The shofar sounds again: Historic New Haven shul re-opens for High Holidays

The shofar sounds again: Historic New Haven shul re-opens for High Holidays
By Cindy Mindell

NEW HAVEN – Seven years ago, the fate of the 85-year-old Orchard Street Shul, once the anchor of the Oak Street-Legion Avenue Jewish neighborhood of New Haven, was unknown. The building was in disrepair and had been barely used since the ’80s. There was talk of selling. This September, with a new board just elected, the synagogue will once again open its doors to worshippers.

The Orchard Street Shul is home to Congregation Beth Israel, founded by a small group of observant Jews In 1913. Two years later, the group moved from a rented storefront on Asylum Street, to a remodeled residence at 147 Orchard St. A steady influx of Jewish immigrants to the city brought more members and by 1923, the congregation had again outgrown its space. In July of that year, Beth Israel’s officers purchased land and property at 232 Orchard St., the shul’s present location, for $12,000.
The Colonial Revival-style yellow-brick synagogue was built by C. Abbadessa & Bros., Inc., from the design of architect Louis Abramowitz, and dedicated in 1926. The building is listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places, “discovered” as part of a 1991 Connecticut Historical Commission architectural survey of Connecticut synagogues built between 1840 and 1940. In 1995, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. It is the only structure of its kind still standing in the greater New Haven area.
The building, with Moorish domes atop twin towers, has the traditional layout of an Orthodox synagogue, with the women’s section on a second-floor balcony overlooking the men’s section and central bimah.
The Orchard Street Shul recently elected a new slate of officers, with Lee Liberman serving as president. A New Haven native, Liberman first became a member in 1947.
“For the next 10 years, I remember it as the busiest synagogue in the area,” he says. “They had to hire police to turn people away during High Holiday services.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, as Jews left New Haven for the nearby suburbs, and elder members died off, activity and need waned. By the late ’90s, there were only 100 or so members, all elderly, who would hold the occasional morning minyan in the building’s basement. Diehard supporters and the Cultural Heritage Artists Project worked to preserve the landmark and keep it relevant to the Jewish community.
Next month, the synagogue will open its doors for the High Holidays. Services will be led by Rabbi Mendy Hecht, son of Rabbi Sheya Hecht, and grandson of Rabbi Maurice Hecht, who officiated at the synagogue for more than 45 years.
With the extensive Frontage Road development, Liberman says that an influx of professionals is expected over the next several years, perhaps bringing new members to the shul or least renewed interest.
“That’s the reason I want to hold onto the building for the future,” Liberman says. “I would like future generations to be able to see what the old-fashioned Orthodox synagogue was like.”
The new board hopes to draw more interest through new programming. Rabbi Mendy Hecht is organizing a Monthly Minyannaires Club. Among the planned events are a movie afternoon on Oct. 24, and a “Lunch and Light” Chanukah program.
The shul has recently begun accepting new members, with annual dues of $100.
Congregation Beth Israel at Orchard Street Shul is located at 232 Orchard St. in New Haven. For information on services contact: (203) 776-1468 / info@orchardstreeetshul.org / www.orchardstreetshul.org.

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