2020 National History Day: Breaking Barriers in History

Jennie Loitman Barron (l), broke barriers as a judge, suffragist, and first mother to serve on the Boston School Committee.

For general information pertaining to this year’s theme, please read the official National History Day’s theme book, Breaking Barriers in History. 

The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center has several collections that could pertain to this year’s theme. We encourage you to check out our finding aids, our subject files, or our digital archive. You can also view our collections in the library catalog.

Please note: if you wish to view documents in our digital archive, you will need to email us to make a request.We’re happy to help! Email us or call us at 617-226-1245 with your questions. 

A Brief History of the Beginnings of Boston’s Jewish Community

Boston’s Jewish community grew slowly. Unlike New York, with its diversity and opportunity, and frontier cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, and St. Louis—all of which had Jewish communities before Boston—Boston was perceived as small, homogeneous, and not very welcoming to outsiders.  By 1840, there were only about 40 Jews in Boston; by the eve of the Civil War in 1861, only 1,000 Jews called Boston home. For comparison, the Jewish population in New York grew from 7,000 to 40,000 during the same 21-year period.

The Jews that did immigrate to Boston were different from their Jewish immigrant counterparts elsewhere because they were mostly Polish Jews; the great German Jewish migration in the 19th century did not comprise the majority of the Boston Jewish community.  Because of this, the Boston Jewish community was more religiously conservative than other Jewish communities with a predominance of German Jews, who mostly practiced Reform Judaism.

Boston’s Jewish community began to grow with the advent of two synagogues: Ohabei Shalom and Temple Israel. Ohabei Shalom was founded in 1842 and followed conservative Polish Jewish rituals and rites. In 1854, a group of German Jewish members from Ohabei Shalom split from the congregation and founded Adath Israel, now known as Temple Israel. The founding and growth of these two synagogues mirrored the growth of the Jewish Boston community. By the 1870s through the 1890s, the members of these two synagogues worked together to assist the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, which expanded the Jewish population of Boston from 5,000 to 40,000 in a relatively short period of time. To respond to the needs of this community, the Federated Jewish Charities, the first federated charity in the country, was established in 1895. This organization still exists today as the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). 

For more detail on the history of Boston’s Jewish community, we recommend the book, The Jews of Boston. We also have several copies available for review in our library, or you may find a copy at your public library.The history of Boston’s Jewish community includes several elements that relate to the theme of “breaking barriers.” Below are just a few selected topics pertaining to the theme. We encourage you to look through the library catalog and our finding aids to see if there are other collections you might be interested in. Many of our collections have been digitized, but for those that have not been digitized, you will need to make an appointment with our reference archivist. More information on our hours can be found on this page.


Papers of Jennie Loitman Barron, P-547
Judge Jennie Loitman Barron was educated at Girls’ High School in Boston and Boston University. After finishing a four-year degree in only three years, she was awarded her law degree two years later. Barron joined the suffragist movement while she was in college. She was the first president of the Boston University Equal Suffrage League, and she advocated for equal rights for women at many meetings sponsored by this group. She was the first mother on the Boston School Committee, and the first female United States delegate to the United Nations Congress on Crime and Juvenile Delinquency.  
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Papers of the Bromberg Family, P-519
Edward Bromberg was elected to the Board of Alderman in 1903. In 1907, Bromberg was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, the first Jewish person to achieve this position. He was a political opponent of future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, though they later reconciled and became early leaders in the American Zionist movement. Later in life, he was appointed as the Deputy City Collector and worked as a probation officer. Please email us if you would like to make an appointment to see this collection. 

Papers of Abraham Captain Ratshesky, P-586
banker by profession, Ratshesky started the U.S. Trust Company with his brother Israel in 1895. Ratshesky was also involved in politics, serving as a member of the Massachusetts State Senate from 1892-1895 and as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1892, 1904, 1908, 1916, and 1924. During World War I, he was the Assistant Food Administrator for Massachusetts. His political background helped secure his nomination to the post of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary (Ambassador) to Czechoslovakia from 1930-1932 by President Herbert Hoover. In 1933, Ratshesky was honored with the Order of the White Lion First Class, Czechoslovakia’s highest honor. Ratshesky was also integral to the relief efforts after the Halifax Explosion of 1917.
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Papers of Elihu D. Stone, P-555
Active in the Zionist movement, in 1919 Stone was responsible for the passage of a resolution in the Massachusetts House of Representatives urging American Delegates to the Paris Peace Conference to support the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. He was largely responsible for the passage of the Palestine Resolution by the Massachusetts Legislation on March 29, 1922, which in turn led to the Joint Resolution passed by the U.S. Congress later that year, favoring the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.   
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Beth Israel Hospital, I-455
Beth Israel Hospital was established in 1916 to provide health care to immigrants in the area. Although accessible to everyone, the hospital provided Yiddish-speaking services for Eastern European Jewish immigrants and served kosher food, as well as conducted Jewish religious services. A school of nursing opened in 1918 to encourage Jewish women to enter the profession and was later followed by a social services department in 1920. The hospital also opened and administered outpatient clinics for the treatment of diabetes and tuberculosis, and care of babies. Please email us if you would like to make an appointment to see this collection.

Papers of Samuel Goodman, P-629
A graduate of the University of the City of New York, Medical Department (now known as Cornell Medical School), Goodman registered to practice medicine on November 19, 1894. One of the first Jewish physicians in Boston, he served as a house officer at Bellevue Hospital in New York before settling in Boston in 1893. He founded the Boston Medical Society, the earliest Jewish Medical Society in the region, and participated in the early planning stages of Beth Israel Hospital. 
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More information on our collections pertaining to immigration can be found in our subject guide.

Harry Spiro Papers, P-1005 
This collection contains correspondence, photos, newspapers and clippings, manuscripts, and financial records documenting the life of Harry Spiro following his immigration from the shtetl of Butrimantz in Lithuania, first to Havana, Cuba and then to the United States. Included in the collection are materials relating to his family, his Zionist activism both in Cuba and in the United States, and his building supply business, Best Lumber. Please email us if you would like to make an appointment to see this collection.

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (Boston, Mass.) Records, I-96  
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in New York City in the 1880s by the Russian Jewish community of New York in response to the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing the pograms in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe. In 1889, a shelter which was used to house many of the immigrants adopted the name “Hebrew Sheltering House Association.” This organization merged with HIAS in 1909 and by 1914, had branches operating in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The Boston office of HIAS was chartered in 1904 under the leadership of Harris Poorvu, Hyman Pill, Abraham Alpert, Meyer Bloomfield, Max Wyzanski and Samuel L. Bailen. The Boston HIAS operated autonomously from the national office in New York, even after their merger in 1916. HIAS ensured that Jewish immigrants had access to holiday and religious services and kosher food; provided shelter and social services; and assisted immigrants with finding employment and schools, often on short notice. This collection contains the individual case files of immigrants who received assistance from the Boston office of HIAS, ship manifests, tracer correspondence, scrapbooks, passenger lists and photographs. Some later individual case files remain restricted (those dated after 1960) and researchers will require permission from the archivist of AJHS New England Archives in order to view them.  
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Papers of Percy Brand, P-865
Percy (Peretz) Brand, a noted violinist and Holocaust survivor, began studying the violin at age 10. When the Germans took control of the Baltic States in 1941, he was concertmaster of the Riga Latvian Symphony Orchestra. The SS Einsatzgruppen units that occupied Latvia killed Brand's first wife and two children. Brand was first imprisoned in a Jewish ghetto in Riga and later sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Playing the violin saved his life during the Holocaust. After liberation, he continued to play his violin and performed for other survivors in various Displaced Persons (DP) camps. In 1947, he became the first Jew to perform Hebrew and Jewish music over the radio in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He met his second wife, Gertrude (Grunia) Levine, at one of his concerts. The couple immigrated to the United States under the sponsorship of Harry Marcus, Gertrude's great uncle. They arrived in New York in February 1949 and moved to Boston. The Brands have a case file in our HIAS collection, as well. 
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Papers of Herbert Ehrmann, P-94
Herbert B. Ehrmann was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1891. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and practiced law in Boston, Massachusetts. With William G. Thompson, Ehrmann served as associate counsel for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—two Italian-American immigrants who were controversially convicted of murder and put to death—during the closing years of their trial. He was active in civic affairs and in Jewish organizational life and in 1957 was a member of a nine-man delegation which conducted a 15,000-mile fact-finding survey in Europe, North Africa, and Israel. This delegation was granted a special audience with Pope Pius XII and was the only Jewish group to be awarded such an honor. Of special interest are reports sent to Ehrmann by the American Joint Distribution Committee regarding the ship "St. Louis." 
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Papers of Samuel Gurvitz, P-352
Samuel H. Gurvitz was born in Boston and graduated from Boston English High School in 1921 and Suffolk Law School in 1926. A resident of Newton, Massachusetts, he owned the New England Millwork Distributors in Dorchester for 30 years and practiced law privately. This collection contains schedules and notes from Gurvitz's trips to Palestine (1934 and 1936); Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw (1939); and Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Paris (1939.) The European trips, sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee, focused on visiting camps for illegal refugees and Jewish towns. His notes discuss the political and emotional mood in Europe at this time due to the impact of Nazi Germany. The notes are a firsthand account of what was happening to Jews in Germany, with specific examples. 
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Records of the YMHA-Hecht House, I-74
Lina Hecht founded the Hecht House in 1889 as the Hebrew Industrial School in the North End of Boston. The school's primary purpose was to educate young female immigrants in a trade (particularly sewing) so that they could provide for themselves in their new country. In 1936, Hecht Neighborhood House moved to Dorchester. At this point it operated as a community center for children and adults, and included a Nursery School, as well as programs for school children, high school students, young adults, and adults. The Hecht House had four overriding objectives: 1) foster democracy and citizenship; 2) advance understanding of Jewish ideals; 3) conduct relevant programming to promote physical, cultural, moral and educational well-being; and 4) promote understanding among all community groups.
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Records of the Louisa May Alcott Club Records, I-210 
The Louisa May Alcott Club was established in November of 1895 at 9 Rochester Street in Boston, Massachusetts. It operated as a self-governing club with 11-17 year old girls. A constitution was set in place that ensured the girls would each pay five cents a week towards the club, but only while they were working. The participating girls were all immigrants or children of immigrants, and classes were held at the building to teach the girls English, cooking and sewing. In 1896/1897 the club moved to a building at 17 Oswego Street. This collection includes a typescript of a description of the club, written by someone with the initials M.M.R. Please email us if you would like to make an appointment to see this collection.

Records of the United Hebrew Benevolent Association, I-223 
In 1864, congregants of Adath Israel (now known as Temple Israel of Boston) and Ohabei Shalom founded the United Hebrew Benevolent Association (UHBA), a charitable organization serving Boston's growing Jewish community. In 1895, the UHBA and four other Jewish philanthropic organizations formed the Federation of Jewish Charities, the forerunner of today's Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). The collection contains case histories, including listings of funds disbursed to families and individuals in need, and a receipt, dated 1888, for dues paid to the UHBA.
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Soviet Jewry

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the government of the Soviet Union began an official campaign of antisemitism, shutting down synagogues, squashing Jewish cultural activities, arresting Soviet Jewish citizens, and denying Jews the right to emigrate to Israel or the United States. Antisemitic news articles, television programs, and books were on the rise, and Jewish students had difficulties getting accepted into universities or passing their classes. 

New England Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Records, I-237 
This collection consists of the New England Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry's correspondence, articles, public awareness materials, membership lists and financial statements from 1970-1975. Included are letters to and from government officials and Rabbis who supported the cause. Notices and flyers are comprised of membership meetings, protests, and lectures. Memorabilia, such as bumper stickers and a protest flag (made of paper) are also included in the collection. 
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Records of Student Coalition for Soviet Jewry—Brandeis University, I-493
The Student Coalition for Soviet Jewry (SCSJ) was founded in 1977 in response to the arrest of Anatoly B. Shcharansky. Thirteen students from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts went to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress about the problems faced by Jews in the Soviet Union. The numbers of students involved continued to grow and expanded to include students from other colleges and universities in the United States. The Washington Lobby, which was held every February, provided opportunities for students to meet with members of Congress to educate them on the plight of Soviet Jews and urge them to get involved, either in letter writing campaigns or the adoption of Refuseniks (a term for Soviets who were denied the right to emigrate). Students also participated in silent vigils in front of the Soviet embassy and met with representatives of the Soviet Affairs desk at the State Department. 
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These collections have materials that pertain to several themes, including those listed above. Please view the finding aids (linked to the title of each collection) for more information on each collection listed below. 

Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston, Mass.) Records, I-220 and I-220A 
Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Boston, Massachusetts is the oldest federated Jewish philanthropic organization in the United States. The current incarnation of CJP was formed in 1960, when two separate federated philanthropies – the Combined Jewish Appeal and Associated Jewish Philanthropies – merged to create a single organization dedicated to serving the needs of Boston’s Jewish community. CJP’s records contain the history of several other organizations, from the forerunners of the current Federation to the Jewish institutions supported by CJP. Their beginnings can be traced to the founding of the United Hebrew Benevolent Association (UHBA) in 1864 at the Pleasant Street Synagogue (now Temple Israel).  
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Boston Jewish Community Relations Council Records, I-123 
To address community concerns surrounding the increase in antisemitic attacks in primary Jewish neighborhoods, the Associated Jewish Philanthropies organized an interim committee in 1938 to examine interfaith cooperation in Boston. After this committee dissipated, the Associated Jewish Philanthropies organized the Central Advisory Committee during World War II. This committee established the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston in 1949. The Council continually modified its goals and purpose to reflect the changing political and economic landscape. After World War II, focus shifted to include Jewish representation in non-sectarian community or public groups, civil rights, community relations, and fund solicitation practices. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, committee work also addressed religious liberties, intercultural education, Israel and the Middle East, civil liberties, immigration, legislation, and discrimination. In the 1970s, council committees continued to focus on Middle East affairs, Church and State, human rights and Jewish concerns, as well as Soviet Jewry, media, and the Boston Holocaust Memorial.    
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Synagogue Council of Massachusetts Records, I-454 The Synagogue Council of Massachusetts was founded on December 7, 1941 as the Associated Synagogues of Greater Boston. Rabbis and lay leaders from the three major sects of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) gathered at the Boston Young Men's Hebrew Association in Roxbury to establish an organization to unify and strengthen the Boston Jewish community. Some of the early goals of the Associated Synagogues (AS) were to be an authority on religious observance, particularly the Jewish dietary laws of kashruth; to promote religious education for children and adults; to assist financially destitute rabbis; and to encourage synagogue membership. Please email us if you would like to make an appointment to see this collection.