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.”
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.”