Congregation Beth El: good for our community

Congregation Beth El, the Conservative Jewish congregation in New London, will soon depart from its iconic synagogue on Ocean Avenue after more than 40 years.

Besides providing a strong faith community — indeed, because of that — the congregation and individuals who have been part of it since its founding in 1932 have been leaders in the civic and cultural life of New London, the state and the country. They have played key roles in humanitarian causes, Civil Rights and interfaith cooperation.

Members say they are proud to have sold the property to the LEARN Regional Educational Service, which plans to open the Ocean Avenue LEARNing Academy and Center of Excellence there in 2018. It will consolidate special education programs from throughout the region and eventually serve 100 students of kindergarten through high school age.

The congregation does not yet know where it will be, but it knows who it will be. As President Judi Goldberg said of the difficult decision to leave, they are not 660 Ocean Avenue; they are Congregation Beth El. Under the leadership of its rabbis and inspired by Holocaust survivors, members have always appreciated how fortunate they are to live in this country and have perennially given back.

The most famous was the late Sigmund Strochlitz, survivor of a Nazi prison camp. He worked for years with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel to make sure society never forgets or denies what happened under Hitler. Strochlitz's work helped create the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Members have served in the state legislature — state Sen. Andrea Stillman — and as mayors, city councilors and political leaders in New London, among them the late Mo Savin, Harvey Mallove, Daniel Schwartz, and Herbert Mandel. Harold Weiner, the only Republican Town Committee chairman to get a party majority elected to the council, headed the Redevelopment Agency. 

Myron Hendel negotiated with the town of Waterford to establish the water system that now serves both communities. Member Victor Norman started the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. Tracee Reiser, in her capacity as director of community partnerships and associate director of the Holleran Center at Connecticut College, interwove student life into the community. Member Jerome Fischer heads the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, which has consistently reached outside the Jewish community to assist refugees and others in need. And there have been many more who served the community, too numerous to name here.

Rabbi Carl Astor, who came to serve the congregation in 1981, shortly before its 50th anniversary, joined the Rev. Benjamin K. Watts of Shiloh Baptist Church, then another newly arrived young clergyman, and others in the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march and in interfaith ministry. Beth El worked with local churches on the CROP walks that raised funds to fight hunger in the 1990s. Rabbi Rachel Safman, the congregation's spiritual leader now, is active in efforts to resettle refugees.

Besides being physicians, teachers, college professors, attorneys, business owners, and cultural leaders, members have been philanthropists whose generosity endures in such memorials as the Hendel Library at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and the Baker Auditorium at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

This, however, is a new era with new challenges. The sale of the 36,000-square-foot synagogue and six-acre property for $1.9 million was prompted by the aging of the membership without an increase in young families to balance it. The math of having 240 member families in a facility built to hold 600 is inescapable. The same trend has overtaken many houses of worship in the Northeast, forcing the closure of churches and temples. Yet Congregation Beth El sees its move as way to restructure for sustainability.

Members who are saddened by leaving the place where their families' memories were made are touched by the attitude of LEARN administrators that they will respect the "sanctity" of the building. Rena Linder, who served as the congregation's first woman president, says LEARN's mission is in keeping with the congregation's longtime sense of purpose: to reach out and make the community better. And the community, she says, "has been good to us."

It goes both ways. The community owes a debt of gratitude to Congregation Beth El's leaders and members, past and present. The Day wishes the congregation well as it prepares to vacate its home and find a new one, in the process establishing new traditions of service.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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