Agudath Sholom Synagogue
This historic synagogue was built during the 1930s to replace an earlier synagogue in Stamford that was destroyed in a fire. The congregation's history stretches back to 1889, when 22 founding members first took steps to organize a community of faith. The phrase "Agudath Sholom" may be translated as "knot for peace" or "society for peace." Stamford's Jewish community is part of a larger story of Jewish immigration to the United States and specifically to Connecticut. Agudath Sholom arose from an influx of Eastern European Jews to Stamford during the 1880s, where they congregated in large enough numbers to develop a thriving community. In 1965, the growing congregation moved to a new synagogue in the city, and the Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church moved into the former synagogue building.
Backstory and Context
Jewish history in Connecticut begins with the early colonization of the state. Initially, Jewish newcomers were from Spain or Portugal, though they arrived in small numbers and did not establish large communities.
As of 1818, there were fewer than a dozen known Jewish people living in Connecticut. There were therefore not enough people to form a distinct Jewish community. Moreover, Jewish public worship was not yet legal. Only in 1843 did the Connecticut General Assembly decree that "Jews who may desire to unite and form religious societies, shall have the same rights, powers and privileges which are given to Christians of every denomination" (quoted in Ransom, 3).
19th Century: A Time of Jewish Immigration
Jewish populations grew and communities formed during 19th century with the arrival of Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. German Jews came first, seeking an escape from the inflexible Prussian social structure which granted little upward mobility. The United States seemed like a land of opportunity and freedom in comparison. However, their populations in Connecticut also remained small, and as a result many preferred to assimilate into broader society rather than create a distinctly Jewish community.
Eastern European Jews moved to Stamford and other areas in Connecticut during the 1880s, many of them moving away from crowded conditions in New York City. Many carved out a livelihood peddling wares from house to house. Often, these enterprising salespeople were young single men who rented a room in the house of one of the few Jewish families living in Stamford. Gradually, the Jewish community expanded.
Early Jewish congregations were very small and had modest budgets. Worship was often held in rented rooms, homes, or repurposed churches that they were able to acquire. Examples of churches that were converted into synagogues include:
- Bikur Cholim Synagogue, Bridgeport, CT (c. 1894)
- Agudas Achim Synagogue, Bridgeport, CT (1907)
- Ein Jacob Synagogue, Bridgeport, CT (1918)
- Temple B'Nai Israel, New Britain, CT (1927)
Foundation and Early Growth of Agudath Sholom Synagogue
In September of 1889, the Agudath Sholom congregation was founded by the shared decision of its initial 22 members. At this point, the congregation was still very small, and the synagogue had not yet been built. Early prayer meetings occurred in various rooms around town, and rabbis traveled to Stamford to hold services on weekends and holidays. The young congregation bought a copy of the Torah and then set to work on creating a cemetery.
Agudath Sholom congregation acquired two acres of land in the 1890s (at a price of $175). Members began the work of turning it into burial lands. The community also purchased land (for $1000) on which to build a dedicated synagogue. To raise funds for this project, the community held a formal ball at the Stamford Town Hall in April of 1902, which helped secure donations and boost enthusiasm.
First Synagogue on Greyrock Place
In 1904, the cornerstone for a synagogue on Greyrock Place was laid. Within a few months, a "cellar" had been built and was used as a Talmud Torah, or Hebrew School. In 1908, the synagogue was complete. As the community continued growing, organizations such as the Hachnasat Orchim, the Gemilut Chassadim, and the Hebrew Society formed.
Agudath Sholom Community in the Early 20th Century
During WWI, Connecticut Jews joined the U.S. armed forces alongside many other groups. Some joined the Gedud Ivri, a group that fought in North Africa and then in Palestine. Following the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Palestine seemed within reach. The idea of Shivat Zion (or a return to Zion) had already existed for years, expressed in the 1902 founding of L'Maan Zion, a group devoted to raising funds, supporting Jews who moved to Palestine, and instilling young people with belief in this cause.
Stamford's Jewish community came to the aid of persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe during the 1920s. Fighting in Russia and Ukraine involved numerous acts of anti-Semitism and violence targeting Jewish communities. Jews across the United States, including those in Stamford, worked to raise money for aiding and resettling people affected by violence.
In 1932, the Greyrock Synagogue caught fire and was destroyed. Thus this early version of the synagogue no longer survives to today.
Second Synagogue on Grove Street
The community constructed a new synagogue on Grove Street, completed in 1938, which remains to this day. This Grove Street Synagogue provided a home to Stamford's Jews during some of the community's darkest times: during the Holocaust. Many community members involved themselves in WWII, and many enlisted. Rabbi Schachter of Agudath Sholom served as an Army Chaplain.
Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz
1948 saw the arrival of the young and energetic Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who was only 22 and still studying for his Semicha (ordination). The congregation contained around 150 families, though Ehrenkranz felt that this number was quite small and that young people were falling away from the synagogue. To reinvigorate his congregation, Ehrenkranz organized youth groups, which met with considerable success. By the 1960s, membership had swelled to 500 families.
Ehrenkranz served as the spiritual leader at Agudath Sholom from 1948 until 1992. His lengthy term there played a huge role in shaping the community's development. Upon moving from Agudath Sholom, he co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. He died in 2014.
Current Use of the Building
In 1965, the congregation moved to a newly built synagogue, and this historic structure is now used for worship by the Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church.
"History of Congregation Agudath Sholom." Congregation Agudath Sholom. Accessed November 10, 2018. http://www.cas-stamford.org/history.html.
Mindell, Cindy. "Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz was a champion of interfaith dialogue." CT Jewish Ledger. February 26, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2018. http://www.jewishledger.com/2014/02/rabbi-joseph-ehrenkranz-zl-was-a-champion-of-interfaith-dialogue/.
Ransom, David. "Historic Synagogues of Connecticut.' National Register of Historic Places, Multiple Property Documentation Form, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, NPS. 1995. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/64500078_text.