Planting seeds

New museum exhibit celebrates the Jewish community on Martha’s Vineyard — then and now.


The encompassing, floor-to-ceiling wall photograph of the sanctuary of the first Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center warmly embraces us as we walk into “They Planted the Seeds: Creating Jewish Community on Martha’s Vineyard.” The exhibition is packed with stimulating ideas and intriguing objects from both the past and present, historic photographs, and the engrossing voices of descendants from the earliest families — many with names familiar to us today.

Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center Rabbi Caryn Broitman, who is thrilled that the museum is doing this show, says, “Everything is relative, but for the Jewish community, historically we have a long history here because a lot of the American Jewish community came in the late 19th century, early 20th century from Eastern Europe. The first Jews on the Island were right in that time frame. Just as they came to New York around then, they came to Martha’s Vineyard too.”

The exhibit is an intimate story of an important community that began at the turn of the 20th century. While the Hall family was possibly the first to settle on the Vineyard, Lithuanian-born Sam Cronig, fleeing from the Cossacks, is credited as the pioneer settler in 1905, soon joined by the Brickmans and Issoksons, who opened a dry-cleaning business, and then others.

As the show points out, the story of the Jewish community on the Vineyard echoes the macro story of immigrants coming to America and their effort to become both part of the country while simultaneously retaining a sense of their origins. The experience of Martha’s Vineyard’s first Jewish families was one of opportunity and perseverance — they observed old traditions and forged new ones, all while becoming an integral part of Island life. 

“They Planted the Seeds” was planned by Bonnie Stacy, chief curator, and Linsey Lee, oral history curator, who together worked with the Hebrew Center’s archives, which had been donated to the museum, as well as the many recorded oral histories Lee had done over the years. Stacy says, “There are the actual voices of a lot of the people — second generation onward — who are reflected in the exhibition.” 

The resulting sections of the show arose organically. There is, of course, one about the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. Until its founding, religious services had been celebrated at familys’ houses or in off-Island synagogues in New Bedford and beyond. In 1940, an official home became a reality with the dedication of the center in Vineyard Haven. Gayle Stiller, Sam Cronig’s granddaughter and a very active Hebrew Center member, remembers from her childhood, “We had activities at the center, although not as much as now. We only had a rabbi who came from New Bedford most Friday afternoons for Hebrew school, but if the weather was bad, he couldn’t always get here.” Its 49 members grew as both seasonal residents and additional Jewish families moved to the Island and joined the congregation to participate in its spiritual, intellectual, and social activities.

One of the gems of the show is a stunning Torah ark curtain — the decorative mantle that protects the Torah — the scroll of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible kept in the synagogue in a structure called a Torah ark. Along with other objects from the Hebrew Center are precious items individuals in the community have loaned that create a rich sense of Jewish life. Just a smattering of the treasures includes elegant silver candlesticks for the Sabbath observance, a prayer shawl (tallit), a Seder plate, Hanukkah menorah, and intriguing dreidels from all over the world. A gorgeous Venetian glass mezuzah —containing a small parchment scroll affixed to doorposts of Jewish homes reminding those who live there of the connection to G-d and their heritage — is posted at the entrance to the exhibition, which Rabbi Broitman blessed before the opening. There are also old items from Brickman’s store and Cronig’s real estate that give you a sense of the long history of these businesses.

There’s an interesting section dealing with the challenges those in the community faced, such as an excerpt from a deed prohibiting sales to any but those of the “white race who are of the Christian faith.” Stiller recalls when she was young, biking around with her friend and wanting to take a break and suggesting they sit on the steps of the Hebrew Center. Stiller shares, “She was Catholic, so she was reluctant. There was something scary to her about even being on the stairs of the building. We didn’t have a lot of crossover to get acquainted with other religions. There’s a lot more openness about it now.” 

“There was anti-Semitism for sure, but also challenges of getting kosher food, which used to have to come from Boston or New Bedford,” Stacy says, “or the challenge of trying to create a cohesive community but you’re not all practicing in exactly the same way.”

The oral histories and the videos in the listening room off the main exhibit make the show pulsate with life, and create a very personal experience. They convey what Lee feels is critical: “The most important and fascinating thing about the whole exhibit is looking at this small group of people and the whole Jewish community in the early days, coming to an island not speaking the language, many without a penny, but being, within a very few years, able to establish some of the biggest and most successful businesses. And meanwhile being able to hold on to their Jewish traditions and to create their own place of worship.”

“It’s a remarkable story,” Lee says.

“They Planted the Seeds: Creating Jewish Community on Martha’s Vineyard” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through Sept. 18.