By Alex Gerber
A year ago, Young Israel of Hartford, one of West Hartford’s oldest synagogues was on the verge of a collapse. Board member Bumi Gelb, who was well into his 80s, was working hard to keep the shul alive, but a dwindling congregation took its toll. The shul’s future seemed so grim that its board of directors, expecting the worst, donated most of its belongings to other shuls and Jewish organizations in the area.
But there were some members within the congregation who refused to let the synagogue close down. Last year, the Ledger reported on the successful efforts of Alan Merriman, Ilya Tzvok, Yosi Awad, and Shmuel Halpern to save the shul from the brink of disappearing (“The Young Guns of Young Israel: Saving a Shul, Building a Community,” Jewish Ledger, Oct. 31, 2014).
One year later, renovations have transformed Young Israel into a vibrant spiritual destination.
The walls offer a warm welcome with a new coat of paint. The building has undergone much-needed electrical work, and a new carpet was installed.
Tzvok sat down with the Ledger to discuss the shul’s future.
“To tell you the truth, it’s a lot of work,” he said.
“We inherited a building in very poor condition. The siding, the roofing, the plumbing, the windows…everything needs work.”
Fearing that the shul would soon reach its end, the former board scrapped everything inside, from the chairs to the bima. Some items were handed off to other shuls in the area – including the Torahs and the books that lined the shelves; other items were sold, with the earnings donated to local Jewish organizations.
“The Torahs we have now are all on loan to us.
I don’t think the previous board believed that the synagogue would be around after they left, so they donated what they could to other synagogues. We came in to take over a little late. We live in such a big Jewish community, but there had to be a couple of schleppers who came here and took over,” Tzvok joked.
“While we’re still excited about the future of the shul, we have been introduced to our little everyday problems. The honeymoon phase is over. Now we have a family to take care of,” he added.
That family has slowly grown in size since a year ago when the entire congregation consisted of 10 families — and is still interested in reaching out to the community.
“It really feels like Israel,” Tzvok said. “You can find everyone here; we have Chinese, Ethiopians, Yemenites, Askenazis, Sephardis — our doors are open to everyone. We want to hear the Mizrahi tunes here because nobody else in the area does it. And, while we are open to everyone, we really seek out those who don’t already belong to a shul, those who are not exposed. We want to show the beauty of prayer, the beauty of the tunes, and the beauty of communicating with one another. We treat each other like a small family.”
Tzvok assured that no one is refused membership for financial reasons.
“Our membership cost is minimal, and our associate membership is even less. We are more interested in people coming here,” he says.
As of right now, the shul has services on Saturdays and Sundays; but with a larger congregation, they hope to also offer services on Mondays and Thursdays, and to eventually have daily minyan.
“We are planning to make the synagogue even more vibrant than it was 40 years ago,” said Tzvok.
And, of course, it will continue what has become a tradition of elaborate kiddushes – thanks to board member Yosi Awad, owner and operator of one of the area’s premier kosher caterers, Yosi’s Kitchen.
“I would say nobody has it like us,” boasts Tsvok. “Yosi sponsors most of the kiddushes – and so we have delicious food. But we also have excellent conversations. We enjoy every minute here. It’s a very good bunch of friends.”
And the synagogue looks forward to seeing new friendships blossom in year two. n
Young Israel of Hartford is located at 1137 Trout Brook Dr. For more information call (860) 523-7804.
Alex Gerber is an intern at the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.
CAP: New paint, carpeting and chairs were part of the Young Israel’s recent renovation.