NEW HAVEN, CT — The old synagogue is hidden behind overgrown weeds, littered with bottles, fast-food wrappers, old leaves and broken glass. A rusted iron fence and gate helps keep vandals away.
So why are some people calling the historic Orchard Street Shul a “gem?”
Because a renovation project that starts today promises to reveal “a hidden gem waiting to be repolished and unveiled,” according to the invitations to today’s celebration.
Inside, there are walls to be re-wallboarded, floors to be polished, wood to be sanded and lots more cleaning up to do. The building, constructed in 1924, has a feel like no structure of today — marble steps inside, religious acutraments that still have a royal look about them, an Arc that beckons and vintage balconies that have always made the shul unique. In it’s time, the shul was once the centerpiece of a thriving Jewish community.
In the old kitchen downstairs atop a Formica table likely from half a century ago, sits a sure sign of the change: a laptop computer belonging to Rabbi Mendy Hecht, who will lead the spiritual revitalization of the shul — formally known as Congregation Beth Israel and led by his grandfather, Moshe Hecht for more than 40 years.
The younger Hecht, 23, an orthodox rabbi like his grandfather and his father, Rabbi Sheya Hecht, plans to infuse a modern twist by getting creative within the limits of his Judaism. That could mean outdoor gatherings over cocktails to learn the Torah or a kosher luncheon and lecture.
“See how that computer doesn’t fit?” Mendy Hecht said, noting the contrast to the kitchen. “That’s what I want to do with this synagogue. It’s being creative with orthodoxy.”
Although the project is in its beginning stages, as is the fundraising, Mendy Hecht hopes by Passover to be conducting services somewhere in the shul, possibly in the large gathering room downstairs.
“I think he’s going to do a wonderful job, but he has his job cut out for him,” said Sheya Hecht, who heads Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy and Chabad of Orange. “It’s all the more special that it’s my father’s grandson doing it.”
Mendy Hecht’s ability to remain orthodox, but also live like most of society, is largely influenced by his dad, who is known for going up to the limits with activities such as a girl’s basketball team at the high school. The girls wear long skirts but still compete.
Mendy Hecht hopes the new shul will draw Jews of all kinds — conservative and reformed as well as orthodox because he considers it a place for anyone to pray to God. He also welcomes input from the community, saying, “this is not a one man show.”
“I believe in New Haven and I feel there’s a lot of potential here,” Mendy Hecht said. “There’s no neighborhood synagogue, Jewish community gathering place in New Haven. I’m looking to build a community from within.”
Once the physical structure is refurbished, Mendy Hecht feels there is promise for a thriving shul, due to efforts to revitalize downtown New Haven.
He said the synagogue has received some grant money and the Sachs family of Cherry Hill Construction has made generous donations. The building is on the state register of historic places.
“The building is here with all this history; why recreate something if it’s already here?” Mendy Hecht said.
The congregation began in 1913, some 11 years before the building was constructed, whenthe neighborhood was a thriving Jewish community filled with kosher butchers and other businesses. Eventually people left the city for the suburbs and the many synagogues downtown began folding, one after the other.
Even as the ranks dwindled, the Orchard Street Shul was held together by a dedicated group. Long after the families adopted other synagogues, they continued until about 10 years ago to hold a Shabbat and weekday service there, led by Rabbi Sheya Hecht. He stepped in when his dad became ill in the early nineties.
Considered the oldest traditional shul in New Haven, it is the last of the ones that existed in the 1920s and still has loyal members who have kept the building standing.
Congregation president Samuel Teitelman is among the faithful. Like so many others, Teitelman has fond childhood memories of the shul where he made his bar mitzvah. His parents came here from Russia in 1923 and became members of the congregation.
“I have a strong committment for saving something that’s historically significant and in my view, it has historical significance and deserves to be saved,” said “It’s representative of a population and culture that existed 100 years ago.”