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As always, keeping the faith

As populations vary, area Jews try new ways to keep community

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2012
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BROCKTON - Fran Litner teaches young people about Jewish culture, trying to pass on a lifetime of wisdom imparted by parents who survived the Holocaust with their love of humanity intact.

At Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton, Litner supervises religious education for young members of the congregation in kindergarten through high school, engaging them with music, drama, field trips, projects, and Hebrew study. The Sharon resident has been the temple’s educational director for the past 15 years.

“My parents believed in learning to live with everyone in the world,’’ she said recently. “They did not believe in hate. They taught me to value others and transmit Judaism to the next generation.’’

Today is the first of the Days of Remembrance, a national week memorializing the Holocaust, lasting through April 22. Litner requires no calendar reminder; what her parents experienced shaped her lifelong desire to keep the faith alive - a challenge that has grown for educators like herself as the Jewish population disperses across the southern suburbs.

But many others share this passion for building the community. As humans remember the horror of the Holocaust and the sacrifice and bravery of the millions of Jews and others who perished at the hands of the Nazis, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, is distributing $50,000 to Jewish groups in various communities south of Boston - including Brockton, Canton, Easton, Hingham, Sharon, and Stoughton - for various new cultural projects and activities aimed at strengthening Jewish bonds. A program for students with special needs at Litner’s Hebrew school is among them.

Combined Jewish Philanthropies president Barry Shrage sees the task at hand as “one of the great issues.

“How do you preserve values, spirituality, and vision into the next generation? You rely on the person-to-person connection,’’ said Shrage, describing Jews as an ethnic group that has carried unique values, knowledge, and religion across centuries.

It was simpler in the past to uphold Jewish community when it revolved around a nexus, such as in Sharon, a town filled with families, synagogues, and traditions for generations. Over the past 20 years, Shrage said, Jewish people in and around Boston have moved from previously tight-knit neighborhoods in search of housing, schools, and opportunities.

“With this spreading out, we must find new ways to hold the community together in order to strengthen the future,’’ he said, explaining how his organization set out to enable a wide range of organizations south of Boston to transmit spiritual meaning to the next generation.

In 1975, Boston’s Jewish population was 195,000, with demographic studies showing a migration to the suburbs, including Sharon, along with a drop in synagogue membership and a rise in intermarriage among those under 30. By 1985, the Jewish population in all of Greater Boston, including the southern suburbs, had dropped to 170,000. However, a 2006 Brandeis University study found that a high percentage of children in mixed-faith households were being raised in the faith, bringing the number of Jews in the Boston area to about 210,000, or 7.2 percent of the population, four times the percentage of the nation as a whole.

A strong community is built by engaging folks in Jewish life in creative and diverse ways, said Shrage.

Over the next few months, for example, young people at Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham will connect Legos to replicate symbols of their faith as a creative means of learning about their Jewish heritage. Easton’s Temple Chavai Shalom will take local Jewish teenagers for a college tour. Temple Israel in Sharon will host a community art show.

Other Jewish programs in the south suburbs will address social issues and education in new ways, for instance, by creating a support group for Jewish grandparents of interfaith grandchildren.

“Grandparents are literally the carriers of tradition,’’ Shrage said. He said more than half of young people in interfaith marriages are raised Jewish and many rely on grandparents to learn about the faith.

At Congregation Ahavath Torah in Stoughton, Jewish children will perform good deeds as part of a South Area Community Mitzvah Day.

“We want to show the younger generation the importance of offering help to others without being asked,’’ said Sue Rosman, director of the event. “We’re building the memories that children will have to go back to. It’s the foundation of their Jewish identity.’’

Hadassah New England, a Jewish women’s organization, is planning a series of health forums at locations across this region - including Sharon, Hingham, Mansfield, and Braintree - as a way to reach families, said Leslie Zide, president of the group’s New England chapter.

“We want to attract new people to our programming. It is really all about sisterhood,’’ she said.

At Temple Beth Emunah, Litner is preparing 25 children for B’nai Mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual that celebrates young people as they reach an age of responsibility from a religious perspective. Nine of Litner’s students have special needs, and grant money will provide them with additional educational support, she said.

Litner is spending a year teaching the 12-year-olds during intensive religious education sessions, instilling in them a familiarity with Jewish customs - chanting haftorah, a short scriptural passage read on Sabbath; reading from the Torah; and practicing good deeds on Mitzvah days.

Training young people to become responsible American Jewish citizens is more challenging today than in years past, she said. Hebrew school used to be three days a week, now only two. Still, the size of the congregation at Temple Beth Emunah remains healthy; over the years, Litner and her staff of volunteers have taught a steady number of students.

It is true that young people are busy. But Litner says they must learn about their faith because the stakes are high and Jewish culture is a treasure. She tearfully told the story of her own family, tracing back to the Holocaust.

At age 25, David Zysman, a Polish Jew, was sent to one of the first Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany. It was a notorious place where prisoners performed forced labor or were hung on trees to die or shot in the back of the head. Zysman’s wife and 2-year-old child were sent elsewhere, as were his parents and his siblings. He never saw any of them again.

At the end of the war, Zysman met Adele, age 16, in a camp for displaced persons in Landsberg, Germany. She was ill. During the war, the Gestapo had shipped her from the Warsaw Ghetto to a work camp, where she beat flax to make linens for the Nazis, a task that nearly killed her. It was there she developed tuberculosis.

In Landsberg, the pair fell in love; they married and emigrated to Boston. He lived until age 90; she died at 59, from lung cancer caused by scarring in the lungs from the tuberculosis. The couple left two children, and one of them is Litner.

She said the Holocaust failed to extinguish her parents’ Judaism, or their capacity to love: “My parents taught us to heal and repair the world,’’ she said.

Litner was unable to speak of her mother without tears; she said she cannot help but cry, every time, when she thinks of how lasting damage from a Nazi work camp killed her decades later.

Then she circled back to a subject that she says gives her strength: the solace of community.

“It has been my lifelong goal to teach the young a respect for Judaism,’’ she said. “I have done it now for two generations. I am truly loved by these kids - and I love them back. They give me such pride and respect. We are a wonderful family.’’

Does she believe Jewish culture will endure with identity intact - preserving what matters despite the challenges of the 21st century?

Yes.

“Jews by nature are survivors. We are very proud of our heritage.’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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