By Cindy Mindell ~
NEW HAVEN – With the typical 20th-century ebb and flow of Jewish populations in and out of many New England cities, it’s unusual for an urban synagogue to reach a milestone of significance.
But Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, or BEKI, has fulfilled the traditional Jewish blessing, “May you live until 120 years.”
The Conservative New Haven synagogue is the result of a merger between two New Haven shuls established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Congregation Beth El, founded in 1892 as B’nai Israel, and Temple Keser Israel, founded in 1909.
Next month, BEKI will celebrate its auspicious anniversary.
B’nai Israel began as a handful of families in 1891, who worshiped in one another’s homes and hired a teacher for a Mishna study group. The following year, the group purchased land for a cemetery in the Highwood section of Hamden, under the name “Chevra Benai Israel,” and filed Articles of Association with the state of Connecticut as the Congregation B’nai Israel.
The congregation purchased a house at 10 Rose Street in 1894, and built what came to be known as the “Rose Street Shul.” In 1901, under financial stress, the group reorganized as “Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol B’nai Israel,” and became the largest traditional congregation in the area.
By the 1940s and the end of World War II, the Jewish population had begun to migrate to the surrounding suburbs, and B’nai Israel’s membership dwindled. Urban renewal in the 1950s saw plans for the multi-lane Oak Street Connector that would slice through the center of Jewish New Haven, and the city purchased the Rose Street building, which stood in the highway’s path.
The Rose Street board decided to build two synagogues to serve its scattered membership. The City offered a parcel of land on Congress Avenue for a new downtown synagogue, later swapped with Yale University for a property on Howard Avenue. For the members who had moved to the Westville section of the city, the congregation purchased the Benton School property at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Harrison Street.
The congregation gathered at the Rose Steet Shul for the last time on Sukkot 1957. They continued to meet at Cedar Street School and the Jewish Community Center on Chapel Street as plans for the two new buildings were discussed.
By June 1960, when the new synagogue in Westville was dedicated, the congregation was in a full-blown legal dispute over whether the sanctuary should have mixed male-female seating, as preferred by the majority of members, or a mechitza; each side had hired its own rabbi and attorney.
The resulting court settlement granted the minority faction – about a dozen families – the Howard Avenue property, the Rose Street Ark, several cemetery plots, and a monetary settlement, as well as the right to the B’nai Israel name. The remaining 170 families on Harrison Street reorganized as “Congregation Beth El.” In January 1967, Beth El formally joined the United Synagogue of America, officially identifying as a Conservative congregation. In 1974, the name and assets of B’nai Israel were acquired by The Westville Synagogue, a nearby Orthodox congregation.
In 1909, a small group of Jewish families who had settled in the Dixwell Avenue neighborhood purchased a building on Foote Street and established Temple Keser Israel. In 1945, the congregation joined the Conservative movement, the United Synagogue of America. Three years later, the congregation sold the Foote Street building and purchased the Norton Street Congregational Home. When the Plymouth Church at the corner of Chapel Street and Sherman Avenue simultaneously became available, the congregation purchased that building instead. The new synagogue was dedicated in 1951.
While a merger between the two congregations who would become BEKI date back to 1960, it wasn’t until 1966 that committees were officially convened to begin a real exploration.
Both congregations voted approval of the merger in March 1968 as Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, with more than 600 member families. But the late ‘60s saw another migration to the suburbs, and the congregation shrank over the next decade.
The trend began to improve in 1993, when Jon-Jay Tilsen became the spiritual leader of BEKI. Several years later, the synagogue’s profile drew national recognition: a 2001 Solomon Schechter Gold Awards from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for its outreach and programming for people with special needs, and for environmental stewardship; Energy Star Awards in 2001 and 2002 from the United States Environmental Protection Agency of the Department of Energy.
In 2006, the synagogue received a major grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund to further its efforts in family education and synagogue transformation through the issues related to solar energy and conservation. Today, the congregation boasts nearly 300 member families, and another 200 non-member families.
One of Conservative Judaism’s central insights has always been the self-awareness that comes from an appreciation of the historical development and the evolution of Jewish civilization, says Tilsen. “Most fittingly, the congregation’s own history – like that of the other leading congregations in Connecticut – is itself a rich source of that insight. To the extent that the congregation has been able to retain its focus on mitzvot, sacred community, and Torah study, and to adapt to a radically changed environment, it has been able to thrive,” he says.
In Tilsen’s view, the congregation has survived this long not only because it operates from an enlightened ideology rooted firmly in tradition, but because it has always maintained certain elements of a self-sustaining community. “Those include a focus on youth education, and engagement with the mainstream mitzvot of Shabbat, kashrut and Talmud Torah,” he says. “It is a community of people who respect the spiritual and intellectual integrity of our members, their families, and our friends. Like our neighboring congregations in Connecticut, there are reasons that it persists, and it is good to know those reasons.”
Today, BEKI boasts a range of religious, educational, and cultural programming for all ages, with a special emphasis on tikkun olam activities throughout the New Haven community.
“We have a very alive, energetic congregation and I think it’s amazing how much vitality there is, considering how old BEKI is,” says Carl Goldfield, a co-chair of the BEKI 120 Celebration committee.
Goldfield and his family joined the synagogue 18 years ago. At the time, he nicknamed BEKI a “Jew-It-Yourself” congregation, reflecting the high level of member participation and engagement.
The synagogue is replete with intellectually interesting people, Goldfield says, many from the surrounding Yale community, which makes for a particularly stimulating environment. “Add to that a rabbi who doesn’t have an ego,” he says of Tilsen, “a guy who is totally open to new ideas, while maintaining the halachic tradition. I think people feel good about the fact that, at a time when many other congregations have gotten old and ossified, BEKI has continued to renew itself.”
As BEKI celebrates its 120th year, it has much to be proud of, Tilsen says, even in a challenging economic and demographic environment. “The committed and thoughtful leaders of the congregation have been able to maintain strong daily services morning and evening with a minyan nearly 100 percent of the time,” he says. “We have a balanced budget, the most modest dues of synagogues in our class, and have maintained and improved the building. We’ve sent more kids to Jewish summer camps and more kids to Jewish day schools and Jewish high schools than other synagogues our size. In business you’d call this ‘good management,’ but in our case, it is a service of the heart.”
BEKI will celebrate its 120th anniversary on Sunday, July 1, 4-7 p.m., with a communal bring-your-own picnic at 85 Harrison St., New Haven. For more info: (203) 389-2108.