Margery Metzger, a New Jersey native raised in Highland Park, is a woman of valor. She uses her intellect, amazing strength and determination to help others and pursue justice. The granddaughter of the founder of Bernstein’s, now in Edison, known for fine apparel and special occasions gowns originated in Manhattan’s Garment Center, where the elder Bernstein manufactured women’s suits and coats. He moved his family to New Jersey where he founded a factory and raised four children. His sons became scientists and Margery’s paternal aunts became the owners of the landmark store.
Metzger’s entrepreneurial spirit was fostered in childhood when her father employed his children and their cousins to help out in his clinical lab. His wife worked part-time as the lab’s bookkeeper, balancing homemaking and motherhood with business, and became her daughter’s role model.
After graduate studies in social work, Metzger became a psychotherapist, working at the Rutgers College of Medicine. She found herself running for hours each day to maintain the focus needed to properly practice her profession because listening to patients is a sedentary activity. Learning that exercise expert Bonnie Prudden was running a week-long workshop in New England, she enrolled and spent her vacation there. That changed her career and her life.
Metzger eventually moved to New England, where she met her future husband, Alan, at a Jewish Federation singles event. Also a native New Jerseyan, he and his family lived in Orange before moving to Ohio. He came back east to attend and graduate from the University of Connecticut, earning his DDS from Case Western Reserve and his post- doctorate in periodontics from Tufts University. After purchasing a practice in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the couple settled in the bucolic part of the city, and became members of Congregation Knesset Israel, referred to as KI by the locals.
Parenthood brought other changes. Metzger left the myotherapy (muscular therapy) business she had founded to devote herself to her family. Because she wanted her two daughters to have a good Jewish education and funding was needed to make that happen, she created a Jewish film festival at KI on Monday nights, when there was little entertainment in the Berkshires after the summer visitors had left. Support was sought from local philanthropists to cover the costs of film rentals. Ice cream and other refreshments were sold at intermission. Metzger firmly stipulated that all proceeds be directed to the Hebrew school.
It was, literally, a start-up, learn–as-you-go operation. Pickings were slim and their budget was slimmer; the synagogue didn’t even have equipment to show films. The Israeli film industry was still in its infancy; the amazing Yiddish Center in nearby Amherst was still a dream; and old Yiddish films had yet to be restored.
A movie projector was borrowed from a church and its projectionist hired. He thought KI was a church and resigned when he realized it wasn’t. Never one to quit, Metzger, along with her husband and other synagogue volunteers, persevered and the festival began to flourish. The real breakthrough came with the screening of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the sports legend and World War II hero who made history by refusing to play on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The synagogue and social hall were filled to overflowing, with many attendees standing to watch the story of a Jewish hero of both the baseball and battle fields.
When the Soviet Union was releasing the Jews who sought to leave the antisemitic and oppressive regime, Metzger and her family became involved resettling the refugees. Her social work experience helped her create the feasibility study that brought refugees to the Berkshires. This non-remunerative but highly satisfying work enriched her, her family and community immensely. It was also empowering.
When discussing the influence of the Knesset Israel Hebrew School, Metzger said, ”The life that [my children] got at KI really saved them, because there were very few Jews in the public school. They felt so at home in KI and USY. They loved their time there and thrived. I wanted to give back to KI for what they did for my kids.” Not only did she give back by establishing the film festival and helping the new families from Russia, she also served on her synagogue’s Chevra Kadisha.
The Berkshire Jewish Film Festival eventually expanded its reach to the point of needing a large, modern, comfortable, centrally located auditorium/theater with a parking lot, and could finally afford it. It moved to Lenox High School. With substantially more films to choose from, the film committee added a matinee to precede the evening screenings. Many folks came to watch both films, often bringing along food to eat at tables in the school. This “double header” increased both camaraderie and revenue. The theater began to fill to capacity, making this one of the premier Jewish film festivals.
By that time, Metzger was battling cancer and intent on writing a book that had been in her mind for two decades, ever since three terrifying community events which had impacted her and those around her. Although she had never even written an article, she was determined to spend these past five years researching and putting the story on paper. It was recently published as “Hidden Demons: Evil Visits a Small New England Town,” a riveting nonfiction account of crime and justice.
In the early 1990s, three men caused mayhem and murder, and they were connected to the town in which Metzger lived. These sociopaths impacted her community and left a mark on her soul. In fact, one of them was discovered and arrested by a police officer whose daughter occasionally babysat Metzger’s children.
Some dream their whole lives of becoming a writer. Not Metzger. She simply felt compelled to give this story the attention it deserved. She sought to describe the courage, intelligence and persistence of civically responsible civilians who were instrumental in the arrests of these criminals. Also, she hoped to explain the heroic and inspirational efforts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to save strangers, often at risk to their own lives and reputations. These civilians and professionals, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges all helped to ensure that justice, however imperfect, was served. Metzger celebrated these unsung heroes as the glue that binds a free and lawful society.
“Hidden Demons: Evil Visits a Small New England Town” can be purchased through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and is also available on Kindle.
By Barbara Wind