The Synagogues of Dorchester, Roxbury, & Mattapan (but are there any?)

Yesterday afternoon the Dorchester Historical Society sponsored a fascinating presentation by Jeff Calish titled “The Synagogues of Dorchester, Roxbury, & Mattapan” [Oxford comma added by me for those who care].

There used to be 56 synagogues in the area. A pointed question from the audience after the talk was “How many are left?”

The answer is…


As you’ll see in the photo, the theme of the talk could have been “Former Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan synagogues that are now churches.” But more on that later.

The large majority of Calish’s illustrations were photos he recently took himself, including the six in the montage. You can get an idea of the variety of the buildings, ranging from repurposed private houses to magnificent edifices. The structure of the Zoom-based talk was to proceed through the list of all the still-extant buildings (25 or so), more or less north-to-south, discussing the name of the congregation and its history from founding to today. Near the end was a short but interesting series of photos of and observations about some famous members of these congregations, such as the two Leonards: Bernstein and Nimoy. (Unfortunately Calish mixed up Star Trek and Star Wars, but he’s not the first to do that and won’t be the last.)

My only real complaint is that the talk had a subject but no evident topic. As a teacher I learned early in my career that it’s important to have a Big Idea and to make it explicit, preferably more than once in a presentation. I think the Big Idea here might have been the conversion of synagogues to churches (and in at least one case a mosque), but it was never explicit. During the question period that followed the talk there was a question from the audience about why most of the Jews had left Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan in the 1950s and ’60s, as Calish’s statistics had made very clear, but that’s really a question for a completely different presentation. Audience members did recommend Hillel Levine’s excellent book, The Death of an American Jewish Community, and brought up redlining and BBURG (which was slightly later but closely related). Of course the flow of Jewish residents in the area hasn’t been 100% outbound; there are those like Calish who returned to Dorchester, and those like me who moved here from elsewhere.

If you want a closer look at the well-researched material, you will be able to see the entire presentation on the Dorchester Historical Society website, but it will probably take a week or so before it’s up. I will edit this post to add the full link once that happens.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston