Charter Oak Cultural Center lives in Connecticut’s oldest synagogue building. Built in 1876, our home was born from the struggle for religious freedom.
The first mention of a Jewish presence in Hartford occurs in court records dating back to 1659. But it wasn’t until 1843 that a special enactment of the Connecticut Legislature provided Jews the same rights as Christians to build religious structures. Congregation Beth Israel’s founders petitioned the State to pass that act. They commissioned famed architect George Keller, known for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial arch in Bushnell Park, to build it.
The building was home to Congregation Beth Israel as well as several other religious institutions over the years, until it was abandoned in the 1970s.
By the late 70s, left open and empty, the City of Hartford planned to demolish it. But the community responded to the threat of demolition. A small group of Jewish leaders mobilized to save this Hartford gem. The group formed the Charter Oak Temple Restoration Association. They saved the building in the interest of historic preservation. But they also envisioned its use not as a house of worship, but a neighborhood center. They wanted to reaffirm Jewish engagement in Hartford while serving a multi-ethnic urban neighborhood that would become a vital part of the downtown revival.
The Hebrew writing above our Bimah means “know before whom you stand.”
But financial pressures on the new arts center were hard to overcome. By 2001, when Rabbi Donna Berman took the helm at Charter Oak Cultural Center, the organization was on the verge of closing its doors forever. Donna breathed new life into Charter Oak. Under her leadership, Charter Oak Cultural Center has become one of the area’s most vibrant arts centers. Donna instituted Charter Oak’s policy that no one is turned away because they can’t afford a ticket.
Today, Charter Oak Cultural Center is a haven for multicultural arts and the exploration of burning issues of our day.