Terry Fear sought mindfulness of injustice and God’s expectations that we repair the world

By Ken Turetzky

On the first night of Hanukkah, Terry Fear brought her menorah to a site across from the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. She lit a candle and recited prayers in quiet protest as the Justice Department carried out the execution of Death Row inmate Brandon Bernard.

Terry left a menorah with Sister Barbara Battista and fellow activist Abe Bonowitz to light a second candle the next night, as Alfred Bourgeois met his death.

To the end, Terry worked passionately for social justice while serving as a dynamic force in the life of United Hebrew Congregation. She passed away suddenly Sunday, Dec. 13, at age 66, at her home in Charleston, Ill.

UHC president Betsy Frank officiated Terry’s funeral Thursday morning at Highland Lawn Cemetery. Husband Steve laid Terry to rest just steps away from the grave of her close friend Louise Sommers, whose funeral Terry had officiated just two weeks earlier. Only close family attended either ceremony, due to COVID restrictions.

Conversion to Judaism sparked efforts with UHC and community

Sister Barbara Battista lit Terry’s menorah at the federal penitentiary and again on the eighth night of Hanukkah, four days after her passing.

Terry converted to Judaism in 2010, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and took an interest in the Southern Poverty Law Center and NAACP. She joined UHC, where she served as vice president/secretary, befriended Louise and Walter Sommers and served as program committee chair on the CANDLES Holocast Mueum and Education Center board.

The Temple quickly came to rely on Terry’s energy. She pursued grants and helped lead the effort to preserve historic Temple Israel as the congregation’s house of worship and perhaps more important for the future, as a community asset. She conducted tours and helped coordinate public events.

She co-founded the Inter-Faith Council of the Wabash Valley, pursued peace activism with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and when she felt her principles under threat by authoritarian political forces, accelerated her efforts.

Terry lived by the precepts of Tikkun Olam, pursuing a dedication to repair the world. She joined the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. (Her final Facebook post noted with satisfaction Trump’s election defeat four years later).

She traveled to Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota to join the Dakota Access Pipeline protest and to Homestead, Fla., to protest the detention of migrant families, and wrote eloquently about those efforts.

Federal executions brought the fight home to Terre Haute

Terry sat vigil with her copy of Gates of Repentance outside the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. (DeathPenaltyAction.org)

Then the Justice Department began to carry out sentences against Death Row inmates — 10 in all during 2020, with three more scheduled for January 2021 — at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. Terry kept vigil, sometimes alone, with a folding chair, cooler and Gates of Repentance, the congregation’s prayer book for the Days of Awe.

On Sept. 29, Terry Fear delivered Personal Reflections During the Jewish High Holy Days at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Terre Haute.

Terry’s references to the Day of Atonement take on added meaning — even foreboding — with her passing less than two months later. “Tomorrow morning, I will prepare as for my death….”

She described with good humor the challenges of observing a solemn holiday remotely via her device screen rather than with friends at the Temple, while reconfirming her commitment to preserve life, perform good works and seek God.

Observing the High Holy Days while sheltering at home, Terry said, “I face the enormity and majesty of God alone. I enter in that sacredness during a virtual Zoom meeting which resembles a game of Hollywood Squares.”

But Terry would not be constrained by a pandemic.

‘Sometimes, the only power we have is to use our voices’

“I have found, as I’m sure you have, that waiting patiently is better done with active mind, hand and feet. One of the rules, one mitzvah the Jewish people follow is Tikkun Olam, the commandment of repairing the world. We are commanded to do works of social justice,” she said.

“We must reunite people held in bondage, especially when it is our country which holds them.

“Sometimes,” she said, “the only power we have is to use our voices. Maybe, if we unite our voices, immigration will become fair. Maybe, if we unite our voices, people of color will live in an anti-racist country. Maybe — if we unite our voices.”

“My dilemma remains: How do I calm myself when there is so much injustice in the world?”

Five days earlier, the federal government had carried out another execution at the prison in Terre Haute. The contradiction of taking life while asking “that God sees fit to write my name in the Book of Life” perplexed Terry.

“These holy days seem framed in cognitive dissonance. Even more, these times of social injustice and unrest highlight what happens every year. There has always been social injustice and I have chosen to sleep through it because it never affects me.

“My dilemma remains: How do I calm myself when there is so much injustice in the world? How do I prepare myself for Yom Kippur during the Days of Awe, when I must sit shiva outside a federal prison?”

‘We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves’

The answer for Terry was, “God wants us to be awake so we can put our mindfulness of injustices together with our mindfulness of God’s expectations that we be his hands, his feet and his voice to bring about systemic equality.

“I believe Rabbi [Alan] Lew: The gate between heaven and earth is always creaking open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that.

“We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves. This doesn’t just happen on Rosh Hashanah.

“This in itself will not mitigate societal ills. But along with God’s comfort and forgiveness, it may give us the inner strength and peace to raise our voices, move our feet, and get into [quoting the late Rep. John Lewis] ‘good trouble’.”

“I believe Rabbi Lew: The gate between heaven and earth is always creaking open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment.”

Terry said, “we have reached Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — the most somber, spiritually draining, spiritually significant day of the year. Kol Nidre is this evening; the heavenly court convenes.

“Tomorrow morning, I will prepare as for my death — clothed in shades of white, no zippers, no buttons, as if in my shroud. No leather on my shoes — no life must be taken for their material.

“I will not eat until Break-the-Fast tomorrow evening. I will become unseen to others. I can’t describe this sensation, but it is real and powerful. I am alone with God, and it will take my breath away.

“If I am truly doing this right, I always begin to feel better — lighter, closer to God. The sensations of peace and reconciliation lead to joy and renewal.”

‘Every day of our lives should be a long one’

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that our prayers during the High Holy Days for length of days made sense in so far as they meant that every day of our lives should be a very long one, a day filled with mitzvot and deeds of kindness to give it length.

“Rabbi Lew made it clear that we are called to judgment at every moment, that our response to every moment is a judgment on us, one that is continuously unfolding and subject to continuous modification, and every moment is a rehearsal for our death.”

Terry’s final bequest was her wish for us all:

“I wish all of you a shanah tovah — a good year. And g’mar chatimah tovah — may you be sealed for good in the Book of Life.”

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December 18, 2020 4:21 pm

Very nicely said. We have lost a pillar in our community.

Michael Zoosman
December 18, 2020 4:51 pm

Zichrona Livracha. We will mourn her and carry her torch with us in our mission. She will forever be in our hearts! Cantor Michael Zoosman, Founder – The Jewish Abolitionist Society

Jeffrey (Yossi) Zucker
December 19, 2020 12:04 pm

I got to know Terry and Steve over the past few years, when I would see them visiting Walter and Louise Sommers while visiting my parents. In a short period of time, Terry became very central to the community. May her memory be for a blessing.

Jeffrey (Yossi) Zucker
Reply to  unitedhebrewth
December 19, 2020 3:10 pm

I me the Fears for the first time when they visited my store in Tel Aviv. We took a walk around the old part of the city, now becoming beautifully restored, and went to an iconic humus restaurant in the shuk for lunch.

Stephen Fear
Stephen Fear
Reply to  Jeffrey (Yossi) Zucker
December 20, 2020 12:43 pm

I remember how good that was. I ate all of mine and most of Terry’s.Thanks for your kind words and email me a big bowl of that hummus with all the extras.