CT News

Fairfield Congregation packs up… and moves on

By Stacey Dresner

FAIRFIELD – On August 6, members of Congregation Ahavath Achim in Fairfield gathered at a brunch to honor Drs. Barbara and Peter Tuckel, who have been actively involved in the synagogue for many years.

The event was the last that Ahavath Achim would hold in their Stratfield Road building.

Earlier this week, the congregation sold the property to Senior Living Development (SLD), a developer that plans to tear down the synagogue building and construct a three-story assisted living center.

But members of Ahavath Achim say this is not the end of the Orthodox congregation.

“Temporarily, we are renting the use of a small building on Owen Fish Park which is a town park adjacent to our synagogue property,” said Sara Klein, co-president of Ahavath Achim, referring to the Lt. Owen Fish Memorial American Legion Banquet Hall located at the back entrance of the park on Stratfield Road.

“We are going to rent it, officially, for three months and hopefully will extend it…we will rent it for Friday night, Shabbat, the High Holidays and Sukkot,” Klein said.

Ahavath Achim’s first Shabbat services at the American Legion Hall will be held Friday evening, Sept. 1 and Saturday morning, Sept. 2.

“Being an Orthodox synagogue, of course we really have to stay pretty much where we were because many of our members still walk to the synagogue and they are counting on us to be there,” Klein added.

Rabbi Yirmiyah Moldovan, seen here with his wife, Hadassah, will stay on as part-time rabbi.

The congregation has also purchased a home in the neighborhood that will be occupied by their part-time spiritual leader, Rabbi Yirmiyah Moldovan, and his family.

Plans to sell the synagogue building to SLD and its CEO, Mark DePecol, have been in the works for three years.

The process was held up by the concerns of neighborhood residents who were not happy with the idea of an assisted living center being built on the site. Although the plot was already zoned R-3 allowing “special exceptions” such as synagogues, schools and other commercial usage, some neighbors complained that there are already several similar developments in the area, and that the proposed three-story assisted living center would not “fit into” the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood people did not want it because it was three stories high, but legally there was nothing to keep it from happening. But there is something in the Fairfield rules that said that if the neighborhood people think it is not in harmony with the neighborhood, they can appeal it,” Klein said.

Things like traffic flow, water and drainage were inspected and deemed okay by the town and the Fairfield Planning and Zoning Board in June approved the plans for the new construction.

For months Klein, co-president Elaine Schiller, Rabbi Moldovan and other members of Ahavath Achim have been hard at work cleaning out the 50-year-old building, which was filled with belongings and memorabilia from the congregation that was founded in 1905 in Bridgeport.

First located on Cherry Street, then later Hancock Avenue in Bridgeport, Ahavath Achim moved to Fairfield with the growth of the Jewish community there in the 1950s. Construction of the Stratfield Road synagogue took place from 1958 to 1963, and the building was dedicated in 1964.

The congregation experienced much growth in the 1970s, and received the National Heritage Award from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the OU) and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1980. In 1985, the congregation merged with Congregation Adath Yeshurun.

Renovations and additions to the synagogue building were made in 1995 in order to accommodate the growth of Hillel Academy, the community’s Jewish day school, which closed its doors in 2010 due to a low enrollment.

In 2003, the sanctuary was renovated shortly before Ahavath Achim celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005.

Sara Klein, who is in her late 80s, says she is one of the oldest members.

“My father put me in the Hebrew school in 1936 and I’ve been a member ever since,” said Klein, who in 1977, was the first woman to become a member of the Orthodox synagogue’s board.

Klein says that over the years Ahavath Achim has been hit by the same membership woes experienced by some other synagogues around the country.

“Membership has shrunk considerably, obviously people my age have died and the younger ones have started to move away,” she explained. “Some of them just went to Stamford because there is a young thriving Orthodox community there. The membership just decreased, and we couldn’t afford to maintain the big operation anymore.”

The congregation’s membership is currently at around 40 – 50 families, she says.

“We are planning as a small congregation to continue in the area…we have some very devoted members.”

For morning and evening minyans, congregants are talking with Biker Cholom in Bridgeport to figure out a way to hold those services there for the time being.

The congregation hired someone to help them clear out the building and donated many items to other organizations. Office supplies and furniture went to the Stratford Animal Rescue Society. Two large refrigerators and some dishes from the synagogue’s meat kitchen were donated to a charity in Bridgeport.

And a member with a connection to a congregation in Chicago arranged for Ahavath Achim’s “overabundance” of prayer books to be sent to the Chicago synagogue.

“We are saving some of the stuff from the sanctuary; anything that is not nailed down the developer says we have to take, so we are taking the mehitza [the structure separating the men’s and women’s section] in pieces, and some of these things will be stored until we can figure out how we can construct a little sanctuary that we can use,” Klein said.

She gave credit to B’nai Shalom Synagogue in Waterbury for also helping out.

“They are going to keep some of our Torahs for us because we have several and we have no place for them,” Klein said.

A week ago, representatives of the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County visited the synagogue building and took some of Ahavath Achim’s old monthly bulletins and photos for safekeeping.

Despite selling their beloved building, Klein is remaining positive.

“I feel it is too bad, but I also over the years have seen it coming,” Klein said. “I feel a little bit bad, but I feel good due to the fact that there are people who are still here feel that want to keep the congregation going.”

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