Woog's World: Westport couple's marriage forged from mitzvahs
I'm tempted to call it a match made in heaven. But that cliche won't work.
In 2010, Rita Appel was a speech pathologist at Staples High School, and nearing the end of a four-year term as president of Temple Israel. Jon Fraade was an asset manager, and president of Westport's Conservative Synagogue.
They worked as colleagues, bringing their two congregations together. As they did, they grew closer personally. Appel was widowed, Fraade divorced. Last July, they got married.
As Appel's tenure on the temple board concluded, she looked to another organization where she could donate her time and prodigious energy. At the same time, Jewish Family Service in Stamford asked the couple to help organize its second annual lecture series.
The more they learned of JFS, the more they liked it. Founded in 1975 to provide social services to the Jewish community in that city, it has since expanded in scope and geography. And it no longer serves only the Jewish population. (It continues, of course, to be based on traditional Jewish values of social responsibility and concern for everyone. It helps all in need to manage and improve their lives, without regard for race, religion or the ability to pay.)
Today, JFS has a staff of 25. It works with more than 5,000 clients a year. Its crisis-management program assists families facing foreclosure, eviction or other hardships, and provides emergency financial aid. The geriatric services program offered more than 280,000 hours of service, thanks in part to more than 60 home companions who undergo rigorous 40-hour training.
Family and one-on-one counseling is a core service. It encompasses the entire life span, from birth through death
JFS' "family life education program" brings in authors, noted speakers and therapists to lead group discussions. Sessions -- often co-sponsored with synagogues, community centers and schools -- include divorce support, bereavement support, single-parent support, parenting education, wellness symposiums, caregiver support and life transitions.
College counseling has evolved to include all post-high school planning. A special program works with youngsters who have special needs, with vocational training and independent living preparation.
Employment and training programs, meanwhile, help area residents age 55 and older who are out of work. JFS provides skills training, resume writing and job leads. Recently, younger and slightly financially better off clients have also been helped.
JFS also runs a kosher food pantry that has seen a 1,000 percent increase in three years, and a Jewish camp scholarship fund that disbursed $45,000 last summer.
Appel and Fraade are passionate about the work of Jewish Family Service. (And, though it remains Stamford based, the organization has a Westport office.)
"It does such great work," Appel said. "Not many people around here know about it. But people who have been helped -- those with elderly parents, for example, and rabbis who recommend us -- know how important these services are."
Now, Jewish Family Service is recognizing how important Appel and Fraade are. Nearing their first anniversary as a married couple -- and Jewish Family Service's 40-year celebration -- the Westport residents will be honored on May 3 with a Mitzvah Award. The two honorees have certainly earned their day.
A "mitzvah" is a good moral deed, an act of kindness. JFS notes that Appel served Temple Israel for 12 years. Since 2013, she has chaired the Southern New England Community of Reform Synagogues, building connections between 23 congregations in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
She recently was elected to the board of directors of Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, a nonprofit providing art education to at-risk Bridgeport youngsters. Before joining the Staples High School staff 15 years ago, she was director of rehabilitation at Stamford center.
Fraade began volunteering in Westport as soon as he moved here, nearly 20 years ago. He first served as a Boy Scout scoutmaster, then assumed many roles with the Conservative Synagogue. He was a board member of Bi-Cultural Day School for seven years, and spent another five years on the board of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In 2005, he co-chaired Connecticut's Holocaust Remembrance Day, and received the Anti-Defamation League's Distinguished Community Leadership Award.
Fraade is now development chair for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's Fairfield County region, and vice president and treasurer of Camp Ramah.
Appel and Fraade make a great team, in marriage, and volunteerism. (Their wedding ceremony last July was co-officiated by clergy from their respective synagogues.) They hope that their award will shine a light on some of the good work being done quietly by their fly-under-the-radar organization.
"I'm humbled at the opportunity to spread the word about Jewish Family Service," Appel said. "It's nice to be recognized by this great community. And to be honored with Jon is a wonderful way to keep us going in the next chapter in our lives."