The Story of the New Haven Kurenitzers Synagogue
A History Of Two Synagogues That Became One
Synagogue One: Bikur Cholim B'nai Abraham
In 1884, a group of twenty-two individuals, members of Congregation B'nai Jacob, then located in rented quarters in the Moeller Building at 105 Temple Street, seceded therefrom to subsequently organize Congregation Bikur Cholim B'nai Abraham, then known also as The Hebrew Sick Aid Society. By the agreement of severance the seceding group, approximately one half of the then total membership of B'nai Jacob, received one Torah and the sum of $500. In addition Congregation B'nai Jacob conveyed to the seceding group 61Ú2 rods of land in East Haven used for cemetery purposes. This land was then part of New Haven, and the deed is recorded in the New Haven Land Records in Volume 398 on page 252. Brocket Place, where the cemetery is located was then known as Horsecart Highway. Purchase of a lot of land on Factory Street, located between Oak Street and Commerce Street was followed by the erection of the synagogue, and imposing structure. This was completed in 1888 at cost of $11,000. It was not until 1938, on the 50th Anniversary of the Synagogue's move into its new building that it became free and clear of all encumbrances.
The ladies of the Congregation were required to walk up 2 flights of stairs to get to the horse-shaped balcony, located over the main sanctuary which itself was one flight above the ground floor where the vestry was located. Bikur Cholim B'nai Abraham held its final service in its own home on March 30, 1950 after which services of the combined synagogues were held at Sheveth Achim Anshe Lubavitch until our present premises were ready for occupancy. One month after closing, the building of Congregation Bikur Cholim and the adjacent lot were sold for $92,000. The question of amalgamation with Sheveth Achim was under consideration at meetings of Bikur Cholim in 1949. The fact that Sheveth Achim was of Chassidic persuasion, while Bikur Cholim was misnagdic was thought not to be an obstacle, though it was a matter to be considered. An agreement was made to have the Bikur Cholim name first but to use the Sheveth Achim sefard nusach. On October 12, 1949, groups from each Synagogue met at Sheveth Achim to iron out the terms and conditions of the merger. This was done in a second meeting to the satisfaction of all. Over the previous two decades, the membership of both Congregations had declined in number. Amalgamation was necessary for both because of inadequate funds, vast changes in environment, social and economic dislocations; changes in immigration laws enacted years earlier, and by the migration of many families to other parts of the city.
Synagogue Two: Chevra Sheveth Achim Anshei Lubavitch
As the last years of the 19th century drew to a close, a group of Lubavitcher Chassidim, recently arrived in New Haven, assembled on Factory Street near George. To raise and give shape to the new Synagogue, already named the Sheveth Achim Anshei Lubavitch, situated on the elevated heights of Factory Street. For here was a modern Tabernacle with a lofty and partially enclosed gallery for the female worshipers. Some ten years after the formation of the Congregation Bikur Cholim B'nai Abraham in 1884 and five years after the completion of its Synagogue in 1889, a group of Chassidic followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, who was a descendant of the celebrated R. Schneaur Zalman of Liadi, founded the Congregation Sheveth Achim Anshei Lubavitch shortly after arriving here in 1894, and in 1898 erected its Synagogue. According to the listing of synagogues in New Haven in the 1897 City Directory, there were but 5 synagogues in this city. With the building of the Sheveth Achim Synagogue the number of synagogues in New Haven rose to 6 in 1898. Some fifty years later all the buildings on Factory Street were demolished, and with that all the municipal records were removed from the Hall of Records and destroyed.
Most of the Chassidim of eastern Lithuania came from Kurnitz or small villages in its environs. Kurnitz was a strong outpost of the Chassidic Lubavitcher movement following the success of their opponents, the Mitnagdim, in keeping the Lubavitcher Chassidim out of Vilna under their powerful leader, the Vilna Gaon. Bringing with them an uncompromising scorn and contempt for the Mitnagdim, who dominated the Bikur Cholim B'nai Abraham of Lower Factory Street, they enthusiastically accepted the Sheveth Achim as their own, regarding it as "the Kurnitzer Shule." They brought their large families here to settle in New Haven. They fostered large and extended families by encouraging intermarriage among the many Chassidic families of the Lubavitcher schoolHistory of the Mergers.
The year was 1950, Israel was only 2 years old. Harry S Truman was President of the United States and the newly-formed Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim Synagogue was born due to the merger of the old Bikur Cholim and Sheveth Achim Synagogues. Sam Skolnick, a prime figure in the merger, became the new shule's first president. January, 1951 saw Rabbi Sidney Lebor become the first religious head. He served as Rabbi of the new congregation until 1960. Harry Labov, the Synagogue's second president had the addition built to the original building that was to house the religious school. Nathan Godfrey, the only man to serve as president in one of the old shules (The Bikur Cholim) and as well as the new Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim Synagogue followed Mr. Labov. Aaron Estra was the next president and during his administration, our religious school flourished with an enrollment of well over two hundred students. During this era and the next decade to follow, the Synagogue's membership was at its zenith. During his term, the legendary Rabbi Abraham Hefterman became our religious leader. He was to make us the envy of every other Synagogue. The next leader was Maxwell Alderman, also a prime-mover in the merger. In 1967, Nathan Zudekoff was elected president in addition to the many fund-raising projects for the shule, he was one of those responsible for strengthening the Men's Club and making it the most durable arm of the Synagogue. Two years later, 1969, Aaron Estra became the first man to be re-elected to a non-consecutive second term in office. The Synagogue continued to flourish under several presidents Edward Cohen was followed by Marshall Weiner and then Harry Cohen served as president. The strength of the Synagogue at that time prompted at least two other shules to propose a merger with us. Eli Lazarson, the president from 1977-1979, formed a social club and during his term, we became a center of social activity. It was during his reign that the Synagogue had a bad fire, but never missed a minyan and rose from the ashes stronger than ever. The first women ever to be honored by the Synagogue was given the Kovod Award during his regimeJack Dimenstein, served from 1979-1981. His father Louis Dimenstein was the last president of the old Sheveth Achim Synagogue. During Jack's term, Rabbi David Avigdor followed as Associate Rabbi to Rabbi Hefterman. 1981 saw Morton Horwitz inducted as president. During the very beginning of his administration, the Synagogue mourned the passing of our beloved Rabbi, Abraham Hefterman and the elevation of Rabbi David Avigdor from Associate to Religious Leader of our Synagogue. A new constitution was also drafted and adopted during this time. Dr. David Fischer, assumed office in 1983. During his administration, The Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim Synagogue celebrated the 100th year of its birth, it being born in 1884. Led by Dr. Fischer, the shule once more became a center of activity and envy. There were lectures, programs, public figures presenting congratulations from the President of the United States, the state and city governments, and we became much discussed in the community. The term was also marked by the vote to install a mechitza in the sanctuary. Samuel Dimenstein, brother of Jack and son of Louis Dimenstein was the next president. His term was followed by Sydney Krass, Eli Lazerson, Phillip Meyerson, and Marshall Marcus. In 1994, a new strong leader of the congregation guided the synagogue from its forty-eight year old home on Winthrop Avenue to its new location at 112 Marvel Road. Donald Dimenstein led the congregation through a variety of complicated obstacles to sell the old building, purchase the new building, and arrange for the renovations and retro-fitting of the new house of worship for the next century. The congregation re-elected President Dimenstein to an unprecedented third term in recognition of his strong leadership and extraordinary success. Rabbi David Avigdor and Sidney Krauser co-chaired the fundraising campaign that raised the enormous sums necessary to fund the purchase and renovations. The congregation and members of the Jewish Community responded generously and supported the shule in their quest to relocate. On September 13, 1998, a dedication of the completed campaign and retro-fit was celebrated commemorating its successful conclusion.