A House Built by Hope

A post by David Fetterman, advisor to the Board of Directors

A House Built by Hope is a story about the Holocaust, compassion, and community and a stand against institutional racism.  It is a film about a small Jewish community in Connecticut, where I grew up.  It was special in part because many of the families were Holocaust survivors.  The synagogue, now an historic site listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the community gave them hope for a new life, in stark contrast to the atrocities they witnessed and experienced in the concentration camps.  The video is a product of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society.

The story differs from many others in that it highlights the support and compassion of the larger non-Jewish community.  Community members donated money and auctioned livestock to help this new fledgling Jewish community build a temple and worship according to their faith.  They welcomed people who were different on the surface, practicing another religion with unfamiliar customs.  Many spoke another language.  All too many were tattooed with numbers as permanent reminders of the inhumanity they had experienced first-hand.

It was a time when Jews were under attack and the moral order of the world in question. However, as Norman Berman, former President of the Society, explained while introducing the premiere of this documentary film and its historical context: “Anyone with a sense of decency, anyone who cares about history and truth (both of which are under serious attack these days) knows that the Jew is not the cause of problems any more than the Christian, the Muslim, the feminist or the immigrant.  They know that the Holocaust was real, and that the real problem is hatred and intolerance, antisemitism, racism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia – all stemming from ignorance.”

This film shares a story of particular poignance in light of the death of George Floyd, the African-American man killed by the police in Minneapolis.  In the spirit of the Preservation Society’s mission, they have issued a clear statement in support of social justice and against racism.

We grieve the loss of George Floyd and so many others whose names we know and so many more who are unknown to us.  We firmly believe that America’s racial and religious diversity is its strength and that we are weakened by our failure to appreciate, respect and celebrate that diversity.  Our mission at the Preservation Society is bound up with the fight for tolerance and civil rights and against discrimination and racism.  WE STAND with all who grieve.  Today, we renew our commitment to confront injustice and to continue to work for a more just and beautiful world.  

This film is a story of hope and what we as Americans aspire to be.  This 30-minute film, accompanied by a curriculum guide that is being developed, will be used to educate high school students, teaching them about religious freedom, tolerance and understanding.

Board of Directors’ Executive Committee members providing guidance concerning these efforts include Paula Rosenberg Bell, Evert Gawendo, Rosa Drobiarz Goldblatt, Sheri Abrams, Joel Rosenberg and Norman Berman.  My mother, Elsie Fetterman, helped secure support for these efforts from the Daughters of the American Revolution and a Mass Humanities grant.  Jim Lescault, executive director of Amherst Media, produced the film.  Simon Leutz, Amherst Pelham Regional High School, is leading the effort to create a cohesive curriculum to accompany the film.

What to Do in a Time of Pandemic

We cancelled our Community Seder.  We suspended our programing.  We have turned to Zoom for board meetings and rituals.  We are experiencing isolation, separation from friends, organizations, programs and entertainment.  Culture, information, social connection have all been squeezed into a narrow bandwidth – delivered by cable, internet or wireless signals.

For some of us, the break in our routines has focused our attention inward.  Relieved of our usual schedules, we suddenly have time and opportunity to reflect.  How did we spend yesterday, last week?  Are we making the most of this pause in life as usual?

In spiritual tradition, it is called “living counted hours.”  A ‘counted hour’ is an hour lived on purpose.  Whether we devote the next hour to introspection, spending time with loved ones, reading, exercise or binge watching something on tv, we might just take a moment to consider whether we have made that hour count.  Living counted hours can add up to living counted days.  And with the passage of each day, as we take a page off our conceptual wall calendar, we might consider whether that day gets tossed in the trash or whether it has value.  Counted days become “days that count.”

At the Preservation Society’s last board meeting, we asked “what can we do to help?”  We decided to encourage members to donate to three local food distribution organizations.  That is a start.  We will continue to ask that question and we’re confident that there will be many answers that will count.

Our 10th Annual Passover Community Seder

Dear Friends:  Please join us on Sunday, March 29 at 2:00 pm as we observe this ancient tradition, celebrate our freedom and welcome the arrival of spring.  Now more than ever we need to ask the questions and work together to make the world more just, more free and more beautiful.  Our Community Seder is the highlight of our year and we open our doors to the community to celebrate together with songs, stories, ritual foods, coffee and traditional desserts.

Happy 10th Birthday to TBIPS

Join us to celebrate the Preservation Society’s 10th birthday!  We will gather at Temple Beth Israel on Sunday, January 26 at 2:00 pm for cake, candles and a screening of our new documentary: A House Built by Hope followed by a Q and A panel discussion.  It’s free.  RSVP by January 22, 2020.  TBIPSturns10.eventbrite.com, tbipsevents@gmail.com, or call or text Paula at 860-377-7101.

64th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Please join us for the 64th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service which will be held at Temple Beth Israel on Tuesday, November 26 at 7:00 pm.  The Temple and the Federated Church of Christ have alternated hosting this beautiful service for 64 years.

This service is open to all.  Monetary donations collected at the service will be shared between the Fuel Fund administered by the United Methodist Church of Danielson and Temple Emanuel in McAllen, TX designating that the funds will go to the border crisis.  Temple Emanuel works with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley to help with a respite center where people are processed once they are released into the US.  Please bring non-perishable food items (canned/boxed/bagged food items) especially high protein items such as meats, poultry, fish, nut butter and/or personal hygiene items, diapers, etc. which will be donated to the Friends of Assisi Food Pantry.

We hope to see you on the 26th.

Over 100 Attend World Premiere of Documentary Film

Over 100 guests attended the world premiere of A House Built by Hope, a documentary film about the building of Temple Beth Israel.  This moving film tells the story of the arrival of Jewish Holocaust survivors in the Killingly area and the warm and supportive welcome they received from the Christian community.

Joel Rosenberg, first president and now president emeritus of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society served as master of ceremonies for the evening.  Here are Joel Rosenberg’s introductory remarks:

Well it only took me 62 years, to finally unravel a mystery, which has very much to do with why we are all here tonight. The mystery was simply learning that in every one of us there is a reserve of kindness, decency, empathy and yes, if we want, a deeper understanding of how we are all more alike than different. It took a group of us who started on a journey nearly a decade ago to piece together the story of Temple Beth Israel. We have more to learn but we are well on our way. One of the most important lessons that I have personally learned is that you don’t have to be a Democrat or a Republican, you don’t have to be Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, you don’t have to be African American, Native American, Caucasian, Asian, or Latino, Male, Female, Gay or Straight. You don’t have to be defined by anything or anyone in order to simply be a good and decent person.

That is as true today as it was in 1950 when this amazingly beautiful and historic house of worship was built. It took a community of kind, decent and giving people from all walks of life, all different faith and political beliefs, who all came together to welcome new neighbors, many who included immigrants that had somehow survived the Holocaust, along with resistance fighters and American GIs. It also included a small group of Jewish Americans, in particular the Blumenthal family, who were among the first to settle in the Danielson area.  There must have been a daunting question when the new and old settlers met for the first time, would they be welcomed as Jewish Americans by the Yankees, their new Christian neighbors? Who could have imagined the reception and help these Jewish families would receive to build a new life and faith community right here in Connecticut’s northeast corner? Well they did, and it really is quite a remarkable story. Tonight, we pay homage not just to the descendants who founded Temple Beth Israel, but also and just as important to the neighbors, businesses, and so many different Christian denominations that helped make all of this happen. It is not just a beautiful story; it is especially today a remarkably important lesson about acceptance that we must pass on to future generations.

So, on behalf of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society Board of Directors, we welcome you to this historic house of worship and the world premiere of a House Built by Hope. Before you hear more about this film, we first want to recognize some very important people here this evening: Senator Mae Flexer, Rabbi Howard Kosovske, Pastor Jonathan Chapman, Reverend Jane Newall,  Reverend Lisa Anderson, and Barbara Schreier.

I also would like to recognize the committee that organized this wonderful celebration.  And thank you to all of you our guests for being here this evening. There were so many others from near and far who wanted but could not be here. So, thank you for being the very first to see this important documentary produced by Amherst Media and funded by Dr. David Fetterman and Summer Waggoner, Daughters of the American Revolution National Offices and the Deborah Avery Putnam Plainfield Chapter and the Google Corporation.

Finally, thank you to a group of individuals who chose to walk with me on a journey that started nearly a decade ago. They may at first have thought I was a little crazy and soon thereafter they realized I was, (but chose to make this journey just the same)! We all I am sure recall in history books, the now famous quote attributed to the attack on Pearl Harbor, to never awake a sleeping giant. Well the same can be said to never awake a small, but mighty group of like-minded individuals, who in this case not only had a determination to save this building, but a deep resolve and desire to record and share the history of this house of worship. That small group’s efforts are making a profound and lasting difference to help young people understand that intolerance and hate is not only wrong, but that acceptance, brotherhood and sisterhood is the only way for society to survive. To my friends on the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society board and advisors, you are all my superheroes. Look what we are doing, to help reshape how people positively think of one another. What an important message for the times in which we are living. So too is my thanks to our friends in the interfaith community for walking this journey with us today.

Now to the reason why we are here. Please help me recognize a very special group of individuals who helped make this film possible as we present each with these beautiful certificates and a copy of the poem A House Built by Hope, written Norman Berman. Each of the names that I am going to read had a profound impact on the creation of this film and they are:    TBI Preservation Society, president emeritus, Norman Berman, Dr. David Fetterman and Summer Waggoner,  the descendants of Hugh and Mary Gorman. our friends from Daughters of the American Revolution National Offices and the Deborah Avery Putnam Plainfield Chapter, and our dear friend, Jim Lescault, Executive Director of Amherst Media, who did such a beautiful job creating this film.  And finally, the amazing, unstoppable force, our mentor, and inspiration, Dr. Elsie Fetterman, whose dream it was to create this film.

And now, Norman Berman, president emeritus who will introduce the film.  The following are excerpts from his remarks:

Three days ago, nearly fifty of us gathered here to observe Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.  A day devoted to self-reflection, forgiveness, how to make the world better and more beautiful.  This space resonated with ancient prayers and melodies as we joined with synagogues around the world observing the same rituals.  And we learned that morning that some six hours earlier, at a synagogue in the town of Halle Germany, 51 congregants had also gathered for Yom Kippur.  A gunman attempted to storm the building wearing a head-mounted camera which streamed the attack live. He fatally shot two people outside the building before driving away. He was later captured and confessed.   This crime joins a long and terrifying list of similar hate crimes –  the shooting of Muslims in Christchurch in New Zealand, Jews in Pittsburgh and Ponway, and Latinos in El Paso and so many more.

When we planned our services this holiday season, we were painfully mindful of security.  We implemented a number of security measures.  The State Police have been incredibly supportive and attentive.  These are the grim realities of our new – but not necessarily improved world.

In his video, the German gunman predictably denied the Holocaust, denounced feminists and immigrants, and he said:   “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”

Anyone with a sense of decency, anyone who cares about history and truth (both of which are under serious attack these days) knows that the Jew is not the cause of problems any more than the Christian, the Muslim, the feminist, or the immigrant.  They know that the Holocaust was real, and that the real problem is hatred and intolerance, antisemitism, racism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia  – all stemming from ignorance.

Which brings me to tonight’s film.  Elsie Fetterman had an idea that we should interview some of the founders of this Temple to preserve their unique stories.  Volunteers, Robin Engel and Connor Rosenberg videotaped a number of interviews.  Elsie thought we could make a documentary using these tapes.  Heather Drobiarz who works in the industry wrote a script.  We worked with a film student – approached schools with video departments for help with editing.

But we realized that to do this right, we needed professional help, and that meant funding, Elsie applied to the DAR for a grant.  Why DAR?  Because ours is an American story – a patriotic story.  It’s about what America is all about.  We got the grant.  And, we received generous support from David Fetterman, Summer Waggoner and Google.

Finally, Elsie connected with Jim Lescault of Amherst Media.  She told him our story and captured his imagination – 26 interviews, hundreds of images and hundreds of hours of editing and the rest, as they say, is documentary history.  You could say that Elsie Fetterman played a role in making this film possible.

The story?  Jews in small numbers lived in this part of CT since the founding of the State – in friendship with their Christian neighbors.  After WWII, over 40 Jewish refugee families settled in this area – mostly on farms.  Many were Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors, some served in the US Armed forces, some had been partisan fighters during the war.  They settled here.  And this largely Christian community welcomed them, supported them, befriended them.  The Jews were not a problem here.  To be sure, they had their own problems. They brought memories of lost families, lost homes, destroyed villages – memories of torture, horror, death.  The brought their trauma – they brought their nightmares.

But they also brought with them a determination to live. To start new lives – to work, to contribute – to build families, to be good citizens, proud Americans and to do their part to make their community better.   Most of all, they brought with them HOPE.  Hope for a second chance at life, hope for their future and the future of their families.  Hope for acceptance, for respect, and for peace.  That hope sustained them.  It made them strong.

That hope built a building.  And I’m proud to introduce for the first time ever in public – the film that tells that story.  A HOUSE BUILT BY HOPE.