Opera will mark Clifton Jewish Center’s 75th anniversary

Opera will mark Clifton Jewish Center’s 75th anniversary

Performance marking 75 years since the rescue of Danish Jews and CJC to be performed at shul

From left, Ginger Inabinet, Sarah Baumgarten, Aimee-Rose Willett, Stephen Steffens, and William Hurwitz rehearse “The Yellow Star.” (Bradley Detrick)
From left, Ginger Inabinet, Sarah Baumgarten, Aimee-Rose Willett, Stephen Steffens, and William Hurwitz rehearse “The Yellow Star.” (Bradley Detrick)

Coincidence? Perhaps.

To Karen Schutz, longtime director of the Clifton Jewish Center, having the Garden State Opera perform “The Yellow Star” at the shul’s 75th anniversary celebration feels particularly appropriate. After all, the events portrayed in the opera — specifically, efforts to rescue Danish Jews in 1943 — took place exactly 75 years ago.

“We’ve been working up to our 75th all year with events, culminating in the opera,” Ms. Schutz said. “When they came to us and said it was the 75th anniversary of what happens in the opera, I said, ‘My goodness, it’s bashert.’”

The synagogue, which prides itself on outreach to the wider community, also is marking its 75th year by opening its Hebrew school to unaffiliated families. Right now, the school has only a handful of children. “We pride ourselves on our longevity,” Ms. Schutz said of the 100-family congregation. “If we want to stay, we have to educate our youth.

“While the congregation is on the older side, it’s the warmest and most welcoming community you ever met,” she said, noting that congregants are “delightful to visitors.” Minyans are held three mornings a week, and a core of regulars attend Friday night and Saturday morning services.

Ms. Schutz said the congregation always has sponsored events together with the wider community. For example, she said, it is planning to hold a candidates night for the Clifton council. “In the past,” she added, “we had safety forums open to all of Clifton as well as food drives and coat drives to benefit the whole community.”

Bradley Detrick

In 1946, the synagogue hired Rabbi Harold Ramirowsky as its first spiritual leader. He was succeeded by Rabbi Eugene Markovitz, who served the shul for some 52 years. Under Mr. Markovitz’s leadership, the synagogue’s membership swelled to include 400 families. As the center grew, so did its roster of activities. In the late 1950s, synagogue leaders launched plans to enlarge the center. Its new building, begun in 1958, was dedicated in 1964.

Ms. Schutz spoke proudly of Rabbi Markovitz’s efforts to teach tolerance. Indeed, his efforts resulted in a television special, prominently mentioned in his obituary, which described the rabbi as “the subject of a television movie about his benevolent handling of the spray-painting of anti-Semitic graffiti on his home and temple during a Halloween ‘Mischief Night’ in 1988.” Actor Hal Linden played Markovitz in the 1994 CBS Schoolbreak Special titled “The Writing on the Wall.”

In real life, the rabbi recommended to the presiding judge that the boys be compelled to perform community service, specifically to learn about Judaism. “One must never give up on young people,” he told Time magazine in 1990. “In Judaism, it’s literally a crime to do so.” As a result, the judge sentenced the boys to 25 hours of tutelage under Markovitz and an additional 30 hours helping around the synagogue and the community. The rabbi’s solution had positive effects: The teenagers stayed out of trouble. One became a lawyer and another became a Clifton police officer.

Rabbi Bob Mark has led the synagogue — the only non-Orthodox congregation in Clifton — since 2013, Ms. Schutz said. A publication reviewing the history of the congregation noted that Rabbi Mark “is determined to increase membership and programming to meet the needs of the center.”

Perhaps most notable, Ms. Schutz said, is that “we’re here, and we’re a vibrant community offering a tremendous amount of events and services. We sponsor the New Jersey Jewish Singles, giving single Jewish people a place to sit and talk. They join in some of our events, like our Chanukah party and adult education movies. They’re part of our community.”

Bradley Detrick, the composer and librettist of “The Yellow Star,” describes himself as “a musician who, like many of us, wears many hats. In addition to composing this opera, I’m a husband and father of a singing wife and classical composer son.” His wife, Charlotte, sings opera; their son, Zachary, is a sophomore at Julliard.

Right now Mr. Detrick is balancing several different careers; he’s a band leader or trumpet player for fundraisers and other special events, and he teaches music at the Quad Preparatory School in Manhattan.

Mr. Detrick came to the Garden State Opera through his wife’s connection to its artistic and music director, Francesco Santelli. This is his first opera, though it has been performed twice in the past 10 years in a concert version.

This photograph, probably from the 1980s, includes two past presidents, Ken Levenstein and Henry Poller, and Rabbi Eugene Markovitz, second from right.

He credits the organization Thanks To Scandinavia for inspiring him to take on the project. According to its website, the group, started by Victor Borge, “recognizes the ordinary people who performed extraordinary acts in Scandinavia and Bulgaria during WWII which saved tens of thousands of their Jewish neighbors. Thanks To Scandinavia celebrates those who demonstrated courage, tolerance, and civility even in dark times. To honor their legacy, Thanks To Scandinavia provides scholarships to students from Scandinavia and Bulgaria who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge and working to create positive change in our world.”

“My wife is Danish,” Mr. Detrick said. “I got interested in the story [of Danish rescue efforts] through children’s books and was fascinated by the legend. When I realized what really happened, I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about it. Pockets of people do know this, but most people know bits and pieces. The Danes don’t talk about it.”

In fact, Mr. Detrick said, the well-known legend — that King Christian X wore a yellow star — is not true. “No one there ever wore the yellow star,” he said. “Things never went that way. Denmark was tentatively holding onto the occupied relationship” until later in the war, when the Danish resistance began to commit outright acts of sabotage against the Germans. “After a few such actions, like disbanding the Parliament, word came out from Germany that they were going to come in and take care of the Jewish problem.

“Someone from Germany leaked the information to Rabbi Melchior in Copenhagen. They were going to sweep down on Rosh Hashanah. Everyone went into hiding. Some wrapped themselves up, pretending to be sick, and went to hospitals. Some went to neighbors’ country homes. It was an underground conspiracy of private citizens to hide their neighbors and friends. Physicist Niels Bohr arranged safe passage to Sweden for them when they escaped. Through convoluted grass roots efforts, they got 8,000 Jews out of Denmark in fishing boats.”

About 400 Jews did not escape and were taken to Theresienstadt, he continued. After some months, “a Red Cross bus came to get them and took them to Sweden. After the war, when the Jews came home, they found that their lawns had been mowed and their pets taken care of. It was a remarkable event.”

Mr. Detrick’s fictional story incorporates most of these true events. One character, Mrs. Jacobson, is reluctant to harbor Jews. Nevertheless, her children asked to take in Hannah Kaplan, a Jewish mother on the run, who had escaped from Germany and made it to Denmark. “In one scene, it’s a long night, and neither mother can sleep,” he said. “They’re each singing in the middle of the night about their own concerns. You can see how similar they are. The heart of Mrs. Jacobson is starting to melt.”

After she sees her own daughter part with a valued object to give money to Hannah’s family, she takes out her own life savings to give to them. Before they leave, Hannah sings an aria and gives Mrs. Jacobson’s son-in-law her yellow star from Germany. She also gives them a charge: “Don’t let this happen to Denmark.”

“I hope people will draw the lesson that a lot of small acts of kindness by ordinary citizens add up to a grand result,” Mr. Detrick said. “It’s not about one big heroic act. When a lot of people get together, it will make a big difference.”

He first went to the website Thanks to Scandinavia for help with his research, he said. “When the time came to do a special celebration for an anniversary, they said we should combine forces and do an opera. It was done at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. A woman in the audience liked it so much, she wanted to bring it to Iona College,” where it subsequently was performed.

The big difference between the concert version and the upcoming full opera is that “in the original version, we had a big cast: 11 principals, an adult chorus, and a kids chorus. Now we’re just doing it with seven people doing different parts. It makes it more economical. Since this is the 75th anniversary [of the rescue], we thought, if we’re ever going to do it again, we should do it now.”

Mr. Detrick speaks highly of his cast members, who, he said, “are very enthusiastic about doing this. They’re a great community of people. One of the important characters has performed in Israel. One of the people he stayed with was someone who escaped during the Danish rescue.”

Who: The Garden State Opera with Chamber Orchestra

What: Will perform “The Yellow Star”

When: On October 27 at 8 p.m. and October 28 at 3 p.m.

Where: At the Clifton Jewish Center, 18 Delaware St.

Cost: Tickets are $20 for seniors and students and $25 for adults. To order, call (973) 772-3131 or go to cliftonjewishcenter.com

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