New London — When Amy Perry was a child in the 1960s, her Hebrew school classroom was consistently packed with students. By the time Perry's daughter attended the same school in the 2000s, however, it was full of empty seats.
Perry, executive director of the Thames River Heritage Park Foundation and a lifelong city resident, grew up in the then-bustling Congregation Beth-El. It was an era when the congregation was on the rise and its membership included some of the city's most prominent businesspeople, civic leaders and political voices.
"They were working on an addition when I was a teenager," Perry said of Beth-El's Ocean Avenue synagogue complex. "There were maybe 500-600 families."
As have so many faith communities, Congregation Beth-El more recently has experienced a steep decline in membership. The once sizable community has declined to about 70 members and currently has no house of worship of its own. The large synagogue and school on Ocean Avenue that opened in 1951 was sold in 2017 and is now a regional special education center owned by Old Lyme-based magnet school operator LEARN. Beth-El religious services now are conducted at Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Waterford.
During the pandemic, most face-to-face meetings have been canceled and the congregation is streaming religious services. The Jewish Federation Office is open on a limited basis for such programs as its food pantry. The Connecticut College Hillel — a Hillel acts as a synagogue, community center and meeting place for Jewish life on college campuses — resumed in-person services and gatherings in mid-September.
While Congregation Beth-El is much diminished, the Jewish community in the city — knit together by a history of oppression and a shared culture — still includes numerous city business and civic leaders. In broad terms, besides Congregation Beth-El, the Jewish community's presence encompasses the small Orthodox faith community of Congregation Ahavath Chesed on Montauk Avenue, the Chabad of Eastern Connecticut, Connecticut College's Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.
The federation maintains an office on Channing Street, near one of the city's main commercial districts, and serves the community in numerous ways. For example, it sponsors Holocaust and anti-racism education programs, operates a food bank, raises funds to secure air conditioners for those in need and sought to supply protective masks for staff and residents of nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic. Rabbis have been making pastoral phone calls and visits in an effort to keep in contact with congregation members during the pandemic.
"I'm not so sure we're a faith community," Jerome "Jerry" Fischer, retired executive director of the Jewish Federation, said of the contemporary Jewish community of New London. "I think we're maybe more of an ethnic community."
Over his 35 years as executive director of the JFEC, Fischer collected a wealth of knowledge about the vibrant Jewish history in the city and is well acquainted with the community's ups and downs. He's written numerous articles on the subject, was executive director for The Jewish Leader newspaper, and has made two documentaries.
Fischer retired in June 2019 but remains active in several federation programs, including leading annual missions to Israel. The 2020 mission trip was canceled for the first time in 33 years due to the pandemic, he said.
"The first recorded Jewish presence in New London dates from March 1685," according to an entry on New London on the Jewish Virtual Library's website.
Although Jews had landed in the city that year, they at first were not allowed to officially settle. This was due to the official Christian charter of Connecticut, which designated the Congregational Church as the single established church of the colony.
It wasn't until 1843, when Jewish groups from Hartford and New Haven successfully petitioned for a law change granting them religious rights, that Connecticut Jews finally were allowed to form formal religious congregations. In 1860, John and Esther Schwarts and their son, David, moved to New London, beginning the city's first formal Jewish community. Fischer said many Jews who came to New London in the 1860s were German Jews who later relocated because it was difficult to find spouses locally. By the 1890s many Russian Jews began to settle in the city.
A speaker from United Synagogue of America suggested that Conservative High Holiday services be held in New London in 1924 to serve the many Jewish families that had called the city home for many years, according to Beth-El's website. The group began having services in homes, eventually organizing into a formal Conservative congregation in 1932. The congregation first met in a building on Union Street, then on Blackhall Street, in a building that now houses another faith community, Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. Gathering a budget of $5,000, they soon hired Rabbi Samuel Ruderman.
After recruiting 21 members in the midst of the Great Depression, the group bought property in Groton in 1933 with the help of financial loans from several members. The lot now serves as a cemetery.
The congregation continued to grow and opened a Hebrew school in 1938 with 118 students. As Fischer calls it, the city became a "Jewish city."
"Second wave of Jews, Russians, they stayed and they went into mercantile stuff. They had clothing stores, they had shoe stores, they sold gasoline, they sold heating oil. They sold jewelry, Mallove's was the big jeweler," Fischer said.
Jews began to become involved in every aspect of the city, he said, from owning many downtown shops, to being elected to city office, to becoming influencers in the arts, making the city truly a hot spot for Jewish culture. In the World War II era, Jewish servicemen were assigned to the submarine base in Groton and many came to the area to work in the defense industry.
Among New London's most memorable Jewish leaders were three city mayors: Samuel Selleck in 1949, Moses Savin in 1957 and Harvey Mallove in the 1960s. Well-known businesses, including Soltz Meat Market, J. Solomon Office Supply and Whaling City Ford, were operated by prominent Jewish families.
"On Jewish holidays, every shop in downtown New London would close," Fischer said. "Even one shop, that wasn't owned by a Jew, but they closed because everyone else was."
Today, there are fewer Jewish-owned businesses, he said. Many have either closed or moved. Mallove's, for example, was a city staple for more than 100 years, opening its doors on Golden Street in 1919, then moving to three different Bank Street and State Street locations. It moved to Waterford in 2006 and has another store in Mystic.
"It's a very personal business," Jim Mallove, third-generation owner, told The Day in 2019. "Buying jewelry is emotional and you always have to do the best thing for a customer."
Amy Perry's grandfather established another longtime jewelry store in the city, Perry Jewelers. After operating in New London for decades, the store relocated to Waterford, then Mystic, before it closed.
While the Jewish community for years held a dominant position among the city's businesses, it was the synagogues to which the community turned for shared faith and fellowship.
According to Fischer, the city's synagogues were a place for the Jewish community to unite under one roof. Events such as potluck dinners and holiday celebrations frequently were hosted at the synagogues and congregations established outreach programs to serve the larger community.
"It's often about giving back to the community," said Perry, who is now a member of Waterford's Temple Emanu-El.
While the city's Jewish community has dwindled, Fischer said it looks to the younger generation to keep traditions alive, as well as to steer a new course.
"The colleges are what keep the community alive," he said.
In 2014, Connecticut College built a new Hillel building after receiving a $1 million donation from Henry Zachs, co-chair of the company ZipLinks Inc. Zachs is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who often donates to college Hillels in an effort to foster a sense of Jewish community among students.
In the past six years, Connecticut College Hillel has grown from a faltering club of just 20 members to a thriving group of some 200 students.
"They didn't have a full-time rabbi," said Rabbi Susan Schein, director of Zachs Hillel House, referring to the time before she was hired in 2014. "They were able to hire me because of the donation."
Today, the Hillel is home to many programs for Jewish students on campus. Those include Friday Shabbat dinners, Saturday services and outreach to the wider New London community. In addition, the center hosts High Holiday celebrations that are expected to resume this school year.
Fischer said without the Hillels at Connecticut College and other colleges, the Jewish community in the city would cease to exist.
"The population is getting older," he said, referring to many members of the once-active Jewish community. Of the students, he said, "They're our future. They're what's keeping us alive."