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Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky

From left, Rabbi Aaron Benson and Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky address the audience at the Jan. 27 screening. Photo by Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

The Suffolk County Jewish community experienced a unique event on Jan. 27, co-sponsored by North Shore Jewish Center of Port Jefferson Station and Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook.

The documentary film “Who Will Write Our History” about life in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II had its global premiere in hundreds of venues in more that 41 countries around the world – and the Jewish Center was the only venue in Suffolk.

The film offers a detailed account of the conditions and atrocities faced by Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto from November 1940 to mid-May 1943, at which time the Nazis destroyed the ghetto following an uprising by its inhabitants.

Thanks to the members of a secret society – code named Oyneg Shabes (joy of the Sabbath) – led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, an extensive archive was created to chronicle the day-to-day horror of life in the ghetto. One cache was unearthed in 1946; another in 1950. A third is believed buried on the grounds of the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw.  

One hundred fifty people gathered to view the film, according to event coordinator Marsha Belford.

Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky welcomed the crowd. “Over 70 years have passed since [the Holocaust], yet we remember,” he said. “We remember because, during that time, brave people planted seeds to ensure that we would have a tree of knowledge recalling those historical events … At great personal risk and with little hope of survival they hid valuable items that could later be used as proof of Nazi atrocities, serving as evidence to counter false claims of what did and did not occur.”

There was total silence in the screening room, as a combination of archival footage and photographs interspersed with actors reenacting what is described in the diaries and documents. The film brought reality to a history that, barring the evidence of the Ringelblum Archive, would be unfathomable.

After the film, North Shore Jewish Center’s Rabbi Aaron Benson led a Q&A. He offered four observations about the Oyneg Shabes group.

First, the simple human story of resilience and courage in their heroic efforts to record and preserve what was happening to them. Second, a commitment to the Jewish vision of Yizkor (remembrance) that infused their actions. Third, the immense insight of Ringelblum to utilize a very modern, Western idea: a scientific study of history, which was only a few generations old in the 1940s. Fourth, rather than focusing on the leaders (the rabbis) as history traditionally had, his plan was to record history written by ordinary people; assembling a ground-level image of ghetto life.

One film viewer, Dr. Wilfred Lieberthal aptly identified a basis for this wisdom. He said, “Jews have an understanding and an appreciation for the power of the written word.”

The film is available for viewing online.

By Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky. Photo by Donna Newman

I like Christmas. There, I said it. This may be surprising for some people to hear from a rabbi, and it may be misinterpreted by others. But it’s true. I like the feeling of this time of year. I enjoy the songs, the lights, watching Charlie Brown and the Grinch and especially the sense of good will that exists.

I also like Hanukkah. I enjoy the gathering of family and friends, eating latkes (fried potato pancakes), lighting the Hanukkah menorah (9-branched candelabrum), playing dreidel (a spinning top game) and feeling a sense of warmth and light in the coldest, darkest time of the year.

But my enjoyment of both holidays does not mean that I see them in the same way. It does not mean that I view Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas. While I can enjoy aspects of both holidays, I am keenly aware of the need for both Christians and Jews to maintain a distinction between the two holidays, while also embracing a healthy respect for and appreciation of the practices of the other’s religion. And this begins, I am convinced, with a full understanding of what both holidays celebrate.

It is not for me to expound on the true meaning of Christmas. My Christian colleagues are much more equipped to do so. But I do know that the true religious significance of Christmas has little to do with trees and presents, songs and holiday foods. While these are lovely ways to enhance the enjoyment of a holiday, they should not replace the spiritual lessons taught.

By the same token, Hanukkah, which I am qualified to write about, is not about spinning tops, fried foods and gift giving, though these are all fun customs. It is about the story of a small group of Jews, the Maccabees, well over 2,000 years ago, winning the right to practice their religion freely, symbolized by the rededication of the holy Temple (“Hanukkah” means “dedication”). This episode has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas, and only happens to fall at the same season because it was common to hold festivals of light at this time of the year. Hanukkah is a stirring story of freedom, but it nonetheless remains a minor festival in the Jewish calendar. Its elevation to a level of such prominence is due solely to the fact that it is marketed to compete with Christmas from a commercial standpoint. And this speaks to a problem in our society in general, as well as presenting a challenge for Christians, Jews and all people of faith alike.

I address this issue to a general audience, rather than specifically to my congregation, because I believe that it is important for all people of faith, whatever their religion or heritage, to reclaim the true meaning of their holy days. Rather than falsely seeking to unite ourselves through the idol of materialism, focusing on the trappings of the various holidays, let us instead form a true bond with one another by each celebrating our respective holy days and recognizing their real significance. By doing so, we strengthen our own religious conviction and are then able to enjoy the beauty and teachings of other faiths without feeling that our own faith is undermined.

I, for one, am opposed to calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree. I am opposed to Christians feeling pressured to water down their religious beliefs because others may feel offended. But I am also opposed to anyone who mistakes proud displays of faith with the right to impose such faith on others. Celebrating Christmas, or any holy day, should be encouraged, as long as it is done with the understanding that we all choose to practice, or not practice, our faith in different ways.

Ironically, for me, Christmas helps reinforce the true message of Hanukkah, just as the true message of Hanukkah, I believe, strengthens the celebration of Christmas. We are so fortunate in our community and country to have the freedom to worship and celebrate freely. May we appreciate this freedom by expressing ourselves appropriately, while also embracing those of other faiths who choose to do the same, but in a different way. By so doing, we will truly find warmth and light at this season.

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.

Dr. Leo Dvorken, former Setauket resident, founder of Selden pediatric group, dies at 86

Dr. Leo Dvorken reading to his grandchildren Jakob and Katrina in an undated photo.

Years after he retired from his Suffolk County practice, a pediatrician and former Setauket resident is being remembered fondly by those who knew him.

Dr. Leo Dvorken, the founder of what is now known as Kids Care Pediatric Medicine P.C. in Selden, died July 21 at the age of 86. At a funeral service July 24, Rabbi Stephen Karol and Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky addressed the mourners who filled Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook and read eulogies from Dvorken’s family members filled with anecdotes and praise. His former practice partners were also on hand to pay tribute to a man they considered a valuable colleague and close friend.

In a eulogy written by his daughter Rachel, she described being in the presence of her father as a gift, calling him gentle, kind and possessing a joie de vivre, a French phrase meaning a joy for life.

“Whether it was pancakes at the diner, lobster fest at Bay Road East [Strong’s Neck], midnight boat rides, rainy day hikes, ski trips, sing-alongs in the car, watching our kids’ games or concerts or just hanging out — it was always fun,” she wrote in the eulogy. “I just loved being with my father.”

Dvorken, who loved to fish, on his boat in Port Jefferson Harbor.

While Dvorken spent his final years in New Jersey, Temple Isaiah was the appropriate place for his funeral service. His daughter wrote that her father, who was committed to Judaism and loved Israel, cared deeply about Temple Isaiah. When the temple couldn’t obtain a mortgage to construct the building in the late 1960s, Dvorken was one of 13 members who personally guaranteed the mortgage, according to his daughter.

Born Oct. 19, 1931, he was the third child of Harry and May. Leo’s first brother, Simon, died before he was born, and his brother Henry was a few years older than him. When Leo was a child, he excelled in oration, chess, singing, art, Boy Scouts and chemistry. He loved to play football, basketball and baseball. Later in life, he became interested in tennis, skiing, music and fishing.

He first attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania but then left the school to pursue an advanced degree in chemistry from New York University after being inspired by a conversation with a medical school professor at the college. Dvorken was 27 when he decided to go to medical school, but many of the New York area colleges thought he was too old, so he applied to and was accepted to a prestigious school in Geneva, Switzerland. He first had to take courses in French since all the classes were in that language.

Before he traveled to Switzerland, he met his wife, Doris, a Columbia University undergraduate. The two, who recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary, met at a party in the Bronx, according to his wife’s eulogy. The first time she met him his wife said she knew she would marry him.

“From the minute I met him and talked to him, I felt like I didn’t need to ever talk to another person again,” his wife wrote. “It was like we were in a room alone, even though we were surrounded by others.”

After studying in Switzerland, Dvorken spent his residency in a Jewish hospital in Brooklyn. In 1969 he moved out to Setauket and opened the pediatric group in Selden. His friends that he met during his residency, Dr. Arie Aloni and Dr. Boris Lustik, soon joined the practice and bought homes in Setauket, too.

“It was the best decision of my life,” Lustik said.

Aloni and Lustik, who are both retired from the practice, in phone interviews described Dvorken as a wonderful person and physician, and the doctors formed a strong bond.

“Our practice was unique in a sense that not only were we colleagues, but we were also friends who became an extended family,” Aloni said. “So much so that my kids call him Uncle Leo.”

Lustik described Dvorken as an astute physician who was gentle with his patients, while Aloni said the doctor didn’t have a bad bone in his body.

“He was the glue of our practice,” Aloni said.

When other practices refused to take patients on Medicaid, Aloni said Dvorken ensured the practice was open to everyone whether they could afford medical care or not. When a 7-year-old asked him for an interview once, Dvorken answered his questions and showed him around the office. The doctor became a mentor to the boy who later went on to become a pediatric oncologist, according to Aloni.

Lustik remembered Dvorken’s love of music and going to see the New York Philharmonic with him, while Aloni and the doctor would play tennis a few times a week at the Three Village Tennis Club until they retired.

Tennis continued to be a passion in Dvorken’s life. Aloni said the two would talk on the phone during big tennis tournaments discussing strategies and critiquing the players. On Dvorken’s last day, they were on the phone chatting about Wimbledon, he said.

In a eulogy written by Dvorken’s grandson Fran Rosenberg, he summed up the gifts his grandfather left with him and others.

“My grandfather taught me through example how to be a man who produces, loves and serves his family, serves the community, follows his heart, lives his passions and respects everybody — no matter where they come from,” Rosenberg said.

Dvorken is survived by his wife Doris; son Gregory; daughter Rachel; son-in-law Harry Rosenberg; and four grandchildren, Fran, Zach, Katrina and Jakob Rosenberg.

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