Danielson’s Temple Beth Israel celebrates national recognition

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Danielson - posted Mon., Aug. 5, 2013
Founding member Ray Gawendo celebrates with Norman Berman, whose parents were founding members as well. Photos by D. Coffey.
Founding member Ray Gawendo celebrates with Norman Berman, whose parents were founding members as well. Photos by D. Coffey.

Temple Beth Israel in Danielson came alive with the sounds of rejoicing on Aug. 3, as founding members and their extended families, government officials and leaders from the Christian community joined together to celebrate the temple's listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Its official recognition as a place of historical importance came in April 2013.

That historic designation recognizes not only the physical structure of the temple, built in the 1950s, but it also honors the founders, Holocaust survivors and local families who joined together to build what Norman Berman calls “a house of hope.”

Berman was born in a displaced persons camp in Europe after a war that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews. His parents, who survived that horror, met and married in the camp. Eventually the family members made their way to northeastern Connecticut, where their lives were joined with those of 40 other Jewish families who fled the Nazi concentration camps. That “spared remnant,” together with a small group of local Jewish families, built the temple with the help and support of the local business and Christian communities. According to Berman, it was the place where his parents finally could really come to life. “It was the first time I saw my parents animated and laughing,” he said.

Ray Gawendo and her husband Jacob were two of the founding members of the temple. “My parents took great solace in this community,” Evert Gawendo said. He presented his mother with a certificate of appreciation. Born in Minsk in 1915, Ray survived the mass extermination of Jews in the Vilna ghetto. The rest of her family did not.

Evert Gawendo called Ray a remarkable woman whose memories have made her an advocate of outreach and education. “The older she got, the more vocal she became about the Holocaust,” he said. “She visits junior and senior high schools to tell her story.” Plainfield High School recently honored her at their Holocaust Remembrance Day, when she talked to students there about what she had lived through. “Even I hadn't heard the full story,” Evert Gawendo said.

State Rep. Mae Flexer (D-44), Killingly Town Councilor Lynn LaBerge and Elsie Fetterman presented the National Register plaque to Joel Rosenberg and Norman Berman on behalf of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society.  Rosenberg thanked the state and the National Park System for the award. “It will help keep the legacy of Temple Beth Israel alive,” he said.

State Rep. Danny Rovero (D-51) and Sherri Vogt, constituent services representative to U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney (D-2), made a special presentation to the Rosenberg family. After a search of military records, they presented the service medals their father, David Rosenberg, received during his service in WWII. Rosenberg was a corporal in General Patton's 4th Armored Division. He saw action in Normandy, central Europe and the Rhineland.

Joel Rosenberg called his father, another founding member of the temple, an expert marksman and liberator. His visible symbols of the war were his shrapnel wounds and a shofar, the ceremonial horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies. He'd rescued it from a destroyed temple. “It was a reverent reminder of what so many soldiers died for,” Rosenberg said.

TBIP board member Martin Drobiarz presented architect Maurice Finegold with a certificate of appreciation. It recognized Finegold's creative vision and generosity in his work designing the temple. Finegold and William Riseman donated their architectural services to create a building that stressed the future. Its gabled roof, wood and stone exterior, and banks of windows were quintessentially American and modernist at the same time. That design helped cement the application for the temple's historical significance.

Because the temple has been recognized as an historic place, it's eligible for funding that will ensure that education continues. Society members hope to create an historical archive and fund educational efforts that teach the lessons of the Holocaust and raise awareness of human rights struggles throughout the world. Their goal is to serve as an interfaith resource, collaborating with schools, cultural institutions, religious and civic organizations.

At a ceremony near the end of the evening, candles were lit to commemorate the founders and political, religious and community leaders who came together to help build the temple. “We look to the future,” Berman said. “Much work remains to be done.” Children of the founding families were called to light the last candle. “We charge you to carry this light into the future,” Berman said. “Make the world a better place.”

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