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E. Conn. site of synagogue seeks historic status

By Adam Benson
The Norwich Bulletin / November 19, 2011

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MONTVILLE, Conn.—For more than half a century, the site of Connecticut's first rural synagogue and Jewish farming community has sat in relative obscurity, denoted only by a plain granite marker.

But by next year, the location at routes 85 and 161 in Chesterfield could become a national landmark, after the state Historic Preservation Council earlier this month nominated it for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's registry.

The community was established with a $4,900 investment in 1892 by the Baron Maurice de Hirsch Fund to build a synagogue and cooperative creamery to produce butter, milk and cream.

Revenue from the operation helped cover maintenance and overhead costs for the synagogue. After finding success with the Montville colony, the Hirsch Fund set up similar communities across the state, including one in Colchester.

According to the website for the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emmanuel Society, whose members are mostly descendants of Hirsch colonies, the site flourished into the 1930s, with as many as 50 Jewish families living there.

Norwich resident Susan Friedland's grandmother, Bessie Savin, was born on the Chesterfield farm, and she has a cousin who milks cows at the remnants of a similar colony in Columbia.

"It's a very interesting piece of both larger history and American Jewish history," Friedland said. "You'd be amazed at how few people know about it, unless they have a connection to the place."

Friedland is a member of the Emmanuel Society.

In 2007, the 2-acre site in Montville was the 24th added to Connecticut's archaeological preserve -- one of just 31 across the state.

Officials should learn within 60 days whether national recognition will follow.

Nancy Savin, president of the Emmanuel Society, said protecting the site is important to those who have roots in the area. But it also highlights a unique and largely unknown sliver of Jewish history that needs to be remembered.

"The point is to preserve the site to make sure it doesn't become a McDonald's," she said. "This was a little shtetl (town) re-created in Connecticut."