Hartford Dreams of Zion

The dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine sparked the imagination of Jewish immigrants and their children in Hartford at the turn of the 20th century, inspiring them to organize Zionist clubs and organizations.

A handful of Jewish immigrants in Hartford first formed B’nai Zion (Sons of Zion) in 1898, shortly after the World Zionist Congress first met in Switzerland. It was soon joined by other organizations sharing the dream of a nation for the Jewish people.

In 1906 B’nai Zion bought the Hebrew Institute building on Pleasant Street, which became a center of Zionist activity in the state. The Zionist Institute hosted many Zionist clubs for young people and adults, including the Maccabeans, organized by Hartford High School students, which became the most popular Jewish youth group in Connecticut.

Support for Zionism grew following the British Balfour Declaration in 1917, with Hartford’s business and professional leaders taking on fund-raising activities.

In the 1910s, the Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) and Pioneer Women were organized in Hartford to help support the labor institutions of early Palestine. Labor Zionist organizations were the secular left wing of the overall movement.  
In 1914, a visit from Henrietta Szold led to the formation of the Hartford chapter of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. The Hartford chapter became one of the largest and most influential in the country. Image
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In 1917, Hartford’s Zionist Institute hosted the national convention of the Jewish National Fund, which aimed to raise money to purchase property in Palestine from the Ottoman Empire.
The Lilies of Zion, seen here in a 1919 outing, was a chapter of the Young Judea youth movement, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States.

Hartford Organizes for Zionism

Like other American Jewish communities, Hartford became strongly Zionist during the interwar years, as both leaders and ordinary people found meaningful connections in the movement for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Hartford became a powerhouse of fundraising and political support for the cause, and its unified Zionist movement grew to be one of the most influential in the U.S. By contrast with communities where rabbinic opinion was divided on Zionism, all the members of the Hartford rabbinate – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – shared a passionate commitment to the Zionist cause.

Already a center of Zionist organizing, Hartford’s role in the movement was strengthened in 1919, when Abraham Goldstein (seen here second from left) was appointed as director of the Connecticut region of the Zionist Organization of America. The ZOA brought together many smaller Zionist organizations under one umbrella. Able to speak eloquently in Yiddish, Goldstein built up chapters and brought in prominent speakers to advance the cause, making the Connecticut region one of the most active and influential in the United States.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Zionist leaders organized public meetings to protest the persecution of Jews in Germany, and lobbied officials in Washington to ease the restrictions faced by those trying to escape Nazism.

The growing dangers faced by European Jewry in the 1930s underscored the need for a Jewish homeland, and Zionist leaders in Hartford frequently appealed to sympathetic politicians to act.

Telegram from the Zionist Organization of America’s national secretary to Abraham Goldstein, 1938, carrying instructions for protesting actions by the British to limit Jewish immigration: “get statements of your Congressmen, Senators, Mayor, and as many as possible non-Jews, lay and official leaders in the newspapers, especially clergymen.”  
This testimonial dinner for Sam Hoffenberg in 1933 highlighted community leaders like Abe Goldstein, Sam Hoffenberg, Annie Zeman, Joseph Klau, and others who made Hartford into a leading center of Zionism and mobilized political and financial support for the cause through the 1920s and 1930s.

The danger of Nazism spurred widespread membership in different Zionist organizations in Hartford in the 1940s, as the need for a Jewish homeland became starkly clear. One activist recalled that by the mid-1940s nearly every Jewish family in the Greater Hartford community was a member of one organization or another.

“To have lived long enough to have seen the creation of the state was received with joy unbounded.”

From a 1973 oral history interview with Harry Kleinman. Click here to hear the audio in context.

When word arrived in May 1948 that Israel had declared its independence, more than 3,000 Hartford Jews poured into North End synagogues to celebrate. They heard messages of rejoicing and hope from area rabbis, and an appeal to be generous in their contributions “for the upbuilding of the new state.”

Rabbi Abraham Feldman of Congregation Beth Israel celebrating Israel’s independence at community gathering, 1948. Feldman had played an important role in pushing the national Reform movement towards Zionism and was a lifelong Zionist himself.