Celebrating 175 Years of Religious Freedom in Connecticut

In 1843, Jewish residents of Hartford and New Haven successfully petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to allow Jews to form congregations, build synagogues, and worship openly. Soon after, a small group of German-speaking Jews in Hartford began to meet in homes, and in 1876, the young Congregation Beth Israel built a synagogue on Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford (now home to the Charter Oak Cultural Center). We moved to our present home in West Hartford in 1936.

Congregation Beth Israel has been a prominent force in the advancement of Reform Judaism since 1877, when we became founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). Today, we are one of the largest Reform congregations in the Northeast U.S., serving approximately 700 families of diverse backgrounds through education, spiritual enrichment, and a commitment to tikkun olam – repairing the world.

The following is from a project of Lindsey Restelli, CBI high school student: 

The synagogue got its start in 1843, after religious freedom was granted in Connecticut. Six Hartford Jews of German heritage formed the congregation. At first, meetings were simply organized in members' houses. This practice changed in 1865, when the former Baptist Church was renovated into Touro Hall. Unfortunately, this location was relatively short-lived: a fire in 1876 paved the way for the building of a new temple.

Coinciding with the construction of a new synagogue was the emergence of the Reform Judaism movement in Hartford, leading to a rift among members. While some migrated to the new synagogue, those who desired to remain more traditional in practice split off to form the Ohaba Shalom congregation. Tensions eventually ceased, however, and by 1880, Ohaba Shalom had been reabsorbed into the CBI community. Between this influx of returning members and a rapidly growing Jewish population in the Hartford area, by 1936, yet another new synagogue was built, this time to accommodate for the thriving CBI population. This building with its distinctive brick dome characteristic of Byzantine revival architecture is the heart of our current West Hartford synagogue.

ACTS OF CHARITY

There may be no greater example than World War II of CBI’s passion for justice. Congregants contributed to war relief efforts, donating small sums of money to the Memorial and Relief Fund from the German Jewish Congregation of New York City. As America became privy to the extent of Hitler’s atrocities against Jews, CBI became even more involved. Our Sisterhood distributed pamphlets from Union of American Hebrew Congregations aiming to educate the non-Jewish community about Jewish beliefs and practices.

Our commitment to charity continues to this day. For example, all students who complete a bar or bat mitzvah must also complete a mitzvah project - examples include organizing food or clothing drives or volunteering with a community organization.

CBI's commitment to justice has extended to other communities of faith.  When the First Church of Christ burned down, our community shared our space during the church's reconstruction.

Though many aspects of the synagogue have changed throughout its 174 years, CBI’s dedication to helping those in need has never faltered.

RABBI SILVER

Rabbi Harold S. Silver was a prominent rabbi of the congregation. Attending City College of New York from 1940-1941, and then 1946-1947 after serving in World War II as a member of the Army Signal Corps (1942, spent two years in Philippines and New Guinea, he began his formal study to become a rabbi in New York, 1947.

Rabbi Silver was a rarity in his rabbinical class, as one of few to join the Reform movement. In fact, his father and uncle, both Reform rabbis before him, were part of a minority among American Jewry, a sharp contrast from the movement's prominence today.

Rabbi Silver believed firmly that rabbis should attend to the individuals and needs of his congregation in addition to his role as a student and interpreter Jewish text. During Rabbi Silver's tenure, women gained a larger role in our community as clergy and lay leaders. Rabbi Silver cared for Congregation Beth Israel’s members as individuals above all, making it a priority to treat everyone with respect and kindness.

RABBI FELDMAN

Portrait of Rabbi Feldman in Feldman Hall

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1893, Rabbi Feldman arrived in America in 1906. He graduated from Hebrew Union College. Serving as rabbi from 1925 to 1968, he was a figurehead not only at Congregation Beth Israel, but nationwide.

“Self-isolation or self-segregation is impossible in this civilization. We must live and build together. In a high, ethical and moral sense, we cannot feast until others are fed, We cannot be happy unless others are happy. This is an enterprise of living together.” Through powerful words such as these, Rabbi Feldman became a beacon of hope and that drew in and united the Jewish community during the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. His sermons often took on patriotic themes, stressing how American Jews shared responsibility for the well-being of the United States.

Rabbi Feldman’s words traveled beyond the synagogue; he wrote in the Jewish Ledger, a publication he founded in 1929 and served as an editor for throughout his life. That wasn’t all - Rabbi Feldman’s efforts often gained notary in the Hartford Courant and The Hartford Times, advocating for local projects such as the Mt. Sinai fund drive to expand a Jewish hospital that would ultimately benefit the Greater Hartford community. He was a national presence, too: as the vice-chairman of the Hartford Chapter of the National Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and Associate National Chaplain for Jewish War Veterans, his leadership reached far beyond West Hartford, Connecticut.

Rabbi Feldman made great efforts to strengthen relations between the Jewish and Christian communities in Connecticut. Corresponding with Reverend Elden H. Mills of First Church of Christ, West Hartford, he encouraged communities of faith to put aside their differences and unite around shared goals and values.