If you Build It They Will Come

Article Published in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger on November 16, 2016

By Cindy Mindell

WALLINGFORD – Two autumns ago, members of Beth Israel Synagogue came to Rabbi Bruce Alpert to express their outrage: the annual Celebrate Wallingford weekend event was slated to open on Yom Kippur. Despite appeals to the mayor, it was too late to change the schedule, and the festival proceeded as planned.

On Rosh Hashanah, Alpert delivered a sermon about Israel and offered the congregation an opportunity to continue the conversation at a post-services lunch and learn.

“But nobody wanted to talk about Israel; they only wanted to talk about Celebrate Wallingford and what an outrage it was,” recalls Alpert. “The conclusion I came to was that we were not nearly focused enough on who we are in our congregation and defining ourselves for ourselves, rather than letting the Town of Wallingford, through its neglect, marginalize us.”

During Yom Kippur services, Alpert announced to the 50-family congregation that it was time to rebuild, literally. The synagogue building, erected off Center Street in downtown Wallingford in 1906, had its last makeover in 1967.

“We have relatively low dues and some money in the bank and a building that is paid off,” Alpert says. “I and the lay leadership realized that we have two choices: just move along as we are and not challenge the community and see where that leads – which I think is further shrinkage and further reduction of the importance of the synagogue in people’s lives – or try and do something bold and vital and make it new.”

The “bones” of the 100-plus-year-old building are sound, according to Beth Israel president Alida Cella: updated furnaces, energy-efficient lighting, water-efficient toilets, new roof, etc.

“But the rugs are old and worn, the look of the place is just tired, and the entrance looks severe and not revealing of the love that exists inside,” she says. “It’s time to give everyone something that they can invest in and be a part of and be able to call their own. Right now, the building reflects the tastes and investment of a generation or two ago; we need to shed our shell and come into our own and make it what we want it to be. With people able to invest themselves in the project and take ownership, that will hopefully bring our community even closer together and help us attract more people who want to be a part of what we have going on – community, study, prayer, love, and welcoming.”

On Rosh Hashanah this year, Woodbridge-based architect Jay Alpert (a cousin of the rabbi) presented to the congregation architectural drawings and a model showing what their building could look like. Alpert designed the JCC of Greater New Haven and the redesign of the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont in Milford.

The proposed improvements to Beth Israel include a new entryway and reorientation of the sanctuary – which now faces west – a mikvah, and a sunken meditation garden.

In its totality, the project will probably cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, but the initial challenge is to find new congregants to sustain the building. Rabbi Alpert plans to reach out to the community – not only in the Jewish community of Wallingford and surrounds, but also to potential local partner organizations as the downtown area is revitalized.

“We want to have a building that has programming that’s bringing people, like a small satellite community center,” says congregant Dave Stein, an architect who works with Jay Alpert. “It’s time to regionalize the synagogue.”

Drawing from Wallingford, as well as Durham, Northford, Cheshire, Meriden, North Haven, Hamden, and West Haven, Beth Israel is home to a multi-generational, mostly interfaith congregation, according to Cella. While the size of the membership has not grown, it is consistently buoyed by new young families.

Alpert is hopeful that he can identify new members.

“Every time I ask the question, ‘Are there Jews in Wallingford?’ the response is, ‘There are more than you think,’” he says. “My hope in the next several months is to start doing programming that reaches out into the broader Wallingford community, tell them about our plans and project what kind of community we’re trying to build, and identify that we actually have a constituency to serve.” Then the fundraising can commence. “A hundred years ago, Jews came to Wallingford and there was no congregation here and they built one,” he says. “So why can’t we now rebuild it?”

CAP: Architect Jay Alpert of Woodbridge examines his model of Wallingford’s proposed Beth Israel Synagogue.

Jay Alpert