By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Congregation Agudas Achim Anshe Sfard, “a group of brothers, people of Sepharad,” was founded in Hartford on Oct. 4, 1887 by Romanian Jewish immigrants seeking to continue the Sephardic Jewish tradition of their homeland.
Congregation Agudas Achim, now located on North Main Street in West Hartford, will celebrate its 125th anniversary on Sunday, Mar. 17. Rabbi Ari Weiss is the current spiritual leader at Agudas Achim, which now numbers 60 member families. He took over the position in August 2009 from Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, who became fulltime scholar-in-residence at Chabad at Harvard.
“The significance of reaching a 125th anniversary is huge,” Weiss says. “We’re the area’s oldest, still-functioning Orthodox congregation, and we’ve have had our doors open seven days a week for 125 years.”
Also known as the “Romanische Shul,” congregants 125 years ago met in the back room of a house on Front Street in Hartford. The first rabbi to serve Agudas Achim was Isaac S. Hurewitz, appointed in 1893 upon his arrival in Hartford. Hurewitz simultaneously served several other Hartford congregations and worked as a kosher butcher until his death in 1935.
Services were held in members’ homes until 1903, when the congregation purchased a house on Market Street. In 1928, as the local Jewish community grew and began to migrate northward, the congregation relocated to a new building at 221 Greenfield Street, designed by architects Julius Berenson and Jacob F. Moses in the Colonial Revival style and the last of six synagogues constructed in Hartford’s North End during the pre-Depression building boom of the 1920s.
Among the notable rabbis who served the synagogue during its first century was Abraham AvRutick, who led the congregation for 36 years beginning in 1946, and who also became president of the Rabbinical Council of America in 1962. He led the 350-family congregation in its final move, to 1244 Main Street in West Hartford, in 1969.
The congregation’s evolution is not only an important part of local history, but its reach extends statewide and beyond, Rabbi Weiss says. “There are hundreds of people throughout our community and the state who celebrated their bar mitzvah at Agudas, or who had their wedding here, or were married by Agudas rabbis. I’ve met and spoken to people from other states who grew up in Agudas, attended the Hebrew school, and continued on to make their mark on American Jewish society. Everyone has a story and a memory about the special people they met at Agudas or the times their parents, their grandparents, or even their great-grandparents took them to shul with them.”
Those memories are woven into the very fabric of the synagogue building, Weiss says, from commemorative plaques and photos of members and clergy, to the 200-year-old Torah scroll salvaged from the 1936 Park River flood that devastated downtown Hartford. “Walking into the synagogue, one feels not only the presence of those who are seen, but also the presence of the generations of those who are here in spirit, and are still a part of the love, the feeling, and the culture in the synagogue,” he says.
Weiss attributes the synagogue’s success and longevity to robust leadership, both human and divine. “I can just look to the positive attributes of Agudas Achim and speculate as to whether this is the reason God has helped us be so successful,” he says. “Agudas has always been blessed with outstanding leadership. The rabbinic leaders of Agudas have all been individuals of exceptional ability, scholarship, and talent. Additionally, the lay leadership has always been devoted and dedicated. Lastly, the congregants of the synagogue are caring and accepting, which is why our synagogue is so warm and welcoming.”
As to the next 25 years, Weiss sees the congregation becoming an even stronger force in the community, advocating on behalf of Israel, and involved in both local and world issues. “Besides seeing the shul grow in membership, I look forward to the personal growth of the people inside Agudas Achim,” he says. “Every person who comes into the shul remarks about the warm feel and the specialness of Agudas. I would expect to see the impact that Agudas has on others manifest itself in personal growth, both in practice and observance, as well as in spirituality and belief. Agudas’s legacy is in the impact it has made and continues to make on the Jewish community in West Hartford, as well as Jewish communities throughout the world.”
Beginning this summer, Weiss will watch developments from afar, when he makes aliyah together with his wife and their two children make aliyah. Agudas Achim has begun a search process for the leader who will guide the congregation toward its bicentennial.
For information about the 125th anniversary of Agudas Achim: www.agudas.org / (860) 233-6241
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