Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center reflects many facets of Judaism

The M.V. Hebrew center provides a  house of worship for Island Jews and community gathering place.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

The M.V. Hebrew center provides a house of worship for Island Jews and community gathering place.

Of Faith

Martha’s Vineyard is home to diverse houses of worship. According to a schedule of services published weekly in The Times, more than 28 congregations meet regularly year-round. This is the fourth in a continuing series in which The Times profiles Island houses of worship.

This particular Friday night shabbat (sabbath) service at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center (MVHC) was a bit different. It happened to be also a pot-luck supper and a musicale, woven over and around a dozen dinner tables and through a worship service. Two shabbat candles were lit with ceremony on each table, and each table held a ceremonial glass of wine. The rabbi led prayers, of course, in Hebrew and English. There were poems and songs in Hebrew and English and even one or two in Yiddish, some solemn and some not so solemn, accompanied sometimes by a guitar or violins or a piano. The prayers as much as the songs had a rhythm familiar to even the youngest, and there were many children. They, as much as the oldest persons in the congregation, shared a pride in knowing, not a secret language exactly, but a personal kind of knowledge. These were words and rhythms and gestures that connected them with each other and with their heritage. Shabbat is comfortable and fun, a celebration Jews look forward to with pleasure.

Judaism is at least 3,000 years old, one of the oldest religions still in existence today. It might be said that the Jews discovered monotheism, at a time in history when most peoples of the world worshipped a different god for each aspect of their lives.

Reform Judaism originated in Europe in the 19th century. Today it is the largest Jewish movement in North America. According to About.com, Orthodox Jews believe that the written Torah (including what Christians call the Old Testament) was given by God to Moses, and they strictly observe all or most of the commandments of Jewish Law found in it. Conservative Jews accept the binding nature of Jewish Law, but believe that the law should adapt, absorbing aspects of the predominant culture while remaining true to Judaism’s values. Reform Judaism, in contrast, believes that the Torah, inspired by God, was written down by fallible humans. According to the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), while Reform Jews do not accept the binding nature of every rule in Jewish Law, they affirm the central tenets of Judaism — God, Torah, and Israel — and believe that they are God’s partners in improving the world. “Tikkum olam — repairing the world — is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as it strives to bring peace, freedom and justice to all people,” according to the URJ website.

Although the MVHC is today affiliated with the American Reform Judaism movement, the first Vineyard Jews were Orthodox, then became Conservative, and finally Reform. But the MVHC is inclusive: Jews from many different backgrounds and persuasions join in prayer and cultural events.

The first Jewish person on Martha’s Vineyard was Samuel Cronig, a 17-year-old Lithuanian yeshiva student. Accounts differ as to why he left Lithuania and in exactly what year he got to Martha’s Vineyard, but they agree that he came in to work on the farm of Captain Hiram Daggett in Eastville. Arthur Railton, in “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” says that Cronig had a summer job there in 1905, liked the Island, and stayed on to work for Bodfish and Call, grocers, living in a room over the store. By 1909, he had saved enough money to send for his brother Edward, and by 1917 Samuel and Edward, along with two other brothers, Henry and Theodore, started Cronig Brothers Grocery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

In 1911 Samuel sent for his cousin Lizzy Levany (Levine), and they were married soon after she arrived. They had five children: David (1912), Carlyle (1914), Anne (1917), Robert (1918), and Ruth (1922). Several other Lithuanian Jews came to the Vineyard during those years. Eudice and Yudl Brickman were the first married couple, and their daughter, Dorothy, was in 1916 the first Jewish girl born on Martha’s Vineyard. Other family names included Hall, Butler, Issokson, Kliger, Levinson, Miller, Osman, and Pearlstein, according to the MVHC website.

Like the first practicing Catholics who came to the Vineyard, the first Jews faced discrimination. The MVHC website reports: “In spite of the growing acceptance — sometimes strong friendships — between individual Jewish and Christian Islanders, the Jews as a faith community, as a people and a religion, were not accepted — certainly not as social equals. Members of the Center still on our rolls, who were school children then, remember the social ostracism, the name-calling, the catcalls, they endured because they were Jewish.”

The Island Jews were isolated by water. They could not easily travel to worship or socialize in towns with larger Jewish populations. There was a need for a formal gathering center and synagogue. In 1939 Henry Cronig bought a large colonial home, which the community moved to a lot on Centre Street. Among the 50 persons who incorporated the first Hebrew Center in 1940, there were only ten last names. In 1995 that building was moved and the present Hebrew Center built on the lot, where it serves as a house of prayer, a school, and a social center. The ten families have grown to approximately 350. In summer, as many as 500 persons use the MVHC for prayer and cultural events.

Beginning in 1940, the MVHC hired visiting rabbis for high holy days, or part-time rabbis for summer months or special events. Rabbi Caryn Broitman was appointed in 2003 as the first full-time, year-round rabbi.

Rabbi Broitman told The Times of a variety of programs at the MVHC. There is a religious school for 30 to 35 children from age four through high school, as well as adult religious education classes and programs. There is a human needs committee, which provides for those in poverty, and a social action committee, which deals with broader issues.

The popular MVHC Summer Institute brings films and speakers on socially responsible topics. Supported by sponsorships as well as ticket sales, the programs are both a way to raise money for the Center and a way to engage in social activism — tikkum olam.

The members of the MVHC at shabbat services, just as they did in 1940, see themselves as a people, a culture with a history and an ethos. Rabbi Broitman told The Times, “For Jews, it’s a cultural thing to celebrate shabbat together, apart from prayer.”