NH Jewish Community Deeply Rooted in Portsmouth
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson


Passover is near. The joyous Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites exodus from Egypt is familiar to all, even if we only know the movie version with Charlton Heston as Moses. But what do we know of our own Jewish heritage here in Portsmouth, home to the oldest operating synagogue in the state of New Hampshire? (continued below)



Portsmouth history is intricately linked to its key Christian churches that, while arguing over land and religious practices, sometimes acted more like warring camps than armies of God. The arrival of the city’s small Jewish community got lost in the din and scarcely appears in local history texts. We can thank the late George Sherman, a pharmacist and historian of Temple Israel, for assembling our Jewish heritage into an important spiral bound book. He gave this writer a copy years ago, from which this brief summary is drawn.  

In the beginning  

Jewish history in New Hampshire dates from the arrival of two New Castle men, William Abrams and Aaron Moses, in 1693, but they did not stay long in the seacoast region. A century passed. Then Abraham and Rachel Isaac came in 1789. No one knows exactly how Abraham and Rachel arrived here from Prussia soon after the American Revolution. They were, at least as far as historian Charles Brewster knew, the city’s only Jewish couple.  

The Isaacs set up a little business near the waterfront locally called “The Cheap Shop” which was probably the city’s first discount store. As business expanded they moved to a more upscale location on State Street under the sign of a large golden teapot.  

Portion of Abraham Isaac Ad in 1795 NH Gazette

Abraham Isaac was also an auctioneer and the city mourned his death in 1803 as “a faithful steward and an honest man.” His advertisements for imported English crockery appeared in the New Hampshire Gazette. You can still see a small plaque on his old house at 414 State Street across from the Rockingham Hotel.  

Abraham is buried in the Old North Cemetery near such local luminaries as Declaration signer William Whipple and Governor John Langdon. His detailed epitaph reads, in part:   

     Entombed beneath where earth-born troubles cease
     A son of faithful Abraham sleeps in peace.
     In life's first bloom, he left his native air
     A sojourner as all his fathers were  

After Abraham’s death, Rachel Isaac moved on in 1813. Portsmouth’s first true Jewish community did not appear until the next century, but City records indicate the presence of  “probable” Jewish citizens, historian Sherman tells us. An advertisement in a New York newspaper requested the services of a “shochet” or ritual kosher butcher in Portsmouth in 1856. But the first formal Jewish community evolved here with the arrival of a few families from Eastern Europe in the 1880s who settled in the South End of town.  By 1905 the community had grown to 27 families who founded what became Temple Israel.  

Despite the open reception of Abraham Isaac in earlier days, Jews, like other ethnic groups, suffered from local discrimination. In 1903 a 15-year old George Caswell shot Philip Schort with a rifle in the Puddle Dock area of town.  Schort, a young Russian Jew, later died of his wounds. An investigation was held, but there is no record of any trial ever taking place.  

CONTINUE Jewsih History


A temple of our own  

In 1905, according to Sherman’s history, Morris Port moved to Portsmouth from Newburyport and helped organize locals. After a few months holding services in rooms on the second floor of a building at 252 State Street (now Marple James Real Estate), Temple Israel members began looking for a permanent location.  A Hebrew teacher arrived from New York to provide religious education and the group acquired land for a local cemetery. (Previously Jewish residents were buried in Somersworth.) But it took six years to find the ideal building further up State Street.  In 1912 the group purchased the Methodist Church building (built in 1827) for $7,000. It came complete with pews, carpets, and fixtures. The Methodists kept only their bell, their organ, and their hymnals.  

The transition went smoothly except for the legendary dispute over the cornerstone set into the building by the Methodists. It included a small “time capsule” of artifacts placed there during the building of the church. The box now belonged to the synagogue. Jewish leaders turned over the cornerstone to Methodist leaders for a payment of $100 with the stipulation that any rare coins found inside remained the property of the Temple. The contents were inspected in Boston. There were no rare coins, and the transfer was complete. 

The dedication of Temple Israel, then only the third synagogue in New Hampshire, was followed by a parade with the Navy Band and dignitaries in silk hats marching through town carrying the American flag and a flag bearing the Star of David. City officials gave speeches. Rabbi Israeli spoke about the function of the synagogue in Jewish life. Hebrew school students sang “Ma Tovu” and “Hatikva” and everyone joined the Navy Band in a rousing version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”  


Vital to the community  

Born in Ukraine, Abraham Millhandler and Sarah Tapper were among the 23 million Europeans who emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920. They married, changed their name to Shapiro, and settled into Puddle Dock where they became early founders of Temple Israel nearby.  

We know a lot about the Shapiros and their only daughter Mollie – how they lived and worshipped, what they ate and where they worked. The house they occupied from 1909 to 1928 is among the most popular living history exhibits at Strawbery Banke Museum. Their story, vividly re-enacted, represents not only the 30 Jewish families living in Puddle Dock at the time, but the struggles and triumphs of Portsmouth’s immigrant population.  

George Sherman’s history is filled with events marking the evolution of Portsmouth’s Jewish community. In 1934, for example, the Portsmouth Music Hall presented an original operetta sung entirely in Yiddish to a packed house.  

Temple Israel acquired a new Torah in 1949, celebrated its first Bat Mitzvah in 1953, and razed two buildings on Court Street for the creation of the attached Community Center.  

But even after World War II, there has been an ever present undercurrent of threat to members of the Jewish faith. In the 1960s, for example, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party and a “Holocaust denier” drove past the Portsmouth temple in his “Hate Bus” during a publicity campaign against Jews and African Americans.   

By the late Sixties Temple Israel’s membership had grown to 125 families. The community center became a bustling focus of activity for a widening Jewish population, including important members of the business community, a local mayor, and a state senator.   

CONCLUDE Jewish History of Portsmouth

Opening the temple doors  

Temple Israel at 224 State Street remains the only conservative Jewish congregation for miles around. According to the temple Web site you have to go 50 miles to Portland, 46 miles to Peabody, 44 miles to Manchester or 3,400 miles to Ireland to find another. Barney Share, outgoing president and “unofficial historian” of the temple explains that the “conservative” Jewish service fills the middle ground between the more orthodox observance of Jewish law and the more liberal or “reform” approach to worship.  

The lack of public knowledge about Portsmouth’s proud Jewish history, Share says, was, in part, a function of the temple itself.  Considering their history, Jewish communities in the 20th century were often self protective, even defensive.  

Portsmouth from a Jewish perspective was a tolerant community, but there were always undertones,” Share says.  

“People weren’t encouraged to come in. The congregation was not encouraged to reach out. It was more of a cloistered thing in the past,” says Share, who has lived in Portsmouth for half a century. He has hopes of writing the Jewish history of Portsmouth where George Sherman left off. Unfortunately, he notes, much of the temple history before World War II is written in Yiddish.  

Today the temple doors are opening, Share says. More public concerts, speeches, and events are being held since the recent successful capital campaign that brought major changes to the community center. The renovations include an improved library for the study of Jewish history, added classrooms for the Hebrew school, expanded office and reception areas, and a redesigned social hall. Interfaith marriages, once banned, are now common in the Jewish community. As many as 400 individuals are now members.  

Time is measured at a synagogue, not as much in years, as by the teachings of the rabbis who have influenced the evolving community. Rabbi Barry Krieger, who has been on the job just two years, has been a long-time fan of Portsmouth’s heritage and cultural diversity.  

Krieger’s progressive side is evidenced from a recent Portsmouth Herald article about the 20 solar panels the rabbi has installed at the home in Greenland that he shares with his wife Dr. Alice Passer, a cardiologist. Krieger also made the news and surprised some traditionalists in the Jewish congregation when he sponsored the synagogue’s first-ever public menorah lighting during Hanukkah in 2009.  

“We’re celebrating that we are here in this beautiful spot,” Krieger says of Portsmouth and Temple Israel. “We want people to know that we’re here and that we’re a vibrant part of the community.”  

Sumner Winebaum, a former Puddledocker, businessman, and now sculptor grew up among the more orthodox rituals of Temple Israel. There is discussion, he says, about the possibility of crafting an outdoor menorah in Portsmouth, a permanent sculpture that will allow those outside the temple to share in the ritual Hanukah lighting ceremony for years to come.   

“When I was a kid it never-in-a-million-years would have entered my mind that we would share that moment with anybody. Now, I think it’s a richer experience when you can meld the old tradition with the new the way Rabbi Krieger is doing.”  

There’s more coming. This Independence Day weekend Temple Israel plans to unveil a new plaque. Portsmouth, it will announce to one and all, is home to New Hampshire’s oldest surviving synagogue.    


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online.