UConn Researchers’ Excavation Highlights Overlooked Chapter of Jewish History

By: Tom Breen

Editor’s Note: This story describes the excavation of a remarkable archaeological finding by University of Connecticut researchers in Old Chesterfield, Conn., which is already making waves in the field of Jewish studies. A brief historical survey of late 19th century Jewish agricultural communities in Connecticut follows.

A monument marks the location of the former Chesterfield Synagogue. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A monument marks the location of the former Chesterfield Synagogue. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A practically pristine Jewish ritual bath, or “mikveh,” possibly dating back to the late 19thcentury in this tiny rural community is a one-of-a-kind discovery that will reshape our understanding of a fascinating but often-overlooked part of Jewish life in America, according to University of Connecticut researchers who excavated the site.

A mikveh is an essential part of married life in traditionally observant Jewish households, and this stone and wood-lined structure from Old Chesterfield may be the only mikveh excavated outside a major North American city and may be the only example of its kind at one of the settlements created by a wealthy philanthropist who in the 1890s established farming communities for Jewish immigrants in New Jersey and Connecticut.

The existence of a ritual bath in a rural eastern Connecticut community that barely totaled 500 people at its height throws new light on the religious and social lives of those settlements which were established during a time when American rabbis were lamenting the decline of religious observances like ritual bathing, said Prof. Stuart Miller, Academic Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn and an expert on ritual baths in ancient Israel. Along with State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, Miller was one of two UConn faculty members overseeing the excavation of the Old Chesterfield site.

“The image many people have of those who belonged to the earliest agricultural communities is that they were largely socialists, and that they weren’t particularly religious,” Miller said. “This is going to enable us to write a chapter of Jewish history which to my knowledge hasn’t been written, one that will deal with the spiritual life of these communities.”

Bellantoni and Miller plan more excavations, but for now, it’s already causing a stir in the field of Judaic Studies. Miller’s proposal to present a paper on the find at the 45th annual Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston in December has now grown into a full-blown session, with presentations from scholars in the U.S. and Israel.

“This mikveh is very exciting because there’s really nothing else like it in the United States,” Miller said. “It’s intact, it’s magnificent, and from a religious law point of view, it’s a marvel.”

Bellantoni is the Connecticut State Archaeologist and is affiliated both with the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Archaeology at UConn along with UConn’s Department of Anthropology. He recently worked with New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society (“NHHFES”), comprised of descendants of the original Jewish community of Chesterfield, to secure the designation of the site as the State’s 24th State Archaeological Preserve, which led to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The significance of the discovery might have remained unappreciated if it hadn’t been for a fortuitous email from Bellantoni to Miller last Spring.

Read more at UConn Today.

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