Historic New Haven synagogue celebrates a milestone
By Cindy Mindell
NEW HAVEN – A decade ago, the handful of elderly members still davening at Congregation Beth Israel, founded in 1913, never thought their congregation would make it to its 90th birthday. Known as the “Orchard Street Shul,” the Colonial Revival-style traditional Orthodox synagogue built in 1926 and listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, is the only structure of its kind in the region.
But with the building and membership in poor condition, it looked like the one-time anchor of New Haven’s thriving Oak Street-Legion Avenue Jewish neighborhood might have to be mothballed or sold.
In 2009, a revival began to take shape. Diehard supporters and the Cultural Heritage Artists Project worked to preserve the landmark building and keep it relevant to the Jewish community, raising funds for the renovations that would allow for High Holiday services in 2012.
Rabbi Mendy Hecht became the third generation of his family to serve the congregation as spiritual leader. He started adult education classes, regular Shabbat services with an enviable kiddush, and a monthly Friday night minyan. Numbers increased, the age range stretching to include teens and college students along with the longtime seniors and even nonagenarians.
This month, the Orchard Street Shul marks the 100th anniversary of Congregation Beth Israel, a milestone that defies the cumulative effect of urban renewal and “white flight” of the ‘60s and ‘70s, an aging congregation, and dwindling synagogue affiliation of the ‘90s and beyond.
“New Haven has a special Jewish history and this is the last piece left of that community and time,” says Hecht. “The fact that we’re able to use it is very special, and it’s really cool to be part of something that has meant so much to so many people.”
It’s no surprise that Hecht took on the pulpit of a flagging synagogue; he hails from a long line of optimists. His grandfather, Maurice Hecht, was sent to New Haven in 1942 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to establish one of the first Jewish day schools in the country. “People told him he was crazy,” Hecht says. “They would say, ‘We came to America to assimilate, not to start Jewish schools.’ He told me that the first thing you do when you’re trying to raise funds is learn how to stick your foot in the door before it’s closed on you.”
Maurice Hecht became director of the New Haven Hebrew Day School (now Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy, in Orange) and rabbi of the Orchard Street Shul, where he served for 45 years. He was succeeded in both positions by his son, Rabbi Sheya Hecht, who is current headmaster of the school; Mendy Hecht is assistant headmaster and director of development there.
When the shul was on the brink, it was Sheya Hecht who convinced his son to try to salvage the remnants and not allow the building to be sold.
It’s a good time for the neighborhood, says the third-generation optimist: Yale-New Haven Hospital recently purchased the Hospital of Saint Raphael, stimulating a lot of new housing construction near the synagogue. New Haven is encouraging people to move back into the city from the suburbs. And people are finding their way to the Orchard Street Shul.
“It’s not only for the historic value, but people feel like they’re part of a community now,” Hecht says. “They’ve made new friends there, they hang out after services, it’s become a place where Jewish people can congregate, participate, and have a positive and meaningful experience.”
The secret, Hecht says, is fostering a “post-label synagogue.”
“In America, we Jews have created a divide based on how people choose to worship, but we’re not a big enough people to be able to do this. We should stop labeling each other, look past the things that divide us, and embrace the things that unite us.”
The history and layout of Orchard Street Shul may be Orthodox, but the doors are open to anyone and the experience inside is a personal spiritual journey, Hecht says. “People assume they’re not ‘Jewish enough’ to come, but there’s no such thing, no one’s grading you or counting how many Hebrew prayers you know. People tell me how warm and welcoming the shul is. And that’s what we’re trying to create: a place where people can feel welcomed, where people know who they are and are encouraged to participate at any level they want.”
Hecht sees the 88-year-old synagogue as a bridge, not only to the past, but to a future Jewish community.
“Jewish history has an entire continuum and we have to do our part,” he says. “At the same time, we have to remember that we’re not the only part and can’t isolate ourselves and ignore the fact that the American Jewish world is ready to embrace other Jews based on the fact that they’re Jewish, not based on the denomination they belong to. We feel the presence of those who came before us at the shul, and realize that we wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t created the path. And now we have to provide for the future.”
Orchard Street Shul Gala 100th Anniversary Dinner honoring Mayor Toni Harp and Lee and Lily Liberman will be held Sunday, May 18, 3:30 p.m., 232 Orchard St., New Haven. For information and reservations visit orchardstreetshul.org/dinner.html or call (203) 776-1468.
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