Today is January 23, 2020 -
Although it is recorded that there were Jews in Meriden in 1887, it was not until 1889 that an official charter was issued to Chevra B’nai Abraham, established as a place of religious worship by Meyer Abrahams. The building was erected in 1891 at 43 Cedar Street, at a cost of $5,000.00. The basement provided a highly important adjunct to the religious life of that time, namely the mikvah, for ceremonial bathing.
On the first floor was living quarters for the Shammus (Sexton) and classrooms for the Talmud Torah. The 2nd floor housed the Holy Ark, the men’s prayer pews and in the middle of the room, the “Bimah“. The ladies of the congregation, according to Orthodoxy, were seated in the balcony. Chevra B’nai Abraham at this time had grown to 125 member families. The Synagogue was not only the center of religious activity, but had also become the center of all Jewish gatherings.
Two years before the establishment of the congregation, on November 3, 1887, the Jews of Meriden purchased land on Corrigan Avenue and established a Chevra B’nai Abraham Cemetery. The first recorded burial took place on April 14, 1908; however, the oldest gravestone is dated 1893. The entire property was assembled through several different purchases: the first as mentioned in 1887, the second in 1925 and the final acquisition was purchased in 1939 by Frieda Frank in memory of her husband, Hoskar.
During the years 1887 to 1939, there were sections of the cemetery that were designated as burial grounds for members of the Silver City Lodge #152 I.O.B.A. (Independent Order of B’nai Abraham); Workmen’s Circle #159; and a group from Wallingford, known as the Young Men’s Hebrew Benefit Association. On April 1972, representatives of the Silver City Lodge, Workmen’s Circle and Chevra B’nai Abraham turned over their respective deeds to the Temple and thereafter, the cemetery was known as Temple B’nai Abraham Cemetery.
In addition to the cemetery, our congregation has always had a Chevrah Kadishah (Holy Burial Society); however, the first recorded documentation goes back only to August 23, 1913. The sacred duty of a Chevrah Kadishah is to prepare the deceased for burial according to Jewish law and tradition. The purification ritual (Taharah) is based upon the principle of the holiness and sanctity of the body even in death. These duties are among the greatest Mitzvot one can perform, called Hesed Shel Emet, for its kindness can never be repaid. At one time, it was traditional that participation in the Chevrah be passed down to each succeeding generation — father to son, mother to daughter. Thus, there have been members whose Grandmother and Mother also were Chevrah members.
Feeling the need for expanded Temple facilities, a group of devoted members proceeded to make plans to raise funds for a new and larger building. In June of 1907 Hoskar & Frieda Frank laid the corners of a new edifice which was to house the congregation for 45 years. During that length of time the Synagogue was the meeting place for the men’s social club, ladies aid faculty, Zionist Organization, Jr. & Sr. Hadassah, Young Judea and the Meriden Jewish War Veterans. Weddings, B’nai Mitzvah and deaths were solemnized here.
The Temple’s Sisterhood was organized in 1931, at the height of the depression. From a nucleus of thirty women willing and able to pay the initial annual dues of 50 cents, membership eventually surged to over 260. The Sisterhood started and maintained Sunday School for their children, partially subsidized the Hebrew School and initiated a building fund in the hope of building a new synagogue facility.
In 1935, on August 20th, the first Genizah (book burial) was held in the cemetery. A stone building was erected there in the 1930’s and it has served as a Chapel, storehouse, repository for books and washroom.
The Men’s Club was started by a group of six men who, in 1939, initially organized a men’s bowling league in the Jewish community. The organization later decided “to promote cultural, social and sports activities among the men of the Meriden Jewish community and to promote the building of a new Temple and Community Center.” In May, 1950, the group reorganized as the Men’s Club of Temple B’nai Abraham with 158 charter members.
In 1941 a new building fund was established. Land was acquired by Frieda Frank and was presented to the building committee. The original site on Lincoln Street was sold when it was decided in favor of purchasing available property on East Main Street, the latter property being more suitable for construction of the new building. Shortly thereafter, all planning ceased during the war years. In 1942 Chevra B’nai Abraham became an affiliate of the United Synagogue of America, the lay organization of Conservative Judaism. Fund raising was renewed vigorously after the war.
During the Second World War both organizations took part in the war effort and regularly contributed to the Temple’s maintenance. And by the time that the New Temple building was ready for occupancy, the Men’s Club had contributed over $11,000 to the Temple Building Fund and the Sisterhood made $15,000 available to furnish and decorate the interior and to equip the kitchen to accommodate 400 guests.
Ground breaking ceremonies for the new building took place on February 18, 1951 and the cornerstone was laid on September 9, 1951. On March 30, 1952, the Men’s Club held the first meeting in the new building. Thereafter, the Sisterhood developed a series of ongoing funds and fund raising events. On Sunday, September 7, 1952, eight elders of the congregation, wearing talitot (prayer shawls) marched ceremoniously from Cedar Street to the new building with the Holy Torahs. These same eight elders were in attendance when the old Temple doors were previously opened in 1907, 45 years earlier.
A week of celebration and festivities began on September 7, 1952, in which all of Meriden Jewry participated. At this time there were 360 member families and 200 children enrolled in our religious school. The new edifice created an excitement and the membership soon swelled to 450 families which included Cheshire, Southington and Durham and the religious school enrollment increased to 250 students.
Temple B’nai Abraham became the center in which all facets of Jewish life transpired. There was a strong and active nationally affiliated Men’s Club and Sisterhood, a Jewish War Veterans Post #92, a local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, and numerous youth activities for both young children and teenagers. Foremost in the Temple’s programs was adult education and outstanding notables were brought to the Temple for lectures. Among them were Eleanor Roosevelt, Governor Chester Bowles, Governor John Cabot Lodge, Governor and then Senator Abraham Ribicoff and Senator Lowell Weicker. We were privileged to hear such noted authors as Max Lerner, Maurice Samuels, Pierre Van Passen, Dr. Max Artz and numerous others.
In 1960, the past presidents and other dignitaries of the Temple burned the building mortgage. The 75th anniversary celebration of Temple B’nai Abraham took place in 1965, and the President of the United Synagogue of America was guest speaker for the occasion. The Temple celebrated its Bar Mitzvah year in the new building with a catered dinner and Senator Abraham Ribicoff was the guest speaker at that occasion.
In 1972 the Meriden United Veterans Council erected a flagpole in the cemetery with a suitably inscribed plaque dedicated to the Jewish veterans buried there. Today, the Temple B’Nai Abraham Cemetery consists of two sections – The Meriden Hebrew Cemetery and the Frank Memorial Cemetery. The latter section, acquired in 1939, was formally dedicated in 1940. The cemetery’s by-laws (revised in 1973) govern all decisions pertaining to burials, installations of monuments, and general funeral procedures.
The mid seventies brought many changes that would alter the composition of the congregation. Younger Jewish families were coming into Meriden, Cheshire, Southington, and surrounding environs. Many of the families had young children and were looking toward a Conservative Synagogue to educate them. At this same time the congregation had voted to allow women equal rights and responsibilities. These changes proved to be both a challenge and a stimulus to the Temple and its leadership.
The egalitarian vote of the congregation served to bring about the first female president of Temple B’nai Abraham. In 1966 and again in 1980, the Sisterhood published two Jewish cookbooks and in the 1970s, it sponsored three art shows. In the Spring of 1986, the Sisterhood and Men’s Club decided to merge, forming the Temple B’nai Abraham Auxiliary, to carry out the functions and purposes of their predecessor organizations in a more efficient, economical and meaningful manner. Today, the Auxiliary, supports many of the Temple and Hebrew School activities, including but not limited to running a gift shop, sponsoring the weekly Oneg Shabbat and school activities, such as the Tu b’Shevat seder.
Throughout the entire history of our Jewish community we have been fortunate to have men and a woman willing to accept the challenges and opportunities facing them in their leadership roles. It is due to their selfless dedication and untiring service that Temple B’nai Abraham was able to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1989 and embark on the second century with a positive sense of leadership and direction.