CHESTER – On Oct. 21, 2001, members of the newly-merged congregations of Beth Shalom and Rodfe Zedek took the Torah scrolls from Beth Shalom in Deep River and walked across the Connecticut River to their new building in Chester.
The procession was in itself a bridge of sorts, spanning nearly 100 years of Jewish communal life on the eastern and western river-banks.
Over the weekend of Oct. 21, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek (CBSRZ) will celebrate 10 years in its current home, a building co-designed by congregant and artist Sol LeWitt, z”l.
While Jews have lived in the area since the late 1800s, the first synagogue wasn’t established until 1906. Until that time, local Jews held services in private homes. That year, rural families centered in Moodus came together as an informal group of worshippers. Nine years later, they bought an old house and turned it into a synagogue, creating Congregation Rodfe Zedek. In 1935, across the Connecticut River in the town of Deep River, chicken farmer Isadore Romanoff held services at his house, with a Torah kept in his desk. The resulting group, Congregation Beth Shalom, purchased a Lutheran church on Union Street. Members originally intended to use the building for only a few years, but didn’t leave until the merger, more than half a century later.
The 1980s and ‘90s saw an influx of Jewish families into the lower Connecticut River Valley, and membership increased at Congregation Beth Shalom, which hired its first full-time rabbi in 1990. When the building soon proved too small to house its growing population, synagogue leaders approached Rodfe Zedek to discuss a possible merger. In 1999, the two congregations east and west of the river joined together as Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek. Over the next two years, members worked to create a new and permanent home.
The ultimate building blueprint was a first for the two artists involved: Chester architect Steve Lloyd had never designed a synagogue, and congregant-artist Sol LeWitt had never designed a building. LeWitt incorporated elements reminiscent of the traditional Eastern European wooden synagogues wiped out during the Holocaust. The ceiling contains a skylight surrounded by wooden beams that form an enormous Star of David, salvaged from old factories in Bridgeport.
Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, who joined the congregation after it had occupied the new building, learned of the inspiration for the unusual ceiling design from longtime congregant George Amarant.
“Initially, Sol’s design had included a domed sanctuary, but board member Henry Resnikoff knew that a dome would be too expensive, because the ring that stabilizes a round dome itself would cost around $50,000,” she says. “George and his wife Donna happened to be in England and visited a water mill dating back to the 16th century. To their surprise, the water wheel in this medieval structure was supported by a six-pointed star. The building had no Jewish history or function – the star was there simply as a structural element. This is what led to our sanctuary’s unique roof, and it was Sol’s idea to make the roof off-center.”
LeWitt also designed an ark for the new building, using his signature bright colors for
the doors, a motif recreated on a 10th-anniversary commemorative leather kippah. The
two designers incorporated the Ark and other artifacts from the old Rodfe Zedek synagogue into the new building.
“We knew we wanted something that made a statement, something different,” says Lary Bloom, vice president of the board of directors. But money was especially scarce, since the congregation’s treasury had been embezzled in the mid-‘90s. In the end, the design came together on a limited budget. Within a few years of moving into the new building, members had managed to raise close to $2 million and pay off the mortgage.
“In my own view, the dramatic nature of the building is itself a work of art, and was part of the secret of being able to raise funds for it,” says Bloom. “Not that it was all that easy – it never is – but it certainly helped that we had a beautiful building, something we’re proud of.”
A weekend of special events
The commemorative weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek building features several free special events:
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 7:30 p.m.
During Shabbat services, architect Steve Lloyd talks about the design process; musical performance by cantorial soloist Belinda Brennan and pianist John DiNicola of DiNicola’s “We Built This House,” commissioned for the building consecration
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23
3 p.m. – Interactive workshop for children by visiting artists The Real Vocal String Quartet
5 p.m. – Free concert by The Real Vocal String Quartet, and ceremony honoring congregants involved in planning the new building
For more information: www.cbsrz.org or (860) 526-8920