From l to r: Rabbis Elyse Wechterman, Gail Diamond, and Leora Abelson
Rabbi Alex Weissman
Congregation Agudas Achim has been at the center of Jewish life in Attleboro since 1908, but Judaism has a long history in the city and surrounding region.
1895–1900: The First Families
The first Jewish families to settle in the Town of Attleborough were those of Simon Levine, Sholes, Pierce, and Louis Rotenberg. Regular Saturday services were held in private homes with a Torah, borrowed from a community in Providence, moving back and forth as needed. For several years, High Holy Day services were held in the Rotenberg home. For many years, there were not enough men to make up a minyan, quorum required for prayer. Several of the families took it upon themselves to invite bachelors and married men whose wives were still in Europe up from Providence for the Sabbath to help make the required number.
Another early addition to the community was Leizer “Joseph” Finberg. Born in Lithuania in 1870, Finberg came to the United States as a fugitive from the authorities due to his Zionist activities. He settled in Attleboro and established the Finberg Manufacturing Company to make perfume. Soon after the turn of the century, he gave up the perfume business and became one of the city’s leading mail order jewelry manufacturers. In time, Finberg became a leading citizen of the city, serving on its first planning board for many years and becoming known as “Attleboro’s Father of Zoning.” He also served on the board of the Attleboro Trust Company, Sturdy Memorial Hospital, the Jewelry Trade Board and the local YMCA. As a passionate supporter of camping, he helped to establish Camp Finberg at the Attleboro YMCA and Camp Avodah for Jewish boys in Middleborough. Although twice married, Mr. Finberg left no heirs and, upon his death in 1945, left significant bequests to community organizations he cared about and distant relatives in Israel. His donation to Congregation Agudas Achim maintained the Children’s Sabbath School for many years. Finberg Athletic Complex on Park Street and the former Finberg School were both named for him.
Max London arrived in Attleboro around 1900, upon his discharge from the army during the Spanish American War. London had come to the United States at the age of 12, expecting to be met by an uncle. Upon arrival, he learned that the uncle had died just two weeks before. Alone and with no resources, Mr. London was taken in by a Mrs. Callahan, with a large family of her own, until he could enlist in the army. Family legend holds that upon his muster out of the army, Mr. London took his discharge pay and purchased a “peddler’s pack,” intending to make a living as a traveling salesman. He then took his pack and what few pennies remained as change, walked to South Station in Boston, plunked all the coins on the counter, asking the attendant, “How far will this get me?” A ticket to Attleboro was proffered in return. In time, Mr. London’s peddler pack became a small store and, in the next generation, London’s Department Store became one of the emblems of Attleboro’s growing economy.
Nellie and Morris Sholes, one of the first couples to move to town, suffered the loss of a child. That tragedy, and the struggle the couple had to find an appropriate place to bury their child, prompted the small Jewish community to purchase land and dedicate a cemetery in the southern Attleboro community of Dodgeville. The cemetery is still active, and now includes a section for interfaith families.
By now, enough families had moved in to necessitate the rental of a small hall (on Emory Street) for High Holy Day services.
The Rotenberg family opened a tailoring shop on Park Street. For a time, this shop, the liquor store next door, or another of a number of local businesses served as afternoon gathering places for mincha, the afternoon prayer. If additional men were needed, a runner was sent to a local law office or London’s department store to gather people up.
The Swedish Evangelical Church on Pearl Street announced plans to sell their building and move to a larger plot of land on North Main Street. Seven Jewish families joined together to form a corporation under the name Agudas Achim Congregation and purchased the building. The original seven who signed the articles of incorporation were:
Benjamin Grovitz, who also acted as shochet (kosher butcher), became the first rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim, serving the community for about 5 years. Thereafter, a new rabbi was hired every two or three years. During the depression and until 1953 there was no rabbi in residence; services continued to be held at the synagogue under the leadership of Abraham and Charles Fine
Irving Miller moved to the community. “With a rich and mellow spiritual voice…[Miller] acted as Cantor during the High Holy Days.” As noted at the dedication of the congregation’s new home in 1968, “The gifted and learned leader was the guiding and inspirational force in the establishment and erection of the New Agudas Achim Synagogue.”
During the Second World War, Capt. Sheldon Rotenberg used his innate musical talents to decipher Nazi code. More than 2,500 Attleboro men and women served in the armed forces during World War II.
Local son Ben Fine, who graduated from Attleboro High School in 1922, won the Pulitzer Prize for his work as Education Editor at the New York Times. He was later named Dean of the Yeshiva University Education College and a fellow at Brandeis University.
Rabbi Weiss was hired in 1953 and served for two years. In 1955 Rabbi Isadore Pickholtz joined the community and served until 1961. In 1956, wartime codebreaker Sheldon Rotenberg, now a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops, returned to Attleboro to play a concert—the first of several concerts he played in 50s and 60s, including with guest conductor Arthur Fiedler.
In 1961, the congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary with a banquet at Lake Pearl Manor, which at the time was owned by the Weinstein family and was a kosher facility. The synagogue officers for 1960-61 were Dr. Hyman Lilien, president; Harry London, vice president; Henry Rotenberg, treasurer; Earnest Rotenberg, secretary; and Dr. Barnard Benjamin, financial secretary.
Rabbi Harold Roth served the community from 1963 to 1965. In 1965, Rabbi Phillip Kaplan came to Attleborough with his family and remained into the 80s.
In June 1966, cousins Carol, Susan and Gail Rotenberg all became Bas Mitzvah at the synagogue. At that time, girls celebrated Bat Mitzvah on Friday nights and they were called “confirmands.”
1967–68: A New Home
As the decade progressed, the idea of building a larger space for worship began to take hold. As mentioned above, Irving Miller was the driving force behind the idea and campaigned steadily toward that goal. In 1967, the London family donated land for a new synagogue and ground was broken at 901 North Main St.
The building was designed by local architect Harold Washburn who described the roof as “a contemporary interpretation of the catenary curve form taken by the ancient Hebrew sanctuary-tent.” The new synagogue—still home to our congregation—was dedicated on a sunny June 15, 1968. More than 1,500 visitors passed through the open doors of this congregation to witness and be a part of its historic dedication.
Through most of the 80’s and into the 90’s Congregation Agudas Achim supported itself by running a bingo hall on Tuesday evening. Staffed primarily by synagogue volunteers, bingo nights were as much about socializing as bringing revenue into the community.
In 1988 the congregation hired its first Reconstructionist rabbi, Andrea Gouze, who served the congregation for three years.
Rabbi Moshe Halfon was hired to serve the community in 1991. In 1992 the congregation welcomed and dedicated a set of mosaics by artist David Holleman. In that same year Judge Ernest Rotenberg died, remembered for his work as a district attorney, trial lawyer, and advocate for family mediation and children.
In 1993, Rabbi Gail Diamond came to the congregation.
After seven years as the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Diamond and her partner Alen Kacel made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Gerald Fox served the community on an interim basis for six months.
In 2001, Rabbi Elyse Wechterman was hired to serve the congregation. Under Rabbi Wechterman’s leadership the congregation won recognition from several sectors of the Jewish community. The congregation was awarded numerous innovation grants from the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, including a joint Outreach Grant with Congregation Beth Israel in Woonsocket. More recently, Congregation Agudas Achim was the recipient, in partnership with Jewish Family Service (JFS), of an initiative grant to create and pilot the Kesher program, a project that places JFS social workers within the congregation to better serve the needs of the changing community. In 2007, Congregation Agudas Achim was one of only four congregations nationwide to receive four full years of funding through the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project for creative innovation in congregational learning.
In 2011 Congregation Agudas Achim celebrated its centennial with a full slate of festivities, including a gala at the Attleboro Art Museum. A fourth Torah scroll was acquired in honor of the occasion, and special recognition was given to the families who founded the congregation in 1911.
In 2014, Rabbi Elyse ended her tenure at the synagogue. She and her family remained in the community, where she continued her work with the Attleboro Area Council of Churches and at Bristol Community College. In 2015 she was named the new executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and she and her family moved to Philadelphia.
Rabbi Margot Meitner served as the community’s spiritual leader in 2014–15. For the 2015 High Holidays, Rabbi Gail Diamond visited from Israel to lead the services. Soon after the holidays, Rabbi Carolan Glatstein joined the congregation.
Rabbi Carolan remained with us through June 2016, when she and her husband Rabbi Mollo (and the adorable Izzy) relocated to Charlotte to jointly lead a congregation there.
Rabbi Leora Abelson began her tenure with us on July 18, 2016, and was ordained in June 2017. Rabbi Leora served the congregation through June 2020.
Beginning on July 1, 2020, Rabbi Alex Weissman became the community's spiritual leader.