By Judie Jacobson
-WEST HARTFORD – Rabbi Isaac C. Avigdor, who served as spiritual leader of the United Synagogues of Greater Hartford in West Hartford for half a century, died on Wednesday, Nov. 24, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he had relocated in 2007 to be closer to his children. He was 90.
Born in 1920 in Sanz, Poland, Rabbi Avigdor was the scion of a legendary rabbinic family with an unbroken chain of rabbis dating back to King David. His father, Rabbi Dr. Jacob Avigdor, known in Poland as the Drohobyczer Rav, moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. at the outbreak of World War II, and became rabbi of Chovevi Torah Synagogue on Eastern Parkway, and later Chief Rabbi of Mexico City. As a 15-year old boy, Rabbi Avigdor studied in the famous Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin, the Mir Yeshiva in Poland as well as the Belz Yeshiva.
During the war, Avigdor was separated from his parents and incarcerated at the infamous Mathausen concentration camp from which he was liberated on May 5, 1945, together with Hartford businessman and philanthropist David Chase. After liberation, he founded a rehabilitation Kibbutz in Abbiate Guazona, Italy where he helped survivors regain their strength and relocate to Israel.
In a book he wrote in 2003 called “A Survivor’s Thanksgiving” (“Shehechyahu”), Avigdor recalled his life in Poland as the Nazis came to power, revealing for the first time how he had forged identification documents for Jewish women to help disguise them as gentiles. Many of those same women were on hand at Congregation Bikur Cholim in New Haven in August 2003 when Avigdor celebrated his second “bar mitzvah” at the age of 83, alongside his grandson, Moshe Avigdor.
After reuniting with his father in the United States, he built a new life in New York City as executive director of the Shiomo Kluger Yeshiva and director of the National Hapoel Hamizrachl.
In 1955, Avigdor, his wife Esther and their two-year old son David, moved to Hartford, where the young rabbi accepted a position as spiritual leader of Ateret Knesseth Israel Synagogue, then located on Enfield Street.
“In beautiful New England, I hoped to continue the rabbinical legacy of my family and make a difference for the Hartford Jewish community.” Avigdor wrote in a farewell letter to the community, published in the Ledger in August 2007. “I made Hartford my home and the synagogue the center of my universe. I did all this, because I loved the Hartford Jewish community.”
When Atereth Knesseth Israel merged with Hartford’s Garden Street Shul to form the United Synagogue of Greater Hartford, the congregation moved to a new building on North Main Street in West Hartford. Avigdor had a personal hand in designing the architecturally unique structure. Several years later, when United downsized to a house next door, the building was sold to a school for special needs students called Intensive Education Academy – or I.E.A. The name gave Avigdor and his wife reason to smile. “The building is now named after us,” he quipped. “I for Isaac, E for Esther, and A for Avigdor.”
As a Holocaust survivor, Avigdor considered it was part of his life’s mission to preserve for younger generations the memory of the Nazi horror. He called the retelling of his story the “unloading of a burden,” equating it with the recitation of the story of the Exodus at Passover.
“Although I did not get to know Rabbi Avigdor well personally, he was one of the legends of greater Hartford,” said Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, upon learning of Rabbi Avigdor’s passing. “He was a a heroic survivor of the Holocaust who carried forth his family’s lineage of rabbis with pride and purpose. His learning and strength of character were inspirational.”
In addition to his life behind the pulpit, Rabbi Avigdor was the author of five books and countless articles in Hebrew, English and Yiddish, and a contributing writer for the Rabbinical Council of America, of which he was a member.
In addition to his wife, Rabbi Avigdor is survived by four sons: Rabbi David Avigdor, spiritual leader of Congregation Bikur Cholim in New Haven, Rabbi Morton Avigdor, Rabbi Merrill Avigdor, and Jacob Avigdor; his brother Dr. Abraham Avigdor of Mexico City; 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.