A Brief History of the Portsmouth Jewish Community
By George Sherman, Temple Historian
The first mention of a Jewish family living in Portsmouth is found in Brewster’s “Rambles About Portsmouth”. Abraham and Rachel Isaac settled in Portsmouth around 1780. They came to America from Prussia. Mr. Isaac become an auctioneer and later started a china shop. The Isaacs were a religious family, observed the Jewish holidays and kept their shop closed on Saturday. They adopted a son, who left Portsmouth for New Salem, New Hampshire, where he married a minister’s daughter. After Mr. Isaac’s death, his wife left the area to live with her adopted son.
The next fifty years provided no official record of Jewish families living in Portsmouth. There were several families who did come here from Germany, but they did not form or maintain a Jewish community. The sons and daughters of these families intermarried or eventually left the city.
By the late 1880’s, there was a nucleus of Jewish residents who tried to maintain their Jewish traditions. At this time there were approximately 16 families living in Portsmouth. In order to conduct religious services, the men would meet at various homes.
This early group of residents invited friends and relatives to settle in Portsmouth. At the turn of the century, there were about 30 Jewish families living in Portsmouth. In 1905, Morris Port moved to Portsmouth from Newburyport, Massachusetts. He came from an established Jewish community and decided that the local Portsmouth residents should become organized.
Several meetings were held and a group was formed which elected officers, including a president, vice president, treasurer, clerk and three trustees. This first organized congregation hired a room where meetings were held and religious services conducted. They called themselves the Temple of Israel.
The temple’s first order of business was to find a religious leader. An advertisement was placed in the Jewish newspapers of Boston and New York. The ad was answered by Harry Liberson who was immediately hired. Along with his work as religious leader in conducting services, he also taught Hebrew school and prepared young boys for Bar Mitzvah. Among his other attributers, Liberson was a schochet and a mohel. He opened the first kosher butcher shop in Portsmouth.
The second order of business was to establish a Jewish burial ground. Until that time, Jews were buried in Somersworth, NH. A committee representing Temple of Israel urchased an acre of land on Banfield Road in Portsmouth from John Hett. This became Temple Israel Cemetery and the first Jews were buried there in 1908. The area continues to be used as a Jewish cemetery.
In 1910 Temple of Israel drafted its first set of bylaws which was accepted by the congregation. Temple of Israel became a legal religious group recognized by the city, county and state.
The third crucial need was to find a proper building to be used as a synagogue. In 1911, the Methodist Church on State Street offered their building for sale. A committee of the Jewish congregation negotiated and agreed to buy the church building. They occupied the new synagogue in the fall of 1912, with elaborate festivities, including a parade and speeches by notables. By this time, the community had increased to 38 families and was continuing to grow.
The Jewish families settled in an area close to the synagogue. Soon an area near the waterfront became a large Jewish settlement. This section was referred to as the “Puddledock” area. There were two kosher butcher stores, a Jewish bakery, and three Jewish grocery stores located there. Today most of the area has been restored and is better known as the Strawberry Banke area, with historical houses and museums.
Of the many families who came to Portsmouth in the World War I years, many came to work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard while others opened businesses. After the war, some families left the area but the Portsmouth Jewish community had then grown to 50 families.
The synagogue was redecorated in 1920. The Cohen vestry was used for social events and a Hebrew school classroom. The community continued to grow and by World War II the membership had risen to 75. The name of the congregation was shortened to Temple Israel.
Finally the Temple was ready to hire a full time rabbi. In 1940 an adjacent building was purchased for use as a Hebrew school. In 1967 Temple Israel, now with a membership of 125 families, expanded by adding a Community Center. This new building had a large social hall and kitchen, several classrooms, a library, temple office, and rabbi’s office.
Temple Israel has continued to enjoy a steady growth through the settlement of Jewish families in the Seacoast area. In the past ten years many young professionals have relocated here. Now, in the 2000’s, the membership is over 300 families with over 750 members, and the religious school has an enrollment of over 100 children. There are many more Jewish families in the area and it is hoped they will all eventually become affiliated with Temple Israel.