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A Light in the Shul: New Haven’s Jewish Population Finds Community After Tragedy

Rabbi Mendy Hecht’s voice echoes as he gestures toward the synagogue window. “All the parking lots that you see? That was all Jewish and Italian communities.”

Orchard Street Shul, a 1920s brick synagogue on a quiet residential block close to downtown New Haven, was built to echo, so that congregants could hear the cantor from any one of the synagogue’s 600 seats.

Today, those pews are never full.

When Hecht’s grandfather was the spiritual leader of Orchard Street Shul in the 1940s, the synagogue was a fixture of the New Haven Jewish community. In those days, children could run from services on Saturday night over to Legion Avenue for their pick of Jewish bakeries and shops.

Most New Haven Jews will tell you, with an air of resignation, that the city’s Jewish population is waningaging, leaving, disappearing. But Rabbi Hecht refuses to believe it. Though he admits that Jewish engagement looks different today, he maintains that the community is still strong. “It’s not because I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “It’s because I want to be optimistic.”

***

“Is this right?” our taxi driver asks.

In the darkness, it is hard to tell. The only sign of life outside Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI), a building that looks more like a school than a synagogue, is a man standing in front of the door. He greets the congregants who enter, but he does not know their names.

The lobby is hardly more lively. Four middle-aged men sit on couches as they await the start of Shabbat services. One of them is the rabbi, Jon-Jay Tilsen. He explains that the man at the door is his Christian neighbor, here this Friday night in solidarity. It is the first Shabbat after 11 Jews were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27.

At 6 p.m., the congregants migrate from the lobby to the room where services are held. There are no stained glass windows or pews, but the wooden ark where the Torah sits indicates that this is a holy space. Bookshelves line the cinder block walls, and wall-to-wall carpeting warms the room.

Most seats are empty when the services start, but slowly, families trickle in. The cantor, who faces away from his audience as he leads them in prayer, seems to expect the latecomers.

The only mention of the recent tragedy comes at the end of the service, when Rabbi Tilsen leads congregants in the Kaddish—the prayer for mourning—and reads the names of the 11 dead. Even this minor acknowledgement of the shooting makes Rabbi Tilsen hesitate. He understands Shabbat as a respite from the issues of the day.

Rabbi Tilsen believes in commemoration through action, not discussion. “I’m beyond vigils,” he said. “A vigil has value in the moment, but there are other things I want to do.” Still, the previous Sunday, he attended the Jewish Federation Vigil at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), along with nearly 1,000 other Jews from the Greater New Haven area. “I’m glad I went,” he reflected. “I felt like I was doing my job.”

The Friday services close with blessings over wine, and Rabbi Tilsen bids everyone “Shabbat Shalom,” a routine wish for peace that meant so much less the week before.

Congregation members, most of whom live in nearby Westville, exchange their goodbyes and walk home to begin the Sabbath.

***

During the week, a lone Kosher grocery—one of a handful within driving distance of downtown New Haven—is a rare sign that Westville is a Jewish neighborhood. But on Saturday mornings, the community comes to life as families walk to BEKI for Shabbat services.

Today, Westville is known as one of the centers of Jewish life in New Haven. But this was not always the case.

In the first half of the 20th century, most of New Haven’s Jews lived in the Legion Avenue and Wooster Square areas. Back then, the Jewish communities were easier to spot. When Rabbi Hecht talks to long-time congregants about that era, they tell stories of  “running up and down with a nickel getting their fountain soda and the warm bakery products—the rugelach and the challahs,” he said. “They all talk about Saturday night like it was Times Square.”

Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent and a BEKI congregant, explained that the Jewish community started moving in 1955. That year, New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee introduced a plan to construct a highway that would cut through the Legion Avenue area, which was considered then to be the “Jewish Ghetto.”  

Jews were forced to leave the area for the construction project, which was never even realized. Although Jews were already relocating at the time, their departure was “hastened by the tearing of land that was never built,” Bass said.

The following decades saw a Jewish exodus from the city center, caused by the push of eminent domain and the pull of suburban life, which residents could now afford. The synagogues moved with them.

“That was urban renewal,” Bass said. “That’s the story of America.”

BEKI is the amalgam of two synagogues displaced by the never-built highway. Beth El and Keser Israel combined in 1968.

With an initial membership of over 600 families, the newly-formed BEKI started strong. But by the late 1970s, its congregants had aged, its facilities had begun to crumble, and the threat of closure loomed. When Rabbi Tilsen arrived in New Haven from Norwich, Connecticut in 1993, BEKI “was questioning its reason to exist or how it was going to exist,” he said. Some felt BEKI should pursue another merger.

An influx of young families in the mid-1990s saved the synagogue. By today’s standards, Bass said, “BEKI is thriving.” Still, the congregation currently numbers 300 families—half its size in the 1960s.

***

The turnout at the Jewish Federation Vigil impressed Rabbi Hecht. “It’s the most I’ve ever seen in that building,” he said.

In its most recent report in 2011, the Jewish Federation of New Haven predicted that the number of Jews in the Greater New Haven area—which has the second largest Jewish community in Connecticut—would continue to decrease.

A small population isn’t necessarily a problem, though. Rabbi Fred Hyman, who previously worked in Park East Synagogue in New York City, likes the community’s size. In New Haven, he said, “every individual is important.”

Because two-thirds of New Haven’s Jewish population comes from elsewhere, many of the city’s Jews do not have extended family nearby. The synagogue, Rabbi Tilsen said, “plays the role that a family or extended family might play, whether it’s looking after your kids when you’re going out, or sharing holidays.”

As Bass put it, being Jewish in New Haven is “kind of ideal—you get to have a strong sense of community and identity, but you also get the diversity of the city.”

Rabbi Hecht is skeptical that the numbers are shrinking. Instead, he thinks that younger generations just aren’t publicly identifying as Jewish.

“Forty years ago, people at age 25 said ‘Oh, where’s the JCC? Where’s the synagogue I want to belong to?’ and they joined. That’s not happening today,” he said. “There are a lot of Jews, but they’re not necessarily poking their heads out of the sand.

He describes the engagement of younger generations as “a la carte”—twenty-somethings who have just moved to the city for graduate school, Rabbi Hecht said, want to have a meaningful spiritual experience and a place for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals without committing to weekly services.

Orchard Street Shul has done its best to adapt to the changing needs of Jews in New Haven. The synagogue hosts events like Sushi and Shots and Shabbat Socials, which consist of services and happy hours.

Rabbi Hecht understands his job to be, in large part, about outreach. In his view, the Jewish community cannot thrive if synagogues resign themselves to a “let-me-put-my-shingle-up-and-wait-for-the-people-to-come” mentality. Without constant engagement and adaptation, he said, “You’re just going to wake up one day and be like, ‘Whoa, we went from 500 members to 200 members. What happened?’”

***

“The unthinkable happened in Pittsburgh on October 27th,” said Judy Alperin, the chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. “By the next evening, we were able to convene the community for an interfaith vigil.”

The Federation is a nonprofit charged with caring for and connecting Jews who live in the Greater New Haven area. “When something horrible like this shooting happens, we are the main conveners who bring the community together,” Alperin explained.

Shelly Kagan, Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale, attended the vigil and recalled not being able to find a parking spot or a seat. “The auditorium was full and crowds were spilling out the doorways,” he said.

For Kagan, the shooting was personal. He had worked as an assistant professor in Pittsburgh for five years and was a member of Dor Hadash, one of the congregations that meets in the building where the shooting occurred.

“I had the very striking realization that if I had stayed in Pittsburgh, I could well have been in the building at the time,” Kagan reflected. “I think any Jew in America finds this a difficult experience.” But for him and his wife, Kagan said, “The associations run deeper.”

They attended the vigil because they “were looking to be with others,” Kagan said. Many felt the same way. “I think when people feel vulnerable they come together to feel safe,” Rabbi Hecht observed.  

The religious leaders who spoke at the vigil emphasized the importance of unity. Rabbi Benjamin Scolnic of Temple Beth Shalom told the audience, “We have to understand that if someone is a hater, it doesn’t make any difference if they happen to hate this ethnic group or that nationality. … If anyone hates any group, they hate us.”

In the spirit of Scolnic’s remarks, the speaker lineup featured non-Jewish leaders such as Reverend Steven Cousin of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Fatma Antar of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.

“We made a conscious choice to make it an interfaith vigil,” Alperin said. “There is tremendous strength that comes when people of all good conscience come together.”

Reverend Cousin spoke about the persecution of black and Jewish Americans. He said that the Jewish community provided support after the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and that now it was the black community’s turn to do the same. “I would like to tell those of the Jewish community that we are standing with you,” he said. “We love you. We are mourning with you. And we are grieving with you.”

Rabbi Hecht appreciated the strength and solidarity that the vigil represented.

“When people attack us with actions, we have to respond with actions. We have to be proud to act Jewishly,” he said. “When you cower in fear, that’s the dangerous part.”

***

Alperin made sure to have the Woodbridge Police Department on site during the vigil.

“The fact that it happened in a shul obviously brought it closer to home,” Rabbi Hecht said of the Pittsburgh shooting. “It made everyone feel vulnerable. This could happen anywhere, at any time, in any synagogue.”

Since Pittsburgh, synagogues all over the Greater New Haven area have begun to scrutinize their security practices. Safety has always been a concern, but Rabbi Hyman, who leads Westville Shul, said that it is now discussed with heightened urgency.  

At BEKI, congregants are considering enhancing the network of security cameras in the building, increasing the number of paid security guards, and adding emergency call buttons.

Harold Birn, BEKI’s president, explained the synagogue’s rationale: “The reason we added the armed security was even less to do with actual security and a little more to do with the feeling of security.”

For some congregants, the idea of needing security is new. Rabbi Tilsen said his children see anti-Semitism as “something strange and unusual” and have always felt safe in services.

Kagan, however, has long understood synagogues as likely targets. “I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. It’s not news to me that people are always trying to kill the Jews,” he said. “For me, it’s always been the thought that people hate Jews every place and you’re never completely safe.”

Synagogues moved quickly in response to congregants’ fears. But according to Rabbi Hecht, the City of New Haven did not react with the same speed. He said that when he asked for a New Haven Police Department squad car to sit outside of Shabbat services at Orchard Street Shul, the department balked.

“They told me New Haven’s understaffed,” Rabbi Hecht said with a frustrated laugh. “I said, ‘Listen buddy, you’re gonna find a car for us, because it might not be me, but someone’s going to raise hell if there isn’t a car there on Friday night.’ Thank God they came through.”

Still, for all the comfort that security provides, it comes with complications.

“Two days ago, I was a few minutes late to services and the door was locked,” Kagan said. “I remembered they had just sent an email saying they’re not comfortable keeping the door open when there’s not somebody there.”

This is precisely what Rabbi Hyman fears. “We want to have a place that’s open,” Rabbi Hyman said. He worries that security measures may make it harder for members—especially those coming to services for the first time—to enter the building and join the community. If people are deterred from joining a synagogue, “that would be a shame,” he said, “but we just have to do our best.”

***

The pews at Westville Shul were more crowded the weekend after Pittsburgh. Rabbi Hyman knew this would happen. He was more concerned with turnout at the next weekend’s Shabbat.

Unlike many other rabbis, Rabbi Hyman didn’t send an email imploring people to show up for the Shabbat after the shooting. He saved his email for the following week. “That’s really where the effort can be—strengthening one another over time, not just one Shabbat after,” he said.

Rabbi Hyman hopes to sustain the increased attendance that followed Pittsburgh: “I think that’s part of what I want to emphasize going forward: defining a renewed sense of peace in shul and spiritual connection.”

As New Haven’s Jewish community continues to move out of the city and shift away from synagogue life, the tragedy of Pittsburgh has spurred a kind of spiritual awakening. In the wake of the shooting, local synagogue leaders are striving to preserve the newfound engagement.

Rabbi Hyman hopes that the glimmer sparked by Pittsburgh will not fade. “It doesn’t have to go back to normal,” he said. “We can still try to change ourselves a little bit.”  

Ever the optimist, Rabbi Hecht sees the community’s response to Pittsburgh as a bright spot during dark times.

“One of the most beautiful concepts about light is that it doesn’t have to fight with darkness. You turn on a light, and all of a sudden it automatically transforms the space,” he said. “We can’t counteract every act of crisis, but we can do our part in trying to make the world a better, more positive place.”