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The Enduring Legacy of the Jews of New Britain

By Stacey Dresner |  Photos courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society and Amy Richman

Abraham Ribickoff, the late U.S. Senator and the only Jew to serve as governor of Connecticut, was from New Britain. So was noted conceptual artist Sol Lewitt.

In its heyday, New Britain was home to a large and vibrant Jewish community with two synagogues, a strong focus on learning and Jewish education, and a successful business community of merchants and professionals.

This rich Jewish heritage will be the topic of “The Enduring Legacy of the Jews of New Britain,” a panel discussion presented by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. The event, to be held at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford, will feature a panel discussion on the history of New Britain’s Jews and the contributions they have made to life in Conneccticut.

Moderated by Roz Rachlin of West Hartford, whose late husband Joseph Rachlin was born and raised in New Britain, the panelists will include: Joshua Rubenstein, who will discuss Ribikoff and Lewitt’s contributions to the world; Gladys Pinsker Feigenbaum, who will talk about Tephereth Israel, New Britain’s Orthodox synagogue and its longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Henry Okolica, z”l; Jason Pearl, who will highlight the may Jewish businesses that existed in New Britain; and Sharon Zwelling Cohen, who will remember her father, Rabbi Harry Zwelling z”l, and Temple B’nai Israel, the town’s Conservative synagogue, which closed over 10 years ago.

Rachlin says that the event came about after some Jews with New Britain connections sought more programming about their town.

Shops on Hartford Ave.

“I think some people who were from New Britain and who went to programs that talked about the contributions of the Jews of Greater Hartford were just a little disappointed that the Jews of New Britain were left out of the panorama of Jewish life in Connecticut,” Rachlin explained.

“From early on New Britain was very Zionist, particularly before Israel was founded. It was a hotbed of communication and activism. A lot of professional people come from New Britain. They were inspired by Rabbi Zwelling to be activists, to be presidents of their synagogues. My husband grew up in New Britain and became president of Temple Beth El [in West Hartford]…There were a lot of people who came from New Britain who led other Jewish communities,” she added.

The idea for a program focusing on New Britain Jews had been talked about for a few years, so when Estelle Kafer, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society, contacted Rachlin about doing it now, Rachlin was happy to work on it.

“My husband died earlier this year and I knew he felt this way,” she explained. “I thought, my goodness, wouldn’t this be a lovely tribute to his yarzheit and to the family if we finally got this done.”

Rose and Irving Rachlin in front of their home on Camp Street in New Britain with their children, from left front, Joseph, William and Paula, circa 1941.

While there were Jews in New Britain as far back as the mid-1850s, mostly from the Austria-Hungary region, by the 1890s, the Jewish community had grown substantially with the arrival of Jews from Russia.

New Britain’s first Jewish congregation, Achenu B’nai Israel, was formed in 1896. The congregation bought a building at Elm and Chestnut streets in 1903, and the Orthodox synagogue became known as B’nai Israel. Temple B’nai Israel purchased the Masonic temple building on West Main Street in 1940. By the 1950s, the congregation was so large, it had to build a separate Hebrew school across the street.

By the 1920s, B’nai Israel had become Conservative, but a segment of the community wanting to remain Orthodox split away and founded Tephereth Israel Synagogue. Housed in a building they constructed on 76 Winter St., the congregation held their first Rosh Hashanah services in 1926.

Jews owned many of the businesses in New Britain, stores like Mussman Brothers Hardware Store, Mayfield’s, D&L, Berenbaum’s, and LeWitt’s Jewelery, owned by the uncle of Sol LeWitt.

After the heyday of New Britain’s Jewish community – from around the 1940s through the 1960s — many younger members began moving to West Hartford, the town to which many Jews were migrating.

With an aging population and fewer younger Jews, Temple B’nai Israel closed in the summer of 2007.

Many of the Jews of New Britain were descended from Zeleg and Goldie Milkowitz, who came to the U.S. from Russia in the early 1900s. The families of their children  — the Rachlins, Richmans, Sicklicks, Miles and Lipmans, among others — were all active members of the New Britain Jewish community although many spread to Hartford and West Hartford. Even Albie Hurwit, the West Hartford doctor turned composer is a member of the Milkowitz family. His work, “Are There Still Bells,” is about his mother’s family’s journey from Russia to New Britain.

Temple B’nai Israel

Other prominent New Britain families include the Feigenbaums and Nairs, who together founded a large scrap metal business.

Panelist Joshua Rubenstein was born in New Britain, as was his mother Ruth Ruden. “I grew up with extended family in New Britain on both my mother’s and father’s side,” he says.

His father Bernard owned Astman Furs on Main Street in New Britain and his father’s two older brothers owned and operated Connecticut Furriers on West Main Street in New Britain.

“We were a well-established New Britain family and my mother had many cousins in the area,” he says.

Rubenstein remains close to panelist Sharon Zwelling Cohen.

“I’m speaking about my father, Rabbi Harry Zwelling and the impact that the congregation and he had on people. The synagogue doesn’t exist anymore, but I have been talking to people whose lives were very affected by both my father and the congregation,” she said. “New Britain was a strong community, a very tight community.”

“The Enduring Legacy of the Jews of New Britain” will be held Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Mandell JCC, 333 Bloomfield Ave. For more information, contact (860) 727-6170 or lnewman@jewishhartford.org.

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