Monday, October 25, 2021

USA: Rare Jewish Cemetery Mortuary Chapel in Hartford, CT, Threatened with Demolition

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.
Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery. Photo: Kerri Provost. 

USA: Rare Jewish Cemetery Mortuary Chapel in Hartford, CT, Threatened with Demolition

By Samuel D. Gruber 

Part I: The Building’s Architecture, History, and Condition

(n.b This is part 1 of a 2-part post. The next will be about the Deborah Society and Cemetery chapels)

Thanks to Dr. Elissa Sampson for her input.

[updated 2-15-2022]

A rare American example of a Jewish building type, built in 1886, is threatened with demolition in Hartford, Connecticut. The building is architecturally noteworthy and historically significant for its role in Jewish funerary tradition and as a representation of the strong role of Jewish women within the Jewish religious and communal organizations in 19th-century America. It is the second oldest surviving purpose-built Jewish building in Connecticut. The chapel is apparently included as a contributing structure in the Frog Hollow National Register Historic District, but its owner, the Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, is unfortunately eager to demolish the building. 

This is a shame for many reasons. There is much history embedded in this structure. It is always a shame to waste a good building - one that can still be used for residential, educational, or cultural purpose. This is also an opportunity for Hartford’s Jews – once immigrants themselves – to engage more directly with present-day immigrant communities. 

The Deborah Chapel is a mortuary chapel (Beth Tahara, Beis Tahare) at the corner of Ward and Affleck streets, set on edge of the Beth Israel Cemetery on Zion Hill, the highest point in Hartford. It was built in 1886 by the German-speaking Hartford Ladies’ Deborah Society. Independent Deborah Societies were founded beginning in the 1850s in different cities as way of recognizing and channeling the increased – and essential – involvement of American Jewish women in the operation and survival of synagogue congregations. Their history still needs to be written and is deeply connected to that of the charitable Sisterhoods of Service found in German-speaking synagogues in the United States. 

Though they worked closely with congregations, Deborah Societies provided an independent arena in which Jewish women could carry out charitable and service work for Jews and for the larger community. This is very likely the oldest standing building in the United States initiated and erected by Jewish women. Women's groups and wealthy women often raised funds for synagogue or for social welfare buildings (e.g., settlement houses) and their furnishings, but typically they did not own them. Here women take upon themselves to organize so that a Jewish community can properly meet its essentially religious obligation to bury the dead. Perhaps even more unusual, is a women's society owning a mortuary and running it as a business.

It is - to say the least - disappointing that we Americans want to tear down such buildings when newer cemetery buildings are being restored in many European countries. It is always disheartening when American Jews turn their back on our own history and when a congregation rejects the contributions of its forebears. This is especially so when we turn our backs on the history of Jewish women. The usual reasons – often just excuses – do not hold here. This is not a case congregational survival, religious freedom, or even financial hardship. This building can be saved with little or no cost to the congregation.


Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery. Photo:
Mark Mirko.

Apart from its association of Jewish womens’ history, there are few similar Jewish funerary structures recorded in America. The tradition was imported from Europe, but by the early 20th century most Jewish funerary activities aside the burial itself had moved to private funeral homes and chapels apart from the cemetery itself. Many cemeteries has entrance buildings, but these have not been studied. For example, entrance building at the Walnut Hill United Jewish in Cincinnati (where Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise is buried) may have served multiple purposes – as a Beth Tahara, but also for cemetery offices and other facilities. That cemetery was founded in 1850s, but it is not known at this time when the building was erected. 

Elsewhere in New England – in contrast to Hartford - a project is underway to convert the 1903 neo-Gothic chapel at the Ohabei Shalom Cemetery in East Boston into a Jewish immigrant history center. The cemetery and chapel are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the chapel is also a recognized historic landmark by Boston Historical Society and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. 

There are certainly more Jewish cemetery chapels around the country, but these have not been well documented. In New York, examples can be seen at the Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn and the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island. It is possible that these buildings served as mortuary chapels but their history needs to be researched. 

Several proposals for Hartford’s Deborah Chapel have been put forward by local residents and preservationists to save this building and give it purpose without financial burden to the congregation. Based on my more than 30 years as a historic preservationist, these seem to me reasonable and viable. Hartford’s historical and preservation communities have spoken out in favor of saving the Deborah chapel with no liability accruing to the congregation, but so far to no avail. The City of Hartford wants to save the historic building, but Congregation Beth Israel - or at least its leadership - seems set to see it come down. It has turned its back on its immigrant urban roots as well as the contemporary urban, predominantly Latinx community which lives in Frog Hill today and would like the building and its historic character preserved. 

The Hartford Deborah Society was founded in 1854 and conducted its early meetings in German. It sponsored social activities and served as a burial society for Congregation Beth Israel.It is not clear exactly what role Deborah Society women played in preparing the bodies of the dead following Jewish ritual and custom; but the washed bodies were placed in shrouds that had been sewn by the ladies. After 1886, this took place in the Deborah Chapel at Zion Hill, which was built thanks to the money raised by these women. The Chapel was built at a cost of $5,000 (approximately $140,000 in today’s dollars). The women ran the building itself and arranged for its maintenance. The 2 ½-story brick-and-brownstone chapel included facilities for preparation of the body downstairs and living quarters upstairs for a cemetery caretaker. The mortuary income was donated by the Deborah Society to help support the Congregation Beth Israel. The Deborah Society also raised money for civic charitable causes including for the children’s hospital and included in their fundraising insurance for the support of widows, and the provision of children’s clothes.

Hartford, CT. Former Congregation Beth Israel, 1876. Now Charter Oak Cultural Center. Photo:Samuel Gruber 2015.  

Hartford, CT. Former Ados Israel Synagogue, 1901 (demolished). Photo from Connecticut Jewish History, 2:1 (Fall 11991), 21.

West Hartford, CT. Temple Beth Israel, 1936. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2011.

Congregation Beth Israel 

Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in Hartford and was formed in 1843, the first year the Connecticut law allowed Jews to worship outside of their homes and build structures that could be used exclusively for Jewish religious purposes. Originally established as an Orthodox congregation, the synagogue eventually joined the Reform Movement and was one of the founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism) in 1877. 

At first, the congregation met in homes and buildings throughout the city. In 1856 the first building to house the synagogue, "Touro Hall," was also dedicated as the first synagogue in Hartford. After a fire in 1875, the congregation built a new synagogue designed by noted local architect George Keller in Charter Oak Avenue (now charter Oak Cultural Center). This opened in 1876 and served the congregation until 1935, when Beth Israel built its present synagogue on Farmington Avenue West Hartford. In 1868, the synagogue purchased land on Zion Hill for their cemetery, which was dedicated in 1874. The chapel was built a decade later.

The Chapel Architecture 

The chapel is a modest but dignified building, typical of urban architecture in the last quarter of the 19th century. In appearance and size it is much closer to contemporary yet substantial houses than to any religious architecture. It has a simple form; the main block is rectangular with a hybrid hipped and gabled roof. A one-story wing extends off two sides at the rear right corner which has a roof in the same form as that of the main block. The primary entrance is on the narrow end covered with a small gable porch supported on wooden brackets. Large arched windows illuminate the tall ground floor. Rows of rectangular windows light the upper story. A pair of tall rectangular windows is set about the apex of the entrance gable and this element extend upward into a hipped dormer with just one window that protrudes from the attic story.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.

The Chapel is built of good red brick on a brownstone foundation. There are decorative horizontal bands of black-glazed brick or tile ringing the structure, breaking up the monotony the wall. The bricks in the ground floor window arches alternate in red and black. 

A reader of this blog has identified the architect of the chapel as Seneca W. Lincoln. a notice calling for bids for the building was published in the Hartford Courant on July 22, 1884.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.


One notable speaker to overflow crowds at the chapel’s October 1886 dedication was Dr. Nathan Mayer, a Civil War surgeon and the son of Beth Israel’s first rabbi, Isaac Mayer. The Hartford Daily Courant reported that in his speech, he said that to give: 

“honor to the dead [is] the highest sentiment known to man and the most unselfish. From them, there can be no return, no thanks. Our actions for them are simply the overflow of our great love which does not cease with life, which reaches beyond earth and on the wings of hope carries us to where our dear ones dwell.”


Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery.

Hartford, CT. Deborah Chapel, Beth Israel Cemetery. The plaque commemorates a donation in memory of Moses and Theresa Fox. Moses Fox was the second generation of the Fox family to run Hartford's G. Fox & Co. department store. Photo: Hartford Preservation Alliance.

Funding for the chapel construction included donations from prominent members of the community, including then-Hartford Mayor Morgan G. Bulkeley, who later became governor of Connecticut and a U.S. senator. He was also the first president of baseball's National League. Gershon Fox, the founder of the G. Fox Department store and a founding member of Congregation Beth Israel was also in attendance. Members of the philanthropic Fox and Auerbach families, many of whom are buried in a grand mausoleum and beneath statuary in the cemetery, stepped up again in 1939 with funds to renovate the structure. 

The Deborah Society itself again helped the congregation when it eventually deeded its building to it in 1941 after having built, maintained, and sustained it. It also funded the synagogue’s library at that time. 

Current Condition 

I have been to Hartford many times and have lectured about Jewish architecture and preservation at both the former and present buildings of Congregation Beth Israel, and also at Trinity College, but I have not yet visited the cemetery and the Deborah Chapel. According to the Congregation, they stopped using the chapel for funerary purposes about 75 years ago but continued to house a shamas (caretaker) in the building. The last tenant was evicted over a decade ago and they have kept the building vacant since.The congregation argues that vandalism is - or has been - a problem and that the presence of the building blocks the view of the rest of the cemetery for nearby police, and therefore its very existence encourages harm. In fact, vandalism has largely been addressed through the presence of a new fence and the activities of neighborhood residents who have organized as volunteers to keep the cemetery clean and safe. 

In 2020, some of those area residents formed the Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery to improve the conditions in the cemetery and attract more visitors to the multiple adjoining historic cemeteries which make up a 24-acre bucolic sanctuary within the vibrant, predominantly Latinx working-class Frog Hollow neighborhood. The group has been tremendously successful in transforming the look and feel of the cemetery and raising awareness about the Deborah Chapel including through cemetery clean-ups. 

The Chapel was inspected by a structural engineer for the State of Connecticut Historic Preservation office a few months ago and was determined to be structurally sound. The City of Hartford, several nonprofit organizations and private citizens have all offered to assist with or undertake the renovation which is estimated at approximately $350,000 - $400,000. The Connecticut SHPO is working with the Hartford Preservation Alliance and the Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery to prevent the demolition. 

What's Next?

Beth Israel, the City of Hartford, and the State Historic Preservation Office are presently in a legal fight. This may come to a head very quickly to allow demolition. Since the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, most governments do not have the stomach to take on religious organizations. One just has to shout "religious freedom" and all sorts of zoning and other local laws fall by the wayside. The City of Hartford seems to making a serious effort to save the building, and the city rejected the congregation's request to demolish back in 2012. Since then it has been a wait-and-see game, advancing to a typical case of demolition by neglect. By 2019 the congregation came back and argued the the building was seriously deteriorated making renovation unfeasible. local preservationist disagree. The costs will be high, but the preservationists should be allowed to try. 

I do not think this should be legal issue. For Jews, this is about doing the right thing for history and for community. for me, the apparent rewards of demolition do seem to outweigh what can be gained by saving the building for cultural and community use. If the parties could stop fighting they could start planning and put together a reasonable project and then test the waters to see if and how it could be funded. Based on my experience in Syracuse, I think it can be done. If there is will, there will be a way.

So I think it is up to American Jews - and the Jews of Hartford -  to appeal to and convince the congregation that the building is worth saving, and that it can be saved. Demolition is forever. Jewish migration and urban renewal have already left to much of our American Jewish built history to the wrecking ball. Let's not rashly - and it seems to me needlessly - add to the rubble pile of our history.

I will be reaching out to Beth Israel. You can, too. Anyone wishing to get involved with the local effort to save the Chapel can contact Mary Falvey at the Hartford Preservation Alliance - or Carey Shea at Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery -

Next: The Deborah Societies and the Empowerment of Jewish Women





hels said...

Why is a heritage listed chapel being considered for destruction? Surely it could be picked up and moved, if necessary.

Bernice said...

Very interesting and well documented. Thank you for all that you are doing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for documenting the history.

Darrin said...

In the July 22, 1884 issue of the Hartford Courant, architect and builder Seneca W. Lincoln was taking proposals from contractors for the Deborah Chapel.

Samuel Gruber said...

Darrin, that is an important reference. I'm looking for that notice but have not found it in the Courant for that date. Can you conform, or do you have a copy?

Samuel Gruber said...

Darin, It's OK, I found it! Thanks!