It’s hard to imagine today, but the concept of a Conservative Jewish congregation in New London began almost 100 years ago. The development and growth of the Congregation over the past century have been such animportant part of Jewish life in New London as well as the New London community as a whole.
In 1924 a group of Jews in the area felt a need for a more modern and more inclusive form of worship that was less traditional than what was currently offered. This all began during a dinner sponsored by the B’nai B’rith Women’s Auxiliary, where a speaker from United Synagogue of America suggested that Conservative High Holiday services be held in New London. That year the group began having services in the Union Lodge at 7 Union St in New London only during the High Holidays (the building still remains). By 1932, they felt a need to organize into a formal congregation. A meeting was held at the home of Nathan Lubow with about 10 or 12 people present. Congregation Beth El was officially established and a rabbi was soon hired: Rabbi Samuel Ruderman, a recent seminary graduate from Boston, who was 25 years old. They decided on a budget of $5000, and Nathan Lubow was elected as the first president. In the new shul, a Conservative prayer book was utilized, which included both Hebrew and English. Men and women could sit together, and an organ was used on Friday evenings.
A Sefer Torah was donated and 21 members pledged their dues. One immediate need was the care of the deceased. Even in the midst of the Depression, the members made loans to buy land in Groton and start a cemetery in March 1933. This Beth El Cemetery still continues as the final resting place for many Beth El members.
But now a physical structure was needed to house the growing Congregation. The New London Hebrew Ladies Aid and Education Society had purchased the original Prest house at 60 Blackhall St in 1925 and they started the Jewish Community Center there. This was considered the ideal site for Congregation Beth El, who purchased the building as their first actual synagogue. Oneg Shabbat and Kiddush were held at the home of Benjamin and Lena Kaplan a few houses away at 44 Blackhall St. By 1935, the Congregation had organized a Sisterhood, a Men’s Club, a Junior Congregation, a Hebrew and Sunday School, a Literary Circle, a Boy Scout troop, as well as weekly newsletters. The first Bar Mitzvah at Beth El was Mortimer Lubow, son of the first president. Rosana Kaplan, daughter of Benjamin and Lena, was the first Bat Mitzvah. The Sisterhood began the Gift Shop in 1939, offering fine Judaica to the community. That gift shop was an important part of Beth El until last year when the synagogue moved.
Of course, education was deemed to be very important in the growing Jewish community. By 1938, the Religious School had 118 pupils and a Parent Teachers Association had been started. In 1941, Rabbi Ruderman left to accept a pulpit in Fall River, MA. Rabbi Myer Kripke was then appointed as Beth El’s second rabbi. This was during WWII when there were a large number of Jewish servicemen stationed in the area as well as many Jewish employees at Electric Boat. The congregation welcomed these men and women to our services and other activities. This led to a significant growth of the membership.
By the mid-1940’s Beth El had outgrown the building on Blackhall St. Initially, they bought property on Hempstead St, the current site of the Greek Orthodox church. But they realized that they wanted to be closer to the beach, where the younger Jewish families were now moving (such as Plant St), and they purchased land at 660 Ocean Ave. The Hempstead property was sold to St. Sophia.
In 1946, Rabbi Kripke left for Omaha, Nebraska, and Rabbi Irving Perlman came for one year. The next rabbi was Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman. Now things were moving ahead for the new building. Architect Percival Goodman drew up the plans and the building was built and dedicated in 1951. The menorah on the bimah was given as a gift by the First Congregational Church of New London, and the Methodist Church donated two chairs for the pulpit. The library was dedicated to Lena Kaplan, who began the Sisterhood in 1932. In 1952, Rabbi Kreitman resigned and Rabbi Leonard Goldstein was recruited from Green Bay, WI. The congregation was enlarging tremendously in these post-war, Baby Boomer years.
Beth El showed solidarity with other congregations when the Putnam synagogue suffered a devastating flood in 1950’s and they raised $7000 to help rebuild their shul. In 1956, a lavish weekend celebration was held for the 25th anniversary of the Congregation. Rabbi Ruderman returned as the guest speaker. In 1956-1958, the first community Seder was held and a Board of Education was established. Around 1958-1960, the Synagogue adopted the Sephardic pronunciation. The Hebrew School was booming. Victor Norman was the musical director at Beth El and the creator of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, but he left for Norway to conduct the symphony orchestra there.
In the early 1960’s, it was decided that women could now be elected to the Board of Directors- a major step for a truly representative Board. The Foundation for Jewish Education was established at this time and daily minyans were an integral part of the religious life. USY and Kadima were very active. A Youth Commission was begun to oversee all the youth programming. At this time there were 12 levels of instruction in the Hebrew School, which was quite cramped, and the discussions began for expansion of the building. Rabbi Goldstein left and there was a huge farewell party.
Isadore Greengrass and his wife arrived in the early 1960s as Holocaust survivors and he became an associate Rabbi. He was a major inspiration to the adults and the children for decades. He also authored a book about his Holocaust experience and escaping into the woods for survival. A memorial garden was dedicated in his memory after his passing in 2009.
Around 1970 the very important organization of Chevra Kadisha was established to perform the mitzvah of preparing the deceased for burial, under the direction of Rabbi Greengrass. Daily minyans were an integral part of the religious life of the synagogue.
In the mid 1960’s a major expansion of the synagogue was envisioned. “An Evening with Alan King” brought in $6000 for the building fund that was being organized. Paul Rudolf was retained as the architect for the new expansion and the groundbreaking took place. High Holiday services were held at Mitchell College during the construction period. Rabbi Irving Spielman was the spiritual leader at this time.
The dedication of the new building took place in 1971, with the gorgeous new sanctuary, the smaller chapel, a large Rabbi’s office and a beautiful entranceway. The original sanctuary was now used as a large social hall, accommodating all of our functions. Downstairs, the school facilities were expanded.
In 1976, Rabbi Aaron Pearlstein arrived, and Rena Linder was elected as our first female President. She remains an active board member and is in charge of the daily minyans. Over the years, numerous endowment funds were set up to offer scholarships for the young members as well as to provide for our future.
The synagogue membership was about 500 families at this time. The Solomon Schechter Academy was established in 1973 to provide a Hebrew day school for the community and it shared space with the Hebrew School. The initial enrollment was seven students. The school enlarged over the years giving many children a sound Jewish and secular foundation up to the sixth grade.
Rabbi Carl Astor joined the Congregation in 1981, moving here from a pulpit in New Jersey, and he became our longest serving rabbi.
The Beth El Hebrew School, the Solomon Schechter Academy and the Beth El Nursery School all were so popular that two portable classrooms were added to accommodate the increased enrollment. This led to the plan for expanding the building further and another building fund was initiated. Construction began in October 1992 and all of the schools began using the new facility in 1993. Besides the new classrooms, an Oolam/gymnasium was also added. Our very successful and popular Beth El Nursery School was given a much-enlarged home in the new section. Rabbi Rhonda Nebel, our first female rabbi, was hired in the 1990’s as educational director of the Synagogue and she served in that capacity for over ten years.
A very special Re-Dedication Weekend was held in October 1993 with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel as the guest speaker. Elie Wiesel was as a close friend of fellow Holocaust survivor and Beth El past-president Sigmund Strochlitz and he was invited to Beth El on several occasions. Another festive event was the Torah Rededication Weekend in November 1999.
Lou Detz served as the Gabbai for many years, organizing all the services, and was a very beloved member of the congregation. Harold Juli succeeded him and served the congregation well until his untimely passing. To memorialize Harold, the synagogue holds a Cantor's Concert each year. Diane Maran has served as our Ba’alat Tefillah for many years, reading the Torah, leading services and teaching our students. We have had guest cantors for the High Holidays each year. We are especially fortunate to have the very talented and personable Michael Zoosman chant the services on many occasions. Throughout the year, we have student intern cantors at least once a month, chanting the beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat services as well as Saturday services. The concept of a Simchah Shabbat was begun a few years ago, where those celebrating a birthday or anniversary that month will be honored during the service and may sponsor the Kiddish.
To keep up with the times, the synagogue began a website (https://bethel-nl.org), as well a Facebook page. In 2003, to make the prayers more egalitarian, we began to use a prayerbook with the Matriarchs as part of the Amidah and elsewhere in the service. Due to the generosity of the Weiner and Tom families, the annual Weiner-Tom Lecture series was begun, bringing nationally renowned speakers who attract very large audiences. Rabbi Astor became very active in the New London Clergy Association, integrating Beth El with the other religious groups in the area. This has led to participation in the March for Hunger as well as the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials, among others.
2013 was a highly significant year for the shul. Our esteemed Rabbi Carl Astor retired after 32 years at Beth El. A grand weekend of events was held to honor his many years of service and dedication to the synagogue. He was named Rabbi Emeritus. The Search Committee worked very diligently to find a successor and we are so fortunate to have found Rabbi Rachel Safman. Rabbi Safman moved here from Los Angeles, California with her family, having been newly ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies-American Jewish University. Prior to seeking the rabbinate, she had been a Professor of Sociology in Southeast Asia. She has instituted many new programs and concepts for the congregation. A Women’s Seder was organized and takes place each Pesach. A short Shabbat service was initiated once a month lasting about ninety minutes. Rabbi Safman has also been very active in Adult Education, creating some very original programs. The Kashrut policy for the synagogue was reviewed and revamped, allowing a more modern approach to maintaining a Kosher kitchen.
Congregation Beth El has always worked closely with the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. This has led to joint programming with Temple Emanu-El and Beth Jacob. Our building has been used for many large Federation events. We helped JFEC with the resettlement of the Russian Jewish emigrants, starting in the late 1980s. We sponsored many families over the years, and these members have become very important assets to the congregation.
For several years, the Board of Directors has realized that the demographics and economics of the New London Jewish population had changed significantly. The membership had declined for many reasons, a trend that is seen all over the country. Our beloved building, constructed for a much larger congregation, was becoming tired and difficult to maintain. So we put the facility up for sale. In 2017 an offer was made by LEARN, a major educational resource center in Southeastern Connecticut. After discussions with the congregation, the board proceeded with the sale, which was completed in the Fall of 2017. With great sadness, we packed up sixty-five years of memories on Ocean Ave and entered our next phase of Congregation Beth El.
As we seek a permanent home, the congregation remains very active, continuing all of our religious services and other programming events in temporary locations. At the same time, we are exploring many sites in the area to find the best permanent location for Beth El. We look forward to many more years of serving Southeastern Connecticut with a Conservative approach to Judaism and offering a wide variety of activities for all ages.
Credits: “The History of Congregation Beth El” in the booklet designed for the Re-Dedication of Our Home in 1993 written by Esther Smithline and Dan Weissman
A Goodly Heritage, The story of The Jewish Community in New London, 1860-1955 by Ester Sulmn