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Temple Isaiah

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.

A STORY OF RESISTANCE: From left, actors Julia Lewenfisz-Gorka, Wojciech Zielinski and Marta Ormaniec portray Ora, Abraham and Luba Lewin in a ghetto street scene from the film. Photo by Anna Wloch/Katahdin Productions

By Donna Newman

“History is written by the victors” is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. Some allege that history is written by the survivors. In at least one unique case, however, history was written by people who were neither victors nor survivors. During the Holocaust of World War II, a historical record was assembled by a group of doomed Polish Jews with only one goal: to let the truth be known.

Actor Wojciech Zielinski as Oyneg Shabes member Abraham Lewin. Photo by Anna Wloch

As designated by the United Nations in 2005, International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been observed each year since on Jan. 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp. On that date this year, the world can see the global premiere of a new documentary, “Who Will Write Our History,” detailing the trove of evidence regarding life, atrocities and death within the Warsaw Ghetto, as compiled and buried before the ghetto’s destruction by Jewish inmates who were imprisoned there.

As part of an international event, the film will screen simultaneously at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. These are just three of the more than 250 venues in 41 countries around the world taking part in this unprecedented event, with more joining daily. 

Here in Suffolk County, the film may only be viewed at North Shore Jewish Center, 385 Old Town Road, Port Jefferson Station, at 3:30 p.m. The suggested donation is $10 per person. Call 631-928-3737 to RSVP.  

“Who Will Write Our History” is a documentary film based on a book by the same name written by Trinity College Professor Samuel Kassow who was born in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. The film was written, produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Roberta Grossman; the executive producer is Nancy Spielberg. 

Men praying in Warsaw Ghetto in a scene from the film.

Both book and documentary tell the story of the secret society — code named Oyneg Shabes, or joy of the Sabbath — composed of journalists, scholars and community leaders who were among the 450,000 Jews confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe, beginning in November 1940. 

The website for the documentary introduces the film: “‘Who Will Write Our History’ is a story of resistance. It is a story about who gets to tell the story. It is about a group of spiritual resistors who risked their lives so that the truth would survive, even if they did not.”

Leading this band of resistance fighters was historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who masterminded  “one of the most astonishing research projects in human history” according to Culture.pl, a government-sponsored website funded by Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

The archive that Ringelblum’s team of about 50 to 60 individuals assembled contains approximately 6,000 documents, written in Yiddish and Polish. Artifacts also collected include newspapers, ration and tram tickets, letters, postcards, leaflets, German orders, theater posters and candy wrappers. Original literary pieces and works of art — drawings, watercolors and cartoons — were also deposited in the archive.

Shortly after the war, the first hidden cache to be unearthed was discovered on Sept. 18, 1946. A second trove was found in 1950. A third stash, which has yet to be located despite a 2003 excavation attempt, is thought to be buried on the grounds of the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.

A Warsaw Ghetto market scene from the film.

North Shore Jewish Center congregants Marsha Belford and her husband, Wlodek Guryn, learned about the documentary last spring at the 2018 Hillel and Jewish Theological Seminary-sponsored Jewish University for a Day held at Stony Brook University.

In a plenary session, not only did Grossman talk about and show a clip of the film, which was then in production, but Dr. Eleonora Bergman of  the Ringelblum Archive also spoke.

“Bringing this documentary to our synagogue started with my husband’s friendship with Eleonora Bergman, who is also a Polish Jew and who grew up on the same street in Warsaw as he did,” said Belford in a recent interview. “Dr. Bergman served as director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw [2007-2011] and is still very much involved with the Ringelblum Archive.”

For her extensive work, Bergman received the French Légion d’Honneur in 2012. She and Prof. Tadeusz Epsztein shared the 2017 Jan Karski and Pola Nireneka Prize, awarded by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research for their work coordinating the publication of the Ringelblum Archive.

Belford patiently awaited the film’s release because she appreciates Holocaust testimonies for very personal reasons. “My husband’s parents escaped Pinsk and survived the war as Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union,” she said. “Originally from Hungary, my mother — whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis — was a survivor of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.”

Members of the cast

When Belford learned that the documentary would be shown at the U.N. as part of its International Holocaust Remembrance Week observances and also at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove — but nowhere in Suffolk County — she contacted the organizer of NSJC’s annual Jewish film festival, Robin Appel.

Belford is grateful to Appel for her expertise and assistance in obtaining the film. “It was Robin who handled all the negotiations that made the NSJC screening possible,” she said.

North Shore Jewish Center Rabbi Aaron Bensen is delighted to offer the community a chance to see this important film. 

“I am tremendously proud to be hosting this screening,” said Benson. “We’ve held an annual Jewish film festival for a decade now, thanks to a team that researches and selects excellent Jewish, Israeli and Holocaust-themed films. Bringing ‘Who Will Write Our History’ to the area is a major accomplishment for the group.”

“We’re also happy to be partnering with Temple Isaiah [in Stony Brook] as sponsors,” he added, “since it is a wonderful opportunity to engage a broader audience on this important topic.”

After the war, Rachel Auerbach — one of only three members of Oyneg Shabes to survive — noted the importance of informing the wider world: “We wrote, collected, guarded and hid while in the circumstances of our own destruction. We prepared the register of our own suffering and death, not for ourselves, but for other Jews. For the Jewish community of the wide world.”

Thanks to Auerbach and her courageous cohorts, that perspective will reach the eyes and ears of Suffolk County and beyond Jan. 27 via the film “Who Will Write Our History.”

All photos by Anna Wloch/Katahdin Productions

North Shore Jewish Center. File photo

Congregants from North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station and Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook punctuated a difficult week with a Nov. 4 event meant to inspire and unite the community.

The state of Israel declared its independence in May 1948, and to commemorate the 70th anniversary this year, North Shore Jewish Center and Temple Isaiah came together for a long-planned celebration called Celebrate Israel @ 70 which took on an additional purpose following the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

On Oct. 27, while many of the congregation at Tree of Life, and Jewish people at similar houses of worship across the country prayed, a gunman murdered 11 people and wounded seven others. It is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States in American history, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The Nov. 4 celebration was aptly timed for some.

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook speaks during an event at North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jeff Station celebrating the 70th anniversary of Israel’s Independence. Photo by Alex Petroski

“It really has been a balm, a healing experience as well as a happy experience,” said Rabbi Aaron Benson of NSJC of the event. “Given the historic events of the past week, that the event would happen this Sunday of all times has had an extra value and meaning as a moment of healing and community togetherness, in this case surrounding something hopeful and joyous.”

Committees from both synagogues had been planning the celebration for about eight months, according to Eric Steinberg, NSJC’s chairman of the Israeli Committee. The free event featured speakers discussing technology in Israel, flight attendants from El Al Israel Airlines, water desalination and its impact helping the country grow crops in the desert, lunch, events for the congregants’ children and more.

“If you notice we’re not talking politics, we’re not talking anything about that,” Steinberg said. “This was a determined thought by the committee just to do something positive … I wanted to bring the focus of Israel to the community.”

North Shore Jewish Center also hosted events in the wake of the shooting meant as a remembrance for the victims and to provide a sense of community togetherness, according to Benson. As a precaution, the rabbi said the synagogue bolstered security ahead of the event, including a Suffolk County Police Department presence.

“In many ways, the country as a whole has been in mourning and Jewish communities have responded in much the same way as when a friend might suffer a loss,” he said. “It has never happened in quite this way to the Jewish community in America before … And while one shouldn’t go through life fearful or paranoid that people are out to hurt you, the idea that in all the ways a person is Jewish, one aspect of that is that there are people who may simply not like you because of your religious background. That is a feature of Jewish life, and it does mean that terrible things can happen because of one’s religious identity.”

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky of Temple Isaiah echoed much of his colleague’s sentiments in speaking to those in attendance.

“Even as we remember, even as we continue to mourn, we celebrate together, we gain inspiration from each other,” he said.

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Rabbi Paul D. Sidlofsky. Photo by Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

A Canadian-born rabbi with an extensive background in religious education and youth outreach is the new spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah, the Reform Jewish congregation in Stony Brook. Paul D. Sidlofsky comes to Long Island from Temple of Israel in Wilmington, North Carolina, the oldest Jewish congregation in that state. His worldview has been enhanced by the experience of residing in Canada, England, Israel and the United States.

Rabbi Sidlofsky says he found his calling early in life while attending a summer camp affiliated with the North American Reform movement. He said he met rabbis there “who led services, taught Hebrew and talked about being Jewish, but they also wore sneakers, played sports and told jokes. They were not only people to be admired, but role models to whom I could relate.”

Following graduation with honors from the University of Toronto, Sidlofsky pursued graduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of his rabbinical course. He was ordained in 1988 after completing training at Leo Baeck College in London and received a master’s in Jewish education from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. Subsequently he earned a master’s in educational administration and a doctor of religious Jewish education.

“To me, a major role of the rabbi is to be a teacher,” Sidlofsky said. “This is central to my work and affects all aspects of it. I encourage congregants to pursue lifelong Jewish education. Informal interactions, counseling and sermons all provide teaching and learning opportunities.” As the “Rappin’ Rabbi” he likes to make his teaching fun, creating raps that give a unique spin to holy days, B’nai Mitzvah, and even the Torah. 

In his prior position in Wilmington, as well as in previous congregations, the rabbi was an active participant in community and interfaith events, and he looks forward to those interactions on Long Island. One community outreach event he instituted, an Invite Your Neighbor service to welcome and inform non-Jewish members of the community about the temple and Judaism, was a success he hopes to replicate at Temple Isaiah.

Teamwork between clergy in a synagogue is crucial to creating a welcoming vibe. Rabbi and cantor must work together closely.

“Often,” said Cantor Marcey Wagner, “I spend more time with my rabbinic partner than with my spouse! That’s why I am so pleased with the choice of Rabbi Sidlofsky. He’s the kind of person I can partner with in a meaningful way. Together we’ll create the community environment here at Temple Isaiah that the congregation is thirsting for,” adding that she likes that he is open to new ideas, yet has a healthy respect for tradition as well. “When the rabbi/cantor relationship thrives, the congregation can feel it and the institution becomes stronger and healthier for it.” 

Temple President Phyllis Sterne concurs that Temple Isaiah is on the right path with its new clergy team. “I look forward to growing our congregation and having it see good times and good health in the years ahead. I’m confident that Rabbi Sidlofsky will lead us into a bright future. We welcome not only the rabbi to our Temple family, but also his lovely and talented wife, Wendy, and caring and enthusiastic teenage son, Ben. Both will add immeasurably to our community.”

For information about Temple Isaiah, located at 1404 Stony Brook Road in Stony Brook, call the temple office at 631-751-8518 or visit www.tisbny.org

From left, volunteers Alexandra, Ilene, Emily and Brian Horan; Sela Megibow; Cantor Marcey Wagner; Paula Balaban; and Adam Morotto. Photo from Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook established a new tradition this year, gathering a multi-generational group of congregants to cook up soup and vegetarian chili for people in need of support.

Cantor Marcey Wagner envisioned the community service event to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and enlisted Social Action Committee Chairperson Iris Schiff to help with the details.

From left, Julia Megibow, Hannah Kitt (seated), Lana Megibow, Abby Fenton, Hazel and Dasi Cash Photo from Donna Newman

The morning of Jan. 15 began with a reading of the story “As Good as Anybody” — written by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Raul Colon — about the friendship that formed between civil rights leader King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The two men faced similar challenges growing up and shared a belief in the value of every human being. Heschel joined the civil rights movement and marched at King’s side in Selma in 1965.

Congregants brought fresh and canned vegetables to the synagogue and all the ingredients needed to make comfort foods. Everyone participated in the effort. After the chopping and mincing and blending, while the Instant Pots cooked, the children created greeting cards and small challahs to be delivered with the containers of food. The challah prep was under the tutelage of consummate baker Linda Jonas and the greeting cards were facilitated by artist Deborah Fisher.

The freezer is now stocked with portions of soup and chili to be delivered to the homebound, mourners and people who are ailing. They will also be available to families visiting the temple’s food pantry.

Temple Isaiah is located at 1404 Stony Brook Road, Stony Brook. For more information, please call 631-751-8518.

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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.”