The History of Temple Israel in Athol, MA
by Charles Plotkin & Louis Plotkin for the 75th Anniversary of Temple Israel
The Early Days
In the beginning came the peddlers. The earliest record of peddlers in the Athol Chronicle of 1871 was of a peddler named Julius Ashberg. Later came peddlers by the name of Esterman, Smargonsky, Michelman, and Baker. Some of them settled in Athol, rented stores, and bought homes.
Chaim Zack’s brother, Issac Glaser, and his wife later arrived at Ellis Island from Ponidel, Lithuania and, with their one-year old son Sam, heeded a call from Elke. “Athol needs a shoykhet. Kumt.” So Athol got its first shoykhet (ritual slaughterer), unofficial rabbi, gentle philosopher, and beloved couple.
The Community Grows
Not long after the Glaser family settled in Athol, an extended family collected here. The first were Chaim Zack’s brothers, Joe and Harry, and Reuben and Eva Katz. Eva’s mother and Chaim’s mother were sisters. Barney and Ada Freedman, Mrs. Yankel Glaser’s sister, then came. The Freedman’s children included Harry, who died in 1987. Barney and Ada’s daughter Marie married Joe Zack in 1912. This was the first wedding to take place in Athol’s old shul. Joe and Marie’s daughter, Mildred married Sam Krupnick. The Krupnicks brought Sam’s sister Molly and brother Carl to Athol. Sam Grossman’s sister Ann married Ed Katz. And so the Jewish community in Athol began to grow.
The First Rabbi
During the early years, Issac Glasser, who was known for his piety and his kindness, acted as rabbi of the community. Louis Plotkin tells about one of Issac Glaser’s rulings. “One year during Passover my cousin Izzy and I went to Boston to a Red Sox game. Even though we were just a couple of young kids, we couldn’t eat khometz on Passover. But to our dismay, all the kosher restaurants were closed, so we bought some peanuts and that was all we ate that day. When we got home and bragged about how careful we had been, we were told under no uncertain circumstances that peanuts were not allowed during Passover. You can imagine how bad we felt until Issac Glasser told us, ‘You have committed no sin whatsoever. In fact, you have performed a great mitzvah because you have sincerely attempted to honor the law.’ . . . As long as I live, I will never forget how proud Issac Glaser made me feel.”
Louis’s father, Leivick Plotkin, because of his height and strength, had been selected during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 to be a member of the Tsar’s guard. Although this was a unique honor for a Jew, Leivick was more concerned about keeping his Judaism than about serving the Russian Tsar. Leivick’s father Shiman Pesach, who remembered being khapped, (kidnapped), as a thirteen-year-old boy and serving in the Tsar’s army for eighteen years, urged his son to run off to America. As a good Khasid, a Jew who followed Hasidic traditions, Leivick sought the advice of his rebbe. “If I escape to America, what will happen? How can I survive as a Jew in that traife, unkosher and non-religious land?” “Gei! Go!” said the rebbe. “A good Jew will be a good Jew wherever he goes.”
The First Synagogue
Another early settler, Jacob Garbose … owned the house at 411 Pine Street which became the first synagogue in Athol. It was called Agudas Achim (Congregation of Brothers). … The women of the congregation formed the Athol Hebrew Ladies Aid Society. It was led by Sarah Garbose, its first president. They catered refreshments for the opening celebration of Agudas Achim on March 27, 1911.
Charles Plotkin recalls his experience as a young student at Agudas Achim. “Let me tell you how the heder (Hebrew school), classes were held in the 1930’s. The building on Pine Street was a former house, converted into a synagogue and classroom. It stood on Pine Street just off South Street. Down a steep hidden staircase in the men’s room was a mikveh, ritual bath, long since abandoned. It was sometimes used to store and keep soda cool, soda to be used at a bar mitzvah the next day. Down another old staircase, off the heder, was a dark, poorly lighted cellar where our three-in-one rabbi, who was also our teacher and the shoykhet, kosher-killed the chickens. One day as we four or five students were learning to read Hebrew, Mrs. Goldsher opened the door and brought in a big netted bag containing five chickens. She left them clucking in a corner for the rabbi to slaughter after class. This was a common recurrence. No surprise to us ten-year-old kids. As I was stumbling over the Hebrew words, the rabbi smashed his stick on the study table and shouted at me, “If you don’t read better, I’ll take you down to the cellar and kill you with the chickens!”
Building a New Synagogue
By 1944, the Pine Street shul had become too small for the community and it was in need of major repairs. David Housen, Sid Ansin and Bill Garbose chaired the various committees to raise thirty thousand dollars to build a new synagogue. Assisting were Sam Uchitel, Sam Krupnick, Dr. M.J. Grossman, Dr. Morris Diamond, Dr. Sam Gootnick, Leo Wishnow, Harry Goldsher, Izzy Plotkin, Israel Moskovits, and Louis Plotkin.
Temple Israel (the original building is now its classrooms and social hall) was dedicated in June 1950. … As Athol-Orange’s fifty-three Jewish war veterans returned home and established families, we again needed more space. On May 30, 1956, the new sanctuary was dedicated in memory of Sam and Rose Uchitel. Rabbi Ucko dedicated the Eternal Light in memory of his parents who had been murdered in concentration camps. Because the Uchitels bequest and their work had helped build the sanctuary, our congregation continues to say a special Kaddish for Sam and Rose every Rosh Hashanah on the anniversary of Rose’s death.