Early History of the Chesterfield Jewish Community and NEHFES
On May 8, 1892, a small enclave of Russian Jewish immigrants joyously dedicated their new one-room wooden synagogue on land located at the intersection of Routes 161 and 85 in Chesterfield, Connecticut. Chesterfield is in the Town of Montville and the County of New London. (View the original invitation to the synagogue dedication).
Harris (Hirsch) Kaplan, who arrived with his family (two married sons, plus!) in New York in December of 1887, was a whiskey dealer in Pereyaslov, Ukraine, who had studied at the famous Bialystok Yeshiva and almost became a rabbi. According to his granddaughter Molly, he organized a small group of Russian Jewish immigrant friends in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Tired of menial jobs and eager for independent livelihoods, they became aware of inexpensive Yankee farmland in Connecticut.
Calling themselves Society Agudas Achim (Community of Brethren), the group took a steamer from Brooklyn to New London and arrived in Chesterfield in late 1890. By 1891 they began to purchase farms. And they were industrious! They davened (prayed) in Kaplan’s farmhouse and worked in his “pants factory” where piecework was stitched whole and returned to New York clothing manufacturers. Other families made suspenders, wallets, hats and handbags, winning the admiration of reporters for the New London Day, the local newspaper.
Adopting a lofty mission statement (now embossed on the bronze plaque of the 1986 granite memorial monument), Society Agudas Achim purchased almost two acres of land for their new synagogue in January of 1892.
Impressed with the Society, the Baron Maurice de Hirsch Fund in New York provided a $1,500 loan to build Connecticut’s first rural wooden synagogue and a $3,200 mortgage to construct a cooperative creamery for the production of butter, milk, and cream. The “New England Hebrew Farmers Creamery Association” was incorporated under the general statues of the State of Connecticut in late Spring of 1892.
The de Hirsch Fund, captialized in New York in 1891, was instrumental in settling Russian Jewish immigrants all across America. Chesterfield was their first Connecticut agricultural “colony” with Colchester and Ellington, among several others, to follow.
Arthur Reichow, an agent of the de Hirsch Fund, suggested the group rename themselves “The Society of Hebrew Farmers in New England,” but the group insisted in being called “The New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society,” probably because the acronym nearly spells “nefesh,” Hebrew for soul or spirit.
Eventually, the synagogue site included a barn, visible in a 1930s WPA aerial photo of the land (found by archaeologist Bruce Clouette, Ph.D.), a house for the shoket (a ritual slaughterer), and a mikveh (a ritual bathhouse) constructed circa 1910 at the insistence of the women in the congregation.
These buildings, plus Kaplan’s son John’s general store, his dance hall, and Kosofsky’s swimming hole, were at the core of a vibrant little American “shtetl,” a community of perhaps 50 Jewish families who flourished as small businessmen, summer boarding house operators and subsistence farmers until the early 1930s.
Although the synagogue continued to open on high holidays well into the 1950’s, it was eventually abandoned, torched, and burned to the ground by an arsonist in 1975.
View the NEHFES timeline, including historic newspaper articles, photos and documents from the Chesterfield-Salem-Oakdale Jewish community.
Take our interactive tour of the NEHFES historic site, including the stone remains of the synagogue, mikveh, and creamery.
View our online photo albums of early Jewish Chesterfield sites and family members, along with more recent photos of those historic sites today.