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TBS Detailed History

By: Florence Schumacher, Archives Committee Chair 

The history of Temple Beth Shalom reflects the growth of the Jewish population in Needham, as the Temple was the first Jewish organization formed in town. This history is not long – just over one hundred years. The earliest Jewish settlers in Needham laid the groundwork between 1897 and 1955 to establish what has become the large, Reform Temple that celebrated its Jubilee Year – the 50th anniversary– in 2005. 

The early pioneers sought a place to practice Judaism, to pray, to celebrate Jewish holidays together and to give their children a Jewish education. They chose to become affiliated with the Reform movement in 1955, and the organization grew steadily. Temple Beth Shalom now has 725 families as members. 

There were three major periods of development in the history of Temple Beth Shalom and the Jews in Needham: the pioneers who laid the groundwork for a Reform congregation, the first 25 years that established Temple Beth Shalom as a Reform congregation and the Temple’s growth to maturity and national recognition in the second 25 years, that culminated in the Jubilee celebration of 2005. 

Pioneers laid the groundwork to establish a Reform Jewish temple in Needham, from 1897-1954. 
The first Jews in Needham were David and Elizabeth Simon, who arrived in 1897. Simon Hall, the main hall at Temple Beth Shalom, is named after them. They were joined by other pioneers, often relatives, the families of Sam and Meyer Rosenblatt (brothers of Elizabeth Simon), and David Cohen in 1900. These families had come originally from Europe and were living in the West End of Boston, before coming to Needham to seek a better life. Samuel Jacobs (David Cohen’s cousin) came in 1904 from Newton, and Philip Gordon (whose wife, Ida, was David Simon’s sister) arrived from New York in 1908. Philip came to Needham because he had a heart problem and wanted to be in the fresh air of the Needham countryside. 

These first five Jewish families joined together to celebrate Jewish holidays as early as 1910. They imported a rabbi from the West End, where a large Jewish population lived, to tutor their children at home and to prepare them for their b’nai mitzvah. The itinerant rabbi would live for a week at a time at the home of each of the Jewish residents. In the 1920s these families joined with the ten Jewish families in Wellesley, and they held High Holiday services in the Wellesley Town Hall. 

The Jewish population in Needham grew slowly, so that by 1945 there were only 18 Jewish families. The new residents included the Perlins (David Simon’s daughter) who established a successful retail store in town, the Siegels who lived on Central Avenue and had a junk business, the Grinspoons and Aronies, who raised horses and chickens, and the Minkovitz, Sisson and Meyer White families. 

On October 17, 1945, these 18 Jewish families established the Needham Jewish Community Group, the forerunner of Temple Beth Shalom, “to meet their religious, cultural, educational and social needs.” Mrs. Meyer White was the first Chair and Meyer Gordon the first president. Religion alone was never the sole motivating force for these Jews to organize. The Group was more of a social club, meeting monthly at the American Legion Hall. But one of its first activities was a Hanukah party for the children. 

The Jewish population continued to grow slowly. This was largely because it was made clear to many Jews who wanted to move to Needham that they should consider other communities. Those who did eventually settle here in the 1950s lived primarily in the Wayne Road area near Pine Grove. This was the only area in town where realtors would show homes to potential Jewish buyers. Also, during this time, Jewish families found a developer, Lee Petrini, who welcomed them unconditionally. Many Temple members who joined in the 1950s and 1960s recalled the prejudice they experienced. 

The 1950s 

By 1950 there were 50 Jewish families. Jewish education was a priority for them, so a Hebrew School was established for 14 children. Mary Sacks was chairwoman, and the group met on Sundays in the American Legion Hall and later during the week in a private home. Tuition was $25 per child. 

The Temple’s newsletter, the Scroll, began in 1953 as a communication vehicle with the growing Jewish community. These early copies of the Scroll provide the most important record of the Temple’s history to this day, as it is still the Temple’s newsletter. 

The first High Holiday services were held in 1953 with Hillel Gameron, a rabbinical student, conducting the services at the First Parish Church in Needham. Members of that first religious committee who planned these services included Harold Shufro and Norton Goldstein. Both, along with their wives, Eleanor and Faire, have remained members of the congregation. There was even a choir, trained by Cantor Alfred Rosbash of Temple Ohabai Shalom of Brookline, including Harold and his brother, Harmon Shufro, who later became the cantor. Temple Shalom of Newton lent the torah. Services continued in area churches until the first building was completed. 

In 1954 the Needham Jewish Community Center (NJCC) was incorporated to expand the activities of the Needham Jewish Community Group and to work more closely with other Jewish religious organizations locally and nationally. The new group voted to become a Reform congregation, and in May 1955 it joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregation (today the Union for Reform Judaism). This major decision was a close vote since the members included people who were also of Conservative and Orthodox beliefs. 

In its first 25 Years as a Reform congregation, from 1955 – 1980, the new temple became established as a Needham institution. 
The visionary early Jews in Needham laid the foundation for Temple Beth Shalom – literally and figuratively. By 1955 there were 60 members of the NJCC. They had established a Building Fund in 1951, and began the process of acquiring land so that by 1959 the first building became a reality at the current location on Highland and Webster Street. The NJCC recognized the importance of having its own building to house its religious services and education programs. During this period, the temple entered a rapid growth phase. 

A new stage was reached in 1955 when Rabbi Herbert Yarrish was hired as the first of several part time rabbis and Harmon Shufro became the first cantor. 

The first torah at the temple, donated by Louis Siegel, came from an old congregation in Baltimore that was closing. A congregant brought it by train to Needham. It was consecrated in 1955. In 1970, the Temple received two more torahs thanks to the legal work of former president, Norton Goldstein, in helping to close an old shul in Boston. 

In 1955 the land at Webster and Highland was purchased to build the Temple for $10,000. The major goal at this time was to build a permanent home for the Temple. Many fundraising activities took place, even auctioning off a car; and a membership fee charging all members the same amount was introduced to give the temple a steady financial footing. All members were assessed $300 for the Building Fund. Herb Landy was head of the Building Fund at that time and solicited contributions from all the temple members and businesses in the community. 

Even before there was a building, the NJCC held services and educated the children, meeting in homes and area churches. In 1956 they held the first consecration and 45 children participated. 

In 1957 the NJCC was renamed Temple Beth Shalom. A period of rapid growth came in 1958 with Temple membership increasing from 86 to 180 in one year. Mr. & Mrs. Meyer Gordon headed the Temple membership committee and recruited all the new Jewish families who were moving to Needham to join. 

1958 was a key date for Temple Beth Shalom. To accommodate this growing membership, in 1958, Rabbi Albert Yanow became the first full time spiritual leader. He served until 1961. 

The first Temple Beth Shalom member to become a bar mitzvah was Edward M. Appel, on September 20, 1957 at the First Parish Church of Needham. 

On November 30, 1958 ground was broken for the new building which cost $120,000. The dedication weekend beginning October 16, 1959 was a big celebration for Needham’s Jewish community. Over 300 people attended the dedication services on Friday night. The torahs were brought, in procession, into the sanctuary. Both the Eternal Light and Menorah were lit. On Saturday morning 200 children attended a service and that evening a celebratory dance was held. The cornerstone of the building included a time capsule that was formally laid on Sunday afternoon in the presence of many local clergy and political representatives. The weekend concluded with a banquet on Sunday evening. The time capsule that was sealed in 1959 was opened at the 50th Anniversary celebration. 

The facility included only a single room that served as a sanctuary, social hall and classroom. This room was named Simon Hall acknowledging a $5,000 donation from Philip and Rose Simon in honor of their parents, the first Jews in Needham. During the 2005 renovation, this room again became the sanctuary as well as a social hall. 

In 1959 when the building opened, there were 132 students in the religious school. During the year, the congregation celebrated four b’nei mitzvah -- four boys. By the 2011-12 school year, nearly 500 students were enrolled in the religious school. The congregation celebrated 63 b’nei mitzvah in 2011-12, including 25 girls as both boys and girls are now are honored to read and teach from the torah. 

The temple membership continued to grow rapidly, so that by 1962 there were 201 members, over half of all the Jews living in Needham. The Temple clergy and members became an active part of the Needham community, serving on various town committees. No Jews ran for town-wide office, but some were elected as town meeting members. Today members of the Jewish community have taken an active role as town leaders, and two Temple members, Jerry Wasserman of blessed memory and John Bulian, were elected to the Needham Board of Selectmen. Many others serve on town committees and as town meeting members. 

The Temple expanded its social and cultural activities early on. A Woman’s Group that started in 1957 evolved to the temple Sisterhood in 1959. The Sisterhood continues to thrive as a vibrant community with 240 members, women of several generations. Among the many other ways the Sisterhood supports the Temple are by sponsoring the Oneg Shabbat after Friday night services, the Purim Carnival and the Congregational Seder, as well as programs on issues about women and families. It also holds an annual Spirituality Retreat for members as well as social events. The Sisterhood serves the Greater Needham community by hosting an annual luncheon with entertainment for seniors. 

The Brotherhood began in 1959, with Sumner Hoffman as the first president, growing out of an earlier Men’s Club at the Temple. Some presidents of Brotherhood went on to become Temple presidents. The Brotherhood, too, is active in the community, with activities such as its Red Cross Blood Drive, which has held more than 50 years of blood collections. 

A Garden Club began in 1957, and it has developed into a highly accomplished group of Temple members and non members who are often recognized for their winning designs and horticulture in major flower shows. Several members are judges or on the board of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts and the National Garden Club. 

Beth Shalom Garden Club creates beautiful flower arrangements each week for the Shabbat Service as well as for holidays and special events, and decorates the Sukkah. The Garden Club also does community service by doing the plantings for the Needham Vietnam Memorial each year and the flowers for the Distinguished Career Award Luncheon at Needham High School as well as projects for Rosie’s Place in Boston and community nursing homes. 

The 1960s: Rabbi Daniel Lee Kaplan 
Rabbi Kaplan succeeded Rabbi Yarrow in 1962 as the second full time rabbi and served until 1970; he presided over a major growth of membership. During his tenure the Temple continued to develop its educational programs, including another building project to create a separate space for classrooms and a sanctuary to meet the needs of the growing congregation. The dedication weekend in 1965 was another celebration of the Temple’s growth. 

Groundbreaking for the new wing was in the fall of 1963, and it was dedicated during the weekend of April 30, 1965. The Ark was dedicated to both to Ida and Philip Gordon, one of the first Jewish families in Needham and parents of Meyer Gordon, and to the parents of his wife, Edith. A mural was commissioned from Canadian artist Ronald Satok (the nephew of a member) to adorn the ark, and the artist came to the dedication. 

The focus on Jewish education began at the nursery school level. A Temple nursery school was established in 1964 led by Paulyne Raemer. Today the Children’s Center of TBS is a major provider of services to young children in the community and had 72 students enrolled in 2010-11. 

Temple Beth Shalom served more than religious needs for its members during the 1960s for both adult members and their children. It offered many social and community activities. The Temple sponsored an interfaith Boys Scout Group and a boys’ basketball team, neither of which exist today. 

Today young members in grades 9 through 12 participate in BESTY, the Temple’s chapter of North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). Through informal social and educational activities, the group provides an opportunity for teens to pursue their interest and questions about Judaism. There also is a Junior Youth Group for young people in grades 7 and 9. 

By 1964, there were 450 Jewish families in Needham. Temple Beth Shalom had 271 members, about 60% of the Jewish population. The Temple was not meeting the needs of all the Jewish families in Needham, especially those who were more comfortable with the more traditional observances of the Conservative movement. So in December 1964, a new Conservative congregation in Needham, Temple Aliyah, was formed. In 1966, Temple Aliyah purchased an old farmhouse on Central Avenue for its new home, which was expanded in 1971 and again in 1993. Today Temple Aliyah, led by Rabbi Carl Perkins, has grown to 420 family and single members. 

The 1970s: Rabbi Rievan W. Slavkin 
Rabbi Slavkin served from 1970 -1980. He applied the Reform principle of equality to the temple’s religious education, making the requirements for becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah equal to one another. He also emphasized the Reform movement’s commitment to regain some rituals from traditional Judaism. These changes in Reform movement would continue in the 2000s. 

From its earliest days, Temple members produced plays and musicals as fundraisers and as a social and creative outlet. As early as 1956, the Needham Jewish Community Group put on John Loves Mary followed in 1957 by George Washington Slept Here, in 1963 by Curtain Goes Up, with its famous chorus line, and Damn Yankees in the 1970s to name just a few of the productions. After an absence of about 30 years, the musical returned in 2005 with the performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat during the Jubi- lee celebration, led by co-producer Michael Bailit. In 2008 this was followed by a rousing production of The Music Man. In 2012 the Temple produced Fiddler on the Roof and in 2018 Damn Yankees again. 

By 1979 Temple membership had increased to 400. The Temple celebrated its 25th anniversary on the weekend of November 1-3 with a gala dinner dance. Sheldon and Joan Bycoff, new members at that time, co-chaired the celebration with Seymour and Mary Sacks. 

In its first 25 years as a Reform congregation, Temple Beth Shalom developed from a vision to a reality, to become an established congregation, well regarded and integrated into the Needham community. In its sec- ond 25 years, from 1980–2005, Temple Beth Shalom grew to maturity and national recognition. 

The 1980s and 1990s: Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
Rabbi Sonsino, a native of Turkey, came to Temple Beth Shalom in 1980 after being associate rabbi at a temple in Skokie, Illinois. He served for 23 years until 2003, and upon his retirement, he became the first Rabbi Emeritus. His long tenure and great energy led to a major expansion in all aspects of temple life. During this period, Temple Beth Shalom became recognized nationally as a leading Reform congregation. 

Music is a central part of the Reform Temple’s service. From 1998 to 2005 Cantor Lori Salzman was the full-time cantor at Temple Beth Shalom. The Temple organist, Joe Policelli, has played at services for over 35 years. In 2010, Marcie Jonas became our Temple's Cantor.  Emily Perlman serves as our cantorial soloist. 

In addition to worship, Temple Beth Shalom offers many religious, cultural and educational programs. Rabbi Sonsino introduced many of these during his tenure. 

With an increasingly diverse membership and growth of interfaith family members, Rabbi Sonsino formed an Interfaith Group at the Temple. Today Temple Beth Shalom’s commitment to welcoming and integrating a diversity of Jews and their families - interfaith and inter-racial couples and families, new Jews and seekers, Jews of color, gay and lesbian individuals and families, single adults and blended families is part of our daily operation. Through education and programs, Temple Beth Shalom strives to welcome and educate new Jews-by-choice and those investigating Judaism and welcomes interfaith families to take part in synagogue life, to learn more about Judaism, and to raise their children as Jews. 

One of the many new programs Rabbi Sonsino introduced was an annual family Passover seder. Temple families came together on the second night of Passover to celebrate the holiday, and other Needham clergy also attended this traditional feast. 

Rabbi Sonino also introduced a Twenty Thirty Something Group and a group for singles over 50 called B’Yachad so Jewish singles of all ages could meet. Rabbi Sonsino also expanded educational programs from preschool children to bar/bat mistzvah students to those wanting to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah as adults. Other programs that Rabbi Sonsino introduced included an annual adult educational retreat, called a Kallah, held over a weekend at a hotel resort. 

During the 1980s the temple matured and enjoyed stability. Sheldon Bycoff helped to improve the Temple’s administration during his presidency in 1987-1988. The first full-time administrator was hired in addition to a full-time cantor, and the education staff gained the first full-time religious school principal. 

With the continuing growth of the Temple in the 1980s, the building needed to change again. The 1991 project led the temple to a leadership role in making a synogogue handicap accessible. 

Rabbi Sonsino helped to make Temple Beth Shalom recognized nationally. He became active and well known in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and other members of the temple also rose to leadership positions in the organization. A prolific author, Rabbi Sonsino wrote several books including Finding God in 1986 with Rabbi Daniel Syme, What Happens After I Die, Six Spiritual Paths and The Many Faces of God. 

Rabbi Sonsino retired and became rabbi emeritus in June, 2003. Under his leadership, Temple Beth Shalom grew to 550 families, a growth of 37% in the second 25 years as a Reform congregation. 

Thriving in the 21st Century 
In 2003 Rabbi Jay Perlman became the fifth full-time rabbi at TBS. A native of Malden, MA, he came to Needham after seven years as assistant rabbi at a large congregation in St. Louis. The young rabbi came to a Temple that was well established and ready to go from “strength to strength.” In his first year, the temple saw an increase of 44 families to 600 households, 10 times as many members as in 1955, when the temple became a Reform Congregation.  Today, Temple Beth Shalom has grown to 822 families.

Rabbi Perlman has worked closely with both the professional and lay leadership to revise the Temple’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah program and the post Bar/Bat Mitzvah program for youth, to redesign the sanctuary, to complete a strategic planning process, to bring a Youth Educator to the professional staff, and to help the congregation focus on becoming an even more caring community. Shabbat morning torah study programs draw large crowds of adults and students. 

As the Temple embarked on its Jubilee Year, it undertook still another building renovation in October, 2004. Richard Luskin came back to co-chair another Building Committee, with Roger Ambuter. The renovations to the sanctuary and lower level were completed in 2005, ensuring that the Temple will thrive in the 21st century. 

In 2006, the Temple’s growth led to the hiring of its first assistant rabbi, Todd Markley, now co-senior rabbi. Also, Rabbi Michele Lenke joined the temple as the Renaissance Rabbi Educator. Today the temple has an excellent team of professionals. More options for worship are now available. Services begin twice a month at 7:15 with an Oneg Shabbat following the service and at 6:15 with a pre-Oneg twice a month. Once a month at the 6:15 service, there is a Simcha Shabbat family service with babysitting for younger children. A new, monthly contemplative service is also offered. The increase in membership also has led to a second location for High Holiday services at the Rashi School in Dedham..

The educational programs were re-envisioned and revised. The religious school closed and a new approach to elementary learning, called Mayim (grades K-5), was launched in the fall of 2012. A new program for teens (grades 8 -12) was launched in 2014, and a new program for preteens (grades 6-7) in 2016, both now called Etzim (grades 6-12). Early childhood education was expanded to include a full-day, year-round program within the Children's Center, as well as Bumps, Babies, and Beyond, which began in 2014. Staffing changes were made to support these newly revised programs. Rachel Happel assumed the role of Director of K-12 Learning in 2013 and Rabbi Jordi Battis assumed the role of Director of K-12 Curriculum in 2014.

For his work in leading the Mayim program, Rabbi Todd Markley in 2013 received the prestigious Pomegranate Prize from the Covenant Foundation, awarded to five promising young Jewish educators in the United States.

Other new or expanded directions at the temple in recent years include:

  • Becoming an even more caring community with an enhanced Chesed committee that provides support to members in poor health or in need.

  • A new group of connectors who have been trained to reach out to members who are not yet actively involved in temple life.

  • A Shomrei adamant effort, or concern for the environment, which is trying to reduce the temple's carbon footprint.

  • An Increased focus on Israel, with Rabbi Perlman leading congregant trips to Israel every other year and a revitalized Israel/Arza Committee that promotes congregational engagement with Israel.

  • A "Knitting Mavens" group has been hand-knitting Hats for Israeli Soldiers since 2012. In December 2014, Rabbi Jay Perlman and members of our congregation delivered 118 hats to the Israeli founder of the program during TBS's trip to Israel. The hats provide warmth and emotional support to soldiers. Another 118 hats are being created for 2016.

  • A social justice committee that addresses community concerns that keep members awake at night. A food collection is held each year during the High Holidays.

  • A "Three Score and More" group geared specifically towards members of our temple family who are age 60 and up.

The Temple's continued growth made the building inadequate. A new Mikdash (sacred space) project began in 2012, led by former presidents, Beth Pinals and Rich Luskin, with elaborate involvement of the entire temple community. The process led to a vision of a complete redesign and expansion of the temple, except for the sanctuary, which was updated in 2005. Construction began in the fall of 2015 and was completed in the fall of 2016.

Led by co-chairs Jason Chudnofsky, Louis Grossman and Steve Snyder, the Mikdash Campaign has raised more for this $11.5 million campaign than any previous building project.

After a year of building and renovation, the expanded temple was completed by September 2016, right on schedule. During the challenging year "in the wilderness" while construction continued, temple clergy, staff and members showed resilience and worked hard to keep temple life vibrant.

Dedication took place on the September 9-11th weekend, as members celebrated the beautiful new building. A time capsule with 52 items was inserted in the wall of the Chesed Room to be opened in 2055, the 100th anniversary of the temple becoming a Reform congregation.

In 2019 Rabbi Julie Bressler joined the temple as assistant rabbi after earning her ordination from Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles from which she also earned a Master Of Arts in Education in 2017.

Perhaps the best testimony to the success of Temple Beth Shalom is that more than 50 families are now second generation members. In 2007 Jonathan Kappel became the Temple's first second generation president. Since then, David Grebber (2009), Michael Bailit (2012-14) and Jeff Shapiro (2018-20) also became second generation presidents. These members grew up in the Temple, and now they have joined with their own families to continue to pass the legacy of Judaism from generation to generation at Temple Beth Shalom.

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