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The young guns of Young Israel – Saving a shul, building a community

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Just weeks ago, at the close of Yom Kippur, the final blast of the shofar nearly brought the close of the Young Israel of Hartford. In an appeal to the West Hartford Jewish community, a group of four younger congregants described the view from the brink and asked for a lifeline.

The letter reads, “Each and every one of us has a deeper responsibility to this community than we consider. This year, we have already overcome the threat of deterioration when the Crown [Market] was saved from closing. As we enter the new year of 5775 we CANNOT allow the hallmark event to start the year to be the closing of Young Israel. It is simply untenable.”

The Young Israel of Hartford on Trout Brook Dr. in West Hartford.

The Young Israel of Hartford on Trout Brook Dr. in West Hartford.

The Orthodox congregation was established in Hartford as part of the nationwide Young Israel organization in the mid-‘30s. As membership grew, the shul moved twice, splitting into two congregations in 1972 to serve two areas of the Orthodox community – Young Israel of Hartford on Trout Brook Avenue, and Young Israel of West Hartford on Albany Avenue.

For more than 35 years, until his death in 1978, Rabbi Charles M. Batt of West Hartford led Young Israel of Hartford.

“We call it ‘the little shul that could,’” says Alan Merriman, one of the authors of the High Holiday appeal. “It’s been chugging along for many, many years as a very stable, traditional community with a strong core contingent.”

But gradually, in the all-too-familiar scenario, the congregation and its building have aged, and membership has fallen to fewer than 10 active members.

“There are a lot of synagogue options in West Hartford – newer, more vital places where people can go and not have to deal with a dwindling little shul,” Merriman says. “Just like anywhere else, if there isn’t some kind of outreach, growth, and turnover, the shul loses members and there’s no one to step in to keep it going.”

With just a handful of congregants, shepherded by dedicated community leaders like Bumi Gelb, Young Israel has seen its schedule of services shrink from daily and Shabbat minyanim to Shabbat-morning and holiday worship.

The sanctuary of the Young Israel of Hartford.

The sanctuary of the Young Israel of Hartford.

As the word “closing” went from suggestion to certainty, Merriman and three fellow congregants decided to act. The “Little Israel at Young Israel,” as they refer to themselves, is a diverse group of 30- and 40-somethings immersed in the West Hartford modern Orthodox community. Merriman is a transplant from New Jersey who came to study at UConn and stayed because of the vibrant Jewish community. Ilya Tzvok immigrated 23 years ago from the Former Soviet Union. Yosi Awad is a Sephardic Jew from Israel (best known for Yosi Kitchen, a kosher catering establishment). New York native Shmuel Halpern was active in Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Long Island before relocating to West Hartford.

The group hopes to renovate and revitalize the shul, not just as a place of regular worship, but also as a center of Jewish learning and cultural programs that brings together members of the diverse local Jewish community and draws younger participants. Services have already begun to run the gamut of Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, with Ethiopian minhag included as well.

“We’re not looking to do Young Israel the way it was,” says Merriman. “There’s transition, pain, and growth, but it will ultimately be in a way that’s going to bring the old together with the new approach.”

The group posted its appeal on Facebook’s “Jewish Life in West Hartford” page and was surprised at the response, especially from community members who reminisced about a now-defunct Sephardic minyan and expressed interest in reviving the tradition.

The letter and social media campaign must have struck a chord.

“During the High Holidays we had a miracle,” says Tzvok: “Two minyans, each with 15 people, and the first kabbalat Shabbat service in a couple of years.”

The endeavor is also about respect for elders, Merriman says.

“I was told by people, with tears in their eyes, that on Rosh Hashana they were blown away at the turnout, because they thought there was no way they would be able to get to holiday services this year,” he says. “That was one of the most meaningful things for me because this effort is about making sure that a pillar of our community does not falter, that there are minyan and holiday services for elders.”

Merriman and Tzvok see Young Israel becoming a welcoming place for all Orthodox traditions.

“The important thing is that everybody accepts each other with their differences; we’re not trying to fit everybody into a little box,” Merriman says. “We have baseline standards relating to halacha, but this is about accepting the broader community: come as you are and be with us and you have a place here – all in the service of Hashem.”

The image of a shuttered shul seems to be a thing of the past now. “I am sure that that place is going to be blessed,” says Tzvok.

“I can already feel a vibration right now.”

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com

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