Port Town Harbors ‘Oasis of Judaism’

The captivating simplicity of Onset, Mass., sneaks up on you. In this quaint harbor town, the main activity is perhaps taking walks to the harbor to watch the boats sail and the sun glisten on the water. Therein lies its charm, as well as a hidden jewel of a shul near the bridge at the entrance to town.

Housed in a small, clapboard synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel has somehow stayed afloat since the 1940s. The architecture isn’t ornate, and the minyans are modest, but the sweetness of davening in its intimate sanctuary evokes an old-country feeling.

It’s a far cry from Onset’s heyday in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when the village served as Boston’s equivalent of the Catskills. The town, located in Plymouth County, is an hour by ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and 20 minutes from Plymouth. It takes about four hours to travel from New York City, but that hasn’t stopped many regular summer visitors. (From the ’50s to the mid-60s, when his wife died, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Rav, summered here.)

Families from Boston’s Brookline area, about an hour away, who had bought summer homes in Onset, helped the community hold on. The atmosphere began to change in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the Brookline families started to sell. A number of Conservative families also moved from Onset further down Cape Cod.

Until about 10 years ago, there was a holdover from busier times: a kosher bakery next door to the shul. The town has slowly become more of a tourist destination for Jewish visitors, mostly from Montreal, Toronto and New York.

It’s like “a little oasis of Judaism in the middle of the desert,” community stalwart Eli Hauser said.

For 50 years, the shul has pulled together a minyan throughout the summer and into the High Holy Days. Since the mid-80s, that has often involved relying on residents from the nearby town of Sharon, a heavily Jewish-populated suburb of Boston. With lots of phone calls and some cajoling of college kids and young couples, it somehow always works out.

Hauser, a resident of Sharon — about 40 minutes away by car — remembers when his father bought their summer home in 1959.

“It was cheaper for him to pay the mortgage than to rent for the summer,” Hauser said.

Nine years later, his father upgraded and moved next door, beginning a family tradition that Hauser, his wife and three children still maintain. He comes down for the weekend; his wife and children stay for a week or two each summer. They all remain for the High Holy Days.

“You get folks who come every year for a week or two or three, or a weekend every single year, going for 10 or 20 years,” Hauser said. “Some come every third year, and others come and become members.”

Over the years, of course, the makeup of the minyan has changed from a more homogenous crowd to a wide cross-section of Orthodoxy, creating a palpable sense of achdut, or unity. During the summer, the shul draws anywhere from 10 to 15 men and an equal number of women. At the peak vacation time in August, those numbers can double.

All sorts of traditional Jews help comprise the minyan. There are representatives of Young Israel, Chabad, Chasidim from Montreal, Charedim, Carlebach Chasidim, very-left wing and Conservadox.

“Everyone wants to come together,” Hauser said. “They really value that here in the middle of nowhere, there’s a minyan.”

For more information on Congregation Beth Israel, e-mail CapeShul@att.net.