By Cindy Mindell
MERIDEN – This year marks the 125th anniversary of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden. The congregation began its celebration in September and will continue the festivities with a December Shabbaton featuring an area cantor who hasn’t returned to the synagogue since her own bat mitzvah ceremony there in the 1970s.
Cantor Debbie Katchko-Gray, who will be the temple’s artist-in-residence on Dec. 13-15, was “thrilled” by an invitation from current spiritual leader, Rabbi Michael Kohn. “I still have a leaf on the B’nai Abraham Tree of Life,” she says.
Though she grew up in Stamford, Katchko-Gray was part of the B’nai Abraham congregation in the ‘70s when her father, Theodore Katchko, served as cantor there. It was his second stint, after a decade-long tenure at Temple Sholom in Greenwich. After 10 years at B’nai Abraham, Theodore Katchko would go on to serve Temple B’nai Israel in New Britain.
Katchko-Gray will lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Chasidic style of Shlomo Carlebach, including a sing-along of Carlebach “hits.” On Shabbat, she will lead Shachrit in the traditional chanting style of her late grandfather, Cantor Adolph Katchko, and teach new synagogue songs. On Sunday, she will work with the religious-school students on parodies of Jewish holiday songs, to be performed for parents at a congregational brunch.
The congregation traces its history back to 1887, when the fledgling Jewish community purchased land on Corrigan Avenue and established Chevra B’nai Abraham Cemetery. The first burial took place six years later. The cemetery would continue to expand until 1939 with two additional purchases of adjacent properties.
In 1889, an official charter was issued to Chevra B’nai Abraham, established as a place of religious worship by Meyer Abrams. A building was erected in 1891 at 43 Cedar St. to serve 125 member families. In addition to men’s and women’s prayer sections, the building also contained a basement mikveh, the shamas’s living quarters, and religious-school classrooms. The women’s section was housed on the balcony overhead.
Sections of the cemetery were designated for several local Jewish organizations: Silver City Lodge #152 I.O.B.A. (Independent Order of B’nai Abraham), Workmen’s Circle #159, and a group from Wallingford known as the Young Men’s Hebrew Benefit Association. In 1972, representatives of the Silver City Lodge, Workmen’s Circle, and Chevra B’nai Abraham turned over their respective deeds to the temple and thereafter, the cemetery was known as Temple B’nai Abraham Cemetery. Today, the cemetery consists of two sections: the Meriden Hebrew Cemetery and the Frank Memorial Cemetery. The congregation has always maintained a chevra kadisha (an organization of Jewish men and women who prepare the dead for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition).
In 1908, a new and larger building was constructed on the same site, and would house the congregation for 45 years, also serving as a meeting-place for the men’s social club, ladies’ aid faculty, Zionist Organization, junior and senior Hadassah chapters, Young Judaea, and the Meriden Jewish War Veterans.
In 1941, a new building fund was established, spearheaded by the Sisterhood. Member Frieda Frank acquired property on Lincoln Street, sold by the board in favor of an alternative site at 127 East Main Street. The following year, the formerly Orthodox Chevra B’nai Abraham became an affiliate of the United Synagogue of America, the lay organization of Conservative Judaism.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new building took place in February 1951 and the cornerstone was laid in September. On Sept. 7, 1952, eight elders of the congregation carried the sifrei Torah from the Cedar Street building to the new building half a mile away.
The congregation then boasted some 360 member families and 200 religious-school students. Membership grew to 450 families from the surrounding communities of Cheshire, Southington, and Durham. In 1960, the past presidents and other temple dignitaries burned the building mortgage.
In 1980, B’nai Abraham elected Ruth Kahn as its first female president; 20 years later, Gloria Rubin was named the congregation’s first woman rabbi, serving for eight years prior to Rabbi Michael Kohn’s arrival in 2008. The temple counts 170 member units (families and individuals) from the original surrounding communities, as well as Rocky Hill, North Haven, and Cromwell.
Wallingford resident David Kaye became president in June and serves as chair of the 125th anniversary planning effort. “It’s been wonderful to see the congregation come out and celebrate at our first two events, and it’s great to have Cantor Katchko-Gray come back to the temple,” he says. “We’re looking forward to celebrating our next 125th anniversary, to continue to extend our reach throughout central Connecticut and maintain a Jewish presence and institution in the region.”
The congregation will wrap up its year of celebration on May 18, 2014, with a Lag BaOmer performance by the New London-based Klezmenschen.
For more information on Temple B’nai Abraham’s 125th anniversary celebration call (860) 235-2581 or visit www.meridentemple.org.
Comments? email email@example.com.