Jewish merchants along Orleans Street in East Boston in 1914. (Boston Athenaeum File Photo)
The interior of the chapel adjacent to Obahei Shalom cemetery that is to be converted into a Jewish museum. (Robert Spencer for the Boston Globe)
They are often called the ''forgotten Jews" of Greater Boston, the families of immigrants who left Central and Eastern Europe beginning in the mid-19th century to create bustling, thriving enclaves near the mouth of the Mystic River.
Their legacy as one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the United States has never been chronicled, historians say. But that void in Jewish history is expected to change, thanks to an ambitious proposal to transform the crumbling, unused chapel at the Ohabei Shalom cemetery in East Boston into an interactive museum dedicated to the lives, struggles, and successes of the Mystic River Jews. Such a museum would have the added benefit of bringing attention to a historic cemetery, located off a dead-end street, that dates to 1844 and is believed to be the oldest Jewish burial ground in Massachusetts.
''This story is a story that has cried out for many years to be told," said Steven Grossman, the former Democratic National Committee chairman whose immigrant great-grandfather settled in East Boston. ''It will tell the story of an extraordinarily courageous group of men and women who fled persecution, dealt with every conceivable roadblock and barrier put in their way."
He said the early immigrants had ''the optimism, the energy, the drive, and the ambition" to succeed and become ''an integral part of life in our community."
Using audio, visual, and other displays, the museum will illuminate the life of Jewish communities that sprang up in Chelsea, East Boston, Everett, Revere, Malden, and Winthrop, said Ellen Smith, a Brandeis University professor who teaches American religious history and is acting as historical consultant for the project.
''This history has never been written," said Smith, who co-edited ''The Jews of Boston," which is a broad look at the metro area that does not focus on the Mystic River Jews. ''The opportunity is now."
''These were immigrant communities who found work that was well fitted to the light industrial uses along the Mystic," Smith said. ''Shoes, manufacturing, textiles. A lot of them went into retail, peddling, and worked their way up. That was a very good fit."
The project has been spearheaded by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, whose charitable foundation decided to restore the Gothic Victorian chapel and create a museum there. The price tag is expected to be in the ''many hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Stanley Kaplan, the association's executive director. Influential Jewish leaders are lining up to support the project, which has no set timetable for completion.
''The decision to renovate the chapel and do a history museum is very, very important," said Robert L. Beal, president of The Beal Cos. and chairman of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. ''We are thrilled."
Jewish leaders said this story is important to memorialize now, given that much of the influx had ended by the early decades of the 20th century and that the number of Jews who lived in those communities as immigrants or their descendants are dwindling. Today, only a small fraction of Jews live in the Mystic River belt, Kaplan said, compared with the mid-20th century, when Chelsea is believed to have been home to the largest number of Jews north of Brooklyn, N.Y.
After World War II, many of the Mystic River Jews migrated north to Peabody, Swampscott, and Marblehead. Others followed the pattern of many Jews from Boston proper, many of whom moved first to Roxbury and Dorchester and eventually to suburbs such as Sharon or Newton.
The centerpiece of the museum, Smith said, will focus on everyday Jewish life -- ''their places of worship, commerce, communities, and where they played," a subject that will include the attractions of old Revere Beach. Smith said the hope is that the museum on Wordsworth Street will become a tourist destination. ''Tens of thousands of people are going to want to go back and renew their sense of history and place and relationship," said Grossman, whose grandfather, grandmother, and father are buried in the cemetery. ''I think it will be a powerful, powerful emotional draw."
Samuel Spivack, 75, a retired State Street Bank vice president, recalled the Chelsea of his childhood, where his father was a butcher, as a place of hard-working, tolerant immigrant families who shared one another's sorrows and celebrated their successes.
''The relationships between the ethnicities was really something to marvel. Unfortunately, you really don't see enough of that today," said Spivack, who lives in Salem, N.H., and is treasurer of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Everett. ''Across the street was a Catholic church, and one block away was the Jewish synagogue."
The chapel restoration will be a boon for Temple Ohabei Shalom, which owns the cemetery, even though its Brookline-based congregation has not been affiliated historically with the Mystic River Jews, the synagogue's senior rabbi said.
''For me personally, and for me as a rabbi, this is the preservation of an important part of Boston's past and of Massachusetts' past," said Rabbi Emily Gopen Lipof. ''We say so often that we keep faith with those who sleep in the dust, and that is what we are doing."
Lipof said she envisions bringing the temple's youth to East Boston, where they can learn about the Jewish experience in Greater Boston and reinforce the special place that their congregation, the first in Massachusetts, holds in that history. ''My guess is that we will be taking our children down there every year," Lipof said. ''If you don't appreciate the past, you really don't take everything with you as you go forward."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information about JCAM and the JCAM Charitable Foundation, contact:
Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts
189 Wells Avenue
Newton, MA 02459