By Stacey DresnerLONGMEADOW – As one of the few Jewish children at her Longmeadow elementary school, Betsy Gaberman recalls experiencing quite a bit of anti-Semitism growing up.
“I think that transformed my life. When I was in second grade a little boy followed me home and said, ‘Hitler didn’t kill enough Jews,’” she recalled. “In the fourth grade, the Jewish and Catholic children were excluded from the dance programs, we were excluded from the country clubs.”
Gaberman said that those experiences were the beginning of her interest in humanitarian issues. Over the years she and her husband, Richard, an attorney at the law firm of Robinson Donovan in Springfield have been active volunteers in the local Jewish community as well as in the larger community in Springfield.
Last month, the Gabermans were honored by the National Conference for Community and Justice, a human relations organization that “promotes inclusion and acceptance by providing education and advocacy while building communities that are respectful and just for all, celebrating the diversity of races, religions, cultures, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations.”
The Gabermans were among eight people given the organization’s annual human relations award on June 12 at the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame in Springfield.
“Richard and Betsy Gaberman were chosen to receive NCCJ’s Human Relations Award due to their extensive volunteer work in the community that reflects NCCJ’s mission of promoting inclusion, acceptance and building communities that are respectful and just for all,” said Andrea C. Kandel, executive director of the NCCJ. “Both Richard and Betsy have worked tirelessly to make the greater Springfield Community a better place for all of us, not just some of us, but for all of us.”
Betsy and Richard said they were honored to have been chosen for the award and marveled at the work the organization does, including a five-day summer camp for ages 14-18 focusing on leadership and social justice; anti-bullying programming, LGBTQ training, and interfaith programs.
At the award ceremony several high school students spoke about the conference’s programs and how they had helped change their lives.
“There was not a dry eye there when we listened to the transformation of what the program does for young people,” Betsy said.
A Sense of Social Justice
Betsy says that she and Richard’s sense of social justice truly began when they were a young married couple. In 1962, they travelled to Europe after Richard graduated from law school. “We went to Europe on $5 a day,” she recalled.
While in Munich, German, they made their way to Dachau, which for them was an intense and moving experience. A few years later, the Six Day War was another eye opener for the young couple.
“I think the Six Day War was a cataclysmic event for Betsy and I,” Richard said. “Before that we weren’t really that involved in any Jewish affairs. We went to a rally at the Jewish Community Center in Springfield that was by far the biggest rally of Jewish people that I had ever seen…We sat there with people of all faiths and they were praying for peace. Betsy and I got angrier and angrier because we thought Israel was doomed.
“When we left, we started discussing our feelings about it and we realized we hadn’t done anything to help Israel,” he recalled.
As a result, both Betsy and Richard got involved with the Jewish Federation of Springfield (now the Jewish Federation of Western Mass.).
“We realized you can’t just mouth it, you have to do something about it,” Richard said.
The couple, who were just starting out at that point, even took out a loan so that they could make a donation and help Israel.
“There were just so many things that were a real awakening of who we are and what we are and what our mandate should be as we became adults and part of the community,” Betsy added.
Soon Richard, who was already president of the Springfield Big Brothers, became one of the founders of the Jewish Federation’s Endowment Foundation.
Betsy went on to serve as Federation president, chaired Israel Bonds of Western Massachusetts and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts. She chaired the capital campaign of Heritage Academy – the day school her two children attended. She served on the Board of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA), the umbrella organization for Jewish Federations that promotes advocacy on social service issues including poverty, housing, food deprivation and health care, along with security and support for Israel. She chaired the United Way of the Pioneer Valley’s Leadership Division, and both she and Richard participated in the Soviet Jewry movement.
Betsy became active in the Federation’s Community Relations Council (CRC), participating in Black-Jewish dialogue and interfaith dialogue. After protesting against Louis Farrahkahn, the Gabermans became friends with members of the local Black community. They protested police brutality against African-Americans in Springfield, and helped to rebuild five or six Black churches that had been hit by arson. The Gaberman’s have also been involved in fundraising for AIDS and Bosian Relief. “I helped to collect clothes and medicine at the mosque in West Springfield,” said Betsy, adding that, “For me, being Jewish means being part of the community and serving and making a difference in this world.”
“We both have a very strong view that you can’t live in isolation,” Richard said. “What goes on around you, totally impacts on you and your family. The stronger the whole community is the stronger we all are. It goes beyond Jewish affairs. I honestly think that
as a Jew you have an obligation not just to help your family and the Jewish community, but also to help the general community around you.”