Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

New Hampshire


The first mention of a Jewish family living in Portsmouth is found in Brewster's Rambler About Portsmouth. Abraham and Rachel Isaac settled in Portsmouth around 1780. They came to America from Prussia. Mr. Isaac became 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 had an adopted 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 there was no official record of Jewish families living in Portsmouth. There were several families that did come here from Germany, but did not form or maintain a Jewish community. The sons and daughters of these families intermarried or left the city. By the late 1880s, there was a nucleus of Jewish residents who tried to maintain their Jewish traditions. At this time there were approximately sixteen Jewish 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 thirty Jewish families living in Portsmouth. In the year 1905, Morris Port moved to Portsmouth from Newburyport, Massachusetts. He came from an established Jewish community and decided that the local residents should become organized. Several meetings were held, and an organized group was formed with officers elected, including a president, vice-president, treasurer, clerk, and three trustees. They rented a room where meetings were held and religious services were conducted. They called themselves the Temple of Israel. The first order of business was to find a religious leader. An advertisement was placed in the Jewish papers of Boston and New York. This ad was answered by Harry Liberson, who was immediately hired. Along with his work as a religious leader in conducting services, he also taught Hebrew school, especially the Bar Mitzvahs. Among his other attributes he was a shochet and a mohel. He opened the first kosher butcher store.

The second order of business was to establish a Jewish burying ground.

Up to now, the Jews were buried in Somersworth, New Hampshire. A committee representing Temple of Israel purchased an acre of land on Banfield Road from John Hett. This became Temple of Israel Cemetery. This area is still being used as a Jewish cemetery. The first Jew was buried there in 1908.

In the year 1910, Temple of Israel drafted its first set of by-laws, which was accepted by the congregation. Therefore, Temple of Israel became a legal religious group of the city, county, and state.

The third order of business was to find a proper building to be used as a synagogue. In 1911, the Methodist Church on State Street offered their church 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. Now the community had thirty-eight families and was growing.

The Jews settled in an area close to the synagogue. Soon an area near the waterfront became a large Jewish settlement. This area was called the paddledock area. There were two kosher butcher stores, a Jewish bakery, and three Jewish grocery stores located here. Most of this area has been recently restored as Strawberry Bank.

During the World War I years, many families came to Portsmouth. Several came to work at the Navy Yard and others to open businesses. After the war, some families left for other areas. At this point, we had grown to fifty families.

The synagogue was redecorated and beautified in 1920. The vestry was used for social events and a Hebrew school classroom. The community continued to grow, and we had seventy-five families by World War II. The name of the synagogue was shortened to Temple Israel. By this time, they were ready to hire, for the first time, a full time rabbi. In 1940, an adjacent building to the synagogue was purchased for use as a Hebrew school. In 1967, Temple Israel expanded by adding a Community Center. This new building has a large social hall and kitchen, several classrooms, rabbi's office, temple office, and library. By then, there were 125 families.

We have had a steady growth of Jewish families in the seacoast area. In the past ten years, many young professionals have moved here. At the present time, we have 275 members, mostly families and a few singles. There are many more Jewish families in the area and eventually we hope they will all become affiliated with Temple Israel.






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