University of Vermont

Center for Holocaust Studies Supports VPT Documentary on Burlington’s Jewish History

UVM’s Miller Center for Holocaust Studies is a major supporter of Vermont Public Television’s documentary Little Jerusalem, premiering Thursday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m., and airing again on Dec. 8 at 5:30 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 9 p.m.

Using archival images and interviews with historians and the descendants of original settlers, Little Jerusalem chronicles the little-known life of Jews who fled from repression in Eastern European, forming a traditional tight-knit community in Burlington’s Old North End from the 1880s to the 1940s.

At the time, though Burlington was a bustling port city, most of the first Jewish immigrants came with next to nothing and had few options for work except to become peddlers, walking miles with backbreaking packs, yet, according to the documentary, they came home weekly to observe the Sabbath. A French-Canadian cabinetmaker let them hold their first prayer congregation, or minyan, in his shop.

Founding families, who eventually started their own businesses, creating a bustling neighborhood of shops, were determined to preserve their religious traditions and built three neighborhood synagogues, including the original Ohavi Zedek synagogue (now Ahavath Gerim) shown in the film with its homemade copper ark.

"The Jews who settled in Burlington in the late 19th century were mainly from Lithuania, an important cultural and intellectual center of European Jewry," says Alan Steinweis, professor of history and director of the Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies. "Just a few decades later, the Jews who had remained in Lithuania -- the siblings and cousins of the Jews in Burlington -- perished in the Holocaust. Education about these broader implications of the Holocaust is an important part of the center’s mention and why we wanted to be part of this project."