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Rabbi

The Bonacasa family and members of the North Shore Jewish Center get together after the ceremony. Photo by Donna Newman

When Rabbi Aaron Benson of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station learned of the passing of a North Shore resident in Afghanistan, he knew he wanted to help, he just wasn’t sure how at the time.

“Some events bring the news home to you in a personal and direct way,” Benson said. “This one struck me personally.”

Benson recalled learning of the death of Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa while attending Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) inauguration Dec. 30. Bonacasa was a local hero from Coram who left behind a widow and 5-year-old daughter when he was killed by a suicide bomber four days before Christmas last year. Benson wanted to do something to help the family.

He called upon congregant Doris Weisman, chairperson of military support services at the synagogue, to form a plan of action. Weisman, is a member of a military family and became widowed young.

“Having had so much military around me all my life, it was natural for me to reach out to Deb,” she said of contacting Bonacasa’s wife Deborah. “I will do everything I can to help her and [their daughter] Lilianna find their way, which they are doing. They have a lot of good support.”

A fundraising effort began thanks to the efforts of Benson and Weisman.

At a ceremony held Aug. 19 at the Jewish Center, Benson welcomed Bonacasa family members, and led a prayer for Louis Bonacasa, lit a memorial candle for him and presented a check to his widow.

Benson gave Lilianna a hamsa, which is a palm-shaped amulet popular in the Middle East and North Africa.

“[It] is meant to represent the hand of God as a source of protection and blessings as a reminder of our love for your family and respect for your father, whom we all admire very much,” he said to the child.

“It’s a way to show concern, to bring something good to the lives of others, to increase the love in the world.”

—Aaron Benson

Members of the congregation had little trouble getting behind such a worthy cause.

“I have never been so proud of our North Shore Jewish Center congregation for reaching out to someone in the community who needs our support,” congregant Beverly Kasper said. She also brought a gift bag for Lilianna.

Benson echoed that sentiment in a telephone interview. He recalled his Jewish New Year sermon last fall in which he challenged members of the congregation to go above and beyond at tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that refers to performing acts of kindness in an effort to perfect or repair the world. He asked people to make an effort on the 18th of each month to do something positive beyond what they’d normally do. The 18th was symbolic because in Hebrew, 18 spells “chai,” which means “life.”

He named this effort Team Malachim, the Hebrew word for angels, with the intent to encourage people to reach out to someone they didn’t know, someone who might not be looking for help but could use some.

Helping the Bonacasa family clearly fit his outreach plan to go beyond the synagogue and into the greater Long Island community, and he was proud of the response he got.

“It’s a way to show concern, to bring something good to the lives of others, to increase the love in the world,” he said of the fundraising effort and the desire to help.

Other North Shore communities also reached out to the Bonacasas.

The Sound Beach community welcomed the family into their new neighborhood in June, after Rocky Point VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and Landmark Properties owner Mark Baisch helped build a home for the family, which came with a reduced, more affordable mortgage.

There was a local outpour from neighboring hamlets, which came bearing welcome home gifts for the Bonacasas, such as gift cards, toys and a new bike for Lilianna, when they received  keys to the home.

North Shore Jewish Center president Andy Polan agreed that Jewish values need to extend beyond the walls of synagogues and homes.

“It’s very important for all [religious] denominations to encourage members to do things for our country as a whole,” he said. “We learn tolerance, to embrace others and to be sensitive to other people’s tragedies. It really shows what the United States is all about.”

North Shore Jewish Center. File photo

By Rabbi Aaron Benson

One of the truly special aspects of Jewish life is the interconnectedness of the Jewish world. This trait comes to the fore on a holiday like Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, which was celebrated on the Jewish calendar this year on May 12. Jews from around the world join together in remembering those who have died in bringing into being and defending Israel, praying for peace and security in Israel and the Middle East and celebrating the true miracle that is not just the return of the Jews to their historic homeland but also all the many accomplishments of Israel in the 68 years since it was founded.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich has Long Island roots and visited from Poland to share his experiences at the North Shore Jewish Center. Photo from Rabbi Aaron Benson
Rabbi Michael Schudrich has Long Island roots and visited from Poland to share his experiences at the North Shore Jewish Center. Photo from Rabbi Aaron Benson

The North Shore Jewish Center celebrated the special place Israel has for our community by joining the leader of another Jewish community, that of Poland, whose chief rabbi, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, was visiting Long Island last week. A native of Patchogue, Rabbi Schudrich graduated from Stony Brook University, where he was being honored during his visit. The chief rabbi has a unique attachment to NSJC, as he was a religious school teacher at our synagogue back when he was a student.

He shared with us about the situation of the Jewish community in Poland. It certainly has its challenges. The Jewish community was nearly destroyed during the Holocaust, losing 90 percent of its numbers. Communism brought about more years of persecution. But since the 1990s, there have been some signs of growth and stability. Young Polish Jews today, for example, travel to Israel as part of the Birthright program, something young American Jews do, too. Rabbi Schudrich explained how a strong connection to Israel for his community is one of the achievements of Poland’s Jews.

Learning about the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland was a hopeful story for our congregants to hear. And to learn that our co-religionists in Poland feel a deep commitment to Israel just as we do, too (our synagogue is planning a trip to Israel for this fall), brought home a deeper meaning to the holiday.

For it reminded us that no matter where Jews may live all around the world, a love for Israel inspires us all. That made our Yom Ha-Atzma’ut particularly memorable this year.

The author is the rabbi at the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station.

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By Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel

When I was growing up, Hanukkah was literally a “festival of many lights!” As the oldest of six children, my parents gave each one of us our own chanukiyah. (Note: A menorah is any multibranched candelabra. A chanukiyah is a menorah specifically designated for Hanukkah. It has nine candle holders: one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, plus one for the “shammash” — the helper candle that is used to light the other candles.)

Every morning during Hanukkah, each of us would carefully choose which color candles we were going to light that night. My mother placed a table in front of one of our living room windows with all of the chanukiyot (plural form of chanukiyah) circled strategically around. The mitzvah — the commandment — of Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle. Hence the directive to light the candles in a window. My siblings and I loved watching all those candles burn and glow!

I have a collection of many beautiful and unique chanukiyot now. But the one I still use every year on Hanukkah is the one I used growing up, the one I inherited from my mother. It is not beautiful, but it takes me back to my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and helps make me feel as if she is part of my Hanukkah celebration, even though she is no longer alive. That feeling helps the flame of my candles glow even more brightly.

It is no accident that Hanukkah, our festival of lights, occurs during December. These are some of the darkest days/nights of the year: We are approaching the winter solstice. Once again, Hanukkah reminds us that during the darkest time of the year, we human beings have the power to kindle lights against the darkness. We have the power to brighten the lives of others.

For those who celebrate Hanukkah, let me suggest that we can make the flames of our own Hanukkah candles burn even more brightly by dedicating at least one of the nights of our own Hanukkah celebration to a family tzedakah (social justice/charity) project instead of giving gifts to each other. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek — which means “justice” and “righteousness.” We don’t simply give tzedakah because it makes us feel good, but rather out of our sense of responsibility to God and to taking care of others in the world around us.

There are a number of different provisions for tzedakah outlined in the Jewish tradition. They all center around one basic principle: No matter what form our tzedakah takes, we must make sure that we never compromise anyone’s dignity, honor or self-respect. In fact, the highest form of tzedakah is when we can help someone to help themselves, so that they will no longer be dependent upon the help of others.

This year, may the light of the Hanukkah candles ignite the spark of justice, passion for human rights and freedom for all.

Chag Urim Sameach! May you have a Happy Festival of Lights!

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel is the Rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.

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Rabbi Stephen Karol, Rabbi Sharon Sobel and Rabbi Adam Fisher celebrate. Photo from Iris Schiff

In 1965, a small group of families placed a notice in The Village Times Herald to encourage interested residents to join the new Reform Jewish Congregation. Two years later, the congregation transitioned from working out of the Setauket Neighborhood House to working at its new building, Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.

Fifty years later, the building, its workers and congregants celebrated the Temple’s 50th from Friday Oct. 23 to Sunday Oct. 25. The festivities started with a potluck dinner at sundown as well as a special service. Alan Goodis served as the entertainment during the celebration. The weekend also included a dessert reception and a Golden Gala.

But the celebration isn’t only about celebrating another year older but also about celebrating the Temple’s founders, taking a stroll down memory lane and acknowledging the Temple beyond the celebration for the Temple’s 50th year.

“It’s really about what we do all year long and how we behave,” Rabbi Sharon Sobel said about the Temple.

In the past 50 years, the Temple established a food pantry had food and blood drives and helped give back to the community with events like Mitzvah Day, which former Board of Trustees President Iris Schiff described as a day where members of the Temple do a good deed for members of the community.

In the past, congregates and individuals who work at the Temple helped build a kitchen on the Shinnecock Reservation according to Schiff. Schiff also said the Temple held a special Mitzvah Day for the adults with disabilities who visit the Temple once or twice a week to help organize the food pantry, file documents, polish areas of the Temple’s sanctuary. According to Schiff these individuals are called “interns” at the Temple.

Sobel, who has served as the Temple’s rabbi since last year, made the suggestion to hold a Mitzvah Day in honor of their “interns.” Not only do they help the Temple, but also some of these interns gained enough experience helping the institution that they have acquired stable jobs themselves.

According to Schiff, who joined the Temple in 1975, the day was a special moment for the parents of these “interns.”

“Their parents were crying because…it was the first time ever…their children were honored for being terrific and for helping,” Schiff said. “They had never been acknowledged before because they are people with disabilities.”

The “interns” and the individuals at the Shinnecock Reservation aren’t the only people the Temple helped or intend to help on the Island. Mitzvah day is an annual event for the Temple. This year, the Temple held its 15th Mitzvah Day on Sunday, May 17. Next year, the Temple is holding the event on May 16. Schiff also added that people in the community who are not necessarily part of the Temple are also recognizing the Temple as an important part of the community. Several business donated money to the Temple in celebration of its 50th year — the money, as well as other donations and money acquired from the membership fee, helps the Temple stay afloat.

Schiff mentioned there’s been a drop in church attendance regardless of the religion. Sobel added that currently the Temple has 330 units — families, couples and singles — who are members of the Temple. She added that former members come back for special events like the Temple’s anniversaries among other events. Despite this, members of the Temple remain excited and pleased about their accomplishments.

“We’re excited [for the 50th anniversary celebration] because we feel proud of what the Temple has done all through the years and what it represents in the community,” Sobel said.

Regardless of attendance and the changes in rabbis in the past 50 years, Schiff added that the Temple has remained the same.

“What hasn’t changed is this organization. We have congregants who are genuine. They come here with really good caring hearts,” Schiff said. “To me that is what religion should really be about — doing unto others. If everybody lived by that golden rule, this [world] would be a wonderful place.”

From left to right, Stephanie Belli’s sister Diana and mother Carol receive their copy of the book with Rabbi Cohen of Chabad at Stony Brook. Photo from Chabad at Stony Brook

Four hundred acts of kindness turned out to be an underestimate.

It has been one month since a horrific Cutchogue car crash killed four North Shore women, and Chabad at Stony Brook set out to assemble a book of kind acts to show how good could come out of tragedy. But by the time that book was finished last week, it had grown into a much bigger list.

Smithtown’s Brittney Schulman, 23, and Lauren Baruch, 24, as well as Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack were riding in a limousine in the middle of a weekend wine tour on the eastern part of the Island when Steven Romeo, 55, T-boned their vehicle as it made a risky U-turn, killing the girls and injuring five others.

After the crash, Romeo was arraigned at Eastern Long Island Hospital and charged with driving while intoxicated. He was initially ordered held in lieu of $500,000 cash bail, or $1 million bond, but that bail was reduced to $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond. Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota said Romeo had recorded a blood alcohol content of .066 percent — below the legal limit of .08 — when he was tested roughly one hour after the crash. The DWI charge, however, was not dropped, Spota said. No additional charges were filed against Romeo as the investigation continued.

Romeo’s court date, which was originally set for last week, was adjourned to Sept. 18.

The tragedy sent shockwaves through the greater North Shore community, and Chabad at Stony Brook called on everyone to help.

“People came out in big numbers to post all these heartfelt things they were going to do,” said Rabbi Shalom Ber Cohen of Chabad at Stony Brook, who helped launch the project in the wake of the tragic crash. “We’ve always encouraged to respond to darkness with light, and to evil with good.”

The group launched a Facebook group called “Goodness & Kindness x 400 for our girls,” and acquired thousands of page views in a matter of days, Cohen said. The goal, he said, was to remember the lives of those lost by compiling a book of names and acts of goodness committed in their honor, to show victims’ families that they were not alone in their darkest hour.

“We felt we were swarming in death,” Cohen said. “This was an act of goodness and kindness to bring more goodness to the world. While we can’t bring the girls back, when the community comes back and shows we are there, it does bring some kind of goodness.”

Good deeds included anything from committing to donate to worthy causes to something as simple as paying for succeeding cars in a Starbucks drive-thru.

Cohen, along with wife Chanie Cohen, a Chabad program coordinator, as well as Rabbi Chaim Grossbaum, Rabbi Motti Grossbaum and the rest of his staff, delivered those books to the victims’ families over the last week and said they helped everyone move forward in a time of great loss.

Diana Belli, sister of Stephanie Belli, took to the “Goodness & Kindness” Facebook page to express her gratitude.

“Thank you so much! With love, my entire family,” she wrote on the page. “This means a lot to us.”