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Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

Thirteen women gathered for a bittersweet luncheon in Stony Brook recently to celebrate more than two decades of collaboration that brought joy to many children and adults living in foster care or homeless shelters. They all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in a worthwhile charitable endeavor, while realizing the time had come to move on. Bright Hopes was coming to an end.

Dating back to the early 2000s, the organization Bright Hopes, created by artist Deborah Fisher, had a heart-warming origin story, told in her own voice:

“When I was young my mother taught me to sew using her portable sewing machine. I sewed dolls, clothes, bags and watched my mother make quilts — planning, tracing, cutting — until something lovely emerged.

“In 2002 I spent three months doing an artist residency in Kohler, Wisconsin. I found myself in a strange town, in a strange house, with other artists I did not know. I had brought a handmade quilt with me, a gift from my husband’s aunt. The simple gesture of putting that quilt on the bed made it feel like home, which led me to wonder: What if we made quilts for people who had no permanent home? Maybe a bright, beautiful quilt could give them a piece of home, a sense of place, to carry with them wherever they went. I asked my mom if she’d like to make some quilts to donate, and she asked the very nicest people to join us, no sewing experience necessary. And with that, Bright Hopes was born.”

Suzan Goldhaber, in speaking about the birth, said there was no big plan in place at the start, other than a desire to improve the lives of homeless children.

“The development of Bright Hopes was organic,” Goldhaber said. “So many different, talented, generous people came together forming a camaraderie of sharing.”

In the beginning, there was Quilt GIVING, a program through which one-of-a-kind, handmade quilts were given to children living in foster homes and to families living in temporary shelters. These quilts were theirs to keep and take with them wherever they went. 

Bright Hopes has donated more than a thousand quilts over the years, some directly to individuals, others gifted with the help of regional agencies.

Judy Albano described an experience that formed her first real understanding of the value of Bright Hopes. She said she rode along during a quilt delivery to mind another volunteer’s baby. Upon arrival, the driver took the quilts inside. After a time, she wondered what was taking so long, so she took the baby and approached the door.

“Just then, three joyful girls ran out, each wrapped in a colorful quilt, despite stifling summer heat,” Albano said. “Their delight was amazing.”

The next step for Bright Hopes followed the realization that if simply providing a quilt can foster hope for someone, what would happen when that person learns quilt-making skills and the ability to create quilts themselves? 

Beginning in the autumn of 2009, a new program called Quilt WORKS was initiated at Little Flower Children’s Residence in Wading River. Once a week, volunteers bearing sewing machines met with children (aged 8 to 19) to teach them how to use a sewing machine and the basics of quilt-making. A field trip to a fabric store let the kids choose fabric for their quilt. Each child was helped to assemble the top of a quilt, which was backed and finished by Bright Hopes volunteers, then returned to the maker to keep and enjoy.

Many volunteers came and went over the program’s 10 years, Deborah Fisher said, but the commitment of a few consistent regulars made the program possible. They were Joyce Bonitch, Clione Stancik and Ronni Camhi, who played a huge role at Little Flower before she moved away a few years ago.

“My time working with Bright Hopes introduced me to a group of amazing, committed women and gave me a very longed for sense of community, both with these women and with the community at large,” Camhi said. “I was able to give back and help many people. I grew as an individual as well as improving my creative sewing skills. It’s what I miss most about leaving New York.” 

In the words of Joyce Bonitch, “To see the smiles on their faces when the quilts were done was wonderful. A few returned to make another quilt for a family member or friend. One girl made a quilt for a Little Flower staff member. There was a time we were able to visit a cabin and saw the quilts on the kids’ beds; bright colors added something special to the space.”

The next logical progression was Quilt COMMUNITY. Carole-Ann Gordon, employed by FREE (Family Residences and Essential Enterprises) and a group member, made a proposal. After receiving training at FREE’s Day Services East, their differently abled adults began sewing quilts to be donated via Quilt GIVING  — a win for both creators and recipients. 

Bright Hopes eventually joined with Suffolk County community groups to teach sewing skills and increase the number of volunteers making quilts for donation. 

Before the luncheon ended, I asked the women seated around the kitchen table what they felt was the very best part of Bright Hopes. Without a moment’s hesitation, Suzan Goldhaber answered, “Each other!” And those words echoed around the room in unanimous agreement.

Over time, women joined the Bright Hopes family in different ways. One woman began quilting after her adult son took it up as a hobby. “I was inspired by Deb’s books about quilting,” Helen Emmerich said, “and when I learned about Bright Hopes, I was in.” Dorothy Cardi found the Bright Hopes booth at Gallery North’s annual Outdoor Art Show and Music Festival and was inspired. Sandy Miller was an editor at Newsday when a 2004 article about Bright Hopes caught her attention. “I clipped the article and saved it,” said Miller, “thinking when I retire, I’ll have time for this.” Years later, she did.

Deborah Fisher summed up the years saying she felt honored to get to know all the compassionate and caring volunteers who were involved. They became a family and had been through a lot together.

“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to bring together an amazing group of women who have taught me so much,” she said.

Members of Bethel AME Church were welcomed at a special service honoring the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Pictured front row, third from left is Rev. Lisa Williams; back row, third from right is Rabbi Joshua Gray. Photo by Lloyd Newman

By Donna Newman 

A Friday night service at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook honored the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in advance of the official Monday holiday. The congregants of the Bethel AME Church of Setauket, led by Reverend Lisa Williams were invited to join the celebration.

The Church members got to experience a complete Reform Jewish Friday night service in which Rev. Williams participated with two readings from the prayerbook “Mishkan Tefilah” and delivered a powerful sermon that combined the philosophy of MLK and references to the week’s portion of the Torah that Rabbi Gray read, “Parsha Va’Era.” (Exodus 6:3) Va’Era translates in English to “and I appeared”, the first word God speaks in the parsha.   

The service ended with a powerful rendition of the anthem “Rise Up” by Andra Day sung by Rabbi Gray and cantorial soloist Meghan Gray, accompanied on the piano by Dan Fogel. A fitting and emotive send-off to the “Oneg,” where there are refreshments, and time to meet and mingle.

The post-service refreshments and other aspects of the event were coordinated by Social Action Chair Iris Schiff and her committee.

“The service was so beautiful and poignant,” Schiff said. “It was one of those times you could feel that all who were present had full hearts and were surely enriched by the experience.”

After the service, Temple Board Member Andrea Barbakoff sat in conversation with some of the Bethel guests.

“The members of Bethel AME Church were all very friendly,” Barbakoff said, “and they were eager to learn more about us, about Judaism, and about our traditions.”

One guest was especially interested in Temple Isaiah’s Torahs, according to Barbakoff. It was mentioned that one is a Torah on loan that had been rescued during the Holocaust. Long-time temple member and local historian Mort Rosen was able to relate the scroll’s history and how it came to be at Temple Isaiah.

“Several guests, after asking if they could possibly schedule a time to come back and get a close up look,” said Barbakoff, “were grateful when Rabbi Gray graciously offered to take them back into the sanctuary, where he opened the scroll for them to view. It was definitely a moving experience for us all.”

Rabbi Joshua Gray has made interfaith connections an important part of his rabbinate. The Thanksgiving Interfaith Service was held at Temple Isaiah in November.

“Jewish efforts toward ‘tikkun olam’ (repairing the world) must start with coming together and confirming that we share common values and goals,” said Rabbi Gray, “and that we must work together to create the world we wish to inhabit.” In the immortal words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”

By Donna Newman

Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook invites the community to an Authors Roundtable on Saturday afternoon, October 28, at 1 p.m. The event features a panel of six published authors from the congregation who will speak about their books and answer questions. Rabbi Joshua Gray will be the moderator. A reception is planned afterward where attendees may mingle, enjoy refreshments, and purchase books.

It is said that after the Romans conquered their homeland in 70 CE and destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, Judaism transformed from a religion of temples, priests, and sacrifices to one that emphasized reverence to scripture, its associated symbols, and rituals, and became The People of the Book. That appellation was later also applied to followers of Islam and Christianity, the other Abrahamic religions, as all three are rooted in — and connected by — the belief that Abraham was their first prophet.

Ancient scripture’s value and importance fostered a foundation for the written word and it’s not surprising that books are a natural extension for adherents of the three religions.     

Carole-Ann Gordon is a book-enthusiast who founded the temple’s monthly Book Group more than two decades ago. She was its first facilitator and is now its current facilitator, following a long interim of service by Anita Gaffan. Aware of the many authors in the congregation, and desiring to celebrate their creativity, she started thinking.

“It occurred to me that we’ve never given the authors in our congregation an opportunity to share their talents,” said Gordon. “I thought it would make an interesting and entertaining afternoon. Rabbi Josh agreed as soon as I mentioned it — and I was delighted when he volunteered to be the moderator.”

She enlisted the input of one of the congregant authors to plan the event.

“Carole-Ann approached me with her Authors Roundtable idea,” said novelist Gary Kamen, who had similar thoughts. “We merged our concepts and created a format that allows each author a brief presentation time, followed by a Q&A and refreshments. Each of the authors will donate a portion of their book sales to the temple.” 

Participating authors are Temple Isaiah’s two Rabbis Emeriti:  Adam Fisher (liturgy, stories, and poetry) and Stephen Karol (Jewish perspectives on death and the world-to-come); Gary Kamen (Western historical fiction); Dr. Stuart Plotkin (non-fiction: dinosaurs and podiatric advice for hikers); Dr. Arnold Katz (medical text and poetry); and cancer survivor Cynthia Braun, whose memoir about her treatment is upbeat, wise, and full of resourceful advice.

“Temple Isaiah is blessed to have so many talented authors whose combined works represent incredible diversity in their subjects and styles,” said Rabbi Emeritus Stephen Karol. “It is our pleasure to share this blessing with the community.”

Free and open to all, you must preregister to attend. Please do so by email to [email protected] or telephone the temple office at 631-751-8518.

Rabbi Joshua Gray with his wife Meghan and their children Cameron and Lena. Photo by Gary Kamen

By Donna Newman

The congregation of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook launches a new direction this summer with a modern approach: Joyful Judaism — and the Temple’s search committee found the perfect spiritual leader to guide this transition. 

“We’re very excited to welcome Rabbi Joshua Gray and his family to Long Island to bring music, spirituality and joy to our lives,” said Temple President Howie Kanowitz. “Upon receipt of the unanimous approval of the search committee, the Temple board and the congregation, Rabbi Josh will serve us as both rabbi and cantor. This is his first pulpit, and we hope he’ll lead our community for a long, long time.”  

A recently ordained rabbi at 36 years of age, he brings to his rabbinate a wealth of life, work, and Jewishservice experiences that makes him uniquely qualified to speak to the inclusive Jewish spirit of today. His life journey began in the theater.

“My beginnings as a professional actor/singer opened my voice and spirit up to endless possibilities that manifest themselves in the way I approach Judaism; musically and full of ‘simcha’ (joy), acceptance andpassion,” said Rabbi Josh. “I am also very family-oriented, as I believe that the voices of children and families ina sanctuary create holiness. My amazing wife, Meghan, is my favorite cantorial soloist, with her incredible voice and spirit. Our children, Cameron (8) and Lena (3), keep us engaged with the youngest of congregants.” 

Prior work experience in Rabbi Josh’s background added an additional skill set to his already impressive resumé.

“In addition to his warmth and approachability, Rabbi Josh has a BA in Psychology from Penn State and has worked in the field of mental health, which we considered to be a bonus, especially in the stressful times in which we live,” said Marge Weiser, co-chair of the search committee.

Working with a Reform and a Conservative congregation in upstate New York, Rabbi Josh designed anddelivered a three-part course on mental health and wellness as seen through a Jewish lens.

In a cover letter sent with his resumé he wrote, “To put it simply, I am a Rabbi who tries to live the spirit of’Hineini’— Here I am!” 

His exuberance for Judaism, scholarship, pastoral care, liturgy, and teaching all ages is abundantly clear. After a time as an independent rabbi providing ritual services, lifecycle events and Jewish education, he says he is ready to be infused with the soul of a community and become a congregational rabbi.

“Every member of the search committee had the same feeling following our very first interview with Rabbi Josh,” said committee member Gary Kamen. “It felt as though it was divine intervention that brought him to us. In Yiddish there is the word  ‘bashert’ which translates in English to ‘meant to be.’ We are delighted to have found each other.”

The staff at Play Groups School

By Donna Newman

There’s something unique about a preschool that is still serving children on the North Shore of Long Island three quarters of a century after its founding. Through the years, Play Groups School became a family tradition for many in the area, with two or more generations counted among the school’s “graduates.”

On Saturday, Feb. 29, Play Groups School will celebrate 75 years of offering generations of students their first school experience with a Gala at The Old Field Club in Setauket. Invitations were sent to all those for whom contact information was available, including former teachers, former students and their parents. More than 110 people plan to attend.

The Play Groups saga began in 1944 when a group of parents decided to organize a “play group” where their children could learn through play with their peers. According to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell, whose brother was a member of the group in 1949, the children met at a small cottage near the Old Field Club. Perhaps that is why it was called the Old Field Nursery School in the early days. The first teachers were Dora Underwood of Port Jefferson and Joan Cockshutt of Setauket.

Play Groups was formally organized in 1974 when it was awarded an Absolute Charter by the New York State Department of Education and granted not-for-profit status from the IRS via a 501(c)(3) determination letter.

By 1986 the school was moved to its current location on Old Post Road in East Setauket, a building designed specifically for preschoolers. The school earned licensing by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services in 1992, and accreditation by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) in 1997. 

Play Groups Director Maddy Friedman has been at the helm for the last three decades, during which she has introduced many new ideas and concepts that keep the school continually evolving as times change. Yet, she says. the original focus remains unchanged.

“It has been my honor and privilege to lead Play Groups School these many years,” said Friedman. “While striving to stay abreast of current research and best practices, some things  have remained constant throughout. For young children play is essential for learning. It’s the way to develop creativity, curiosity, problem solving, social and emotional skills – and a lifelong love of learning. Our highly trained staff embrace this philosophy; they are at the core of our longevity and success. Our parents bring their time and talents to the classrooms and to the board.”

Friedman went on to describe one of her favorite innovations – one she feels is an extraordinary addition to the Play Groups program. “Acknowledging young children’s fascination with the natural world, nine years ago we added an  Outdoor Classroom to our facility,” said Friedman. “Through a collaborative effort, we created a space to encourage this relationship and engender a sense of stewardship the children will carry with them throughout their lives.”

Much more than a school, Play Groups is a family. 

Now retired Play Groups Business Manager Kathy Rademacher spent more than 25 years working at the school. She spoke of the deep, long-term relationships formed between Friedman and so many of her students and their families. “Play Groups played such an enormous role in my family’s story,” Rademacher said. “My son attended the preschool for three years, later completed his Eagle Scout project at the school, and worked at the summer camp as a lifeguard and counselor. Now, my son and his beloved – they met in the “Raccoon Room” in 1992 – are making wedding plans!” 

There are many stories of lasting friendships created at Play Groups School and Friedman expressed her pleasure and gratitude about that.

“It has been my personal joy to develop relationships with the children and their families over the years,” said Friedman. “Many staff members (both school and camp) were parents or students here at Play Groups. We so appreciate the trust that families have placed in us.”

School board members Sarah Russell Funt and Heather Snyder Ippolito are creating a walk down Memory Lane for the Gala. Funt is preparing a slideshow of photos taken over the past 75 years. Her husband Jared is a Play Groups alum and all their children have been, are, or will be Play Groups students as well. 

Ippolito is creating a display of memorabilia gathered over the years. A new member of the Play Groups family, she and husband Chris look forward to beginning the tradition for their family.

At the heart of the Play Groups tradition lies a goal common to both parents and staff, said Friedman. “We all share great respect for this magical time in a young child’s life and we work to make these preschool years full of memories to treasure.”

Photos courtesy of Play Groups School

North Shore residents of different religions gathered at the Islamic Association of Long Island in Selden March 28. Photo by Kate Jones Calone

By Donna Newman

The Village Times Herald and The Times of Middle Country April 4 covers “United we stand,” and the article by Rita J. Egan reporting on the interfaith gathering held March 28 at the Islamic Association of Long Island in Selden, were an important community service. The event itself was extraordinary.

Donna Newman. File photo

Members of the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association presented a panel discussion highlighting the many similarities of the various belief systems it encompasses. Comments from the attendees focused on the necessity of doing more than just coming together in solidarity when terrorists target faith communities around the world. We need to come together often and work together to build bridges between our different faiths and realize that there is more that unites us than divides us.

There was a break in the proceedings on March 28 when the call to prayer was heard. Non-Muslims were invited to observe men and women in prayer. It was an extremely generous gesture to welcome outsiders into a very special and spiritual space.

After the panel discussion and a Q&A, the audience divided into small groups, bringing individuals of different faiths together to talk and get to know each other. My group included Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists and a Muslim who happily answered lots of questions — and asked a good number as well.

The evening struck a chord with many who experienced it, and I’m certain that plans began to form to expand the experience so more Long Islanders could benefit.

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky and Cantor Marcey Wagner of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook have announced two upcoming events that build on this idea of bringing people together.

The temple will hold its Day of Good Deeds, or Mitzvah Day, Sunday, May 5. Social Action Committee Chair Iris Schiff reached out to other faith groups to invite them to join in various community-minded activities, culminating in an afternoon cleanup of West Meadow Beach.

A breast cancer screening van from Stony Brook Medicine will offer state-of-the-art 3-D digital mammograms from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to females 40 and over who schedule an appointment. For more information, call 631-638-4135.

On Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. Sidlofsky will replicate an Invite Your Neighbor to Shabbat service that he originated at his previous congregation in Wilmington, North Carolina. Congregants are encouraged to bring non-Jewish neighbors and friends to a service, at which they may experience and learn about Jewish prayer, including a look at an open Torah scroll. The rabbi will be available during the social time after the service to answer questions.

The more we learn about each other’s faiths — their origins, practices and traditions — the more we will understand that we have shared values of peace, love and justice. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect, and we feel others should be as well.

The April 4 article quoted Building Bridges in Brookhaven member and former Ward Melville High School teacher Tom Lyon. As he so eloquently put it: “The most radical thing we can do is to introduce people to each other.”

Donna Newman is a freelance writer and former editor of The Village Times Herald.

Mort Rosen, pictured at last year’s Spirits Tour, will be bestowed the Gayle Becher Memorial Award. Photo by Anthony White

By Donna Newman

On Wednesday, March 27, the Three Village Historical Society will host its 42nd annual Awards Dinner honoring volunteers, local businesses, society members, area residents and youngsters who have made significant contributions helping to preserve the shared heritage within the Three Village area. 

After four decades, one might wonder if it is getting more difficult to find honorees, especially because a person may only be honored once in a given category. TVHS President Steve Healy said it wasn’t a problem. 

“You would think that,” Healy said, “but it’s not difficult to find honorees. The Three Village area is packed with people who help others and contribute to their community. We are truly blessed. The society has just over 450 members … and we run more than 30 events and functions per year that bring in new volunteers and first-time attendees. Our membership grows organically through these events.”

Steven Fontana is this year’s recipient of the R. Sherman Mills Young Historian Award. Photo by Anthony White

Nominations come from TVHS members as well as the general public. Awards are given in a variety of areas, from significant contributions to the preservation and conservation of our natural environment, to fostering interest in local history, to the advancement of quality of life and pride of place, to dedicated service and generosity of volunteer time.

Nearly 30 nominations were received, according to Janette Handley, co-chair of the Awards Committee. She noted that the Robert Cushman Murphy Memorial Award, inaugurated in 1987, has only been bestowed 10 times.  

“That’s the award that we find difficult to give out,” Handley said. “We’re very careful to whom we give that award.” 

As described on the awards dinner invitation, it is made “in recognition of significant contributions to the preservation and conservation of our natural environment and to the fostering of a personal identification with the natural heritage of the Three Villages.”

It will be awarded this year to the Setauket Harbor Task Force, formed with the goal of improving water quality in Setauket Harbor, and whose members have held three Setauket Harbor Days to raise awareness for that endeavor.  

TBR’s own Michael Tessler will receive the Kate Wheeler Strong Memorial Award for his creation – together with TBR News Media – of the film “One Life to Give.” This historical re-enactment of little known events during the American Revolution does much to publicize the important role played by area residents. Handley spoke of how pleased Tessler was to receive the notification email.

“Not having a current address, we emailed him,” Handley said. “He’s in California. We got a wonderful email back saying he’s very sorry he can’t come, but he would like to do a video ‘Thank You.’ That’s the first time we’ve had anything like that.” 

“Though I’m far away living in Los Angeles, the spirit of Setauket and its citizen spies remain a guiding compass on my own personal journey to preserve history through multiplatform storytelling,” said Tessler.

According to the Awards Committee report, the TVHS Community Award, when bestowed, is “in appreciation of valuable contributions to the advancement of the quality of life in the Three Villages and the fostering of pride in the rich historical heritage of our homes and lands.” This year it will go to Leah Dunaief, publisher of TBR News Media, but Handley clarified that the recipient is the individual, apart from the position she holds. 

“Leah has received many awards on behalf of the paper, but this award is not for the paper. Leah is still there – and expanding,” said Handley. “She’s involved in so many things, and we feel very strongly that this award is for her.” 

The Maggie Gillie Memorial Award goes to a society member. This year Patty Yantz will be recognized for her many years of service. Yantz has held the offices of president and vice president, and has co-chaired the society’s biggest annual fundraiser – the Candlelight House Tour – for the last five years. 

The Gayle Becher Memorial Award goes to a volunteer. It will honor Morton Rosen for his generosity of spirit, taking part in many society events over the years, including the annual Spirits Tour, where he has enacted at least 11 historical figures. 

“The award is especially meaningful to me,” Rosen said, “because [my wife] Bernice and I worked with Gayle when she organized the Discovery Camp Days program of summer activities for children.”  

Steven Fontana, a sophomore at Ward Melville High School, is this year’s honoree for the R. Sherman Mills Young Historian Award, presented for contributions to the society by a young person. Steven has assisted with traffic flow at many society events over the past four years.

Four community award certificates will be handed out as well. 

The first, for repurposing a building used as a commercial structure in a way that contributes to the historic beauty of the area, will be awarded to The Reboli Center, 64 Main St., Stony Brook for the conversion of a historic bank building to a community center for the enjoyment of art and history. 

The second, for house restoration or renovation and preservation in keeping with original architectural integrity, will be awarded to Maura and Matthew Dunn for their home, The Holly Tree House, at 246 Christian Ave. in Stony Brook. 

The third award, the President’s Volunteer Certificate, goes to Marcia Seaman for her dedication to her volunteer bookkeeping position at the society for the past five years. 

The fourth, a Special Community Service Award, will go to David Prestia and his family, owners of Bagel Express and Express Catering in East Setauket, for their generous donations of food for many society events over the years. 

The Awards Dinner will be held at the Three Village Inn, 150 Main St., Stony Brook from 6 to 9 p.m. on March 27. A three-course dinner will be served, including a Caesar salad with rosemary focaccia croutons, choice of entree (pan-seared salmon with baby spinach and beurre blanc sauce, seared breast of free-range chicken with haricots verts and saffron potatoes or sliced Chateau steak with red wine sauce with Yukon Gold potato puree and baby carrots) and an apple crumb tartlet with whipped cream for dessert. The evening will feature a cash bar and eight raffle prizes. 

Please join TVHS in honoring these worthy awardees. Tickets are $65 per person, $60 members. To order, visit www.TVHS.org or call 631-751-3730.


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

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Above, the Wiener family, Željko, Beruria, Frances and Julius circa 1941. Photo courtesy of Beruria Stroke

By Donna Newman

Most Holocaust survival stories, told by those still around to bear witness, describe boxcars and concentration camps, starvation and abuse, and the horrific separation of children from their parents.

In a recent program at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket, titled Grazie Italia, local nonagenarian Beruria Stroke told her story of survival and it was quite different. She described a long and tortuous journey from Zagreb, Yugoslavia, to Campobasso, Italy, where advancing Allied forces liberated the Wiener family, who had been fleeing the Nazis — often day by day — for two and a half years.

Stroke’s life story had all the elements of a thriller and, in the discussion that ensued following her presentation, most of those in attendance encouraged her when she said she was thinking about writing a book. The general consensus: It is a story that should be shared.

Beruria Stroke answers questions after the library program on Nov. 2. Photo by Donna Newman

Speaking without notes, Stroke began her narrative in an idyllic-sounding childhood in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Her parents, Julius and Frances Wiener, were intellectuals — people of means — and very well read. She credits her father with the ability to foresee the events of the second World War after reading Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf.”

In 1939 her parents traveled to Palestine, then under British control, and applied for papers for their family to immigrate. As they waited for the papers, they established a plan to leave Yugoslavia. It was a long wait. When transit visas finally came through on April 4, 1941 Beruria, her parents and her younger brother Željko, fled to the east via the famous Orient Express. They only made it as far as Belgrade.

In Belgrade, the train was stopped and all passengers had to find overnight lodgings. They expected to board the train the following morning to continue their journey. But that night, while staying at the apartment of an uncle, young Beruria experienced the horrors of war firsthand. She described hearing sirens at 3 a.m. but then was told it was “just an exercise.” At 6 a.m. there were no sirens — just bombs falling. The next day, after realizing they could no longer go forward, they learned of a train that could take them back to Zagreb. They negotiated the rubble that Belgrade had become, walking past dead bodies in the street. As fate would have it, they missed the train, but were directed to a spot where another train would be forming. They waited there, inside a boxcar. By the time the train left, the boxcar was filled beyond capacity. In Stroke’s mother’s words, “Not a needle could come between one person and another.”

Back in Zagreb, things had changed over night. Jews were made to wear identifying cloth badges bearing the letter Z topped by an accent mark that looked like a V — the letter representing the word for “Jew” in the Croatian language. Heads of families were being arrested and incarcerated. In exchange for their large apartment, Julius Wiener negotiated travel papers and safe transit to a train headed toward the Italian border. Stroke said, “We left in the nick of time. That night the Nazis came [and would have taken us] to a concentration camp.”

Throughout her story Stroke made note of unexpected but lucky moments that allowed her family to survive intact. It was serendipity, she said, that got them through the German occupation — serendipity, and the help of many good people along the way.

After the family made it to Italy, they still had the difficult task of avoiding capture. Stroke told of their journey south along the eastern coast of Italy on bicycles — another of her father’s brilliant ideas — sheltering overnight wherever they could find space, so as not to be outdoors after curfew.

The Wieners were among those liberated by Canadian forces on Oct. 14, 1943 in the city of Campobasso in southern Italy. That event launched the next phase of her young life, which led to her emigration to Palestine in 1945. But that’s another story.

This was only the second time Stroke has shared her story publicly. The first time was this past April at the invitation of Rabbi Joseph Topek of Hillel, a Jewish student organization on the Stony Brook University campus. Israeli premed student Eilona Feder worked with Stroke to facilitate her talk.

Feder is the Israeli-American Council “Mishelanu” (Hebrew for “from ourselves”) intern on campus, tasked with connecting Israeli students as well as offering educational and cultural programs open to all. Feder has been involved in Holocaust education for years, ever since her middle school days in Israel. “I became so involved,” she said, “because my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, and he was never willing to tell me his story.”