The following history is adapted from a longer history by past president Alan Gelbert. For the full-length version (which is well worth reading), click here. You can also see back issues of the BEKI Bulletin.
In 1892, several Jewish families in the Hill neighborhood began meeting as a new congregation, and when, two years later, they purchased a house at 10 Rose Street (near the current site of Yale–New Haven Hospital), they built what became known as the Rose Street Shul. Dues were 10 cents per member household per week. In 1901, the group reorganized as “Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol B’nai Israel.” It was the largest traditional congregation in the area for many years.
But in 1955, Mayor Richard C. Lee began a program of urban redevelopment—and his plans included placing the multi-lane Oak Street Connector highway right through the heart of the so-called “Jewish Ghetto.” The synagogue would have to move. While most members now lived in the western section of the city, those who remained downtown would not ride on the Sabbath; therefore, the city would have to make available property in the area on which to build a small synagogue for them. The city offered the congregation land on Congress Avenue downtown, and in Westville it offered the Benton School property at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Harrison Street—a beautiful site at the crest of a hill with West Rock as a backdrop. The last services at Rose Street were held on Sukkot of 1957.
The downtown synagogue project stalled out—and, because plans for the Westville building showed seating with no separation between men and women, some traditionally Orthodox members sued. The lawsuit was eventually settled, and the Orthodox members got the name “B’nai Israel.” The Westville building was built at Whalley Avenue and Harrison Street, across the street from the original site, and was dedicated on the weekend of 24-26 June 1960. The new congregation called itself Congregation Beth El. Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer was formally installed in December 1962, with the installation address given by Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan. At that time, the congregation comprised 230 families.
In January 1967, Congregation Beth El formally joined the United Synagogue, identifying as a Conservative synagogue. The following year, it absorbed the shrinking Keser Israel, and the current congregation, Beth El–Keser Israel, known as “BEKI,” was born. In Fall 1968, the synagogue boasted a membership of more than 600 families, with more than 200 children in the religious school.
By the late 1970s, Beth El–Keser Israel’s membership was smaller and older, and by 1994, membership stood at 204 families. The roof leaked, the parking lot had sinkholes, the heating and cooling plants were failing frequently. Some congregational leaders spoke of seeking merger partners or of ceasing operations.
But in August 1993, Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen assumed the position of spiritual leader, as the congregation began its second century. As it happened, that year Louis Friedman ז״ל retired after over 40 years as shamash; his retirement necessitated the mobilization of volunteers to read Torah, lead daily and Shabbat services, and teach benei mitzva students. Mr. Friedman had raised generations of New Haven youth with a love of Torah—and his commitment to both tradition and the advancement of women eased the congregation’s transition to a fully gender-egalitarian format.
In the 1990s, BEKI launched numerous initiatives to make the congregation more inclusive. Among them are the Kulanu Ke’Ehad program of outreach to adults developmental disabilities; Saul’s Circle, an outreach program for adults with chronic debilitating mental illness; an accessible washroom; and a commitment to offer a basic religious school education to all of its children, whatever their special learning needs. The breadth and quality of Shabbat and weekday programs for children and youth expanded, and the number of minors grew from under 70 in 1994 to over 225 a decade later. A typical Shabbat morning includes simultaneous programs or services for children and youth, as well as youth participating in the main service and Shabbat Shalom Torah Study.
In 2003, the congregation began a process of building renovations, aimed at improving accessibility, enhancing energy efficiency, and upgrading security. BEKI has won awards from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism for its environmental stewardship.
BEKI today is a thriving congregation, with formal membership of about 280 families as of 2015, and another 200 non-member families who consider BEKI their synagogue. More than half live in the city of New Haven. About 10 percent of the members are gerim (converts to Judaism). About ten percent are in “interfaith” or “mixed” marriages or committed relationships. We have members of all ages, from all streams, and from secular and non-Jewish backgrounds, and spanning a variety of sexual and gender orientations. Some are rabbis and professors of Jewish studies; some are brand-new to Judaism. Opportunities abound for every BEKI member to contribute time, talents, and ideas.
Rabbi Tilsen is now the longest-serving spiritual leader in the congregation’s 120-plus-year history. His wisdom, kindness, and extraordinary leadership are key to the congregation’s continuing revival.
A more complete history of BEKI is found here.