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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bedford Middle School Becomes Purim Party Playground

 Bedford Middle School Becomes Purim Party Playground
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – The sun-drenched cafeteria space at Bedford Middle School became a Purim playground midday Sunday as the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism celebrated the Jewish holiday.

The space at 88 North Avenue was a blur of activity, with a party agenda that included a full lunch spread, a short play telling the Purim story performed by congregation members and a range of carnival-style activities from golf putting, shuffleboard and pop-a-shot to crafts like paper crown and hamantaschen pastry making.

The 45-year-old non-theistic congregation is part of the Humanistic Judaism movement with a mission to celebrate Jewish identity and human dignity. “We don’t have a dedicated facility,” said congregation president Dana Preis, “but have an ongoing relationship with Westport schools and other facilities. We hold Sunday school classes at Bedford Middle School, so the Purim Party is an extension of that.”

Like the Pied Piper, Dylan Cotton, a music teacher associated with the congregation, led children ages 9 to 12 from their Sunday school class down into the cafeteria. He strummed a guitar while the children, in colorful costumes, marched behind. They were joined by parents and family and all sat at long tables for the play performance, conducted from a low riser.

The play related the biblical story of the evil Haman and his plot to destroy the Jewish people, and how that was foiled by Esther and her cousin Mordecai. Tradition dictates that when Haman’s name is mentioned during the storytelling that listeners are to make distracting noises. In this case, the gathering shook boxes of dry macaroni. The boxes were collected afterward for donation to a local food pantry.

A raffle was also held, offering two free children’s tickets to the Congregation’s Passover Seder on April 7 at Fairfield’s Vazzy’s 19th Hole.

“This is a great way to learn about the holiday while having some family fun at the same time,” remarked parent Kurt Zeppetello, from Monroe.  

Locals Take the Plunge for Special Olympics Cause

 Locals Take the Plunge for 
Special Olympics Cause
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – Water temperature 38 degrees. Air temperature 45. Insanity levels off the charts.

Those were the readings Saturday afternoon before some 450 people bravely raced into the chilly waters off Compo Beach. The daring dip was all part of the Penguin Plunge benefiting Special Olympics of Connecticut. The site took on a festival atmosphere, with rock music blaring across the beach, wacky costumes and general good cheer and revelry.

Seeing that everything was running like clockwork was Gail Feinstein of USI Insurance and the volunteer coordinator of the event. “I’ve been associated with this for over a decade since it began and when it was a lot smaller,” she said. “This year we’re on track for a fundraising goal of $130,000.”

While many would consider the day’s weather to be on the bitter side, the sun was high in the sky and there was not even a suggestion of snow. “The favorable weather has helped attract people,” said Feinstein, “including a young man in his 80s who has been plunging here every year.”

Assisting Feinstein with event coordination were 80 volunteers, helping with pre-registration, incentives, crowd control and greeting people. A separate group managed a raffle. Westport Police, Westport Fire and a dive team were also onsite to ensure safety in and out of the water.

The Westport Plunge is one of several plunges Special Olympics sponsors during the year around the state. Individuals, teams from high schools, families, companies and groups from the SOCT programs all participate.

A twist to the event is the attire participants can choose to wear. “You can put on anything to take the plunge,” said Feinstein. As an encouragement to spur creativity, Fox 95.9 radio was onsite hosting a costume contest. As such, pirates, ninja turtles, leprechauns and other characters roamed the beach.

A consistent wardrobe item among all participants though was a bowtie. These were various colors depending on the fundraising level a person achieved and given to individuals upon check-in. The minimum funding level was $75.

Besides individual donations, local corporate sponsors like Lexus and USI Insurance provided support, as well as organizations at the state level.

Because of the size of the participating field, the Plunge had to be conducted in five waves. Groups were fairly evenly divided in numbers and organized by teams. One of the largest groups was St. Joseph’s with over 75 members.

“This is the 13th year I’m doing this,” said Pete Dennin of Team Happy Feet, which had comparatively more modest numbers but no less enthusiasm. “We’re six people, including my brother Dave, who was the first Special Olympics athlete to do this, and my daughter Abby,” he said. “Every year when I step out of the water, I say I’m never doing this again – your feet take three hours to warm up. But I always return. The first year, maybe 40 people participated. It’s been great to see the numbers explode.”

The waves were in and out of the water in a matter of minutes and as participants hurried back up the beach, they shouted and fist-pumped and scooped up towels.

Madison Snyder, with friend Katie Morgan, was among them. “We are freezin’ for a reason, that’s for sure,” she joked. “This is my fifth year and it seems to get easier every year. It’s a great cause and I love doing it, and will be back for sure.” 

Curio Cottage Tag Sale Draws Bargain Hunters for a Good Cause

 Curio Cottage Tag Sale Draws Bargain Hunters for a Good Cause
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – Though the tag sale hadn’t even officially begun, there was already a crowd combing through the bric-a-brac and seeking out good buys.

Westport Woman’s Club’s annual Curio Cottage Tag Sale launched Friday morning in the Club’s auditorium, offering hundreds of items from home d├ęcor to artwork, with 100% of the revenue to benefit Fairfield County charities. The sale was scheduled to run both Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10, from 10am to 3pm, at the 50 Imperial Avenue facility.

“We’ve conducted this sale for the past 11 years,” said Karen Eickhoff, chairman of the Curio Cottage Thrift Shop, a small structure open year-round on the WWC property. “We made $66 the first year, with items spread out on drop cloths in the parking lot. The shop had only been open a year then.”

Since, the sale has grown in size, popularity and fundraising. “Before the doors even opened this morning, we’d sold $2,000 worth of merchandise,” Eickhoff said.

Among the items on display were two elegant Oriental rugs, maritime-themed bed headboards, mirrors, lamps, chairs, kitchen items, housewares, linens, toys and small appliances. “Basically everything but clothing,” Eickhoff added.

Over 35 charities and organizations benefit from both the tag sale and sales at Curio Cottage throughout the year. These groups include CancerCare for Kids Program, Center for Women & Families, Homes with Hope and Mercy Learning Center.

“All items for sale have been donated to us and are either new or slightly used,” said Audrey Rabinowitz, a past WWC president and now a volunteer in the Cottage. “And all the staff at the Cottage and sale are volunteers and members of the WWC.”

The WWC’s Community Services Committee handles the distribution of monies raised. “Our funding helps meet the basic needs of people served by the various charitable agencies, from Norwalk through Bridgeport,” Rabinowitz said. “This is one of our biggest fundraisers of the year.”

“While driving fundraising,” said Eickhoff, “the sale reminds people that the Cottage is here all year. We try to catch people at the start of the spring tag sale season – they’re chomping at the bit. And by having the sale indoors, we’re not restricted by inclement weather.”

Westporter Caroline Evans was one of the many locals that had reported to the sale even before it had opened. “My mom and I love this sale and supporting this cause. I always find items of interest, at good prices,” she said.

Rowayton resident Kathy Dobbins said she discovered the sale last year and thought it was great. Like Evans, she said, “I liked the charitable cause behind it. This year I came back with two friends.”

Michael Zieff, a Bridgeport-based artist, said of the sale, “This is a great place to find treasures. It’s a hidden secret, given a Friday start. I bought a lot of stuff here last year as I’d just relocated back to Connecticut. When you see something you like, you have to grab it or it goes.”

For more information about the Tag Sale and Curio Cottage, visit

Congregation Marks Purim with Reading and Costumes

 Congregation Marks Purim with Reading and Costumes
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – It’s not every day that you see parishioners wearing jester hats, crazy wigs and cowboy costumes in a house of worship. But on the holiday of Purim, this is par for the course.

Wednesday at sundown, Congregation Ahavath Achim members began the celebration at their synagogue, 1571 Stratfield Road. Young and old alike donned festive outfits to sit for a reading in the sanctuary then enjoy homemade food and traditional treats.

“The holiday of Purim recalls the story in the biblical Book of Esther in which the infamous Haman plots to destroy the Jewish people,” explained Rabbi Mitch Rocklin. “The plot is foiled by Esther the Persian Queen and her cousin Mordecai.”

Rocklin added, “The holiday involves two different emotions: gratitude for the ability to fight evil and joy for having been saved. There are four basic elements to the celebration: reading the Book of Esther, giving gifts to friends and neighbors, a festive meal and charity to the poor. The holiday is not a holiday if the needs of the poor are not taken care of.”

To that regard, cash and check donations, as well as baskets of food, are distributed to the poor. “The baskets are called mishloach manot and they are assembled by congregation members,” said Susan Klein, VP of the congregation’s sisterhood. “Thirty five volunteers put together 134 baskets, each of which includes a fruit-filled pastry called a hamantaschen. The hamantaschen are three-cornered, meant to be a reminder of the villain Haman in the Purim story, who wore a tri-corner hat.”

Teens Get Ratty for Library’s One Book One Town Program

Teens Get Ratty for Library’s One Book One Town Program
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – Fairfield Woods Branch Library was overrun with rats Wednesday afternoon as teens took paintbrushes in hand to boldly decorate rubber rodents in celebration of the townwide One Book One Town program.

The OBOT program spotlights Allan Wolf’s “The Watch That Ends the Night”, about the sinking of the Titanic and featuring the voices of various crew and people aboard. Among the voices is a Ship Rat, who doesn’t so much speak as skitter about and explore. Wednesday’s “Rat Parade” workshop at the 1147 Fairfield Woods Road site recognized the lowly rat and allowed teens to exercise some creative expression.

Gathered at tables in the Library’s Down Under Teen space, young people in grades 7 to 12 worked with colorful blobs of paint to colorize the rats. Teens being teens, they chattered, gossiped and tapped away at their iPhones while working on the projects. One teen even summoned up “Colors of the Wind”, the theme song from the film “Pocahontas”, on her electronic device, as well as the theme song from “Titanic”, as appropriate background music.

“Plan your rat design before you begin painting,” advised Teen Librarian Jennifer Laseman, at the outset of the activity. Teens heeded her guidance, adopting their own unique approaches.

“I’m an anglophile and love all things British, so I chose the Union Jack as my rat pattern,” said Katie Stepsis, 14, of Fairfield.

“I’m doing a gay pride rat,” said Indiana Whiteman, “promoting equality for all – something completely different.”

Working busily on her rat, Meghan Saladino, 15, said, “I like abstract things and I draw, so my rat reflects that.”

According to Wolff’s book, there actually were rats aboard the Titanic. They regularly gained passage via the mooring lines or hidden in food stores or other cargo.