Puffin Preserving culture, one artist at a time

Puffin Preserving culture, one artist at a time

Perry Rosenstein displays a photo of Arab and Israeli students spending time together at Camp Shomria. Jerry Szubin

Twenty-five years ago, puffins on the coastal islands off Maine were nearly extinct,” says Gladys Miller-Rosenstein, executive director of The Puffin Foundation, headquartered in Teaneck. “Scientists were working to bring them back through the use of decoys and other means.”

Fortunately, she added, the bird was returned to its native habitats through the efforts of a concerned citizenry. The 25-year-old Puffin Foundation – started by her husband, Perry Rosenstein – hopes to pull off a similar feat. But rather than target an endangered species, it seeks to preserve and grow the cultural life of the community.

“If there’s no art, there’s no life,” said Rosenstein. “People who live here today would find a tremendous void in their life without the Puffin. Art is important because it is the spirit of humanity; the voice of what you want to get across to people. It’s a humanistic message, not a political one.”

Rosenstein said that the idea for the foundation originated after the death of his first wife, when his family was looking for an appropriate way to honor her memory.

“She had taken an interest in the bird,” he said. “The family thought it would be an appropriate memorial not just to work to preserve the species, but to better society as well.”

Preservation, it would seem, is a major interest of his. He is helping to restore the Jewish graveyard in Zuromin, Poland, where “the locals were using the stones” from desecrated burial plots. He has sent out more than 100 CDs of a ceremony held there to spark interest among the relatives of those buried in that cemetery.

With their eye on preserving the arts as well, the Rosensteins are now seeking to “open the doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and art organizations that are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy.” The foundation awards more than 300 grants each year to artists in a wide range of media, from music to theater to the printed word.

On the day we spoke, Miller-Rosenstein, executive director since 1994, was in the midst of reviewing 1,000 grant applications. Last year, the foundation awarded about 390 grants.

“Generally, one-third of applicants receive what we call seed money, so they can then approach a larger funder,” she said.

“We want to help people get their ideas across,” said Miller-Rosenstein, noting that Puffin, together with The Nation Institute, presents a $100,000 award each year to reward “creative citizenship.” This year’s award went to author and social activist Jim Hightower, cited for “nurturing organic production, promoting alternative crops, regulating pesticides, and monitoring groundwater.” In keeping with the Rosensteins’ populist views, Hightower is also praised as “an advocate for everyday people whose voices are seldom heard in Washington or on Wall Street.”

The Puffin Foundation – the parent organization for many other projects – is very much a family affair, said Rosenstein. His daughter, Judith Kitrick, has a Puffin facility in Columbus, Ohio, while his son, Carl, owns the Puffin Room, an exhibition space in Soho, N.Y. His other son, Neal, works with him at the Teaneck location.

Family has been formative in other ways as well. Both Gladys and Perry Rosenstein said they had “learned well” from their own socially involved parents.

“We were both influenced by our parents,” said Perry Rosenstein. “Some people come out of the womb with a sign saying ‘I protest.’ Both sets of parents fought for the rights of people,” he noted, adding that they were actively involved in the labor movement.

The Rosensteins recently bought a gallery at the Museum of the City of New York that will be devoted to social activism, exploring events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and civil rights marches.

While the couple have lived in Teaneck for some 12 years, Perry Rosenstein has a longtime relationship with the Puffin’s current facility, which served as the headquarters for his industrial fasteners business for some 40 years. Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, he has funded the Puffin through a family trust. Miller-Rosenstein, also from Manhattan, was an elementary school teacher and administrator before becoming the full-time operations director of the foundation.

One of the Rosensteins’ proudest achievements has been preserving the Teaneck Creek watershed, which now includes miles of walking trails. At right, some of the many sculptures welcoming visitors to the restored area.

One of the Puffin’s proudest projects, restoration of the Teaneck Creek watershed, is funded by Rosenstein as well.

“When I saw surveyors at the site of what is now the Teaneck Creek Conservancy, I decided that it should not be sold to realtors but should be preserved as an open space,” he said. “I met with community leaders and politicians to find out what they would like to see there.”

The Conservancy, founded in 2001, is a joint effort by the foundation – together with environmentalists, artists, and educators – to reclaim and protect the environmental, cultural, and historical legacy of the watershed, a small parcel of land in the southernmost portion of Teaneck.

According to the group’s Website, “Once a staging ground for the construction of the intersection of Routes 80 and 95, the land had been an unofficial dumpsite for nearly half a century. Refrigerators and old tires lay half-buried under mountains of broken concrete and asphalt.” In 2006, after “hundreds of hours of community meetings and thousands of hours of sweat equity,” the Teaneck Creek Park was unveiled, including miles of walking trails, an outdoor classroom, and ecological art exhibits. The entrance to the park boasts a sculpture garden with pieces that change on a regular basis.

The executive director explained that while Puffin often hosts programs of great interest to the Jewish community, such as “always well-attended” evenings of klezmer music, its goal is not to target any one group.

“We want to bring the community together,” she said. “What we try to do is bring in programs representing all the people and diversity of the community, whether Jewish, African American, or Palestinian.

She noted that Puffin hosts an annual program involving youngsters from Camp Shomria, which brings Israeli and Arab children together for several weeks. The students who attend participate in a Puffin exhibition showcasing photos they have taken of each other’s homes in Israel.

“It’s about conflict resolution,” said Rosenstein, holding up a photo showing the children spending time together. “The students speak to the audience about their experiences living together and learning more about each other.”

Rosenstein also stressed the importance of unifying the local community.

“Our job is to integrate [the diverse groups] in the community and not allow them to separate,” he said, noting that if they have been successful with some groups, they are frustrated that the observant Jewish community “has not been receptive.”

In this regard Miller-Rosenstein said Puffin had sponsored a writing workshop, inviting Israelis and Arabs to write about personal emotional experiences. About 25 people participated, she said, with the group fairly evenly split between the two communities.

The writing process was amicable, she said. But when the writings were later read at a public program, “many people got up and left when the Arab community read their presentations. They couldn’t accept the emotionality of the other side. People poured their hearts out – it was hard to hear each other.”

The foundation also displayed a canvas produced by the One by One art program, which brings together Jews whose families were touched by the Holocaust, and individuals who learned at some point in their lives that their parents had been Nazis.

“We invited members of the organization to talk about it here,” said Miller-Rosenstein. “It wasn’t about forgiveness but about moving forward.”

The Rosensteins are proud of their work with the Teaneck Community Education Department, which presented the couple with a certificate of appreciation for their support.

“Community involvement is key,” said Rosenstein, noting that Puffin helps fund an after-school program called Super Strides, offering experimental programs for local children. For those who cannot afford to participate, the center provides scholarships.

The Rosensteins have also worked on several projects with the Museum of the City of New York.

One, said Miller-Rosenstein, “is a film about radicals in the Bronx, where Perry grew up, looking at the first cooperative housing there.”

The other is a film on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which brought Americans to Spain to fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

“It’s amazing that young Americans were willing to go to save democracy for the world,” said Rosenstein. “We felt overwhelmed that they would have done this. The story was buried in history books but is now being taught in some school systems.” He pointed out that Puffin has been giving grants to workshops for teachers who want to teach this material. In addition, the foundation is preparing to give a human rights award.

While the Rosensteins do not avoid controversial subject matter, “we try not to be political but rather keep ourselves open to diverse discussions on all sides of an issue, to bring all points of view to the front,” said Miller-Rosenstein.

Still – whether through art, music, theater, or lectures – the couple are firm in their commitment “to bring things of interest to the local community without their having to go to New York City.”

“We’ve got all the ingredients to put Teaneck on the map,” said Rosenstein.

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