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Orthodox Jewish community grows in Connecticut community

Posted: Friday, September 17, 2004

 

  Two men study at Yeshiva Gedolah in Waterbury, Conn., Aug. 18, 2004. Yeshiva Gedolah, a community of about 70 families moving in from neighborhoods in New York and elsewhere in search of less expensive housing, is taking over buildings that once housed the University of Connecticut. Its goal is to draw 100 families in the next seven years. AP Photo/Bob Child

Two men study at Yeshiva Gedolah in Waterbury, Conn., Aug. 18, 2004. Yeshiva Gedolah, a community of about 70 families moving in from neighborhoods in New York and elsewhere in search of less expensive housing, is taking over buildings that once housed the University of Connecticut. Its goal is to draw 100 families in the next seven years.

AP Photo/Bob Child

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) The building with peeling paint on the walls, stacked furniture in the hallways and blue tarpaulin stretched over a damaged roof could pass for any other in a blighted Waterbury neighborhood.

But instead of falling down, the building a school adjacent to the neighborhood's commanding gold-domed synagogue is rising up.

The renovation is a sign of life in a historically Jewish neighborhood that lost its luster, and it's bringing hope to a city battered by the familiar urban problems of too few jobs and a declining industrial base.

An Orthodox community of about 70 families that moved from New York City and elsewhere in search of less-expensive housing is now taking over buildings that once housed a branch of the University of Connecticut. Its goal is to draw another 100 families in the next seven years.

''It's going even better than I hoped,'' said Rabbi Judah Harris. ''It's grown beyond my wildest dreams.''

Based at the nearby B'Nai Shalom synagogue, Harris worked almost three years to establish Yeshiva Gedolah a school for Talmudic studies and religious and general education that opened in 2000 as the center of a revived Orthodox Jewish community.

Harris expects enrollment to increase from 160 now to 800 in the next three or four years, with students coming from Argentina, Israel, Canada, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and elsewhere but mostly from Brooklyn, N.Y. His intent is spark new life in the shrinking Jewish neighborhood and help observant Jews find a relatively cheap place to live.

''It does take time, but it's a beginning,'' Harris said.

So far, the result has been that the neighborhood has rebounded with the influx of young families, whose children and teens attend the Jewish elementary school and high school.

Rephael Max, a rabbi in the community, said the yeshiva creates an opportunity to ''live in Judaism.''

''If you bring in a Jewish school, you bring in a community,'' he said.

With its urban decay, skeptics may see Waterbury as an implausible site for an Orthodox Jewish community particularly in comparison with established Orthodox enclaves in New York City and the scenic Catskill Mountains. But another rabbi, Aron Kaufman, said Waterbury is an attractive draw.

''A lot of people asked, 'Why Waterbury?''' he said. ''To me, it was an opportunity for affordable housing, for young couples to take their children out of metropolitan areas to be someplace with a beautiful blend of suburbs, country and city.''

This month, the community is moving its elementary school and executive offices onto the former UConn campus.

The university moved to downtown Waterbury several years ago to help the city revitalize its center. But in a swap between Waterbury and the state, the university received property on Main Street for its new campus and the city took possession of the site that once housed UConn.

The yeshiva community and Waterbury then signed a 50-year lease in November 2001, requiring that the Orthodox Jewish community pay $5,000 a month, rising annually by 3 percent. The lease also calls on the yeshiva to bring 100 families to the neighborhood by 2011.

Gary O'Connor, a lawyer representing the Naugatuck Valley Development Corp., which negotiated with the Jewish community, said the partnership represents an imaginative economic development project.

''To me, it's better than any small factory you could relocate to Waterbury,'' he said. ''It's much different. It's not your typical project and probably as a result it's going to do much more good for the city of Waterbury than any other project.''

The yeshiva community also brings intangible benefits to Waterbury, an ethnic montage of black residents and others who trace their roots to French, Irish, Italian, Lebanese, Portuguese and Russian-Orthodox immigrants.

''For Waterbury, it represents stability, it represents an investment in our community, not just a dollar investment, but also of people with strong family orientation and religious orientation,'' Mayor Michael Jarjura said.

Max said the Jewish community will be a boon to all Waterbury residents.

''They lived here through the decline,'' he said. ''Let them live here through the rebirth. They deserve it.''



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