Focus On: Minnie Lee Seo

Korean-American Westporter Minnie Seo graduated from Laurelton Hall in Milford in 2020. She majors in Music Education at UCLA College and spoke at the #StopAsianHate rally that took place in downtown Westport in April.

I believe that racism is the biggest crisis we are facing today. It is a huge topic and I would never want to dilute the seriousness of it, but it is a multi-faceted beast that lives within all problems of our lives today. Climate change, sexism, ageism, etc. are all intertwined with racism. It’s the root of many problems, but goes unchallenged a lot of the time. 

I believe that the world is changing, but it is changing very slowly. I believe we are finally seeing other points of view that can dissolve our ignorance, but this is happening on an individual basis. My world is always changing, I am always learning new things, but sometimes I see Westport, and I see the structures of supremacy that reign [here and all] over this world. I am reminded that some have chosen to uphold hurtful traditions rather than to break the cycle, and stick up for those from under-represented communities. Westport, I feel, will be the most difficult place to change because it is resistant to change. It allows little room for those who don’t fit its narrow standards.

I think that Westport is doing extremely poorly on these issues. There doesn’t need to be investigations to show that a school with a student body population that is more than 80% white is non-inclusive.  I do not know how to describe it very eloquently, but for most people of color, when we enter a room, state, town, etc. that is mostly white, our guard has to be up. 

I feel like the community is coping with the major events in the nation very superficially but the issue we are specifically dealing with Westport is not just respecting people of color, but also breaking the notion that somehow racism doesn’t exist in Westport. I have often seen people view themselves as “above” racism or “seeing no color,”–basically viewing themselves as separate from the issue, even claiming at times that racism does not exist. If our first hill to climb is getting the community to accept that racism exists within Westport, we have a long way to go if we want to be directly supporting ethnic minority communities. 

Page BreakI think that my life in Westport has been filled with isolation, exclusion, and violence, which is something I think myself and other members of my family have always known, but always kept to ourselves. Now it seems like that exclusion and violence is very much public, and there is no way to really avoid it. From the time immigrants step foot into this country, there is a kind of generational trauma that is handed down. This stems from the various times the large (white) majority have painted immigrants as dangerous. For my family, this can be seen in the new wave of “Yellow Peril“ that has consumed this nation. It’s brought out our survival skills, where we must rely on each other, keep our heads down, protect our elders, and hope for the best. 

My biggest hope is that we learn that loving or taking care of others requires more than just holding affection in our hearts for people: I love you, and so I will wear a mask so that you will hopefully not get sick. I love you, and I care for you, so I will learn and make sure that the actions I make will not hurt you or others like you. I fear that many people will become complicit if they do not take time to analyze their own fears, passions, and flaws. Racial equity and other topics are not just buzzwords, they are human rights and that should never be a trend, but continuously analyzed and improved upon.

Racial equity and other topics are not just buzzwords, they are human rights and that should never be a trend

Westport Museum encourages donations to Stop AAPI Hate as well as following them on social media as they continue to address anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic.


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


One Year On: Re-Focus on Nicole Gerber

Nicole Gerber was one of the first Westporters to be featured in the Westport in Focus series (her interview posted March 26, 2020).  At that time, she had taken a step back from her role as co-director of AWARE CT. In October 2020 she began doing fundraising and development for Wakeman Town Farm. The Museum asked for her thoughts on the past year in quarantine and her work on the 2020 Presidential Election. 

This has been a real journey for me. When this first started I had a positive outlook on the situation. I believed this was temporary. We’re all going to go into quarantine, we’re going to spend a few weeks sort of hunkering down, reevaluate our priorities, and emerge from this as a stronger, healthier, better community. A year later, after experiencing a full range of emotions related to the pandemic, I still believe that we’re going to come out of this in a better place than when we entered.  

About seven weeks into quarantine, I started to become agitated and depressed. My outlook on the situation darkened. There were times when all I really wanted to do was run out of my house screaming and hug the first person I saw. I started speaking with a therapist for the first time in twenty years, and I learned how to lean into my amazing support system and friends. Like so many dog walks, Zoom happy hours, and virtual cooking dates became my way of connecting with friends and extended family. I also developed a deeper appreciation and affection for my neighbors because there have been times when they were the only people I saw for days and weeks on end.  

The truth is that for us this last year has been a gift.  I feel like we got a bonus year of very close time with our children who, at ages 14 and 12, would normally prefer to be with friends over family. For years my husband had an intense travel schedule for work, and we really only spent time with him on weekends. But this past year my husband and I got to spend real time together, we rediscovered each other, we worked on our marriage, and the kids got to know him on a deeper level. We’ve had some rough moments, but I wouldn’t change any of it. It was in those moments that we got to know each other, ourselves, and we grew as a family.  

I’m hopeful that people have used this time to take stock of their lives and are being kinder and gentler towards each other. I am also hopeful that we are becoming more conscientious of our impact on the environment, and that we take real steps to heal our planet. Because I feel like this pandemic is the result of humanity being very abusive to our surroundings, environment and ourselves. It’s as if Mother Nature is saying to us as a whole, “You really need to rethink your value system and reevaluate how you are living your lives.” 

As part of taking stock of my personal priorities and putting them into action, in October I started doing development and fundraising for Wakeman Town Farm. The Farm is an environmental education and sustainability center right here in Westport. Its mission is to educate adults and children in our community to live a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. So, I’m focusing my energy on making the Farm successful. 

When we first entered quarantine, I was blown away by how many of our neighbors stepped up and volunteered to help people in need, collect PPE for first responders, and in general work together to make the best of a bad situation. What I love about Westport is that people continue to be there for each other. Pandemic fatigue hasn’t curbed our community spirit. I also think Jen Tooker and Jim Marpe have been phenomenal in leading us through this crisis. I appreciate how they’ve been communicating with residents, working closely with local merchants and restaurants, and supporting the schools. That’s been amazing.  

At the risk of ruffling a few feathers, I do think we could have done better with ensuring our older children were social distancing, especially once the weather turned cooler and school started. There was a period of time that I was afraid to send my children to school because the daily number of cases coming out of the high school were high…too high! I get it. I’m a mom with children in high school and middle school. This has been very hard on our kids, but this is also a time for teaching our children about sacrifice and social responsibility. This has been an adjustment for all of us, and it breaks my heart to know that our children are essentially missing out on some of the most important school years of their lives. 

I’m afraid that once we come out of this quarantine we will return to a version of our previously crazy lives. I don’t want to go back to feeling rushed and harried, or my kids feeling pressured to over-schedule their lives.  But all in all, I think that Westport is going to come out of this a stronger and better community than when we entered it.  

In 2020 Nicole was active with the Democratic National Committee. She served as a Poll Observer in Pennsylvania on Election Day and in Georgia (for the special election on January 5, 2021).  

Danielle Dobin and Candace Banks organized the group that went to Pennsylvania. Through the DNC I trained as a Poll Observer and Voter Protection Officer. I was in Pennsylvania on Election Day. And then I was in Atlanta for the runoff elections.  

I was there to make sure that basically nothing hinky happened at the polls, that every eligible voter had an opportunity to vote and to make sure that his or her vote counted on that day. Part of my job was to act as a check and balance to my Republican counterparts, who were also trained and performing the same function as I was, and to record whether or not they were observing state election laws. I also did ballot curing in Georgia, which was so important because I witnessed voter suppression.  

There had been a spike in COVID cases across the country prompting my husband, who is incredibly supportive of what I do, to ask me to consider not going to Georgia. But it was important. So I got myself a N95 mask and a face shield and I quarantined when I came back.  

My 12 year old son was really concerned about me going to Georgia because he was afraid that there was going to be violence and that something bad was going to happen to me. But there was nothing scary or dangerous that I saw in Georgia. People were so grateful that we were there.  

The day I returned from Georgia was Wednesday the 6th– the day that the riots happened in the Capitol. The whole thing was so scary and surreal. 

It was really hard to be away from my family, but it was 100% worth doing. I never doubted that I would be of use, or that my presence wouldn’t be impactful. I always knew that going there I was going to help make a difference.  

It was really hard to be away from my family, but it was 100% worth doing.


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Roe Halper

Roe Halper was born Brooklyn in 1937 and was raised in White Plains. She studied art at Vassar and Skidmore and became an art teacher and in 1960 she and her husband Charles moved to Westport. A successful artist throughout her life, Roe became known for her low-relief woodcarvings portraying the Civil Rights era including the Birmingham Series which she was inspired to create in response to the events happening during the 1960s. An inspired creative who draws inspiration from the world around her, Roe Halper has worked in various mediums from paper to wood to kinetic sculpture, flowers to book-printing and more. She has taught art classes from her home studio for more than 40 years. 

My husband and I were very young when we decided to move to Connecticut.  I was 23 years old. That was in 1960. We came here to be far enough away from both sets of parents. It was a toll call, but near enough so they could visit and not sleep over. We moved to Westport because the New York Times Magazine had an article about buying Longshore Club. My husband was a par golfer and this is the only way we could afford for him to be able to play golf. Even though we didn’t have kids, we knew we were going to have them so we might as well be in a place which had the best school system. But the third thing was that Westport had an arts community. Now it’s true that The Famous Artists School had a philosophy of education that was completely against what I was taught as an art educator but it didn’t matter. It was a gathering of artists.  

We lived in a little cow barn on Newtown Turnpike. That first year maybe I did four pieces, maybe, because woodcut printing took a long time. And I would put a drop cloth over a table in that living room and that’s how I worked. Later we got a little house on Bayberry Lane. In that house I at least had a 9 by 12 room to work.  I was so thrilled. We filled up the other bedrooms with kids in the next few years. I’d always take off nine months after they were born, to be able to be with them and bond with them. When I became impossible to live with, my husband would say, “get thee to the art room” to get rid of all the angst. We were there for nine years before we moved to Little Fox Lane where I built this beautiful studio downstairs — 31 feet long and about 16 feet wide. It’s really beautiful and big enough to have classes.  

I have been teaching for 42 years. In my studio, sometimes I had as many as 17 kids over two days. My program was first, to have design in every project they did. Secondly, I could bring in nude models twice a year. Although the men weren’t totally nude – they wore a bathing suit–– but the women were totally nude. Because all artists have to learn how to draw nudes.  

I’ve never counted up all the students I’ve had, but I’ve had a lot of them come back to me and say that this was the one time in their life they didn’t have an assignment. They didn’t have a mark. They only had encouragement, and they were seeing an artist working at the same time. So, it’s been wonderful.  

This year, I began to get calls asking if I could teach in the summer because the schools and camps were closed. So, I began to teach morning and afternoon in July, and then in August, only in the morning. I was doing classes in person outside my studio. The tables and easels were all outside my studio. If they came in to get supplies, they had to wear a mask.  I took a week off in September when they started Staples to figure out if they could manage it, and I ended up with four kids until a week before Thanksgiving. It was wonderful. I will hopefully do it again as soon as it’s warm. If I don’t, it’s okay. At my age, I don’t need to do this full time. 

Westport has had great impact on my art.  I met all the artists in town at many democratic functions. I was so young, then. We’d bring over work and they’d sell it and it would help the cause. And I met Tracy Sugarman, Leonard Fisher, and Stanley Bleifeld. They were all about 15 years or so older than me. And they were fabulous. Stanley as a sculptor, got me into sculpting. These three guys were like mentors to me. And I appreciated that they encouraged me. And of course, Tracy Sugarman was very involved with the civil rights movement.  

In the 1960s the civil rights movement was a very, very important part of my life, as was the anti-war movement. Well, I was stuck at home with babies. We had one car. I wasn’t going to march. It wasn’t my thing. I was viewing the world and I was expressing how I felt. I did several paintings of the anti-war movement of suffering soldiers. And I did woodcarvings, not woodcut printing, but the carvings themselves. I did the Birmingham series in 1963. 

I did not have Dr. King in mind when I did the Birmingham Series, I was interpreting the events. The first block was violence to the Blacks, the second block did have Dr. King in mind “what shall we do to react against the violence”-hence the Martin Luther King approach. The third block was ready to fight back, but although I show fists, it is only to reflect ‘fighting back’ because Dr. King was non-violent.

Martin Luther King was going to speak at Temple Israel on May 22nd, 1964, a month and a half after I gave birth to my daughter. Sue Rubinstein, the Rabbi’s wife, called me up, and she said, “I want you to bring over all of the civil rights work that you’ve done. And we’ll put it in the library, and he’s going to have Sabbath dinner here.” I said, “If he wants anything, I’ll send it to him.”  Well, he did. He was thrilled to get the Birmingham carvings. And after he spoke, which was brilliant, Chuck and I went to meet him afterward privately. He invited us down to Atlanta.  

In 1966 we went to Atlanta to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the woodcarvings weren’t there. We were told, “Oh, they’re at the King house. Because Coretta King had come in and said you cannot have one of them in Andrew Young’s office, one of them in Ralph Abernathy’s office and one of them in Martin’s office. They have to be together because together they are powerful.” And they were hung right at the entrance of their home in the foyer. And when we got there, I met Coretta King–that was one of the greatest days of our life.  

I met Dr. King once previously in 1966 when he returned from Chicago feeling down about SNCC–the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee–that  wanted action now.

In 1968 on April 4, when King was assassinated, I was watching TV with the kids. And my son was six, and my daughter four, and I started to cry. And my son said, “Why are you crying mommy?” And I said “Because a great man died today.”  

I’m very lucky. My kids live in Weston. We are connected. I’m very connected with my four granddaughters. And I also have three step grandchildren. I’m lucky. That’s all I could say. It’s true, I had Passover all by myself. But I was able to have Thanksgiving with my daughters and their families. They were all free of COVID so I could do it. I can’t wait to get my shots. When I do my cousin and I are going to meet together because she is about three weeks ahead of me and we haven’t seen each other in a while. I don’t think I’ll go back to indoor swimming. I just don’t think it’s safe still. I’m not happy about it. It’s a risk I don’t need to take. I’ll just keep walking outside. I walk a lot outside.

I’m the first one to tell you that I’m very prejudiced against Trump and had been forever — since he hit the scene. But I feel very optimistic when I hear people like Biden and Kamala Harris, who is so intelligent. They, they have the brain power. Let’s hope that they can get the backing of people to improve life.  

I feel very optimistic when I hear people like Biden and Kamala Harris

I have always been very upset by the suffering of humanity. I thought when I was young that I could really make a difference. I think I have with teaching, probably because it’s very one-on-one. I’m very interested in giving the students confidence. And I know that my art has meant something. But it means something different to every person who sees it.


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Arlene Yolles

Arlene Yolles has lived in Westport since 1979. A retired math teacher, Arlene writes a blog of amusing anecdotes called (A)musings by Arlene at arleneyolles.com. A long-time supporter and volunteer at the Westport Museum, Arlene is also an avid walker and bicyclist who works part time as a math tutor.
  

“It’s hard to believe we are more than a year into this pandemic. In February, 2020, my husband and I were on a cruise ship from Florida, and I don’t remember hearing anything about Covid-19. A week later, the very same cruise ship was quarantined for 2 weeks with passengers since many of them were infected! A couple of days after we returned we started hearing about it, but it wasn’t critical. Then, of course the whole town began to isolate from March 13, following the schools.   

The biggest change for me, like for most people, is that I’m used to seeing people every day. I am not one to stay in my house. I’m not an early riser but I used to be out of the house by one o’clock and didn’t come back until five. I used to spend a lot of time at the Y—not just for exercise and yoga classes but because there were so many people I spoke to: my Y friends. You get a lot of good advice in the women’s locker room, just standing and talking! I miss the camaraderie.   

I still go out every day for a walk around the neighborhood or I will take my car to Compo and walk around the beach. People are very considerate. When this began, you know, back in March, 2020, if somebody was coming towards me on the sidewalk, I would cross over to the other side. Or if I couldn’t, I would go six feet out into the road where no car was coming. And now I find people are doing that as a matter of course as well as wearing masks. I am grateful for the help and friendliness of our neighbors and people who live in Westport.  

Nothing in my life really prepared me for this because I’ve been fortunate — there have been no dreadful illnesses in my family. Plus, I am not a forward thinker. I like to mull over things in the past rather than think about the future. So, I couldn’t imagine something like this. Did my personal life prepare me for this? Not really, but I think I’m coping well considering that this is totally different from my usual life.   

Everything is a new experience. The good thing is that we’re in touch with everybody from everywhere, it doesn’t matter where the person is, you can be connected online. My background as Math teacher serves me well with computer literacy.  I’m 76 years old and I know a lot of people my age who have trouble with stuff like this but I’ve learned what I need to learn about Zoom, WhatsApp, etc.  

My husband, Marty, knows so much about technology and electronics as an electronics engineer that we’re never at a loss.  We enjoy many cultural activities online from places we used to buy tickets from like the 92nd Street Y and The Music Theater of Connecticut. Lifetime Learners offers us classes. We also take advantage of local theater productions, library programs, and of course the Westport Museum’s activities, all remotely. We’ve attended a virtual Bas Mitzvah, Thanksgiving, a Seder, Sabbath services and, sadly, a funeral.  My Thursday night poker game has gone virtual so that’s something I look forward to each week! 

I’m not tutoring online — it wouldn’t be the same experience and I feel sorry for teachers and parents of school children during the pandemic. Both my daughter and step-daughter are teachers and find this a very challenging time.  A friend of mine teaches pre-school and that’s a nightmare!  How do you teach little ones how to tie their shoes, take care of bathroom activities, etc. without getting close to them?  

I’m personally more afraid of getting sick with COVID than of dying from it.  I have a pretty good immune system. I’m very healthy.  I am a biker and a swimmer and look forward to going back to the Y when I feel it’s safe enough. Maybe after my second vaccination!  My other fear is that people I love may get sick. My hope is that we look at things a little bit differently in the future and realize how much we owe to neighbors, friends, relatives, loved ones. My hope is that we should learn from and keep some of the things we’ve adopted such as being considerate, caring, and helping people who are less fortunate, like elderly or sick people.

 I hear good stories about people helping others but I’m disappointed that the numbers are increasing, although it was predicted with colder weather and schools opening up.  I think Westport is doing well; I see people being responsible, wearing masks and socially distancing.  What I don’t see, however, is what happens in their homes. I fear that here, as well as in cities across our nation, people are exhausted from restrictions and yearn for company (as I do) and invite friends and family into their homes without sufficient caution to not spread the virus.  When I see large crowds on the news – many people not wearing masks – it’s worrisome.

If we are ever faced with another pandemic, I hope we’re better prepared. And I hope that our nation’s leaders prepare us earlier, not say it’s a hoax or it’s not happening. And take a real hard look at how we are set up in our hospitals. It’s easy to say eh we don’t need this, nothing like this has ever happened in 50 years. But when it happens, you need it. And so don’t be so fast to get rid of it. You know? Equipment or a committee or whatever.

We have to take care of ourselves and our planet.  This isn’t the first virus we have encountered and it won’t be the last.  We have to listen to the scientists and doctors who give us advice and procedures to follow. We all need to pull together to combat such devastating medical emergencies as this and those that will arise.” 

We have to listen to the scientists and doctors who give us advice and procedures to follow


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Monique Hodges, President, Westport Young Woman’s League

Monique Hodges is the current President of the Westport Young Woman’s League which she joined in 2016. A Wethersfield native who works as a Dermatological Sales Representative, Hodges moved to Westport last Fall from Norwalk where she lived after graduating from the University of Connecticut, Storrs in 2009. She credits her experiences as a member of the WYWL with her love for Westport and choice to make the town home.   

I have been a member of WYWL since 2016, serving on the Board of Directors as PR Co-Chair and Vice President. The WYWL is a Member funded nonprofit organization which has been a pillar in Westport since 1956 and I am the first African American person to be President of the league—that’s very exciting to me but I hope more that it’s motivating to other persons of color. Westport is an amazing community for many different reasons but there is a lot of room to grow in terms of diversity. Being a part of a community that is open to inclusion is the first step. Westport residents understand that inclusion isn’t a pie with limited pieces. Opportunity should be looked at as unlimited. Having persons of color in leadership roles matters and representation matters.   

The WYWL has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. Neither of our 2020 Flagship fundraisers provided us with funds for our grants program. The Minute Man Race was canceled and CraftWestport was virtual to promote the artists; some who have participated in the show for decades. Historically, these have been the only sources of funds we pull from for our WYWL Grant Program.   

We see what people (and organizations) are made of in challenging times and this year will prove to be no different. Our Membership has rallied together, supporting each other, and creating new fundraisers throughout the year. We hope these events will uplift and unite our community in these uncertain and stressful times. Visit our website for more information and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Facebook to stay in the know about our events.   
  

COVID-19 has taught us all to be more flexible. It has shown us that in this day in age, transformation is necessary. I believe that nonprofits and cultural institutions should get used to becoming more innovative. Tradition is beautiful and should be honored, but it should go hand-in-hand with transformation—both can exist. As long as the people in charge of nonprofit groups keep the organization’s mission as its guide, there might be minor setbacks but longevity is about constant purpose. 

Personally, COVID-19 has greatly impacted my daily life. Working in Dermatology for a pharmaceutical company, I am responsible for supporting four prescription products and a consumer line for over 137 health care providers and their staff throughout CT, MA, and RI. By March, I went from logging over 4,500 miles a month for work in my car to zero. The day-to-day aspect of work became emails, virtual meetings and making sure my providers, who most had to temporarily close, were ok. Now things are more back to normal than not but there’s still a ways to go. 

My family, who I’m greatly close with, moved to Zoom only face to face contact. Both of my parents are high risk and worrying about them constantly was the hardest. I quarantined with my partner as he and I didn’t have family close.   

Work travel has been limited and sporadic. The impact to closures of Dermatology offices has been varied; some closed completely while others never closed. As the individual mandatory quarantines are lifted in the surrounding states, it takes a lot of pre-planning to rout my week and months across three states.  

Because I am a woman of color, gender and race relations is often top of mind for me. I have most definitely reflected on this moment in history with respect to both COVID-19 and racial inequality and injustice. I hope that all races and genders see value in dignifying all human life. I believe that confronting the United States’ tumultuous young history with Black people is key and understanding that history is the foundation of the biases and inequalities we see today. 

I hope that all races and genders see value in dignifying all human life.

     
Both COVID-19 and racial inequality and injustice have really highlighted the challenges we face as a nation. People need jobs, and they need those jobs to be able to pay for their cost of living no matter what economic class they’re in; that includes healthcare and education. I hope to see changes in how much people are paid for their time, and have access to healthcare, and education.    


I’d like to thank the WYWL Membership in these difficult times. As a member-funded nonprofit, our members are the gears behind the organization. They are like a second family to me and we lean on each other for more than just our nonprofit duties. We have many levels of Membership: Past Presidents who give me guidance and offer encouragement and invaluable advice to me, Sustainers who have been Members anywhere from 50 to seven years, who have seen the organization grow through many seasons, General Members and New Members who are looking for a new connection. We have a special group and I am very proud to be a part of the Westport Young Woman’s League.  


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Will Haskell

Will Haskell made news in 2018 when he was elected in as Connecticut’s youngest state senator. Haskell represents District 26 of which Westport is a part. 

I grew up in Westport and graduated from the Westport Public Schools. As did my dad, actually! I think those of us who are fortunate enough to grow up in this town have a tremendous responsibility to give back. We benefited from a first-rate education, so now we need to roll up our sleeves and make sure every school in Connecticut has the resources to help students succeed. 

In school, I wasn’t involved in student government, but I was always interested in politics. I majored in Government in college, which has come in handy! And I minored in French, which… hasn’t yet.  

In high school, I used to knock doors for Senator Chris Murphy and Congressman Jim Himes before I was old enough to drive. Of course, I certainly didn’t expect to run for office right out of college. But I felt there was an urgency to many of the problems we were facing, and my generation often didn’t have a seat at the decision-making table. I disagreed with the incumbent state senator on a variety of issues, from gun violence prevention to Paid Family and Medical Leave. So, I decided to come home and start knocking on doors again –this time for my own campaign. 

I really love being a state senator, and in the face of everything that’s happening in Washington, DC, I believe state governments will play a critical role in defending access to healthcare, protecting our environment and promoting dignity and equality. There are so many pressing problems with the state of our state and, more broadly, the state of our politics that I haven’t given much thought to a long-term plan. 

I believe strongly that Connecticut needs workforce housing. Every year, tens of thousands of college students earn their degree in this state, and then they pick up and start their careers elsewhere. Connecticut, and Fairfield County in particular, isn’t affordable or appealing to the next generation of taxpayers. As a 24-year-old, I can tell you first-hand how challenging it can be to find a place to live in town. And this isn’t just a problem for recent graduates –it’s a problem for our local economy. Businesses, both small and large, often tell me that they can’t find a young, diverse, tech-savvy workforce to fill 21st century jobs. So, while I support local control of zoning decisions, I believe communities like ours can only benefit from creating more diversity in housing options. Teachers, firefighters and police officers who serve this community ought to be able to afford to live in this community. 

When I was growing up in Westport, my world extended from Exit 17 to Exit 19. I think a lot of folks who are lucky enough to grow up in town forget that a 10-minute drive on I-95 can carry you across a $100,000 difference in median income. Of course, income inequality is a problem across the country, but nowhere is it more acute than Fairfield County. That’s why I supported an increase in the minimum wage, which will give more than 300,000 Connecticut residents (the majority of whom are women) a raise this year. Representing this community in the State Capitol means spending a lot of time listening to and learning from my colleagues who represent communities that are very different from Westport. 

When it comes to major social issues like COVID preparedness and safety and to racial justice, Westport was hit early on by COVID-19, and I think that jarring experience left a lasting impression on our community. These days, we understand the importance of wearing a mask, heed the advice of public health officials and continue to wash our hands constantly. We all knew someone who was impacted, and we understand the stakes of this moment are simply too high to allow politics to get in the way of science. I give the team at Town Hall a lot of credit for their tireless work to contain the virus, and I think the state as a whole has done a pretty good job as well. Although we’re not out of the woods yet, Connecticut hasn’t shied away from making tough decisions. 

On racial justice, I will never forget the student-led demonstration on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen bridge in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I’ve been to a lot of demonstrations on that bridge; in support of the Paris Climate Accord, in opposition to Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, in disgust at children being put in cages at the border. I had never seen a crowd this large, and frankly, this young. Students from my alma mater spoke bravely and eloquently about the need for increased oversight in policing and increased diversity in town. Elected officials didn’t speak — we listened. Young people led the way. If that isn’t a metaphor for what we need in politics right now, I don’t know what is. 

Young people led the way. If that isn’t a metaphor for what we need in politics right now, I don’t know what is. 

There’s a ton of work to do in the months and years ahead. One issue that particularly interests me is increasing the number of teachers of color in Westport. Research indicates that having even one Black teacher in an elementary school increases the likelihood that a Black student will graduate by 39%. Having a more diverse faculty is beneficial to students of all races and ethnicities, but sadly less than 7% of Connecticut teachers are people of color. I don’t remember many people of color at the head of the classroom during my time in the Westport Public Schools, and I hope the state can play a role in changing that. 

I spend a lot of time talking with our campaign interns about how their lives have changed so dramatically, and my heart breaks for all the sacrifices they’ve made. I know it’s tempting to flout the rules and return to some sense of normalcy. All I can say is the decisions we make today will either save lives tomorrow or put them into jeopardy. Our generation tends to feel invincible to the threat of COVID-19, but keep in mind that the safety of our parents and grandparents’ rests on our shoulders. The more we adhere to the advice of public health officials, the sooner we can turn the page and begin a better chapter in life. 

This public health crisis has become an economic crisis, with too many small businesses struggling to keep their doors open. Take a walk down Main Street and you’ll see all the work that lies ahead to make this community more hospitable to entrepreneurs. If I have an opportunity to continue serving, I’ll be focused on extending a helping hand to small businesses and lowering the cost of healthcare. With the price of healthcare skyrocketing, more than 50% of small businesses in Connecticut can’t afford to provide their employees with healthcare coverage. I hope that Connecticut will enact a public option next year, introducing competition into the insurance marketplace and helping small businesses thrive. 

If I were to sum it up what keeps me up at night, it’s the fact that some people are so frustrated by what they see on TV, they are retreating from politics. Regardless of your political beliefs, this is a moment that calls for rolling up your sleeves, not throwing up your hands. We can’t sit back and wait for somebody else to restore decency, respect and reason to our government. As President Obama said, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I hope this terrible year inspires people to lean in, not step back.  


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Rev. Dr. John T. Morehouse

Rev. Dr. John T. Morehouse, Senior Minister of the Unitarian Church in Westport has lived in Westport since 2015. 
 

The Morehouses have been living in Fairfield for centuries. Some are undoubtedly distant relatives. I am also a descendant of Noah Webster who has roots in this area. I find that fact especially ironic because I am such a terrible speller. My great grandfather the Rev. Daniel Webster Morehouse served as a Unitarian field secretary for Western MA and CT American Unitarian Association in the late 19th century. I grew up in Croton-on-Hudson NY.  

I see myself as a transformer and feel honored to be here now. 

Over the course of COVID, we quarantined with my daughter and her partner. With two very different generations in the house we all have learned a great deal.  As a father and husband, I want to do all I can to protect my family but as a minister that focus is much wider. I had to constantly balance my desire to protect the ones I love with the need to reach out to those I serve. This balance becomes harder to maintain as we begin to open up as a congregation at this important time in history.  

Social and racial justice is at the heart of our emerging faith as a progressive religious people. We have long stood behind the Black Lives Matter movement. We are committed to understanding our own white privilege and then acting our faith as allies for people of color. I’d like to see Westport keep opening to new perspectives and not be defensive. We all have something to learn. 

Social and racial justice is at the heart of our emerging faith as a progressive religious people.

When it comes to re-opening we must keep our options open. We will continue our on line worship and add small gatherings. We need to continually connect with one another in order to bring one another along. There is no normal here. It’s hard work and it will lead to a new community.


On September 23, 2020, Reverend Dr. Morehouse offered a letter to his Westport congregation reflecting upon the importance of the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died on Friday, September 18th. Read his letter here.


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Diane Sembrot, Editor, Westport Magazine

Diane Sembrot has many centuries of roots in Westport through her Wakeman ancestors. Today she is the editor of Westport Magazine, which shares all aspects of town life, from arts and culture to business and more.

“Over the years, I’ve worked in academic books, medical journals, children’s book packaging, health and business newsletters and, now, magazines and digital content. I got into this during college—I was looking for an internship, and I wanted only Westport. I had spent a lot of time in town as a teen. At that time, summer internships were hard to come by, so I just started introducing myself to local publishing and marketing companies—just walked in the front door and asked. Then, downtown, I ran into a paper sales rep who told me to go Greenwood Publishing Company, just a short walk up the hill. I did. They were a bit surprised, but said yes. I was their first intern. I stayed, doing freelance work at school, and, after graduation, went fulltime. I stayed for years because they were wonderful—and I enjoyed every minute in Westport.

I’ve worked in Westport since back when since Klein’s [Department Store] was here.  I did laps in what is now Anthropologie when it was the YMCA. I’ve worked here since Ship’s was a popular Chinese restaurant [located at 23 Jesup Rd opposite the library]. I was living here when I met my husband. We were rowers at Saugatuck Rowing Club, and I met him at the Commadore’s Ball. Actually, I saw him across the room. Sounds romantic, but he’s six-foot, three, so it’s hard to miss him. We had our wedding reception in Westport to celebrate where we met.

I’ve worked at three Westport companies: one on the Post Road, one on Riverside and one on Main Street.  The Post Road one felt like I was in a neighborhood, because I often ran a quiet loop on the backroads. Riverside was all about creative daydreaming because I had a river view (yes, I was very lucky). Main Street is about people-watching and trying to keep up with the comings and goings of downtown—it’s always changing. There are big stores and small ones, but you can always find a bit of the history if you look. Literally, look up at the top of the buildings—you’ll see some history. I enjoy the mix of current life and the long view of the town’s story. In a way, my industry and Westport changed alongside each other.

With COVID we were hit with a shock, like everyone. I certainly was. It felt like one day we were steaming along and the next I’m packing up my desk and throwing my computer in the back of my car. The team realized and accepted quickly that we would have to change how we were doing things. We knew it was a crisis—our ability to produce pages depends on the health of the town and its restaurants, shops and service businesses. We also knew the people who live here were in shock, just like us.

When the town closed down in March, the more practical matter for the creative team was what to do about the next upcoming issue. Would we publish it? We talked and agreed to go forward— we wanted to act as a connection point for our readers and we wanted to support our advertisers, who are mostly small businesses like us.

The entire staff started working remotely with no notice but set up remarkably fast. Part of the reason it worked is because we’ve worked together for so many years—we know what needs to get done. We picked up the pieces and just figured things out. Everyone was proactive and focused.

I had to alter some of the content to make sense for COVID-19 and for the general mind-set of a pandemic. What do you tell people when their whole world has changed? I tried to be authentic. We published our story on women who took the risk of becoming fulltime bloggers—and what they learned from it. That seemed helpful, because we were all connecting digitally now. The story made sense. And we tried to produce a cover that felt authentic to the time. We chose an iconic image of the town. We thought it would be reassuring, anchoring, a comfort, in a time when the way we saw the world was just spinning.

Anyway, our team found new ways of working…and we owe a lot to Zoom and Slack.

As for re-opening, we’re not in any great rush to open the offices. We want it to be safe and for everyone to feel comfortable. Because we’re not a store or a restaurant, we’ve learned that we can do business remotely. We can call and email people or set up small meetings when needed.

Next to getting out our next issues, the first question we asked ourselves was: How can we be useful? We knew we wanted to help connect people and to tell stories. We also wanted the magazines to be a break from the alarming news hitting everyone’s newsfeeds constantly. We aren’t trying to be a newspaper. We take a longer view. Being a local magazine means knowing our readers and honestly caring about them. That’s why we try to do a mix of issue pieces and celebratory stories. Of course, a big part of it is photography and design—the way the pages are presented is part of the pleasure. Of course, we had to halt photo shoots. We’re just starting to do very small ones. And our staff is doing more writing, though I hope to make assignments again.

Also, we are more than a magazine. We also run events and digital properties. We postponed big events, including a new Women in Business forum, which I had helped re-launch. I was deep into it and very excited about what it meant for us. We had great speakers and workshops lined up; I hope it comes back. And we’re postponing our Best of the Gold Coast party, which we’ve always had. That, too, was getting a fresh re-boot when COVID-19 took us all by surprise. We’re hoping to do them; we’re creative, we’ll work with the times.

As for our digital properties, I started immediately posting more web articles and collected and shared Instagram posts about local businesses that were trying to get the word out about their curbside or delivery options. This for everyone, not just our partners, to send the message that we understood, as a small, local business. We face challenges, too, and we know we are a community and need one another. Now, more than ever, we celebrate every win that comes our way, and we hit the jackpot when the talented Dave Briggs stepped up to do an Instagram Live series for us—it’s been amazing.

In general, I find that Westporters want to be engaged. They are politically and culturally aware and enjoy a good debate or cause—they will show up, they will speak out. I think it comes from being well educated and affluent, generally, but also from an arts identity or history or mind-set to think and express. Also, they can and do use their connections and privilege. Personally, I think Westport looks its best when it uses its strengths and advantages to address issues, especially complicated, painful ones like racial justice. My roots go back to Samuel Wakeman and other local families, and I am digging into what that means—their stories. And I want the real stories. Direct. That’s how you start to learn.

I like people who face challenges, and you don’t have to be loud about it; it can be behind the scenes or creative. Time and time again I’ve seen people here do extraordinary things for others facing crises, including homelessness, poverty, health, and the environment—just amazing dedication and generosity to help move obstacles, provide for immediate needs or talk about things. For me, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are role models for this way of living—honest goodness. This needs to get done, let’s do it. I see it in the people making the farmers’ market run, Wakeman Town Farm, Aspetuck Land Trust, our beautiful Westport Country Playhouse, the library, the Levitt, this museum, town events and on and on. Look at this year’s outdoor movies.

Westport likes to look quiet, but it attracts people with an inner fire to get things done. They don’t call it power, but it is. Maybe they don’t even see it that way—they just see a way to help and do. I have seen too many examples of the heart behind that strength to not believe in it.

When someone tells me about discrimination or feeling excluded or even threatened, I believe that, too. It’s painful, because I have to reconcile that with my own lifetime of experiences here. Westporters have always, and literally, thrown their arms around me, and I want that for everyone.

As for Covid, the town did what it does—it got to work, as realists will do. We wore masks. We stopped the parties. The roads emptied out. I know Westport hit the national news, but I’m grateful to see a great deal of sensible people acting responsibly for one another.

I want Westport to keep being self-aware and self-critical. An issue that doesn’t ring true for you, can still be true. Keep bravely facing and digging for what’s real, no matter how complicated, and then decide if you want to make a difference. Our world is undergoing a lot of change and home can and should be a comfort, but you have a role to play. Also, protect what you love, including our “Main Street” small businesses. These are all part of what we love about living and working here.

I want Westport to keep being self-aware and self-critical.

I think talking is important. We don’t all come to every issue with the same knowledge and experiences. Allowing for an open discussion is hard, but I think in that space is where we grow. I hope Westport Magazine serves as a space to do that.


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Peggy Henkel

Mrs. Margaret “Peggy” Henkel moved to Westport in 1965 and was part of a group of locals who revived the largely-defunct Westport Historical Society (now Westport Museum for History & Culture). Created in 1889, the Society changed names and iterations several times, petering out and restarting over the course of the century meeting in members’ homes. By 1965, it was largely a memory. Peggy was instrumental in helping the Society obtain its current headquarters, the Bradley-Wheeler House on Avery Place. Today the vibrant 93-year-old lives in Stratford. 

“I was born in China, but didn’t live there long. My parents met in Peking—now it’s Beijing of course. My father was working for an American company and my mother was taken there on what was to be an around the world trip by two aunts and an uncle. Before she left her mother told her “No smoking, no drinking cocktails, and no getting married.” Well she got married in a town called Titzen (sp) and then moved to WuHu, on Yangtze river, where I was born. 

I grew up in Marietta, Ohio, where my mother’s family was from. Marietta was the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. I spent my first 12 years in my grandmother’s house there and then moved to Columbus. After college, I worked in Columbus as a fashion coordinator with Lazarus Department Store where I did displays, hired models and put on fashion shows.  I even met my husband at Lazarus. He came there to do publicity. Later we had our baby in Columbus—Elizabeth. 

We traveled a lot with my husband’s job and eventually we moved to Pittsburgh and then to Connecticut when he joined a big ad agency in New York City. After a lot of house hunting, we chose Westport. When I got to Westport, I thought, “This is a very interesting town, it must have a lot of history but where is the historical society…?” 

On Reviving the Society & Buying Wheeler House 

When we moved to Westport in 1965, I became part of a group that revived the historical society. One thing led to another and lo and behold I ended up being put on the board and then eventually I was elected president. I began to start putting together ideas to make us more well-known and one thing led to another. 

At one point, before my time, the Society met at Adam’s Academy because we had no building. Eventually, we were able to meet in the house across the street from the current headquarters—the McClury House. For the first time we had someplace to have activities and, it was in that house that I asked Martha Stewart to do exhibits. It was a riot. 

One of the things that Martha did was contribute a square to our bicentennial quilt, which was my baby. We publicized the idea and got signups. A teacher taught volunteers to make appliquéd and quilted squares and the lessons were taught in the basement of Christ & Holy Trinity Church, where I attended. We organized the group of people who did the squares. We publicized that we would do it. It was done in time for the bicentennial and we had a huge part at the McClury house and invited the town. I think that was when people came to really know that we were there and we were doing things. The funny thing was we couldn’t keep quilt there at the house because the ceilings weren’t high enough! That’s when they decided to put it in town hall.  

The whole time we were at that little house across the street a group of us kept looking longingly at Wheeler House [the Museum’s current headquarters.] How we eventually were able to get the house is a funny story: 

At the time, Charlotte D’Arby owned the house. She had been the Houskeeper for Dr. Wheeler and he left it to her. I became friendly with Mrs. D’Arby and used to make her cherry pies which were her favorite. She often said “everyone will be very happy when they see whom I left the house to”. At that point, I was too shy to come right out ask and for the house for the Society. Well, in the end she left the house Christy & Holy Trinity—my church. 

I wasn’t president then, but a group of us got together and met with the Church. Mr. Kennedy was the rector and I knew him very well. We presented to them our proposal that we would like to buy the house from them if they would let us use it as a headquarters while we were fundraising. We had this big fundraising committee-Eve Potts was involved, Dottie Fincher was there and I was heading up the committee. We met in our “meetings room” which then was turned into a gift shop, [and is today, again, a meetings/programs room]. We realized we had a big job ahead of us, so that’s when we decided we’d create a newsletter to let people know about the Society and what we do for the town. 

When we bought that house, there was only one piece of furniture left by the previous owners—a cabinet. Everything else that was in those rooms was acquired later. We had decided to create period rooms to the best of our ability because we visited a lot of historical societies and learned that, in those days, that’s what historical societies did.  

 
I think that as a society we are too impatient, that’s why we need functional historical societies and museums to remind us. That’s why I got involved [with Westport Historical Society] way back when and spent a lot of time and money when I should have been working–because I felt it was important. I mean that I’m proud of the Westport Historical Society and what it does today. I think that’s good they changed the name– we always wanted to be a Museum first. I think that the things they are doing now are of the moment and that’s as it should be. 

On COVID-19  

There has never been a period of time that felt like this. I think this pandemic is a very, very unusual occurrence.   I think about living through World War II versus this pandemic: I was in high school during the war, so of course I remember Pearl Harbor and what a shock that was–and everyone wondering where in the world was Pearl Harbor? I lived in Ohio, far from the coast, but I did take a course in plane-spotting.  It was something we had to do, so that was interesting.  

My mother had a victory garden, I remember the rationing and my mother grew a lot of foods and that’s how we got along. I don’t recall hoarding but I may not have known, I knew there were shortages and we had to curtail certain foods. I do remember rationing books. When we graduated in 1944 the yearbook said some of the boys were going to the army and that seemed so foreign– to me at least. 

Even during the War, it was more possible to feel like life was somewhat normal. There wasn’t a constant feeling of danger at least where I lived, like we have now with the virus. You could almost forget there was a war on. 

We would get news about what was happening in war, but it seemed so far away, it really didn’t hit America. Since I lived in the Mid-West although there wasn’t too much danger. I did see planes fly over that I did recognize from my plane-spotting. We did have a sense that feeling that we would win and eventually the war would end because the whole country was converted to war time status. We worked together and we kept getting news of victories–wherever they were–and the American spirit prevailed.  

With COVID I get that feeling that it is never ending. There isn’t that same feeling of working together and that we were all converted to the value of science. If we had a leader to bring everyone together the way Roosevelt did, we could get through this. I actually wasn’t a great fan of Roosevelt but he was a terrific leader. Even if you didn’t agree with him and his policies the leadership was there and you could recognize it. It was definitely a different time but this pandemic is absolutely colossal. I hope we can get past it soon but it will take cooperation of a lot of people and there isn’t that cooperation yet. 

I hope we can get past it soon but it will take cooperation of a lot of people…

 We can only pray that things will get better and I’m trying to be hopeful and positive. 


Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.


Focus On: Michael Friedman, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel

Michael Friedman is originally from Great Neck, NY.  He attended Yale University as an undergraduate where he studied history. After school Rabbi Friedman, spent fifteen years in Israel and New York before coming back to Connecticut to take a position six years ago at Westport/Weston’s Reformed Jewish Temple, Temple Israel.  He and wife, costume designer, Hayley Lieberman are parents to 2-year-old twins George and Goldie. 

“Our community is based around face to face interaction and because of COVID so much of our world these days is digital, interacting through screens. We view our role as providing an antidote to that because that’s what people crave. If you ask our congregation  what’s most important, “community” is the term you hear most often. When something comes along that limits that interaction, it’s difficult. 

As public institutions, we’re already used to being charge of people’s health and safety. Safety is particularly important especially in this day and age in in the Jewish community. We are used putting that first so in that first week of March when it became clear we couldn’t do biz as usual and make sure people are safe, we had to start limiting programming.  

This year, the Purim carnival was scheduled for march 8—the  2nd Sunday in march,. It’s our largest event of the year, other than the high holidays. The largest number of people gather for Purim. At first, we scheduled a delay but then it became clear to us early on that it was just not a responsible thing to go forward with the event and we cancelled on the Wednesday prior. At the time a lot of synagogues were talking about limiting their celebrations for the same date and we were among the first to cancel—not just in Westport but throughout the Metro area. People were surprised and called and asked “what are you doing?” To us, it was the obvious decision. To us, it was the right thing to do. As the days passed that week, Wednesday into Thursday Into Friday and Saturday others temples and organizations canceled their events. I’m proud we were ahead of the curve there in a number of ways.  

By the 2nd week of march we seriously limiting a lot of meetings and events. We follow the schedule of the public school so it was a question of watching the schools and seeing what they did. As soon as schools closed, we closed the synagogue. We had a contingency plan to do it. I’m really proud of our community here in that there wasn’t push back because they understood it was for everyone’s safety. 

The first stage in this new situation was triage: Figuring out how to move as much as we could online and pastoring to  everyone’s sense of crisis.. During that first month we were trying to figure to what degree could we run a nursery school online>. How are the schools getting online?  Our religious schools for older kids  started providing a supplement. Our worship services had to get online. Then as I said, there was the dealing with trauma: We quickly set up a system where every member in congregation, got a check in from our board or clergy o ra  volunteer to say “We are here thinking about you.” In that process, we got a lot of good feedback. 

That lasted to Passover, during which a lot of families had ZOOM seders and congregational seders. That was hard because Passover is a big family gathering on Jewish calendar. Then after Passover it was a new state of being, it was no longer about crisis, and it occurred to us all that this will be new normal for long time to come. We shifted from triaging crisis to figuring how to we help congregants deal with long term. 

We know people are yearning to come back to their Jewish home and with respect to reopening,  we have a task force of lay leaders and professionals creating those plans for us. Health and safety is still the top priority that will never change.  

The milestones that people are looking at are beginning of school year for the nursery school and then the high holidays. There’s a range of contingencies we are planning based on this. We have no particular date to open het , we are looking at different factors to guide us including the successes of other businesses, the state guidelines and how similar institutions are proceeding. We are lucky in many respects in that we do not have the same pressure to reopen the building because of the revenue model of synagogues versus many other religious institutions.  

So, our priority lies not in re-opening, our priority lies in how do we serve our congregation in very best way even if we can’t be in the same room. How can we use wisdom of Jewish tradition and ritual to guide people through this unprecedented time? How do we help human beings thrive in a time of unprecedented dislocation and isolation? Our building doesn’t need to be open to give people the things they want from synagogue. 

I often hear people making comparisons to circumstances of isolation or separation in Jewish history but I don’t think it helps others to think, say, “Anne Frank made it through four years in an attic,  so you should tough it out.”  What I’ve learned as a rabbis  that each person’s struggle is their own struggle—it has nothing to do with comparison. The tsouris [trouble]each person has is real and valid. I think, psychologically, it’s not helpful for that person to draw a comparison to others in worse circumstances but I absolutely believe that the resilience and creativity of the Jewish people thorough history in times way, way worse than this is one  is one hundred percent an inspiration. 

It’s helpful to remind ourselves we are strong and we know how to deal and the most difficult situations 

There’s a specificity for Jews that we have a strong connection to our ancestors and our people and we think of the Jewish community through time as our family, our community, our tribe who have done great things in the face of much greater struggles. 

Some small things that we’ve done that I believe fall within that tradition of creativity out of adversity is that  

We’ve been wanting to reshape elementary school age Hebrew learning, when everything was moved online it forced us to experiment with online learning, which were considering but we wouldn’t have been forced to experiment with. Now we are seeing which teachers are effective in this medium and  who it benefits. It was a forced learning lab for us.  

COVID is going to force us to rethink high holidays: When and how we celebrate them. We knew we wanted to live streaming in general but we weren’t ready and didn’t have infrastructure. Now, there’s no going back because we are going to live-stream going forward. This is cutting edge right now for synagogues– the crisis forces us to take steps that we would have taken our time doing. 

We’ve also, traditionally, really thought of our programming in terms of people showing up in person at the synagogue. Who is going to show up when for what? This new-normal helps normalize participating without necessarily being in room, even if others are. We envision a community where some are in room and others aren’t. You don’t have to be in room and you shouldn’t feel “less than” for not being there. In the past, we’d accommodate a couple of people who couldn’t make it using propped up iPhone. It wasn’t a regular accommodation but that will change. 

Right now, all services are on Zoom including Family Shabbat, our Friday evening service. Tora study and Saturday morning services are on zoom as well as Saturday evening service. None of us have been back in building to date. 

I’ve conducted Bar Mitzvah’s and funerals as well as baby naming ceremonies on zoom. I’ve given a lot of thought about how do you conduct life cycle rituals if you cannot be together? Particularly mourning rituals—and I was inspired to write a piece about that for our blog.

I used to assume, that if people wanted to hear what we had to say they’d come Friday night—that’s our primetime. In winter,  we started to podcast our sermons and make available to download and listening to make it available for those who might not be able to come. And I realize in this time, even that’s not enough. I’ve been writing a weekly message to the congregations—lots of rabbis do this—but I realized there is a need for inspiration from Jewish tradition on a weekly basis. We are seeing greater numbers, engaging in this way. Even in the future, many are not going to come, it needs to be a push more than a pull. Getting the message in your inbox is part of that. 

In many ways, people have nothing else to do, so they are coming to more virtual events—, of course, I’m aware that not all this engagement will continue once the world gets back going 

Rahm Emmanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s chief of staff said  “Never let good crisis go to waste. It provides an opportunity to do things that were not possible before.”  

I love this quote. It describes how we are thinking and planning differently. We are planning multiple high holiday contingencies, different scenarios, because I don’t feel comfortable making decisions for three months out,. But what we start now gives us opportunities to even rethink what does a new schedule of services look like—even if things are re-opened? Not everyone will want to just come back. This part is what’s most exciting. IT forces me to say how would you do a 2 hour Rosh Hashana service in 1 hour? Now I think down the line…maybe next hear if, god willing, we can do in person services maybe we can do an alternative 1 hour service. So if you want to come 1 hour or 2 you have options.  . We’d never have thought that before. 

I think about a traditional Jewish phrase said at Passover “Next year in Jerusalem” Here’s the amazing and crazy thing: Next year in Jerusalem was said by for millennia by people who could never ever hope to ever really go there. It was a statement of hope: Next year, the world will be better, we’ll be able to be home. And then all of a sudden we could go to Jerusalem, it was actually possible. This dream was kept alive until that it became a reality. Whatever your “next year in Jerusalem” i it’s a flame of hope to be kept alive and I think people are tapping into that feeling with respect to a post-COVID future. 

For me, for example,  it’s a devastating possibility that school wont’ be in session because of what that does to the economy and how people are struggling, and balancing childcare and earning a living. So, I need to believe and hope that school will be session. 

Personally, I have realized how much I thrived on the in person and interaction of other human beings and responding with body language and emotion and proximity. I am not as good on zoom, it is not the same. We are doing the best we can and having some success but I am not the same rabbi on zoom. I wonder if any teacher or doctor regarding telemedicine would say they are same practitioner. We are doing the best we can, but I’m not same. I deal with a total life cycle– I can have a morning funeral and an afternoon meeting with bar mitzvah students.  We are really missing the celebrations: The bar and bat mitzvah’s are being put off, all of the weddings are postponed, the baby namings postponed. Funerals can’t be postponed because of the Jewish tradition so now I’m largely dealing with that single aspect of the lifecycle. And we dealing with a community dealing with loss, hardship and sadness, no one is celebrating–there is nothing to celebrate. I think that I desperately miss the balance of joyful and difficult that is generally part of a rabbi’s life. There is still joy to be found but the balance is different. 

My fear is that life will never return to what it once was and the fear is based so much that the idea that life before was so great. It’s the fear of the unknown and we human beings have such difficulty dealing with change and the world will change but we don’t know how. That’s what’s different from every other crisis in our lifetimes in near memory: We don’t know how life will go one because we don’t know the path virus will take, how to solve it. What are temporary adjustments or permanent changes? We don’t know if this is a significant event that will not change the course of human history or will it. I think that unknown is a fear.  

…the fear is based so much that the idea that life before was so great

In terms of hope, as a rabbi I would hope that people really appreciate, see and understand how Judaism and how Jewish community can provide hope and comfort in a tumultuous world on the one hand. On the other hand, I would hope that people really value the joy and wisdom that tradition can bring to their lives even when things go back to normal or a new normal is reached.” 


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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.