In 1917 the state's Jewish population was 190,000; by 1937 it had risen to 263,000, dropping to 223,000 in 1959, and then rising over the following decade to 260,000. Nearly 80% of the Jews in the state live within an hour's ride of Boston .
In 2013, the Greater Boston metropolitan area, embracing large sections of New England, was the tenth-largest Jewish metropolitan area in the United States, including some 10,500 Jews from the former Soviet Union, most of whom arrived after 1985. More than half of the community's Jews were engaged in professional and technical work, and 40 percent of Jewish adults held advanced degrees. The number of Jews also significantly increases during the school year as the number of colleges and universities in the Boston area and in all of Massachusetts is high and the Jewish student population significant.
The shift from the older neighborhoods in and around Boston to the suburbs created substantial new Jewish communities in Newton-Wellesley-Brookline; Cambridge-Belmont-Lexington-Concord-Waltham-Woburn; Natick-Framingham; the Massachusetts Bay north shore towns of Lynn, Swampscott, Marblehead, Nahant, Salem, and Saugus; and the southern suburbs. Over the last generation thousands of Jewish scientists, engineers, and manufacturing entrepreneurs have found employment in the industrial complexes that line Route 128 west of Boston, and they have given a new élan to the Jewish communities that have sprung up in the expanded Boston suburbs. In the late 20th and the early 21st centuries the high-tech industries attracted many young Jews who easily made the transition from college to industry.
Beyond metropolitan Boston there were 35 cities and towns with 100 or more Jewish residents. The largest Jewish populations were to be found in Springfield (10,000), Worcester County (12,000), Fall River (1,100), Andover (2,500), Amherst area (1,300), New Bedford (2,600), Lowell (2,000), Pittsfield and Berkshire County (4,000), Haverhill (2,300), and Holyoke (1,300). Several areas, which were once considered virtually off-limits to Jews, now have synagogues and thriving Jewish communities. Synagogue life on Cape Cod, including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, is active, and there is ongoing Jewish life during the winter months. Many Jews who had previously enjoyed the rich cultural life of the Berkshires have chosen to live there year-round and to participate in the active Jewish life now afforded in these communities.
At the beginning of the 21st century there were about 250 synagogues in 85 communities, most of them erected in the 1960s and beyond either as the first houses of worship in newly settled areas or as replacements for older sanctuaries in communities where Jewish residence antedated the massive move out of Boston.
Aaron Lopez , a ship owner, was the first Jew naturalized in Massachusetts (at Taunton, 1752). In 1777 he founded the first Jewish community in Massachusetts, at Leicester near Worcester. The families of Lopez and of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera , numbering 61 people, stayed in Leicester until after the Revolution.
Massachusetts' first permanent Jewish community was established in the late 1830s in Boston, where Central European settlers established the state's first Jewish congregation, Ohabei Shalom, in the 1840s. For about 100 years the Boston Jewish community exercised a powerful influence on the growth of new settlements throughout the state.
The first Jews to take up permanent residence outside Boston were German and East European peddlers who replaced the itinerant Yankee traders in the 1840s and 1850s. Typical of these was Abraham Kohn , later a figure in the Republican Party in Illinois. In 1842 and 1843, Kohn carried a pack through central and northern Massachusetts, praying alone in the fields, sometimes with his brother and partner, Judah, or with other Jewish peddlers he met on the way. Peddlers like Kohn settled down and became storekeepers; they were followed by tailors, watchmakers, cigarmakers, shoemakers, and dealers in dairy products, leather goods, provisions, lumber, and kerosene.
These merchants established themselves in the factory and mill towns, including Pittsfield (1850), where most were of German origin; Worcester (1860); Holyoke (1873; first congregation, Agudas Achim, founded 1895); Springfield (1881); Fall River (1881); Lawrence (late 1880s); Lynn (1893); and Haverhill (1897). Some Sephardi Jews lived in New Bedford, which has a Jewish cemetery said to date from the post-Revolutionary era, as late as the 1850s, when the first German Jews arrived. One of these was Leopold Morse , who served in Congress from a Boston district in 1877–85 and again in 1887–89. A burial society, Bnay Israel, was formed in New Bedford in 1857. The first Jewish burial took place the same year. East European Jews arrived in New Bedford about 1877, the earliest of them being Isaac Goodman and Simon Siniansky. The first minyan was formed in 1879; services were held in Siniansky's house. The first congregation, Ahabath Achim, was founded in 1893 and purchased a cottage house as its first synagogue. A new synagogue was dedicated in 1899. In 1898 Congregation Chesed Shel Emes was incorporated; it occupied a new synagogue building in 1903. Springfield also had a colony of Sephardi Jews in the 1830s, but the first Russian arrivals found no trace of them. German and Polish Jews arrived in Worcester in the late 1860s.
Massachusetts is the home of several major national Jewish institutions: the nonsectarian Brandeis University , in Waltham, and the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst and the Jewish Women's Archive in Brookline. The Menorah Society, the first Jewish intercollegiate movement, was organized at Harvard University in 1906.
Jewish students and Jewish studies give Massachusetts a unique flavor. In 2004 there were approximately 90 dedicated staff positions in Jewish studies at seven major private universities in the Boston area with over 30 more similar positions at the universities in Worcester and the Amherst area. Internationally renowned graduate programs in Jewish Studies are found at Massachusetts universities, including the only graduate Ph.D. program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The Hebrew College, which has moved from Brookline to Newton, now has a non-denominational rabbinic program with Arthur Green, a distinguished scholar of Ḥasidism, as its founding dean. Several universities had Jewish presidents in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st. Among them, Harvard has a Jewish president, Lawrence Sommers , and MIT has had Jewish presidents. Brandeis has always had a Jewish president.
Jewish charitable institutions are coordinated by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and by counterpart organizations in 12 other cities, including Jewish welfare federations in Berkshire County, Merrimack Valley (serving Andover, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Newburyport and 27 surrounding communities), New Bedford, Northshore, Springfield, and Worcester.
Hillel Foundations are found at the following Massachusetts colleges: Amherst College; Babson College; Bentley College; Berklee College of Music; Boston College (a Jesuit University); Boston University; Brandeis University; Clark University; College of the Holy Cross (a noted Roman Catholic College); Curry College; Emerson College; Fitchburg State College; Framingham State College; Hampshire College; Harvard University … Radcliffe College; Hebrew College; Lesley University; Massachusetts Bay Community College; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Mount Holyoke College; New England College; New England Conservatory of Music; Newbury College; Northeastern University; Quinsigamond Community College; Salem State College; Simmons College; Smith College; Springfield College; Suffolk University; Tufts University; Tufts University Veterinary School; UMASS Medical School; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; University of Massachusetts, Boston Harbor; University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; University of Massachusetts, Lowell; Wellesley College; Wentworth Institute of Technology; Western New England College; Westfield State College; Wheaton College; Wheelock College; Williams College; and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The presence of Hillel on campus was often symbolic of the Jewish presence. Brandeis has three chapels at the center of its campus – Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish – emblematic of the three great religions of mid-20th-century America. When the new Hillel at Harvard opened, a procession of Torah scrolls marched through the campus. One speaker said that the movement of Hillel from the periphery of the campus to its center reflected the journey of Jews at Harvard and indeed throughout American intellectual life.
Jewish community centers (JCCs) and YM-YWHAs are affiliated with the Greater Boston Associated JCCs, and similar institutions are maintained in Framingham and Marblehead, Newton, North Dartmouth, Peabody, Springfield, Stoughton, Westboro, Worcester, Brighton, and Brookline. Jewish weeklies are published in the state: the Jewish Advocate, in Boston; Metro-West Jewish Reporter; the Jewish Journal/North of Boston; the Jewish Chronicle, in Worcester; and the national monthly Sh'ma, which is published by Jewish Family and Life in Newton.
George Feingold, who was the Republican nominee for governor when he died in 1958, was the first Jew to win statewide elective office, serving three terms as attorney general (1952–58). Springfield, Worcester, Holyoke, and Pittsfield (Daniel Englander, elected 1902) have had Jewish mayors. In 1961 Jacob J. Spiegel was named to the State Supreme Court, the first Jew to serve in that office. Abraham Ratshesky was ambassador to Czechoslovakia under President Hoover (1930–32). David K. Niles was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's key White House aides and later served President Truman in a similar capacity (1942–51). Maxwell M. Rabb served as secretary to the cabinet under President Eisenhower (1953–58). Steven Grossman was chairman of the Democratic National Committee and ran unsuccessfully for governor as did Robert Reich, a Brandeis professor and former Clinton secretary of labor. Politics in Massachusetts is considered the domain of the Irish. Boston has never had a Jewish mayor. Remarkably there have only been two Jewish congressmen, Barney Frank and Leopold Morse. Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr., to the United States District Court; Richard Nixon appointed Frank H. Freedman; Jimmy Carter, Rya Zobel; Ronald Reagan appointed Mark L. Wolf; Bill Clinton, Nancy Gertner and Patti Saris. Three Jewish sons of Massachusetts have served on the Supreme Court: Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and Steven Breyer.
As of 2017, Massachusetts's Jewish population was approximately 293,080.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. L.M. Friedman, Pilgrims in a New Land (1915); idem, Jewish Pioneers and Patriots (1942); J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry, 2 vols. (1951–53); B. Postal and L. Koppman, Jewish Tourist's Guide to the U.S. (1954), 219–41. L.S. Maisel and I.M. Forman, Jews in American Politics (2001); K.F. Stone, The Congressional Minyan (2002); O. Israelowitz, United States Travel Guide (2003).