(This article was written for the 50th Anniversary of Temple Beth Torah and updated by Temple Beth Torah and Wethersfield Historical Society member Phil Lohman.)
The Jewish Community Group of Wethersfield, forerunner of the present Temple Beth Torah, originated in December 1954, when eighteen families convened to discuss the possibilities of forming such a group.
Sherley and Samuel Dobkin were instrumental in getting the group started and hosted the first meeting at their home in Westfield Heights. Jewish families from Wethersfield and Rocky Hill gathered January 16, 1955 at the American Legion Hall, where they approved the formation of the JCGOW. A constitution was presented and accepted and Arthur DuBrow elected as the Group’s first president.
During these early years, services were held in the homes of members. Later Wethersfield churches and community groups extended a hand of friendship to the fledgling synagogue in a true spirit of brotherhood, offering the use of their halls for religious services. These included the Masonic Temple, American Legion Hall and the First Church of Christ Congregational.
Mr. Cornelius Woog, third president of the Group, founded the Religious School in October 1955 with classes held at the Little White School House at Mill Woods Park, the Woog’s home and later at the Masonic Hall.
The first High Holiday Services were held on September 5, 1956 at the Masonic Temple with Rabbi Burton Mindick leading members in prayer. A portable ark was presented by Dr. and Mrs. Sidney Shindell, our second president.
On October 15, 1957, the women of the Jewish Community Group of Wethersfield organized a social and fund-raising group, later to be known as the Sisterhood of Temple Beth Torah. Gloria Rubin, Joan Berg, Tillie Sitcofsky and many other women were involved.
In 1958 monthly Friday night services began and were held in member’s homes. The first Model Seder was held and the Men’s Minyan Breakfast began. Articles of Incorporation were approved by the membership on April 27, 1958. Religious School classes were conducted under the direction of Gloria Levine and Alvin Carlin with Sol Sandlow and Miriam Freed teaching Hebrew.
Rabbi Raphael Arzt led the members in prayer at our third High Holiday services, held at First Church of Christ. A building fund was established that day and Building Brick Certificates were introduced.
Kenneth Barry Dobkin was Temple Beth Torah’s first Bar Mitzvah. The occasion was celebrated in May 1959 in the Fellowship Hall of the First Church of Christ Congregational with Rabbi Bruce Harbater officiating.
The group’s first Torah was contributed by the families of Cy and Lynn Levine and Donald and Gloria Levine and their parents, Isadore and Lottie Levine. Myer Levin and Harry Newman also contributed. It was purchased at J. Levine Jewish Bookstore on Norfolk Street in New York City and was of European origin. The Torah was dedicated April 17, 1958 and Rabbi Stanley Kessler of Temple Beth officiated.
In November of 1959, Rolland Ross, Albert Kimball and Omar approached their Masonic brothers Cy and Don Levine, about the JCGOW purchasing the old Methodist church building at 130 Main Street. It was offered at a very reasonable price and included the house on the corner of Garden and Main. On January 22, 1960, a “Bond of Deed” was signed and the Methodist group allowed the JCGOW immediate full occupancy of the building. On January 14, Friday night services were held in the synagogue making this the first time services or any kind were held in a Jewish house of worship in the history of Wethersfield. Friday night services were then held every other week with members taking on the roles of Rabbi and Cantor. The first Bar Mitzvah held in the synagogue was that of William Rubin, celebrated on February 13, 1960.
The second Torah was donated by Joan Berg’s aunt, Florence Finklestein of Brooklyn, New York. Joan Berg was a charter member of the Temple and its treasurer for twenty years. The Torah was dedicated April 24, 1960 at the synagogue with Rabbi Louis Kaplan of Beth Hillel Synagogue of Bloomfield officiating.
On April 28, 1960, a story of inter-faith ideals in action reached a milestone with the signing of final papers transferring the building of the Wethersfield Methodist Church to the Jewish Community Group of Wethersfield. The five-year old Conservative congregation took a great step toward the fulfillment of its goal to become a full-fledged synagogue.
On Saturday, August 28, 1960, the synagogue was the scene of the group’s first wedding. Rabbi Morris Silverman of the Emmanuel Synagogue performed the marriage of Miss Judith Carlin, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Alvin Carlin, to Mr. Alan Kessler of Norwich. The chuppah was designed and made by Don Levine. Rabbi Silverman commented that it was more than just a family wedding as the entire congregation was present and had lent a helping hand to make it a joyous and memorable occasion.
In the fall of 1960, weekly Friday night services began and the name “Temple Beth Torah” was adopted. A campaign was begun to raise funds for the renovation of the building. The original renovation converted the main hall of the old church into the Synagogue Sanctuary, creating a blend of the symbols of Judaism and modern concepts of design with colonial Wethersfield tradition.
The existing stained glass windows were retained and repaired. A raised Bima with a reader’s lectern and flanking wooden menorahs was erected. Dr. Carlin suggested using the quotation “Know before whom you stand” over the new Bima. A new ark and new lighting were installed, a curved canopy built over the Bima, a suspended acoustical ceiling installed, new carpeting laid and the entire sanctuary painted. Structural improvements to the foundation were made and a downstairs classroom was added with the installation of a new floor and a fresh coat of paint. Sam Dobkin was instrumental in the selection of woods with matching grains to enhance the new Bima.
The first Bat Mitzvah was that of Jane Levine and was held on February 24, 1961.
The Temple’s Day of Dedication, a joyous occasion, was celebrated on May 28, 1961. Prominent Greater Hartford Rabbis, Wethersfield clergymen and representatives of state and town government attended. Temple President Ivan Finkle said at the time, “…this day of dedication must be directed as much to those who made the existence of Temple Beth Torah a reality as to the synagogue itself…the small group who formed the original Community Group of Wethersfield, the people who implemented the first religious school classes, the early members who formulated the policies…and planned the functions…to further the cause that brings us together now.” On this day our third Torah was presented by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Dobkin and dedicated by Rabbi Hans Bodenheimer.
(Temple Beth Torah’s Day of Dedication took place on May 28, 1961. Bringing in the Torah to celebrate the occasion, from left to right, are Herbert Slotnik, Dr. Alvin Carlin, Leslie Birnbaum, an unidentified guest rabbi, Gerald Berg, another unidentified guest rabbi, and David Taulin.)
The next step in the building’s renovation began in 1964 with the creation of a new temple façade. Mr. Edward Pactor, a Wethersfield contractor, had the job of removing the existing steeple. A new entrance with double doors in the colonial style was added, and opened onto a flagstone terrace. Inside a foyer was built with adjoining lavatories and coatroom. The driveway was paved and the street front of the property landscaped. Helena Kavalier donated the Birch tree in honor of her husband Maurice Kavalier. It stands there today.
Recognizing the growing need for religious facilities, the third stage of the renovation was undertaken during the winter of 1965-66. Using a system of soundproof movable walls, two permanent and two temporary classrooms were created from the existing vestry and an existing stage removed. The remaining section of the vestry had an acoustical ceiling and new lighting installed. The wood floor was refinished and the walls covered with paneling. New wall fabric covering was placed in the Sanctuary and the first steps to decorating the kitchen were made.
The vestry side entrance foyer was modernized, new concrete steps and a ramp poured ad flagstone flooring laid. The side foyer walls were paneled and the existing single lavatory was converted to two smaller lavatories.
George Rosenthal has the longest tenure as Rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, from 1977 to 1985. During those eight years, TBT experienced its greatest growth, to over 100 families.
Over the years the Rabbi search committee interviewed many candidates. Many of them were fascinating people, like the man who had been Chief Rabbi of Shanghai during the Second World War. He had some wonderful stories but was not for us. Making a match between a rabbi and congregation was not easy. First, there needs to be agreement as to where the congregation will be in the spectrum of Judaism. Since we often did not need, nor could we afford, their full-time service, there needed to be other employment opportunities for the candidate. Finally, there must be mutual attraction between the rabbi and the congregation.
In 1990 a young rabbi named Moshe Halfon came to us. He was the Hillel director at Wesleyan University in Middletown, taught at Hebrew High School in New Haven and served as our rabbi on Friday evenings. After a year on the treadmill, he left for San Francisco. Before he left, he started a terrific tradition by putting us in touch with his replacement. He suggested that we contact Howard Cooper, who was the camp director for the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford. The congregation loved him. For those of you who never met him, there is Purim photograph of Howard dressed in a “Fruit of the Loom” outfit that says it all.
When Howard left, he suggested that we speak to his friend, Sim Glazer. Howard and Sim had already performed a singing comic routine to rave reviews at a Cabaret night at the Temple. The evening was such a success that it was reprised several years later when Sim was our rabbi.
When Sim left, he directed us to a young woman with whom he taught at a Synagogue in Massachusetts. He said, “She has a terrify voice and is so energetic I get tired just watching her.” And so Felicia Shpall came to us through Sim. It had been a long-standing joke with Felicia that she had to maintain the tradition and could not leave until she provided a suitable replacement. Sadly this was not to be. Illness took her from us before any of us was ready.
The five all-too-short years with Felicia was our spiritual adviser were marked by many things…her compassion, her beautiful voice, her unbridled enthusiasm, her uncanny ability to relate to each and every member, young and old, her ability to bring comfort and solace to those in need, even in the face of incredible personal adversity. Among the numerous memorable events which she orchestrated were “Shabbat in the Park”, our annual Tu B’Shevat Seder, a riotous Purim Shpiel and our enormously successful annual Second Night Family Passover Seder. Other significant milestones and events included an influx of new members, coupled with a dramatic increase in our Sunday school population.
Our synagogues’ newsletter, the STAR, edited by Susan Reuben is now produced for the internet and has become a “must-read” publication for members and friends interested in keeping in touch with TBT activities. Most important, the past five years have been marked by a renewed spirit of participation and a rededication of personal involvement by our membership.
On the physical side, however, our building was not so fortunate. The roof was seriously leaking, the paint seriously peeling, squirrels had taken up residence in the crawl space, gutters were leaking and downspouts corroding. Kicked off by a signature gift from former member Al and Evelyn Soforenko, we conducted a most successful Building Fund Drive in 2004, which permitted us to replace the roof, gutters and downspouts and repaint the entire exterior, as well as accomplish other improvements. Moreover funds remain which will permit us to accomplish repairs and replacements as needed, including upgrading our electrical system. Maintaining the building is an ongoing challenge and continues with the 2013 replacement of the vestry shingles.
One night, at a Temple Board meeting in 2004, President Michael Kay mentioned to those in attendance that Temple Beth Torah was approaching the 50th Anniversary. Committees were quickly formed to plan our Golden anniversary Celebration, and the results of many months of effort by many people resulted in a grand celebration on June 4, 2005.
Temple Beth Torah has been fortunate to have the guidance of a succession of dedicated Rabbi’s who have in turn moved on to other congregations. Presently TBT is proud and fortunate to now have Rabbi Seth Riemer as its spiritual leader. Erev Shabbat services are held every Friday evening from September through June at 7:30 p.m., using the gender-neutral Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, and Torah Study at least once each month. High Holiday services are conducted on both days of Rosh Hashanah (including Tashlich at the cove in Old Wethersfield), and Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur.
In 2011, TBT purchased new High Holiday prayer books with full transliteration and modern English translation, so that all can participate. Participatory family services are held on all major holidays, as well as special Shabbat and other programs and activities throughout the year — a dairy potluck supper in the sukkah, Megillah reading and Purim shpiel, and a Tu B’Shevat seder, to name just a few. Women and men are called to the Torah and counted toward a minyan. TBT welcomes everyone, including intermarried couples and non-traditional families at our Temple.
Sunday School is offered for students ranging in age from pre-schoolers to pre-B’nai Mitzvah.
Temple Beth Torah owns its historic building, which was formerly a Methodist church, at 130 Main Street, and TBT Memorial Park, adjacent to the Emanuel Synagogue cemetery on Jordan Lane Extension in Wethersfield. Members of the TBT family come from Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Newington, West Hartford and Glastonbury, as well as several other towns in Greater Hartford and beyond. Congregational business is conducted at a monthly Board of Directors meeting and all members are welcome to attend and encouraged to participate.
Temple Beth Torah welcomes new members throughout the year. Newcomers purchasing tickets for our High Holiday services may apply the cost of tickets toward membership dues. Member dues includes attendance at High Holiday services for all family members, including children living at home; other family members and friends may attend for a reasonable fee. Dues may be pro-rated for those new members who join after January 1st.
More information about Temple Beth Torah is available at http://www.templebethtorahwethersfield.org