Category Archives: religion

Phyllis Kurzer’s Karma Mala

Talk about good karma.

After Westporter Phyllis Kurzer finished yoga teacher training, she wanted to wear a mala (a string of beads or knots, used in praying or meditating) to enhance her spiritual connection.

She could not find a mala with the unique, artistic design and metaphysical properties she was looking for. So she taught herself how to make one.

She found a source in Nepal, and created her first hand-knotted mala with a prayer box pendant.

The interest it generated launched a business. It’s called Karma Mala.

One of Phyllis Kurzer's malas.

One of Phyllis Kurzer’s malas…

Phyllis designs every mala. She acquires pendants from India and other tribal reaches. She pairs them with beautiful semi-precious stones, hand-knotting between each bead.

It’s a meticulous process, but true to tradition.

...and another.

…and another.

Phyllis’ goal is to make malas that are beautiful to wear — and also offer hope to the most vulnerable people.

The Westport artist learned that every year, 20,000 girls are trafficked in Nepal. Within 2 years, most become HIV positive. By age 20, they are dead.

Phyllis discovered the American Himalayan Foundation’s Stop Girl Trafficking project. It prevents young girls from becoming victims of their family’s poverty and desperation, by putting them in school, then weaving a safety net around them.

The program provides everything a girl needs. It then mentors her, and educates her family and community about the dangers of trafficking.

There are now over 10,750 girls in more than 550 schools throughout Nepal. Once enrolled, not a single girl has been lost to trafficking.

Amazingly, Phyllis says, it takes only $100 to keep a girl safe and in school for one year.

Phyllis Kurzer

Phyllis Kurzer

Where does the money come from?

A lot of it comes directly from Karma Mala. Phyllis donates 100% — yes, every penny of profit — to Stop Girl Trafficking. Since she began last year, that’s over $20,000.

Phyllis has just introduced a brand-new collection. Half malas (54-bead malas that can be worn alone, or layered with others), traditional malas, wrist wraps, featherweight designs and gemstone layering necklaces are all available. They’re beautiful to wear, and functional for meditation.

Not to mention, life-changing for vulnerable, at-risk girls, halfway around the world from Westport.

(For more information or to order, click Phyllis’ direct email is For a video on Stop Girl Trafficking, click below. Hat tip: Jamie Camche)

“Godspell” Spills Across The Staples Stage

“Godspell” is no stranger to Staples High School.

But Players’ 2 previous productions of the parable-based musical were performed as student-directed studio theater pieces.

Next week, “Godspell” spills across the main stage.

Part of

Part of “the tribe” of “Godspell.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Over 50 students — all between ages 14 and 18 — present the vibrant show July 23, 24 and 25.

A cast that big presents challenges, notes director David Roth.

The original production includes only Jesus, Judas and 8 followers. Roth and co-director Kerry Long expanded that core group, then added an ensemble. They listen to Jesus’ words, and join in the celebration.

This production is also special because “Godspell” enjoyed a major Broadway revival in 2012. It featured new vocal arrangements, and script changes with plenty of modern references. There’s rapping, puppets — even a game of Pictionary.

This year’s Staples version includes those additions, along with a song not previously used on stage, “Beautiful City.”

Caroline Didelot and Jack Baylis share a duet. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Caroline Didelot and Jack Baylis share a duet. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Roth says he grew up loving the show. Its upbeat message of love and tolerance make it a great summer choice.

“Some of our recent productions, like ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Sweeney Todd,’ were very moving, but also very dark,” Roth adds. “‘Godspell’ is equally poignant, but in a joyous and exuberant way. It’s also a great show for the entire family, regardless of your religious beliefs.”

With opening night near, Players are working hard to make this the best summer production ever — day by day.

(“Godspell” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 23, 24 and 25, and 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 25. Tickets are available at, and at the door.)

“Jazz Rabbi” Blows Horn For Ornette Coleman

Greg Wall faced a challenge.

The “jazz rabbi” — a saxophonist who doubles as the spiritual leader of Westport’s Beit Chaverim (or the other way around) — needed a place to blow his horn.

Plenty of local spots feature music. But jazz is often relegated to “background music” — not the high-level listening experience offered at the major New York venues he’s worked, like Joe’s Pub and the Village Vanguard.

Enter 323. The restaurant near Coffee An’ offers a nice, wood-finished listening space. Every Thursday night Wall curates weekly jazz events, with well-known musician and guest stars.

The 2 faces of Greg Wall.

The 2 faces of Greg Wall.

Like the jazz professional he is, Wall improvises well. This Thursday there’s a tribute to Ornette Coleman, the legendary alto saxophonist/composer who died last month.

Sitting in will be Coleman’s longtime guitarist/collaborator Kenny Wessel.

“I’m a firm believer in meeting people where they are,” says Wall. “Whether it’s using my music to make a connection with people in a night club, or teaching Talmud classes on a sailboat” — his Friday morning onboard classes are a whole other story — “I try to remove any barriers that stand in the way of people and their spiritual development.”

That spiritual development — the jazz element, anyway — continues every Thursday night through August 27. Upcoming guests include guitar legend Bob Devos and the New American Quartet.

There is no cover charge to hear the jazz rabbi and friends blow their shofars horns.

(For more information, click on the Facebook page: Jazz at 323 Westport.)

“Mr. Bob” Custer: A Sexton At The Heart Of A Church

Bob Custer has done just about everything at Green’s Farms Congregational Church. He’s helped out at weddings and funerals. He oversees renovations and repairs. He gives tours for elementary students (in colonial costume), and keeps the nursery school going. Every Sunday, he rings the bell.

In fact, the only thing Custer has not done is preach a sermon. If he did, he’d deliver a wonderful one.

One of Bob Custer's many duties at Green's Farms Congregational Church is ringing the bell.

One of Bob Custer’s many duties at Green’s Farms Congregational Church is ringing the bell.

Custer’s official title is sexton. He’s been at the historic church on Hillandale Road since 1991. He’s “semi-retiring” on July 1. Even so, he’ll probably do more in one day than all “06880” readers do together in a year.

Here’s a brief glimpse into the rest of Custer’s life. A Norwalk native and graduate of Wright Tech (as a draftsman), he was part of the 1968 Vietnam Tet offensive as a squad leader with the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”).

Ever since, he’s been active in veterans affairs. Custer is now an officer with Westport’s VFW.

He’s an avid fisherman, and a former Little League and Pop Warner coach. “If I see someone doing something, I try it,” he says. “I love a challenge. I want to learn something new every day.”

Custer was working construction when he heard that Green’s Farms Church needed a sexton. He started in 1991, and has been there ever since. Kids he once saw being baptized are now returning, to baptize their own children.

In his quarter century at the church, Custer has made many friends. Everyone loves him — but especially the children. They call him “Mr. Bob.”

“They think I live here,” Custer says.

Actually, he might as well. “This is my second home,” he notes.

Bob Custer (seen reflected at right) shows off a pitcher given to the church by Martha Washington. It honors Rev. Hezekiah Ripley, who served from 1762 to 1821.

Bob Custer (seen reflected at right) shows off a pitcher given to the church by Martha Washington. It honors Rev. Hezekiah Ripley, who served from 1762 to 1821.

History is another of Custer’s passions. “People travel thousands of miles to see historical sites,” he says. “But they almost never look in their own back yard.”

Custer does. An avid reader of history books and church archives — and a garrulous man who strikes up conversations with people looking for ancestors in the church cemetery — he is a wealth of information. He loved dressing up and describing early Westport history to 3rd graders when they stopped in during the Jennings Trail tours.

Children were enthralled as he described the importance of the “meetinghouse” to the life of the town, and amazed to learn folks sat in church for hours on end — without heat or electricity.

Today of course, Green’s Farms Congregational Church has heat and electricity. Overseeing both is just part of Bob Custer’s job — one he does every day with respect, joy and pride.

Bob Custer points out some famous names -- Jennings, Sherwood, Wakeman, Rippe, Adams -- on a "Wall of Honor." Those on the list are cited for their  Sunday school attendance from 1909 to 1916.

Bob Custer points out famous names — Jennings, Sherwood, Wakeman, Rippe, Adams — on a “Roll of Honor.” They’re cited for their Sunday school attendance from 1909 to 1916.



Sue Can Do That!

Three years ago, Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church bade goodbye to retiring minister John Branson.

He’d done an enormous amount for the handsome building with the very active congregation in downtown Westport. In his farewell speech, Rev. Branson gave a heartfelt shout-out to Sue Ryan.

Now she’s leaving. And though even the greatest ministers come and go, a woman like her may be almost impossible to replace.

Her title is “parish administrator.” But that does not do her justice. Perhaps it should be “Wonder Woman.”

For 17 years, Sue has done just about everything. She’s the first person anyone sees in the church office. She’s a problem-solver — though she makes sure most issues never reach the problem stage. She’s a go-getter, a Ms. Fixit, an imperturbable, warm, genuinely friendly and ultra-caring woman.

Sue Ryan and Jessica Branson (Rev. Branson's daughter). Sue is dressed in African gear because for 10 years before joining Christ & Holy Trinity Church, she owned a safari camp in Zimbabwe.

Sue Ryan and Rev. Branson’s daughter Jessica. Sue is dressed in African gear because for 10 years before joining Christ & Holy Trinity Church, she owned a safari camp in Zimbabwe.

Frances Rowland — the church’s former warden — calls her “everyone’s mother. She’s remarkable. Her worth goes way beyond her hours and her job.”

Sue organizes weddings, receptions and funerals. When parishioners call the church about illness, death and other tragedies, she’s the one who answers.

Sue is the first person in church in the mornings, and the last to leave at night. During the winter, she even shovels snow.

Sue has gone on 5 church mission trips. “The kids love her,” Frances says.

“We all do,” she adds. “Sue is everybody’s favorite person.”

Last night, Sue had her own farewell party at Christ & Holy Trinity. Appropriately, one of the speakers was Jessica Branson — whose father hired Sue 17 years ago.

“Your shoes cannot be filled,” Jessica said. “But I know they will take you on many exciting journeys in the years to come.”

Interfaith Vigil Set For Monday

In the wake of the Charleston church massacre, a vigil is set for this Monday (June 22), 7 p.m. on the lawn of Saugatuck Congregational Church.

The vigil is co-sponsored by TEAM Westport and the Interfaith Clergy Association of Westport and Weston.

People of all faiths — and everyone else — are invited to honor the 9 men and women gunned down in a South Carolina church.

Clockwise from top left: Susie Jackson; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; DePayne Doctor; Ethel Lance; Daniel Simmons Sr.; Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Tywanza Sanders.

Clockwise from top left: Susie Jackson; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; DePayne Doctor; Ethel Lance; Daniel Simmons Sr.; Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Tywanza Sanders.


Temple Israel: “We’ll Keep Doing Good Work”

Today — 3 days after the frightening intrusion during a luncheon program — Temple Israel president Steven Phillips issued this statement:

We at Temple Israel are grateful for the outpouring of community support we have received after this week’s incident with the intruders at our congregation.  Many of you have asked us to share our reactions to the ongoing conversation around this sad event.

Common sense tells us that 2 men do not travel from New Haven to politely read a statement to a small, private luncheon. Rather, their goal was to do exactly what they did: to create a disturbance, to distress our community, and to get themselves and their message in the press.

Steven Phillips

Steven Phillips

Our community has already paid a high price. Those attending the luncheon,  our families, and especially our children, whose safety was and must be our first concern, were made to feel unsafe in our congregation. And now, too much of the precious community resources we rely on to communicate with and connect to one another are being devoted to giving the intruders what they crave: attention.  They’ve had their 15 minutes; let’s focus on what really matters.

The police report speaks eloquently to the facts, and the court will establish its truth. The responsibility for the incident belongs solely to the intruders. The police and our staff responded magnificently and exactly as they were trained, and fortunately, there were no injuries. Now is the time to let the judicial process do its work and make certain that these 2 men, and these 2 men alone, suffer the consequences of what they did.

That is what we at Temple Israel intend to do, while we continue to make sure that our community is safe, and that we keep doing the good work that we and all our neighbors in Westport do every day.  There is no better or more principled way to respond.

Temple Intruder: “It Is An Act Of Violence Not To Yell And Scream”

Gregory Williams — one of the 2 men arrested Tuesday at Temple Israel — released this statement to local media:


Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children; the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnal house.  We could not, so help us God, do otherwise, for we are sick at heart; our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning children.
– Daniel Berrigan, S.J., 1968

At around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 May, my colleague, Dan Fischer, and I calmly walked into into Temple Israel, where the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces was holding a lunchtime meeting. So as to appear as non-threatening as possible, we had no bags, no literature—I had even left the small pocketknife I usually carry at home.

We were armed only with a written testimony by Nabila Abu Halima, a Palestinian woman who lives in the Gaza strip, who watched her son be murdered by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead, and who had to flee her home during last year’s Gaza massacre.

Our intention was simple: to read the statement at the FIDF’s meeting, which was hosting a brigadier general in the occupying, colonizing army that is responsible for her suffering, and the suffering of so many other indigenous Palestinian women.

Gregory Williams, author of this letter.

Gregory Williams, author of this letter.

We were there, first and foremost, because we are Jews (additionally, I am a scholar of religious ethics), and we wanted to take responsibility for the racism in our community that fuels Jewish American support for the Zionist Apartheid regime’s continued occupation of Palestinian land.

Growing up, I remember hearing my mother and grandmother telling stories about members of our family who were killed during the Holocaust. One of the lessons that I learned from those stories was the lesson of collective responsibility.

History remembers kindly those Europeans and Americans who took responsibility for the racism in their community which had bred Naziism by protecting Jewish people, by lifting up their voices, and by working to build a political resistance movement to dismantle fascism.

I entered Temple Israel on Tuesday because I feel that, as a Jew living in the United States, the time has come to take responsibility for my community. Zionism is no less racist, no less hateful, and no less violent and threatening to human life and dignity than Naziism. Like Naziism, Zionism seeks to build a nation upon an ethnocentric vision which erases the lives of people it considers “undesirable.”

When Dan and I reached the second floor of the synagogue, we told staff exactly why we were there. We said that we had come to read a statement from a Palestinian woman at the FIDF event, and that we would leave voluntarily when we were done, or when we were ordered to do so by a police officer.

Daniel Fischer was also arrested at Temple Israel.

Daniel Fischer was also arrested at Temple Israel.

The staff immediately assaulted us, and tackled us to the ground. We did not take any physical action against them. Instead, we started to read the statement that we had come to deliver and, since we were still outside the door of the meeting room, we did so loudly so that as many people would hear us as possible. The staff kicked our phones away, we began to say “Free, Free Palestine!”

Even though we had told the staff what we were doing, and had made clear that this was a nonviolent political demonstration, they turned around and, over the phone and in our hearing, filed a false police report, claiming that we were armed.  “We’re unarmed!” we said, “Tell them we are unarmed!  We are Jews coming to a synagogue!”

Because the staff (and apparently several others) filed this false police report, we are told that several schools were put on lockdown—this is one of the dangers of filing a false report or making a frivolous 911 call.

Since then, people from senators to judges to newspaper reporters have called us “violent,” “criminals,” even “terrorists.”  I ask you, who is the terrorist?  Someone who reads a statement from a Palestinian woman, or the general who helps murder that woman’s child?

What is violent, to protest that general, or to hold a public event to support her and the illegitimate armed force that she serves?  There are those who say that they felt threatened by our action.  I ask, what does it say about your community that you feel threatened by two nonviolent protesters testifying to the violence of that racist hate-ideology called Zionism?

Could this mean that your community is committed to racism and hatred?  There are those who say that they felt threatened by our volume. I respectfully submit that there are times, especially times when children are being murdered by a colonial regime and a racist ideology, when it is an act of violence not to yell and scream.

Sue Sirlin: “We Experienced What Israelis Live With Daily”

“06880” reader Sue Sirlin was in Temple Israel yesterday, when a lunch meeting was interrupted by 2 intruders.

She’s had 24 hours to reflect on those harrowing minutes. Here is her report:

Yesterday, Temple Israel hosted a “Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces” luncheon that drew 100 participants from around Fairfield County. FIDF was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors to provide for the education and well-being of those who serve in the IDF, as well as their families. Our goal was to learn how we can support the IDF, and about its vital programming to keep Israel and, consequently, the US safer.

I was one of many participants enjoying the event. We were eating, mingling and listening to a handful of speakers present their stories on the importance of protecting the liberty of Israel’s citizens. A fighter pilot spoke about his experiences flying during combat in Israel. A female sergeant and a general spoke as well. Unfortunately, the event was cut short…


Within moments, our peaceful gathering shifted abruptly. The far doors to the Social Hall rattled, and a sizable commotion behind those glass-paneled doors ensued. Muffled shouts erupted from behind them. I saw a belligerent man violently struggle to gain access to the room. Someone restrained him from behind.

They wrestled for about 15 seconds — long enough for us to register the scene. The demonstrator shouted, “Long live Palestine! Long live the Intifada!”

The women closest to the doors reacted first, pushing themselves from the table and fleeing quickly to the other side of the hall. Then in a blurred moment, many fled from the room, myself included.

A few women gasped “Call 911!” while others cried. Many of us spontaneously consulted each other to determine where to escape. No one was certain how many men were there.

Thoughts ricocheted through our minds: Were they armed? Were they terrorists? And most importantly, where in the temple were they? As a result, we were unsure of where run or take cover. It was chaos.

Temple israel

In that surreal blur, we experienced firsthand what Israelis live with daily: the panic in a moment’s notice of something signaling danger, not knowing what might happen next. Ironically, we were there yesterday as Israel’s fellow congregants, financial supporters, loyalists — from a supposedly safe, yet empathetic, vantage point. Or so we thought.

Fortunately, the 2 intruders were not armed. They were subdued immediately by 3 brave temple staff members who reacted with great speed and strength. The police arrived within minutes of the call, and took control of the situation. And no one was injured. Thank goodness.

Yet Temple Israel and its preschool were on lockdown, as were Coleytown Middle and Coleytown Elementary Schools, Bedford Middle School, and the Unitarian Church preschool. In that hour, how many lives were shaken by these 2 radical 25-year old men?

Reflecting back on yesterday’s events, a deep anger wells up inside. During those moments we were not permitted to hear what we wanted to hear, to congregate at our FIDF event. Our liberty was limited by 2 men’s wrath.

I later learned that the FIDF speakers did continue after the police cleared the building. I wish I could have stayed to hear what they had to say. Shockingly, I later learned that one of the intruders wore a Jewish star around his neck. How could someone who identifies himself as Jewish threaten fellow Jews?

One thing is certain: My appreciation and empathy has deepened toward our Israeli friends’ needs. I will never stop supporting them, in any way possible.

Police Report On Temple Israel Confrontation; Temple Guest Thought She Might Be Killed

The Westport Police Department issued this statement this afternoon:

Today at approximately 1 p.m. the Westport Police Department received a complaint from Temple Israel about unwanted people protesting at the property. Shortly after the initial dispatch to responding units, the communications center started to receive additional calls reporting that a person had a gun. The first 2 arriving officers were able to take custody of the two individuals on the 2nd floor meeting room where staff had physically detained them.

Daniel Fischer was 1 of the 2 men arrested in the Temple Israel incident today.

Daniel Fischer was 1 of the 2 men arrested in the Temple Israel incident today.

During the initial response, Coleytown Middle School, Coleytown Elementary School, the pre-school at the Unitarian Church and the Temple Israel Nursery were put into lockdown until officers were able to clear the buildings.

No gun was located during the incident, but a witness had observed one of the men approaching with a shirt over his arm and hand which led some witnesses to believe he was carrying a gun. Westport officers were assisted by the Weston Police Department during the incident.

During the investigation it was learned that the Temple was hosting a talk with members of the Israeli Defense Force. The 2 suspects had arrived to protest the IDF. They entered the building and were confronted by staff and told to leave.

Gregory Williams was also arrested today.

Gregory Williams was also arrested today.

The 2 suspects refused and walked past staff, and attempted to enter the meeting place. Temple Israel staff had to physically prevent them from entering the meeting room.

As the 2 were detained outside the meeting room it was reported that they were shouting various statements regarding the IDF. The actions of the 2 protestors created enough concern to the attendees that several people had exited the premises in fear for their safety.

The 2 suspects claim to be college students protesting the IDF. A vehicle which witnesses reported as dropping them off has been located and the person has been identified. He will not be charged with any criminal charges.

The following individuals were arrested: Daniel Fisher and Gregory Williams. Both are 25 years old, and live in New Haven. Both have been charged with criminal trespass 1st Degree and breach of peace 2nd degree 53a-181(a)(3). They were issued $1500 bonds, and will appear May 21 at Norwalk Court.


Meanwhile, Stephanie Bass wrote in a comment on the 1st “06880” report of the incident:

In the middle of speeches, there was a loud disturbance. I couldn’t tell how many people, but they were banging on the door to the room, yelling either “Justice for the Palestinians” or “Freedom for the Palestinians.” There were 80 women in the room. People started screaming “Get down!” and “Call 911!” Women ran to the back of the room, or ran out a back door.

The “Palestinian” ranting went on. I was waiting for the machine gun fire. First I thought, I could die today; then I thought if many people die today, I don’t want to be one of them.

Temple Israel

Temple Israel

I’d been in Israel during the ’73 war. I thought of Newtown and that movie theater in Colorado. I dove under the table. After a few minutes, the Israeli Brigadier General grabbed my hand. She said it was okay to come out; personnel at the temple had subdued the men.

This did not feel like political protest. This felt like terrorism.


Temple Israel president Steven Phillips added these thoughts, in an email to members:

As some of you may have heard, an incident occurred at Temple Israel as our congregation was hosting a luncheon for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.  At no time was any one in physical danger.

Two unarmed young men appeared at the door and noisily attempted to gain entry to the luncheon and disrupt its proceedings. Their intent appears to have been to protest and create a disturbance. They were confronted by executive director Lisa Goldberg, then detained by director of member engagement Bryan Bierman, Cantor Dan Sklar and Rabbi P.J. Schwartz, and others. The Westport Police Department was called and officers responded immediately.

The 2 men are now in police custody. A thorough search of the intruders, our building and our grounds by police found no weapons of any kind. To ensure our safety, the police will remain at Temple Israel and maintain a presence throughout the rest of today and into tomorrow.

The police have advised us that we can safely continue with our day as planned.  We will therefore hold our scheduled religious school classes, TI High, Confirmation and any programming we have planned for this evening.

Westport PoliceOf course, we will continue to follow up with the police as they look into this matter. We believe that the response of our staff and Westport Police Department was exemplary. As we learn more about this incident, we will continue to work with the Westport Police Department to ensure that our security procedures keep everyone safe. In the meantime, if you have questions, please feel free to email me or to contact the Temple office.

These incidents are always extremely disturbing. Fortunately, no one was in danger. I would like to thank the staff and the police for the poise and professionalism with which they handled the situation. We are very lucky to be served by them both.