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Historic Synagogue Marks 100 Years

by Allan Appel | May 20, 2014 12:49 pm

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Posted to: Religion, Dwight, West River, News From The Pews

Allan Appel Photo “You sold shoes on Legion Avenue. Three dollars a pair,” Paul Weiss told 100-year-old Herb Croog.

“Your grandfather circumcised me,” Croog reminded 90-year-old Samuel Faiman.

Such revelations and dueling recollections were part of a centennial celebration Sunday, for Congregation Beth Israel. It drew, appropriately enough, about 100 people to the now beautifully preserved historic structure on Orchard Street near Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Affectionately known as the Orchard Street Shul, the Orthodox congregation was established in a house on Orchard and nearby Asylum Street in 1914 (or in 1913, if you want to be Talmudic and technical, according to Rabbi Mendy Hecht who presided).

Congregants built their noble pile of bricks on Orchard Street ten years later, and it immediately became an anchoring synagogue for the fast growing Jewish community of the Oak Street immigrant neighborhood, said Sam Teitelman, a past president of the synagogue who helped start the drive in the 1990s to reclaim and restore the building in a neighborhood that saw its Jewish population start to flee westward in the 1950s and 1960s. The building became shuttered; services no longer took place there.

(Click here for a story about the Hannukah party at the shul in the middle of restoration. And here for an event that brought back the congregation’s grown-up bar mitzvah boys from across the generations.)

The revival of the community has run in tandem with a $250,000 capital campaign to preserve and restore the physical synagogue, which is now on the National Historic Register. It remains city’s the only Jewish house of worship operating in its historic building and active in the old neighborhood, said the congregation’s vice president, Mark Shiffrin, who led the fundraising campaign.

Sunday’s centennial event honored current shul President Lee Liberman and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. As a state senator Harp helped the congregation obtain the first preservation grant to secure the windows and envelope of the building, the first step in the restoration campaign, said Shiffrin.

After arising if not from the dead, then from two dormant decades of being shuttered, the congregation has grown to about 140 members in just four years of its renaissance, said Liberman. It holds regular Sabbath and holiday services.

“Label-Less”

While the congregation remains a member of the Orthodox Union, it prefers to consider itself friendly to Jews of all stripes and “label-less,” according to Rabbi Hecht.

“We don’t call this ‘Orthodox.’ We call it ‘traditional,’” said Ronni Rabin, a member and part of the centennial committee.

That means in part that men worship below in the main congregation and the women above in the balcony. The worship itself is not “separate,” congregants said, because there is no physical barrier or screen dividing the sexes.

Challenges for the next 100 years including funding an elevator from the street level to the sanctuary for the older folks’ ease of access, according to Shiffrin.

Another goal, according to Rabin: Continuing to find more younger new families willing to plant their flag in the neighborhood and at the revived synagogue.

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