New Haven

New life for an old synagogue

The Orchard Street Shul is 101 years young.

David Ottenstein ’82

David Ottenstein ’82

At the Orchard Street Shul, liberal and Reform Jews mix with more traditional Jews—a rarity for an Orthodox synagogue. View full image

In 1913, the Orchard Street Shul was founded. (Shul is a Yiddish word for synagogue.) Its 1924 stone building, with its elegant chandeliers and prismatic stained glass, served an Orthodox congregation with a largely immigrant population; it is located less than a mile from the Yale campus. In recent years the building fell into disrepair. But on May 18, 2014, a newly vibrant congregation with a diminutive 29-year-old rabbi will celebrate the synagogue’s 100th birthday. To those who might point out that the synagogue is actually turning 101, the excited congregants would surely say, “Better late than never.”

Since 2010, Rabbi Mendy Hecht, the grandson of a former rabbi of the synagogue, has quadrupled membership to about 130 units—that is, families or single members. He also oversaw a $230,000 renovation of the building, now listed as a historic landmark. The newly gracious structure hosts services every Saturday. Rabbi Hecht uses a traditional liturgy, and according to tradition women sit separately, in a gallery looking down on the main sanctuary. But at Orchard Street, liberal and Reform Jews mix with more traditional Jews. That’s a rarity for an Orthodox institution, but, says Rabbi Hecht, reclining in one of his pews, “I think the Jewish world would be a whole lot better if we learned to identify just as Jews.”

The shul’s remarkable growth can be attributed to several factors. For one, membership is cheap: $100 a year, less than a tenth of what some area synagogues charge. Rabbi Hecht is surely a draw; who couldn’t love a rabbi whose evening service on the first Friday of every month is known as “Sushi and Shots,” for the meal that follows? And some locals discover that they have roots at Orchard Street they didn’t know about. DeDe Jacobs Komisar ’12MFA and her husband, Yaakov Komisar, started attending Orchard Street soon after they moved to New Haven in 2009. Yaakov’s father had lived in New Haven as a child, but Yaakov was surprised to find his great-great-uncle’s name inscribed on the back wall as an original member. “And they have a poster of all the members who served in World War I,” Jacobs Komisar says, “and his cousin Louie was on it.”

The comment period has expired.