your connection to The Boston Globe

Casting bread on the water nourishes a congregation

Symbolic act helps in readiness for Jewish holy day

Men, women, and children tossed bits of bread into Fellsmere Pond, a serene spot in the West End of Malden. But it wasn't a flock of ducks happily diving for the crumbs that drew the group to the water's edge.

It was the chance for members of Congregation Agudas Achim Ezrath Israel, a Jewish synagogue on Bryant Street, to cleanse their souls by symbolically casting away their sins, during the High Holy Days. A 10-day period of repentance, the holy days started Sept. 15 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and will end at sunset Saturday on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews around the world.

Yom Kippur, called the Day of Atonement, is a time for Jews to ask God to forgive their sins against God. Services at the synagogue start at 6:15 p.m. tomorrow with a Kol Nidre service, the most solemn vigil of the holy days. On Saturday, services start at 9 a.m., break from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., and continue until nightfall.

At Congregation Agudas Achim Ezrath Israel, established a year ago by the merger of neighboring synagogues Agudas Achim and Ezrath Israel along Bryant Street, the new year brings the promise of prosperity.

"The temple is like an extended family," said Barbara Weiner, a 47-year member and past president of Ezrath Israel. "We're hopefully looking to a very good year of happiness."

In the year ahead, the congregation plans to reach out to families, increase fund-raising, and offer new and different religious services. The congregation now has 130 families and individuals, most of whom live in Malden, but hopes to grow to 150 over the next year.

"What we have now is very positive and dynamic," said Rabbi Mark A. Golub, the congregation's first religious leader. "But I'd like to see us grow so that [the synagogue] can take its rightful place as a leading [worship site] in the community. "

The synagogue is one of four Jewish synagogues and the only Conservative congregation in a city once a center of Jewish faith and culture. The others are Beth Israel Congregation of Malden and Young Israel of Malden, both Orthodox congregations, and Temple Tifereth Israel, a Reform congregation. Malden, a city of about 56,000 people, once was home to thousands of Jews, most of whom built an enclave around old Suffolk Square. But today, the Jewish population in Malden is thought to be fewer than 5,000, locals say.

"When I was growing up, Malden was probably 35 percent Jewish," said Harvey Steller, 57, president of Congregation Agudas Achim Ezrath Israel. "Now, today, there are 5,000 or less. . . . I am a little hopeful, though. There seems to be more Jewish families moving back to Malden, particularly in the West End."

Over the years, Jewish families moved out of urban areas such as Malden to suburbs such as Swampscott and Marblehead. Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston will conduct its 10-year census next year. The most recent data, from 1995, showed 7,500 Jews living in Malden, Chelsea, Everett, Medford, Revere, and Winthrop, a 53 percent drop from 1985, when Jews numbered 16,000 in the area,

The shrinking numbers have prompted several area Jewish congregations to merge or share resources. In Malden, the merger between Agudas Achim and Ezrath Israel actually reunited two congregations.

Agudas Achim, formed about 100 years ago, was an Orthodox synagogue on Harvard Street. Prayers and services were offered in Hebrew, and religious observance was strict. About 20 years later, a group of more liberal-minded members broke off. They moved to Bryant Street to form Temple Ezrath Israel, a Conservative congregation with a more liberal bent. Services were in English, and women were welcome on the bimah, to read from the Torah during services.

Over the years, as membership and the Jewish population declined, the two congregations tried to get back together. A main sticking point was the role of women, who in Orthodox congregations are seen as equal, but separate, from men. They do not take an active role in services, for example.

"Because they wouldn't accept women on the bimah, we stopped talking," said Weiner, who represented Ezrath Israel on the merger committee. "We started again when we came to agreement that women are fine. That's when we were finally able to say, 'Let's get together.' "

They agreed to form a new Conservative congregation, where men and women are equal and young families welcome. A year ago, in a solemn procession, members carried the Torah from Agudas Achim to Ezrath Israel, the new temple's home. A sign bearing the name Congregation Agudas Achim Ezrath Israel officially went up last week.

Although there were some anxious moments, such as deciding which name would go first on the new congregation, the merger has gone smoothly, members say.

"It's been wonderful," said Hyman Sandler, chairman of the house committee. "Whenever two congregations come together, there is always a concern that some might feel like they are second-class citizens. But in fact, that hasn't been the case here."

The new congregation is on more solid financial footing. Dues are $350 per year for families. Helped by weekly Bingo games and private donations, costs are under control.

"We've got some money in the bank," Steller said. "We're paying our bills. Financially and really all around, we're stronger now than before."

Members from each of the original congregations serve as officers. There are about 15 new Torah scrolls among the religious items. Memorial plaques honoring beloved members of Agudas Achim have been placed inside the sanctuary at Ezrath Israel.

A new building committee aims to improve facilities. Windows and doors will be fixed, and the parking lot renovated. The ritual committee, which plans services, is working to expand programming. Tot Shabbat, services geared to children, will be held more often. And special services will be added. Tashlich, a centuries-old custom where Jews symbolically cast away their sins in the form of bread crumbs on a body of water and resolve to do better, was held for the first time by the newly formed congregation.

"I sense a real desire here in this community," said Golub, a seasoned rabbi who most recently served a congregation in Wakefield. "People want to come together. . . . My goal is to bring them together, and serve them, to the best of my ability."

Some say they feel blessed to be brought together. "I hadn't done this in years," said David Friedman, 60, a former member of Agudas Achim who took part in the Tashlich service. "It's just nice to be together."

"It was fun," said Sam Masters, 10, after tossing bread crumbs to the ducks. "I like it because I know I'm doing something religious, too."

Kathy McCabe can be reached at

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives