16 September 2007

Massachusetts: A living family tree

In the heart of the Berkshires - a stone's throw from Tanglewood - is Congregation Knesset Israel (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), founded in 1893.

The Berkshire Eagle carried a story about the congregation's living family tree project.

"It's really a living family tree," said Myrna Hammerling, director of the Hebrew School at the Pittsfield synagogue. "Last year, our theme was telling our story: the history of the faith and the congregation. The premise behind the wall hanging is that everybody has a story to tell."

The wall hanging, presented during Shabbat service Friday, tells stories in 64 fabric blocks of pictures, colors and even 3-D objects. Hammerling calls it a mini-history of the Jewish Berkshires just in time for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days.

Members have spent a year exploring synagogue history, visited Ellis Island, enacted immigration scenes and more.

In one block of the wall hanging, a black-and-white photo whispers of the congregation's founding in 1893. The portrait of Joseph Z. Klein, a founding member, was provided by his granddaughter, who is currently among the oldest members of the synagogue. Another square of stories memorializes original members in a photograph taken just after the liberation of a Polish concentration camp.

The congregation commissioned local fiber artist Fern Leslie who met with members to design the art work: "I wanted to keep the theme of a family tree, and it touches you because there are so many stories. People snuck in before it was presented and they were just like, 'Wow, look at that. And, do you remember this? And I didn't know that.'"

This year, at Rosh Hashana services, the art work will attract members who will also view the collection of family letters that accompanies it.

"If people go over and read the testimonies that we put together from the families, it will be perfectly like a prayer," she said, motioning toward the birch stand beneath the middle fabric panel.

'It's overwhelming'

Both women said that the book also allows other members to add their own stories, even if they did not have a family block in the wall hanging.

"When I first saw it, I had tears in my eyes," said Rabbi David Greenspoon, standing in front of the display. "When I look at the details people thought to include, it's overwhelming. In many ways, it's a really intimate look into who this community really is."

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