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Young Israel of New Haven marks 80 years

NEW HAVEN – Just two years ago, Young Israel of New Haven could barely scrape together a minyan at daily services. Today, the congregation is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, as new participants from the Yale and New Haven communities join with longtime members in worship and learning.
Young Israel marks its 80th anniversary this year. In June 1931, a small congregation in New Haven was granted a charter by the National Council of Young Israel to become a member synagogue. Since then, the rabbis and lay leaders of Young Israel of New Haven have helped to expand Jewish life in the community, establishing NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth), the New Haven Eruv, the New Haven Chevra Kadisha, and the New Haven Mikvah Society. Over the years, every kosher eating establishment in the city came about through the efforts of Young Israel’s rabbis.
In the late 1950s, Young Israel members helped establish a kosher kitchen for Yale University students. Today, the Young Israel House at Yale, located in the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, serves kosher meals to students and members of the wider community.
Joseph Muskat was one of the first observant students at Yale. After graduating in 1955, he wrote: “As I am beginning my graduate study, my thoughts turn back four years. I knew no one, nobody knew me. I was alone, away from home for the first time. The profoundly religious home in which I was raised was no longer with me. Which way would I turn? Friends gave me a most valuable and significant bit of advice – go to Young Israel.
“Accordingly, I began to attend services regularly. There, I was always made to feel welcomed. I was given encouragement and advice as I struggled to maintain my way of life. The hospitality and respect which the Young Israel accorded me helped me in my decision to follow the straight and narrow – at that crucial time in life when, sad to say, so many others in similar situations tend to deviate. Young Israel of New Haven gave me a vital link with my home and the history and tradition of my people.”
Muskat’s experience is echoed in that of Kenneth Perkins, a Yale Law School student who began his conversion process a year ago while studying at Harvard and found Young Israel through a friend’s recommendation. He resumed his studies with Rabbi Chagie Rubin, who has served as the congregation’s spiritual leader since 2008. Now, in addition to a full course-load in law, Perkins attends services and classes every day at Young Israel. Rubin teaches a weekly Talmud class, as well as ongoing classes on a range of subjects from Rambam to modern interpretations of halachic issues, as well as regular study sessions with a group of Yale students.
And there’s a lot of food mixed in with the learning and discussion – coffee, cholent, waffles, Rubin says.
The congregation has broadened, Rubin says, to embrace a diverse range of participants from varying backgrounds. Rabbi Berl Levitin and wife Feiga were sent to New Haven by the Lubavitcher Rebbe some 25 years ago, and started a daily prayer and study group for the Russian Jews immigrating to the area a few years later. “At the time, there wasn’t a lot of programming focusing just on Judaism,” the rabbi says. “The immigrants were welcomed by all the area synagogues, but not approached.” The participants are seniors now, and their numbers have waned, but a small group still participates regularly in the programs held at Young Israel and the Levitins’ home, the rabbi says. Many of the Russians’ children moved out to the New Haven-area suburbs, where the Levitins have expanded their outreach.
“There’s been a stabilizing of our community,” says Rabbi Rubin. “We’re attracting Yale students and interns, and Israelis; we’re offering special classes and individual classes catering to students and other constituencies. I see a real future for the Young Israel.”

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