The Ledger’s annual list of Connecticut residents who are making a difference in our Jewish communities today.
On June 4 – exactly six months after a four-alarm fire damaged much of the interior of the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven – the annual “Touch a Truck” event was held in the JCC parking lot. Hundreds of people – mostly families with small children – came to the event to touch and sit on top of fire trucks and bulldozers and to play on the JCC’s playground.
“It was such a great day,” said Judy Alperin, CEO. “But it wasn’t just that it was a great event, what was great was the energy. People wanted to be back there. They really have missed it…they were just so happy to be home.”
On Dec. 3 – almost a year to the day of the fire – the JCC held its annual holiday gift fair. In January, the JCC will hold a grand reopening.
While many worked to reopen the facility – including the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation and the JCC, which voted unanimously last spring to return to and continue operating in the building in Woodbridge – Alperin led the effort to renovate and reopen.
“Everyone has worked tirelessly with their eyes on the prize to make critical decisions that will chart the future,” Alperin said in a recent online community update. “While it has not been easy and we have not yet reached the end of the tunnel, we can definitely see the light and we are confident that when we finally arrive at our destination, it will be beautiful.”
With adults aged 75 and older representing the fastest-growing segment of the American Jewish population, the community needs to start focusing more on this “third chapter” of life, says Rabbi Vicki L. Axe, founding spiritual director of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich.
“We live in a time of great challenge because we’re living 30 years longer than previously, which raises all kinds of issues medically, ethically, psychologically, and physically around family needs,” Axe says. “Most Boomers are dealing not only with the struggle with adult children in today’s world – most kids, after college, are living at home for a time before they emerge and find their way – but at the same time, dealing with parents in their 80s and 90s.”
This year, Rabbi Axe founded “Boomers and Beyond: Monthly Conversations for the Third Act of Life”. During these sessions, Axe served as a facilitator along with a “second act” career coach, a certified Sage-ing leader, the palliative-care chaplain at Greenwich Hospital, and the founder of the Transplant Support Organization – all revealing the broad range of topics under the Baby Boomer umbrella. Known by a number of names – sage-ing, conscious eldering, conscious aging, Jewish Sacred Aging, Wise Aging – the “movement” seeks to help bring meaning to the “third chapter” of life.
State Rep. David Baram defeated Randall Bowers in a special election on Nov. 7 to become the new 3rd District Probate Court Judge, covering The Tobacco Valley Probate Court District of Bloomfield, East Granby, Suffield and Windsor Locks. Prior to his election as Probate Court Judge, Baram was state representative for the 15th district (Bloomfield/Windsor), and served on the as chair of the State House of Representatives General Law Committee with jurisdiction over consumer protection matters, and on the Judiciary Committee. An attorney for 39 years, Baram is managing member of the law firm Baram, Tapper & Gans LLC. He is also a longtime active member of the Jewish community, serving on the boards of several organizations, including the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford and the ADL Hartford region.
Dr. Arnold Dashefsky may have retired as director of the University of Connecticut Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life in 2012, but he is still being recognized for his work there. At a reception held in October, Dashefsky was honored for his long career and contributions to the university by the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.
Dashefsky served as the inaugural holder of the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies and as founding director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and is credited with helping to bring nearly $2 million in endowments to UConn and a similar sum in external grants. Professor emeritus of sociology, he continues to teach his course on the Sociology of Anti-Semitism at UConn. A resident of Manchester, Dashefsky is also the director emeritus and current senior academic consultant of the Berman Jewish DataBank. He is the co-editor, along with Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, of the renewed American Jewish Year Book (2012-2018), and is founder of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ).
“Arnie is responsible not only for the establishment of UConn’s outstanding Judaic Studies program and its scholarly and outreach components, but for making it one of the best resources for Jewish scholarly work in the U.S.,” Provost Jeremy Teitelbaum told the Ledger.
On Dec. 30, Becky Davidoff, a 2014 graduate of Hall High School in West Hartford, will lead a group of students from Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and Worcester State University on the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) annual weeklong Alternative Winter Break trip to Israel. This will be the fourth trip to Israel in two years for Davidoff, who is a senior at Clark where she serves as president of the university’s Hillel. In addition to JNF, Davidoff has gone on Birthright and has participated in an alternative break trip sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).
Davidoff became a JNF Campus Fellow after her winter trip with the group last year. The Fellowship program trains “pro-Israel college students across America” to create Positively Israel programming at colleges and universities. She recently returned from JNF’s National Conference in Miami, where she served on a panel entitled, “Defeating BDS with Positively Israel Activism on College Campuses.” While there, she met the founder of the Israel Association of Baseball. She is now planning a fundraiser at Clark to raise money for the Ezra Schwartz Ball Field being built in memory of the young man from Sharon, Mass. who was murdered in the West Bank two years ago.
Each JNF Fellow is obligated to recruit five students to go on the upcoming Annual Winter Break. Davidoff has tripled that number; there will be 15 traveling this month from Worcester.
“I love bringing people to Israel. It’s so cool to see their first reactions,” Davidoff said, adding, “Every time I go there, it feels like home.”
After a 10-year legal battle, a federal court ruled in November that Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach can convert an historic 136-year-old Victorian home in Litchfield into a home for Chabad Lubavich of Northwest Connecticut. Judge Janet Hall of the U.S. District Court in New Haven ruled that Chabad can build a modified version of its original plan from 2007 and ordered the Litchfield Borough’s Historic District Commission to approve the revised plan.
The long and difficult road to approval began in 2007, when the commission rejected the Chabad House plan, saying it was too large and out of character for the historic district located on the Litchfield Green. But Eisenbach, who founded the Litchfield Chabad and still serves as its director and spiritual leader, was not to be deterred. The turndown spurred a federal lawsuit against the commission claiming religious discrimination.
“On the one hand there is great joy that after a 10-year struggle we can move forward with our synagogue,” Eisenbach told The Register Citizen. “At the same time, I sadly witnessed the most serious religious bias from a very small percent of the Litchfield Community which destroyed 10 years of great blessings of a synagogue. Thankfully, they don’t represent the overwhelming majority of the great citizens of our town.”
The building will serve as a synagogue and religious education center. It will have a kosher kitchen and office space, as well as a mikvah. A swimming pool will be used for a summer camp.
Michael Feldstein loves living in Stamford…and he thinks other Modern Orthodox families will as well. That’s why several years ago he founded CAMOS (Committee to Advance Modern Orthodoxy in Stamford). Dedicated to promoting Stamford’s Modern Orthodox community to prospective families from outside the state, over the past few years, CAMOS has attended the Orthodox Union’s Emerging Communities and Job Fair in New York City, drawing more than two dozen new families to Stamford. “The more families who move here, the stronger all of our Jewish institutions will be,” Feldstein told the Ledger.
Feldstein is also a longtime member of the Stamford Chevra Kadisha, and was actively involved in the recent incorporation of the organization into a 501(c)3.
He has served for several years on the Chevra Kadisha’s dinner committee and is involved in the organization’s marketing and promotional activities. His work on behalf of the Chevra earned him high honors at the orgnization’s 2017 dinner.
“It’s especially gratifying this year to honor Michael Feldstein, one of the most active members of our organization,” said Stamford Chevra Kadisha President Yospa Lieberman.
In June, Barbara Roth was named recipient of the Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford’s (JFS) inaugural Humanitarian Award, in recognition of her work with JFS to establish Tara’s Closet, a local initiative to help those coping with mental illness. Inspired by Roth’s daughter Tara Savin, who lost her life to bi-polar disorder, Tara’s Closet was launched in 2016 to provide clothing to JFS clients in a confidential and dignified manner, and to raise funds to spread awareness about mental illness and the related help provided by JFS.
“Tara was a great humanitarian and she also loved fashion,” said Roth. “It is through the power of compassion, community support and educational opportunities that we can elevate the conversation about mental health, and show our commitment to ensure those who need help have access to the support, acceptance, and resources they deserve. Mental health is as important as physical health and deserves the same level of attention and support. We must change the perception of mental illness and create transparency, acceptance and understanding.”
DR. ROBIN SANTIAGO
DR. ED KARL
DR. MARK HAIMS
Last year, the national dental fraternity Alpha Omega contacted Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford and some local dentists about implementing the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program.
Since then dentists Dr. Robin Santiago, Dr. Ed Karl and Dr. Mark Haims all have donated their services to survivors without dental insurance and with no other means for paying for dental services. The dentists donate their services, and dental supplies and lab work are donated by other sources. Sometimes the dentists call local labs or suppliers for their pro bono assistance, but other times they contact Alpha Omega, which is able to find suppliers or labs to donate services and products.
For example, Dr. Santiago recently finished the dental work on Lester and Georgina Kramer. When Lester Kramer was 11 years old, he tried to intervene when an SS officer was beating his mother and was hit in the mouth with the butt of a rifle, shattering his front teeth. For years he wore a partial plate of false teeth to replace those he had lost as a child. Santiago was able to provide him with new partial plates that relieved pain and allowed him to eat more comfortably.
“I felt like, this terrible thing happened to him; what 11-year-old should have to live under circumstances like that, to be exposed to such evil and hatred and horror?” Santiago said. “But then they come in and with this program we show them love and care and give them back something that was taken away from them.”
With the hiring of Lauren Steinberg earlier this year, the United Jewish Federation (UJF) of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien opened a brand new Jewish Community Relations Commission (JCRC) filling the void after its former JCRC became defunct several years ago. “In terms of being forward thinking, Federation was trying to establish the way to make the largest mark on the community and engage the greatest number of people, especially in this era when politics are contentious, divisive and heated,” Steinberg said.
She arrived at the JCRC from the ADL in New York, where she served as an analyst at the national counter terrorism office reporting on Islamic extremist threats in the U.S.
Not even a month into her new position, Steinberg was at the helm of the JCRC’s May kick-off event, featuring Doron Horowitz, a senior national security advisor working with Secure Community Network, the Homeland Security agency of the Conference of Presidents and the Jewish Federations of North America. “Security is definitely one of our top issue areas, the second one probably being interfaith and social justice work,” Steinberg added. “Israel is a large focus of our work, both in terms of having important conversations about the country within the Jewish community, but also reaching out about Israel to our contacts outside the Jewish community.”
Since 2014, when they took over Young Israel of Hartford as it was about to close its doors, a group of dedicated individuals have been hard at work trying to keep a congregation going at the Trout Brook Drive synagogue building. One of the most active has been Ilya Tzvok, president of the Orthodox synagogue, which this year was renamed Beit Mordechai. The shul now follows the rich Sephardic tradition, but Tzvok stresses that the synagogue is not just for Israelis or those who come from the Sephardic tradition.
“Even though we have a nusach Mizrachi [a Sephardic style of form of prayer] this place is welcoming to everyone,” Tzvok said. “We just daven the Sephardic way, the original way they davened in the Middle East.”
Tzvok, who immigrated 26 years ago from the former Soviet Union, was one of the four men who acted three years ago when Young Israel was about to close its doors. The others were Yosi Awad, Shmuel Halpern and Allen Merriman. They all appealed to the community to help keep the shul open and were joined by community members interested in reviving a defunct Sephardic minyan.
Tzvok credits Bumi Gelb, 90, for keeping the synagogue going for so many years.
“The synagogue is alive today only because of him,” Tzvok said. “He ran the synagogue probably for 50 years. He is a righteous man who dedicated his life to this synagogue.”
As former First Selectwoman for the town of Weston, Gayle Weinstein is remembered for her response to Superstorm Sandy, setting up the local high school as a comfort station, and organizing kids’ activities and kitchen facilities.
The recipient of Anti-Defamation League Connecticut Region’s 2013 Distinguished Community Leadership Award, Weinstein, now board president of the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, led a Hadassah Connecticut statewide forum on violence against women in June.
The forum panel included survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking and professionals from agencies dealing with the issue, and ended with a call to action to aid women affected by violence. Held before the onslaught of sexual misconduct accusations leveled against Harvey Weinstein and countless other men, Gayle Weinstein spoke to the Ledger about how President Donald Trump’s statements about women have affected the country.
“Men who are in positions of power sometimes feel ‘entitled’ to ‘take’ what they want. Trump’s statements, as well as actions by other high-profile men, including Bill O’Reilly, have exemplified this,” she said. “Unfortunately, there is still a segment of the population who feel Trump’s statements were ‘just locker room talk.’ To me, even joking — and in Trump’s case, bragging — about sexual assault is reprehensible and should not be tolerated. The media attention around these comments gave us another platform to bring to light the seriousness of these crimes.”