1843 is a significant year in the history of Judaism in Connecticut. Prior to this time, Jews were not permitted to worship publicly or build synagogues. A small but active group of Jewish immigrants petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to change this. The Assembly declined to alter the Connecticut Constitution, but it did decree that Jews should have freedom of worship, including the right to gather and form religious societies. This decision marked the beginning of Beth Israel as a small group of Jews in Hartford began to worship together.
CBI members were German Jews. They and their families immigrated to the United States from Germany during the mid-19th century. Connecticut also became home to a significant Eastern European Jewish population, due to the large numbers of Eastern European immigrants to the US between 1880 and 1924. During this period, around 2.5 million Eastern European Jews moved to the US, a much larger number than the approximately 250,000 German Jews who had immigrated slightly earlier and established congregations such as Beth Israel. Thanks largely to Eastern European immigration, Connecticut's Jewish population rose from almost 1500 in 1877 to around 91,500 in 1927 (Ransom, p. 8).
The community's expansion
During the 1840s and 1850s, CBI undertook many social, educational, and philanthropic initiatives. A religious school opened in 1849 and within two years served 25 children. The Ararat Lodge of B'nai Brith and the Deborah Society were established in 1851 and 1852 respectively. Both groups carried out charitable work. For example, members of the Deborah Society, a community of Connecticut women, visited the sick and helped them access doctors, raised money for widows, collected donations of food and clothing, sewed burial shrouds, and donated to the relief efforts for the San Francisco earthquake.
In 1854, a bequest of $5000 from shipping merchant Judah Touro allowed CBI to purchase and renovate a former church to create a designated synagogue in Hartford. Known as Touro Hall, this structure served the community from 1856 until 1875, when it was damaged by fire. Touro made numerous other philanthropic donations throughout his life and in his will, contributing to synagogues, hospitals, and libraries. Around this time, the congregation also began to make changes to Orthodox traditions and adopt Reform practices, such as the installation of a choir. Isaac Mayer became the community's first rabbi in 1859 and is remembered as a moderate reformer.
Disagreements between Orthodox and Reform members of CBI
Tensions emerged during the 1860s between Orthodox and Reform groups. This led to 34 CBI members leaving the congregation to found their own Orthodox synagogue, Adas Yisroule. However, several of these members returned to CBI in 1877. Even after their departure, the congregation continued to disagree about the extent to which new reforms should be adopted. Rabbi M.S. Wiener, for instance, strongly supported reform, including the expensive acquisition of a new organ. Amidst disapproval from CBI's remaining traditionalists, Wiener only stayed for two years.
At this point, however, changes were already well underway, and Reform practice would eventually take hold at Beth Israel. 1870 saw the dedication of the congregation's new organ, and 1874 the arrival of ardent reformer Dr. Solomon Deutsch as the community's new rabbi. He and eleven other rabbis had written the Philadelphia Platform, a text on radical reform. In his previous congregations, he had instilled new Reform practices, to the delight of some and distaste of others. Deutsch was concerned about young Jews abandoning the Orthodox faith of their parents and converting to other traditions such as Unitarianism. Without reform, he feared that American Judaism could not hold onto its members.
As CBI's interactive timeline explains, Deutsch
advocated officiating at interfaith marriages; he instituted changes in worship services and prayer books; changes in mourning practices; and one of the most radical changes of the time---allowing men to worship without a head covering. This last change was perceived by the traditionalists among the Beth Israel membership as an irrevocable break with Jewish tradition, which tipped the balance in favor of assimilation over continuity with the Jewish past. His tenure at Beth Israel proved to be a stormy one, but by hiring Deutsch, the Board took a decisive and irrevocable step toward Reform Judaism.(Zande et al., Shaping Who We Are, 1874).