hartford pew review

Hartford Pew Review: Congregation Beth Israel

Part of a coloring/activity book made available to Seder participants. Bad coloring technique, all mine.

One block over the line in West Hartford, Congregation Beth Israel’s presence announces itself much like the Unitarian Society of Hartford and the Cathedral of Saint Joseph do. There’s no quietly blending in with the neighborhood; no way to pass without noticing.

Before the synagogue was here, it was in Hartford. The structure did not move, just the congregation. The original Congregation Beth Israel congregation worshiped at the former North Baptist Church, located at 942 Main Street. After twenty years in that spot, the community moved into a building constructed as a synagogue — Connecticut’s oldest one, actually — and remained there on 21 Charter Oak Avenue until 1936.

As Hartford’s Jewish community moved to the suburbs, the synagogues, one-by-one, followed.

Now, Congregation Beth Israel is the second notable establishment on Farmington Avenue (first, Tangiers) to greet folks as they venture into West Hartford.

Our two most recent visits fall into the category of “special events” rather than that of “routine service,” but no matter. Over the years we have been to CBI for regular services, special events, and going farther back, Music Together.

Many places of worship in this area seem to have embraced the obnoxious trend of bolting front doors, having everyone enter through a door closest to the parking lot. Thankfully, CBI breaks from this by admitting visitors through both the parking lot door and that which faces of main avenue. If the door is locked, ring the bell. “Security measures” seem drastic, but antisemitism is a thing. I’ve personally never had any trouble getting buzzed in.

This is possibly the least flattering view of Congregation Beth Israel, but it’s what you see if entering from the parking lot. The better view is from Farmington Avenue.

Inside, there is a long hall with plenty of doors to choose from. Services have been held in the sanctuary, chapel, and a courtyard outside. For special events, it might not be immediately obvious where to go, since there’s likely lots of activity including children zooming around. Look for a sign or ask.

The restrooms are near the large coatroom.

Visiting a new place can create some anxieties for those who don’t want to stand out as the person doing everything wrong. So, here goes:

CBI asks people to dress respectfully, but I have seen every variation on an outfit show up, from suits to micro mini skirts with Uggs. The latter will get you talked about, but not thrown out. One step up from jeans is always a safe bet.

Nobody is forced to wear a yarmulke. For services, most men do wear them, but this is a Reform synagogue. In other words, there is a lot of tolerance about personal choices. A basket of kippot are near the entrance for anyone — male or female — who chooses to participate in this custom.

Men and women sit together, in case you were wondering.

So, back in February, on one of those cold days that came with a bonus side of drizzle, we headed to CBI for the annual Purim Schpiel. The serious message of Purim is to embrace one’s (Jewish) identity, but mostly, it’s a day for costumes, drinking, eating Hamantaschen, and in this case, watching a campy play.

Friends had been raving about the “new rabbi.” After some prodding I learned that for some this meant the Senior Rabbi, and for others, the Assistant Rabbi. Both are on the younger side. The Assistant Rabbi is a woman.

There have definitely been changes. (more…)

Hartford Pew Review: South Church (contemporary service)

Same building, same pastor. Totally different service.

SOLID GROUND, the contemporary service at South Church, felt more like a Baptist gathering than anything.

After grabbing a cookie at the between-services coffee hour, I slipped into the chapel ten minutes before 11, thinking I might be too late to get a seat.

As I would learn, nobody arrives until about two minutes before this service begins. There was no greeter, but bulletins were easy to find by the entrance. While the South Church Praise Band rehearsed, I pretended to read through the program, noting that I had been in the building for a solid ten minutes without receiving any type of greeting. But after the rehearsal wrapped up, one of the vocalists came over to say hello, as did Pastor Adam.

Moments before the service started, Pastor Adam joined other congregants in posing for cellphone photos. A large percentage of the contemporary service was made of youth– teens and young adults. (more…)

Hartford Pew Review: South Church (traditional service)

Satan is real, not symbolic,” Pastor Adam Söderberg told worshippers at South Church on a morning when the -2°F windchill temperature no doubt kept some away from the cozy, well-lit Meeting House. Thoughts of raging hellfire on such a cold day might not have had the intended effect on congregants who filled about 20% of the room.

South Church is more like two churches in one, as the traditional service varies wildly from the contemporary service (reviewed separately) in message and style.

South Congregational Church, also known as the Second Church of Christ in Hartford, originated in 1670 when members split from what is now Center Church. They pride themselves on maintaining tradition, but have made steps to take themselves into this century. They have a web presence, which includes social media and embedded videos of past sermons on their website, which is attractive and easy to navigate. As someone who spends too much time on poorly designed sites (primarily for restaurants) trying to ascertain basic pieces of information, like hours of operation, this online accessibility is very appreciated. Grace Academy, a fairly new middle school for girls with an enrollment around sixty, is located within the South Church compound, which can be a bit of a maze for visitors. (more…)

Hartford Pew Review: Riverfront Family Church

A few dozen people in a room with about fifty chairs offers a different vibe from the same number of people in, say, a cathedral designed to seat hundreds.

The (American Baptist) Riverfront Family Church began in 2009, gaining about 30 members (as of June 2011) and 300+ newsletter subscribers in the time since. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in devoted congregants. Whenever mentioning that this was going to be one of my Hartford Pew Review stops, those who had ever been there insisted that I go and that I would love it.

The new church meets inside 960 Main, the former G. Fox department store building. The architecture, though not particularly churchy, is an elegant backdrop. Currently, the building is decorated for Christmas. The chairs set out in the atrium are actually nice– not a metal folding chair in sight. (more…)

Hartford Pew Review: Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford

Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford

The month leading up to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th tragedies felt like a mental pummeling as the media reminded us incessantly that we should be remembering something that would take severe measures for anyone to actually forget. Most of the “coverage” was successfully ignored, not read, and not watched, but one item I felt compelled to read was a revisionist piece claiming that there was no increase in anti-Islam sentiments after 9/11. (more…)

Hartford Pew Review: Center Church

Depending on how you measure it, this may be the oldest church in Connecticut. It’s definitely the oldest church in Hartford.

Center Church was founded in 1632 in Cambridge (née Newtown), Massachusetts. Thomas Hooker was the minister, who, after some kind of dispute with the State of Massachusetts, said “we out” and brought his congregation to Hartford in 1636. Hooker is credited as being the founder of Connecticut; a parade has been named in his honor.

This meeting house piqued my curiosity over the years, mainly because of the historical angle. If facing the church from Main Street, you can see the Ancient Burying Ground to its right, where something like 90% of those buried never received grave markers, and where Hooker is rumored to be buried. It is also rumored that Hooker’s grave is underneath Center Church.

How is that possible? (more…)

Hartford Pew Review: A Bahá’í Holy Day Observance

Say: God sufficeth all things above all things. and nothing in the heavens or in the earth but God sufficeth. Verily, he is in Himself the Knower, the Sustainer, the Omnipotent.
– The Báb

On July 9 around noon, a friend and I were searching for the entrance to Elizabeth Park on Fern Street. “It’s like the entrance to Narnia,” she said. And like magic, it appeared.

I had been invited to join her family for a public observance of one of the the Bahá’í holy days, the commemoration of the Martydom of the Báb. The Báb, an honorific which means “the Gate” in Arabic, was the prophet-herald of the Bahá’í Faith. On May 23, 1844, in Shiraz, Persia, He announced the imminent arrival of Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the faith. On July 9, 1850, the Báb was executed for His message, which had threatened the ruling theocracy.

Bahá’ís don’t have local houses of worship, and therefore meet in their homes or in other accessible spaces. The Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Hartford has been holding its annual observance commemorating the Martydom of the Báb in Elizabeth Park for several years.



I was a little nervous. (more…)