Over two-plus decades, Stamford, Connecticut, has evolved as a diverse community of choice for Modern Orthodox families and individuals.
“It wasn’t always like this,” says Michael Feldstein, who spearheaded the Committee to Advance Modern Orthodoxy in Stamford (CAMOS). “It was not the most Jew-friendly place.” The transformation is quite remarkable, given Connecticut’s mixed history as a Northern liberal state that was at times quite intolerant.
Connecticut’s slavery endured until 1848, and the state’s Revolutionary War-era slave population was New England’s largest. This history combines with Connecticut’s heavily restricted Jewish presence from 1659 through the late 20th Century. Jews couldn’t build synagogues there until 1843, or practice law until well into the 1800s.
Documents in Fairfield Country’s Jewish Historical Society archives attest to how discrimination in housing, memberships in private clubs and in academic admissions prevailed into the 1960s and even later in some locations. With a few exceptions, this under-the-radar antisemitism went unopposed.
In a 1940 letter, Walter Wheeler II, head of Pitney Bowes Corporation, explains why he was withdrawing his Stamford Yacht Club membership. The club denied his Jewish friend the loan of a yacht. It took 14 more years for the club to reverse its policies.
Connecticut’s pervasive “quiet” restrictiveness and widespread antisemitism were exposed via Laura Z. Hobson’s 1947 novel and the film Gentleman’s Agreement. Non-Jewish Phil Green goes undercover as Greenberg, confronting openly antisemitic public figures in what Austerlitz (2014) describes as “…well-heeled Connecticut towns like Darien and New Canaan, notorious for keeping Jews out.”
In certain areas of Connecticut, it was common to have “gentlemen’s agreements” not to sell homes to black people, Jews, or other minorities.
In 2009, Feldstein started CAMOS, which focused on community growth and publicized the availability of Orthodox Jewish essentials – mikveh, schools, shuls, kosher food and more – in and near Stamford. Their also challenged perceptions of Stamford as distant, when it is no further than many locations in Metro New York and has excellent transportation to and from Manhattan.
Stamford’s Orthodox community, dating from the late 1800s, was transient. A few families moved in; others left. Although it lacked a core population committed to strengthening it, the community survived, as did Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, which opened in 1956, and Congregation Agudath Sholom, founded in 1889. Feldstein and other “old timers” recognized that the community’s viability depended on attracting and engaging young families. This was their unwavering focus. “Thank G-d… in the last five to seven years, it’s really taken off.”
CAMOS concentrated on “getting the word out to young families” in Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, Teaneck, Queens and elsewhere. Outreach consisted of “a dog and pony show” at Sunday morning parlor meetings for approximately a dozen attendees and five or six Stamford people, including its Orthodox rabbis and representatives of Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, who fielded questions. Their pitch, followed by Shabbos invitations, yielded considerable interest in Stamford. A CAMOS-run Shabbaton, a couple of years later, further expanded its numbers.
A wide-reaching forum has been the OU Emerging Community Fairs. Feldstein followed up and built relationships with prospective families with monthly email newsletters targeting attendees at CAMOS events. CAMOS surveys yielded information about potential residents’ interests. The top responses reflected concerns about the quality of education at Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy’s K-8 programs, which are attended by over 90 percent of community children, and its small but growing high school. A secondary concern was kosher food. Feldstein smiles, remembering the first question attendees at the OU Fairs asked him: “Do you have a pizza shop?” He was surprised that spiritual concerns, like the rabbis and the mikveh, weren’t top priorities, but recognized restaurants’ importance for younger people, who are accustomed to such amenities.
Although CAMOS’s website (www.checkoutstamford.com) provides community contacts and resources, Stamford’s recent, exponential growth is primarily due to word of mouth. The pandemic was a major catalyst. “People just wanted to get out of the city,” Feldstein said, and families living in tight living quarters appreciated Stamford’s open spaces, many amenities, and relaxed environment.
Currently, the community has four kosher restaurants: dairy, Indian vegetarian, and meat, and one deli-like eatery in nearby Cos Cob – all under supervision, plus a bakery and well-stocked mainstream supermarkets for basic foods. Seasons is within 20-25 minutes of Stamford, as is Costco.
Chabad’s presence in the new Harbor Point development, near Rte. 95, has attracted many nontraditional and unaffiliated Jews. Feldstein feels that Stamford’s largely non-judgmental community reflects a healthy respect for people whose religious practices vary from one’s own, and sees Agudath Sholom’s non-Orthodox membership’s affiliation with an Orthodox synagogue as positive. Young Israel, a smaller Stamford synagogue, co-sponsors some program with Agudath Sholom, for instance about Israel, but the two shuls frequently operate separately. “Healthy competition,” he says.
Stamford is not immune to rising antisemitism, including leafleting by white nationalists, but incidents are few and isolated. Most people are comfortable wearing yarmulkes, and Feldstein feels safe. Interfaith relations and support for Israel are healthy, he says, and the latter sometimes arises from unexpected sources.
Diane Sloyer, CEO of the Stamford Federation (UJF), representing Stamford, New Canaan, and Darien, elaborates:
“Differing perspectives aside, Stamford’s overwhelmingly Zionist Jews have long participated in missions to Israel, including after October 7, when many volunteered as needed. On October 10, about 2000 participants, across the community, physically and virtually attended Federation’s pro-Israel gathering at which Meron Reuven, New England’s Israeli Ambassador, spoke and top Connecticut’s politicians pledged support. Within a week, the Federation raised over $500,000 from across the spectrum, and has sent over $1,000,000 to Israel for humanitarian aid. Sloyer and her colleagues gave multiple media interviews. On October 16, the mayor, other public officials, and community rabbis participated in an Israeli flag raising. Separately, an installation of 32 empty strollers filled a local park. Some hostage posters throughout the city were torn down, but the strollers were undisturbed. For the DC rally, over 1,000 people either drove or took one of five buses from Stamford or one from Eastern Connecticut.”
The level of financial and other support for Israel from the non-Jewish community is incredible, says Sloyer. An Italian American friend of a board member donated $25,000. When his pro-Israel lawn sign was vandalized, he put up another one. Another Italian American, a retired Norwalk carpenter, spent three weeks carving and decorating a cradle with Israeli flags and Jewish stars, and donated it to the Federation. After October 7 attacks, the church that bought the original Agudath Sholom building donated their collection boxes for Israel.
Nevertheless, Israel’s supporters also contend with antisemitism and security in Stamford, whose JCC hired its first armed guard. Federation leaders reached out to about 5000 students, plus staff and administrators, at every area public school, after Jewish parents reported that their frightened children were subjected to taunts, Tik-Tok videos, and other antisemitic content.
Stamford’s response to these challenges is not unlike those of other U.S. communities: strengthen unity throughout the synagogues and other institutions, cultivate stronger ties to Israel, and be vigilant and prepared to deal with security challenges. As a small but rapidly growing, active community in its prime, it has the infrastructure, and the collective will to succeed. The rest is in G-d’s hands.