Jewish Federation director, longtime community pillar, to retire

New London — When Jerome ‘Jerry’ Fischer first came to New London to serve as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut in 1984, he brought an energy backed by life-changing experiences gained while living in Israel in 1966 through 1967.

It was there, Fischer explained in one of his first interviews with The Day in 1985 and again Wednesday while looking back at his 35-year career, that he studied in Jerusalem for six months. He then spent another six months living and working on a kibbutz — a type of socialist, cooperative farm common in the Israeli countryside at the time — where the community grew oranges, flowers and wheat near the border of Syria.

Just 17 years old, Fischer said he had left his native New York City for Israel in rebellion against capitalism, ardent about joining the Zionist, socialist movement at the time.

Despite having already been a teenage activist as part of the civil rights and anti-war movements, helping organize the 1964 New York City School Boycott, as one example, Fischer said he came out of his year in Israel fundamentally changed, especially after having lived through the country’s Six Day War in June 1967, as the country fought against nearby Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

Knowing that his life was at risk and with the option to leave, Fischer said he made the decision to stay in Israel to fight in the war, prepared to stand up for what he believed was right.

“Fighting for Israel was tied to the Holocaust. Tied to the idea of taking control of your faith and tied to the idea of building an ideal society, building a utopia,” Fischer said, who plans to retire from his position as director at the JFEC at the end of this month. “I wanted to stay. We were idealistic and we were going to fight.”

Trained how to operate a bulldozer to dig out underground garages to protect the kibbutz's heavy machinery, as well as how to use a rifle, Fischer said he was assigned a position on the compound’s perimeter, ready at a moment’s notice to combat approaching Syrian troops.

“It was the only time in my life I smoked a cigarette. I was a nervous wreck,” Fischer said, laughing.

And though Fischer never actually fought in the war — “I was transferred to the middle of the country, where it was safer, a week before the war started” — he said the experience changed him, solidifying his Zionist beliefs, as well as dedication to furthering his commitment to Jewish communal service.

Still energetically and emotionally fueled by his experiences in Israel, Fischer arrived in New London in 1984 at the age of 35, after cycling through several jobs ranging from taxi driver to teacher — while studying ethnomusicology at Harvard University — before directing a Jewish community center in Syracuse, N.Y.

He said then, according to Day archives, that he hoped to continue work supporting Israel in his new position, but also explained Wednesday that he was driven to strengthen the Federation’s missions of supporting the local Jewish community, as well as Holocaust commemoration.

Now 35 years after coming to the JFEC, Fischer has proven to have never lost that initial fire that drove him to New London in the first place. Ask anyone and they will say that Fischer, who is officially retiring June 30, has far surpassed those initial intentions, positively impacting the community in the process.

Taking a fluid role within his position, Fischer has grown the federation from what was once a “limited charitable fund,” according to a news release written by JFEC President Romana Primus, into a multifaceted, charitable organization that serves and supports both the region’s secular and Jewish communities, and which has stood as a uniting force throughout the greater New London region, promoting tolerance and celebrating cultural differences.

Besides strengthening and unifying the region’s local Jewish community — from serving kosher meals to seniors to developing a Holocaust Resource Center, as well as organizing countless Holocaust commemorations throughout the community, to the various social services for seniors and education programs for both adults and children that he's developed, including dozens of sponsored community trips to Israel — Fischer also greatly has expanded the federation’s civic missions.

He has hosted a community food bank through the United Way, launched a senior lunch program in cooperation with Thames Valley Council for Community Action and organized dialogue between Jews and Arabs. He also has sponsored the annual International Film Festival at the Garde Arts Center, through which he has debuted some of his own films about the Jewish and Italian communities in New London, as well as “Harvesting Stones,” his 2016 documentary about the Jewish farmers of eastern Connecticut, which aired on Connecticut Public Television and was nominated for two Boston/New England Region Emmy Awards in documentary and writing categories.

Separate from the JFEC, Fischer also served as chair to the New London Rotary’s centennial project committee, helping to complete the new pavilion at Ocean Beach. He also serves on the board of New London’s Child and Family Agency, and in years past, has served on the boards for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and TVCCA.

“He has this wonderful ability to blend the needs of the various components of the Jewish community, but to also keep the community centered in the real world,” said Primus, who has known Fischer since he first arrived in New London and whose late father, Sigmund Strochlitz, a prominent local Jew, also worked closely with Fischer. “It’s not like we are an isolated community. He understands that a richer Jewish community functions best when it interacts positively with the wider community.”

“That works very well with the philosophy of what a Jewish community should be,” Primus continued. “You don’t just take care of the people in your own, but our obligation is to go beyond that circle and create larger circles.”

Throughout his tenure, Fischer has worked to unite Jewish communities throughout the region by way of the JFEC, expanding its initial reach past Waterford and New London, and into Norwich, Westerly and Willimantic, as well as other towns in Eastern Connecticut.

"I’m proud that the individual institutions have looked beyond their own borders, and Jerry has really helped to promote that," Primus said. "And because of it, we are a very fortunate Jewish community. It’s a lovely, friendly, open community."

Federally recognized as refugee resettlement agency since before Fischer’s tenure, JFEC is also a United Way agency. Through those designations, Fischer has aided with the resettlement of non-Jewish people displaced by disasters, such as the 15 families that moved to New London from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as Kosovar refugees.

Fischer also oversaw the local resettling of more than 350 Jewish-Russian refugees in the immediate years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — the greatest “high-water mark” in his career, he said.

Beyond the incredible feeling he said he received from helping those refugees find and assimilate into a new American life — JFEC was responsible for finding their homes, furniture, food, jobs and enrolling their children into school when they first arrived — Fischer said it was also the overarching, fervent and broad support the refugees received from the broader New London community that touched him most.

“It’s the idea that you are able to help people in distress. Overall, for the last 35 years — whether there were people distressed in Israel, people distressed in Russia or people distressed in New London or Norwich — the idea that we were able to help people, makes you feel great,” he said.

In response to Holocaust denial Fischer said he witnessed throughout the country, as well as in the New London community, about a decade ago he launched the Federation’s “Encountering Survivors” program — another benchmark of his career — which gave children from area public high schools the chance “to deepen their knowledge of the Holocaust” by meeting Holocaust survivors, or children of survivors, in their homes.

After witnessing racist comments made at local high school sporting events, Fischer then created the "Encountering Differences" initiative two years ago, a program that operates along the same structure as “Encountering Survivors,” but which promotes understanding of race relations through meetings with African American community members in their homes.

Fischer said Wednesday he felt it immensely important that communities stay tolerant and that as a child growing up in Washington Heights in New York City throughout the civil rights movement, it was both Jews and African Americans that banded together to fight racism and misunderstanding. Remembering the moment he saw photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel arm-in-arm at the 1965 Selma March, Fischer said he has since been deeply inspired to fight for both Jewish and civil rights.

According to Rabbi Emeritus Aaron Rosenberg of Waterford’s Temple Emanu-El, “(Fischer) was the right person for the right job.”

“He came here in 1984 and he brought to this position a tremendous background, both Jewish and cultural,” Rosenberg said. “He has a passion for whatever he does, and he is very exciting to be around. He has this unlimited energy and has initiated a number of new projects in the community, both to the benefit of the Jewish community and the community at large.”

Rabbi Emeritus Carl Astor of New London's Congregation Beth El said he has known Fischer over the last 35 years, “both as federation director and as a personal friend,” and that "Jerry and I worked well together from day one.”

“I always appreciated his energy, his honesty, and his genuine love for the Jewish people and for Israel,” Astor said from Europe via text message. “My admiration and fondness for him will always remain a part of my life. I think I speak for everyone when I say that no one could have served our community better than he.”

Now 69 years old, Fischer said that once retired, he hopes to spend more time with his wife, Christine, his two children, Gabriel and Ilana, as well as his two grandchildren, but also doesn't intend to stop being an active member in both the Jewish and secular communities.

Besides planning to make another movie about local couple Henny Simon, a late Holocaust survivor, and Ben Cooper, a World War II combat medic who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp — to be titled, “Henny, Benny and Hanover: A Love Story” — Fischer said he plans to continue serving on the board of the Child and Family Agency.

He also plans to continue work in Israel related to nature conservation, helping to create a biblical garden “trying to grow every plant mentioned in the Bible,” and will continue to promote Arab-Jewish cooperation in Israel.

Looking back on his career this past week, Fischer began by linking the last 35 years to his year spent in Israel. He said that besides the numerous lives he’s touched in New London, what he’s loved most about his position at the JFEC was that no day was ever the same — that his role as executive director was ever-changing and allowed him to earnestly follow his passions — much like living on the kibbutz.

“What I love about this job here is what I loved about kibbutz, which was you didn’t do the same thing all the time. You had to do different things,” Fischer said. “When I was there, you would do this job for a while, then you would switch to another job. You never got bored.”

“The job was never the same. And I’ve never been bored in this job, ever,” he said. “This was the right place for me and a gift to me to find this place. It’s been absolutely amazing.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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