Our forefathers and foremothers came from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s to build a new life in New Haven where Jews could live in dignity and without fear. They joined with their pushkas and passion for Judaism to create Congregation Beth Israel. New Haven’s Old Jewish Neighborhood has changed. People have both moved and passed on in the intervening years, but the synagogue these humble working men and women proudly built and loved, Orchard Street Shul, persists as the Living Legacy of New Haven’s Jews, still holding traditional Orthodox Shabbos services every Saturday morning at 9:30.
Their story is our story. Their humble shul is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a New Haven Landmark. What they built so many years ago has been lovingly restored and is now the only such historic, traditional synagogue regularly functioning in Connecticut.
We are the Jews who have inherited their legacy. Now it is our time to get to occupy the benches where they once prayed, to chant the traditional prayers and continue their legacy of Yiddishkeit for our time…and for generations to come…
In 1913, a small group of observant, New Haven Jews rented a storefront building on Asylum Street and converted it into a neighborhood synagogue bearing the name Congregation Beth Israel of New Haven, Inc.
In the national integration of arriving immigrants, all over America, New Haven received its share of newcomers, most of them settling in the vibrant Oak Street-Lafayette Street tenement sectors. As these early arrivals prospered, some turned their eyes westward, to the “refreshing suburbs” of upper Oak Street (renamed Legion Avenue in 1928). A few felt secure enough to rent or purchase homes as far west as Winthrop Avenue and the Boulevard.
With this relocation activity arose the longing for a “Shul of our own”. Thus, in 1913, came the birth of Congregation Beth Israel. The purposes of the house of worship, stipulated in its Articles of Association in 1913, were “to worship G-d in accordance with the Orthodox Hebrew faith” and “to hold services in accordance with that faith.” This historic document was signed by the above on November 24, 1913 and approved by the State on January 13, 1914. By 1915, the pioneer group had outgrown its storefront premises and moved into a remodeled residence at 147 Orchard Street. The steady influx, after a few years, prompted the officers to consider transferring to a larger, more permanent site. The result; purchase of the land and property at 232 Orchard Street, the present location, in July of 1923 at a cost of $12,000. Sam Lapides was president at that time.
The architect for the handsome, yellow-brick, Colonial-revival style Beth Israel Synagogue, was Louis Abramowitz and the builder was C. Abbadessa. Final construction was celebrated at a colorful dedication in 1926. Its broad sweep of front steps and twin Moorish-effect domes, still gives the exterior a look all its own.
One of the principal advantages of the synagogue’s location was its proximity to Legion Avenue. Families making an upgrade change of address liked the idea of being so close to shopping. Being near to a synagogue, at the same time, carried special appeal for many, aside from the improved residential atmosphere.
As the Shul’s membership grew, and the “Avenue” became a more popular center for catching up with “old friends and new gossip,” a good deal of the Synagogue’s business was informally discussed at the same time by its members. By the late 1920s it was evident that the surrounding area was an ideal one to plan the congregation’s future. And it didn’t take long for the name Beth Israel to be superseded by the title “Orchard Street Shul”. That familiar identity has remained firm throughout the years.
adapted from 80 Distinguished Years, by Arthur Slutsky
Research consultant: Herbert B. Croog
Read more about our Shul Restorations.