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Window reflects a city's heritage

Artifact finds a new home in Temple Beth Emunah

BROCKTON -- When members of Temple Beth Emunah arrive to attend Yom Kippur services this year, they will pass by something new: a round, stained-glass window, about 5 1/2 feet in diameter, hanging in the rotunda, near the courtyard.

But the window is new only to Temple Beth Emunah, the lone synagogue in Brockton. In its past life, the window adorned Agudas Achim, an Orthodox Jewish congregation on Brockton's east side; for decades, it was an integral piece of Agudas Achim, and its colorful panes of glass formed a Star of David that stood two stories above Crescent Street. But when that congregation relocated to the other side of the city in the 1960s, the window was left behind. A business later remodeled the old synagogue, a facade was installed, and the new storefront covered up the Star of David.

The stained glass remained hidden for nearly 40 years and was largely forgotten until it reemerged recently, almost serendipitously, through an act of generosity. Its proud display at Temple Beth Emunah, on the city's west side, is today a reminder of Brockton's rich Jewish heritage, recalling a time when the city had more than 5,000 Jewish residents, four synagogues, and an active Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association, also known as the YM-YWHA, according to longtime Brockton residents.

''In its heyday, the Jewish community in Brockton was very, very vibrant," said Lawrence Siskind, a local lawyer and president of the Brockton Historical Society. The YM-YWHA boasted an impressive basketball league and held regular dances that were well attended by Jewish teenagers, he recalled. ''They'd fill up the gymnasium, wall to wall."

Today, the Jewish population in Brockton is estimated to be around 1,200, a small minority in a city of more than 93,000.

Jews first arrived in Brockton just before the turn of the last century. Back then, Brockton's booming shoe industry provided plenty of jobs for immigrants, and many Jewish families settled on the city's east side, around Bay, Crescent, and Plymouth streets. Their close-knit neighborhood had streets lined with three-deckers, haberdasheries, bakeries, kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, and other shops.

Agudas Achim was established in 1899, and opened its first synagogue on Stillman Avenue. In the 1920s, the congregation purchased land at 251 Crescent St. to build a larger synagogue to accommodate its growing numbers. The new building, which featured round stained glass windows, was dedicated in 1927.

Siskind, 63, remembers that synagogue well. The Star of David window was in the front, facing Crescent Street. In the main entryway, two staircases led up to the balcony where the women sat. (Men and women sit separately in Orthodox services.)

After his bar mitzvah, Siskind attended weekly prayer services led by Rabbi Herman Spiro. Those prayer services were usually followed by hearty breakfasts of hard-boiled eggs, schmaltz herring, boiled potatoes, bagels, and cream cheese, Siskind said.

In 1962, Agudas Achim moved for the last time. The east side of the city had been changing. After World War II, Jewish families began to migrate to Brockton's west side or to move to surrounding suburbs like Easton and Stoughton. (See accompanying story.) Agudas Achim went across the city to Belmont Avenue, on the west side.

Many houses and shops in Brockton's old Jewish neighborhood were torn down, replaced by public housing projects and a post office facility. Bay Street vanished from the city's map.

The Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association is also gone. Its headquarters, constructed in 1932, once housed a swimming pool and basketball court and was one of ''finest buildings in New England," said Morton Feinberg, who served as the association's president in the 1960s.

Brockton's Anshe Sfard synagogue, on Bay Street, was torn down in the 1960s. Temple Israel, a Reform congregation once based on West Elm Street, is also gone.

Agudas Achim closed earlier this year. On April 29, the congregation sold its Belmont Avenue synagogue to a Haitian church group, said Feinberg, a longtime member and former president of Agudas Achim. The old temple on Crescent Street, meanwhile, is occupied today by Capeway Aluminum & Vinyl Inc.

''The simple reason was, there were not enough Jewish families left in Brockton to support the institutions," Siskind said. ''The same thing happened in Chelsea. It's the same story. What we're left with are years of memories and traditions of the wonderful people we met along the way."

And those are the memories that Temple Beth Emunah is trying to capture. As the only Jewish congregation left in Brockton, it has launched an effort to document and preserve the city's Jewish history.

Located at Torrey and Pearl streets, Temple Beth Emunah is a Conservative congregation that has had a steady membership of about 400 families. Approximately half of Temple Beth Emunah's families live outside Brockton, according to Cantor Alan Kritz, who joined the synagogue in 1980.

Founded in 1952, Temple Beth Emunah was originally on Cottage Street; it moved to its present location in 1971.

Earlier this year, the congregation decided to restore six of its seven aging Torah scrolls, an arduous process that requires a scribe to carefully examine the scrolls and restore any ink that has peeled away from the parchment, Kritz said.

Around the same time, conversations turned toward other historical endeavors.

''We were sitting at a meeting one night, discussing people's connections to the synagogue, people like Ken Feinberg -- Ken grew up in this synagogue," said Kritz, referring to the Brockton native who oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

''There are tremendous people who grew up here and went on to significant things in life," Kritz said. ''This is stuff we should document. This history is very important."

And so Kritz, along with a few other congregants, set out to capture some of that history on video. Ken Goldblatt, a longtime Brocktonian, drove around Brockton, and he and the others documented various buildings in Brockton that played significant roles in the community's past.

One of those locations was 251 Crescent Ave., the site of the old Agudas Achim temple. The congregants knew that remnants of the stained-glass window were inside Capeway Aluminum & Vinyl Inc., but they weren't sure how accessible it was or what condition it was in.

Steve Fishman, owner of the firm, led the congregants around the building, pointing out architectural features preserved from its previous use as a synagogue. Then he led them upstairs, where Kritz saw the stained-glass window for the first time.

''When we went upstairs, lo and behold, there was the window," Kritz said. ''It was in beautiful condition."

Fishman had told the congregation they could have the window, and this summer it was removed and repaired at Scholes Studios in Fall River, Goldblatt said.

By the end of the summer, the window was ready for its new home. It was hung last month, with a dedication ceremony planned for later this month.

Pieces of the broken panes of the original glass, meanwhile, are being made into mezuzot, ornaments that hang from the doorposts of Jewish homes to remind people of the presence of God.

With the help of congregation president Bruce Caplaine and fellow congregant Ed Baron, Temple Beth Emunah recently produced a DVD as part of its L'Dor V'Dor Project celebrating the community's past and present.

Narrated by Aaron Riseman, the 10-minute documentary, whose title means ''generation to generation" in Hebrew, includes photographs and interviews with community leaders such as Sonny Maskell, the former youth director of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association on Legion Parkway, and the late Jacob Lipman, a longtime member of Temple Beth Emunah.

The synagogue plans to establish a Brockton Jewish historical center in the synagogue library, where artifacts from Brockton's Jewish history can be displayed.

''We hope that's just the beginning of an extensive documentation of Brockton's Jewish community," Kritz said.

To read this story online and see a brief documentary on the L'Dor V'Dor Project, go to www.boston.com/globesouth/. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

Torah work to be celebrated

On Oct. 29, Temple Beth Emunah will celebrate the completion of the first phase of the L'Dor V'Dor project -- the restoration of their six Torahs that date back over 130 years.

For more information about Temple Beth Emunah, call 508-583-5810 or visit www.templebethemunah.org.

How to get there: Temple Beth Emunah is located at 479 Torrey St. in Brockton. Take Route 24 south to Exit 17B (Route 123 to Easton). At the first light, by Cumberland Farms, take a right onto Pearl Street. At the first light on Pearl Street, make a right on Torrey Street. The temple is located at the corner of Pearl and Torrey streets.

What to expect: The stained-glass window is most visible from the rear parking lot of the temple.

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