Congregation Beth Israel (West Hartford, Connecticut)
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (December 2008)|
Temple Beth Israel
Temple Beth Israel
|Location||701 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, Connecticut|
|Architect||Greco, Charles R.|
|Architectural style||Late 19th And 20th Century Revivals, Byzantine Revival|
|MPS||Historic Synagogues of Connecticut MPS|
|NRHP Reference #||95001343|
|Added to NRHP||November 27, 1995|
Congregation Beth Israel is a synagogue located in West Hartford, Connecticut. The synagogue is one of the two the oldest Jewish congregations in Connecticut and one of the largest Reform Jewish congregations in New England, with about 900 member families and about 2,000 individual members.
Beth Israel serves as a center for worship, education, and social programs.
- 1 Location
- 2 History
- 3 Leadership
- 4 Worship
- 5 Education
- 6 Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Community Learning Center
- 7 References
- 8 External links
- 9 See also
Congregation Beth Israel is located at 701 Farmington Ave in West Hartford, Connecticut.
The congregation occupies a large building dominated by an enormous Byzantine dome. Inside are a sanctuary (upon which the dome is built), a chapel, a religious school, a pre-school, offices, two meeting halls, a small museum, and a library. Beautiful stained glass windows are present in both the sanctuary and the chapel. The building has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. government.
The congregation worships in a notable 1936 building by architect Charles R. Greco. Built at the height of the Art Deco period, the Byzantine revival form in Art Deco style presents a majestic appearance. In 2006, the congregation was given the West Hartford Historic Preservation Award for its meticulous restoration of the historic structure.
Founding and affiliation
Beth Israel, which means "House of Israel" in Hebrew, was founded in 1843, the year the Connecticut legislature first permitted public worship by Jews in the state. Congregation Mishkan Israel was founded in the same year. Congregation Beth Israel began as an Orthodox congregation, however, in part influenced by the immigration of German Jews to Hartford, the congregation quickly adopted Reform practices. In 1877, it joined with other American Reform Jewish congregations to form the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (which is now known as the Union for Reform Judaism), an umbrella support organization for American Reform Jewish congregations. Beth Israel continues to be a member of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Congregation Beth Israel's first synagogue was built at 21 Charter Oak Ave. in Hartford in 1876. Though Beth Israel left the building in 1936, the building still stands and is presently occupied by the Charter Oak Cultural Center. It is among the oldest synagogue buildings still standing in the United States.
Beth Israel moved to into its present location in 1936. For most of the middle of the 20th century (1925–1977), the congregation was led by Rabbi Abraham Feldman, a leading exponent of Classical Reform philosophy. One of the innovations that Rabbi Feldman brought to Congregation Beth Israel was the confirmation ceremony at age 16.
Feldman's influence was far reaching. He fostered a sense of community and was held in great respect by most, if not all, of the congregation. He focused on building a congregation that people stayed in for a long time and celebrated all their life events as a congregation. His long service as Rabbi meant that many people were born, confirmed, and married under his leadership. Indeed, even at the beginning of the 21st century, a number of older congregants would use his leadership and rabbinate as an example.
Rabbi Harold Silver succeeded Feldman in 1968. He would serve as senior rabbi for 25 years, retiring in 1993. Silver came from a family of rabbis. Five generations of his family before him served as rabbis. His father, Maxwell Silver, was a rabbi in New York; his uncle, Abba Hillel Silver, was a rabbi in Cleveland, Ohio; and his grandfather, Moses Silver, was a rabbi in Jerusalem. Silver was ordained in 1951 at Hebrew Union College in New York City. Rabbi Silver's first rabbinate was as assistant rabbi at the Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. He went on to become rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he served from 1955 until he came to Congregation Beth Israel in 1968.
Silver was prominent in the Hartford Jewish community. He organized the first Greater Hartford Rabbinical Board of Rabbis, which brought together rabbis from different Jewish congregations and movements. He also served on a variety of community boards, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Silver also promoted cross-religious interfaith dialogue, preaching at many local churches and encouraging peace and understanding between people of different faiths. Additionally, Silver taught Judaism courses at local universities.
Rabbi Silver retired in 1993 became rabbi emeritus (see Leadership).
Silver was succeeded by Rabbi Simeon Glaser, who has served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel at the end of Rabbi Silver's tenure as senior rabbi. Glaser was particularly popular with young families and children because of his love, and evident talent, for music and song. Glaser put on exciting Purim and Simchas Torah holiday services in which he would team up with Cantor Green and Assistant Rabbi Weiss to sing, dance, and act out the stories of the holidays. After serving four years as senior rabbi, Glaser left Beth Israel, first to serve at a small Conservative synagogue in Wethersfield, Connecticut and then to Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
During the 1990s, Congregation Beth Israel became instrumental in the absorption of hundreds of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Early on, the New American Committee was formed to provide education assistance, licensure help, clothing acquisition assistance and help with the home needs of the new Americans. The New American Committee also continues to provide educational opportunities including lectures and weekly language classes (see Education). Congregation Beth Israel now has a large Russian speaking population and immigrants make up a significant demographic of the congregation.
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs became senior rabbi in 1997 (see Leadership).
Congregation Beth Israel, like most American Jewish congregations, is led by both a lay board and clergy.
Beth Israel has long had a clergy system consisting of a senior rabbi, an assistant rabbi, and a cantor. Occasionally, this system has changed to better reflect realities of the offices, such as when Rabbi Weiss held the title of assistant rabbi, then associate rabbi, and then simply rabbi (with no qualification) after serving the congregation for many years from the late 1990s until early the early 2000s. Additionally, the congregation now has the position of rabbi emeritus, occupied by the previous senior rabbi, Harold Silver.
Stephen Fuchs became rabbi emeritus in 2011. He had been senior rabbi since 1997, having previously served as senior rabbi of the Temple Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, Tennessee for 11 years.
Rabbi Fuchs attended Hamilton College before attending Hebrew Union College. He began his career at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland, where he served for 13 years. Throughout his career, Fuchs has been dedicated to interfaith events, having served on the board of the Hartford Seminary, a Hartford based United Church of Christ minister training school, and annually leading Beth Israel in joint worship with churches. He is also a past chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Committee on inter-religious affairs.
Fuchs is also committed to social justice, having served on the Board of Directors of Saint Francis Hospital as a member of the hospital’s Medical Affairs Committee and on the Board of Directors of Foodshare, a regional foodbank for Hartford and Tolland counties. Fuchs is also the only non-African-American to be the featured speaker at the Nashville Martin Luther King banquet held annually at Tennessee State University. He also serves on the National Commission on Social Action for the Union for Reform Judaism.
Michael Pincus is the current senior rabbi. He studied at the University of Virginia before attending Hebrew Union College in New York City. During his time at Hebrew Union College, Pincus served as student rabbi at a number of congregations in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York.
Pamela Siskin is the cantor of Congregation Beth Israel. Before pursuing cantorial studies at Hebrew Union College, Siskin studied in Rome, sung with the Royal Opera House in London and the Israel National Opera. She moved from the United Kingdom to the United States in 1985 to enroll in Hebrew Union College and study to become a cantor.
After ordination, Siskin served as cantor at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey until 1998, when she came to Beth Israel.
Cantor Sisken also used to serve as the director of education.
Silver has continued his activity with Congregation Beth Israel as rabbi emeritus. He annually leads the Rosh Hashanah shofar service which enjoys great popularity with the congregation. He has also written a book, I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me: Memoirs of a Reform Rabbi, in which he explains and examines not only his career but also Reform and American Judaism in general. Silver has also received a doctor of divinity (honoris causa) from Hebrew Union College for his rabbinical service.
The lay leadership of Congregation Beth Israel set policy, hires clergy, and oversees the running of the congregation. The governing body is the board of trustees, which consists of approximately 30 active members of the congregation. The head of the board is the president, who is assisted by a number of vice-presidents, a treasurer, and a secretary. Additionally, the brotherhood president, sisterhood president, young families chair, youth group president, and the clergy sit on the board but mostly in an ex-officio capacity.
The officers of the board of trustees are the president, vice-presidents, treasurer, and secretary.
The president is the head of the board of trustees and the lay leader of Congregation Beth Israel. It is his job to make sure the congregation continues to run smoothly and to spearhead any new projects that become necessary.
The vice-presidents assist the president. At any given time there are usually between three and five vice-presidents. Usually vice-presidents are long standing members of the board of trustees who have been particular active, often as committee chairs. It is common for vice-presidents to eventually become president, and they are often chosen to be vice-president with this in mind.
The treasurer is in charge of the finances and the secretary takes minutes at the meetings.
The board of trustees has a number of committees that manage different aspects of the congregation. Some important committees include the Finance Committee, the Ritual Committee, and the Social Action Committee.
Worship at Congregation Beth Israel follows Reform Jewish practices. Men and women sit and pray together. The service usually follows a variant on the traditional Jewish service, usually mixing English and Hebrew (the English usually, but not always, reflecting at least the meaning if not a literal translation of the Hebrew). Services usually use the Gates of Prayer, the New Union Prayer Book or the book[clarification needed], though occasionally the clergy will write or adapt another service.
The most popular regular service is the Friday night Shabbat service. It takes place in the sanctuary and is led by the clergy. Occasionally during the summer the service takes place outside instead. Over 100 people regularly attend these services.
The congregation also has Saturday morning Shabbat services, also in the sanctuary and led by the clergy. Usually the services follow Torah study, which takes place at the synagogue and is led by the clergy (see Education).
A daily minyan service is held in the chapel and is usually led by a lay person, though occasionally the clergy will lead.
Students of the Youth Education Program also attend a student and parent service on Sunday mornings in the chapel.
Congregation Beth Israel has added a few innovations to services:
- A monthly Friday night Shabbat family service that is aimed at children and young families.
- Rabbi Stephen Fuchs has recently initiated an alternative Yom Kippur service, in addition to the regular service, in order to better serve the modern congregation.
- One service a month using the older New Union Prayer (as opposed to the newer Gates of Prayer) in order to better serve the members who preferred the earlier book.
Beth Israel has educational opportunities for all ages and types of congregants. Currently, and historically, the cantor has held the role of director of education.
Youth Education Program
The Youth Education Program is for children preschool through 7th grade. It teaches Jewish values, history, and traditions. Additionally, conversational Hebrew and prayer reading in Hebrew is taught. Students also attend Sunday morning services where they learn basic Jewish prayers.
La'atid: Learning For Life
La'atid is a lifelong learning program for families and adults, the point of which is to continue Jewish education and promote knowledge and spirituality.
Noah's Ark is Congregation Beth Israel's pre-school and early care and education program that was previously accredited by the National Association of Early Childhood Programs in July 1994; it is not presently accredited. Noah's Ark is located in the synagogue. In early 2014, the Congregation established a Task Force to find a solution to the financial challenge of the program and still allow for the continuation of quality childcare. The synagogue is in negotiations with Educational Playcare, a Connecticut-based provider of childcare and pre-school programs. 
Beth Israel holds weekly Torah study at the synagogue, usually just prior to Saturday morning Shabbat services (see Worship). About 20-30 congregants participate each week and the session last about an hour. Torah study sessions are led by a rabbi at Beth Israel.
New American education
Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Community Learning Center
Funded with the help of private donors, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Hartford Foundation of Public Giving, the Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Community Learning Center opened in April, 2008.
The new learning center has a number of facilities, including the Deborah Library, which boasts over 13,000 lendable volumes, the Miller Media Center, a children's room, and the Abraham J. Feldman Museum and Archives where artifacts are stored from the past 160 years.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13.
- Olitzky, Kerry M.; Raphael, Marc Lee. The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, June 30, 1996, pp. 76-80.
- Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure: Update on United States Nineteenth Century Synagogues, Mark W. Gordon, American Jewish History 84.1 (1996) 11-27 
- Renner, Gerald; Hartford Courant; Insightful Memoirs Of A Rabbi Wrestling With The Divinity; May 5, 2002; Viewed 2013-03-12
- Stagis, Julie (April 10, 2014). "Congregation Beth Israel In Talks With Educational Playcare About Noah's Ark". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
- Synagogue website
- National Register of Historic Places
- Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Community Learning Center
- Oldest synagogues in the United States
- U.S. National Historic Site
- List of National Register of Historic Places entries
- Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut