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NH Jewish Community Deeply Rooted in Portsmouth


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

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News about Portsmouth from

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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