It’s an oft-told story about the Jewish immigrant who rose from poverty on New York’s Lower East Side to prominence through hard work, thrift and education. That same story can be told about many prominent Jewish immigrants who grew up in New England’s slums: In Boston’s Ends, in East Hartford, in New Haven’s Legion Avenue and in South Providence.
Without Jewish New England, we wouldn’t have Dorothy’s ruby slippers, cybernetics, the Cornish game hen, West Side Story or the right to privacy. Nor would we have the Venetian Hotel Resort Casino, Mr. Spock or the first U.S. shopping mall in Stamford, Conn.
Today, Massachusetts is the fourth most Jewish state in the United States and the most Jewish state in New England. Connecticut’s Jewish population ranks seventh.
Colonial Jewish Immigrants
Newport, R.I., was the only colonial town with a large enough Jewish population to support a congregation. After Newport Jews consecrated its synagogue, nearly nine decades would pass before Jewish New England could build another.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews had lived in Newport, R.I. since the mid-17th century, when they arrived via Barbados. [The Spanish Inquisition had driven them out of Brazil to the Caribbean, then to Rhode Island.] They left a permanent mark on the city by establishing a cemetery in 1677 – believed the first in America. Several more waves of Jewish families then arrived from Curacao in 1690 and from New York in the mid-18th century.
Many Newport Jews prospered as merchants in the sea trade. Bellevue Avenue, now lined with Gilded Age house museums, once was lined with Jewish shops. By 1758 the Jewish community could support a house of worship, and built the Touro Synagogue, consecrated in 1763.
The British occupation of Newport devastated the town’s economy. Jewish patriots left before they arrived. The occupiers turned the Touro Synagogue into a hospital, which saved it from destruction.
When the British left, they were accompanied by Loyalist Jews – including Isaac Touro, the synagogue’s hazzan.
George Washington visited Newport in 1790, and wrote a letter to the Jewish community that remained. In it, he pledged, “To bigotry, no sanction. To persecution, no assistance.” The Touro congregation re-reads the letter out loud every year.
But Newport’s Jewish community continued to dwindle as Jews left for Boston, New York and Charleston, S.C. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited in 1852, and two years later published a poem called The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.
Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.
Jewish Immigrants in Boston
Jews lived in Boston in as early as 1630, but not until Moses Michael Hays moved to town did Jews establish any permanent institutions. None of those institutions, however, had anything to do with the Jewish religion. Puritan intolerance wouldn’t allow it.
Hays was a Portuguese Sephardi and a patriot. He had left Newport before the British occupied it during the Revolution. He prospered in the shipping business as Boston grew with the China and other maritime trades.
Hays also helped found the national insurance industry and the Massachusetts Bank, to which he made the first deposit. (It’s now Bank of America.) Hays also served as the Grand Master of the Massachusetts Lodge, with Paul Revere as his deputy. He donated to Harvard, the Boston Common and roads and tunnels.
Hays’ brother-in-law was Isaac Touro, who in 1783 died in Jamaica. Hays then helped raise Touro’s sons, Judah and Abraham, along with his own, also named Judah.
Under Hays’ tutelage, his son and his nephews succeeded in business and supported the founding of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Athenaeum. Judah Touro donated the last $10,000 for the Bunker Hill Monument.
But Boston’s leading citizens could build no temple, no burying ground. The small Jewish community had to associate with Jewish congregations in New York and Newport, and bury their dead in Newport.
German and Polish Immigrants
A wave of Jews fleeing economic chaos and political oppression in Poland and Germany started arriving in New England around 1840. Jews had been barred from most trades and professions and young Jews had to overcome steep obstacles in order to marry.
By 1852, a thousand German and Polish Jews arrived in Boston, a tiny part of the massive wave of immigrants from Ireland. They established the Ohabei Shalom congregation and created a cemetery in East Boston in 1844.
In 1852, Ohabei Shalom built a modest frame temple on Warrenton Street in what is now the city’s Theater District. As they prospered, they moved to Roxbury and Brookline and to the large, bowfront homes in the Upper South End.
The Jewish population then grew steadily until the 1880s, when it began to explode. Anti-Semitic persecution in Eastern Europe, primarily the Settlement of the Pale and Russia, sent waves of poor Jews to Boston and elsewhere in New England. They came first to the South End in Boston, then to the North End, East Boston and especially the West End.
By 1910, the West End had a Jewish population of 24,000. The South End had 8,000, East Boston 5,000, and between 3,000 and 5,500 in Lynn, Malden, Brockton and South Boston.
After a massive fire in East Boston in 1908, Jews began to move to the City of Chelsea, across the Mystic River from Boston. By 1915, half of Chelsea’s 18,000 residents were Jewish, giving the city the nickname, “Jerusalem of America.”
The Suburban Diaspora
Boston’s Jewish neighborhoods produced the art historian Bernard Berenson, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, actor Leonard Nimoy, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the Filene family, CBS owner Sumner Redstone and journalists Theodore White and Nat Hentoff.
As Boston’s Jewish immigrants succeeded, they built temples and formed social and philanthropic societies. They began moving north to towns like Marblehead and Swampscott. They also moved south to Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan along Blue Hill Avenue and west to Brookline and Newton.
A 13-year-old Jewish immigrant from the Pale, Mary Antin, arrived in Chelsea with her family in 1894. She graduated from Girls’ Latin School, went to college and became a popular writer and lecturer. At 31 she wrote a best-selling autobiography, The Promised Land, which described how education kept the American dream alive for her.
“In probably no other American sub-culture is so high a value placed upon learning and intellectuality, or upon helping of the poor by the rich and the weak by the strong,” wrote Lawrence Fuchs, American Studies scholar, about the Jewish people.
Boston’s many universities attracted Jewish scholars and intellectuals from other American cities, including Noam Chomsky, Felix Frankfurter, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Asimov and Norbert Wiener, who originated cybernetics.
King Charles Solomon found a different path to success. Solomon emigrated as a boy from Russia to the West End and then ran the city’s underworld as Boston’s answer to Al Capone.
Jewish Immigrants in Connecticut
Jewish immigrants who first landed in Boston and New York eventually began to migrate throughout New England.
During the Civil War, Connecticut had fewer than 1,500 Jews. But then, as in Boston, German Jews comprised the first wave of Jewish immigration. They took the steamboat up the Connecticut River from New York and settled in East Hartford. By 1843, they established the Beth Israel congregation. They worked as grocers, butchers, boarding house operators, shop owners, tailors and tobacconists. As they prospered, they moved to West Hartford.
In 1848, a German Jew named Gerson Fox started a dry goods store in Hartford. G. Fox then grew into the largest privately held – and perhaps the most beloved — department store in the United States.
Then came the wave of Eastern European Jews from Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Galicia. They crowded into Hartford’s East Side tenements. By 1910, Eastern European Jews outnumbered German Jews in Hartford by a margin of 5 to 1.
Politics and Show Biz
Two Jews had won election to the Hartford City Council in 1860, and from then on Connecticut Jews have found unusual success in politics. Russian immigrant Herman Koppleman, who first won election to the Hartford City Council in 1904, had a long career as political boss and U.S. Congressman. Connecticut has sent three Jews to the U.S. Senate: Abe Ribicoff, Joe Lieberman and Ralph Blumenthal – two more than any other New England state.
Hartford’s Jewish immigrants, like Phyllys and Lester Luntz, rose in the professions. They wrote the first forensic dentistry textbook, and their son Frank became a prominent Republican political consultant. Hartford has also produced comediennes Totie Fields and Sophie Tucker.
By 1920, Hartford had a Jewish population of 16,000. Today, Greater Hartford has Connecticut’s largest Jewish population; in 2000 , about 33,000 Jews lived in the Greater Hartford.
New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury also have significant Jewish communities. After World War II, successful Jews like Arthur Miller and Joan Rivers began to move out of New York into Connecticut’s wealthy towns and suburbs.
Another leading Jewish family arrived in another Puritan capital in 1758. Jacob and Solomon Pinto became prominent citizens and Jacob’s three sons all fought in the Continental Army. But it wasn’t until the 1840s that groups of Jews — again from Germany — began to settle in New Haven. The first congregation in 1843, Mishkan Israel, used a $5,000 bequest from Judah Touro to turn a building into a synagogue in 1854.
The influx of Russian Jews began in 1882, reaching 8,000 by the turn of the century. Pogroms accelerated the flow of refugees and New Haven had 20,000 Jews by World War I.
Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner, had Latvian parents who came to New Haven in 1880s. Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw was born in New Haven to a Russian father and an Austrian mother. Today, many New Haven Jews live in the affluent Westville neighborhood.
Antisemitism threw a shadow over New Haven Jews as it did throughout New England; Yale University had a quota on Jewish admissions that lasted until the 1960s, argues Dan Oren, a 1979 Yale graduate.
Today, Yale has a Jewish president and many affiliated Jewish organizations.
Bridgeport and Waterbury
Bridgeport’s main influx of Jewish immigrants began in 1881, with Russian, Polish and Hungarian Jews, as well as Hungarian non-Jews. In 1915, the Bridgeport Evening Farmer quoted the Rev. Stephen F. Chernitzky saying “Bridgeport is the largest Hungarian city in America…here in Bridgeport, one out of every ten men is Hungarian.”
Edwin Land, the son of a Bridgeport scrap metal dealer from Eastern Europe, invented instant photography in Cambridge, Mass., after dropping out of Harvard.
The first wave of Jews to Waterbury came from Germany. In 1872, the first Jewish congregation formed with 40 Jewish families. About 9,000 Eastern European Jews had arrived in Waterbury by the early 20th century.
Photographer Annie Leibovitz was born in 1949 in Waterbury, Conn., the granddaughter of Romanian Jews. “I’m not a practicing Jew, but I feel very Jewish,” she once said.
In nearby Naugatuck, a grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants named Adrian Greenburg worked in his parents’ hat shop as a boy. He became Adrian, the Hollywood costume designer who created Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Undoubtedly sensitive to anti-Semitism, he identified himself as “a New Englander.”
Jewish Farmers of Connecticut
When growing antisemitism forced Jews out of the Pale beginning around 1880, millions of Jewish immigrants arrived in New York City.
Jewish relief societies in the United States then tried to help them. In 1889, a wealthy German Jewish banker named Baron Maurice de Hirsch donated $2.4 million for resettling Russian Jews in the United States. The Jewish Agricultural Society in New York and the Baron de Hirsch Fund gave Jewish farmers small loans to establish farms.
Jews who wanted out of the crowded tenements of New York’s Lower East Side could buy farms for cheap in such Connecticut towns as Newtown, East Haddam, Norwich and Colchester. Yankee farmers had found the land too difficult to farm profitably and put their land up for sale. The Jews who bought them also bought into backbreaking work that they supplemented with part time jobs in light industry.
But by 1928, the Jewish Agricultural Society estimated 1,000 Jewish farms and 5,000 Jewish farm families lived in Connecticut.
Alphonsine and Jacques Makowsky fled Germany and then settled on a poultry farm in northeastern Connecticut, where they developed the Cornish game hen. The Makowskys then sold as many as 3,000 a day to New York restaurants like the 21 Club.
Rhode Island’s Jewish Immigrants
In 1838, a Dutch clothing merchant named Solomon Pareira settled in Providence, laying the groundwork for the Jewish community along Weybosset Neck. By 1849, they had a cemetery and by 1855, a congregation.
By 1877 Jews from Eastern Europe began to arrive in the Providence-Pawtucket area. They came to escape Russian pogroms and restrictive laws. By 1900, 1600 Jews settled in the area, clustering in the city’s North End and South Providence.
S.J. Perelman’s Russian Jewish parents brought their only son from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Smith Hill in Providence. His father ran a dry goods store and raised chickens. Perelman grew up to become one of the funniest essayists of the 20th century—despite dropping out of Brown. Ira Rakatansky, Rhode Island’s most famous modernist architect, was born in Providence in 1919 of Russian emigré parents.
Jews also moved to Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Westerly, Bristol and West Warwick. Newport’s Jewish population rebounded in the late 19th century.
Rhode Island’s Jewish community continued to grow until World War I, and then immigration restrictions stopped the flow of newcomers from Eastern Europe.
Northern New England
By the Civil War, Portland and Bangor had small Jewish communities. Portland had 3,000 Jews by 1920. Today Greater Portland’s Jewish population numbers about 6,500.
Bangor had a congregation of German Jews founded in 1849, but they either left Maine or assimilated. Polish and Lithuanian Jews arrived in the late 19th century and organized Congregation Beth Israel in 1888. It is still operating.
Jewish peddlers from New York and Boston first came to Vermont selling goods to quarry workers around Rutland. Lithuanian Jews came to Burlington in the 1880s, forming a community called Little Jerusalem. Then in 1885, they established the Ohave Zedek synagogue in Burlington.
The New Deal
President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought so many Jewish intellectuals into his administration that people vilified the New Deal as the “Jew Deal.” Roosevelt said he wanted people around him who understood living in a tenement, and he liked them to have brains and ambition. He didn’t care that they were Jewish.
Many of Roosevelt’s Jewish New Dealers came from New England. Louis Brandeis, though appointed to the Supreme Court by Woodrow Wilson, had a vision of a just society. It included strong First Amendment rights, the right to privacy, corporate transparency, consumer protection and fair wages. Roosevelt adopted many of his ideas.
Though born in Kentucky, Brandeis spent much of his adult life in Massachusetts after graduating from Harvard Law School at 20. He practiced law in Boston for many years. Known as the people’s lawyer, he was considered the finest, fairest and most incorruptible judges on the high court. Seven years after his death, the Jewish community founded Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Boston’s Filene brothers, Edward and Lincoln, strongly supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, unlike most other businesspeople who viewed him as too radical. Louis Kirstein, a vice president and part owner of Filene’s, also backed Roosevelt and served in several New Deal agencies
Charles Wyzanski, Jr., served as solicitor in FDR’s Labor Department and David Wise as a behind-the-scenes political operative who later served in the Roosevelt administration. Both were born in Boston.
Isador Lubin, an economist who belonged to Roosevelt’s brain trust, was born in Worcester, Mass., and graduated from Clark University.
Post World War II
New England’s Jewish immigrants and their descendants formed many charities. During World War II, Jewish aid societies helped resettled Jews from Germany. The Jewish Family and Children’s Service brought Stephan Ross, a Polish Holocaust survivor, to Boston as a boy. When he grew up, he spearheaded the creation of the New England Holocaust Memorial.
In 1956 Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser began expelling Jews from Egypt, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society brought about 60 Jewish families from Egypt to Boston.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Boston Refugee Committee and Jewish Family and Children’s Services helped resettle some 10,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Most arrived in Greater Boston after 1985.
Jewish New England
Today, Jews comprise about 4 percent of Massachusetts’ population, exceeded only by New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Somewhere between 208,000 and 260,000 Jews live in Greater Boston, the seventh most Jewish metropolis in the United States.
The National Yiddish Book Center is located in Amherst, Mass., and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline. Massachusetts also produces such Jewish publications as the Jewish Advocate, in Boston; the Metro-West Jewish Reporter; the Jewish Journal/North of Boston; the Jewish Chronicle, in Worcester; and the national monthly Sh’ma, published by Jewish Family and Life in Newton.
Connecticut ranks behind Massachusetts in New England with a population that’s 3.3 percent Jewish, followed by Rhode Island (1.8 percent). Jews make up about 1 percent of Maine and Vermont. New Hampshire brings up the rear, with a Jewish population of .8 percent.
This story was updated in 2023.