By Myrna Weindling
and Robert Gillette
1650s - 1850s
"Stay on the trodden path!" That was the advice given to the newly arrived Jew as he left the small sailboat on the Connecticut River shore. And that was exactly what the Jewish peddler had to do as he carried his merchandise on his back or pushed his wheelbarrow across the Indian paths that crisscrossed through the wilderness of Connecticut. Individual Jewish merchants made their way up the Connecticut River and then away from the water highway into the dense wilderness. No Jew, however, was recorded in colonial Connecticut until 1659 when "David, the Jew", was mentioned in the Hartford legislative records.
How strange the early settlers must have thought the peddler looked and spoke. He probably conversed in English and Dutch, but he must have gestured in sign language to the Indians and anxiously mumbled in Yiddish. So it was that Jews came to this unsettled and wild land. Jews coming here were always alone, never feeling socially secure in the tiny settlements that dotted the major rivers and shores. This immigration was so different from most Jewish migrations of the past; even Abraham journeyed to Canaan with his entire family. No doubt, some of the descendants of these wonderfully self-sufficient adventurers were the Jews who made their home in Bridgeport.
During the beginning years of our State, when there were few settlements with the King's Charter Land, Jews lived in isolation, though a long-distance network of mutual Jewish help existed. For example, in 1670, the prominent Jew, Asser Levy, traveled all the way from the New York colony to Hartford to plead the legal case of Jacob Lucena, a Jewish trader.
Few Jews settled in the Bridgeport area, but during the British military occupation of New York City and Newport during the Revolutionary War, many Jews fled the cities and made their temporary homes in Fairfield County. There were enough Jewish men to hold a minyan in Stratford during the war years. Other refugees fled to Stamford, Norwalk, Danbury and Wilton. Among these Jews was the famous Meyer Myers, silversmith, who manufactured lead shot for Washington's Revolutionary army and smuggled ammunition through enemy lines disguised as a silversmith of religious objects.
When General Tyron raided the coastal towns and swept deep into the countryside to Danbury, Jews lost heavily along with their new countrymen. Jews played significant roles in the country's fight for freedom and they won honor and respect from the citizens of the young nation. In 1843, the Connecticut General Assembly passed an act that gave Jews complete freedom of worship. The scene was set for increased Jewish immigration to the Bridgeport area.
The Jews who came to Bridgeport were at first Spanish and Portuguese (Sephardic), but they were joined by the large immigration of German Jews in the early to mid 1800s. These immigrants quickly integrated into the growing commerce of Southern Connecticut. They were merchants, peddlers, grocers, butchers, barbers, bookkeepers, watch repairers, clerks, tailors, tobacconists, opticians, horse dealers, nurses, doctors and boarding house proprietors.
In 1852 several Jewish immigrant families from Germany began to gather for worship under the leadership of two brothers, Moses and Bernhard Klein, and their friend, Pinkney Lesser. All three men were merchants. Although Reform Judaism, which began in Germany, had reached America by the 1830s, its influence was not widespread, and in Bridgeport its impact was insignificant. Understandably, these Jewish families were orthodox in their ritual and observance and, since traditional Jewish law requires that the dead be buried in hallowed ground, they first united in a search for a plot of land to serve as a cemetery. Ultimately, this common quest led them to organize the first Jewish congregation in Bridgeport. In 1859, they received a charter from the city and officially became known as Congregation B'nai Israel, the third oldest congregation.
Among the first elected officers of Congregation B'nai Israel were Pinkney Lesser, president, and Moses Klein, treasurer. The first rabbi was the Reverend A. Jacobs, who was engaged for a salary of $20.00 per month. Membership consisted of an admission fee of $6.25 plus monthly dues of $1.25 for couples, half that for singles. Services, which were strictly orthodox, were conducted in Hebrew, and although women attended, they were required to sit separately from the men.
Because of the Congregation's small size, Moses Klein was sometimes obliged to knock on doors in an effort to get enough men together for a minyan. During the winter months this required vigorous effort, but these early Jews were committed to keep their tiny congregation alive. They soon purchased a cemetery in Fairfield, proceeded to establish a Hebrew school, and finally - in 1865 - acquired a Sefer Torah for $100.00 in gold, a significant sum of money in those days. This acquisition was a significant step towards creating a strong congregation. Traditionally, a Torah is the symbol of permanence.
From the start, Congregation B'nai Israel showed an interest in civic affairs as well as in religious matters. In 1876, when there were still only a dozen Jewish families in Bridgeport, Bernhard Klein became the first Jewish alderman, elected from what is now the First District. His son, Jacob, became the first Jewish lawyer in the city, and in later years gave the Klein Memorial Auditorium to Bridgeport. Also in 1876, Mrs. Moses Klein organized the Ladies' Hebrew Charitable Society.
In addition to raising money to help maintain the cemetery, this group welcomed and advised newly arrived immigrants and gave assistance to the poor and needy. This community assistance program was of immense importance for those who often came to America without knowing English and having no family here to smooth out the settling down. This process of providing for fellow Jews always existed within the Jewish community worldwide, but it became unusually significant right from the beginning of the Jewish arrival in New Amsterdam.
In later years, the Jewish Federation would emerge as a community-wide organization. Thus, through individual service and contribution, as well as through group activity, the Congregation impacted positively upon the general community.
During the early years of its existence, Congregation B'nai Israel did not have a regular meeting place and services were held in lofts, in stores, or in people's homes. Rabbis, as well as meeting places, changed frequently, for services were conducted by itinerant rabbis until an orthodox rabbi willing to take up residence in Bridgeport could be engaged.
The Congregation had several orthodox rabbis prior to 1900, but by the late 1800s, many members definitely considered themselves as Reform. Some of this heightened interest in the Reform Movement may have been caused by the more established German Jews reacting to large scale Eastern European immigration. In the late 1880s, many Jews fled the persecution and poverty of Lithuania, Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Rumania and Galicia.
The more established Jews of America did not integrate readily with the new arrivals. Many of the immigrant Jews practiced "old world" traditions and they stood out noticeably. Socially, ethnically, and religiously, the Eastern European Jews and the Americanized Jews had little in common.
Despite the differences, however, many German American Jews started mutual aid institutions to provide for the welfare of the poor immigrants. As B'nai Israel became Reform in practice, the more traditional Jews felt increasingly uncomfortable. As the number of Jews increased in Bridgeport, the need for several synagogues became obvious. In 1895, there were sufficient members of the congregation to break away and form the first orthodox synagogue in Bridgeport, Adath Israel.
During the same year, the congregation began planning for a permanent building. They wanted a dignified sanctuary, a suitable and practical place in which to worship. They also desired better facilities for the education of their children.
In 1895 they were granted a special charter by the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut and immediately started a campaign to raise funds for their new building. However, once more, there was resistance, this time from a small faction that accepted the reform philosophy but objected to some of the more radical departures from tradition.
In 1909, when plans for the new building were being formulated and it was apparent that most members favored a strictly Reform mode of worship, this faction broke away to form Congregation Rodeph Sholom, the first Conservative synagogue in Bridgeport.
Meanwhile, Congregation B'nai Israel proceeded with its own plans. One of the prominent members, Leonard Asheim, became the architect for the new building. The new Temple was erected on the corner of Park Avenue and Washington Avenue, and became known as the Park Avenue Temple.
It was formally opened on the afternoon of March 12, 1911, in the presence of a large gathering of congregational members, invited guests, and interested spectators. Present at the dedication ceremony were Mayor Buckingham of Bridgeport and many prominent clergymen, Christian as well as Jewish. In keeping with the mood of joyous solemnity that pervaded this special occasion, beautiful music was provided by a trio of violin, viola and piano. The dedication exercises began with the presentation of the key by Isaac Moss, chairman of the Building Committee, to Sigmund Loewith, president of the congregation.
Mr. Moss expressed his happiness that the oldest Jewish religious society in Bridgeport was at last to have a home worthy of its Jewish tradition and history and thanked all who had assisted in bringing this long held dream to realization. Mr. Loewith spoke of the congregation's early beginnings, of their courage and perseverance in the face of many difficulties and defeats, and of their ultimate triumph. After the speeches, the Ner Tamid was lit by Bernhard Klein, the oldest member of the congregation, and the Torah scrolls, encased in white and red silk, were placed in the Ark.
The day's festivities culminated in the evening with a long musical service, which included a large choir. The Temple was a significant addition to the religious life of Bridgeport; even to this day, one can readily admire the grandeur of the structure.
Wood carvings abounded with a cathedral ceiling that was supported by massive timbers that spanned the entire building. The Ark and bimah were imposing and the brass menorah captured the imagination of the congregants. The lectern was of heavy wood and it stood bold and austere. No wonder the sermons delivered were forceful and articulate.
WitWith the completion of the new Temple there emerged a new energy and enthusiasm. 1911 saw the birth of a women's auxiliary group which was to become known as the Sisterhood of the Park Avenue Temple. Initially its aim was to give financial support to the Congregation, but it soon began to initiate charitable, civic and cultural activities.
The Sisterhood distributed food and clothing to the needy, collected books for hospitals, and presented concerts open to the public. Six years later, for reasons of efficiency and to end duplication of services, the Ladies' Hebrew Charitable Society merged with Sisterhood.
In 1913, a men's league was formed, which in time became the Brotherhood of Congregation B'nai Israel. Like the Sisterhood, the men's group engaged in religious, charitable, social, and cultural activities that enriched the lives of congregants and fostered friendly relations with members of the Bridgeport community.
The influence of the early Reform movement, with its German origins, was evident in the social and religious structure of the first temple. Often, the minutes of its organizations were taken in German and little, if any, Hebrew was used by the congregation during worship. Women, though no longer segregated, were still forbidden to take part in most aspects of the service.
No woman could read from the pulpit nor serve as an usher; these were special honors reserved for men only. The Sabbath service itself was highly formal. Members sat in family pews, which were assigned to them, and nobody ever left a service before it was over for any reason; if a member was "inconsiderate" enough to faint, the service continued without interruption.
Involvement in temple activities was pervasive. In addition to the projects of the Sisterhood and Men's Club, groups presented plays - both religious and secular - on a regular basis. Members attended a first night congregational seder, which superseded individual home seders.
Dedicated volunteers, including teachers who received no salaries, ran the religious school. It is interesting to note, however, that at this time congregational commitment did not extend to Israel. Except for a few, members were strongly opposed to Zionism.
During the war years of the 1940s, many members of the congregation became civil defense volunteers. They cleared people from the streets during test drills and checked that shades and blinds were drawn to protect inhabitants from flying glass in the event of an air raid. They also patrolled the streets, strictly enforcing the blackout, or evening ban on light.
This was a vital defense measure because of the threat of German submarines in Long Island Sound. Ships departing from New York could be silhouetted against lights from the shore, making them clear targets.
Because of the nightly blackouts, evening activities were curtailed or avoided, and aside from Sabbath service there were no evening meetings at the Temple. By day, however, congregants were involved in a variety of helpful activities.
Some members served as visiting nurses at a military hospital in West Haven; others volunteered to roll bandages and sew garments for the Red Cross; and Temple groups organized war bond drives, blood banks, and collections of supplies for hospitals. Members of the congregation served in all segments of the war effort including the military.
World War II ended and the entire country celebrated. The Jewish world had changed. The Holocaust had inflicted an eternal scar and attitudes even amongst the conservative Reform Jews changed to meet the new situation. Members worked hard to receive refugees from Nazi Germany and gradually, Israel became a common cause.
In the post war years, more and more Jewish families moved into Bridgeport and its surrounding areas. Concurrent with membership growth there emerged new attitudes toward customs and ceremonies. One such growing concern focused on Bar Mitzvah. According to Reform philosophy, confirmation marked the attainment of religious maturity. The very idea of Bar Mitzvah seemed foreign but this orientation was sure to change.
The first Bar Mitzvah, that of Michael Meshken, did not take place until April of 1951, nor was the event approached without obstacles. Mr. Meshken procured a private tutor for his son outside of the Temple. The tutor was a Reform rabbinical student who commuted from New York, and Michael had to ride his bicycle to Bridgeport for his study sessions.
After extensive preparation and rehearsing, Michael became the first boy to become a Bar Mitzvah within the Temple's sanctuary and Rabbi Martin blessed him. This was a symbolic turning point in the Congregation's worship.
As suburban expansion escalated in the 1950s, membership continued to grow rapidly. New organizations, such as the Couples' Club, Senior League and Youth Group, were formed, and social activities increased in number and scope. In addition, enrollment in the religious school multiplied to the point where available facilities became overcrowded and inadequate.
Actually, the need for a new building had first become apparent in the early post-war days, at which time a building fund had been started. The dream of a new Temple was certainly on the minds of many congregants, but perhaps the driving force of the new venture was harbored in the heart and mind of Rabbi Albert Martin.
Rabbi Martin was one of the most outstanding Reform Rabbis of this time. He, perhaps more than any other, nurtured the Congregation and tripled its membership within the thirty years he served as Rabbi. Rabbi Martin had a rich story to tell. He was born into a family of twelve children, the son of devout parents. He was an engineer before he studied for the rabbinate; his working experience and knowledge of people and their problems aided him in his long and devoted service to the Congregation.
Rabbi Martin came to Bridgeport as part of a special assignment working in the placement of rabbinical students. The famous Rabbi Stephen S. Wise had personally selected Rabbi Martin for the position and also as his administrative assistant. In 1928, Rabbi Martin accepted the call of B'nai Israel and remained as the rabbi for his complete rabbinate, over thirty years. He was an articulate speaker and his sermons were treasured by the congregants and by other citizens of Bridgeport.
The Congregation grew to such an extent that High Holy Day services had to be held in the Klein Memorial, a fitting place that had such historic memory for the Congregation. It was in large measure a result of Rabbi Martin's popularity that the new temple was constructed. In 1950, the Temple received a generous gift of land from Sumner Simpson, a Bridgeport industrialist and philanthropist who greatly admired Rabbi Martin.
Mr. Simpson donated $12,500 to the building fund for the purchase of a 3.5 acre plot of land on Park Avenue and Benson Street. This was to be the site of the new Park Avenue Temple as soon as enough money could be raised to cover the costs of planning and construction. As 1955 drew to a close and the need for a larger building became crucial, the Congregation doubled its efforts and raised the necessary funds to begin construction of the second Park Avenue Temple.
In 1956 Percival Goodman, a nationally recognized architect, was engaged and, shortly afterwards, ground was broken for the new building. Mr. Asheim, who created the first temple, served as the chairperson for the building committee.
A year later, upon removing the old temple's cornerstone, officers of the Congregation discovered imbedded in the stone a metal box. The box contained a history of the Congregation, its old building contract, several coins minted in 1910, a one dollar bill totally different from modern currency, and three Bridgeport newspapers, the morning Telegram, the afternoon Post, and the evening Farmer.
At the Cornerstone Ceremony early in 1958, these items, together with several current documents, were placed in the cornerstone of the new temple. Among the items added was a deed to the Park Avenue Temple property; appropriately, this document was placed into the metal box by the son of the late Sumner Simpson. The box was then sealed and placed in a specially designed vault behind the Ark, and a plaque was set up in front of the vault to signify its contents to future generations.
The second Park Avenue Temple was completed in 1958. The main section included a sanctuary and a large auditorium-social hall, which could be joined by a movable wall to accommodate as many as 1,000 people for worship on the High Holy Days and on other special occasions.
It was hard to imagine that the Temple could hold almost as many Jews as lived in America during the Revolutionary War period. A two-story wing extending from the main building provided classrooms for the religious school, a library, and administrative offices. Landscaping of the spacious grounds was tastefully planned by Charles Middeleer, a well-known landscape architect.
Noteworthy aspects of the building's interior included an espaliered Tree of Life applied by Mrs. Harold Kleinman to the brick wall near the main entrance, which now displays past Confirmation class pictures, stained glass windows that filter colored lights on the altar in the Sanctuary, and a thirty-foot high textured fabric curtain extending from the ceiling over the center of the Ark.
The stained glass windows and the curtain were designed by Robert Pinart. The lower ten-foot section of the curtain, which opens to show the Ark, was embroidered by Muriel Livingston. The design of the twelve tribes of Israel was appliquéd in linen and silk and embroidered in wool and metallic thread; the Hebrew "Shin" stood for Shaddai, which means "Almighty". This curtain was refurbished in 1983.
Two hand-wrought bronze ornaments, designed by Calvin Albert, were provided for the sanctuary. These were the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, suspended from a heavy bronze chain in front of the Ark, and a seven-branched Menorah. Both are traditional religious ornaments, the Eternal Light symbolizing the flame that burned constantly in Solomon's Temple, and the seven-branched candelabrum signifying the seven days of Creation. The old brass Menorah of the original Park Avenue Temple is presently displayed in the Chapel.
During the Friday night dedication service on January 10, 1958, Rabbi Albert Martin and Associate Rabbi Alton M. Winters witnessed the passing of the key to the Temple from Isaac Shine, building committee chairman, to Jacob Kunin, president of the Congregation.
Additional dedication activities took place during the next two weekends. These included a formal banquet-dance at which Mayor Tedesco and Governor Ribicoff, the first Jewish Governor of Connecticut, were present, a youth dedication, a religious school dedication, and a Sunday afternoon Open House. During the Open House, Louise Miller played organ music in the Sanctuary, ushers directed visitors and responded to their questions about religious objects, and Sisterhood members acted as hostesses.
When Rabbi Martin retired in 1958 after thirty years of dedicated service during crucial years of national history and congregational growth, Rabbi Winter became the Temple's full-time Rabbi. He was followed a year later by Rabbi Sanford Shapero, six years after that by Rabbi Charles Davidson, and finally in 1968 by Rabbi Arnold I. Sher. The Temple's first cantor, H. Richard Brown, was engaged in 1963 and served on a part-time basis. In 1966, Cantor Ramon Gilbert was installed as our permanent cantor.
As time passed, a number of alterations and additions, both practical and aesthetic, were made to the Temple building. By far, the most noteworthy of these was the magnificent sculpture of the Ten Commandments added to the façade of the building in 1967.
This was the creation of Gertrude Amidar, an award-winning sculptor whose work is included in the Glass Museum in Venice, Italy, as well as in several prominent private collections. Of the ten artists who vied for the commission to portray a Judaic symbol for the Temple's exterior, Gertrude Amidar was the only woman and the only artist whose sculpture was in stone rather than in bronze.
For the tablets she used two huge slabs of Swedish Imperial rose granite in an unusually large size available only in Carrera, Italy, where Michaelangelo obtained his stone centuries ago. To simulate the Biblical description of the stone tablets being pulled from the mountain, she made them irregular in height with torn edges, and burned the granite. She hand-cut the ten Hebrew letters using a beige-tone marble that matched the Temple wall.
Just as there were physical changes in the Temple building, so there were new developments in the intellectual and religious lives of the congregants. During the late 1960s and 1970s the movement for women's equality gathered momentum. In response to a new awareness on the part of its members, the Temple established a ceremony for girls that was the equivalent of the traditional Bar Mitzvah.
The first Bat Mitzvah, a double ceremony involving Caryn Gilbert and Elaine Lawrence, was held in May 1973. Several years later a female cantor was invited to serve as guest cantor during Sabbath services; more recently, choir members Esther Roth and Donna Shapiro have sung from the pulpit.
Changes also occurred in the mode of worship and in the religious school. Modern Sephardic Hebrew replaced the older Ashkenazic pronunciation in services and in classrooms, and the Temple adopted Gates of Prayer as their new prayer book, replacing the Union Prayerbook.
To accommodate increased school enrollment without sacrificing quality education, the school instituted mid-week sessions and engaged more teachers. In addition, the religious school principal, Robert Gillette, was appointed as the full-time Director of Education. In many ways the Congregation reflected Reform's evolving change to include more traditional liturgy and observances.
From a handful of Jewish immigrants in the 1850s, the Congregation has grown to a membership of seven hundred families, with a religious school enrollment of approximately four hundred students. However, the history of the Temple is more than an account of physical growth; it truly reflects the history of the changes in Jewish thinking and the response of Reform Judaism.
Our Congregation began as an Orthodox group, whose members adhered strictly to prescribed ritual. It progressed through a period of classical German Reform that rejected Zionism along with orthodox practice, to a contemporary Reform Judaism that maintains close ties with Israel and includes more Jewish tradition. Reform Judaism is ever changing and this faith in our religious tradition will continue to find new strength and significance in the lives of our congregants.
May 5, 1991
There was a ceremony of rededication in which the space which had previously been the library was dedicated as a chapel. This video shows the bringing of the Torah to the new chapel.
"Congregation B'nai Israel," Churches and Synagogues, 1910-1980, Bridgeport Public Library Clipping File.
"Congregation Rodeph Sholom," 50th Anniversary Book, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1959
Gamorin, Mamie G., The New Jewish History, Volume 3, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1957
"General Section," Churches and Synagogues, 1910-1980, Bridgeport Public Library Clipping File.
Gittelsohn, Roland B., Modern Jewish Problems, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1969
Glazer, Nathan, American Judaism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1959
Interviews with: Diana Lesser, Lawrence Lesser, Michael Meshken, Lottie Martin Salam, Dr. Max Alpert.
Levinger, Elma Ehrlich, Jewish Adventures in America, Block Publishing Company, New York, 1954
Schwartzman, Sylvan, Reform Judaism In The Making, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1955
Schwartzman, Sylvan, Reform Judaism Then and Now, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York 1971
Schwartzman, Sylvan, The Story of Reform Judaism, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York 1953
"Temple Sites Donated by Non-Jews," American Judaism, VIII:I, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1958
Van Dusen, Albert Edward, Connecticut, Random House, New York 1961
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