Danielson native champions cause of historic temple

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Danielson - posted Mon., Apr. 15, 2013
Elsie Fetterman talks to WINY listeners about the Temple Beth Israel project. Photos by D. Coffey.
Elsie Fetterman talks to WINY listeners about the Temple Beth Israel project. Photos by D. Coffey.

Eighty-five-year-old Elsie Blumenthal Fetterman is undaunted by the challenge facing the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society as it competes for votes in a $25,000 grant contest. She will go anywhere to talk with anyone about why the grant is important, not only for the Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, but to northeastern Connecticut as well.

On April 12, Fetterman spoke for two hours with WINY talk show host Paul Coutu about the grant contest that requires enough Facebook votes to push it into the top 40 out of 200 grant proposals.

The TBIPS submitted a proposal to the State Farm Neighborhood Assistance program and received notification that its proposal was in the top 200 out of 3,000 submitted. The program provides money to 40 non-profits that offer initiatives aimed at building strong, safe and informed communities. TBIPS plans to use the money to hire student interns to help design educational programs for the community addressing human rights, tolerance and social justice issues. Interviews with Holocaust survivors, historical research and creating a documentary with discussion guides for schools, churches and community groups are the main goals. The program would help students to see the importance of the entire community working together to try to achieve social justice, according to Fetterman.

She ought to know. Fetterman lived that lesson growing up in Danielson. Her family was the only Jewish family in town until 1950, when the end of World War II brought with it a group of 40 Jewish families trying to start over. Out of rural isolation and the horrors many of the Jewish survivors lived through, a community grew. Some of the families had lost everything – family members, homes, jobs and money. With help from the Jewish Agricultural Society, they purchased chicken farms. They knew nothing about farming or the area, but the community welcomed them. Temple Beth Israel was built by the Jewish enclave with the support of the Christian and business communities in the area. “It was more than a place of worship,” Fetterman recalled.

Last Friday, Fetterman spent two hours on the airwaves drumming up support for her cause. Listeners remembered her from her work as a home economics teacher in Killingly and Plainfield. She left in 1966, but some of her students remembered her clearly. “I think of you every day,” a Plainfield caller told her. One caller after another recalled her kindness, her generosity, and the fairness with which she treated her students. A woman remembered Fetterman taking the girls in her home economics class to a factory in Sterling to buy fabric and patterns. Fetterman knew that many of the families couldn't afford them. Another caller remembered her generous tips on his paper route, another the praise with which his mother and aunt used to speak of her.

Coutu could only shake his head in amazement at the woman's recall. He's hosted the AM 1350 morning talk show for years, and was impressed by the callers and the way Fetterman could instantly remember the details of those years. Coutu was a teacher himself for 35 years. “You always evaluate your teaching,” he said. “You want to know that you made a difference.” Fetterman clearly had.

The Danielson native is used to having her work judged on its merits. She finished her college education and was certified to teach in just three and a half years. It took seven years of part-time studies to get her Ph.D. while working full time and raising four children. Her teaching career began in Danielson, took her to Plainfield, and then Willimantic. She was offered a faculty position at the University of Connecticut, then at the University of Massachusetts. She and her family traveled to 42 states during the summers that she taught curriculum design and staff development. “I'd teach in the morning and we'd see the sights in the afternoon,” she said.

Fetterman is less familiar with having her work judged on the number of votes it receives on a Facebook page. But that hasn't stopped her from joining the fray. She printed fliers for distribution. She asks everyone to help in the process. “Ten clicks every day is all it takes,” Fetterman said. Still, the competition is fierce. The TBIPS is up against bigger organizations with paid staff.

“We can work for peace,” Fetterman said. “We can start making a better world right here in our own community.”

To help the TBIPS reach their goal, you can vote until April 22 at www.state-assist.com/cause/2188/social-justice.

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