In 1924, Nathan and Dora Blumenthal married and moved to Danielson. This was the first Jewish family to settle in Danielson. Over the next twenty-five years the Blumenthals were joined by nine other families. These “old” Americans made their homes in and around this village and successfully acclimated to the local cultural life without fully assimilating or relinquishing their Jewishness. Many of these families ordered kosher meat from Hertz Brothers in nearby Norwich, Connecticut which would arrive by bus and be picked up at the bus station in Danielson. Many owned or were employed by local businesses. Their children attended local schools.
The Blumenthals had brought a Torah with them from Norwich, Connecticut and for many years they held services in their home at 9 Winter Street in Danielson. Services were started at 7:00 am so that the businesspeople could get to their stores by 8:00 am. They had become part of the fabric of local, rural, small town, American life.
They formed the Danielson Jewish Community Club. This group held meetings, services and rituals in the Blumenthal home and the home of Sol Baker, a local business executive. Bar Mitzvahs were held at members’ homes.
For high holidays the Community Club would rent different building in town including the Elks and the American Legion Hall. By virtue of its small size, the Jewish community naturally avoided the sectarian differences that sometimes confounded their metropolitan counterparts.
The handful of Danielson Jews could not afford the luxury of disagreements about how to live as Jews. Although they constituted a barely visible minority, these Jews were recognizable participants in the local cultural and civic life. Through their membership in the Jewish Community Club they worked to build and maintain their identity as Jews even as they nurtured their connections to the gentile community. Families such as the Bakers and the Blumenthals took a leadership role in the community and were highly respected. Nathan Blumenthal was the Commander of the American Legion and led a fund drive to raise money for the first ambulance in the community. He served on many boards including the local hospital, the Bond drive, the Danielson Industrial Foundation, Red Cross, Salvation Army and more.
Unlike the multitude of Jews who settled in urban areas, these families settled in this area in search of economic independence, relief from overcrowding, greater access to outdoor pursuits and a desire to participate in all manner of “mainstream American” civic endeavors.
After World War II Jewish survivors of the Holocaust began to make their way to America from displaced persons camps operated by the United Nations and the International Red Cross. Two thirds of European Jewry was annihilated in the Holocaust. An estimated 140,000 survivors came to the US in the years immediately following the Second World War. Many had lost whole families. They arrived with few possessions; no money and wearing donated clothing.
Perhaps the most active group of all members was the Sisterhood which seemed to have a constant schedule of activities. The first president of the Sisterhood was Elsie Fetterman who was elected to office in 1950 while she was away on her honeymoon. Elsie describes how each meeting opened with the singing of Hatikvah and how she had typed out the words since many of the “old” Americans did not know the words to the new anthem.
With assistance from Anna Israelit, they established a committee for every Jewish holiday. Since there were only eight members, each member was responsible for a committee and for a holiday. The Sisterhood helped to raise money through a variety of projects which engaged the local community. One such project was a card table project where the local merchants gave donations for ads which were printed on the tables.
They also developed a cookbook with recipes from the members. In addition, there were special projects for fund raising such as Lawn Tea Parties, card parties, a Tablecloth project, a kitchen shower, and candy sales. Starting in 1955 under the guidance of Shirley Rosenberg, a new Years’ Greeting Book was begun. A gift shop was started, annual donor dinners were held, a Golden Book, Purim parties, Bingo, rummage sales all were well attended on a regular basis.
The Temple served as a community center for members of all ages. At a time when there were many children in the congregation, Leon Israelit organized an informal youth club with games and activities for children to enjoy together. Younger children had their own group – the Youth Group.
Under the direction of Mr. George Roback the Youth group celebrated holidays, put on plays with Israeli history or other Jewish themes, and raised money for annual trips to destinations such as Rocky Point in Warwick, RI and the Touro Synagogue in Newport. There were many directors, advisors, leaders and members – all dedicated, innovative and wonderful people. Youth Commission directors included Isidore Goldstein, Edward Rose, Dr. Herbert Schneider, Pyrle Kopely, Sophie Drobiarz, Harriet Drobiarz, Shirley Rosenberg and Doris Cantor. Advisors were recruited from a Jewish organization at the University of Connecticut.
Every family in the Congregation contributed to its success in some meaningful way. Certain individuals were noteworthy, however, in their dedication, initiative and tireless devotion to enhancing and enriching community life. Listed below are just a few of the individuals who had a lasting impact on shaping and directing the Temple:
Sol Baker: Board member, president, businessman, hosted gatherings of the Danielson Jewish Community Club at his home not far from the site of the Temple. Sol was one of the visionaries who helped to make the Temple a reality. He was the first president of the community and served for several years. He helped to set the congregation firmly on its path to success.
Nathan Blumenthal: Nathan and his wife Dora Blumenthal were the first Jews to settle in Danielson in 1924. They hosted gatherings for prayers and rituals at their home a 9 Winter Street in Danielson. Nathan owned and operated D. Blumenthal Hardware and Supply in Danielson. He was a prominent Jewish businessman and civic leader and the key liaison with many of the local business leaders in the Christian community. He was instrumental in raising funds for the new building.
Henry Drobiarz – Survivor, dairy farmer, president of the Temple for many years. He served on the board of directors, the ritual committee, and was, for many years, the community’s lay spiritual leader. Henry was the “new” American counterpart to Sol Baker. With his ever-present charm and humor and a twinkle in his eye, he was a natural leader, community diplomat, spiritual leader for the entire span of the Temple’s history – starting in the early days and continuing well past the turn of the century. Henry and Sophie’s children and grandchildren are active in the Preservation Society and have served on its board of directors.
Isidore Levine: Survivor and poultry farmer. He earned an engineering degree in Poland, lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust, fought for the Polish army, met his wife in a displaced persons camp and settled on a farm in East Killingly. An avid reader, self-educated in American finance and politics, he served on the Temple’s board of directors and, for two years, was President of the congregation. Izzy and Sarah Levine left Danielson in the early 70s to acquire and operate the Leslie Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. Many Temple members would stay at or visit the hotel when in Florida.
Irving Fetterman: Local Businessman who negotiated the purchase of the land on Killingly Drive on which the Temple was built. The owners had property on both Killingly Drive and Corinne Street and would not sell one lot separately. Irving purchased both lots of for the Temple and then purchased the Corinne Street lot from the Temple. Irving was one of the founders who signed the mortgage. His knowledge of all matters electrical and plumbing proved invaluable to the new community, and he generously helped to provide necessary maintenance for the building’s mechanical systems.
Leon Israelit: Teacher, resistance fighter, survivor, farmer. Leon Israelit served on the board of directors and was committed to advancing the level of education of the children. Israelit taught in the Hebrew School for many years together with his wife, Anna. Their children, Martin and Claire both serve on the Preservation Society board of directors.
Stanley Zektzer: Survivor, farmer, writer, teacher and musician. Known also as Shlomo Zektzer, he formed and led a Yiddish youth chorus in the displaced persons camp Fohrenwald where other survivors who ultimately settled in Danielson were placed. Shlomo and his wife Rena were among the first immigrant settlers in the Danielson Jewish community. After his arrival in Danielson, he wrote an article published in the Yiddish monthly, Der Yidisher Farmer, (The Jewish Farmer), entitled Der Neier Yishuv in Danielson, (a new Jewish settlement in Danielson). (See article and translation elsewhere on this website.) Zektzer owned a chicken farm and was one of the teachers in the Temple’s newly formed Hebrew School. He also privately tutored students for their Bar Mitzvahs.
Edward Rose: Board member, president, local business owner. He owned and operated Lord’s Shoes on Main Street in Danielson. An early member of the Danielson Jewish Club, Rose was one of the purchasers of the property on which the Temple was built.
Elsie Fetterman: Member of the Blumenthal family, high school teacher, college professor and author. Elsie served as sisterhood president and youth adviser. A tireless researcher, Elsie has been instrumental in locating and reconnecting with many former members. Her memories of the early days of the development of the community have been an essential element in chronicling the Temple’s history. A strong supporter of the Preservation Society, Elsie has served on the board of directors and has spearheaded a successful program of securing grant funding for a variety of critical projects.
Ray Gawendo: Holocaust Survivor, farmer. Over the years, Ray was active in the sisterhood and served as its president. In her 90s, she was urged to tell her story of survival and became a frequent speaker at high schools discussing her experiences during the Holocaust. Her husband, Jacob, served on the Temple’s original board of directors. Their son Evert serves as the Preservation Society’s vice president.
Shirley Rosenberg: Sisterhood board member, Sisterhood secretary, Sisterhood treasurer, Youth Group/USY advisor. Shirley, a “macher,” moved to Danielson as a newlywed in May 1950. A first generation American, her first language was Yiddish – something that helped forge life-long friendships with later members of the congregation and sisterhood. Shirley worked side by side with her husband David (a mortgage signer for the Temple building) to build Danielson Surplus Sales into a successful business. She and Dave raised three children, Paula, Warren and Joel. Paula presently serves as the Preservation Society’s President and Joel was its first President and is now President Emeritus.
Herman Sheppard: Holocaust survivor, farmer and entrepreneur. Dedicated and active member of the community. Herman Sheppard served on the board and as congregation president. He played a major role helping to raise funds to make a number of improvements to the Synagogue. Herman was instrumental in helping to keep the congregation moving forward at a critical time in the history of Temple Beth Israel.
The concerns about the future of the former Temple Beth Israel awakened a new consciousness among this small group of descendants of the founding families of Temple Beth Israel. Led by Joel Rosenberg, a resident of Brooklyn, Connecticut, and a son of an American Jewish businessman who had settled in Danielson and opened Danielson Surplus Sales in 1950, the group shared a sense of urgency and a recognition that something of great value was at risk. They knew that the Temple represented more than a Jewish house of worship, not only to these descendants who had grown up and come of age in this Temple, but also to the community at large that had welcomed the Jews and supported the creation of the Temple and the community.
There was something of great importance to small town New England life that had occurred in this place and this small group of individuals was moved to do all it could to preserve the legacy, tell the story, honor their parents and create a resource that would contribute to the cultural and historic life of the greater community.
In early 2009, several representatives of this group of descendants held a series of meetings with the leadership of Congregation B’Nai Shalom focused on the preserving the future of the Temple building. These descendants pressed for independent status for Temple Beth Israel. The discussions ultimately led to an agreement whereby ownership of Temple Beth Israel would be transferred to a newly formed Preservation Society whose mission would be to own and maintain the building and to establish a vibrant community center.