Concord Oral History Program
Interviewed by Renee Garrelick
Dedication of Kerem Shalom, Concord's first synagogue, Sept. 17, 1989
Building of the synagogue, "Vineyard of Peace"
Beginnings and growth of the Concord area Jewish community
Holocaust Memorial program
Town response to dedication- procession from First Parish Church through town, support from residents and other churches
Need for and building of the synagogue
Organization and development of the Concord Area Jewish Group:
First service at 51 Walden
Contribution of Brandeis University- Rabbi Alert Axelrad
Introduction of Holocaust Memorial Program
Reconstructionism in Judaism
Dedication and Beginnings of Kerem Shalom, which means Vineyard of Peace, Concord's first synagogue
Phyllis Keimach - September 17, 1989 was an extraordinary day for many people. On a very personal level, I think it was the combination of emotionally the feelings that I had around my wedding, the birth of my children, every family milestone that I had recalled, the emotions just seemed to flow together to that day, and it was a glorious day. The official ceremonies started in the First Parish Church. I think the gathering of all those people, all of us, so many Jews in one place in Concord to celebrate the birth of a new stage in the Jewish community was such an exhilarating experience. The sound of all those people and the klezmer music is imprinted permanently as the most glorious memory of our life in Concord. After we had marched and the torah had passed from hand to hand and group to group along the way from First Parish to Kerem Shalom down Elm Street, I had the privilege of then carrying it into the building. It's an unforgettable event and I can't help but just glow for my own personal piece in that, but also the fullness of the moment that was so inclusive with people we had shared so many of these steps along the way and we had all arrived at the same time at the same place.
Michael Luckens - I was struck when you compared this to some of the major points in your life such as your wedding and the birth of your children. What struck me about the wedding is of course the wedding of a couple takes place under a canopy, the hippo, and the two of you, Mel and Phyllis, were protected by this time of transition by the kind of canopy of tradition that surrounded you, and of course, outside of the canopy the other layers of people who existed and exist as your family and your extended family, your community of friends and people with whom we all share our lives. Of course on that beautiful sunny day in September, thank goodness it was sunny, that torah was protected by the hippo, the same hippo that protects couples who are making a commitment to each other in the name of the Jewish tradition. The torah was covered by the hippo, the four corners of the hippo were upheld by poles, and each of the poles was held by youngsters from our community, all who had become Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the last eight or ten years. So the youth of our community have held the hippo which had under it the ancient words of the torah, and surrounded by all of us as we walked through the streets. Imagine walking through the streets of Concord with the torah, and as one would dance at the wedding of a bride and groom, dancing in a sense with the torah through the streets of Concord. I remember so clearly people from the First Parish wishing us well, and we passed the Episcopal Church and people there with banners and with signs and the kids in their Sunday school had made signs and some of them waved and wished us well. Signs with Shalom and with Hebrew words, and some of them wished us well and then joined in the parade like people in the First Parish and people from Trinitarian joined in the parade, and so as you said, Phyllis, it was this collection of folks who had all touched us in various ways through our history with whom we had shared space, with whom we had shared ideas and meetings, with whom we had shared life events now sharing our life event and our new birth. It was incredible!
Mel Keimach - It was an exciting day for me because as I was marching I became aware of all the support of people on the sidelines at the church and people on the steps of the court house. I was in the middle of the procession so I could see up ahead and I could look behind and I was just overwhelmed with the numbers of people that were there, both Jewish and non-Jewish. When we approached the synagogue and I saw the hundreds of people that were already there and we were still streaming in, it was just unbelievable for me. I marched in this procession with my mother who is 80 years old and realized that four generations of our family were there, Phyllis and I, my mother, my sons and their spouses, and our grandchildren. It was just a wonderful, exciting day. I kept trying to impress upon myself and my kids that this is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of a dedication of a synagogue. I had become aware of something like that when we were looking for an architect to design the synagogue and realized that we were interviewing architects that very seldom have the opportunity to design a synagogue because they do not open great quantities, so the architect had a once in a lifetime experience to do a synagogue, that kind of stayed with me.
I was involved right from the very beginning with the selection of the architect and then working with the architect and going through the construction process, looking for a general contractor, and then being involved and just kind of overseeing what was happening during the construction, then becoming the shammes of the building. So besides marching in the procession, I was wondering how the building was going to work, and chairs and all those things, and it really worked beautifully and it has since. Michael Rosenfeld was the architect of this wonderful building. Still being the shammes of the building, I just absolutely marvel at his concept, design, and the practicalities that he put into the building, no matter what we do here, the building works for us. If we have 500 people at a service, or we are having a wedding or a Bat Mitzvah or a celebration, the building has just worked beautifully.
One of the goals of having a building was to open it up to the community. This was something which we got from the First Parish. We admired how the First Parish is open to the community and that was one of our stated goals, this building should be for the community the same way the First Parish is. We've been able to do that.
ML - The procession started from the First Parish because we had lived there for about 9 or 10 years. They were generous enough to open their space and permit us to have our school there and to have our services there. We got along quite well and they were always very open and inviting, and not only that they participated in many things we did. To the extent that when we came here to Kerem Shalom and invited them to come along to some of our programs and services, many of the members who were used to our high holiday services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur made it a point to come along. Every year at these services I take a look out at the people who are there with me and I always see familiar faces from the First Parish. As they made us feel like family, we have tried as Mel said be open to all groups and communities here and those who grew up with us at the First Parish still feel as though they are part of the family in a spiritual way.
PK - As to the name, I think there was a committee appointed to gather a list of names perhaps in that process finding a name or combination of words that would be unique and be very significant for us, and not be repetitious of any number of other synagogues in the greater Boston area or elsewhere and easy to pronounce and to spell because we knew that others outside the Jewish community would have difficulty with pronunciation. That was a major concern, the significance of the words and the facility for others to be able to say those words. It means vineyard of peace. I think shalom was a key word for many of the people who really were involved in the name selection, and there are lots of synagogues with shalom in the name. In the end I think we were presented with three names to chose from.
ML - I think one was Neveh Shalom. The word kerem, vineyard, connects with the agricultural roots of Concord or at least the vineyards.
PK - The Concord grape and all of that. Somehow it seemed to have resonance for this place in Concord and then just by chance, the day before as we were arranging flowers on Saturday for the Sunday dedication, Don Sturtz went outside to gather some leaves or branches and very soon came in so excited to have found a grapevine out back.
MK - It was winding itself all around a tree, Concord grapes, so it all came together.
ML - Jewish would be the best answer to what is the denomination, and that is not a flip answer. We don't define ourselves in a denominational sense because we want to see ourselves and have others see us as being broader than a narrow definition. So we invite people to come and to experience the spiritual and intellectual and other pieces of what it is we have to offer, who it is we are, and they can then judge for themselves where that fits in on whatever scale they happen to have, but we prefer not to have people perhaps prejudge based on some idea that they may have about what reform, conservative, or reconstructionist, or orthodox might mean. In general though, we tend to be on the liberal side of the Jewish spectrum, but with a very good strong nod toward tradition. Our services tend to include a lot of joyous Hebrew singing and yet our philosophy tends to mix the traditional Jewish with the contemporary North American, so the balance varies depending upon who you are, but it seems to be a comfortable mix for the people who are part of the community.
Rosalie Gerut is our cantor. She is quite a talented and spirited song leader, cantor, personality. She has a very rich background. She was the child of survivors of the holocaust, she grew up with yiddish, while if not her primary is at least her secondary language, embued with the richness of eastern European Jewish culture and with the richness of those traditions and has brought a lot of that spirit to us. Between that background and her wonderful voice, we've been very lucky to have that match enrich our services.
PK - At the time of the dedication, we had about 110 families as members.
MK - The timing was right to have a separate identity and the number of families had increased that there seemed to be a general feeling the it was time to start looking for a place of our own. The board knew we were taxing the First Parish to the limits with our school and the group was growing, and we felt if future growth was to continue, we would have to have facilities for that growth. So we started to talk about it and then started a search for a piece of land. Affordable land was scarce in Concord so there was the possibility of buying a property with a building on it. All the possibilities were explored keeping in mind that it had to be within a certain budget constraint. When this piece of land was considered, there was mixed feelings about it. It is right on Route 2 between Route 2 and Elm Street, right across the street from a gas station, across from Howard Johnson, it was wet and marshy, it was flood plain. I'm perhaps giving all the negatives because Phyllis and I both strongly opposed this piece of land. But the majority of the group felt that it could be done and so land was decided on. Once it was decided on, it had my full support, and the key was to choose an architect that could design a building that would fit into this piece of land with all of its problems. So it took a long time to get the land, to get it zoned properly, and get the land developed; it took about a year or maybe even longer. Of course during all that time, we were in the process of getting an architect and fund raising.
PK - Without fund raising, nothing would have happened. I think we started out estimating with the development of the land and building and the kinds of things we thought we would have to have, we were thinking about a million dollars. The reality hit eventually well over a million, something like $1,700,000.
MK - The difference in what it cost us and what we originally budgeted really was the development of the piece of land. We didn't anticipate the land would cost that much. But the building came within our budget.
PK - We had to pare down.
MK - We had to cut back considerably. On size, interior needs, so that if we go on, we have our needs fulfilled a little bit at a time. But we knew that coming in that we would have to make some trade offs, and we did.
We have members from Acton, Lincoln, Sudbury, Lexington, Newton, Burlington, Cambridge, Arlington, Stow, Harvard. It's really quite unique. I don't know how well memberships in other synagogues range, but I don't think they have our range pulling in from a lot of communities. People who come to us I think have needs that we can fulfill for them, whether its school, whether its rabbi, Michael, how he officiates at a service, whatever it is, the comraderie, the friendship that exudes from our group, it's here for them. I guess people in looking for a place to worship come a few times and see how they think they might fit in and if they can fit it and whether the group is closed or open, and I guess we've given the feeling that we're open to anybody and everybody. I know when I meet someone new, I don't ask them where they come from, they're here and they are part of our group and that's it. Later on as I look at our membership list I see a wide range of communities that people come from, I'm just amazed and pleased.
PK - When Mel and I first came to Concord in 1971, we had no idea whether there was any kind of a Jewish community. A year later we discovered there was a small group which considered itself sort of a small alternative and over the years from then until now, there are some of us who still feel that we have maintained certain strands of an alternative feel to this organized Jewish community. While we do many things that are traditional, we tend not to be at all rigid about how things are done, who is welcome and who is not, the sense of inclusively just is infinite, and I think maybe that whole concept is probably what is left of the alternative group. That while we are really acknowledging all the tradition, we're not bound by the tradition to certain rigid limits for anything, for programming, for services, for music. Michael has allowed us to stretch and encouraged us to stretch and reach and to be all the things that any of us would like to be.
MK - The original group that was here was called the Concord-Lincoln Study Group and that was before the Concord Area Jewish Group. As the number of different communities increased, we couldn't keep adding the different names so we decided on the name Concord Area.
PK - That group was organized solely for a small education program for the children. It had not to do with religious services, it had not to do with any adult social activity, it was somehow to provide some measure of education for the children.
ML - I guess it was not until about 1978 that we had our first high holiday services and they took place at 51 Walden. The school was at the Harvey Wheeler building. I remember so well those services. It was really quite a deal. I remember Clare and Rich Segall bringing their collection of plants for the service from their home and that became a tradition for the next few years, first to 51 Walden, which was a wonderful space. Then when we got in the church, more plants appeared and it became quite a nice tradition too.
Our first ever services in Concord was Rosh Hashanah.
PK - I recall the excitement was certainly not as intense but not totally dissimilar to the dedication. Here we were really acknowledging ourselves as a community of Jews in Concord. That was a long time in coming and in nurturing ourselves and our identity and to be walking through Concord center with Jewish prayer books on the high holidays was an incredible experience. Walking into 51 Walden with the Concord Players' newly renovated building and the floors were creaky and noisy, the chairs were not the most comfortable, but it was a synagogue. The magic of the community really making a synagogue out of this theater.
ML - We're not talking about ten Jews who showed up because you know there was a service advertised, but I mean the place was full. PK - Almost 200 people at that service.
ML - You looked around and you said, "Gee, this one is here, and that one is here." All of a sudden it was a schul and there was singing and it was wonderful to say Gut Yom Tov and Happy New Year and the people walking out with their prayer books and hymns. I remember that after the service we had challah and wine and sliced apples with honey to symbolize the wish for a new year. Then there is a tradition of taking some crumbs from the challah and throwing them into a little body of water that's called tashlich, you symbolically cast away your sins on the bridge and I remember all those people walking in back of 51 Walden to that little brook and people throwing the crumbs in and the birds and the ducks. It was fabulous.
PK - You know the weather of that day was the same as the dedication.
MK - I've never asked you but that was the first time you had been in Concord, your first high holiday service, how did you feel and what did you think?
ML - I don't think at that time I grasped the significance of it in the way that it was significant for the residents of Concord for whom this was a first and a tremendous phenomenon. For me as a rabbi, this was a new community with which I was working, these were high holiday services, yes these were the first high holiday services, but it wasn't until I really kind of lived with the community for a while that I began to appreciate the depth of feeling, the significance of what it was that I was a part of. So I don't think I appreciated that at the moment as much as I did later. Which is not to say that I didn't appreciate it at all because I was sensitive to that and I remember we had meetings in advance to talk about what prayer book and what this and that. It was a wonderful process.
PK - The selection of the prayer book was also because we wanted something that underscored our own sense of being an alternative group while still being centered on tradition, in a language that would be contemporary because a lot of us didn't read Hebrew and if we did, we didn't understand literally what it meant. I think now in retrospect, I'm not sure I was conscious of it at the time, there were mostly women on the committee who chose the prayer book with Michael's help. He was the one who knew who was publishing what book and he would bring them to us and we would go over them. That was a bit different from anything most of us had experienced, where men usually gather to make these decisions, and here it was a group of women, and most of us had come from some tradition that felt comfortable much of which felt inclusionary, that wasn't in touch with our experiences as first and second generation Americans so it was really a wonderful creation of our own. It really brought together people who had found other ways to celebrate the holidays in other places. Mel and I along with many other families had gone to Brandeis for several years and found it hard to give that up because in fact those services were wonderful and rich and involving. Other people found other places and everybody had traditions that were hard to let go, but Concord, you know, having its own, it really was a moment in time.
ML - We selected the prayer book as a kind of base from which to spring forth because we weren't in the prayer book the whole time. Part of what we wanted to do was also to include other people, if they chose to be included, in the service. So if somebody wanted to chant from the torah or somebody wanted to read a piece of poetry or somebody wanted to participate in the service in some way, we wanted to make that possible. So the piece that Phyllis refers to about making it more contemporary was made manifest from some of these means, that is to say not only did we rely on some of the traditional prayers and songs but also people got up and brought something that they had written or perhaps I had written and sent to them or that I had found some other place, whatever, but you know, all these different strands got woven into one fabric. As the years went on, maybe every thread didn't fit in exactly right but it was home grown and it was a family production and in that sense it felt better and it wasn't meant to be choreographed as this wasn't Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. It has increasingly felt, I think and I hope, that way, and the sense of inclusivity that Phyllis referred to, hopefully continues even though we are no longer in 51 Walden but in our own space, which could tend to perhaps feel a little bit more institutional, but we try in an ongoing way to retain the freshness and to retain the feelings of beginning. You know it's always an ongoing piece of work after the marriage and after the honeymoom, after you stand under the hippo as we talked about before, to try to maintain a freshness, to constantly infuse the service, the programming, the atmosphere, the ambiance with good pieces of emotional and intellectual stimulation and of spiritual quality. Not only in the services or on the high holidays but in an ongoing way we've tried to do that as we moved from 51 Walden to Harvey Wheeler to the First Parish to Kerem Shalom and hopefully we will continue to do that through the years.
ML - Phyllis, you mentioned Brandeis. The chaplain at Brandeis and the director of the Hillel Foundation there, the Jewish group on campus, is Rabbi Albert Axelrad who is a wonderful rabbi and is also a colleague of mine, and he mentioned to me at some point that he had done some work with this fledgling group in Concord, and they might be looking for something a bit more serious and he was only able to do something very part time and the name of the person that I might want to talk to was Elton Klibanoff who was then about to become the president. I did give him a call and we had a lovely conversation over a wonderful lunch at the late lamented Ferdinand's in Cambridge. Let the records show that it was a great restaurant.
PK - There was another process. We knew we were ready for a rabbi, an educational leader, again we were reluctant to define with limits exactly what it was that we were looking for mostly because we weren't quite sure but we knew we didn't want to put limits on it. I think there were three pairs who sought out other people to talk to in other communities, you know this is who we are, we are a fledgling group, we think we are in need of some sort of leadership, how do we begin, what do we look for, how do we help ourselves define what it is we need to do. We talked to other people. I was one of those people who did that and I spoke to someone and another pair of people spoke to someone else and Elton spoke with Michael. It just seemed to winnow itself out and Michael rose to the top of this whole process. And again this whole concept of inclusivity and asking people to participate, it isn't the idea of just one or two people, we include all of us in whatever it is we decide to do and we bring in as full a perspective, that the lens be big and broad and wide and clear, as clear as we know how to make it. Michael rose to the top and came to this community.
MK - It was a blessing.
PK - It was a real blessing. It was a wonderful happening for all of us.
MK - This process that Phyllis described was the same for this building. Before we decided to buy the land and build the building, there was constant communication with the entire membership at all times, all the meetings, there was no small group driving and pushing this. Any time that the committee that was involved in any particular phase had a decision to make and there were alternatives to be discussed, the group was told and we had a meeting and a decision was made. That also goes back to how Michael came to us.
PK - In retrospect, it's easy to use the word critical but at the time, I'm not sure that we saw it that way, but they were really major growth spurts in the community. There was a sense of readiness that collected when it was time to go on to a new plain, always inclusive.
MK - I think that is probably what has some appeal to some of the members that join from within our community and outside our community. The fact that there isn't a hierarchy group that is running the organization. Everything is open and clear. Even though we have a board of directors and a steering committee, which an organization needs to keep it on track, keep it financially sound, and the day to day decisions, but anything important the group is involved with. I daresay the average member does know who is on the board and who is on the steering committee and really doesn't much care as long as everything is there when they need it.
PK - All you have to do is ask for what you need. It isn't a case of some mysterious thing, as long as you are able to pick up the phone, drop a note, or talk to somebody "I really would like to do, to be, to have.." I think it's possible to do and certainly in my experience it's always been possible.
MK - It's been wonderful too the enthusiastic participation of the membership in things that Michael creates. One of the many remarkable things that we have done, and Michael you can help with this because I don't remember the name of the holiday, the day we celebrated the sun.
ML - Birkat Hachamah. Every 28 years there is a special early morning celebration of the sun in some cycle that takes 28 years. In fact it was so many years ago I don't remember it. I kind of presented this to the community and I said we have an opportunity now and it's only once in 28 years to meet together for this. We met at the North Bridge at five in the morning. I think this was in 1979 or 1980.
MK - And again this was probably for many the first time they had ever participated in something like this, those that came. Most of us had never heard of this before, because something that happens every 28 years is not on everybody's mind particularly. The exciting part besides getting together that morning before sunrise and we chose the North Bridge and we carried the torah over the North Bridge, the first time in the history of Concord and the North Bridge. We held a little service on Buttrick's Hill and there were some early bird watchers or canoeists that were out there, and they couldn't imagine what this was. There was this group of people carrying the torah if they knew what a torah was. But the sun came up with the mist and it was just a glorious place to be in again. I hope I can be there on the next one.
PK - The scene was just wonderful. We went from there to Warren and Nancy Goorno's house for breakfast. Some years ago there were a few of us who seemed to be needing to acknowledge our connection to that awful piece of history, the holocaust. I think it was Pat and Paul Waldeck and Mel and I went to a holocaust program in Lexington done by survivors of the holocaust. It was absolutely one of the most moving moments in my life. We came out of there and I just felt committed to making it happen in Concord. I spoke to Michael and we invited that group of people in Lexington to come and do that presentation in Concord that following year. At the same time I became aware of a group called Facing History and Ourselves. There had been an article in the Globe explaining the goal of this group, which was to talk about moral decision making through the lens of the holocaust, and in the course of that they had developed curriculum and a number of resources. So I was in touch with them and for two or three years they were also the source of people who came and talked to us on different events and incidents in their lives connected to the holocaust. It was either our first or second program that one of our other members mentioned that she had a young friend who was a very talented musician and the daughter of survivors of the holocaust and maybe she might be available to sing at our program. Of course it turned out to be Rosalie Gerut, and indeed she came and she has stayed all these many years, and her role in the lives of this Jewish community has certainly been enlarged and enhanced our lives here. Five years of these annual commemorations, which were really open to the public, were started or initiated by the Concord Area Jewish Group. There was a national campaign headed by Eli Weisel to see if communities would commit and pledge to acknowledge the holocaust as part of an annual commemoration. The Human Rights Council took up that call and sought the support of the selectmen and in fact it has happened, and the town has now become the sponsor of an annual program commemorating the holocaust. The Human Rights Council is the agent of the town for the board of selectmen, and they plan the program and continue to do so on an annual basis.
MK - That's why it is so important that the town knows this and realizes this and it is not dependent on the Jewish community to do it. I think that is the key. The fact that the non-Jewish community recognizes the holocaust and commemorates it.
PK - It's not a Jewish issue, it's a human issue. I think it is not unrelated but a wonderful cohabiting that during that time that the Concord Public Schools has come to include the Facing History and Ourselves unit in the social studies curriculum at the middle school and so the community is involved in at least two levels in the education process through the public schools and the annual town commemoration of that piece of modern history.
ML - I have been trained in a part of Judaism called reconstructionism. Actually Phyllis touched on this before, I'm going to quote the founder of reconstructionism who is a rabbi named Mordecai Kaplan and he said that "The past has a vote but not a veto in what we do." You said something about our being guiding by the tradition but not feeling constrained by it, you said something like that. Part of the philosophy of reconstructionism is being guided by the tradition and by its richness and by what it has to offer, but also being responsible to see that tradition is something that is alive and evolving and not static. So in an intent to keep it alive and in a state of growth we try to bring that which is new and which is creative and which is vibrant to help enrich the Jewish tradition and make it part of the Jewish tradition and here is an example which is very appropro. This is being taped on Saturday, March 14, and one week from today I will be at a very special Bat Mitzvah, the Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan. He and his wife had four daughters and no sons, and there was no such thing as a Bat Mitzvah in the 1920s and so Judith was the first daughter and had a Bat Mitzvah. It was a scandal at that time but in Kaplan's attempt to make Judaism equally accessible to males and females, in his attempt and in his wife's attempt to harmonize the Jewish civilization with the North American civilization, he felt that this was the time to allow the young woman to become a young adult in the eyes of the Jewish tradition by going through a similar ritual that the young men at the age of 13 go through. This was 1922. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein is now 83, and next Saturday we will celebrate the anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah, and she will again become Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue in New York. I will be at that celebration. It will be a major celebration. She will be reading from the torah and all the traditional things on this 70th anniversary. So in a sense this is an example of reconstructionism at work, that is to say that one takes the tradition, harmonizes it with what one's contemporary sensibilities and sensitivities and see if there is a way to balance and harmonize them to have a product which is both contemporary and Jewish and which reflects the richness of both traditions. So that is harmony with Kaplan's idea that the past has a vote in what we do but not a veto.
Reconstructionists are also committed to the tradition so the services contain the richness of Hebrew and of singing, etc. etc., but other contemporary aspects as I mentioned before, people participating whether they are male or female, perhaps contemporary discussions or talks on topics which are of interest. I could give you an hour's discourse on this but you only have a certain number of tapes. Reconstructionism is a way to kind of harmonize the conflicts of living in two civilizations, the North American and the Jewish. We need to see things as developing in an ongoing way and not remaining static and set in our ways. There are things that perhaps need to be kept and treasured and that's fine, but we need to also know when it's time to move on and to see the reality of changed life in front of us. So we tend to be on the more liberal side of the Jewish spectrum as opposed to the more orthodox, but having said that we also feel strongly that its important to have not only inter-religious dialogue but have intra-religious dialogue and that we need all of us Jews, reform or conservative or orthodox or reconstructionist, to be speaking with each other to be getting along with each other and to be working together for the perpetuation of the Jewish people and for the enhancement of Jewish culture. Then also to reach out to the communities outside of us and to recognize all of us as brothers and sisters in a family.