CT Briefs Feature Stories

Movers & Shakers

Daniel Avraham, President, Yale College Council, New Haven

Daniel avrahamIt would be impressive enough to learn of an Israeli native studying at an Ivy League university. If she or he had been a commanding officer in the Israel Intelligence Corps, it would be an even more noteworthy story. And if the student had been accepted to an honors program at said university, the picture would be even more remarkable.

Such is the profile of Daniel Avraham, a Jerusalem native currently in his junior year at Yale. But there’s more: the 24-year-old is president of the Yale College Council (YCC), the first Israeli to hold such a prestigious position at any Ivy League school.

Avraham is earning a double major in the Ethics, Politics and Economics honors program and in global affairs. During his sophomore year, he was elected as YCC vice president and served as chair of the Academics Committee. He is also involved in the Yale Refugee Project and works as a tour guide for the Yale admissions office.

In his presidential campaign, Avraham proposed the creation of three new executive-board positions and reforms to social and academic policies affecting student life.

Danielle Ellison has been friends with Avraham since they both arrived on campus as freshmen. For the past two years, she has served as co-president of Yale Friends of Israel (YFI).

“From early on, I was struck by how Danny was looking to make the biggest difference possible at Yale,” Ellison says. “While most people were looking at majors and extra-curricular activities, he was asking where he could have the biggest impact for the community at large.”

Avraham first became involved in the Jewish and Israeli organizations on campus – Hillel, YFI – “but then, as he got older, he wanted to not just be ‘the Israeli guy’ but a leader in general,” Ellison says. “He wanted to be in a position to take student concerns to the administration.” Under his leadership, YCC has grown in its presence and accomplishments, she says. Because he is older than the average undergraduate and brings high-level leadership experience as a military officer, he is able to work effectively with the administration – fulfilling his wish to benefit the entire Yale student body.

What happens when there is anti-Israel sentiment on campus? Because he now represents the entire student population, Avraham will direct such concerns to fellow Jewish student leaders on campus, Ellison says. “Unlike other schools, Yale doesn’t see a lot of this type of activity,” she says. “This speaks to the very positive overall Jewish and Israeli climate at Yale,” no doubt due, at least in part, to the Jewish Israeli heading the YCC.

 

Joyce Backman, Westport

Joyce BackmanJoyce Backman is a registered nurse and a third-generation Hadassah devotee: she was made a life member by her grandmother on the occasion of her son’s birth, 17 years ago. “My grandmother was a life member and loved Hadassah and wanted me to love Hadassah,” she says. But it wasn’t until Backman and her family moved from New Jersey to Westport in 2000 that she finally became active in the organization. “My realtor said that it’s a nice group of women and that I would make friends,” she says. “She was right.”

But Backman gradually turned her membership in the Westport chapter into much more, inspired at the 2003 Hadassah national convention in Manhattan. “As I sat there listening to people whose lives were saved by Hadassah Hospital during the second Intifada, I became passionate,” she says. “As a nurse, I always wanted to make a difference. Hadassah gives me the opportunity to do something amazing that helps lots of people.”

Backman has been president of the Westport chapter three times, now in the last month of her third non-consecutive term. On the regional level, she served as treasurer and recording secretary and is currently vice president of the Connecticut executive board.

“Hadassah is clearly a deep passion for Joyce,” says incoming Connecticut region president, Sally Kleinman of Westport, who served with Backman as co-president of the local chapter. “She has gotten a lot of people interested in Hadassah, is very financially generous to the organization, and is involved in everything Hadassah supports.”

Backman also expresses her dedication to the Jewish community through involvement with UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk, says executive director Steven Friedlander. In addition to being a generous donor together with her husband, Ken, she has served on the organization’s allocations committee and is involved in women’s philanthropy programs. “The Backmans’ personal investment doesn’t stop there,” Friedlander says. “They have made it a point to personally visit UJA/Federation’s beneficiary organizations in our Israeli sister region of Afula-Gilboa.”

Backman attended Hadassah’s centennial celebration in Jerusalem last year, which coincided with the opening of the new state-of-the-art Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower Hospital in the capital city. “My best moment was walking into the new hospital,” she said. “Countless hours of volunteer work paid off when I entered the large, sunny, beautiful lobby. Six years ago, it was a dream to build a new hospital. I am extremely fortunate to see the dream turn into a reality.”

 

Leah Bieler, Norwalk

leah bielerThe Torah does not command Jews to study Torah; rather, it instructs us to teach Torah to our children.

Leah Bieler takes the directive further, bringing her MA in Talmud and Rabbinics from Jewish Theological Seminary to life by teaching Talmud to all ages and backgrounds.

Bieler married Rabbi Ron Fish when he was serving as spiritual leader of Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh in Bloomfield (now B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom). Today, the family lives in Norwalk with their four children, where Fish is rabbi of Congregation Beth El. There, Bieler regularly shares the bimah with her husband, also serving as cantor on the High Holidays, b’nai mitzvah tutor, and facilitator of the monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s group. She was head of the Talmud department at the Jewish High School of Connecticut when it opened at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport.

Bieler taught a weekly women’s Talmud class from 2009 to 2012 at United Jewish Federation in Stamford.

“Leah was a vibrant and exciting teacher,” says Dr. Betsy Stone of the UJF’s Bureau of Jewish Education. “She led fascinating discussions about rules for living, women’s roles, and history.”

Then there’s Bieler’s writing, another sort of classroom. The Fish-Bieler family spends the school year in Connecticut and part of the summer in Jerusalem, resulting in a unique cross-cultural perspective of the two Jewish worlds. Bieler posts regular blog entries on Huffington Post and The Times of Israel, as well as occasional pieces in The Jerusalem Post and The Forward. These candid, thoughtful, and often humorous windows into Bieler’s thinking grapple with issues ranging from women at the Kotel to the recent Pew portrait of American Jews to why her family hasn’t made aliyah. And, like a seasoned educator, she uses each essay as a teachable moment.

In “Stop Gloating and Get to Work,” one of Bieler’s responses to the Pew study, she opens up a conversation by addressing those who may not feel particularly worried about the survey’s findings, also weaving in her own experiences and struggles as an American Jew: “So, the gloaters are having a good week. You know who you are. You live in Israel. You read (or read about) the Pew survey. You are feeling comfortable and self-satisfied. Filled with confidence that this can’t happen to you. Or you’re religious. You send your kids to day school and attend synagogue and pay for Jewish camp. You have, you feel, inoculated yourself against mainstream culture. I hope you’re right. I really do. But take it from someone who’s been there. There are some things you need to consider.”

And, like a true educator, she welcomes the opportunity to work with her community for positive change. She concludes, “Each of us, no matter where we live or how religious we are, will have to figure out new and creative ways to speak to Jews who might otherwise be lost. I don’t have all the answers, but we will need to find them together.”

 

Dr. Leon Chameides, West Hartford

Leon ChameidesLeon Chameides was seven when his father delivered him to a Ukrainian monastery for safe keeping as the invading Nazis victimized the country’s Jews. The boy and his brother would lose their parents to the Holocaust, and Leon would eventually make his way to the U.S., settling in West Hartford with his wife Jean and three children. There, Chameides established a widely respected career in medicine as founding chair of pediatric cardiology at Hartford Hospital and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, as chair of pediatrics at Hartford Hospital, and as clinical professor of pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine.

Chameides also created something of a second career as a dedicated volunteer in the Jewish community – taking leadership positions at Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield, Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford, the Commission on Jewish Education and Leadership (CJEL) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. Along the way, he authored two books that touch on his personal history: On the Edge of the Abyss: A Polish Rabbi Speaks to His Community, a compilation of the essays of his late father, Rabbi Kalman Chameides, and Strangers in Many Lands: The Story of a Jewish Family in Turbulent Times.

“Dr. Chameides is a truly great man. He seeks wisdom and helpfulness in every situation. Despite many bitter experiences, he focuses on the good and refuses to hate,” says his son-in-law Rabbi David Small, spiritual leader of The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford.

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, former spiritual leader of Agudas Achim, agrees.

“I see in Leon someone who’s been through terrible things but who made up his mind to make the world a better place,” he says. “He is always questioning and searching and thinking. He’s incredibly honest in every way – personally, emotionally, intellectually. On matters of community or when we talked about local and world events, Leon values people because they’re people and wants to make their lives better.”

And that means all people, says UConn professor Arnold Dashefsky, who served with Chameides on CJEL. “Leon is a wonderful human being who represents the best qualities in an individual who’s committed to Jewish tradition but also the universal ideals that the Jewish people has espoused,” he says. “As chair of the commission, he was both open to a diversity of perspectives and supportive of traditional practices.”

Chameides’s efforts extend beyond the local Jewish community. Along with six fellow Ukrainian-Jewish survivors, he has been working to convince Yad Vashem to honor Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as a “Righteous among the Nations.” Because of his actions during the war, Sheptytsky, who died in 1944, saved some 150 Jewish children from the Nazis.

Chameides evokes superlative language from those who have worked with him. “When I think of ‘mentsch,’ I think of Leon,” says Bea Brodie, project manager at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. Yaffe calls Chameides “literally a scholar and a gentleman. He is interested in everyone and what they have to say. He is the kind of person who fulfills the premise taught by Rabbi Shammai: ‘Receive everyone with a pleasant countenance.’”

 

Rabbi Enan Francis, Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy, New Haven

enan francisRabbi Enan Francis joined the staff of Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy (SCHA) close to five years ago, the first principal of both Judaic and secular studies in the school’s 65-year history.
The former New Haven Hebrew day school was in transition when the then-32-year-old Francis arrived. There was some institutional belt-tightening to take care of in the wake of the 2008 economic crash.

Today, the K-8 day school is thriving again, receiving grants for academic excellence and winning top awards in statewide and national science competitions and more. And much of the turnaround is thanks to Francis, who was ordained in 2001 from the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Brooklyn and came to the school with a Master’s degree in education from Yeshiva University and a decade of teaching experience.

“We saw in Rabbi Francis a young person who could bring some fresh new experience and outlook to the school, which was very important to us, as well as someone educated at Yeshiva University with a strong knowledge of both secular and Judaic studies,” notes SCHA director Rabbi Shea Hecht, who, along with the school’s Board, brought Francis to the school. Hecht says that Francis embodies the educational mission of the school, serving as a tireless ambassador in the Jewish community. “He is very personable and knowledgeable and consistently fosters the idea of parents, teachers, and administrators working together,” Hecht says.

Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, agrees.

“If you ever doubt that a teacher can change a student’s life, come meet Rabbi Enan Francis,” says Perry. “He hasn’t made a difference for just one of his pupils; Rabbi Francis has truly turned Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy into an exciting educational environment for every one of the 230 students in the school. He is a gifted pedagogue, a recipient of several degrees in education, and is presently undertaking yet another Master’s degree in special education.  Blessed with a dynamic personality, Rabbi Francis is a successful principal in substance and style. One admires the way he puts first principles foremost for the students, teachers and the families.

“He knows that learning is anchored in caring, purposeful relationships, that learners seek to ask questions not to have them answered  by others but so they can use critical thinking and Judaic skills to find meaning. When I visit the school I observe the mutual respect between the students and the teachers.  I love to hear the modern Hebrew in the hallways and I have been so impressed with the way Rabbi Francis has utilized new technology to advance both the secular and religious curricula. He has the remarkable ability to encourage and challenge his students to cherish their tradition in a joyous blend of yiddishkeit and menschlikeit. He is splendid role model for the fortunate pupils at SCHA.”

And, besides all that, adds Perry, “no-one looks more handsome in their Shabbos bekkishe.”

 

Dr. Richard Freund, West Hartford

richard freundMere moments after the Ledger has featured a story about University of Hartford professor Richard Freund’s work, he is often enthusing about yet another fascinating project, often taking him to a far-flung corner of the archeological world. One week he’s discovering the secrets of the fabled Atlantis and Tarshish; the next, he’s using cutting-edge technology to plumb the horrific depths of the Sobibor extermination camp.

He has directed six archaeological projects in Israel and three projects in Europe on behalf of the University including: Bethsaida, Qumran, the Cave of Letters, Nazareth, Yavne, Har Karkom (Mount Sinai) as well as archaeological projects in Burgos and Cadiz, Spain and a research project at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. In addition, Freund is the author of six books on archaeology, two books on Jewish ethics, over 100 scholarly articles and has appeared in 15 TV documentaries.

While it’s easy to begin a litany of Freund’s scholarship, it’s harder to know where to stop, says Dr. Avinoam Patt, the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. “Richard writes, he teaches, he speaks all over the world, he excavates; he takes students to Israel, Argentina, and Europe and more – I’m just not sure when he sleeps,” says Patt. “His accomplishments as a teacher, as a scholar, and as director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies are too numerous to detail.”

After earning an MA, PhD, and rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Freund arrived at the University of Hartford in 1999 to take up the post of director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and Greenberg Professor of Jewish History. Established in 1986 by Arnold Greenberg in memory of his father, the center is considered what the university’s  president Walter Harrison describes as “one of the crown jewels of the university,” not only in the local community but throughout the Jewish academic world.

“It’s easy to call people enthusiastic and tireless but Richard really defines those terms,” says Arnold Greenberg. “He has really brought the center to new heights, measured in terms of scholarship, student interest and enrollment, and planting the flag of both the university and the center throughout the world. This is in part a result of his speaking, in part a result of his excavation work, and also a result of his insights as to what the opportunities are to help others understand the influence of Jewish religion, culture, and thought on Western civilization. He’s extraordinary and so very creative. The center is very fortunate to have him.”

 

Rabbi Shaya and Shayna Gopin, Chabad House of Greater

Hartford, West Hartford

Shaya and Shayna GopinRabbi Shaya and Shayna Gopin settled in West Hartford in 2006 to develop Chabad’s programming for under-served segments of the Jewish population, including young families and children and teens with special needs. Co-directors of the Jewish Learning Academy at  Chabad House of Greater Hartford, the couple provides classes, lectures, and workshops, both on-site and at locations throughout the community – “wherever the students are,” says Shaya – as well as family Shabbat dinners and b’nai-mitzvah preparation.

“We live here to fill any need a Jewish person may have – a class, counseling, a friend for a child with special needs,” Shayna says. “Our lives are for our extended Jewish family, spiritually and physically.”

In 2008, the Gopins started a chapter of The Friendship Circle, a national program with local support, which pairs teen volunteers and children with special needs for social and cultural activities. A teen board helps with governance and programming ideas. In response to parents’ requests, the Gopins launched programming for young adults with special needs in 2012.

“There are two aspects to what makes Shaya and Shayna so special and their impact on the community so meaningful,” says Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky of Chabad: East of the River in Glastonbury. “In Friendship Circle, they spend so much time with families and individuals who are challenged with special needs, engaging them in learning, socializing, and Jewish holiday events. In many cases, this changes the dynamics of individuals with special needs, but the family as well, which is a mitzvah in the classic sense of the word.”

The Gopins have also expanded the reach of Chabad of Greater Hartford to include young families, Wolvovsky says, “reigniting a passion for Yiddishkeit” among a demographic often too busy with work and family to have time to engage in Jewish life.

Shaya is a member of the multi-denominational committee working to refurbish and rededicate the communal Mikveh Bess Israel in West Hartford.

Dr. Vera Schwarcz, a professor at Wesleyan University who has been involved in the Mikveh Bess Israel project and has taken several classes with Shaya Gopin, calls the two “a ‘power couple,’ with a grace and vision far beyond their years.”

“I recall vividly how they spoke after Hurricane Katrina — their ordeal as newlyweds deepening their souls, their understanding of pain and courage,” says Schwarcz. “All this coming to the fore in working with Friendship Circle, in Rabbi Shaya’s leadership as the Mikveh Rav, in community service at every level. And all along building a family which inspires us all with vibrancy and room for individual personalities.”

 

Rabbi Eliezer Greer, New Haven

Eliezer-Greer-1 4CIn 2011, Rabbi Eliezer Greer and his wife, Rena, knew that one of the twins they were expecting would not be born alive and chose a fitting burial site on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Greer returned from his heart-rending mission in April of that year wanting to do something with an impact.  So, he says, “I decided to worry about the Jewish cemeteries in New Haven.”

A lifelong city resident and active in local Jewish communal affairs, Greer was concerned about the area’s cemeteries, many of which were in disrepair. So he decided to walk every Jewish burial ground in the area, north to Bristol, east to Clinton, west to Orange – and everywhere in between.

For the next two years, Greer walked through all 49 Jewish burial grounds, recording names from some 26,000 gravestones for the newly created New Haven Jewish Cemetery Database. He was supported in his efforts by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven (JCAGNH), which oversees the 49 cemeteries.

Greer nearly single-handedly recorded all the names “in the heat of summer and cold of winter,” says JCAGNH executive director Andy Hodes. “Eliezer has reduced a lot of wear and tear on me and on Jewish cemetery chairs throughout the area.” This past October, the association celebrated the achievement in an “unveiling” celebration of the new resource.

In 2011, Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, invited Greer to join the JCAGNH board.

“Eliezer has devoted himself to the upkeep of our cemeteries, assuring the greatest respect for the departed relatives of the community,” says Perry. “His most recent project of mapping each cemetery in Greater New Haven allows relatives from around the country to locate the graves of family members. In keeping with the highest values of our tradition, kavod ha-me (honoring the dead), he serves on the cemetery association board. He and his wife, Rena, and their extended families, are at the pivot of their neighborhood, which they have lovingly restored over the last decade.”

The size and impact of Greer’s mitzvot are in direct contrast to the fanfare with which he performs them, Perry notes. “Eliezer prefers to do many of his mitzvot of gemilut chasadim [acts of kindness] quietly. I have known him since his childhood and, although known to patrol his neighborhood on bike for safety and security, he does not seek the spotlight when it comes to performing acts of kindness.”

“To me, one of the best parts is that this project crosses all Jewish lines in the Greater New Haven community,” reflects Greer. “It has created interactions and activity between different groups of Jews that otherwise might not exist.”

The association hopes to get other Jewish communities to join the Greater New Haven database and mapping system so that it might serve as a national resource. Which, of course, will take a lot of walking, Greer says.

 

Lisa Pleskow Kassow, Director, Trinity College Hillel, Hartford

Lisa kassowIt’s been an exciting couple of years for Lisa Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel in Hartford. In 2012, a kosher eatery opened on campus, named in honor of Kassow and her husband, Samuel D. Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at the college.

This year, in its annual “Insider’s Guide to College Life Admissions,” Reform Magazine named Trinity College among the “Top 20 Small & Mighty Campuses of Excellence,” as chosen by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Kassow assumed her current position in 2001 after directing adult education and arts programming at the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center (now the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford), and working as an award-winning photojournalist in Jerusalem.

“Many students on campus call Lisa their Jewish ‘mother away from home,’” says Sophie Katzman, ’14, Trinity Hillel president. “This is exactly what she is because, like a Jewish mother, she encompasses so many different talents. Lisa is a warm presence at Hillel and beyond on Trinity’s campus.”

Over her college career, Katzman says that she has seen Kassow taking the lead in many activities: planning several tenth anniversary Hillel events on campus and in Manhattan; spearheading a Hillel leadership conference for fellow directors from around the U.S.; organizing multiple alternative break trips for both Jewish and non-Jewish students.

“But most importantly, she is there for us in the small and big moments when we need her,” says Katzman. “She is passionate about people – especially students – and this enthusiasm rubs off on everyone around her. Lisa maintains Hillel as a warm, welcoming, and fun place to be – not just on Friday night at Shabbat dinner, but every day of the week.”

Katzman sees Kassow as a mentor. “Lisa has helped me grow as a leader at Hillel, but also as an adult in general,” she says. “I admire her ability to balance her work, her family, her continuing education, and everything in between! She is a very special person.”

Abby Himmelstein (’12), a past president of Trinity’s Hillel, credits Kassow with creating a family for her on campus.

“She made Hillel about so much more than being Jewish. She made it a place where all students, Jewish or not, could come and feel welcome and comfortable. Lisa always made sure that the students were happy, maintaining our friendships with each other and engaging in meaningful conversations in order to learn. After having spent a year and a half in the ‘real world,’ I still miss those Friday nights at Hillel, in the kitchen helping Lisa set up dinner and then sitting at the table with her and my classmates. Lisa really showed me the importance of building a community and family through Jewish organizations and how much that can add to your life and I still strive to find a community like Trinity’s Hillel.”

Matt Lesser, State Representative, 100th District, Middletown

Matt Lesser sworn inState Representative Matt Lesser, 29, is serving his third term in the Connecticut House of Representatives, where he is assistant majority leader. Lesser was first elected in 2008, while he was a student at Wesleyan University – young enough, in fact, to participate in a Birthright trip, encouraged by the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT). In 2012, he won reelection for his current term while successfully battling cancer.

A native of Greater Washington, D.C., Lesser is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who fled Nazi-occupied Europe on foot, making her way to Argentina. His mother escaped the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla and immigrated to the U.S.

Lesser’s political CV already reads like that of a much more seasoned elected official. He chairs the Legislative Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, serves on the Energy & Technology Committee, and is Democratic ranking member of the Internship Committee. He previously served on the Education Committee, where he was named a “Children’s Champion,” and on several other committees and task forces. He has sponsored legislation relating to health and voting rights, and is working to strengthen Connecticut’s public campaign finance system.

Since 2010, Lesser has served as vice chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. In that position, he introduced legislation barring the state from doing business with companies that invest in Iran. House Bill 5358 was signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy in July. In demonstrating how Iran’s policies affect Connecticut, Lesser cited a 1996 terrorist attack on a Jerusalem bus that killed West Hartford native and Yale graduate Matthew Eisenfeld, which the U.S. Department of State determined to be directly sponsored by the Iranian regime.

To get the bill called and ratified in both bodies of the General Assembly, Lesser received invaluable assists from several colleagues, says Bob Fishman, executive director of Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), one of the Jewish organizations that worked to build support for the legislation: Sen. Gayle Slossberg, Sen. Anthony Musto, Rep. David Baram, and Rep. Brian Becker, as well as Gov. Malloy’s general counsel, Luke Bronin, and State Treasurer Denise Nappier.

Lesser is also involved in the local Jewish community, Fishman says. In 2011, when the dedication ceremony for the Major General Maurice Rose Armed Forces Reserve Center in Middletown was set for a Saturday afternoon, Lesser helped arrange a later start time for the national event so that members of the Jewish War Veterans could participate.

“Matt always makes himself available to meet with the Israeli Young Emissaries or to give a talk in the Jewish community,” Fishman says. “We see him as a devoted up-and-coming leader who has a very nice future in the General Assembly. He always gives above and beyond.”

 

Dr. Stuart S. Miller, UConn, Professor of Hebrew, History and Judaic Studies, Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies in Modern and Classical Languages; Academic Director, Center for Judaic Studies and  Contemporary Jewish Life, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Stu millerA 31-year veteran of the UConn faculty, Prof. Stuart S. Miller specializes in the history and literature of the Jews in Talmudic-period Israel. Over this long tenure, there is probably no one who has witnessed Miller’s professional endeavors more closely than fellow UConn academic Arnold Dashefsky.

Director of the North American Jewish Data Bank, housed at the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, and former director of the center, Dashefsky explains that UConn evaluates its faculty members in three areas: teaching, scholarship, and service — and Miller earns a gold star in each.

As full-time Judaic studies faculty, Miller “has developed a robust curriculum and introduced more students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to the field than any other faculty member,” Dashefsky says. In fact, UConn’s Master of Arts program in Judaic Studies is one of only a handful offered at public colleges and universities.

An internationally renowned expert on the mikveh, his scholarship ranges from Sepphoris (Tsippori) in Roman-occupied Palestine – where Miller was a longtime member of the excavation staff – to a 19th-century ritual bath he identified in June in the abandoned Jewish farming community of Chesterfield, Conn. He served as Talmudic historian to the Sepphoris Regional Project, a major excavation sponsored by Duke University which engaged a consortium of five colleges and universities, including UConn.

A native of New York and a resident of West Hartford, Miller has served “with great distinction” as associate director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and as current section chair for Hebrew and Judaic studies, Dashefsky says. “He has shepherded many initiatives promoting study in Israel, engaging dozens of students, many of whom participated on the Tsippori dig.”

He also promoted the creation of the kosher dining facility at UConn – named for major donor Morris N. Trachten – in response to the challenge posed by donor Mark Rosen to develop a project that would benefit both Judaic Studies and Hillel.

“Professor Miller has played an absolutely critical role in the building of UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and its program,” notes Jeffrey Shoulson, who holds the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies and serves as director of the UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and as professor of literatures, cultures, and languages as well as a professor of English. “His courses in Judaic studies regularly draw undergraduates from across the institution and he has advised numerous graduate students who have, in turn, subsequently gone on to contribute in significant fashion in Connecticut and beyond.  Even as he continues his dedicated work as a teacher and mentor, he also continues to produce exciting and innovative scholarship, most recently work that has shed significant light on the early history of Connecticut’s Jewish community.”

 

Isaiah Rothstein, Youth Director, Stamford

isaiah rothsteinIsaiah Rothstein grew up in the Chabad community of Monsey, N.Y., the son of a white father and a black mother who raised their three sons to believe in the power to influence the world for good. As an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton, he delved into the multiple layers of identity that had shaped his early life. “That’s where I discovered my love and passion for Judaism and the success of its continued development,” says the self-identified “Jew of color, a direct product of the Civil Rights movement,” who is slated to receive ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in May.

Last fall, he was hired as youth director at Young Israel of Stamford (YI) and as advisor of the Stamford chapter of NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth). Correction: Last fall, Rothstein took by storm the YI and NCSY youth programs in Stamford.

“Isaiah has been a tremendous asset to the Young Israel of Stamford and to the Stamford Jewish community as a whole,” says Shara Israel, member of the YI Youth Committee. “His passion for music, his outreach to and caring for people from all different backgrounds, and his love of and devotion to Judaism make him an ideal role model for our youth. He makes everyone, young and old, feel welcome and loved. He encourages participation in the many varied programs he designs and runs with personal phone calls and one-on-one encouragement. His great ear for music and harmony always brightens up a Shabbat table with song, or a kumsitz with his guitar. He is a very hard-working and creative leader.”

Leah Perl, board liaison to the YI Youth House and Rothstein’s supervisor, praises the youth director for his enthusiasm and inclusiveness. “Isaiah wants everyone to be able to participate in his different programs and loves to talk to anyone who has ideas for him,” she says. “When he sees that there is an opening for him to create a program or a group, he comes up with an idea and makes it happen. People love to talk to him because of his easy-going nature and desire to listen to one and all.”

Rothstein is considered “a major force” at NCSY, says Devora Weinstock, interim regional director of New England NCSY. “At our regional conventions, he runs standing-room-only sessions and enhances our Shabbat and Havdallah with his musical talents,” she says. “In Stamford, he’s taken his chapter to the next level, empowering the teens to take the lead on projects and bringing quality monthly NCSY Shabbat programming to the Stamford community.”

Noah Marlowe, Stamford NCSY chapter president and National Board member, agrees. “Isaiah has become an advisor to the stars, molding friendships, facilitating spirituality, and, most importantly, educating the Jewish future.”

 

Rabbi David Saiger, Temple Sholom, Greenwich

Rabbi David_SaigerSome lucky people find their calling early in life. David Saiger was almost born knowing that he wanted to work in the Jewish community, especially with youth. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Saiger worked throughout his high-school and college years in Jewish settings, as a teacher, tutor, and summer-camp counselor.

Newly ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2011, Saiger landed a job as assistant rabbi and youth director at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, and quickly filled his professional plate, running youth programming and teaching adult-education classes, Shabbat-morning Torah study, and some weekly lunch-‘n’-learn sessions. He is the clergy liaison with the synagogue’s social-action committee, overseeing programs such as Project Ezra for elderly seniors and the congregation-wide mitzvah day. He co-leads the Spirituality Project, a monthly interfaith discussion group, with Rev. Jenny Owen of the adjacent Christ Church Greenwich.

Over the past year, Saiger has made his most noticeable mark on the Jewish teen population. In addition to the existing United Synagogue Youth (USY) group, the synagogue expanded its offerings to include a teen choir and a religious-school volunteer program. But the biggest shift, Saiger says, came with the launch of the Judah Chapter of BBYO, an international, pluralistic youth-group organization. Spearheaded by two teen congregants and open to all Jewish area 8th- to 12th-graders, the chapter is run by a teen board and facilitated by Saiger and Desiree Katcher, a Temple Sholom lay leader who grew up in the BBYO movement.

“By the end of our first programming year, we had a chapter of 45 members, a number unprecedented in our synagogue’s youth history,” Saiger reports. Now, the group boasts 55 participants – half Temple Sholom members, half from other area synagogues or unaffiliated. Encouraged by the group’s success, the temple started a BBYO Connect program for sixth to eighth graders this year. In all, says Josh Cohen, director of BBYO Connecticut Valley Region, the two groups engage some 100 Jewish teens.

“Kids find Rav David easy to relate to, cool, and knowledgeable; he is always willing to help and is very forward-thinking,” says Cohen. “He is a tremendous asset to the Jewish community.”

Saiger fields a lot of pleasantly surprised comments in response to the Judah Chapter. “I often hear from parents of our BBYO teens that they never would have expected their kid – who had no great love for religious school – to be so enthusiastic about a Jewish youth group,” he says. “The reasons why BBYO is working so well for our community are various and complicated, but what’s simple is the fact that something has struck a chord.”

Ronny Siegel, Greater Hartford Coordinator, Israeli Young Emissary Program, West Hartford

Ronny SiegelRonny Siegel was born in Haifa the year David Ben-Gurion declared modern Israel’s statehood. Ever since she came to West Hartford in the ‘60s with husband Al to raise their three children, she has been an unwavering advocate for the Jewish homeland, personally and professionally.

Siegel joined the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center (now the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford) as a shlicha – a representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel tasked with engaging the local community in Israel-themed programming and providing guidance through the aliyah process. In the ‘70s, she served as the JCC’s senior adult director. She earned a Master of Social Work from the University of Connecticut and was associate director of the JCC, then took over as executive director of the JCC of Greater New Haven before returning briefly to the Mandell JCC in the early 2000s.

Since then, she has worked as coordinator of Hartford Celebrates Israel at 60, chair of the JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival, and is currently coordinator of the Israeli Young Emissary Program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and a member of the JCC’s Israel Task Force. Siegel volunteered to be trained as a facilitator for the Jewish Community Center Association’s “Jewish Journeys Project” and was a volunteer instructor for the association’s “Discover Israel through the Arts” series. This year, she represented the Hartford Film Festival as a delegate to the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“As a sabra and the daughter of those who have influenced Israel for generations, Ronny integrates her Israeli identity into the very fabric of who she is, what she cares about, and what she does,” says Jay Leipzig, former executive director of the Greater Hartford JCC. “Ronny tirelessly promotes Israel as a well-spring from which members of our community could derive a strong sense of their Jewish identity. She envisions Israel as a living laboratory that demonstrated how Jews could derive a sense of community and identity. Ronny is also a consummate social worker, using those skills and her own empathy to supervise staff at the JCC and to help them to maintain their professionalism, sensitivity and their caring about their clients, the members of the JCC.”

In June, Siegel received the Mandell JCC Gerald M. Steinberg Outstanding Leadership Award.

“Our lives have intersected in numerous ways over the 36 years that Ronny Siegel has been my friend and a colleague,” says the JCC’s executive director, David Jacobs. She is passionate about her beliefs and values, and determined and focused in the work that she does on behalf of our community. She understands the power of quality community work and the impact it has on the lives of people we touch.”

Chanie Stone, Norwalk

chanie stoneChanie Stone grew up in Norwalk, the daughter of Rabbi Yehoshua and Freida Hecht, directors of Beth Israel Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk. After high school, she studied in Tzfat, Israel, where she trained as an early childhood educator, then earned a BA in Judaic studies from Touro College. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in psychology.

Stone returned to Norwalk in 2005, together with her husband, Rabbi Levi Stone, and their two daughters. (They now have four children.) The couple runs the Schneerson Center for Jewish Life, CT, a Chabad organization that offers a range of classes and programs for all ages and levels.

Chanie runs a variety of these activities, notably, Mommy and Me and Young Jewish Professionals, CT (YJP).

“Mommy and Me is amazing,” says Ilana Cohen of Westport, who has been part of the group with her 2 1/2-year-old son for the past year. “My son can’t wait to go to the group and he talks about it all week long.”

A representative example of Stone’s outreach efforts is Arielle Wein, a Stamford resident who is now president of YJP.

Wein, a Wilton native, says she never really felt connected to the Jewish community. “I personally struggled with my Jewish identity, as I was more religious than most but not as religious as others and just always felt somewhere in-between,” she says. In college, even with a large Jewish population, she couldn’t find her place.

“When I moved back to the area, I was looking to meet people and I saw a message regarding one of Chanie’s events and decided to attend,” she says. “For the first time, I truly felt connected with a Jewish community and OK with my Jewish identity. Chanie reaches out to so many people and is accepting of everyone. Her main goal is to connect Jewish people and to be a welcoming person for those in the area. Whether a person is looking to grab a drink, eat a nice homemade meal or just learn, Chanie has created a welcoming environment for everyone.”

Wein credits the growth and success of YJP to Chanie, specifically, “her wonderful programs, her outgoing personality, her networking events, and her hospitality…,” Wein says. “Chanie has made it a point to reach out to Jews in their 20s and 30s and provide programs such as happy hours, Shabbat dinners, women’s groups, holiday parties, etc. I have met so many amazing people at these events.” What’s more, Stone has helped infuse entire communities with Jewish pride, Wein says. “Growing up in Wilton, there were not many Jews; however, now there is a menorah every year in the center of town and people come out and support the community,” she says. “On my way to work this past Chanukah, I was thrilled to drive by the Weston Town Center and see the menorah; it put a huge smile on my face and made my day.”

 

Gayle Weinstein, First Selectman, Weston

gayle weinsteinTo understand how a true leader functions, watch Gayle Weinstein.

Most Weston residents will describe the First Selectman’s job performance in terms of her response to Superstorm Sandy. “She never slept,” says Stacy Kamisar, a Weston resident and program coordinator at UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk. “She set up the high school as an extraordinary comfort station, partnering with the Connecticut Humane Society to create an animal shelter in the school so that people could bring their dogs with them. She organized kids’ activities and meal-cooking facilities. She brought the town together in such a beautiful way.”

While this kind of hands-on involvement in the community is not unusual for Weinstein, she started out on a science path, studying biology and chemistry at Brandeis and earning a master’s degree in physical anthropology from SUNY at Stony Brook. Rather than pursue a PhD in the field, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a personnel recruiter for seven years before settling in Weston with her husband and twin boys, now high-school seniors.

She soon became involved in local organizations, volunteering on the Weston Intermediate School PTO, the town’s Select Committee for Veterans Affairs and Medical Reserve Corps. She was a board member of the Woodlands Coalition and co-chaired Weston’s Memorial Day Weekend Fair. The Weinsteins are also active members of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport.

But it was as a member of the Westport Hadassah chapter that her “passion started to blossom,” she says. She served as chapter president and represented the organization on the national Stem Cell Action Coalition.

In 2001, Weinstein was selected for the second entering class of the Hadassah Leadership Academy, a national three-year study and service program designed to develop women leaders to serve the Jewish community.

“Gayle was a natural, an up-and-coming leader of the Westport chapter,” says Hadassah’s incoming Connecticut region president, Sally Kleinman. “The program helped solidify her leadership qualities.” As Connecticut Region Advocacy Chair, she organized lobby days and rallies, then served as region vice president before deciding to enter local politics. She was first elected to Weston’s Board of Selectman in 2007 and as First Selectman in 2009.

This year, Weinstein was elected vice-chairman of the South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, the state regional planning organization for eight municipalities in lower Fairfield County. She also serves as vice-chair of the Connecticut Council of Municipalities’ Task Force on Children, Youth and Families and as a board member of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.

She is a board member of UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk, where she was also a member of the executive committee. In November, she received the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League’s Distinguished Community Leadership Award.

And she is still involved in Hadassah, says Sally Kleinman, as a generous donor.

……….

 

Teen Movers & Shakers

Liah Kaminer, West Hartford

Liah kaminerIn 2011, Liah Kaminer, then a sophomore at Hall High School in West Hartford, was at a school assembly when she overheard two seniors chanting, “Raise your hand like a Nazi.” Later, during class, she then heard a boy ask two other students if they were Jewish and when they said no, he replied, “Oh, good. You’re one of us.”

A graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School and a member of USY through Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Kaminer says, “I was outraged and hurt because these were my first personal encounters with such insults.”

Friends offered kind words but, says Kaminer, “I wasn’t satisfied with that; I wanted to change people’s minds. I wanted to bring the presence of antisemitism and belief in Jewish stereotypes to the attention of friends.”

And so she did.  After fellow Jewish students told Kaminer to simply ignore such comments, she refused to take their advice. Instead, Kaminer met with Stephen Armstrong, supervisor of Hall’s social studies and history department, to brainstorm ideas for a classroom unit centered on the issue of antisemitism.

Kaminer then wrote a questionnaire on students’ pre-existing knowledge of antisemitism. She opened the classroom discussion by asking students to list Jewish stereotypes and define antisemitism. “Kids knew it was anti-something but not exactly what,” Kaminer says.

Each class then watched an episode of the ABC TV series, Primetime: What Would You Do?,  in which two teens ask a bakery owner – all actors – for permission to post a flyer announcing an event at a local synagogue. The baker responds with antisemitic slurs. Bystanders displayed a range of reactions. Kaminer then asked whether students hear the same kinds of comments at school and if so, how they respond. “Virtually every kid said that they’ve heard hurtful things,” Armstrong says. “But in every class, five at the most said that they would speak up, while the vast number said that they wouldn’t.”

The project will be repeated this year.

Thanks to Kaminer, Armstrong is eager to help students and staff make Hall a more tolerant place. “There have been times when I’ve heard something in the hallway and just walked by, but I’m not going to do that any more,” he says. “I want both kids and adults, when they know that stuff is wrong, to have the guts and inner will to say something about it.”

Along the way, Kaminer learned about ADL’s “Confronting Anti-Semitism” educational program. She has applied to be a Teen Trainer with the program.

“What happened at Hall is a very good result and we should all be gratified,” says ADL Connecticut regional director Gary Jones. “The result is that Liah feels empowered – she took a bad situation and turned it into an educational opportunity, which will make these actions much less likely to occur.”

 

Miriam Young, West Hartford

Miriam YoungSome political activists find their calling early in life. Miriam Young caught the bug as a kid, taking an unusual interest in the history of politics while still in elementary school. The Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE) junior has taken AP Government and Politics and is currently studying AP U.S. History. Last year, she interned in the Democratic Campaign Headquarters’ West Hartford field office during the Obama reelection campaign.

Now Young is on her way to the prestigious Senate Page Program in Washington, D.C. Appointed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Young will join 29 other accomplished students from around the country in the spring 2014 Page session from February to June. The Senate Pages’ typical duties include delivery of correspondence and legislative materials within the Capital, preparing the Senate Chamber for session, taking messages for Senators, and carrying bills and amendments from the presiding officer’s desk. Pages are required to work into the early hours of the morning in cases of important business, filibusters, and emergency situations. They attend school before the official Senate day begins at 9:45 a.m.

The daughter of Michael Young and Ruth Alcabes of West Hartford, Young says she’s “honored” to get an up-close view of procedures and policies on Capitol Hill, and plans to build on her new understanding of government and politics as she continues on to college.

Young is currently an intern for the Democratic State Central Committee in Hartford, developing youth resources, assisting with the coordination of social media, participating in outreach, and conducting research. She serves as chief of staff of the national board of the High School Democrats of America. She was also one of only 50 students selected by the Junior Statesman Foundation of America to attend the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

She is also a Hebrew school teacher for grades 3 through 7 at Congregation Beth Ahm in Windsor, teaching classes in ethics, Jewish lifecycle and Jewish culture, as well as a youth counselor at the Young Israel of West Hartford. She is active in the youth theater program at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford and a member of the HHNE varsity girls’ soccer team.

“Miriam is enthusiastically civic-minded and her selection as a Senate Page will enable her to fulfill her passion for government and politics,” says Rabbi Daniel Loew, HHNE head of school. “I know that this will be a wonderfully educational experience for her and it will enable her to further her ambitious aspirations.”

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