Middletown (Google Maps location)
CT museum visit #513.
I don’t quite remember how I first came to learn of the small museum at this synagogue in Middletown. I would guess it was more than a decade prior to my visit. I probably was poking around online when I was completing my walk around town of its impressive history trail.
I had reached out to someone back then in an effort to visit. Now that I think of it, this must have been when I worked in Middletown and wanted to sneak over here during lunch or something. The gentleman who would reply to me was unintentionally evasive and often simply absent.
So I never visited in 2007 or 2008 or 2009. Then I never thought about it again until 2023, when I reached out again. This time, I received warm and friendly responses from Joanna Schnurman, the Congregation’s office manager.
Sure I could visit! Lovely to have me do so!
And so I did.
However, I figured I would more or less be on my own. Back in the 2008 time frame, I would have had a personal tour guide walking me through the exhibits. By the son of the two who put this whole thing together.
As a non-Jew, non-religious, non-Middle Eastern history buff, that might have been a little daunting for me. (But, as is almost always the case, I’m sure it would have been interesting and fascinating. My fear of such personalized tours is the silliest thing.)
Adath Israel was organized in 1902, when approximately 40 families combined to create an Orthodox community. In 1908 they, along with other families in Middletown and Portland, purchased a two-story building. They converted the building into a synagogue, with a classroom on the first floor, the sanctuary on the second floor, and a balcony for the women.
Now, now, this was an Orthodox community back in 1902. The gender separation was abandoned later when the congregation changed from Orthodox to Conservative in the 1940’s.
In 1929 the synagogue decided to buy land and construct a modern building in a more central location. They bought a house and land on the corner of Broad and Church streets, the current location of Adath Israel. Sam Google, the architect who designed The Emanuel Synagogue in Hartford, was hired to be the architect of the new synagogue.
Since then, there have been many additions and expansions. One of those additions was the Judaica Museum, located in a small sanctuary on the first floor.
One major highlight of Adath Israel is its Judaica Museum, which is located in the small sanctuary on the first floor. Started with only three pieces of Judaica, it now boasts more than 252 items and is acknowledged to be the largest and most diversified collection between Boston and New York.
“More than 252?” So… like, 253?
Whatever the number, it’s an impressive collection. But before I began poking around, I had a lovely chat with Joanna. She brought me to the sanctuary where two older gentlemen were wrapping up whatever they’d been doing. These guys were straight out of an “old Jewish guy” casting call. They welcomed me warmly and then resumed poking fun at each other and lodging general complaints at the clouds.
They were great.
My son and all his friends are all turning 13 over the next year, so that means it’s Bar Mitzvah season in West Hartford. None of us have ever been to one before, so I asked my hosts what we should expect and what is an appropriate gift for a kid who already has everything.
I learned some things and before I got too confused by the various complex differences between “levels” of Judaism, I shifted the conversation to the museum.
It is housed in several display cases along three walls of the sanctuary. At first, I didn’t really appreciate what is housed here. The museum was created out of a passion for Judaica by Nathan and Shirley Shapiro, and was cared for by their son, Stephen.
In addition, some very old textual materials are on permanent loan to the Wesleyan University Archives and Special Collections. A basement of a synagogue isn’t the climate-controlled environment needed for proper care and storage of these things.
I was left to my own devices to view the collection. I was immediately awed by how old some of the items here are. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I do know I wasn’t expecting to find things from the actual time of many of the Old Testament stories I learned as a child.
The first thing I looked at was a Marc Chagall original lithograph. I just read about Chagall and learned he was Belarusian. Now you know that too.
Almost everything else here was behind glass. Each item has a number and a name, but a large portion of the collection didn’t mean much to me.
More diligent Judaica Museum goers can look each item up in a large directory created by Wesleyan students over the years. In fact, if you’re really into this stuff, the University has created a guide with long explanations and even stories about each collected piece. Some of their findings are available online (linked at bottom).
But yeah, if you know what things like Mezuzah Cases and Purim Groggers and Yahrzeit Lamps and knives for shehitah and Etrog Boxes are, you’ll really enjoy the antiquities here. There are a bunch of spice boxes as well. Apparently ornate spice boxes are a big thing in Judaism.
Oh, and there are circumcision sets. Terrifying giant knives. I won’t go into any thoughts on the traditional Jewish circumcision ceremony (let alone the orthodox one) and just leave it at the fact that there’s a bunch of giant knives on display in Middletown.
I was alone in the room for a good long while. I skimmed the Wesleyan directories for a while and took in the “gift shop” which I didn’t realize was a gift shop until reading about it later. I felt intrusive up on the dias behind the lecturn looking at some Hebrew text.
I wished I knew more of what I was looking at. The overwhelming thought I had was how impressive this collection is. Centuries old artifacts from all over Europe and the Middle East. The story of Judaism told through art, artifacts, and artistic artifacts.
I finished up my poking around and found my way back to Joanna in her office. I had another conversation with her about religious traditions and museums. About funerals and weddings and Catholicism and Calvinism and Judaism. About how we’re all the same in the end, and it’s great to have places like the Adath Israel Judaica Museum.
I won’t pretend to have fully absorbed the entire collection here. But I will encourage anyone mildly interested in antiquities to reach out for a visit.