History of Congregation Shalom
Our history has been compiled to review the beginnings and growth of Congregation Shalom and to present some of our more significant milestones, memorable events, and inception of our traditions. Many of the values we cherish today as a congregation are traceable to our early days.
It was in 1967 that a group of Chelmsford families, who felt that the unique religious and social needs of the Jewish families in this rapidly growing suburban community could best be served by the creation of a congregation within Chelmsford proper, banded together and incorporated themselves as Congregation Shalom. The name was chosen because the Six Day War in Israel had just concluded. The group felt that incorporating “Shalom” or “peace” in the name of our congregation was most appropriate. It was the first Jewish congregation in Chelmsford.
Many of the Christian churches of Chelmsford, when they learned of our formation as an organized entity, came forward with generous and hospitable offers to share their facilities until such time as we could provide our own building…and so began our era as the “Wandering Jews of Chelmsford”.
Our first meetings were held at Aldersgate Methodist Church and our services, one per month, at South Chelmsford Baptist Church. The dues our first year were set at $52, one dollar per week. Simchat Torahwas celebrated with borrowed Torot, as we did not have the means to acquire one, and you cannot very well celebrate the “Joyousness of the Torah”without a Torah.
From the very beginning, Congregation Shalom was regarded as a “second family” by many members. That Spring, in 1968, we started our custom of celebrating the Second Seder of Pesach together. Our first community Seder was held at Central Baptist Church, our 3rd refuge.
By January, 1968, the significant and decisive step was taken to affiliate as a Reform congregation with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the UAHC.
Also, in 1968, we began our first involvement in the Chelmsford July 4th celebration by sponsoring a booth featuring an educational display on the theme of Jewish involvement in the Revolutionary War. Our participation in the Fourth of July celebration continued for many years. Members made food and drinks, pewter teaspoons, and hand-dipped wax candles for sale.
The fall of 1968 saw the inauguration of our religious school in the facilities of the Belvidere School, now the Armenian Cultural Center on Old Westford Road. Adult members began participating in adult education classes with Hebrew Reading, Basic Hebrew, and Contemporary Conversational Hebrew the first subjects. In September, 1968, the first Jewish High Holiday services in the over 300 year history of the town were celebrated by a Jewish Congregation in Chelmsford, Congregation Shalom.
The conclusion of Yom Kippur that year saw the beginning of another tradition for us, the communal ‘Break Fast’ for all attending our services. This tradition continues to the present day.
From our very first High Holy Day services we adhered to the principle that is reflected in the inscription on a wall in the Synagogue in Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma): ‘A tree may be alone in the field, A man or woman alone in the world, But no Jews need be alone on their Holy Days.’ (Congregation Shalom Bylaws: “Non-members are welcome to attend any worship services.” (15.2)
In January, 1969, we moved our services to the Central Congregational Church. Our lay “rabbi” (with a small ‘r’) was Zelman Kamien who conducted them with enthusiasm, a ‘yiddische tam’ and unique creativity.
Through the initiative and persistence of our first president, Donald Pearlman, the congregation acquired our Holy Torah, Hatorah Hakdosha, in the true meaning of the word Kadosh, or special. This Torahwas obtained in 1969 from the Westminster Synagogue of London, England and is one of 1564 Torothbrought to England from Prague, Czechoslovakia. There, the Nazis had planned to exhibit the Toroth, plundered from the destroyed synagogues of Europe, as part of an historical exhibit of the artifacts of a vanished race, the Jews. Instead, these Torothhave been distributed to synagogues throughout England, the United States, and the world. Scroll #1184, from the Strasnice Synagogue of Prague, Czechoslovakia had “found its place in a sacred Ark to live and breathe again.” It was dedicated, appropriately, on Shavuoth1969.
Now we had a Torah, but no place to keep it. We needed an Ark, an Aron Hakodesh. A committee set about building a portable ark to house our Torah. It was decided that the appropriate proportions and measurements for the ark would be those based on the description for the ark in the Sefer Torah itself. Congregants labored long and hard in the basement of a member’s home, and finally the ark was finished. With great effort the ark was hoisted up, but it was too big to bring it up the stairs and out the door. After being cut in half and refinished, the more modest ark served as the temporary home of the Torah as the congregation moved from the Central Congregational Church to the Unitarian Church.
Another milestone in 1969 was the commitment by the Congregation to buy land for a future building and home of our own. Due to the efforts of Fred Kallus and his building committee, a parcel of land on Richardson Rd. was purchased.
As the years passed, Sisterhood was inaugurated and chartered by the congregation. Brotherhood and the Shalomites, our Temple youth group, also became integral parts of our congregational family. Social committees planned summer socials, ‘mystery nights’, and our famous gourmet Progressive Dinners.
Nineteen-seventy-three saw the breaking of ground for our first building. On Friday, September 6, 1974 (5734), the building was dedicated in an impressive ceremony attended by ministers, pastors, priests, and representatives of most religious congregations of Chelmsford, the Board of Selectmen, Representatives of the Massachusetts legislature, Rabbis, friends, and well-wishers.
We were no longer the Wandering Jews of Chelmsford!
From 1968 through 1972, student rabbis from the Hebrew Union College led our High Holy Days and other religious services. Rabbi Albert Goldstein, who had retired, joined us in 1973. During his tenure, he had the vision for our unique Torah reading stand. His idea was to combine the Sephardic tradition of viewing a vertical, case-enclosed Torah and with a propped-up Ashkenazi Torah in a reading stand, so that the entire congregation could view the Torah as it was being read.
Rabbi Terry Bard, in September 1976, joined us as a Rabbi, half-time, to be our spiritual leader.
That spring saw another event of note, the planting by our religious school children of about 500 12″ high red pine seedlings in the weed-choked, desolate and abandoned gravel pit which described the area as it was then, across the driveway from this building. Those trees are still known as the “Kamien Forest,” in honor of Ethel Kamien who envisioned and spearheaded the planting of this forest by our religious school students.
As our religious school continued to expand, with Sunday and midweek Hebrew classes from pre-school through Confirmation and an adult education program, additional classroom space was desperately needed. Three more classrooms were added in 1982.
Over the years our musical offerings have included special concerts, a children’s choir, ‘Shpiel’, a band of talented members, and Harmonia, a duet of members. We have also been fortunate to bring talented cantorial professionals including Meryl Gold, Sue Horowitz, and Ari Strasser to enrich our services and spiritual lives.
Throughout our history, Congregation Shalom has been active in community affairs on the local level through the Interfaith Associations and community agencies. Interfaith services and study sessions have been central to our congregation’s efforts to build bridges between religious groups. We have also been deeply involved in doing the work of Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World), through our work with the Lowell Transitional Shelter, Senior Centers, Operation Ezra, Lowell Wish Project, The Paul Center and much more. Each year our congregation and our students raise ‘tzedakah’ money to help organizations locally and internationally. Our Rabbis and our Social Action/Social Justice committee have responded to events on the local, national, and international scene; focusing on issues such as those that impact the Jewish community, Israel, as well as immigration, poverty, and the environment. Continuing as an evolving, dynamic community, our congregation established a special relationship with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism becoming one of their Brit Olam congregations.As such we have made a commitment to work together to create the world we want, filled with justice, compassion and wholeness. We engage our adults, teens and young children in this effort. We are recognized as one of 195 Reform Brit Olam Congregations in the United States and Canada.
Our Tree of Life was established in 1988. It encompasses memorials and celebration of life events, births, B’nai Mitzvah, weddings and anniversaries of our members.
As we continued to grow, the need for more space became increasingly apparent. In 1987, developers approached President Ethel Kamien, offering to purchase some of our land. At the 1991 annual meeting, the congregation realized that this land sale would generate the needed funds and voted to pursue the construction of an addition to the temple. At a special meeting in August, 1993 under the leadership of our president, Laurie Fidler, the congregation voted to execute a land sale agreement transferring a portion of our land.
With the realization of these funds, an intensive drive was launched to expand our building. Under the capable chair of the Building Committee, Alan Fidler, the effective fund-raising capabilities of Terry Howard, and the heroic efforts of our ‘clerk-of-the-works’ and president, Mitch Hyatt, assisted quietly and most competently by Gerry Miller, the efforts to create a new synagogue building proceeded. Ground was broken in June, 1995, and construction work began. The old structure was gutted, becoming the school, and the new sanctuary wing built. The congregation celebrated Rosh Hashanah services in the new sanctuary just three months later on September 24, 1995. As Herzl said, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
Our Congregation continued to flourish and we needed more Rabbinical services. Our President, Mitch Hyatt, formed a Search Committee to pursue the formidable task of recruitment. It was in July, 1998, that Shoshana Perry joined us as our full-time Rabbi and Rabbi Bard became Rabbi emeritus.
Our membership has increased, the Adult Education program has continued and expanded to include Torah and Midrash studies and Café Wisdom. Interfaith activities and Social Action Programs were re-invigorated. In the tradition of Tikkun Olam,the congregation instituted “Mitzvah Day” in 2001. The Religious School has expanded in numbers and a high school program (Chai High School) has been added. Rabbi Perry re-instituted Adult B’nai Mitzvah preparation. Many members have become Bar or Bat Mitzvah after an intensive two year course of study. In addition to regular Shabbat Worship, we have expanded our worship experiences with the addition of monthly Tot, Family, and MOCA (Members of a Certain Age) Shabbatot. Traditional Yizkor services are held on the last day of Succot, Pesach, and Shavuot.
Additional milestones have been achieved:
- A relationship with the Muslim congregation in Billerica was established, allowing them to use our facilities, and conducting interfaith events with the ‘masjid’ (mosque).
- The Holocaust Torah was rededicated on May 1, 2005.
- A Congregation Shalom cemetery section was obtained at the Beth El cemetery grounds in Chelmsford in July, 2007.
- The 40thanniversary year of our congregation was celebrated in 2007-2008 with a Family Day and a Dinner Dance (Nov.1, 2008) complete with burning of our mortgage.
- The 50thanniversary year (1967-2017) of Congregation Shalom, was recognized with a Gala held as a tribute to the Founding Families, Past Presidents, Rabbi Perry, and Rabbi Emeritus Bard.
- Hebrew books and papers containing the name of God were buried with a traditional ceremony on the grounds of Congregation Shalom.
- Rabbi Perry’s 20th anniversary of service to our congregation was celebrated with a special evening devoted to honoring her.
With Rabbi Perry’s guidance and encouragement, the congregation developed our Mission Statement:
“Congregation Shalom is a Reform Jewish community committed to education, spiritual growth, and Tikkun Olam (healing the world). We are proud to be an extended family of equals—welcoming, caring and inclusive. Together, we engage in religious observance, enjoy social activities, and pursue lifelong learning.”
Our Holocaust Torah
Read a letter from one of our founding members, that reflects on how the Congregation came to possess a very special Torah. Published as a part of our Torah Rededicaton Service in September of 1995.
Torah Rededication – Message from Rabbi Perry
Here is a message to the congregation about the Holocaust Torah, from Rabbi Perry, delivered during our Torah Rededicaton Service in September of 1995.