Almost 40 years ago a small group of families living in Stamford, Connecticut decided it was time for a Young Israel to be established in this charming New England community. First meeting in people’s homes and then in the local firehouse, Young Israel of Stamford became the new place to daven.
Greg Teitel moved to Stamford from Miami several years ago and was instantly drawn to the Young Israel of Stamford. Becoming an active member of the shul was important to Teitel, who wanted to be a role model for his kids, showing them you can really make a difference in helping to grow a community by the time and talent you invest. First serving as treasurer and now in his fifth year as president of the shul, Teitel is proud of the shul’s growth since he first took office. From 65 families, the shul’s membership now boasts 110 families, and new people are moving to Stamford and joining the Young Israel at a rapid pace.
Currently davening in their building at 69 Oaklawn Avenue,
Teitel explained that the rapid growth of the shul has prompted them to explore purchasing the house next door to meet the needs of the expanding congregation. Young Israel is recognized for its open-door policy; it’s a heimish shul that is inviting to everyone. A core tenet is not charging for high holiday seats.
“Our shul exudes warmth,” explained Teitel, “We are a warm and welcoming group of people; we are non-judgemental. We invite everyone to participate and share their ideas.”
Young Israel of Stamford’s colorful website states: “Our mission is to serve Stamford as a vibrant, family-oriented, Orthodox synagogue whose devoted members form a warm, caring and inviting community, guided by Torah and mitzvot.”
Partnering with the Torah Learning Center of Stamford, headed by Rabbi Kivi Attar, the shul provides chavruta-style learning for men on Monday through Thursday evenings and also has a late maariv minyan, especially popular during the fall and winter months. Encouraging learning at all levels, Young Israel’s Rabbi Eli Kohl, a young rabbi extremely popular with younger families, leads a Parent-Child Learning program. A women’s tefillah for bat mitzvah celebrations was recently introduced, with no men permitted.
The Stamford Orthodox community has seen tremendous growth among those who were raised in the area and are now returning as married couples with young children. The growth of Gan Yeladim, the Chabad nursery school, attests to the numbers of young families moving to the area. The desire to live in Stamford may be attributed to the eclectic nature of the community. Scenic Stamford is more affordable than Westchester or New Jersey and is within commuting distance to New York City or Yale in New Haven. With beautiful surroundings and a core group of families loving the area, an organic growth has taken place. Friends are telling friends and the word is spreading. Young, frum families are finding their place in Stamford.
Michael Feldstein, an active resident of Stamford, led a community wide growth initiative called CAMOS (Committee to Advance Modern Orthodoxy in Stamford) which was geared to helping both the Young Israel of Stamford and the historic Congregation Agudath Sholom on Strawberry Hill Avenue increase their membership. Four consecutive shabbatons were planned for prospective residents, with day schools, real estate brokers, restaurants and shuls combining efforts to promote the community.
Feldstein explained, “Our feeling was that if we all worked together, all boats would rise.”
At a recent Jewish Job and Relocation Community Fair run by the Orthodox Union, more than 100 families signed up to obtain more information about moving to Stamford. The Stamford community is proud of the cooperation among the various shuls, Chabad and UJA-Federation. Many Orthodox families belong to both Young Israel and Agudath Sholom, which is the largest modern Orthodox synagogue in New England, led by Rabbi Daniel Cohen.
Most families send their children to the Bi-Cultural Day School, which has recently announced the creation of the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy (BCHA), providing one comprehensive, unified educational institution for students in pre-K through grade 12. BCHA is the first of its kind in Connecticut. Several other Young Israel families send their children to Carmel Academy, a pluralistic day school located in Greenwich.
Young Israel’s lay leadership prides itself on the devoted volunteers who create and organize programming and find ways to become a more inclusive, vibrant community. With only three employees, the rabbi, the youth director and the custodian, volunteers take on greater leadership roles.
Rabbi Eli Kohl is beginning his fourth year as the Rabbi of Young Israel of Stamford. A graduate of Yeshiva University REITS program, he also completed training from Machon Puah in Reproductive Health and Halacha. An accomplished musician, he enjoys “rocking out” with the acclaimed band “Three Rabbis and a Cik,” where Rabbi Kohl joins with three rabbi friends, playing guitar and providing vocals. He talks about the importance of the Sunday evening Family Beit Midrash program, which presents important and well-known scholars to adults, while providing activities for children and dinner for all. Once a month Young Israel of Stamford presents a family minyan following regular tefillah. Children and adults join in the tefillah, with Rabbi Kohl on his guitar, and participate in craft activities and enjoy breakfast together. On Sunday, November 25, the Stamford community was invited to “come check out the cutest minyan in town,” where the month’s family minyan consisted of lively musical tefillah, a light breakfast and special Chanukah arts and crafts.
Rabbi Kohl offered, “Shul is like a shidduch. There has to be a good match. The Young Israel of Stamford is spiritually oriented and we are on the cusp of something big. We are a warm and welcoming shul...members have a pioneering spirit.”
Rabbi Kohl tells of the chassidic influences in his life and draws from every part of his experiences to bring music, stories, happiness and spirituality to tefillah. Rabbi Kohl and his wife, Naomi, have four children, three of whom are currently students at the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, with his two-year old waiting for the chance to join them.
For further information about the Stamford Orthodox community, please visit www.checkoutstamford.com.
By Yvette Finkelstein