Unlocking a key to the Sephardic diaspora… in Stratford
By Cindy Mindell
Published on Connecticut Jewish Ledger
STRATFORD – When Jason Guberman-Pfeffer was a kid growing up in Stratford, he would jokingly call his grandparents the “first Jewish settlers” of the town, because they had relocated there from Bridgeport in 1967.
“It’s not that there weren’t other Jews, but the Jewish community was very different than Bridgeport,” a once-thriving center of Jewish life, recalls Guberman-Pfeffer, who would go on to discover the real Jewish settlers of his hometown.
In 2008, at age 20, he co-founded Diarna, “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic, an online geographic museum dedicated to preserving and providing digital access to endangered Jewish heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa.
Soon thereafter, he was asked by another organization to use Diarna’s digital-mapping technology to document a Colonial-era Jewish historical site in the tri-state area, but he couldn’t find a surviving structure. So, he started researching famous Jewish personalities from the period, thinking that they would lead him to a site. Among the most noted was Gershom Mendes Seixas, who had served as rabbi (or cantor) at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, and who also served as one of the clergy at George Washington’s inauguration.
Seeking more information, Guberman-Pfeffer accessed Jewish Virtual Library, where he read that Seixas moved his family in 1775 from British-occupied New York “to his father-in-law’s home in Strafford [sic], Connecticut.” The typo has never been corrected.
“Obviously, there’s no such place, and I was wondering, is it Stratford, Stratfield, Stafford? Any one of these towns could be possible,” Guberman-Pfeffer says. Further investigation revealed that the place in question was, serendipitously, Stratford.
During the Revolutionary War, Guberman-Pfeffer’s hometown comprised a small Jewish population, which grew when Seixas temporarily relocated Congregation Shearith Israel members and Torah scrolls there. When Guberman-Pfeffer called the Stratford Historical Society to ask for help, a researcher responded, “You must want Meyer Meyers, the Jew.”
The archaic reference was to a famous Jewish silversmith from the town, listed by that name in a commemorative book published in 1889, when Stratford celebrated its 250th anniversary. From historical records, Guberman-Pfeffer could see when Seixas and Meyers had lived there, but he couldn’t figure out where.