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Temples Woven In Hartford History

February 19, 2006
By MARY M. DONOHUE, Courant Staff Writer

The Stars of David on the exterior suggest the building is a synagogue. The sign clearly identified it as the Faith Seventh Day Adventist Church.

The Art Deco building at Greenfield and Woodland streets is a window into Hartford's ethnic history. There are no active Jewish synagogues in the city today, but there were more than a dozen, beginning in the 1800s. For more than a century, in what is a distinctly American practice, houses of worship were regularly conveyed back and forth between Jewish and Christian congregations.

Many of these buildings remain in use, most often as Protestant churches with largely African-American congregations. Yet they recall the vibrant Jewish community that was much a part of the city in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Jews began coming to Hartford from Germany in the 1840s, and from Eastern Europe later in the 19th century. As the synagogues attest, they built a Jewish life for themselves and their families in an overwhelmingly gentile community.

The right of Jews to meet publicly and hold religious services was established in 1843 by a special act of the state legislature. Why Hartford Jews felt they needed specific legislation to meet openly remains an open question. The new state constitution in 1818 had disestablished the Congregational Church as the state church, putting all religious groups on a more or less even basis. The German Jews were immigrants looking for opportunity, unlike the later-arriving Eastern European Jews, who were refugees from persecution.

Nevertheless, a group of Hartford Jews petitioned to have the Connecticut General Statutes changed to read, in part, "That Jews who may desire to unite and form religious societies, shall have the same rights, powers and privileges which are given to Christians of every denomination."

Judaism's three branches, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, were all represented in Hartford. Some Orthodox congregations began as burial societies. A quorum of 10 adult male Jews, known as a minyan, is required to establish a congregation. Formed promptly upon enactment of the law in 1843, congregations were small and financially fragile, meeting in homes or rented halls. The first home of Temple Beth Israel was a former Baptist church. But by the 1870s, Beth Israel, a German congregation, had the size and financial strength to build its own synagogue.

Synagogues must contain certain features. A bimah, the reader's platform and table; an ark, the cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept; and for traditional congregations, separate seating for men and women, men on the floor and women in galleries. Symbols include the Magen David, also known as the Star of David; the Decalogue, a pair of tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed; and candelabra symbolic of the menorahs of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Temple Beth Israel at 21 Charter Oak Ave. was the first building constructed in the state for use as a synagogue. It was designed by George Keller (1845-1935), an Irish immigrant and Hartford's leading 19th-century architect, to resemble prominent Reform temples in Germany and New York City. Keller designed a building for Beth Israel with wide steps approaching round-arched doors in a central entranceway flanked by projecting towers. The towers are capped by Moorish Revival domes. The new temple was dedicated in 1876 with a membership of 78.

By the end of the century, Jewish refugees from Eastern European pogroms were pouring into the city. Living in the old section of downtown on the East Side near the Connecticut River, they built up financial strength in a remarkably short time. The now demolished Ados Israel Synagogue on Market Street symbolized the "arrival" of the city's oldest Eastern European Orthodox congregation, formed in 1884. Again, the architect was an Irish immigrant, Michael O'Donohue (1835-1912) who specialized in Catholic churches. The magnificent interior of his synagogue had clustered columns supporting the women's gallery and a great barrel-vaulted ceiling. The bimah was in the middle of the floor in the traditional European fashion. At the front a Magen David, candelabra, Decalogue and stylized foliate stenciling enhanced the space and made the ark a focal point. The building was demolished for the Constitution Plaza project, and the congregation moved to a former Unitarian church on Pearl Street. This building remains, though it is empty.

Two of the city's most distinctive synagogues were designed by the Hartford firm of Berenson & Moses in the 1920s. Following the pattern established by Temple Beth Israel, both buildings have wide front steps leading to a triple-arched, recessed entrance flanked by corner towers. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, at 370 Garden St., and Agudas Achim Synagogue, at 221-225 Greenfield St., were constructed in or near the fashionable and more prosperous Upper Albany neighborhood, leaving behind the crowded East Side.

Julius Berenson and Jacob F. Moses carried on an active practice from the end of World War I to the onslaught of the Great Depression. They are known to have designed more than 175 buildings, including many of Hartford's signature multifamily dwellings and small apartment houses.

The Jewish move to Upper Albany continued. In the 1919 Hartford City Directory, Emanuel Synagogue (then Congregation B'Nai Israel) was advertised as a "Modern Synagogue" with significant parts of its service to be conducted in English. The Conservative congregation quickly outgrew its location at 2084 Main St., a former Methodist church. Its next building, the trendy Art Deco synagogue on Keney Park at 245 Greenfield St., was constructed in 1927. When finished, it was the largest synagogue in Hartford and had a seating capacity of 1,000. This is now a Seventh-day Adventist church, and the congregation has added a school to the property.

Not all of the city's synagogues were so grand.

Chevry Lomday Mishnayes, built at 148-150 Bedford St. in 1926, is identical to the yellow brick apartment buildings on the same block, and is only differentiated by the Star of David window in the peak and the round "bump" or apse seen on the back wall that denotes the location of the ark.

Another building, at 30 Florence St., was a conventional Queen Anne house owned by an Irish widow until it was altered in 1927 by the addition of a new facade containing a Star of David in order to serve as the home of Ateres Israel. The building was used as a Jewish house of worship until 1955, when it was sold to a Christian congregation.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the waves of ethnic groups that have washed across Hartford's neighborhoods is 2 Mahl Ave. The building provides a capsule history of the North End. It was constructed as a Greek Revival farmhouse in the 1840s; its orchards survived until the late 19th century when Frederick Mahl subdivided the farm.

Acquired in 1926 by a combined group of Russian Jews from Wolkowysk and Ludmir, the building was modified to include an exterior stairway across the facade leading to the women's gallery and an apse on the east elevation. The interior was radically changed with the removal of the second floor and the addition of the gallery. In 1956, the congregation, by then known as Teferes Israel, moved to Blue Hills Avenue and then to Bloomfield. It was replaced by the Excelsior Lodge No3, a unit of the black Freemasonry movement, which remains in the building.

Hartford's Jewish community moved ever outward from downtown to the Clay Hill, Upper Albany and Blue Hills neighborhoods, then on to the suburbs of Bloomfield and West Hartford, and now to the Farmington Valley towns. Some have merged, while some have changed from one branch of Judaism to another.

Through it all, houses of worship are surprisingly resilient. Temple Beth Israel is now a thriving arts venue, the Charter Oak Cultural Center, sensitive to its Jewish past and Hispanic present.

African American congregations occupy at least six former synagogues, and at least one building, at 2084 Main St., constructed as a church then used as a synagogue, is now a church again. The synagogues tell a story of success of the Jewish community over generations, and survive to serve once again.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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