By John Lynds
After a period of inactivity, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM) Charitable Foundation is doubling its efforts to restore the historic Ohabei Shalom Chapel on Wordsworth Street into the East Boston Immigration Center.
JCAM Executive Director Stan Kaplan has been making the rounds at Eastie’s community groups to update residents on the plan and how local residents can get involved.
Built in 1903 the Ohabei Shalom Chapel served as mortuary chapel for the adjacent Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was established in 1844, and was the first Jewish Cemetery in the state that served Boston and Mystic Valley’s Jewish population.
According to Kaplan, the plan calls for a historically restored chapel, and to create the neighborhood’s first immigration center.
The center will house artifacts and oral histories of early Jewish immigration through the Port of Boston as well as highlight the wave of immigration of Irish and Italians during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The lower level of the building will also be transformed and be used as a resource center for today’s immigrants living in Eastie. The JCAM hopes this level will include ESL and citizenship classes in conjunction with the Massachusetts Immigrant Advocacy Association or MIRA.
Kaplan said to date JCAM has spent $1million on restoring the exterior of the Victorian neo-Gothic chapel through various fundraising efforts, grant awards and through private donors.
“The JCAM has been raising funds and awareness of its $2.5 million capital campaign to renovate and repurpose the oldest surviving Jewish funeral chapel in Massachusetts into an interactive exhibit on the history of immigration to Boston—to be called The East Boston Immigration Center,” said Kaplan. “The impact and significance the project would have on the City of Boston is that the restored chapel’s interior spaces will be modified for use by local organizations as a resource center to conduct programs that support young Latin American, African and South Asian immigrants and their families who now live in the same neighborhoods.”
Kaplan added that he is looking forward to working more with local community leaders in bringing more awareness of the impact this important project will have on the Eastie community.
The Exhibit Hall will be designed with state-of-the-art computerized imagery throughout. The oral histories recorded through videotaping and artifacts attractively displayed will allow visitors to interactively hear and learn what life was like in these bustling immigrant neighborhoods.
According to Kaplan and the JCAM’s plans, the design of the Exhibit Hall will reflect the “chapelness” of the existing building, being mindful of the Victorian era in which it was built. However, inside 21st century innovation and technology will connect the legacy of the past with the advancement of Boston’s Jewish culture into the future.
“It will be a unique experience for visitors and educational groups to take in the sights, sounds, stories and artifacts from those towns along the Mystic River that bubbled with Jewish life, faith, music, culture, business and enthusiasm,” said Kaplan.
Kaplan said his group is looking for help and is asking for photographs and artifacts to display in the Exhibit Hall, oral histories to record, and volunteers to help with this exciting project. You can fill out a form at https://www.jcam.org/Pages/Foundation/helpus.php if you wish to submit artifacts.
Financial donations can be made by visiting https://www.jcam.org/Pages/Donations/donation_form.php.