The sanctuary you see today, the result of the collaboration of a visionary architect and an internationally acclaimed artist, would have astounded the chicken farmers who more than a century ago sought a simple place to worship. But what goes on inside of this building–spirituality in many forms–no doubt would make our founders proud.
Connecticut was never known in its early history as a state of diverse religious practice. Indeed, until 1818 it was illegal to build any house of worship other than a Congregational church. Even after the repeal of that onerous statute, it took nearly half a century for the first synagogue to be constructed, in Hartford.
In the years that followed, Jews in rural parts of Connecticut formed their minyans at private homes. Then, in 1906, rural families centered in Moodus formed an informal group of worshipers. Nine years later, they bought an old house, and turned it into a synagogue. Congregation Rodfe Zedek was formalized. Two decades later, across the Connecticut River, a similar story unfolded. A chicken farmer, Isadore Romanoff, held services at his house, with a Torah kept in his desk. This was the birth of what eventually became Congregation Beth Shalom, which purchased a Lutheran church on Union Street in Deep River, its home for more than half a century.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the lower Connecticut Valley landscape changed. Jewish families that adhered to a variety of religious traditions found this area an ideal place to live. Synagogue membership grew at Congregation Beth Shalom, which hired its first fulltime rabbi in 1990. A few years later, the two pioneering congregations – east and west of the river – merged as Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek. And the “new” Reform synagogue set about to raise the money to build a proper and permanent home of its own.
That’s when Sol LeWitt, a congregation member and founder of conceptual art, built a model out of cardboard–his tribute to the traditions of Eastern Europe, where synagogues were built of wood. (The majority had been destroyed in the Holocaust.) Sol collaborated with Chester architect Stephen Lloyd, and then an aggressive fund-raising campaign was launched. In October 2001, congregants walked the three miles, Torahs in their arms, to our new home as its house band, A Klez Act, performed celebratory Yiddish and Hebrew tunes from the back of a flatbed truck.
Since then, our congregation has grown and flourished. The words at our synagogue entrance declare CBSRZ has become house for all: “to worship, to rejoice, to heal, to learn and to savor the great gift of Torah.”