Historic New Haven congregation nears its centennial…against all odds
By Cindy Mindell
NEW HAVEN – In a few weeks, the oldest synagogue in New Haven will open its doors for the High Holidays for the second time since the ‘90s, when the building and congregation nearly shut down altogether.
Congregation Beth Israel, known since 1924 as the Orchard Street Shul, was founded by a small group of observant Jews in 1913 who first rented a storefront on Asylum Street. Two years later, the fledgling congregation moved to a remodeled residence at 147 Orchard St. A steady influx of Jewish immigrants to New Haven 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 synagogue’s present location, for $12,000.
Four decades later, the synagogue’s membership rolls tell the usual story of a waning urban Jewish population. In the ’60s and ’70s, as Urban Renewal destroyed the old Legions Avenue neighborhood, Jews left New Haven for other parts of the city, then for the nearby suburbs.
The Colonial Revival-style yellow-brick 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. It 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. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, the only structure of its kind still standing in the greater New Haven area. By the late ‘90s, the congregation numbered only 100 or so, all elderly, who would hold the occasional morning minyan in the building’s basement, but the building was all but shuttered.
Diehard supporters and the Cultural Heritage Artists Project worked to preserve the landmark and keep it relevant to the Jewish community. A photography exhibit at the Ely John Slade House in New Haven brought the building to a wider audience in 2008.
Throughout its history, the congregation has been sustained by three generations of rabbis from the Hecht family. Current spiritual leader, Rabbi Mendy Hecht, succeeded his father, Rabbi Emeritus Sheya Hecht, and his grandfather, Maurice Hecht, who served as rabbi for 45 years.
The Orchard Street Shul also tells a story of a gradual comeback since it reopened in 2008, after a decade of inactivity. After the holes in the roof were repaired and the basement was renovated, Rabbi Mendy Hecht began drawing old-timers back with educational programs and the occasional minyan. Last year, after the huge crystal chandelier was cleaned, the shul held its first High Holiday services in decades, free of charge and open to the entire community.
The exterior brick facade will be repointed and the concrete stairs replaced in time for the High Holidays this year. “We have had an astonishing outpouring of volunteer support, including the terrific assistance of a construction manager from BEKI [Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel] and much general assistance from the community,” says co-vice president Mark Shiffrin. “People are coming together to rebuild the synagogue in what had been the historic home of New Haven’s Jewish community before it was destroyed as ‘slum clearance’ in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We even have a non-Jewish general contractor who has visited Israel and sees this work as more than a job,
but his taking part in the rebuilding of our local temple.”
Now there is a reliable minyan every Saturday morning, and a mix of congregants from children to Yale students to 90-somethings, and several families. They come from Greater New Haven, the shoreline, and Fairfield, and they sit around a table after services over kiddush (featuring Rabby Mendy Hecht’s renowned cholent), discussing Jewish texts and issues. They celebrate bar-mitzvah ceremonies and all the Jewish holidays.
“It’s so nice to see a place that hasn’t been operating for so many years becoming more vibrant,” says Lee Liberman, who joined the synagogue in 1947 and is serving again as president, after a first stint in the mid-‘90s. Then, there was probably not much hope that the synagogue would mark its centennial with a thriving congregation. But Liberman has already seen membership rise from 40 to 107 since he took the position two years ago.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Liberman recalls, the shul had to hire a police officer for the High Holidays to monitor the overflow crowd in the 540-seat sanctuary. After services began, no one could enter unless a fellow worshipper left the building.
That may not be necessary this year, but Liberman has already gotten a call from a former New Haven resident who will be visiting the city over Rosh Hashanah. “He asked whether we’re having services, and he wants seat number 7 downstairs in the men’s section and seat number 7 upstairs in the women’s section,” Lieberman says. “Those were his grandparents’ seats.”
The third of three yahrzeit boards is beginning to fill up: 18 brass plates have been sold over the last few months, joining names that date back 100 years.
Last year, the shul organized a reunion for its bar-mitzvah boys. Thirty-one showed up from all over the country, some in their 80s and 90s, and each received a certificate and a fountain pen. “A guy from Florida came up to the bimah and said, ‘This is one of the happiest days of my life. I thought I would never see this place again,’” Liberman recalls.
The shul is maintained and updated by donations from individuals and organizations, and the lowest membership dues in town: $100 will support the shul for a year, and give you an opportunity to worship in a historic sanctuary, perhaps even to sit in a seat once occupied by a beloved relative.
“It’s a great time to start the New Year by celebrating the future of Connecticut Jewry with the flourishing of New Haven’s historic shul that has persisted and is again in ascendency in spite of the odds,” says Shiffrin.
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