USA: New Haven's Orchard Street Shul (1925)
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) In a previous blogpost I described the former Temple Mishkan Israel building in New Haven, Connecticut, designed by Brunner & Tryon in 1896, and now used as a performing arts center. On a visit last week to New Haven, I had the opportunity of spending the morning at The Orchard Street Shul (Congregation Beth Israel) another important New Haven Jewish landmark and the region’s oldest intact and in use purpose built Orthodox synagogue. While all of Beth Israel’s physical features are intact, its congregation has dwindled. Today, there is only a small occasional minyan, and all those who still profess membership also belong to other synagogues in the areas. The future of the building is in question (for more photos click here).
Congregation president Sam Teitelman remains active at age 87 – but he knows that hard decisions about the fate of the building need to be made soon. He doesn’t want the building, which in the past few years has received some assistance for window repairs and other limited restoration work, to fall victim to a “last one out the door turn off the light” scenario that has been common for older congregations. Teitelman and others in the congregation are reaching out to others in the Jewish and non-Jewish community for ideas and support about how to save the building and its history, even if the future use is different from that the building now (just barely) enjoys.
Teitelman has been looking at what’s been done at Boston’s Vilna Shul and New York Eldridge Street Synagogue to see if aspects of those solutions would be applicable – and affordable – at Orchard Street. He and other congregation members have also been supportive of a effort by local and national artists - the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project - to use the synagogue and its history for inspiration for art projects – some of which will be exhibited for the first time in a group exhibition opening at New Haven’s John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art on December 6th. While the art doesn’t directly impact the future preservation of either the building or its congregation, it is aimed in part to raise awareness of the synagogue’s existence as an historic and cultural site in New Haven. According to New Haven-based digital artist Cynthia Rubin, one of the prime organizers of the exhibition, “included in the Project are presentations by researchers from Yale University who have developed innovative ways to document the building, including virtual reconstructions exploring new digital methods, ground-breaking research by computer scientists that promises to change the ways that cultural heritage sites will be documented in the future.”
Beth Israel Synagogue was erected in 1925 at 232 Orchard Street, on designs by local Jewish architect Jacob Weinstein, who had offices on State Street (more information is needed on this architect). The area was then heavily Jewish, though other immigrant groups lived there, too. Much of what was once Jewish housing, as well as several important Jewish buildings, was demolished in the 1960s. Beth Israel draws architectural inspiration from both Temple Mishkan Israel, but also from the impressive Beth Jacob synagogue on George Street, built in 1912 (and demolished in 1962). Like Mishkan Israel, the Orchard Street Shul is brick, has two (small) tower features flanking the façade, and is articulated with Colonial revival details. The exterior is noteworthy for its two rows of windows, indicating the men’s sanctuary and the raised women’s gallery. The windows are large and filled with clear glass, and the upper windows are round arched. Both Mishkan Israel and Beth Jacob had tall, narrow double height windows serving main floor and gallery together, and both those congregation used stained glass.
Yale University art historian Walter Cahn, who has written a short essay about the synagogue for the catalogue of the upcoming exhibition, suggests a link with Amsterdam’s Esnoga (Portuguese Synagogue), especially since that building was so known in the early 20th century from graphic representations.
The interior arrangement of ark, bimah and seating follows the traditional Eastern European Orthodox arrangement, very common in American immigrant synagogues from the 1880s through the 1920s, but Orchard Street is a late example. It is noteworthy that there are two aisles dividing the seats in to three sections, with the bimah and the projecting Ark platform (duhan) occupying much of the space of the central section. The marvelous Ark with its carved lions and a eagle recall the the Ark carved by craftsmen such as Samuel Katz, represented by Murray Zimilas in his Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses exhibition last year. The ark is adorned with light bulbs in a manner similar to the arks at Chevra T’helim in Portsmouth and at Eldridge Street (among others).
For more information about pre-World War II synagogues in Connecticut see the excellent and still essential survey by David F. Ransom, "One Hundred Years of Jewish Congregations in Connecticut: An Architectural Survey," Connecticut Jewish History, Vol 2: 1 (Fall 1991). 1-147 (entire issue).