It is not our job to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it!
Sixty years in the making, The Westville Synagogue continues to evolve and grow, serving the needs of the Orthodox and larger New Haven Jewish community. In the Spring of 1952, Charles Albom, Arthur Slutsky and Herbert Batt dreamed of having a synagogue in Westville. A small group began davening in a private home with a Torah borrowed from the Young Israel of New Haven. In 1953, 75 people attended High Holiday services at the Davis Street School. In January 1954, a group met to discuss the idea of establishing an Orthodox shul in Westville; a small house on West Prospect Street was purchased and services were held just before Pesach.
When the synagogue decided later in 1954 that it was time to hire a rabbi, Rabbi Albert Feldman was selected—though he was clearly told that the shul had no money to pay his first paycheck!
Rabbi Feldman was formally installed as rabbi on February 21, 1955. He instituted a daily minyan and devoted members picked up and dropped off others to assure the minyan’s success. Services were held in the “house” from 1954-1958, until the auditorium (completed on the site of the former “house”), was completed in the Fall of 1958.
In these early years, the Mr. & Mrs. Club offered year-round events for couples, and “Jewelites” offered comprehensive programming to the senior members of the community. The Men’s Club sponsored breakfasts with guest speakers each month with an impressive line up of speakers. And the Sisterhood, for decades under the leadership of Rebbetzin Estelle Feldman, held social activities, art auctions and other fundraisers, and social action events which quickly became well-known throughout the community. People came from all over to participate in the Sisterhood-sponsored fashion shows, and the donor dinners were consistently well-attended events. The Sisterhood also carefully prepared holiday educational materials to share with families who may have been unfamiliar with certain Jewish holidays and practices.
Rebbetzin Feldman’s commitment to Jewish religious practice and to inclusiveness have been apparent in many ways. In the past it was the practice of Israel Bonds Women’s Division to host a non-kosher luncheon. Through much hard work and sensitive diplomacy, Mrs. Feldman was able to suggest a kosher Israel Bonds luncheon, hosted at the Westville Synagogue.
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, attended by 1,200 worshippers, members returned home to break fast, returned to the shul one hour later, Yom Kippur pledges in hand, for a night of dancing. In those days, Orthodox synagogues regularly sponsored dances, and the Westville Synagogue had a rich history, always large, haimesh community events and large fundraisers for the shul. And Bingo nights, held every Tuesday for more than twenty years, brought in more than $250,000 by the early 1970s and allowed the shul to pay off its mortgage.
In an age when Orthodox children did not have the option to attend day schools, the children of the Westville Synagogue walked as a group from the Davis Street School. When Rabbi Feldman wasn’t teaching five classes himself, he was cleaning the classrooms and helping “keep order” from his hallway “shmira” station.
Under Rabbi Feldman’s leadership, the shul continued to grow through the 1960’s and 1970’s. On February 28, 1962, Beit Hamedrosh Hagodol—Westville Synagogue was formed when The Westville Synagogue and Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol formally merged. A larger sanctuary was completed in April, 1964. In 1965, the Westville Shul demonstrated its love and commitment to Rabbi Feldman by granting him lifetime tenure.
The synagogue’s long “official” name can be traced to March 26, 1974, when the synagogue merged yet again—this time with Congregation B’nai Israel, affectionately known as the “Rose Street Shul.” The Synagogue then became known as Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol B’nai Israel – The Westville Synagogue.
In 2004, Rabbi Wesley Kalmar and Rebbetzin Dr. Jessica Kalmar joined the Westville community. The Westville community will always remember Rabbi Kalmar’s special davening during Yom Kippur services, his funny voices during the Purim megillah reading, the anecdotes at the start of each Shabbat sermon, the 100 times singing mashiv haruach umorid hageshem during the hakafot on Simchat Torah, and so much more.
In 2010, the Westville Synagogue community continued its journey, under the energetic leadership of Rabbi Fred Hyman and Rebbetzin Tova Hyman. We are very proud of the dedication of our older members, who often serve as the backbone for our daily and Shabbat minyanim. We are touched by Rabbi Hyman’s kindness, greeting each member of the congregation by name, even after just a week in the community. One of his first “innovations” was requesting that, after an aliyah, each person come up to him to receive a handshake and yasher koach from the rabbi! We are encouraged by the “pitch in” spirit of our members of all ages who daven and leyn each week, help prepare beautiful Shabbat kiddushes, erect the sukkah, assemble Purim baskets, attend the Westville University adult education programs, open their homes to everyone from Yachad Shabbaton participants to visiting Israeli professors, and come together to raise needed funds for the shul. The voices of so many young children in the hallways of the shul on Shabbat and holidays mornings are a sure sign that Westville has a strong future, as a committed, Modern Orthodox synagogue.
Today the Wesville Synagogue is a strong presence in the New Haven multi-cultural landscape, offering a warm Jewish family experience. Come be part of this special community.