by Donna Berman
When I first came to work at Charter Oak Cultural Center, I was fascinated by St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which is around the corner from us. I was fascinated because I couldn’t figure it out—why was there a huge round window with a Star of David in the center of it on the front of the church?
Had it originally been a synagogue? No, the architecture of the building, with its medieval spires, made it clear that it had not. It was a mystery. But then I found out the story.
Listen to this: The priest of the church and the rabbi at the synagogue, Rabbi Feldman, were best friends. In a stunning act of love and brotherhood, the priest put the Star of David on the face of the church to honor his friend.
We are living in such polarizing times. There are many factors that have contributed to this. It is sad. It is frightening. It is wrong. I fear that the lessons we thought we had learned from the tragedy of the Holocaust are being forgotten.
The Saturday before Passover, I was in my car listening to Weekend Edition on NPR. Really, I was half-listening. Then, something caught my ear. The host, Scott Simon, in his distinctly Scott Simonish voice, was reading an essay about Tornillo, a detention center for young immigrants in Texas.
The children lived in tents for months, not knowing when, if ever, they would be released. Some local teachers volunteered to go into Tornillo and teach art to the kids. Here’s how Scott Simons described their work:
“Many drew smiling parrots. Many sketched or painted scenes from a town church, with kindly countenances of the Madonna. Some cut and sewed traditional dresses. Many made clay figures of children, who played soccer, or rode and walked along with mules, alongside roads dotted with knit green hedges and trees. One painting shows birds flocking over a forest that is thick with fuchsia trees, against a sky of orange and red.”
Scott doesn’t make clear why this happened, but Tornillo was dismantled. He also doesn’t make clear what happened to those children. What he does tell us is that a priest who said mass at the center saw that the construction workers were throwing out the children’s art work and he, personally, saved it. Father Garcia said,
"What came through in the art was the strong spirit of these young men and women, who, even under those conditions, were still inspired to do something beautiful. The children could have just sunk into depression. But instead, they made a beautiful chapter in this whole, sad story."
I found myself crying in my car. For these children. For what our country has become. For the often overlooked power of the arts to heal broken hearts. The spirit of Charter Oak is the antithesis of this, it is the antidote to this.
The children of Hartford, while not behind barbed wire or living in detention centers, live a hard life. Just miles from their suburban peers, they live the realities of a pervasive racism and classism that we have seen brutally exposed in the past few years—poverty, a school system that, for the most part, fails them, hunger, inner city violence, the ever-present allure of self-medication through drugs and alcohol.
As the saying goes, all people have gifts, but not all people have opportunity.
Charter Oak takes this saying very seriously. Committed to making sure that all people are given the opportunity to cultivate and share their gifts, we provide 1,000 underserved Hartford children with a free, high quality, ongoing arts education, from 1st grade through high school. We offer three programs for the homeless community, providing a free education and opening the door to employment. We present professional, multi-cultural arts performances, exhibits and events to which everyone is welcomed and from which no one is turned away for lack of funds.
Charter Oak is a place where all are welcomed, where all are loved, where all are given the opportunity to flex their artistic muscle, either by experiencing an exhibit or a performance because cost is no barrier, or by taking free classes in the arts and feeling the peace and calm and insight and growth that the arts provide.
Charter Oak remains a sanctuary—a safe place for people to allow their imaginations to run wild, to nourish their souls, to experiment with light and color and musical notes that jump off a page into aliveness, to dip deeply into the inkwell of creativity, the world itself becoming a wondrous canvas, to experience all the things that the human spirit needs to flourish, to remember that in this age of technology and devices galore, we are not machines.
The arts are one of the things that connect us as human beings and that is why in a time of rupture, they heal, in a time of them vs. us, they create a “we,” in a time of despair, they provide the seeds of hope.
They remind us of our shared humanity. They lift us from the mundane, from the cycle of infighting, from pettiness to a larger view of the world, to a larger view of ourselves, they allow us to express our pain, our joy, our humanness in constructive, inspiring ways that bring understanding and healing. In a time of unraveling, they enable us to weave something bold and new and transformative.
The Star of David on St. Peter’s church is a north star, of sorts, reminding us of our best selves, directing us home to the kind of community and country we can be, we have dreamed of being, where differences are embraced and celebrated, not feared and exploited, where all are cared for, where the sanctity of human life and the life of our planet in all its diversity is the lens through which policy and politics are considered, where right relationship is paramount.
It is to the creation of that world that Charter Oak is dedicated, one musical note, one glide of the bow, one poem, one dance step, one moment of feeling connected to a larger group creating something beautiful, at a time.
Rabbi Donna Berman is Executive Director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center. This is excerpted from remarks delivered and the program book message at the Charter Oak Cultural Center’s annual fundraising gala, held in Hartford in May 2019.
Charter Oak Cultural Center is a non-profit, multi-cultural arts center committed to providing access to the arts to all people and advocating the work of social justice. Located in Connecticut’s oldest synagogue building, it is an arts showcase for the region’s ethnically and culturally diverse communities, and offers performances, exhibits, classes, free after-school programming in the arts for inner city youth, lectures and events that nourish the mind, soul, body and spirit.