Beit Mordechai follows a rich Sephardic tradition – but is welcoming to all
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Since 2014, when they took over Young Israel of Hartford as it was about to close its doors, a group of dedicated individuals have been hard at work trying to keep a congregation going at the Trout Brook Drive synagogue building.
The Orthodox synagogue has now been renamed Beit Mordechai and its congregation, which includes some Israelis and other Mizrachi Jews, now follows the rich Sephardic tradition, with Sephardic prayer, and the beautiful Eastern-flavored tunes of Sephardic music. (Mizrahi, which is Hebrew for Eastern, is used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern descent, such as Jews from Iraq and Syria.)
Come this Rosh Hashana, the leaders of Beit Mordechai are hoping it is filled with members new and old who want to celebrate the Jewish New Year in the Sephardic style. A rabbi from Israel is coming in to lead the congregation for the High Holidays.
“Mizrachi is beautiful,” said Ilya Tzvok, president of Beit Mordechai. “It is not that much different from everybody else, but I love the way they sing. The melodies and details of the prayers are beautiful. This is a mizrachi style – an Israeli style – how they pray here.”
But Tzvok stressed that the synagogue is not just for Israelis or those who come from the Sephardic tradition.
“Even though we have a nusach Mizrachi [a style of form of prayer that is Mizrachi], this place is welcoming to everyone,” Tzvok said. “We just daven the Sephardic way, the original way they davened in the Middle East.”
The formation of Beit Mordechai is a rebirth of sorts.
Tzvok, who immigrated 26 years ago from the former Soviet Union, was one of the four men who acted three years ago when Young Israel was about to close its doors. The others were Yosi Awad, Shmuel Halpern and Allen Merriman.
In 2014 the four men sent out an appeal to the West Hartford Jewish community asking them to support the longtime Orthodox synagogue.
The letter read in part, “Each and every one of us has a deeper responsibility to this community than we consider…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.”
And the appeal seemed to work.
“During the High Holidays we had a miracle,” Tzvok told the Jewish Ledger back in 2014. “Two minyans, each with 15 people, and the first kabbalat Shabbat service in a couple of years.”
When their missive was posted on Facebook, they also were greeted by community members who were interested in reviving a defunct Sephardic minyan, one of the reasons the congregation has shifted to the Sephardic tradition.
But they have not forgotten about the rich history of Young Israel of Hartford, which was originally established as part of the nationwide Young Israel organization in the mid-1930s. 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 Drive and Young Israel of West Hartford on Albany Avenue.
For more than 35 years, until his death in 1978, Rabbi Charles M. Batt led Young Israel of Hartford.
But in recent years, as the congregation aged, membership had fallen to fewer than 10 active members. With just a handful of congregants, shepherded by dedicated community leaders like Bumi Gelb, Young Israel saw its schedule of services shrink from daily and Shabbat minyanim to Shabbat-morning and holiday worship.
Tzvok credits Bumi Gelb, 90, for keeping the synagogue going for so many years. Between hosting people in his home, bringing food and supplies to the shul, and making countless phone calls to people to make sure the synagogue had a daily minyan, Gelb kept the synagogue alive.
“The synagogue is alive today only because of him,” Tzvok said. “He ran the synagogue probably for 50 years. He is a righteous man who dedicated his life to this synagogue.”
Shmuel Halpern, another longtime member, had reached out to Tzok in 2012 to discuss keeping the synagogue open. “I brought a couple of friends of mine and we decided that the shul should not be closed,” Tzvok recalled.
But the group has been conscious about not causing any strain on the local Orthodox shuls.
“This community has five or six Orthodox synagogues and every synagogue has a problem with a minyan. But they are all Ashkenaz. There is no synagogue in the state that has the Sephardic minyan. But we have a bunch of Russians and bunch of Israelis that never attend a shul. That was the only solution we came to – by having a Sephardic service we are not going to take members from other synagogues,” Tzvok explained. “We are going to offer something else – potentially bringing more Israelis here…So when they come to the community, the community becomes richer, it becomes more vibrant. They are more conservative, so for the Jewish community it is excellent because they want to bring their kids up Jewish, they want Jewish education, they want to bring more businesses, they want to buy real estate. It is potentially a good thing.”
As the High Holidays near, Beit Mordechai is still undergoing some renovations. When it was planning to close back in 2014, Young Israel had donated most of its belongings to other synagogues and Jewish organizations.
Under its new crew of leaders, the sanctuary received a fresh coat of white paint and new carpeting, which brightened the space up, and members purchased some furniture, some pieces were donated, and Torahs were given to them on loan. They still have plans for more renovations to the building.
Tzvok stresses the hard work of the core group that is dedicated to the new synagogue. Yosi Awad, a Sephardic Jew from Israel best known for his catering company Yosi’s Kosher Kitchen.
“Yosi doesn’t just bring the food; he is one of the pillars”; said Halpern, who was active in Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Long Island before relocating to West Hartford; and Allen Merriman, a transplant from New Jersey who came to study at UConn and stayed because of the vibrant Jewish community.
Two years ago Shlomo Zazon moved his family from Waterbury to West Hartford and became the synagogue’s spiritual leader.
“He moved for this synagogue. He’s the one who knows how to [daven in the Sephardic style],” Tzvok laughed.
Tzvok also points to Nir Godel, Leon Sasanov and Allen Keller and their dedication to Beit Mordechai.
Another member longtime member, Herb Max, offered a suggestion for the congregation’s new name, which has special meaning for Ilya Tzvok. “Mordechai” is the Hebrew name of his son Mark, z”l, who passed away 12 years ago.
Tzvok adds that the female members, including Danielle Zazon and Susan Hoffberg, are just as dedicated.
“Without them we would not be able to function,” Tzvok said. “Everybody is equally important in our little shul.”
The entire group hopes to 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. Already, several rabbis have been presenting lectures and classes at Beit Mordechai.
Tzvok said that Beit Mordechai has minyans most of the Shabbatot – 10 or more men and their families – some Israelis, some older members, some Askhenazis.
“We have challenges, no doubt about it,” he said. “We are slowly growing but we are planning to grow more, to the point where we won’t be able to fit people in here,” he grinned.
CAP: Ilya Tzvok stands beside the ark in the new Beit Mordechai Synagogue.