Temple Beth Israel documentary may lead to social justice curriculum

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Mon., Oct. 14, 2013
(L to r) Ron Tillen, Bill Brower, Elsie Fetterman and Mary Saad talked about creating community partnerships. Photos by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Ron Tillen, Bill Brower, Elsie Fetterman and Mary Saad talked about creating community partnerships. Photos by D. Coffey.

Students at the Quinebaug Middle College listened as Elsie Fetterman spoke to them at QVCC on Oct. 10. The students were gathered for their weekly town meeting. Fetterman, Naomi Weiner and Marc Cournoyer were there to talk with them about the creation of a documentary they were working on. It would document the history of the Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, its founders and supporters, and lead to the creation of a social justice curriculum. The three speakers were hoping some of the students would join them in their work.

It’s not unusual for the high school students to have speakers at their town meetings. Community service and student engagement are essential components of the regional magnet school, according to its website. Fetterman hoped this project would interest them because of its local roots and the potential for national appeal.

A few years after the end of WWII, Holocaust survivors and members of the local Jewish and Christian communities came together to build the temple. It stands as much a testimony to modern American design as it does to the lasting success of cooperation. The stone, timber and glass structure is a monument to how a group of Americans of different faiths came together to welcome and lend a hand to strangers in their midst.

Fetterman, Weiner and members of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society want to insure that the story of the temple and the people who built it is preserved. It is on the National Registry of Historic Places, a distinction that recognizes the importance the temple has in the fabric of the community and the country.

Cournoyer was intrigued when he heard the story. And he recognizes the urgency of the project. “It’s important to chronicle and preserve these stories,” he told the students.

Cournoyer is the 4-H Youth Development Coordinator with UConn. Killingly High media teacher Dan Durand and Dan Boisvert, with EASTCONN’s Art Magnet School, are working with him on the historical documentary of the temple. There is seed money from two grants to fund the project. Cournoyer hopes there will be more. He is counting on connections to the University of Connecticut, 4-H groups across the country, and the burgeoning interest in telling the stories of World War II survivors while there’s still time. The creation of a national curriculum on social justice is on the drawing board.

Ray Gawendo’s story is one that Fetterman is determined to preserve. Gawendo is a 98-year-old survivor of a German concentration camp. She is one of the original founders of the Danielson temple. Seven years ago, she started speaking to high school students about her experiences. Recording that history for posterity will be an important tool for other TBIPS projects dealing with intolerance and social justice. Besides the documentary, they hope to create exhibits and interfaith services, expand the reach of their website, and prepare a written publication on the history of the temple.

Principal Gino LoRicco was encouraged by the TBIPS presentation. “We look for natural ways for our students to connect with the community,” he said. “The world needs to be our classroom, not just these 800 square feet.”

For more information on the temple, go to http://templebethisraelct.info.

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