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Aaron Benson

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Rabbi Aaron Benson, of the North Shore Jewish Center, presides over a prayer service Thursday, Dec. 7, during a menorah lighting ceremony at the Train Car Park in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Raymond Janis

Faith and business leaders, public officials and community members from Port Jefferson Station/Terryville marked the beginning of Hanukkah Thursday, Dec. 7, with a community gathering and menorah lighting service.

The PJS/T Chamber of Commerce hosted the event at the Train Car Park in Port Jefferson Station. Rabbi Aaron Benson, of the Port Jeff Station-based North Shore Jewish Center, presided over the prayer service.

“In times when we need hope and times when we are struggling in the darkness, the hope, inspiration and strength that we get will come not as some raging fire but a tiny little point of light — just like the menorah here,” he said. Following these remarks, Benson delivered a series of blessings sung aloud by those in attendance.

Chamber president Jen Dzvonar emphasized the importance of this annual event for the chamber and the greater community.

“We believe it is so important to bring all of our community together, especially at this time,” she said. “We are so grateful for Rabbi Benson to always be a part of the chamber and to always do the blessings for us on this day and every year.”

Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) also attended the event. During his remarks, he tied the Hanukkah service to the perseverance of the Jewish people throughout history.

“This holiday was celebrated after a Jewish victory against people that tried to destroy them,” the councilmember said. “I think it speaks to the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people, and it speaks to the feeling of optimism and hope.”

The crowd cheered in delight as Kornreich lit the menorah’s first candle.

The Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association met Tuesday, Oct. 24, for a meeting covering public safety, land use, upcoming elections and multiculturalism.

Public safety

John Efstathiou, COPE officer for the Suffolk County Police Department’s 6th Precinct, delivered the department’s public safety report, outlining an uptick across several crime statistics.

When crime data was compared from the same period in 2022, the 6th Precinct received an increase in the calls for service throughout the hamlet from 646 to 845, “so we saw a big increase in calls,” Efstathiou stated.

While there were no reported aggravated harassments or assaults, there were two reported burglaries. A smoke shop and the Buddhist temple — both located on Terryville Road — were the two burglarized locations.

Criminal mischief went up from six to 10 reported incidents. One of those criminal mischiefs resulted in an arrest, five resulted in no pressed charges and the other four remain under investigation by the department.

Harassments spiked from seven to 11. Of those, one arrest was made, eight resulted in no press and two remain under investigation. Larcenies went up from 12 to 16.

Efstathiou reported a menacing incident at the Family Dollar located at Jefferson Plaza in which an individual brandished a knife to steal money. “He was unsuccessful,” the COPE officer indicated, adding the person was “charged for menacing on that. That is still pending and under investigation.”

A robbery had occurred at the Sunoco gas station on Old Town Road, resulting in the apprehension of the alleged suspect.

Total criminal incidents went up from 35 to 64. Disturbances went up from 135 to 167. Total noncriminal incidents increased from 611 to 821. Motor vehicle accidents jumped from 45 to 83.

Land use

Civic vice president Carolyn Sagliocca updated the body on proposed developments throughout the area. She said the Bicycle Path LLC group, owner of the parcel at 507 North Bicycle Path, contacted the civic regarding a potential redevelopment project.

“They want to present their proposal here for our civic for everyone to see, and that is going to be at our December 19 civic meeting,” she said.

Sagliocca emphasized the importance of the civic’s upcoming Nov. 28 meeting, during which the body will deliberate on the proposed redevelopment of Jefferson Plaza. “We’re going to see if we can get the community to give us input on what you want,” she said. “Because on November 30, there’s going to be a public hearing at Town Hall in Farmingville at 5:30, and we hope as many residents who want to voice their opinion on what they want could be there.”

Meet the candidates

Later in the meeting, the body met judicial candidates for Suffolk County district court and Michael Kaplan, Democratic candidate for Brookhaven highway superintendent.

Steve Weissbard is the Republican and Conservative Party candidate for the district court. He served as Suffolk County attorney in family court, later working for the Suffolk Legal Aid Society.

“I bring a very balanced experience … and I expect a very balanced judgment and open mind when I sit on the bench,” he said.

Opposing Weissbard is Cynthia Vargas, who serves as co-chair of the Suffolk County Bar Association’s membership services committee. She also served as president of the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association.

“I would bring all of my experience, common sense and integrity to ensure justice for all and ask that you vote Vargas, not politics, on November 7,” she said.

Kaplan is challenging incumbent Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R), who did not attend Tuesday evening’s civic meeting. Kaplan is a U.S. Army veteran who worked as a road inspector in the Town of Islip before working directly for the superintendent of highways in the Town of Huntington.

“This town needs different leadership when it comes to highways,” he said, advocating for a “small-town mentality” within the Brookhaven Highway Department.

Multicultural panel

The meeting concluded with a discussion among faith and ethnic leaders throughout the community. Panelists included Mufti Abdullah Sheikh, resident scholar and imam at Selden Masjid, Rabbi Aaron Benson of North Shore Jewish Center and Shaorui Li, founder and president of the Asian American Association of Greater Stony Brook.

In a phone interview after the meeting, PJSTCA president Ira Costell regarded the panel as a means of opening a dialogue and creating understanding between the religious and cultural groups that were present.

“It’s been my agenda to bring programs as often as possible that add a dimension of education or awareness or understanding about broader issues,” Costell said. “I think this really went a long way — for me personally and hopefully for other people — to realize we can have a conversation with each other.”

The civic reconvenes on Tuesday, Nov. 28, at Comsewogue Public Library at 7 p.m.

Community members participated in a menorah lighting at the Train Car Park in Port Jefferson Station Sunday, Dec. 18. Photo by Paul Perrone

The Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce annual menorah lighting ceremony took place Sunday, Dec. 18, at sundown in the hamlet’s Train Car Park.

Rabbi Aaron Benson of North Shore Jewish Center officiated the ceremony, offering a prayer to mark the first night of Hanukkah. The event was well attended by community members and many from the North Shore Jewish Center. 

Among those joining the festivities were PJSTCC vice president Paul Perrone, the chamber’s community liaison Joan Nickeson and Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook).

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.