By Cindy Mindell
This year, the Waterbury Jewish community turns 10. That’s by one count… Jews started migrating to the Brass City in the mid-19th century, when manufacturing jobs were plentiful. But 150 years later, the last remaining Reform and Conservative synagogues had been sold to churches, and only one Orthodox congregation, B’nai Shalom Synagogue, was left.
More accurately, this month, the new Waterbury Orthodox Jewish community celebrates its 10th anniversary. It may be the only instance of a planned Jewish community in the U.S.
“We developed an Orthodox community where there was no existing community,” says Rabbi Yehuda Brecher, who, along with his wife, Yocheved, was one of the community’s nine original families. “The concept of enhancing communities exists in numerous towns and cities across the U.S. The residents might want a little extra, so they bring in a yeshiva or a kollel or more young families. But to move to a community where you could count the number of Orthodox Jews on one hand – that’s unique.”
What has become a thriving Jewish area owes its existence to Rabbi Judah Harris of B’nai Shalom, who over the years had watched Jews leave Waterbury, and had seen the synagogues close. Finally, in 1999, he couldn’t find a weekday minyan for a congregant sitting shiva. He decided to rebuild the Jewish community. The key, he thought, was to bring a yeshiva to the city as a draw for young people.
“Throughout the history of America, if there’s no strong education or family life or social life for the younger crowd, they start moving out,” says Rabbi Ahron Kaufman, a founder of the community and Rosh Yeshivah – or Dean – of its yeshivah. “In every shul and Jewish organization, we focus on the old regime, and while they deserve it, if we don’t open up to the younger generation, they move to places where opportunity and friends are.”
Harris knew that Waterbury had to attract a new wave of Jewish migration, and that required a focus on education and children. “Every organization called him a dreamer,” Kaufman says. “They said, ‘People won’t come from New York to Connecticut, especially to Waterbury.'”
That is, until the dreamer approached Torah Umesorah, the national society of Orthodox day schools and yeshivot, and the organization put the word out. Kaufman was teaching at a yeshiva in Far Rockaway, Long Island.
“I fell into it,” he says. “It was a dream of mine to help my students. I saw them growing and as they got married, they had no place to go. I thought, ‘What can I do for them?’ Rabbi Harris and I got to the same solution from two different points.”
By May 2000, Harris had recruited three philanthropists and enough teachers, young couples, and students to make the move. For the yeshiva, his group was offered a lease by the Waterbury Development Corporation for several buildings on UConn’s Hillside campus when the university relocated to an old theater downtown. They bought more than 70 houses in the surrounding area, and bought back Beth El Synagogue from the church that was about to move in.
In August, nine families and 30 high school-age boys moved to Waterbury, from Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey, and some returning from yeshivot in Israel. The Yeshiva K’tana elementary school enrolled 10 students.
Rabbi Yehuda Brecher was studying in the post-graduate kollel of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, N.Y. when the director told the older students about “a great idea.” One made the two-hour drive to Waterbury and verified that it was not only a viable community but, as Brecher says, “schleppable to New York.”
“I wanted to get away from the city but still have the benefits of a yeshiva and a proper education for my kids and myself,” he says. Brecher relocated to Waterbury in September of that same year. He taught at the Bess & Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield before becoming principal of the Yeshiva K’tana elementary school. Next year, the school will welcome 260 students.
Brecher notes an interesting change in his own behavior since he relocated 10 years ago.
“Whenever I drive back to Brooklyn, I honk my horn a lot,” he says. “My kids tell me that they didn’t even know I had a horn in Waterbury.”
Steve Gambini has watched the Orthodox community grow over the last eight years, first as a reporter for the local Republican-American, and for the last two years as an aide to Mayor Michael Jarjura.
“Ten years ago you would not walk to the 7-Eleven on Cooke Street after dark and you’d even think twice about driving there,” says the Overlook resident. “Today, I have no hesitation. The yeshiva students are up late studying, so there’s a lot of steady foot traffic in the area now at all hours. On Friday nights, with families walking to and from synagogue and visiting with one another, there’s a permanent block watch installed and patrolling.”
The local ShopRite has kept pace, expanding its kosher offerings as new families have arrived from Orthodox communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. There is a kosher pizza restaurant and a kosher deli, and Gambini says that discussions are underway to open a live poultry market in the city, which would include a supervised kosher component.
But the heart and architect of the community is still the yeshiva, rededicated two years ago as Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel and led by Rabbi Kaufman. In addition to the elementary school, the institution includes a high school with three classes and 50 boys, a 120-student beit medrash for young men 18 and older, and a 20-student kollel for young married men. This year, the yeshiva launched a 9th-grade class for girls.
“There is a need for a girls’ school,” Kaufman says, “and that will be.”
For the last two years, the yeshiva has offered an accredited business-administration bachelors degree program through Post University of Waterbury. Students concentrate on their Talmudic education for most of the week, and take business courses Thursday and Friday in the Benedict Miller mansion on the Hillside campus.
The yeshiva maintains a fulltime outreach staff at Yale University, teaching courses, leading student groups to Israel, and bringing students to the Waterbury community to spend Shabbat with families.
“This has been part of our mission from day one,” Kaufman says, “to be inclusive, to be here for everybody. We’re not trying to ‘convert’ people, but we want to instill a strong Jewish identity and connection.”
A mikvah is slated to open this year. Eight families plan to move into the community over the summer. Yeshiva founder and local developer Yitz Rabinowitz is building a new residential subdivision, Blue Ridge Estates. The yeshiva, which now inhabits three classroom buildings and an administration building, expects to occupy the entire UConn campus in a few years.
On May 16, the yeshiva will celebrate its first decade as the anchor of the rejuvenated Jewish community of Waterbury. The fact that the gala event will be held at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich reflects the institution’s reach, as does the list of the evening’s honorees.
Among them are Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, and Dr. Charles Small, founder and director of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism.
“In the ’20s and ’30s, there was a very vibrant Conservative Jewish community in the Hillside and Overlook area, including the grand synagogue on Cooke Street,” says Gambini. “As the community slowly moved out, they left a hole in the ethnic and religious fabric of Waterbury. The yeshiva has brought that back to us.”
For information on the yeshiva community and its 10th-anniversary celebration: (203) 756-1800 / www.waterburyyeshiva.org