The old brick synagogue on Orchard Street in New Haven, Connecticut is disintegrating. In the decade or so that the 60-odd families who make up Congregation Beth Israel have been trying to raise the $1.5 million it will cost to renovate the once-thriving Orthodox shul—or even the $300,000 it will take to make the most urgent repairs—the paint has continued to peel away from the soaring ceilings and the spidervein cracks along the stuccoed walls have widened into finger-width gaps.
The synagogue’s president, 87-year-old Sam Teitelman, remembers the congregation’s heyday—a time when the Oak Street neighborhood, just west of downtown, was essentially a Yiddish-speaking ghetto dotted with shtiebels, kosher lunch counters, and butcher shops like the one around the corner from Orchard Street that his father once ran after arriving in the United States in 1924. When Teitelman’s family—Ukrainian, by way of Cuba—moved farther west, to a nicer area, his father would trek back to the old neighborhood by foot each Shabbat to occupy seat No. 57. Today, the congregation no longer holds services, though prayer books sit out on the bimah in readiness for the occasional, and increasingly rare, weekday minyan. “Every one of our members is also a member somewhere else,” Teitelman said earlier this week. “We are never going to be a traditional Orthodox synagogue again.”
Orchard Street is one of only a handful of the immigrant-founded synagogues that once dotted cities across America to have remained in the hands of its congregation, rather than being demolished or sold and converted into, often, immigrant churches. Other survivors—the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side or the Vilna Shul in Boston—have been reborn in recent years as cultural institutions. Teitelman’s hope is that the same might be possible for his shul. While the building’s fate remains in limbo, a group of artists from around the country has stepped in to create a “cultural heritage” exhibit of works inspired by the synagogue, or by its now-absent congregation, opening this weekend at the John Slade Ely House, an art space a few blocks from the shul. “It’s not up to us what becomes of this building—they have to figure out for themselves what they want,” said Cynthia Beth Rubin, a digital artist based in New Haven, who coordinated the project. “What we can do as artists is help them realize that the story of the shul touches people beyond their own community.”
The idea of using contemporary art to illuminate the relevance of deteriorating institutions isn’t new, but the New Haven project is about something else—using a deteriorating institution as a conduit for broader ideas about Jewishness, nostalgia, and the vast gulf separating contemporary American Jewish life from the quotidian realities our grandparents and great-grandparents knew. The charm of the Orchard Street shul lies in its ordinariness, but that also made it an almost perfect canvas for the two dozen or so participating artists—some Jewish, some not—to project their own notions of what it meant to be Jewish then or what we have lost with the disappearance of these congregations, places where restrooms were labeled with Yiddish signs reading “Menner” and “Froyen.”
The participating artists were required to visit the building, and to respect the values of the shul—no desecration of holy texts, for example, was allowed in their work—but were otherwise set free to make what they wanted: rich portraits of the synagogue’s interior and cemetery, audio interviews with congregants, a sukkah made from paper decorated with archival photographs. One team of Yale computer scientists contributed a digital recreation of the shul’s interior, made using the same techniques that have been used to model Michelangelo’s Florence Pieta, which could eventually be used as the basis for a virtual tour of the building. The results are, in many cases, beautiful, or heartbreaking—as in the case of a Shaimos box, intended for the disposal of religious texts, placed in front of the image of the shul’s disarrayed shelves of siddurim. The question left unanswered is: what should we save, and how?