Jews of Boston: Bridging Wisdom, Community, and Culture, 1995-2004

Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University

Date: October 27, 2005

Event Recap

At the end of October, Jonathan Sarna, a leading historian on the American Jewish experience from Brandeis University, joined us at the Boisi Center. Sarna focused his comments on the Jews of Boston from the mid-1990s to the present, but he began with an outline of the unique history of Jews in the Hub.

Sarna explained that compared to the Jewish population in other major American cities, Jews arrived late in Boston. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Boston had a smaller Jewish population than such cities as Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. As a consequence of their tardiness, Jews experienced greater discrimination in Boston than in any other American city during the first half of the twentieth century. Without a population of “pioneer Jews,” Boston’s Jewish community retained their “alien” status longer. Another distinctive feature of Boston’s Jews was that less tension existed within the Jewish community than in other cities. Boston was most affected by the Eastern European, particularly Polish, Jewish populations that immigrated in the late nineteenth century. By comparison, in other cities earlier waves of German Jewish immigrants clashed with later arriving Jews from the East.

As a consequence, the story of Boston’s Jews is the story of relationships with their Protestant and Catholic neighbors. Through the first half of the twentieth century, the relationship was tense and occasionally violent. Yet after World War II, relations improved. As Jews came of age in the city, they targeted education as a major community goal. This stress on education, Sarna argued, has never been more apparent than in the last decade.

The increasing stability of Israel and the dissolution of the Soviet Union helped spark efforts to improve Jewish education. Sarna stressed the immense financial significance of these events. Funds previously slated to assist oppressed Jews in these regions were available to assist educational endeavors at home. At all levels of education, Jews have made important advances. Seven new private Jewish day schools, such as the successful Gann Academy, strides in adult education, and the dozens of Jewish studies positions in Boston-area universities headline the list of accomplishments. These educational achievements, along with other important markers of Jewish presence in the city, have fueled what Sarna described as a Jewish cultural renaissance within Boston.