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Hartford Pew Review: Congregation Beth Israel

By Kerri Provost

March 27, 2013

One block over the line in West Hartford, Congregation Beth Israel’s presence announces itself much like the Unitarian Society of Hartford and the Cathedral of Saint Joseph do. There’s no quietly blending in with the neighborhood; no way to pass without noticing.

Before the synagogue was here, it was in Hartford. The structure did not move, just the congregation. The original Congregation Beth Israel congregation worshiped at the former North Baptist Church, located at 942 Main Street. After twenty years in that spot, the community moved into a building constructed as a synagogue — Connecticut’s oldest one, actually — and remained there on 21 Charter Oak Avenue until 1936.

As Hartford’s Jewish community moved to the suburbs, the synagogues, one-by-one, followed.

Now, Congregation Beth Israel is the second notable establishment on Farmington Avenue (first, Tangiers) to greet folks as they venture into West Hartford.

Our two most recent visits fall into the category of “special events” rather than that of “routine service,” but no matter. Over the years we have been to CBI for regular services, special events, and going farther back, Music Together.

Many places of worship in this area seem to have embraced the obnoxious trend of bolting front doors, having everyone enter through a door closest to the parking lot. Thankfully, CBI breaks from this by admitting visitors through both the parking lot door and that which faces of main avenue. If the door is locked, ring the bell. “Security measures” seem drastic, but antisemitism is a thing. I’ve personally never had any trouble getting buzzed in.

Inside, there is a long hall with plenty of doors to choose from. Services have been held in the sanctuary, chapel, and a courtyard outside. For special events, it might not be immediately obvious where to go, since there’s likely lots of activity including children zooming around. Look for a sign or ask.

The restrooms are near the large coatroom.

Visiting a new place can create some anxieties for those who don’t want to stand out as the person doing everything wrong. So, here goes:

CBI asks people to dress respectfully, but I have seen every variation on an outfit show up, from suits to micro mini skirts with Uggs. The latter will get you talked about, but not thrown out. One step up from jeans is always a safe bet.

Nobody is forced to wear a yarmulke. For services, most men do wear them, but this is a Reform synagogue. In other words, there is a lot of tolerance about personal choices. A basket of kippot are near the entrance for anyone — male or female — who chooses to participate in this custom.

Men and women sit together, in case you were wondering.

So, back in February, on one of those cold days that came with a bonus side of drizzle, we headed to CBI for the annual Purim Schpiel. The serious message of Purim is to embrace one’s (Jewish) identity, but mostly, it’s a day for costumes, drinking, eating Hamantaschen, and in this case, watching a campy play.

Friends had been raving about the “new rabbi.” After some prodding I learned that for some this meant the Senior Rabbi, and for others, the Assistant Rabbi. Both are on the younger side. The Assistant Rabbi is a woman.

There have definitely been changes.

The turnout for the play — especially on an evening when the weather forecasts weren’t promising anything good — was impressive.

Rabbi Dena Shaffer led a brief Havdalah service before Kiss Me, Esther began.

This is definitely meant for the kids. There’s always lots of audience participation with trivia questions and invites to stomp feet and make a ruckus at key moments. If you’re seeking serious, meditative spiritual practice, the Purim Schpiel is not the time for it.

After the play, everyone was invited to stay for a carnival: games, two bounce houses, pizza, and all the Hamantaschen you can throw into your gullet. This year, a separate room was set up so adults could enjoy two free drinks — alcoholic or non — away from the kids. This room was also well-stocked with cookies and other foods. The social aspect has greatly improved at CBI over the past few years, particularly for those under 65.

Fast forward a few weeks.

Next to Hanukkah, Passover is probably the only other Jewish holiday that most gentiles know something about or have participated in. Years ago I recall a local activist talking excitedly about the “liberation Seder” he had attended, not realizing that Passover is all about liberation. No doubt, some put more emphasis on contemporary social justice than others, but it’s there. From feminist Seders that examine women’s oppression and liberation to the more modern tradition of placing an orange on the seder plate to show solidarity with the LGBT community, the commitment to freedom is pronounced.

Another recent visit to CBI involved me, two friends, and Passover Seder, or as CBI calls it, Super Seder. Again, we see changes with the new clergy. Instead of having 100 people doing exactly the same thing at the same time, there were eight themed tables– seven in Haas Hall, and one in Feldman Hall. Rabbi Dena Shaffer said that this was to let the participants “feel the energy and excitement of a big community Seder while at the same time sharing the intimacy and level of participation that one would find at a traditional family Seder.”

There was not one, not two, but three kids’ tables, though one was technically for “tweens” and another for older adolescents. Still, they’re kids. This meant seeing little ones in footie pajamas toddling about, older children standing up to sing and dance, and everyone having to speak up because of the room’s acoustics. There was singing at several tables, though the one I was at — “The Learner’s Minyan (not just for Newbies!)” — had no singing at all. The Seder of Song took place, wisely, in an entirely separate room.

The Learner’s table was the right place to be, if only because it meant my Hebrew was not actually the worst among those present, for a change. This group included folks from Russia, a proud convert, some from interfaith backgrounds, others who have moved from Orthodox to Reform Judaism, some with no Hebrew background, at least one who bounced between Judaism and a progressive church, and a college student who was tasked with exploring a religion with which she was unfamiliar.

We were invited to ask questions at any point. It was friendly and felt communal. The BYO wine was shared (thanks!) and nobody scolded others for dumping food, drinking wine when it wasn’t time yet, or accidentally skipping several pages of the Hagaddah when it was his turn to read. Being at a table of adults meant that we intentionally skipped hiding the Afikomen, though the leader asked first if anyone wanted to do this.

Even with the chattiness of the group, it didn’t take terribly long to get to the meal, especially in comparison to the reports we heard of someone’s meal on the first night of Passover starting around 11pm.

The menu was standard Ashkenazic fare– brisket, matzoh ball soup, etc – with an exception made for those getting the vegetarian meal: eggplant lasagne. Nobody leaves hungry.

After the meal, the rest of the Haggadah was sped through. If anyone minded this, he kept it to himself. As tables finished, we were invited to stay for the Israeli music and dancing. I passed on this, but enjoyed the music while walking to my car in the back lot.


The Good: Friendly and patient with newbies/people who have no idea what they’re doing. There is always food. Welcoming of LGBT community. Committed to social justice and maintains connection to Hartford’s Charter Oak Cultural Center.

The Less Good: It’s not in Hartford, so inconvenient unless one lives in the West End. On the surface, it may not seem like a diverse bunch. Get people talking and you’ll hear a diversity in viewpoint. Walking distance of Tangiers’ falafel.

Congregation Beth Israel is located at 701 Farmington Avenue in West Hartford. Shabbat services are at varied times on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. There is plenty of parking available in a lot accessible from Fennway (off South Highland) and on surrounding streets. This is on a bus route.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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