WATERBURY – While many American cities have struggled economically over the last two decades, Waterbury is a surprising exception, thanks to an Orthodox community that took root here just over 10 years ago.
Rabbi Doniel Ginsberg refers to the phenomenon – a planned Jewish community that began with a yeshiva, rededicated in 2008 as Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel – as no less than “the miracle of Waterbury.”
“We started in September 2000 with nine families and 38 students,” says the associate dean of the yeshiva. “Fast-forward to today: we’ve grown to be the largest Jewish educational institution in the state, with over 460 students and 170 families. This is a true renaissance of the city.”
Next month, the yeshiva celebrates both a beginning and an ending at its annual tribute dinner, where several community leaders will be honored. The June 5 event, led by honorary co-chairs Sen. Richard and Cynthia Blumenthal, will mark the start of the yeshiva’s second decade. It will also mark Siyum HaShas, the oldest yeshiva students’ completion of the Six Orders of the Talmud, the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of learning the oral Torah and its commentaries, 2,711 pages in all. The milestone is dedicated to Rabbi Ahron Kaufman, founder and director of the yeshiva, who has taught some 1,000 students over his 23-year career.
There has been a Jewish community in Waterbury since the mid-19th century, when immigrants came to the Brass City to fill manufacturing jobs. 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, remained.
It was Rabbi Judah Harris of B’nai Shalom who reignited the Jewish presence in Waterbury. In 1999, when he couldn’t find a weekday minyan for a congregant sitting shiva, he resolved to rebuild the Jewish community. The key, he decided, 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 Kaufman. “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.” But, says Kaufman, “every organization Rabbi Harris approached called him a dreamer. They said, ‘People won’t come from New York to Connecticut, especially to Waterbury.'”
But after Harris contacted Torah Umesorah, the national society of Orthodox day schools and yeshivot, they did come. At the time, Kaufman was teaching at a yeshiva in Far Rockaway, Long Island, and shared Harris’s vision. “It was a dream of mine to help my students,” he says. “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 from New York and New Jersey 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 purchased more than 70 houses in the rundown Hillside and Overlook neighborhoods, and bought back Beth El Synagogue from the church that was about to move in.
Now, the educational facility inhabits the entire former UConn campus, with preschool through elementary school offered for both boys and girls, and high school through graduate-school programs for boys and young men. There are plans to open a girls’ high school. Twenty families have moved into the new Blue Ridge Estates development, which will break ground for a new synagogue on Lag B’Omer. There is a new mikvah in town, and several small businesses have sprung up around the yeshiva, including a kosher pizza parlor and deli, and real-estate and insurance firms. The yeshiva maintains a fulltime outreach staff at Yale University who teach courses, lead student groups to Israel, and bring students to the Waterbury community to spend Shabbat with families. Yeshiva faculty also teach at UJA Federation of Greenwich.
Two of those to be honored on June 5 helped facilitate the Greenwich connection. Rita and Marty Edelston have sponsored the federation’s weekly lunch-and-learn program since its inception several years ago. When executive director Pam Ehrenkranz was contacted by the Waterbury yeshiva, she invited the faculty members to join the roster of area educators who lead the weekly study session.
“It is an honor for us to bestow the Lifetime Achievement Award upon a couple who has spent a lifetime helping others,” says Rabbi Ginsberg.
The yeshiva will also honor Gov. Dannel Malloy, a longtime friend and supporter of the Waterbury Orthodox community.
Steve Gambini has watched the Orthodox community grow over most of its initial decade, first as a reporter for the local Republican-American, and for the last three years as an aide to Mayor Michael Jarjura.
“In the ’20s and ’30s, there was a very vibrant Conservative Jewish community in the Hillside and Overlook areas, including the grand synagogue on Cooke Street,” says Gambini. “As the Jewish 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 more information on the June 5 dinner or the Waterbury yeshiva visit www.waterburyyeshiva.org.