Category Archives: religion

L’Chaim, Chabad!

In early 2012, “06880” reported that the former Three Bears would turn into a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue. It would be used for prayer services, educational programs and other meetings.

The 9,180-square foot property sat on 2.73 acres, at the corner of Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike. It was a historic site.

Three Bears Inn, in its heyday. (Photo courtesy of Westport Historical Society)

That’s where the Three Bears — with 6 fireplaces — operated from 1900 until 2009. It reopened for about 5 seconds as Tiburon restaurant, but the property was soon abandoned. Weeds sprouted on the once-stately site — parts of which still stood from its days as a stagecoach stop, 200 years earlier.

The story noted that complaints had been made by a neighbor about work being done without permits, and bright security lights infringing on neighbors.

Other concerns included traffic, wetland impacts, and exterior alterations to a historic building.

The interior of the Three Bears, from its glory days. (Postcard/Cardcow.com)

That story ran when I still permitted anonymous comments. It drew the most responses ever: 217. (The record still stands.)

They ranged far and wide. Readers waded in on Chabad’s mission, good works, and religious tolerance/intolerance in general; zoning issues like the permit process, residential neighborhoods, traffic, historic structures — even the pros and cons of anonymous comments.

What a difference 6 years makes.

As Chabad of Westport prepares for its grand opening celebration May 3 — including a ribbon-cutting ceremony with 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — the neighborhood has changed hardly at all.

The Chabad of Westport exterior, on Newtown Turnpike.

The exterior of the Three Bears has been preserved. Some of the interior wood beams and other features remain too. More than 10,000 square feet have been added, but it’s in the back, barely visible to anyone. It’s all done in traditional New England style, with a barn-type feel.

Even the parking lot has been redesigned, eliminating a dangerous entrance near Wilton Road.

The renovated space — designed by Robert Storm Architecture, and carried out by Able Construction — includes seating for 300, in a light-filled multi-function synagogue; 8 classrooms for Hebrew school; event spaces, with a special area for teenagers; a large library, and a state-of-the-art commercial kosher kitchen.

The synagogue in the back includes plenty of light.

Eight apartments above can be used by visiting lecturers, and Orthodox observers attending events on the Sabbath who are too far away to walk home. (The apartments — completely renovated — were once leased to 3 Bears dishwashers.)

A large mural gives energy to the teenagers’ space.

The building process has reinforced for local Chabad leaders the importance of its site. Over the centuries, the property has been not only a restaurant, inn and stagecoach stop, but also (possibly) a house of ill repute, says congregant Denise Torve.

To honor its history, Rabbi Yehuda Kantor and Torve are seeking artifacts to display, and memories to showcase. Photos and recollections can be sent to DeniseTorve@aol.com.

An old sign hangs proudly in the new library.

Chabad has come a long way from the days when members met in the basement of the rabbi’s home, and rented the Westport Woman’s Club for High Holy Days services.

Of course, zoning issues continue to provoke intense Westport controversy. Only the location changes.

(Chabad of Westport’s grand opening celebration is set for Thursday, May 3, 6 p.m. at 79 Newtown Turnpike. It includes a ribbon cutting, mezuzah affixing, ushering in of the Torahs, buffet dinner, music and dancing. The entire community is invited.)

Unsung Hero #44

When the 7th annual Maker Faire takes over Westport this Saturday (April 21), there will be something for everyone.

A record 12,000+ attendees — tech lovers, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science geeks, artists, authors, students and exhibitors — will share what they’ve made, see what others have created, teach, learn, be inspired, and inspire others.

And have tons of fun.

It’s a massive undertaking. Planning began the moment last year’s Maker Faire — which drew “only” 10,500 people — ended.

Hundreds of volunteers make it happen. But none of it would be possible without Mark Mathias.

Mark Mathias

Westport’s event– part of a worldwide movement (and of all 772 Maker Faires in 44 countries, among the top 5% in attendance) — was his brainchild.

In September 2011, his kids were fascinated by the New York Maker Faire.

Seven months later — thanks to Mathias’ work with the Westport Library, Sunrise Rotary and Downtown Merchants Association — we had our own “Mini Maker Faire.”

The “mini” is long gone. Now — with activities spread across the Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green — it’s as maxi as it gets.

But the Maker Faire is not Mathias’ only local contribution. He’s in his 15th year on the Board of Education; is an active member of Saugatuck Congregational Church (with a particular interest in their mission trips), and when his daughter Nicole was at Staples High School, he was an avid supporter of the music department.

Mathias — whose professional background is in IT — is president of Remarkable Steam. The non-profit promotes innovation and creativity in the areas of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

This is Mark Mathias’ busiest time of year. Hopefully, he’ll take a few moments out of his hectic day to accept our thanks, as this week’s Unsung Hero.

Robots galore at last year’s Maker Faire.

(For more information on Westport’s Maker Faire, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Saugatuck Church: Arts Infuse Faith With Energy

Many things attracted Rev. Alison Patton to Saugatuck Congregational Church, 6 years ago: the town and congregation. The church’s commitment to social justice. The opportunity to help rebuild, after a devastating fire.

But when she arrived, she realized something else: Creativity and artistic expression was part of Saugatuck Church’s long, historic DNA.

Saugatuck Congregational Church

Services were still being held at Temple Israel when photographer MaryEllen Hendricks talked to Rev. Patton about a project. She was working on “Thin Places” — a show based on the Celtic belief that there is a thin divide between the holy and real worlds.

After that show, the church formed an Arts Committee. The goal was to make the arts a focus of congregational life.

“Arts” was defined broadly. It encompassed music, theater, visual arts — even color and lighting in the church.

As the committee went to work, church leaders realized their pews were filled with men and women who had arts and creative backgrounds. Many had never melded their talents with their faith lives.

So as the church mounted exhibits, sponsored concerts and developed programs, it also started conversations about how the arts fit into everything Saugatuck Church does.

A photo from the “Irresistible Vietnam” photography exhibit, by Joan Cavanaugh.

One example is the recent exhibition, “Irresistible Vietnam.” Its genesis was a trip church member and skilled photographer Joan Cavanaugh took to that country. When she mounted her show she also brought Hang Nguyen, her guide on the trip, to the church. The result was a fascinating discussion, and a sharing of 2 cultures.

“We explore the mystery of faith through the arts,” Rev. Patton says. “Sometimes that’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s challenging.”

And sometimes, she continues, “the Protestant tradition talks about faith only intellectually. We want to engage the entire body — not just the head.”

“Creativity is an outpouring from God,” explains committee member Joanne Leaman.

Dan Long — an artist, designer and Arts Committee member — adds, “Because art engages you, it has a calming effect. It helps you find order and peace. That’s something religion can also do.”

But, he notes, “art also challenges. We want art to touch and stretch, too.”

An image from the Cuba mission trip photography exhibit, by MaryEllen Hendricks.

There are many ways to engage people through the arts. Gospel choirs supplement traditional hymns. A photographic exhibit of the church’s youth group mission trip to Cuba conveyed spiritual connections. Miggs Burroughs’ “Signs of Compassion” lenticular photos portrayed an Emily Dickinson poem through sign language.

The church and Westport Library co-sponsor a concert series that includes the West Point Glee Club, a New Orleans jazz fest, classical harp recitals, a Caribbean steel drum show, and guitar ensembles.

Dereje Tarrant signed part of an Emily Dickinson poem, in Miggs Burroughs’ “Signs of Compassion” lenticular photo exhibit.

The church is particularly proud of a new organ. It’s being handmade in Germany, for installation next year. A special viewing room will allow anyone to watch music as it’s being created.

Beyond traditional “arts,” an annual flower show honors the beauty, power and uplifting spirit of nature. A labyrinth helps understand “how we experience the holy spirit through the way we see, hear, even move,” Rev. Patton says. And a colorful display of 32 signs lining the driveway said “welcome” in 14 different languages.

The Saugatuck Church labyrinth.

Even young members are involved. Each May, 7th graders present “Story Tent.” The dramatic portrayal of biblical stories goes far beyond the usual “church play.” Youngsters spend the entire year creating the show — and lead the worship service that day. (This year, it’s May 20.)

Rebuilding after the catastrophic fire offered the church “an opportunity to really think about aesthetics,” Rev. Patton notes. “Every part of our church — even the gardens and lawn — are important.”

The arts are alive and well at Saugatuck Church. And, Rev. Patton says, they’re there for all Westporters to enjoy.

Pic Of The Day #342

It was an interesting Palm Sunday at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

After the procession — 3/4 of the way through this morning’s family service — the fire alarm went off.

Everyone quickly filed out of the church, while the great Westport Fire Department raced over to check things out.

Rev. John Betit improvised, and held communion outside!

The culprit was the incense used in the procession. Thankfully, today was not one of our many nor’easters.

Easter — a harbinger of spring — is only a week away.

(Photos/Amy Chatterjee)

Sharing The Bima

One of the highlights of a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is lighting candles in honor of loved ones.

For one young girl last weekend, however, that seemed out of reach. She’d prepared for a year for this very important bat mitzvah ceremony — but candles were the only thing Temple Israel had. In the wake of the nor’easter, the power was out.

The Conservative Synagogue came to the rescue. They were hosting their own bat mitzvah. Yet they quickly agreed to share their event with the girl from Temple Israel.

“Rabbi Weiderhorn is all about community,” says Conservative Synagogue member Susie Blumenfeld, who asked “06880” to share this story.

“And I know Temple Israel would do the same for us. I’ve asked them in the past to help with a mitzvah during a potential storm.

“This is why we live in Westport,” Susie says. “This is why I love Westport. We help each other.

“I love that those 2 little bat mitzvah girls shared the bima this weekend. And the best gift they received was this lesson of community.”

Episcopal Church Tackles Legacy Of New England Slave Trade

Nationally, the Episcopal Church has spent years working on racial justice issues.

Locally, Christ and Holy Trinity Church is doing the same.

Recently, parishioners read — and discussed — Debby Irving’s thought-provoking Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

“It was a soulful venture,” says Rev. John Betit. “People talked openly and  honestly about their own ignorance and stuggle.”

But, he adds, some congregants felt dissatisfied. They were unsure how to move forward on thorny issues of race.

They — and anyone else in Westport who wants to come — will take a step in that direction this Sunday (March 18, 11 a.m.). CHT will show “Traces of the Trade,” a true story of producer/director Katrina Browne’s ancestors — the largest slave-trading family in American history.

They were Northerners.

The documentary traces Browne and 9 cousins, as they work to understand the legacy of New England’s “hidden enterprise.” Family members are shaken by visits to Ghanaian slave forts and dungeons, and conversations with African Americans.

After the film, Dain Perry — one of Browne’s cousins — will facilitate a conversation about race, reconciliation and healing.

Perry — whose family are longtime Episcopalians — says the church shares responsibility for the slave trade. It condoned slavery, while the leading denomination in early America.

“Systemic racism is so big and hard-wired,” Betit notes. He hopes for a “softening of the ground,” as people “take a deeper look, and broaden their circle of awareness” about issues like slavery.

(The discussion also includes lunch. For more information call 203-227-0827. Click here for the film’s website.)

“Full Court Kindness”: Every Team Is A Champion

The suicide of a local student a few years ago was tragic.

But out of that darkness came some wonderful light.

The young man’s friends decided that a great way to honor his memory was with a round-robin basketball tournament.

Like any tournament, every player wants to win.  But the organizers also promote the values of kindness, tolerance and fellowship.

“Full Court Kindness” an inter-faith event. Teams come from 4 Westport houses of worship: Church of the Assumption, Temple Israel, St. Luke and the Conservative Synagogue.

One of last year’s Full Court Kindness teams …

All proceeds go to 3 charities, chosen by the teen captains:

The tournament is set for this Sunday (6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Westport Weston Family YMCA).

There’s a $5 admission fee (though of course you can give more). Full Court gear will be on sale.

I’m not sure which team will score the most points. But I know who will win.

Everyone.

(For more information, or to contribute, contact Michele Harding, Assumption Church youth minister, assumptionyouth98@gmail.com, 203-222-8486.)

… and another.

Photo Challenge #164

I’m not a playground person.

But Anne Bernier and Peter Boyd are. Which is why they were the only “06880” reader to correctly identify last week’s photo challenge. It was a closeup of part of the playground at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. (Click here for Thomas Quealy’s shot.)

Located right downtown — directly across from Aux Delices — it looks very inviting. Little kids romp there during the day.

But no one knows whether it’s open to the public, or limited only to the pre-school.

Maybe that’s why no one — besides Anne and Peter — knew the photo challenge answer.

Here’s this week’s image. If you think you know where — or what — it is, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Gene Borio)

Welcome The Stranger

Nearly every faith tradition includes a command to welcome strangers.

So — because nearly every faith leader in town is a member of the Interfaith Council of Westport and Weston — that’s the topic of that organization’s next panel.

“Welcoming the Stranger” explores the role that houses of worship — and entire communities — can play in providing sanctuary. It’s set for this Sunday (February 11, 3 p.m.) at the United Methodist Church on Weston Road.

With tens of millions of refugees around the world, organizers say, “it is imperative that we learn about those who have been displaced, and explore creative, faithful ways to respond to this crisis.

“We do this not as members of one political party or the other, but as people of faith, collectively responding to the call to ‘welcome the stranger.'”

Panelists — including immigration attorney Alicia Kinsman, social justice activist Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull and sanctuary leader Lynn Taborsak will discuss issues including DACA, sanctuary cities, and the historical and current roles of religious institutions in providing sanctuary.

The event is free, and open to the public.

Pic Of The Day #287

Assumption Church (Photo/Ellen Wentworth)