Discovery of Ancient Ritual Bath Makes Waves Among U.S. Jews

Excavation of century-old mikveh in a small farming village in southeastern Connecticut counters common conceptions about the Russian Jews who immigrated to America.

NEW YORK – Buried under overgrown weeds was a sight Stuart Miller never expected to find among the remains of a small Jewish farming community in southeastern Connecticut. When Miller, an expert in ancient Jewish ritual baths, saw cement and a top step descending into the ground he immediately knew what it was: a mikveh.

But the idea of a mikveh in Chesterfield, Connecticut, a community settled by Russian immigrant Jews in 1890, countered everything Miller knew about American Jewish life of the time, particularly outside of large cities like New York and Baltimore.

Miller, a professor of Hebrew, History and Judaic Studies at the University of Connecticut, explained in an interview with Haaretz that in the late 1800s and early 1900s rabbis were crying that nobody was following the Jewish laws of ritual purity anymore. "And here you have a mikveh sticking out of the ground and nobody knows about it,” Miller said. “I was shocked.”

The Russian Jews who settled in agricultural communities in the United States were thought to be secular, their socialist leanings greater than their religiously commitment, Miller said. A slightly older mikveh, from the 1840s in Baltimore, which always had religious Jews, as well as one on New York City's Lower East Side from about 1910 (now paved over by a parking lot) had been previously identified. But this is the oldest to have been discovered outside of a major city, he said.

Chesterfield, now a village within the town of Montville, is about two hours from Manhattan by car. “This is a whole new area of inquiry that needs to be pursued,” said Miller.

After identifying the mikveh while on a site visit last year with his UConn colleague Nicholas Bellantoni, who is Connecticut’s state archaeologist, Miller immediately asked to bring a team of students to start excavations. “I was trying to impress upon them that we needed to do this and to do it soon,” Miller said.

Miller was previously involved with the excavation of ritual baths at Tzippori (Sepphoris) in northern Israel, and elsewhere. His most recent book, “At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee,” is slated for publication later this year by German publisher Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Miller and his student archaeologists found that the Chesterfield mikveh was lined with wood, rather than the tiles that have been in common use since ancient times.

It was not until 1910, two decades after the first Jews moved to the rocky soil of Chesterfield, that the women of the community gathered the money needed to build the mikveh, according to a March 1910 article in the New London Day (now known as The Day.) It was built underneath the home of the shohet, who in addition to serving as the Jewish community's ritual slaughterer was also its ritual leader, Miller said.

Chesterfield’s Jewish pioneers were organized in 1890 by the Ukrainian whiskey dealer Harris (Hirsch) Kaplan, who had been in America only three years before persuading other Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to join him in seeking an alternative to the difficult economic and living conditions they faced.

By early 1892 there were 28 Jewish families in Chesterfield. The Baron Maurice de Hirsch fund lent the community $1,500 to build a one-room wooden synagogue and a $3,200 mortgage loan on their land to establish a cooperative creamery producing butter, milk and cream. Theirs was just one of the many resettlement farming efforts by Russian Jews funded by Baron de Hirsch across America, from Connecticut to Texas and Oregon, in Canada and as far away as Argentina.

And while they had incorporated as the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, Chesterfield’s Jews were more focused on building small businesses than in plowing the rocky Connecticut soil, according to one of their descendants, Nancy Savin. Savin, a cultural project producer who lives in the Bronx, is the great-granddaughter of two Chesterfield founders. They were called farmers only because it was the popular nomenclature of the time, said Savin, president of the nonprofit group that includes about 40 members of 15 of the original families.

“They were merchants in Russia, they were more like entrepreneurs. They moved to Chesterfield because they were looking for a better life. They started small cottage industries, making suspenders and hats to get enough money to build the synagogue. For Jews to integrate into society this was a great avenue,” Savin said in an interview.

At its peak, Jewish Chesterfield numbered around 50 families, totaling about 500 people. Life there was not easy. According to the University of Connecticut, in a February 1893 article the Hartford Courant reported that many of Chesterfield’s Russian Jews “are said to be deserting their farms. The suffering there during the cold weather is said to have been very great.”

They also faced bigotry.

In 1928, during a widespread backlash against immigrants across the United States another Courant headline warned of an “Alien Invasion of Connecticut Farms,” stating that 30 percent of the state’s family farms were “in the hands of a man of foreign birth. What does it mean for the future?” the story asked. “A new poverty-stricken Poland, Galicia, Ireland, or Russia in the pleasant valleys of this state? The Yankee farmer driven to the stones and snows of the North, or, like the Indian before him, obliterated?”

By the late 1930s, when New York saw a new wave of Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis, Chesterfield’s children had moved away from the community to nearby cities and the creamery had gone bankrupt. The synagogue was used on the High Holy Days through the 1950s, but in the ‘70s it, like other community buildings including the shohet’s house, had burned down.

Savin’s forebears moved from Chesterfield to nearby New London, where they established successful businesses including clothing stores, a bus company and a construction company which built bridges over Connecticut’s rivers in the 1940s, she said.

The mikveh’s remains were mentioned in a 2007 archaeology report commissioned by the state’s historical preservation department. But Chesterfield’s descendants didn’t pay it much mind, said Savin. “The report does describe the stepped pool, but it was way overgrown and you couldn’t see it,” she said. “I know what a mikveh is, although I’ve never been to one and surely never will. Now I feel I ought to have investigated that.”

The descendants of Chesterfield's Jews had reorganized themselves just a year earlier. They were busy with, among other tasks, refurbishing a monument to the Jews of Chesterfield which had been defaced with a spray-painted swastika after it was erected in 1986.

Though Savin grew up visiting her family’s Chesterfield farm on weekends and holidays in the 1940s and ‘50s, when she would stay overnight and walk a mile to the synagogue, no one ever mentioned that there had been a mikveh, she said.

The Chesterfield descendants’ group is planning an exhibition in 2015 to mark the 125th anniversary of the community’s founding.

And in the meantime there is lots of interest among historians in the Chesterfield mikveh. Or as Miller put it, “It’s a story that needs to be told.”

Peter Morenus/UConn
Peter Morenus/UConn