Category Archives: religion

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Halper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

Baba Ram Dass: The Westport Connection

Westport’s history is filled with writers who — while not as closely associated with our town as, say, Peter De Vries or Max Shulman — spent time here at the heights of their careers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. J.D. Salinger. Shirley Jackson.

Add Baba Ram Dass to the list.

His “Be Here Now” — described by the New York Times as “an exuberant exponent of finding salvation through helping others” — sold 2 million copies, and has had more then 3 dozen printings.

But he’s perhaps better known for his advocacy — with fellow Harvard professor Timothy Leary — of LSD, and the spiritual inspiration he found in India.

Ram Dass — born Richard Alpert — returned from India as a “bushy-bearded, barefoot, white-robed guru,” the Times says. He became “a peripatetic lecturer on New age possibilities and a popular author of more than a dozen inspirational books.”

Baba Ram Dass

He also started a foundation to combat blindness in India and Nepal, supported reforestation in Latin America, and developed health education programs for American Indians, the Times reports.

According to alert “06880” reader — and endless fount of historical knowledge — Mary Gai, Ram Dass came to Westport around 1979.

He was here, Mary says, thanks to the kindness of a follower. Independently wealthy, the woman lived in a compound — with a big van, tents and campfires — on the Saugatuck River.

I’m not sure how long he stayed in the woods here. But last year Ram Dass began an essay on aging this way: “One evening I was taking a train back from Westport to New York city….”

Baba Ram Dass died on Sunday, in Hawaii. He was 88.

If you have any memories of his time in Westport — or simply how he influenced you — click “Comments” below.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary of Baba Ram Dass.)

Photo Challenge #259

The Unitarian Church is a Westport treasure — both spiritually and physically.

For well over half a century, the congregation has been at the forefront of many social justice battles. They’ve provided a home for folks of many faith traditions, and those with none at all.

Throughout that time, they’ve done it in a building that looks as beautiful and modern as the day it opened.

Set back in the woods — unnoticed from nearby Lyons Plains Road — its soaring sanctuary and large windows provide gorgeous, inspiring, ever-changing views of the world.

David Vita’s image of those woods in autumn — framed by church windows — was last week’s Photo Challenge (click here to see). Fred Cantor, Andrew Colabella, Molly Alger, Bill Barron, Stephen Axthelm, Rosalie Kaye, Seth Schachter, Annie Haskel, Richard Hyman, Jill Turner Odice, Carol Hanks, Luke Garvey, Peter R. Powell, Tom Risch, Bobbie Herman, Mari-Eleanor Martino, Susan Miller, Jo Ann Flaum, Jalna Jaeger and Stephanie Ehrman all knew exactly where those woods were.

At least some of those readers are not Unitarian Church members. But at some point, nearly every Westporter has found his or her way there — for a wedding, funeral, service, meeting or program.

If you haven’t been there yet: godspeed.

This week’s Photo Challenge is a tougher one. If you know — or think you know — where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Jay Dirnberger)

Dost Thou Remember?

Staples High School graduate Catherine Webster now lives in Oklahoma. Her congregation — First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City — is celebrating the tricentennial of the carol “Joy to the World.” On Facebook, she wrote that last Sunday’s service focused on the idea that music transcends the intellect, and speaks directly to the heart and soul.

During the lay reflection, Catherine described the traditions of Staples’ Candlelight Concert. It was a joy, she said, to share both “Sing We Noel” and “Welcome Yule” with her beloved community. Here are her beautiful, heartfelt remarks:

Dost thou remember the Prophet of old
Who that most wond’rous story told
How of a virgin pure and mild
Should be born a perfect child?
The seer spake true: The virgin so fair
A son from Heaven doth declare
Sing we Noël, Noël, Noël.

If this song is unfamiliar to you, fear not: I bring good tidings of great joy! It’s exceedingly obscure, and you won’t be hearing it any time soon on KMGL’s all–holiday line-up.

But for me, it’s a Christmas classic. Every vocal music student from my high school back in Connecticut has learned this song since the 1950s. The 100-voice a cappella choir has used it as a processional for the annual Candlelight Concert, literally for generations. And will again next weekend (I checked.).

This is music that speaks directly to my heart, and the setting also adds to its power.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

In the dim of the high school auditorium, the school orchestra would play the instrumental introduction as the choir, robed in blue with white stoles, processed down the 3 aisles and surrounded the audience with the warm light of flickering (electric) candlelight.

Once everyone was in place, the orchestra played a big downbeat and the choir members would turn to face the audience. A high school teacher commented that he always associated that turn with the future that his soon to be former students – the graduating seniors — were facing, full of hope, candles aglow.

My family started to attend this concert in 1966, when it was already a long-standing tradition and considered the high school’s holiday gift to the town of Westport.

I had just turned 1 year old that year. We continued to attend the concert as youth from our church, babysitters, our friends’ older siblings and – finally – my brother and I made it to high school to take part.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old. Some of those performers — now with their own children out of college — will return this weekend.

Although clearly a Christmas carol, performing this song touched the hearts of my many Jewish friends and the several others, like me, who identified as non-Christian.

The power of the song, and of the tradition, transcended a particular theology and unified us. I know I was not the only student who felt the weight of history as we took our places, continuing the tradition that our elders had established, helping to continue and preserve it for those not yet born.

In an online forum related to my hometown, a woman who graduated in 1958 commented: “Can anyone explain why every time I see a post about Staples’ Christmas Candlelight concert I immediately start to sing ‘Sing We Noel,’ and get all misty-eyed?”

To which the original poster replied: “Because once you’ve been part of it, it’s part of your soul.”

It is certainly part of mine.

Antonio Antonelli, in the 2018 “Sing We Noel” processional.

So is the introit that the choir sang in the lobby prior to the processional. Unseen but not unheard, many of us held hands as we performed this number, which has for me a truly ancient feel. Here’s the final verse:

Welcome be you that are here
Welcome all and make good cheer
Welcome all another year
Welcome Yule!

(The 79th annual Candlelight Concert is set for tomorrow — Friday, December 13 — and Saturday, December 14. All tickets have already been distributed.)

The “Sing We Noel” processional — a part of every Candlelight Concert since 1940. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Unitarians Offer Musical “Journey Of Light”

Christmas songs are not for the faint of heart.

“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” makes some folks puke. “Jingle Bell Rock” can push you over the edge. And don’t get me started on “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

So it’s good to know that there is still some true holiday music out there.

This Sunday (December 15, 11 a.m.), the Unitarian Church in Westport hosts a special performance. Music director Ed Thompson has written a wonderful piece. Using uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), tin whistle, violin, organ, bodhran hand drum and harp — and backed by a chorus and soloists — “Journey of Light” celebrates the winter solstice.

It’s holiday music with a twist: secular, warm and melodic. The text is not biblical — but it is deeply spiritual.

“Journey of Light,” at the Unitarian Church.

With authentic Irish instruments, and rhythmic jigs and reels, Thompson’s work asks why we sing during the darkest of seasons. The answer: the importance of community, of sharing our own inner light, and the importance of yearly celebrations that date back thousands of years.

Thompson — Juilliard-trained, whose works have been commissioned throughout the US and Europe — has assembled noted musicians for the piece. Jerry O’Sullivan is one of the premier Irish pipe players on the East Coast, while Nicole Schroeder (tin whistle) has worked on Broadway.

The public is invited to enjoy this hopeful, exciting and celebratory work.

Words Matter: Jonathan Costello’s Video Goes Viral

Last week, a story about Joe Biden’s stutter gave Americans better insights into his speaking style and “gaffes.”

Also last week, a Westport 7th grader’s video about his own stutter went viral. It’s as personal as the vice president’s tale — and perhaps even more powerful.

Jonathan Costello’s stutter began when he was 5. He was bullied a bit in his New York City school — but there were moments of kindness too. When his 2nd grade teacher explained to the class that Jonathan was trying to get over his speech disorder, a girl said, “Don’t change! I like you just the way you are.”

His family — father Sean, mother Lauren and younger brother William — moved to Westport just before 4th grade. Jonathan was very nervous. He worried that kids would think he was “weird.” He might have no friends.

From left: Sean, William, Jonathan and Lauren Costello. They’ve got a “soccer room” in their Westport home.

Jonathan is an excellent soccer player. A week before school began, he went to Mickey Kydes’ soccer camp. He made a good friend.

On the first day at Coleytown Elementary School, Jonathan blasted a home run in kickball. “I got known as the soccer kid, not the stutter kid,” he says proudly.

Jonathan’s stutter is caused by his vocal cords shutting when he speaks. He has no trouble putting thoughts together. They just don’t always come out as quickly as he’d like.

For the past 5 years, Jonathan has worked with world renowned speech therapist Becca Grusgott. She was just minutes from his Riverdale Country School.

But he moved to Westport, and she to Kansas City. They’ve continued their work via FaceTime. Jonathan has flourished. Now a 7th grader at Bedford Middle School, he plays premier soccer for Inter Connecticut FC, basketball for the Westport PAL travel squad, and attends Hebrew school at Temple Israel.

Soccer — the world’s sport –has helped give Jonathan confidence and poise.

Last spring, as his bar mitzvah loomed, Jonathan wanted to do his “mitzvah” (good deed) project about his stutter. His mother suggested a public service announcement.

A project should involve “tikkun olam” — an element of “repairing the world” — Lauren explains. A PSA video could help repair not only the world around him, but also Jonathan’s world.

Lauren and Sean were happy to help. But, she notes, “we’re not helicopter parents. We did not want to do this for him.”

Jonathan loved the idea. But he felt nervous too.

He was a fan of John Green’s crash courses. (The novelist creates clever, quick videos that use words and illustrations to explain history and science.) Green is also a Liverpool soccer fan. Sean suggested to Jonathan that he use the “crash course” model himself.

Jonathan wrote a script. Through a website for graphic artists, the family found someone in Utah to add illustrations.

His parents recorded Jonathan in their basement (they put up a green screen background, just like the pros). He created a teleprompter, and read his script.

Jonathan Costello, with the improvised green screen in his basement.

He stuttered a bit. But that’s what the whole video is about. Jonathan explains what stuttering is. He talks about his own life (including a worker at Subway, who asks what’s wrong when he’s trying to order).

And he offers strategies for family members, teachers, friends and strangers: Be patient. Don’t finish sentences for someone. Be kind.

Plus: “Share this video.”

That’s a fantastic idea.

Jonathan’s video debuted at his bar mitzvah, earlier this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman agreed to show it during the ceremony.

It was a powerful moment. There was not a dry eye in the synagogue — and then everyone erupted in cheers.

Much of the ceremony involves speaking. Jonathan stuttered often. But he delivered his words with poise and confidence.

The next morning, Sean and Lauren emailed the video to everyone at the bar mitzvah — and all the guests who could not attend. Jonathan’s parents also uploaded the video to YouTube. Temple Israel forwarded it too.

Almost immediately, people shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Quickly, it rocketed around the world.

Speech therapists in Sweden and Portugal asked for translations. A girl watched it 4 times, then asked her teacher to show it to the class. An 18-year-old who had lived his life “in the shadows” said that Jonathan’s video perfectly articulated his life.

Becca — Jonathan’s speech therapist — shared it with a number of professional groups. Many members said other people had already sent it to them.

Referring back to “tikkun olam,” Lauren says, “The reaction has been amazing. But we feel like we’re just getting started repairing the world.”

What a start! With stuttering in the news, the Costellos sent Jonathan’s video to the Biden campaign. A staff member quickly responded.

Soon, Jonathan will meet the former vice president.

It should be a remarkable conversation.

(Hat tips: Ben Frimmer and Frank Rosen)

Westport’s Thanksgiving Miracle

Last week — a few days before Thanksgiving — this poignant post appeared on Facebook’s “Exit 18: Westport CT Residents and Ex-Residents” page:

My name is Effie and I grew up at 28 Hillspoint Road, where the Conservative Synagogue is now.

They are demolishing the house I grew up in in the next day or two… and I am hundreds of miles away. I wonder if there is anyone there locally who would be kind enough to go by the house and take some pictures, today possibly, before it comes down, and when it’s being taken down.

I grew up there with my brother Alex, who passed away 12 years ago in a car crash. All of our memories are in that house. I have tried for months to get the synagogue to allow me to retrieve some things from the house, to no avail. They said they would get me a door knob and send it to me.

I am devastated and would just like someone who cares, to try and take pictures of the house… before and during demolition. I can’t make it down for a couple of weeks and they didn’t let me know until the last minute. I don’t wish this on anyone. Thank you for your time and understanding. Effie

Effie posted this photo of her old Hillspoint Road home.

Comments poured in. Jeff Van Gelder remembered delivering the Town Crier newspaper to that house. He wished he could help — but he now lives in Germany.

Carmine Picarello lives just 10 minutes away. Unfortunately, he’s currently in San Francisco.

Janette Kinally jumped in. She offered to stop by and take photos.

Other readers added memories or sent condolences. A few others said they’d help too.

Inspired, Effie added more information about her house.

It was built by her great-aunt Frances Humphrey in the 1920s. One of the first women to graduate from Columbia Medical School and never married, she traveled the world alone, bringing much of what she found back to Westport. The hearthstone in the living room is solid jade, from one of her many steamship trips to Japan

“All going to turn to dust,” Effie lamented. “I’m not ok with it, and there is no way to stop it or salvage anything. I tried. It’s not been a good experience. Very disappointed. We all know the drill. It stinks. Thank you for understanding. It means a lot to me.”

Effie and her brother Alex.

Touched by the offers to help, she wrote:

Even with the sad things going on, the kindness and understanding I have received from all of you kind people has helped me tremendously, and I will never forget your kindness. Ever.

It’s not the items so much as the love attached to them. You have turned something sad into something very special and positive. I don’t know how to thank you, except know that I will keep your kindness with me, and pay it forward.

Two days later, Effie wrote again. This time she said:

I received a call from the synagogue this morning. They had tried to reach me yesterday as well.

We, myself and the Conservative Synagogue, are equally impressed, deeply moved, and extremely touched, by the outpouring of love, from the people of Westport.

This is a picture of a board from the attic of the house, that I apparently wrote on, years ago. The rabbi took it upon himself to go into the attic last night and remove it for me. Other members went in and took out quite a few other items, that are there for me to pick up in 2 weeks when I come down to Connecticut. They also had a professional photographer take pictures for me, and took video.

The items from the home are now a bonus. The selflessness and the genuine love, that has come out of the situation, is priceless. As are our collective memories. These are the things we need to hold onto the tightest, and value the most, always. I know I will. Thanks to every single one of you kind and selfless souls, who took the time to comment, take pictures, send me kind and supportive messages, and retrieve items from my childhood and family home. The LOVE I feel, coming from my home town, brings me to tears. Happy and grateful tears. 

The Thanksgiving miracle happened just in time. Two days after her original post, Effie noted:

It’s down. It’s done. The house is gone. I can live with that, knowing how many people will keep and cherish their own memories of 28 Hillspoint Road, my brother Alex, and our family. There is no other way I can really thank you all, other than to say, THANK YOU, from myself and my parents.

I heard from a friend, that Westport has had some internal friction in recent years, because of the school situation. I hope this experience brought some of those people together, who otherwise might be at odds. I also hope that tomorrow, everyone will be giving thanks for the things we have, that aren’t things. Most of all each other.

I love Westport, because of the people, who call, and have called this very special town, “home.” You are all now family to me.

Our LOVE, and deep gratitude, to you ALL. — Effie, and the Watts family.

(Hat tip: Mark Potts)

“The Number On Great-Grandpa’s Arm” Comes To Westport

A pair of bomb threats to a Bridgeport temple — just 2 days before the first anniversary of the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue — reminds us all that anti-Semitism is still very real.

Which makes an upcoming townwide, interfaith event particularly important.

This Sunday, November 10 (1:30 p.m.), the Westport Library will screen HBO’s Emmy Award-winning short documentary, “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.”

The film — which features an intimate conversation between a young boy and hi beloved great-grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor — includes hundreds of animated drawings by Westport filmmaker/painter Jeff Scher.

The screening will be followed by an audience Q-and-A with Elliott Saiontz, the film’s young narrator; his mother, and Scher. The discussion will be moderated by Rev. John D. Betit, of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

One of Jeff Scher’s drawings in the film.

Monique Lions Greenspan has helped organize the event.

Her mother survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “I know firsthand the incredible strength, optimism and gratefulness that survivors possess,” Monique says.

“Their stories provide invaluable lessons for both adults and children. I feel a deep sense of obligation to make our community aware of this opportunity for our children — and adults too — to bear witness to and learn from survivors’ experiences.”

Unfortunately, she says, in the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue attacks — and others, in places as varied as Christchurch, Poway, El Paso and Halle — “it is more important than ever to commit to programs and discussions that clearly define expectations for, and the responsibilities of, all members of the community. Hate cannot be normalized.”

(The November 10 film is sponsored by the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, PJ Our Way and the Westport Library. After the screening and discussion, the Nu Haven Kapelye offers “a musical journey from sorrow to joy, through the Klezmer tradition.” Both events are free. Click here for more information.) 

ADL Raises Voices, Inspires A “Show Of Unity”

For decades, the ADL has helped Westport.

Now it’s time for us to return the favor.

The organization — the Connecticut chapter of what was originally called the Anti-Defamation League — has:

  • Offered anti-bias training programs for teachers, students, parents and community members
  • Provided Holocaust education
  • Responded to anti-Semitic and other hate incidents
  • Sponsored Police Chief Foti Koskinas for a special course on extremist and terrorist threats, for senior-level law enforcement personnel
  • Helped begin the Kool to be Kind initiative
  • Worked with Staples High School staff on the new “Connections” program
  • Brought former neo-Nazi Frank Meeink, and ex-Westboro Baptist Church members Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper here
  • Worked with every synagogue in town on the interactive “Words to Action” program, for students from middle school through college.

“We will always be there for our community,” says ADL Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg, a Westport resident. “Now, we’re bringing the community together with a ‘show of unity.'”

It will be quite a show. “ADL Voices” is a major fundraiser, on Saturday, November 9 (Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, 8 p.m.).

Trombone Shorty — the New Orleans-based jazz, funk, R&B, hip hop, pop and rock trombone, trumpet, organ and tuba player — will star.

Trombone Shorty

Award-winning gospel artist Pastor Marcia Fountain will solo. David Letterman’s bandleader Paul Shaffer emcees. Westporter Sarah Green serves as artistic director.

The Voices Choir — a talented, diverse group of musicians, singers and dancers from across Fairfield County — will perform, along with the Pivot Ministries Choir from Bridgeport.

Students from Staples High School, the Bridgeport public schools and Neighborhood Studios will sing, along with those from Fairfield Prep, Fairfield University, Keys Bridgeport and the Manhattan School of Music, and various church and synagogue choirs.

Westport Academy of Dance’s senior company introduces a piece specially choreographed for the event.

Other Westporters involved include the Staples Service League of Boys; ADL board member and event chair Claudia Cohen, along with many volunteers.

It’s truly be a “unifying” night. The fundraising benefit and community gathering is designed to “bring people together, foster dialogue and build mutual respect,” Ginsburg says.

It will also be very entertaining, quite inspirational, and tons of fun.

(For more information, including tickets and sponsorship opportunities, click here. Major sponsors include Bercham Moses LLP, Norwalk Hospital and Terex.)

From Gun Barrels To Garden Tools

The prophet Isaiah said it well:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Over 2,000 years later we use guns, not swords. And we use them not only against other nations, but on ourselves.

This morning, the Unitarian Church in Westport took Isaiah literally (with a 21st-century twist).

Retired Episcopal Bishop Jim Curry preached on his work of taking guns off the street, and transforming them into garden tools. He was joined by Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence.

After the service, Rev. Curry fired up his forge in the courtyard, and demonstrated the transformation.

Linda Hudson and Bishop Suffragan (ret.) Jim Curry, hard at work.

Truly, he practiced what he preached.

“Swords into plowshares; guns into gardening tools.” (Photos/Stephen Axthelm)