By Tara Rothman
We would like to thank Phyllis Osias for her wonderful memories, David Berger for his suggestions, Myrna Winters for being the first historian of Temple Beth David (April 1968 - June 1970) , and the Dedication Book Staff (1984 - Harold and Karen Kramer, Mary Helfer, and Marilyn Sommer) for the history they recorded.
The Original Building
The building that houses Temple Beth David was originally known as the Cheshire United Methodist Church and was built in 1834. The building is one of the last remaining examples in the United States of a chapel designed by the founder of the Methodist Faith, John Wesley.
This rare picture shows a wooden belfry in the northwest corner. The belfry was added around 1870 and later blown down during a violent storm in 1897. The structure that Temple Beth David calls home has both architectural and religious historical significance and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Founding of Temple Beth David : As told by Phyllis Osias
Beginnings: The Cheshire Jewish Community Club:
On August 8, 1956, my husband and I moved to Cheshire. A day or two later we got a phone call from David Greenberg, a New Haven lawyer, who asked if we would like to participate in a meeting at his home in Cheshire of people who wanted to create a Jewish Community Club! Of course, we were delighted.
For all the years between 1956 and 1968, that club was the only Jewish presence in town. We met once a month. We celebrated Jewish holidays. We dreamed of one day having a Temple. Members in the club went to Mishkan Israel or Beth Shalom in Hamden or B'nai Abraham in Meriden.
Membership varied all the time. Those 1950's and 60's were years when people moved a lot from job to job or from city to the suburbs. We went as low as 5 families and as high as 15 - 20, but we never broke up!
In 1968, we had 18 families. The Methodist Church outgrew its sanctuary and planned to build a new church on Academy Road. Their church was up for sale.
Purchasing the Building: 1971
Jack and I knew the minister, George Hill and his wife, Betty, quite well. My daughter and theirs were schoolmates and good friends. I knew that building well and suggested to our group that we look at it. A committee was formed and off we went to investigate. The committee fell in love with the 1837 building. It was the perfect Temple!
The property consisted of one acre of land in the very middle of town and 4 buildings. Cost? $72,000. How to pay? Six of the members who were businessmen in town signed the note. I think they included Morty Reisenberg who owned a drug store, Dick Fiske, the builder, and Aaron Cohen who owned Cheshire Nursery. Much excitement and joy -- and much work!!
The excitement and pleasure amazingly extended to the whole town. Everyone, especially the Methodist Congregation, was so happy the Church would be a Temple and not go commercial. The town gave us a large plot of land in the cemetery for a Jewish cemetery. We can even put up gates if we get very rich! They take fine care of it without charge! Until 1973 we shared the sanctuary with the Methodists while they got their new building built. Every Friday we took down the cross from the table at the pulpit and put up a movable ark. Every Sunday they put their cross back.
The Methodists had wanted to take the wonderful organ with them, but the architects said if they did the walls would fall down! They sold it to us for a ridiculous $1200.
We did not want to spoil the look of this lovely colonial building. The ark that was created is probably the only colonial type one in the country! A Temple in New Haven gave us our first Torah Scroll.
The old building needed work and work costs money, which we didn't have. For the first few years, the congregation did the work: gardening, painting, repairs. We did it all!
In the first ten years, two of the old buildings on the property were razed. The minister's residence, 27 Spring St., was kept and served as our kindergarten building for several years.
Finding a Rabbi:
How to get a rabbi? The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York came to the rescue. We were not large enough for about 15 years to support a full-time rabbi. We received student rabbis! I felt we were a school for rabbis! We graduated eventually.
The First Service:
On Friday night, August 9, 1968 --- at approximately 7:30 P.M. --- Temple Beth David will mark its first historic occasion --- its first religious service at the Methodist Church. It will be an unforgettable evening --- an evening of dedication, of pride, of achievement --- by the Jewish Community of Cheshire.
Our first services will begin on an auspicious note --- the presentation of a Torah --- as a gift to our Temple by Congregation Beth El - Keser Israel of New Haven. A special ceremony will precede the regular services at which time our president, Richard Fiske, will accept the Torah on behalf of the Congregation. Participating in the ceremony from Beth El - Keser Israel will be Mr. Leon Rosoff, the immediate past President; Mr. Lawrence Garfinkel.
The Original Officers and Leaders of Temple Beth David:
The following officers and leaders were elected in the summer and fall of 1968
- President Richard N. Fiske
- Vice-President Murray Gallant
- Treasurer Ronald J. Vallone
- Financial Secretary Marcia Robbins
- Secretary Barbara Lassman
- Religious School Principal Phyllis Osias
- Sisterhood President Willa Jacobs
Starting a Hebrew School:
How about a Hebrew school? Since I was the only school teacher, I was elected to start one! With fine help from temples in Hartford, I managed and we started with 8 students around my dining room table. Our members were recruited to teach bible and holidays. Our first Hebrew teachers came from the Yale Divinity School. These fine young Protestant people were Ph.D. candidates in Old Testament studies and their Hebrew was perfect! I was principal until 1972. There were no classrooms in the Temple, just a study for the rabbi to the left of the staircase and a kitchen with a beautiful view of the furnace and the boiler to the right on the way to a social hall loaded with pillars!! We had hoped to house the school in one of the buildings that was razed, but inspectors told us it was too dangerous to go upstairs because the old building might have collapsed.
To the rescue came the churches and Cheshire Academy. Rooms in the Congregational Church, the St. Peter's Episcopal Church and the Academy were used. All we needed was provided over the years, no payment please. Of course, we reciprocated where we could by exchanging baby-sitting on Easter and Rosh Hashanah and we bought large numbers of bibles for their pews. Eventually as the numbers of students increased, we rented Chapman Elementary school for Sundays.
The Eternal Light:
Now we needed an Eternal Light!! I was a member of a three-woman crusade who went to New York to buy one. What an experience that was! We trekked from one Judaica shop, wholesaler, distributor to another all in one day. Everything was so elaborate, fussy, modern. We were very discouraged. At the end of the day we came to a distributor near Lincoln Center. Up we went to a locked entrance "Give your name and address please" -- to a grilled iron gate behind which we were carefully inspected!! In we went to the most extensive and beautiful Judaica we had seen. We explained we wanted a simple lamp to go with our colonial sanctuary and they came up with the one we have. It was just right except that it was silver and our Ten Commandments that would hang behind it had been painted gold letters by Murray Gallant, its creator. Cost?? "How much have you got?" they asked. "$1600", we said. "OK", they said and for that sum they would plate the lamp in gold and give us the lamp's history.
Our lamp came from a temple in Alexandria, Egypt. It had hung there for over a hundred years, possibly 400. They gave us a photograph of the lamp hanging with about 10 more in a row! We also received the account of the temple and the lamp written in French! All of this I gave to the Temple's secretary many years ago.
Egypt in the 1970's, was closing all the temples in the country. To prevent the sacred objects from being sold and melted down, this company went over and bought what they could.
We went happily back to Cheshire.
In 1979, the members of Temple Beth David felt the building no longer met their growing needs and a committee was formed to plan an addition. A building fund was created and after much debate, a two-phase master plan was agreed upon. Phase one consisted of a social hall, offices, a lounge, kitchen and rest rooms. It also included renovating the lower level of the existing building for library space and two meeting rooms. Phase one was completed and dedicated in 1984.
Temple Beth David today:
The building still features the original wooden floor boards held in place by hand-crafted nails. The sanctuary is reminiscent of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., and the Ark is built in Colonial style. A cabinet maker from Meriden Connecticut embellished our ark with a panel which in hebrew reads Ra lifnai mi omed -" Know before Whom you Stand " This plank came from a pallet which traveled to the United States with Jewish immigrants from the then Soviet Union, During the day, the sanctuary is filled with color from the beautiful stained glass windows which flank each side of the bimah. Membership numbers over 200 families.
Due to our very able Rabbinic and lay leadership, we have established ourselves as well-respected members of the Cheshire community along with Cheshire Academy, the Congregational Church, the Cheshire School System, the Methodist Church and St. Bridget's Church. We have shared facilities, cooperated in special projects such as the Cheshire Food Drive and Cheshire Interfaith Housing, and solidified friendships.
Temple Beth David is a congregation with one of the largest religious schools in the area. While we are affiliated with the Reform movement, our members come from all aspects of Judaism with our services a unique blend of traditions.
From the dream and vision of the original 17 families, we have become a complete institution able to offer the Jewish community a Religious School for our children, adult education, a Jewish cemetery, training for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and most importantly, the support and caring of an extended family.