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Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek: A History

By Ellen Nodelman.

Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek has roots on both sides of the Connecticut River, in Moodus, on one, and in Deep River and Chester, on the other. How the Congregation, situated today in Chester, came to be ‘The Congregation with the Long Name’ is a story that goes back over 100 years.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Moodus was not the sort of place where you would expect to find a fair number of Jewish residents. But with the huge influx of Jewish immigrants to New York City and other urban centers, a wealthy German Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, helped Jews willing to try their hand at farming buy properties from Yankee farmers who had given up on cultivating the rocky soil of New England.

Moodus had its share of these aspiring farmers along with some merchants who decided to give small town living a chance. They got together for worship in each other’s houses, with the elders most proficient in Hebrew leading the services. In 1905, local tavern owners Frank and Bernard Shenkman, deciding it was time for a proper Jewish organization in Moodus, created Chevra Rodfe Zedek. No official location, no building, just the organization itself. But by 1915, they wanted a dedicated place for their services, found a pre-Revolutionary farmhouse in Moodus and bought it for $300, next purchasing land for a cemetery in 1918.

By 1922 the community had outgrown the little farmhouse on North Moodus Road so it began building a new shul next door: nothing fancy, it resembled nothing more exotic than a traditional New England house. It cost $4000 and was paid for, in full, within the year. It had no basement, resting instead on stone piers, and no heat since there was no furnace, making it challenging in a cold New England winter.  So before long money had to be raised for a stone foundation and for a furnace to keep the winter at bay.

The women proved to be a driving force in the synagogue,  undertaking the fundraising that kept it going. A traditional, orthodox organization, its religious life was directed by the men of the congregation who continued to lead services since the congregation could not afford its own full time rabbi. But the women, who had sat through services in the balcony saw to the business side of everything, hiring itinerant rabbis to teach the children and preside over high holiday services. As the 20s progressed, the influx of Jews into the community increased, and by the 30’s, Jews from other areas, including farming families from Turkey Hill Road in Haddam, found their way to the synagogue.

Across the river from Moodus, in Chester and Deep River, another, more spread-out Jewish community was forming. Chicken farmers, merchants, and a few professionals met in each other’s houses to worship and celebrate life events. In the 1930s, a chicken farmer named Isaac Jacobson rallied some of his acquaintances to come and worship in his house on Goose Hill Road in Chester – the beginning of what was first named B’nai Israel,  later merging with another fledgling Jewish group to become the JCC, Jewish Community Centre, and ultimately turning into Congregation Beth Shalom.

It took the JCC years to find a place of its own for a shul, but in 1951 found a building on Union Street in Deep River.  Like its sister across the Connecticut River, the JCC had a limited budget restricting its options but it went ahead with the purchase and with renovations, opening that October for the high holidays. Like the Moodus Shul, the synagogue building was not necessarily distinguished, but it was “heimish” or homelike and comfortable. As in Moodus, members presided over the orthodox services, with rabbis coming in on a temporary basis for holidays, bar mitzvahs and weddings, and education for the children.

There was one big bond between the two congregations: Rabbi Henry Bernstein who came to Deep River, first as an educator and then as a part-time rabbi. He then went to Moodus as well, dividing his time between the two congregations. Although an ordained orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Bernstein gravitated towards the conservative movement and nudged both synagogues in that direction. Both congregations associated themselves with the United Synagogue of America, and in Moodus, the women’s balcony became a thing of the past. But splitting one rabbi between two congregations became just too difficult, and in 1961 Rabbi Bernstein decided he could no longer serve in both Deep River and Moodus. The JCC went back to hiring interim rabbis for holidays and life events.

The Jewish community continued to grow in both areas, and the congregations found their rolls expanding. In Moodus the talk turned to a larger, more modern synagogue; 1968 marked the official groundbreaking for a new home for Rodfe Zedek, with Senator Abe Ribicoff wielding the ceremonial shovel. It took six years to complete, but in 1974 the new Rodfe Zedek building on Orchard Road was ready for services.

In the intervening years, the two congregations once again discussed sharing Rabbi Bernstein and in 1969 agreed to do so. But that agreement only lasted for one year: the two congregations could simply not agree on an equitable sharing of Rabbi Bernstein’s services. The rabbi remained at Rodfe Zedek and the JCC looked to student rabbis to fill in when needed, eventually hiring a rabbi, John Nimon, the first of a series of “permanent” part time rabbis, and changing the name from the Jewish Community Center to Congregation Beth Shalom (House of Peace) in 1980.

The fates of the two congregation seemed to diverge – and that, ironically, was the precipitating factor that brought the two together. With the slowing of the Jewish influx into Moodus and second generation Moodus-ites moving away once they were grown, Rodfe Zedek’s membership declined. After Rabbi Bernstein retired, no new rabbi was hired; instead the congregation looked to the Deep River shul’s rabbi for help when needed. Beth Shalom was growing and decided to affiliate with the reform movement. The little shul on Union Street was bursting at the seams, so the need for an expanded or new building was obvious. Perhaps the two congregations did have something to offer each other – a newer building in Moodus, an expanding congregation in Deep River…talks resumed between the two.

After ten years and much soul searching they reached an agreement. While Beth Shalom needed a new building, the river seemed too great a barrier to overcome for the Moodus shul to become the permanent home. Members of Rodfe Zedek decided that they could live with a move to Beth Shalom’s facilities as long as their history and religious artefacts could move with them.  In 1998 the two synagogues officially merged in what Rabbi Doug Sagal called “The Marriage of the Century,” in the Union Street shul. And on October 1, 2001, the now renamed Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek moved into a brand new home on East Kings Highway, in Chester.

The new synagogue was designed by Beth Shalom congregant, artist Sol LeWitt, to fuse a number of essential elements that encapsulated the congregation: intimacy, authentic ethnic flavour and local identity. He wanted it to hearken back both to the old wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe and to the simple buildings of New England. LeWitt worked with architect Stephen Lloyd, producing the distinctive building that now stands in Chester, widely celebrated and described by architectural critics as unique, beautiful, thought-provoking, and inspirational. As LeWitt had intended, the building is, at once, an expression of the community, rooted in Jewish thought and history, and compatible with its New England location. It emblazons in its structure its deep roots in Jewish tradition and on its walls, with the words carved into the wooden beams, its commitment to Jewish teachings.

Today, CBSRZ continues to redefine its role in both the local Jewish and the larger world, coming up with new ways of reaching out and bringing the riches of Jewish traditions to an ever-more-diverse community, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Those traditions include the Friday night Shabbat services; the “Holy Scrollers” or Torah study (at 9:00 a.m. every Saturday); a variety of programs such as Music & More and Books & Bagels; its social justice activities; its educational ventures for adults, just to mention a few.

Thus CBSRZ brings people together in different ways, reflecting its historical tradition as both a place for people to worship and as the center for Jewish life in the area; its commitment to the pursuit of Jewish learning and tradition; its commitment to the pursuit of peace and justice embedded in its name – House of Peace/Pursuers of Justice; its commitment to using many different paths to bring people together – including music, art, literature –  and its commitment to serving as a place for people, in the words of Past President, Stephen Davis, “to search for meaning”…”to search for community”…“to search for healing.”

Ellen Nodelman, author of HOUSE OF PEACE AND JUSTICE: THE FIRST ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF CONGREGATION BETH SHALOM RODFE ZEDEK, published in 2017, spent the first ten years of her life in New York City with summers in Deep River, CT, then moved with her parents, first to India, then to the Philippines before re­turning to the United States to attend Smith College. After graduation and graduate study at Berkeley, she returned to New York to work in publishing. She married and raised a fam­ily while  working, as a freelance writer and editor, before taking on a full time teaching job in suburban New York. She moved back to her old family home in Deep River in 2000, although she continued part time consulting work for the school where she had taught for over thirty years.

It wasn’t until her return to Connecticut that she discovered the existence of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, even though Beth Shalom (earlier the JCC) had been in Deep River throughout her life. She visited CBSRZ in the spring of 2001 while it was still in its Union Street, Deep River, location, and then, again, after its move from Deep River to Chester, ‘lurk­ing’ for a number of years before joining, and becoming fully involved, in 2007.

Today she continues to work as an educational consultant and freelance writer. Her book, RCDS Chronicles, a history of the Rockland Country Day School, was published in the fall of 2016. She is currently working on a book based on her childhood experiences in India.

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