Tag Archives: The Conservative Synagogue of Westport

Unsung Heroes #77

In the Jewish religion, tikkun olam is the concept of improving the world. And mitzvah — Hebrew for “commandment” — is also used to connote a good deed that helps another.

Westport is filled with men and women who, every day, share time and energy to make a difference.

This Sunday (December 9 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport), 5 of them — 1 from each local synagogue — will join 9 others from around Fairfield County. They’ll be honored by the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, as “mitzvah heroes.”

Simcha Cooper was nominated by Beit Chaverim.

Simcha Cooper

He wears many mitzvah hats — but most striking is his self-appointed community shomer. That’s the person who watches over someone recently deceased, until the funeral. In Jewish tradition, the soul of the recently departed hovers over the body until burial.

Cooper is on call 24/7. He meets Rabbi Greg Wall in the hospital, sits for hours in the morgue, then rides to the funeral home. He may stay up for 24 hours, reciting psalms. He leaves just before the grieving family is aware of the good deed done for their loved one.

Cooper also joins any shiva minyan (quorum of 10) needed, and attends nearly every class offered at the synagogue.

Steve Ulman was nominated by the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County.

Steve Ulman

As chair of their Social Action Committee, he spearheads projects like the Zero Waste recycling effort at the Federation Food Festival. He has helped organize a creative enrichment program at Neighborhood Studios in Bridgeport; planted a garden for special needs people at the Trumbull Nature & Art Center; introduced Food Rescue to CHJ, and helps teens and parents make sandwiches and collect clothing for those in dire circumstances.

Eileen Glickman was nominated by Temple Israel.

Eileen Glickman

She visits local hospitals every week, to learn the needs of congregants and other Jewish patients.

She checks in with neighbors and friends she has not seen in a while, and leads shiva minyans.

And in times of crisis, Eileen is there. She buys gift cards, and asks clergy to distribute them to the needy.

Martha and Martin Rosenfeld were nominated by The Conservative Synagogue.

Each week, they volunteer at Norwalk Hospital. Martha has served in the Emergency Department for over 20 years, while Martin greets patients on their way to and from procedures.

Longtime members of their synagogue in New Rochelle, when they retired they looked for a community where they could continue to be active. At TCS they found a young community with many children, which they immersed themselves in.

Martha and Martin Rosenfeld

They assist in the office, shine the silver on the Torah scrolls, and provide Passover seders for people without a local family.

At the age of 70, Martin learned to read Torah for the first time. Now in his 90s, he is still going strong — and is the synagogue’s most prolific reader. He and his wife are avid attendees at adult education programs, inspiring all.

Congratulations to these mitzvah honorees. They don’t do all that they do for praise.

But it couldn’t hurt.

(Sunday’s event is part of the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy’s 1st-ever TzedakahFest. It includes an exhibit hall, a concert with the Nields, sessions on teen and elder health issues, and a community service project. For information, click here or call 203-226-8197.)

Downtown Menorah Lighting Set For Monday

On Thursday, Westport lit the Town Hall Christmas tree.

This Monday, the Hanukkah menorah lights up downtown.

Four Jewish congregations — Beit Chaverim, Chabad of Westport, Temple Israel and The Conservative Synagogue — will gather at the corner of Main Street and Post Road East. Everyone — of any faith, or none at all — is invited too.

At 6:15 p.m. — on the 2nd night of Hanukkah — candles will be lit. Holiday songs will be sung, sufganiyot (jelly donuts) will be eaten, and dreidels will be spun.

Last year’s menorah lighting. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kane)

It’s an important event.

“During a time in which we have seen a rise in anti-Semitism and darkness in the world, Hanukkah celebrates our survival against all odds,” says Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of The Conservative Synagogue.

“But it also reminds us of our responsibility to increase the light in our world.”

The 5th annual celebration is organized in cooperation with the Westport Downtown Merchants Association.

 

Mitzvah Heroes Earn Honors

Financial support is vital to most non-profits — especially those that fund causes those groups support.

So organizations tend to honor men and women who donate the most money. It’s the way the world works.

But, David Weisberg realized over a decade ago, plenty of good people do great deeds that have nothing to do with fundraising.

At the time, he was working to make the Jewish community of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a better place. “Mitzvah Hero Awards” was born. (“Mitzvah” is a Hebrew word meaning “a good deed done from religious duty.”)

When David moved to Westport, he brought her idea along. Which is why this Sunday (January 28, 5 p.m., Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Campus, Bridgeport) the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County will present its 1st-ever Mitzvah Hero Awards.

There are 14 honorees, from throughout the county. Four are Westporters. That’s plenty of mitzvahs.

Robert Bolton

For example, after his bar mitzvah (which means, literally, “son of the commandment”) 2 years ago, Robert Bolton vowed to attend Beit Chaverim every Friday night and Sunday morning. The small Westport synagogue does not always assemble a minyan (quorum of 10 men age 13 or older).

“Robert’s warm and caring personality raised the experience for all attendees as well,” praises Rabbi Greg Wall. And the teenager has the best attendance record of any congregation member.

Allyson Gottlieb

Allyson Gottlieb chairs Temple Israel’s Social Action Committee. Leading with energy, enthusiasm and insights, says Rabbi Michael Friedman, she often asks, “How can we do more?” Among the activities: strengthening the temple’s commitment to Homes With Hope, expanding its regular food drives, and revitalizing the annual Mitzvah Day, engaging hundreds of congregants in projects of every stripe.

Marilyn Katz

Since joining the Conservative Synagogue as one of its early members, Marilyn Katz has volunteered in many ways. Most outstanding, says Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn, is her 30-year commitment to the Sunday morning minyan.

Every Sunday she is the first person in the building, opening the kitchen to prepare breakfast. She makes the congregation “a caring community committed to taking care of one another.”

Howie Schwartz

Chabad’s Howie Schwartz serves special needs families through the Friendship Circle. He is a role model and inspiration for other adults and teens — including his own children — says Rabbi Yehuda Kantor, thanks to his hands-on help, and his “heart and soul passion” in projects like the Friendship Walk, family bowls, holiday parties and Pump It Up.

The honorees’ award quotes Pirkei Avot, the sacred Jewish text on ethics: “It is not what one says, but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the world.”

Mazel tov!

(For more information on Sunday’s event, click here.)

A Neo-Nazi Story, In Westport

A police car sat outside The Conservative Synagogue of Westport. A police officer stood inside the front door.

Those are signs of the times. Near-daily bomb threats have rattled Jewish Community Centers and Anti-Defamation League offices around the country.

But the only threat last night was to disrupt stereotypes and assumptions.

A full house heard Frank Meeink talk about his life.

Frank Meeink’s book cover shows a swastika tattooed on his neck.

At 13 years old, the Philadelphia native was a skinhead. By 18 he was roaming the country as a neo-Nazi recruiter. He hosted a TV show called “The Reich.”

In prison — convicted of kidnapping and beating a member of a rival skinhead gang — he befriended men he once hated. Slowly, his world view — and life — changed.

Today the 41-year-old is a noted speaker, author and founder of Harmony Through Hockey (he’s also a youth coach). He travels the country talking about tolerance, diversity and mutual understanding, in race, politics and throughout society.

Meeink — who has been featured in a film with Desmond Tutu, appeared in a music video with country singer Jamey Johnson and been interviewed by Katie Couric — was part of the inspiration for the movie “American History X.”

His talk last night was riveting. It was also preaching to the choir. I doubt anyone came to the synagogue hoping to have his or her neo-Nazi views reinforced.

But Meeink’s message of openness, and his story of how hatred can be turned to love, was powerful and inspiring. It was also eye-opening to hear his raw words spoken inside a temple, before an audience that included men in yarmulkes.

Frank Meeink speaking last night at The Conservative Synagogue.

Last night’s event was the culmination in a long day. Earlier, Meeink spent 2 hours with the sophomore and junior classes at Staples High School. They listened raptly as he discussed “The Truth About Hate.” After Meeink spoke, a number of students talked in an open mic session about their experiences with bullying — as bullies, victims and bystanders — and pledged to work toward greater acceptance for all.

Meeink later met with members of the Westport Police Department.

When he was 15 years old, Meeink tattooed a swastika on his neck. Two decades later, a resurgence of hatred sweeps our nation.

The police presence at The Conservative Synagogue last night served as a grim reminder of that. But Frank Meeink’s strong words — delivered to various Westport audiences all day long — overpowered every image of fear.

(Frank Meeink’s appearance last night was sponsored by The Conservative Synagogue, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut, TEAM Westport, Hadassah, the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy and the Westport Inn.)

 

Jake Landau: The Next Leonard Bernstein?

After you’ve composed a piece for the New York Philharmonic, what’s left in life?

How about writing writing choral music for the Conservative Synagogue?

That’s Jake Landau’s latest feat.

Of course, much more lies ahead. Jake is only a Staples High School junior.

Jake Landau

A multi-talented junior, that’s for sure. A student at the Juilliard School pre-college program, a member of the New York Youth Symphony and a national PTA “Reflections” award winner, he’s been playing piano — and composing — almost all his young life.

Classical music is his favorite. But Jake is equally comfortable writing opera, musical theater, soundtracks — and now, a piece for his synagogue.

His work will be performed tomorrow (Sunday, June 3, 7 p.m.) as part of the “On a Chai Note: A Musical Celebration of Israel” concert. Accompanying Jake on piano are 2 other nationally recognized young musicians (and temple members): cellist Danielle Merlis and violinist Sam Weiser.

Amazingly, this is Jake’s 2nd world premiere this spring. Last month, the New York Philharmonic performed a piece he wrote for their School Day concert. That one, he says, was “adventurous, aggressive and knotty.” Tomorrow’s piece is “simpler.” A synagogue is not a concert hall.

Working from a text, Jake composed this work for the “up-in-the-stratosphere soprano” cantor.

Jake Landau, rehearsing at the synagogue’s piano. (Photo/Marcy Juran)

He calls the process “very rewarding. It’s not just that it will be performed by my choir. Most of my pieces are done in high-pressure concert halls, and everyone is rushed for time. This is a much more personal environment.”

Conservative Synagogue Chorale member Marcy Juran is “blown away” by Jake’s talent.

“He understands how to create a beautiful piece of music,” she says. “But the way he explains his work to the choir — how it’s constructed, how he envisions it to sound, how his music matches the liturgical text — is unparalleled.

“It reminds me of hearing Leonard Bernstein explain music — but Jake is only 16! It is a joy to listen to play his piece on the piano, direct us, and understand from him what this is all about.

Still a teenager, Jake understands the long tradition he’s part of. “Music is a craft that’s existed almost as long as man,” he notes. “Music is practical, emotive and evocative. Music is everywhere. I’m proud to help continue that legacy.”

Danielle Merlis and Sam Weiser will also perform at the Conservative Synagogue tomorrow. (Photo/Marcy Juran)

Though Jake also studies piano at Juilliard, his playing is secondary to  composing. In fact, he says, “some of the pieces I write are too difficult for me to play. Someone plays my stuff for me.”

He hopes to make a career in music — writing film scores, operas, commercial soundtracks, “whatever.”

So — after spending the past 2 summers at Interlochen and Tanglewood — this year Jake will stay home. He’ll write orchestral and chamber pieces for his conservatory and music school applications.

Oh, yeah. His college essay, too.

(“On a Chai Note: A Musical Celebration of Israel” free concert takes place Sunday, June 3, 7 p.m. at The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Rd. The program also includes The Western Wind, a renowned a cappella sextet, and Jewish choral singers from throughout Fairfield County. For more information, click here.)

A Piece Of The Westport Pie

Despite a tough year, much of Westport enjoys far more than its share of the economic pie.

Which is why, as Thanksgiving looms, the Conservative Synagogue and Homes With Hope team up to “Share the Pie.”

The annual effort is simple:  Apple, pecan and pumpkin pies sell for $20 each.

Proceeds help Homes With Hope (formerly Interfaith Housing) provide permanent affordable housing, casework and support services, emergency shelter, food, meals, and life skills training.  The money also enables the Conservative Synagogue to fund outreach programs.

Individuals and families order pies.  So do local businesses; they give them to their employees as thanks, while at the same time aiding a great cause.  Last year, hundreds of pies were ordered.

There is no better — or more nourishing — way to give thanks.

(Deadline for ordering is Nov. 17.  Order forms are available at www.sharethepie.net. Ordered pies can be picked up on Tues., Nov. 23, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the synagogue parking lot.  Corporate orders of 10 pies or more will be delivered to offices, upon request.  For more information, call 203-454-4673.)

Celebrating Cameron

Iain, Linda and Margot Bruce invite Cameron’s many many friends and admirers to a secular celebration of the 18-year-old musician/swimmer/engineering student’s life.

The event is set for Saturday evening, November 27 — 2 days after Thanksgiving — at the Conservative Synagogue of Westport.

The Bruces welcome requests to play music, sing, read a poem, perform a skit or share a treasured memory.

Cameron’s parents and sister are working with friends to create a program that will be an outstanding tribute to his life.

To RSVP (they need to know how many are coming) or for more information, click here.

This Rabbi Walks Into A Comedy Club…

Grossinger’s is closed.  “Seinfeld” is off the air.

But the Conservative Synagogue is about to showcase Jewish comedians, from the days of vaudeville and radio through today’s movies and stand-up.

Alan Katz

At 7 p.m. next Sunday (January 17), Weston resident Alan Katz will conduct a “virtual” tour of Jewish comedy.  The event is called “Shtick at the Shul.”  Oy.

Katz is a 5-time Emmy-nominated comedy writer for TV series, including Rosie O’Donnell and Tony Danza;  the Grammy and Tony Awards, and numerous cable programs.  He has written primetime specials, game shows and articles for the New York Times and Daily News, and is the author of more than 25 children’s books, including “Take Me Out of the Bathtub.”

Katz will talk about George Burns, Lenny Bruce and Adam Sandler.

You want more names?  So come to the event.

(Dessert and coffee will be served.  RSVP by January 13 to obtain a parking spot:  call 203-454-4673 or email lzisfein@gmail.com.)