In September 1654, twenty-three Jewish travelers, men, women and children, arrived in New Amsterdam (later New York City) from northern Brazil where they had faced persecution by the Portuguese. Although there had been a few earlier Jewish traders in the New World, Jews date their arrival in America to these courageous sojourners. It would take another 200 years until Jewish settlers arrived in Northampton. Once here, however, they were welcome and did not have to fight to stay as the earliest settlers did in New Amsterdam. Their small numbers throughout the nineteenth century slowly expanded as some twenty families arrived at the turn of the twentieth century.
After a decade or more of holding religious services in various homes or halls in the city, this brave band of pioneers decided to move forward and establish a synagogue of their own. Their search for an appropriate place for Congregation Bâ€™nai Israel ended when they learned that St. Johnâ€™s Episcopal Church was moving from Bridge Street to their present building adjacent to the Smith College campus. St. Johnâ€™s leaders were eager to see the old church continue as a religious institution, and, according to one historical account, actually sold the building for a lower price than that already offered by a local storekeeper. The new synagogue would stand as a symbol of the growth of the fledgling Jewish community and their commitment to Northampton. It would also underscore their welcome from long-standing residents of the city.
Eventually, the early peddlers became storekeepers. By the 1930s Jews owned clothing and shoe stores downtown, and were operating hardware stores, groceries, butcher shops and junkyards in the city. Over the course of the next decades, these families succeeded in building a thriving life in Northampton. They were respected business people, their numbers had increased; they had developed a close-knit social life, and built institutions to maintain their Jewish identity.
By the late 1950s, the old synagogue had deteriorated badly and had been torn down, forcing the congregation to meet in various rented spaces. The drive for a new building began. The young merchants had returned from military service and had taken over the businesses of their fathers. By the late 1950s they were well enough established to raise most of the $150,000 necessary for the synagogue on Prospect Street. Fifty-eight years after establishing the first synagogue on Bridge Street, the children of the founders laid a cornerstone to mark the opening of their new building.
Nothing was more important than the arrival of the new rabbi, Arthur Langenauer, who later adopted a Hebrew name, Asher Bar Zev. In order to hire him, the Congregation joined the Conservative movement â€“ a break from its orthodox past. Rabbi Langenauer came to Northampton in 1962 to revitalize the religious character of the community, and to do so in a way that recognized changing times. Many remember fondly the changes he initiated. The late Leonard Alberts, a long-time synagogue leader, observed that: He really brought the congregation into its present state. We still sing the melodies that he taught us, and he gave us the style of the service. Under Langenauerâ€™s leadership, CBI became one of the first conservative synagogues to count women in the minyan and to call them to the Torah for an aliyah.
An increasing number of Jewish families arrived in Northampton and throughout the Pioneer Valley during the last quarter of the twentieth century, and the Congregation grew in numbers. Young families came to Bâ€™nai Israel with a love of Judaism, but with the desire for more active inclusion of women and interfaith families. They also wanted to expand the offerings at CBI and began Gan Keshet preschool and an active adult education program. These changes were supported by Rabbi Alan Morse and Rabbi Edward Friedman who succeeded Asher Bar Zev in the 1970s and 1980s.
The process of change accelerated with the arrival of Rabbi Philip Graubart in 1991. The new young rabbi had an ambitious agenda and he had many allies in the congregation, who supported his drive to create a more dynamic institution. But the challenges were substantial: The biggest challenge from the very beginning, Rabbi Graubart later reflected, was trying hard to welcome Jews who had been marginal to the community (intermarried families, gays, Reform and Orthodox Jews) without sacrificing the integrity of the synagogue or alienating the long-time members.
As it entered the twenty-first century Bâ€™nai Israel boasted a membership of four hundred families. In addition to the Conservative service in the main sanctuary, the building, which included a new addition constructed in 1993, housed a variety of parallel religious services, including Orthodox, contemplative, and youth services. Beyond this, a flourishing adult education program, a youth group for teens, a vibrant religious school, and an active social action committee became part of the CBI fabric.
In 2002, CBI welcomed Justin David as its spiritual leader. Rabbi David was drawn to a place that would be a smaller congregation filled with people who were intellectually open, socially progressive, and where the gay and lesbian issue was resolved. And I wanted a place that was ritually traditional. He worked to expand on the synagogueâ€™s strengths, making the congregation even more welcoming to outsiders, a place of greater learning, more of a center for teens. He has joined with various committees and task forces to build the social action program to become involved in a range of local, national, and international activities. The congregation has responded to his vision with enthusiasm and dedicated work.
The growth and dynamism that transformed Congregation Bâ€™nai Israel also affected other areas of Jewish life in this Valley. These included the formation of the Lander-Grinspoon Academy, as well as other institutions that give Jewish life in the area more depth and texture â€“ the National Yiddish Book Center, Jewish Community of Amherst, Beit Ahavah, Jewish studies at the Five Colleges, Schoen Books, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and several thriving Hillel Foundations. Taken together, these organizations create a rich Jewish life that would have engendered great pride in the original founders of CBI.
Penina and Mickey Glazer