the first to be hired as a principal rabbi in any congregation in New England.”

By the next year, the Hebrew School had 80 students. That number jumped to 160 students by 1985, when the congregation bought land on East Main Street to build its current congregation.

Four hundred and fifty families now belong to Congregation B’nai Shalom.

“It’s amazing. I feel thankful that we have a synagogue that’s accessible on a main street where it belongs, like every other church in Westborough,” Federman said.

“It’s great that we can give back to the community now,” Bacher noted. “So many people helped us get started.”

Most likely, Harold Feldman and Eli Levitton could have never imagined that a sizeable Jewish community would ever exist in the Westborough area.

Some may credit B’nai Shalom’s origin to the expression: If you build it, they will come.

But in fact — looking back after 40 years — it was the early pioneers who laid the groundwork for what is today a thriving Jewish community.

B’nai Shalom has planned several events to celebrate its 40th anniversary. There will be an artist-in-residence weekend during Hanukkah (Dec 8 – 9), a Sabbath service and celebration (“Fabulous at Forty”) to honor Rabbi Hachen (March 15 – 16, 2019), and an outdoor music festival with food trucks (May 19, 2019).

For information about B’nai Shalom, visit www.cbnaishalom.org.