Emmy-award winning actress Valerie Harper delightfully recounted career highlights -- such as playing "Rhoda" for nine years, a highly acclaimed portrayal of Golda Meier, and a more recent, Tony-nominated turn on Broadway as Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped"-- at Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk Sunday afternoon.
At a benefit in honor of the late Dr. Zvi Almog, of Westport, a celebrated author and filmmaker committed to his homeland Israel, Harper helped to kick-off a campaign to build the Dr. Zvi Almog Jewish Educational Center.
A professional fundraiser, Almog was at the beginning stages of organizing Beth Israel's capital campaign when he unexpectedly passed away a year ago.
Taking over for her beloved father, daughter Danit is now at the helm of the project, along with congregant Beth Davison.
Applauding their efforts, Beth Israel's spiritual leader Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht said, "All of his life, Dr. Almog has been dedicated to education, Jewish tradition and the state of Israel. Danit is just like her father. She is intelligent, poised and she also has beauty."
Danit and Davison, in turn, praised the Hecht family and staff at the Norwalk synagogue.
"We have the most amazing clergy and teachers at our religious school," Davison said.
"Most children don't want to go to religious school but my children do. That tells you something about our program. And, Dr. Almog wanted everyone to know about us. He thought the way to go about that was to build a new building and expand our programs."
A close friend of the family for 50 years, Harper said that Almog believed that education was the key to positive change and growth. "This is what Zvi lived for--education," Harper explained. "He thought that the most important endeavor in one's life was justice, truth and accuracy not just about Israel but about all of humanity."
About the spiritual leaders of Beth Israel, Rabbi Hecht and his wife, Freida, both Harper and Danit publicly acknowledged their warm and welcoming approach to the capital campaign.
Danit said, "They're extraordinary people. That's why Dad got involved here. And, Frieda, as head of education, is the embodiment of all that spirituality needs to be."
A gregarious yet humble woman of faith, Freida passes the compliment on to her teachers, and said, "Our teachers teach with love and warmth and that's why children want to be here. We look to the best trends in education to ensure that children will love it and live it and carry their Jewish education in them forever."
Although she was raised in a Christian home, Harper considers herself to be a Zionist.
For her nine-year run on television playing the iconic "Rhoda," a Jewish girl from the Bronx, Harper called upon her close friend, Penny Almog, Zvi's widow, for advice. "I had her in my mind's eye as I was creating the character," Harper said.
The two women met in 1960 when they were both dancers rehearsing for the Broadway show, "Wildcat," starring Lucille Ball.
The audience listened with amusement as Harper shared the Almog's love story, which began on a blind date.
"Afterwards she told me he had the bluest eyes, like Paul Newman," Harper recalled. "Within three weeks, they knew they were meant to be together and three months later, they were married. He became like a brother to me."
As a close friend, Harper was with Penny while she was in labor with three of their four children. Their youngest daughter, Sharon, was born in Israel and Harper remained stateside. (She did, in fact, travel to Israel with the couple, though, at a different time.)
Danit recalls growing up with "Auntie Val" around for family celebrations.
"She's not just your average celebrity. She's filled with a light and you can't help but feel warm and positive and loved when you have a brush with her."
Danit added that Harper was involved in the Hunger Project, an organization committed to eliminating world hunger, long before it became vogue for celebrities to tout a cause.
To assist with taking care of her young toddlers, Harper flew to Penny's side when Almog left to fight in the 1967 Six --Day War. Years later, Harper turned to Almog, an expert on Israel, for technical advice when she landed the role of Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir in the film "Golda's Balcony.
Danit said that her father practiced a biblical concept called, in Hebrew, "tikum olam," which means "repair the world."
"Dad sailed into the wind while others sailed on the wind," Danit noted.
Although he knew nothing about filmmaking, Danit said that his commitment to Israel motivated him to produce a five-part television documentary called "Israel: A Nation Is Born," which is his legacy not only to his family and close friends but to mankind.
At the time of his death, Almog was working on two projects, "350 Years of American Jews" and "Israel: A Quest for Peace," narrated by Harper.
Harper will soon appear in a Hallmark made-for-television movie, "Fixing Pete." Negotiations are also underway for Harper to possibly star as Mother Superior in a stage version of the movie "Sister Act" on Broadway.
Harper last appeared in New York as Tallulah Bankhead in the play, "Looped," for which she received a Tony-Award nominations. "I really love my Emmy's, but this was really a great honor," Harper said.
Donations to the Dr. Zvi Almog Jewish Educational Center can be made to Beth Israel, 40 King St., Norwalk, Ct. 06851.
For information, call 203-866-0534.