Written by Jon Federman
Imagine that you are a Jew living in Poland right after World War I. Jews have been prohibited from running their own businesses. State-sponsored pogroms are making it difficult, if not dangerous, for you to leave your house. You can’t even be sure you’ll make it back alive if you go out to get some groceries. Now flash forward to 1969. You immigrated to America in the 1920’s. You raised a family in your Roxbury home, surrounded by other Jewish families. Your spouse is deceased and your children have moved across the country. Your peers have almost all moved to Brighton or Brookline, along with your synagogue. You are all alone. Suddenly, you cannot leave your home because you’ll be robbed and beaten by local teens. You cannot venture out to get groceries or pick up your mail without fear of a violent attack. Your situation is hopeless.
In the late 1960’s, Jewish elders in the Roxbury-Dorchester area of Boston found themselves in an unfortunate situation. The area had been a thriving, Jewish middle class neighborhood since the 1920’s. In the late 1940’s, Jewish families who had found their economic situations greatly improved due to post-war prosperity started to move west to places such as Brookline and Newton. This trend continued as socio-economic conditions further improved in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s. In the late 1960’s, the practices of “red-lining” by local banks and lenders and “blockbusting” by unscrupulous realtors accelerated the movement of most of the remaining Jews from these neighborhoods1. By 1970, fewer than 16,000 Jews remained, down from a high of almost 77,000 in the 1930’s2.
Those left behind were the elderly who either had no families to support them, or could not move due to economic, health, or emotional reasons. They felt abandoned and isolated. Synagogues and Jewish businesses had closed their doors and moved to the Brookline-Newton area. Blue Hill Avenue, which had been the area’s lively Jewish shopping street for decades, had become a symbol of the death of the neighborhood, with boarded-up storefronts and burned out tenements. The neighborhood was besieged by crime and the remaining elderly Jews were afraid to leave their homes. Sadly, even if they had been able to go out, there would have been almost nowhere left to go.
Find out what JF&CS did for these vulnerable elders in Part II of this story, appearing next week.
Jon Federman is the JF&CS Staff Writer. A practicing attorney for more than 15 years, he is thrilled to bring his legal and persuasive writing skills to the JF&CS Marketing Communications department. Jon has a BA from Tufts University and a JD from Boston College Law School. In his spare time he is an exhibiting photographer and an award-winning cartoonist. Jon lived in London, England for five years before returning to Boston in 2011.
1Leon A. Jick, “From Margin to Mainstream, 1917-1967,” in The Jews of Boston, ed. Jonathan Sarna and Ellen Smith (Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, 1995), 106.
2Sarna and Smith, The Jews of Boston, 330.