Bea Israel to be honored by Bloomfield synagogue
By Stacey Dresner
BLOOMFIELD – When Bea Israel talks about her life – escaping from the Nazis in her native Germany, arriving in the United States with her family and her long and successful marriage and partnership with her late husband Kurt – she tears up.
But one of the things that makes her most emotional is her love for America.
“I’ll tell you one thing, America is the greatest country in the world and I repeat that again and again,” she said.
In 2009, when Bea had been in the U.S. for 70 years, she decided to throw a party.
“I said to my boys, ‘I want a party’ – and I’m not a party girl. My son said, ‘What kind of party?’ I said, ‘For being in America 70 years; for gratitude,” she said, wiping away tears.
And so, she hung the American flag in the community room of her West Hartford condominium and threw a party, asking guests to join her in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Now, B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield is throwing a party for Bea – a 90th birthday party to be held after services on June 16. A full house is expected to attend the Shabbat Kiddush luncheon in honor of Bea, a longtime member of the shul where she spent so many hours, even celebrating her bat mitzvah there at age 60, tutored by the synagogue’s past spiritual leader, Rabbi Hans Bodenheimer z”l.
“I was a late bloomer,” she jokes.
“Last year when I heard that Bea was 89, I said, ‘we have to do something for her,’” says congregant Cindy Cohen, who is chairing the event. Cohen, whose late mother was a good friend of Bea’s, has known Bea all of her life. In fact, Bea and her husband Kurt Israel, who ran a catering business, catered the b’nai mitzvahs of Cohen and her siblings, as well as Cohen’s wedding.
“She has always been so gracious and laid back. She is as down to earth as you can get,” Cohen says. “The Jewish community is so lucky to have had Bea and Kurt help make their lives so happy and beautiful.”
Born Beate Theisebach in Grossen-Linden, Germany, Bea and her older sister, Hildegarde, and their parents, Bernhard and Henrietta, were living in a house connected to the day goods store they owned when the Theisebachs were told that their 9-year-old daughter – the only Jewish girl in her class – could no longer attend classes at the school. Instead, Bea was forced to travel to a Jewish school an hour away.
The Theisebachs, who had family members in the United States, were in the process of securing papers that would allow them to emigrate to the U.S. when, on Nov. 8, 1938, Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass” – changed their lives forever. S.S. officers rounded up the town’s Jewish men, including Bea’s father, who was sent to Buchenwald. Bea, her mother, sister, aunt, and other Jews in town, were taken from their homes and forced into a one-room firehouse for the next 24 hours with no food, water or bathrooms. When they were released, they returned home to find their apartment looted. Still vivid in Bea’s mind is the image of the portrait of her grandparents that had hung on the wall and was now destroyed.
“They smashed the glass and gouged out their eyes. How bad is that? We were just devastated,” she recalls.
A few months later, Bernhard returned home and the Theisebach family boarded a ship for the U.S. Her father snuck into their lift a Torah, shofar and a beautiful NerTamid – eternal flame.
The Theisebachs arrived at Ellis Island on April 9, 1939 and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Soon, an uncle helped them move to Hartford, where Bernhard worked at a factory and Henrietta as a caretaker. It wasn’t long before the neighborhood kids were calling Bea “Betty.” She started taking classes at the Arsenal School and, later, the Henry Barnard Brown School and Hartford High School. In 1943, she became an American citizen and changed her name to Beatrice.
Her parents – who had changed their last name to Theise — were among a group of German Jews and Holocaust survivors who founded Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh, which years later would merge with Newington’s Congregation B’nai Sholom to become B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom.
She met her husband, Kurt Israel, at a Chanukah party at Tikvoh Chadoshoh and they married in 1948.
Bea and Kurt, who was also German and a survivor of Auschwitz, owned a shoe shop in Hartford. Soon, however, Kurt, who also worked for a local caterer, decided to open a restaurant with a partner, Benjamin Grossman. When he began getting requests to cater events, he and Bea established Hartford Kosher Caterers, opening a banquet hall in East Windsor called Imperial Caterers.
“People came from all over,” says Bea, who was also busy raising the couple’s two sons, Jeffrey and Steven. “That was my life. I would sometimes come home at three o’clock in the morning…I loved it.”
The Israels sold the business in 1988 and retired, living in Lauderhill, Florida for the winter months. Kurt passed away in the early 1990s, but Bea still winters in Florida where she enjoys spending time with her two sons and their wives, and her four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“Bea Israel is an example of what it means to live a life of Torah,” said Rabbi Debra Cantor of B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom. “That’s part of her family heritage. Her father risked his life to smuggle a Torah scroll out of Nazi Germany. He knew that Torah and community were as precious as life itself. Bea has always carried on that tradition. She is a woman of great integrity, generosity, accomplishment and wisdom. Yet, she has always preferred to stay in the background, has never sought accolades.
“Bea does what she does because it is right, because God calls her to be a good, giving, kind person. We are so grateful to Bea for finally allowing us to honor her — and she only did so because she was convinced it would benefit the community! Kol Hakavod, Bea! May you go from strength to strength!”