Category Archives: Jewish interest

Borscht Belt staff reminisce about the glory days of Jewish Alps

From left, Marilyn Sommer, Robin Kauffman, Roberta Greenberg, and Nina Scudieri, all worked as counselors at the Homowak Lodge Hotel. Kauffman is the coordinator of the planned May 4 Catskill hotel staff reunion.


In the classic movie “Dirty Dancing,” Jack Weston’s character Max  Kellerman, the owner of the fictional Catskill resort, laments the changes down the road. “[I]t all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. .. It feels like it’s all slipping away.” 

The heyday of the Catskills have ended, but the memories of those resorts remain with those who shared those summers as staff and guests. “This was our Camelot, a place that has vanished but still has a place in the hearts and minds by the thousands whose life were shaped by this shared experienced,” said Patty Beardley Roker.  Roker shared this quote on the website for the upcoming reunion of Catskill staff members, which will be held on May 4, 2019, at  the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, New York, a Catskill hotel dating from 1944.

Roker and others have many a story to share of their time in the Catskills, often called the Borscht Belt. Borscht, a soup associated with immigrants from Eastern Europe, was a colloquialism for Jewish. Famous hotels of the area included The Concord, Grossinger’s, and Kutshers. But there were many smaller resorts and cottages too. 

The popularity of the Catskills starts at the beginning of the 20th century. Like many New York City dwellers before the advent of air conditioning, Jews  looked for places that would provide a respite from the summer heat.  Because of anti-Semitism, particularly in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, such choices were few. Sullivan, Ulster, and nearby counties offered working class Jewish New Yorkers, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, cheap land on which to build farms, bungalows, and hotels. 

One such family were the Brickmans. Soon after emigrating from Russia in 1908, Abraham and Molly realized that New York City, with its tenements, crowded streets, and poor air, was not for them. As Abraham had worked on the farms for the czars, they purchased farm land in South Fallsburg. Soon friends and relatives were coming up to Brickmans to escape the city’s summers, and the farm took on boarders.  The Brickmans’ daughter Anna and her husband Joseph Posner and their sons eventually took over the ownership.

Hotel Brickman had 300 rooms that accommodated over 600 adults and children. Along with adult activities, the hotel had a nursery, a day camp for children, and a teen program.

In 1965, 15-year old Patti Posner Daboosh began working in the resort’s office. When she was 26, she took over running the kitchen, supervising at times over 200 hundred staff members. Patti recalls fondly the diversity of the staff, which included college students and seasonal workers from the Southern states and from Central and South America. 

One evening, Patti walked into the kitchen and realized that one of the kitchen staff was feeding a homeless man. When Patti told the employee that he had to leave, he responded, “When he is finishing eating, I will ask him to leave.” Patti said that that encounter taught her humility. “The compassion this man had for this poor person taught me how to be a better person.”

In 1986, Patti’s father Benjamin, was 72, and Hotel Brickmans like many other Catskill resorts, were dwindling in popularity. The SYDA Foundation, a not-for-profit tied to promoting Sidda Yoga ideas, purchased the resort and converted it into an ashram. Ben had no regrets. “We will make new traditions,” he told his family. Patti reports Ben spent the next 20 years telling stories of his life in the Catskills. Patti eventually went back to college to obtain a degree in sociology, a path connected to the lessons she had learned from working with the diverse Brickman community. Patti now lives in Weaverville, North Carolina.

Mark Silverman, who now lives in Connecticut, also  had deep roots in  theCatskills. His parents, Ben and Elsie Silverman opened up a bungalow colony in Glen Wild in 1947 with Joe Kartin, Ben’s partner in their Flatbush butcher shop. What started as two bungalows in 1947 expanded to 16. Ben and his partner would switch off summers, with one commuting back and forth to Flatbush while the other partner ran the resort and a seasonal meat market.

The bungalows were simple, with a kitchen/living room/dinette, one bedroom, and a screened porch. Entertainment was also low-key—bingo or a movie in the community room, which was called The Casino in the Catskills. Most of the renters came for the entire summer, with the men in the family often commuting on weekends. 

Mark, like Patti, started helping his parents manage the resort as a teenager, keeping up the pool, mowing the lawn, maintaining the bungalows. Even after college, a stint in Vietnam, and his marriage to Diane Weissman, Mark continued to visit during the summers until his parents sold the resort in the 1990s. 

“Spending my summers in the country gave me a great appreciation for the outdoors, farms and woodlands in the area,” said Mark.  “I always knew that I couldn’t spend my life in an office, and this led to my career in agriculture and environmental science.”

Mina and Max Berjansky owned a bungalow colony in Monticello. In 1950, Susan Shapot Greenbaum, her parents, and her sister moved from the Bronx to join her grandparents. During the off-season, everyone shared the only heated home with only one small bathroom. In the summer, Mina and Max moved into the unfinished attic above the small grocery store, and the Shapots crowded into one bedroom and shared the bathroom with tenants. Max maintained the colony while Mina ran the grocery store, the only source of food during the week. Some of the guests shared a kokh-aleyn, the Yiddish name for self-catered bungalows, which was a large dormitory-styled house in which many families had a bedroom, a shared bathroom down the hall and one large shared kitchen, in which each family had its own stove, refrigerator and table. Other families had their own or one side of a two-family bungalow, complete with their own bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Guests usually came up July 4th weekend and stayed through Labor Day. As in other Catskill resorts, the men frequently commuted back and forth to the city while the women and children remained all summer.

Susan said that her parents provided the low-key entertainment, including folk and square dancing, games, and masquerade parties for both the adults and the children. Every summer there was a “mock marriage” in which the tallest, biggest man was dressed as the bride and the smallest woman was dressed as the groom, with the entire wedding party following the “upside down” comedy act.

When New York State built the Route 17 expressway through the middle of their colony, the family moved into a house in Monticello. Later on, Susan tried working as a waitress at the Concord, one the Catskills largest resorts, but lasted only one week. “The regular staff were career people,” she said, “and they resented the college kids taking their tables and tips. I got pushed around often.”  She also spent one summer working as a waitress at Kaplan’s Delicatessen, the most popular eating spot during the summer months.

“Monticello was a great place to grow up—a quiet small town from September through June.” said Susan. “It was a busy, bustling place in July and August, with lots to do between the hotels, bungalow colonies and crowds of people hanging out on Broadway.  And it was always safe.”

Peter Vollweiler, who winters in Sarasota and summers in Upstate New York, saw the Northern Catskills through the eyes of his parents and relatives. The Breezy Hotel in Fleischmanns, Delaware County, one of the great hotels, drew many German Jewish Holocaust survivors, including Peter’s grandparents. Guests and older staff members generally didn’t talk about their war experiences but seeing the tattooed numbers on many arms showed their former plight. 

Peter worked at The Mathes resort during his summer school breaks from 1958 to 1963. He had a variety of occupations: pool boy, grounds “picker upper,” baby sitter, children’s dining room busboy, bellhop and chauffeur. The working hours were long with low pay, but the staff was treated very well. The fine European meals and desserts made it all worthwhile. Working with so many other young people, many themselves also children and grandchildren of survivors, was important to Peter. 

Marty Calderon, an Upstate New Yorker who retired in the Tampa area, worked two summers as a busboy and a waiter at the Pine Lodge near Monticello. Like Brickman’, the Pine Lodge was a mini-version of the larger resorts, “a small cruise ship on the ground.”

Like Peter, Marty remembered the long hours, which often extended from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. For his efforts, he made $75 a week, money which he brought home to his parents in New York City.

Marty enjoyed the camaraderie with fellow staff members, and the food was plentiful—and delicious. For two years, he worked at the resort during Passover.  “Before that experience, everything I had eaten during Pesach was dry and tasteless,” said Marty. “At Pine Hills, it was like a Viennese table at a wedding. I can still taste that sponge cake!

Joel Thaw, who lives in the Orlando area, spent every summer from birth to age 18 in the bungalow colonies. What he remembered the most was the freedom he had as children.  “We left after breakfast and didn’t return until before dinner. Everybody knew everybody, and the parents watched out for each other’s children.” He also worked a concession stand the summer of Woodstock, which took place in nearby Bethel.Joel remembers putting a 16-year-old in charge of the stand while he and a friend drove to the music festival in time to see Jefferson Airplane before driving back.

Chair Robin Kaufman, who vacationed with her parents and later worked at the Homowack Hotel, stated that already close to 100 people signed up. “We are going to make history,” said Robin. “This will probably be the first time that many former Catskill bungalow and hotel staff  will reunite together under one roof.” 

She reports that among those committed to attend are former “tummler extraordinaire” Larry Strickler and MC Mel Simons, as well as some of the musician who accompanied the greats. In addition to the reunion’s evening event, programs are set for the entire weekend. (Strickler will present an interactive program on Saturday afternoon. 

Kaufman by phone at  (401) 487-9646  or by email at rmkauff100@cox.net can provide details.

This article was first published in (Capital Region New York’s) Jewish World on January 24, 2019.

Coincidence? Or could it be b’shert?

Coincidence? Or Could It Be  B’Shert?

In 2012,  Rochelle and Bill Willner, attended services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida. Former members, they were there for the first time in two years to check out the new rabbi. Before the mourner’s kaddish, Rabbi Karen Allen asked if anyone was observing sheloshim, the thirty day period of mourning. A woman whom they didn’t recognize announced that she had recently lost her aunt Yetta Weiner.

Immediately after services ended, Rochelle approached the mourner. “Excuse me,” said Rochelle, “ but Yetta Weiner is MY aunt!”

It didn’t take long for Rochelle and the “stranger” Marilyn Glaser to realize they were second cousins. Yetta was the wife of David Weiner, brother to both Rochelle ’s and Marilyn’s grandmothers.

The coincidences didn’t end there. Both Marilyn and the Willners lived on the same street in Solivita, a fifty-five plus adult community near the synagogue. Rochelle had attended Marilyn’s wedding over forty years earlier when she had gone as her father’s date. Her mother, the originally invited guest, had had surgery. Marilyn didn’t recall meeting her that day, but it was confirmed when the two of them found Rochelle’s picture in Marilyn’s old wedding album. 

Since that night, Marilyn and Rochelle have become  not only cousins but dear friends.  “I speak to Rochelle at least four times a day,” said Marilyn.

How Did This Come About?

What would have happened if Rochelle and Bill hadn’t come that night to check out the rabbi? If the rabbi hadn’t asked for the first time if anyone was in period of mourning? If Marilyn hadn’t announced Yetta’s name? So many coincidences! 

Or where they? According to some Jewish theologians, there is no such thing as coincidences. Hashgacha Pratit , or Divine Providence, is the concept that that G-d is actively involved in each of our lives. American author and inspirational speaker SQuire Bushnell calls it a godwink. “Every so-called coincidence or answered prayer is God’s way of giving you His small, silent, communication,” says Bushnell, “A little wink saying, ‘Hey kid! I’m thinking of you…right now!’

It even has been cited in both historical and scientific context. The German analytical psychologist  Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences—the “acausal connecting principle” that links mind and matter and supersedes cause and effect. 

Rochelle choses to call her reunion, b’shert,  a Jewish expression which means ‘meant to be.’ Whatever it is called, sometimes events align in such a way that it feels like God or some universal force is directing the action. 

I believe strongly that some universal force was at play in our decision to move to the same community in which Marilyn  and the Willners reside.  In December, 2014, Larry and I were staying in a Central Florida resort in Kissimmee. A rainy day prompted a visit to Solivita, and the minute we drove through the gates, I felt that this was the place in which we would retire. After looking at new models, a realtor took us to a resale, and Larry and I fell in love with it. Never spontaneous people, we put a bid on it the day we were to fly home to Upstate New York. 

Although the bid was turned down, Larry and I continued to lean towards buying a home in Solivita. S We had been looking at retirement homes ever since my sister Laura had purchased one in Arizona eight years before. Once we returned home, however, we both wondered if it was the right choice. I was always a “second guesser,” and tended to research every major decision ad nauseam and still rethink and sometimes regret my choices. 

The  day after we came back home, I headed to the library to research all Central Florida retirement options, including  reading back issues of Where to Retire magazines. Usually there were at least ten copies, but on this day there was only one issue on the shelf: the May/June 2014 issue highlighting Kissimmee Florida with a cover picture of a happy couple from—yes—Solivita! Inside, Gabby and Joe Thomas recounted finding the “beautiful” community with the help of Gabby’s mother, who bought a house on an adjacent street. “It was all meant to be,” Joe was quoted as saying about their move.

I brought the magazine home and said to Larry, “This is a sign” By the following June, we had sold our house and moved to Solivita. Coincidentally,  I met Gabby within the  first week when we both attended a Weight Watcher’s meeting. 

Did the Stars Align?

Fortunately, moving to Solivita is one decision in which I never looked back. We love it here. And like Joe Thomas, I feel that it was meant to be-b’shert.

Laurie Criden also felt it was b’shert at work when she met her second husband.  In March, 2008, Laurie was still reeling from the recent loss of her father and the dissolution of her twenty-eight year marriage. Her active involvement in Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York’s large reform synagogue, helped her “keep my balance.” 

While meeting with the rabbi to discuss the shul’s Second Night Passover seder that she was chairing, he asked her how she was doing. Laurie jokingly said, “I guess I’m waiting for something better to come along.” At that exact moment, Mark Criden,  the temple’s executive director ,tapped her on the shoulder to let her know that her meeting was about to begin. Although previous encounters had been “polite hellos,” by the time the two of them entered the meeting room, Mark had invited her to join him at a friend’s for the first night seder. They were married a year later and now share their time between Buffalo and Sarasota, Florida.

Was It Chance?

Julie Thompson Berman shared a story of a day filled with too many coincidences to be just chance. Just before she and her husband Bill moved from Maine to Texas, they decided to visit Endicott College, Julie’s alma mater in Beverly, Massachusetts. As they wandered around the campus, they came across Julie’s old dorm, which had been converted into an administration building. 

As chance would have it (or was it chance?), all the doors in the building were unlocked. They climbed three flights of stairs to Julie’s old dorm room which was now a meeting room. There they met current students, who were thrilled to hear about Julie’s experiences forty years earlier. 

The visit brought back a flood of memories for Julie, and she regretted not keeping up with her three college roommates.  “I wanted to  tell them where I was how I was thinking of them. Unfortunately, I had lost touch and no longer had  their contact information,” Julie said. 

  The Berman’s next stop in their nostalgia tour was The Barnacle,  a restaurant  in nearby Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Julie and Bill had shared many special dinners during their college courtship. While waiting for their table, a woman who was already seated walked across the room and asked, “Are you Julie Thompson?”

When Julie answered yes, the woman hugged her. “I am Cherie, your roommate from Endicott!” Cherie and her husband, who lived across the state, were in Marblehead visiting family. The four of them shared a table talked for two hours after lunch and remain in touch. “I still think about that day and all the things that had to line up to make that reunion happen,” said Julie four years later. 

The three stories above represent just three “b’shert” moments. I would love to hear more from my readers! Please share them with me by emailing me  at shapcomp18@gmail.com

Hope for the New Year Revived by Tale of Lamed Vav

The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day. Jewish mythology

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of world, the beginning of a New Year full of possibilities. In the weeks leading up to our High Holy Days, however, I have encountered many events that make me doubt those possibilities. 

Evidence of climate change impacted our summer travels. In Frisco, Colorado, we watched helicopters dump water and flame retardant on a mountain only six miles from my daughter’s home, one of many wildfires burning throughout the West.  In July, Larry and I traveled with a group on land tours of Norway and Iceland. The first country was magical; the latter was other-worldly; both were beautiful. But Norway, like most of Europe, was experiencing the hottest summer in history, and farmers were facing withering crops and dry pastures for their domestic animals. Meanwhile, Iceland had weeks of record-breaking cold and rain that resulted in rotting crops. 

We returned home to the news filled with stories of corruption and indictments at the highest levels of our government, our mailbox filled with contentious election with ads vilifying good people with lies, and, the television blasting information about the latest mass shooting, this time in Jacksonville, Florida. None of this made me feel hopeful for the coming year. 

In the final scene in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and his neighbors are gathering their meager belongings to leave their “tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka” after they are evicted by the Russian government. Motel the tailor suggests to the rabbi that this would be a good time for the Messiah to come. ”We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.” the rabbi replies. “Meanwhile, let’s start packing.” Yes, I agree with that wise rabbi: we could use a miracle.  

I didn’t get a miracle, but thanks to Laurie Clevenson, editor of the Jewish World, I did get a heartfelt lesson in Jewish mythology that renewed my faith. 

In the book of Genesis in the Tanakh, God concedes to Abraham that He would spare the city of Sodom if the patriarch could find just ten righteous men. We know how that ended: Not even one such man could be found. Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah were destroyed, and Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.

The Biblical passage developed into a Talmudic legend. In every generation, says the sages,  there are thirty-six righteous people upon whose merit the world is kept from entire destruction. The Lamed-Vav tzaddikim, as they are known in Yiddish,  are“humble servants of their fellows,” states an eponymous website, “tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion, and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer.” 

The Righteous Among Us

Abraham desperately sought just ten such people five thousand years ago; in more modern times, the count is raised to the mythical Double Chai; the number 18 (meaning life) times two. These individuals are hidden, so hidden that no one knows who they are,  not even the others of the 36. When one of them dies, another is secretly “crowned,” waiting anonymously, silently, humbly for his or her call to come forward and help repair the world.

I feel we have examples of  Lamed-Vav tzaddikim in our own history. Abraham himself comes from obscurity to become the father of  the Jewish people. Against all odds, David slays Goliath; Judah Maccabee leads a rebellion against those who want us destroyed. The Lamed Vav website also gives examples of women: Ruth, an ancestor to King David, preserved not only Naomi, but future generations by being faithful. Esther, through her selfless bravery, saved her Jewish brethren from from certain destruction. And Deborah, instrumental in delivering Israel from Canaanite bondage, later served as judge. Each of these individuals came from the shadows to keep Judaism alive.

And we have all known such people in our our lifetimes. I have been fortunate to meet what I consider Lamed-Vav tzaddikim through my writing. Claudia “Clyde” Lewis supported and advocated for her sister Andrea, who was born with intellectual disabilities, resulting in Andrea living a life never initially imagined by those who wanted her institutionalized.  Tony Handler, 79-year-old seven time cancer survivor, has served as a beacon of hope for those who are diagnosed with the dread disease. The sole member of his family to survive theHolocaust, Harry Lowenstein immigrated to America to become a successful Florida, businessmen and the person behind the construction of the Kissimmee synagogue. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Lowenstein, “and I was determined to build another one.”

I loved the entire process of writing each one of these stories: interviewing each person; researching background information; writing and re-writing draft after draft to make sure I captured their voice in a story in which they would be proud.More importantly, I loved learning about each of these tzadakim, these people who quietly have made their mark on the world to make it a better place. 

 

Three Leave Positive Legacies

In the past month, I believe we have lost three of the 36. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, not only moved us with her songs and her voice but also was a leader in the civil rights movement. Senator John McCain, the maverick senator from Arizona, was lauded as a war hero, a public servant, and one of America’s great champions. Admired by both sides of the aisle, Senator Charles Schumer stated that his friend was  “never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become so rare.” Hours after McCain’s death, news of Neil Simon’s passing was announced. The Pulitzer prize-winning Jewish playwright had revolutionized Broadway with his funny but biting views of Jewish urban life. Each of them shaped our world with a positive, long-lasting legacy. 

Hope and Mitvahs

In a 2010 Rosh Hashanah article, Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan spoke of “the thirty-six blessed humble souls whose merit keeps society from falling apart,” those individuals whose character and deeds are so exemplary that being around them raises those around them to a higher level.  With billions of people on the planet, she suggests remembering the African saying, “It takes a village.” “If we could develop 36 lamed-vavnik communities,” Rabbi Danan suggested, “we could have the critical mass to tip the balance of human history in a new direction.”

No matter what the number, this beautiful myth offers hope that the morally outstanding individuals can somehow affect the whole world. What can we do? First we need to treat everyone as if he or she is a Lamed Vav, as we never know—despite anyone’s level in life—if that person is a chosen one. Secondly, each of us should strive to be kind, compassion, and a mensch. Maybe one of us is a hidden Lamed Vav Tzadik? And finally, we can each be doing whatever we can to be a positive force in making a difference in the lives of our family, our community, and our world.

Tikkun Olam, my second book, is launched!!

I am thrilled  to announce the release of my second book!

TIKKUN OLAM: STORIES OF REPAIRING AN UNKIND WORLD 

About my book:

Tikkun Olam is a collection of essays that were originally published in the (Capital Region) Jewish World and more recently the (Orlando) Heritage Florida Jewish News. Many reflect my own life: growing up in a very close knit family in a small town on Lake Champlain in Upstate New York, getting married to Larry and raising our children Adam and Julie, spending my career in adult education, and volunteering in my community. Since retiring, I have the opportunity to not only to share my stories but also to capture the heartwarming accounts of others who, through their actions, are helping to make the world a better place. My first book, There Goes My Heart, was published in 2016. Feel free to share your comments  and your stories with me at shapcomp18@me.com.

   From my Amazon page:

“Tikkun Olam is the Hebrew moral principle of “repairing the world,” that every individual should leave the world a better place than he or she found it. Marilyn Cohen Shapiro shares her journey to her “highest self” through thoughtful and often witty writings, which span a lifetime of experiences, from childhood, marriage, motherhood, and retirement. Throughout her journeys, she never loses her unwavering beliefs in truth, kindness, and community service—her insight colored with healthy doses of humor and compassion.”

To order Tikkun Olam:

Samuel Johnson wrote, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” Please ‘complete’ my book by ordering a copy of my book from Amazon in either paperback or Kindle edition, click here. Online reviews are very much appreciated.Tikkun_Olam_Cover_for_Kindle

Synagogue of the Summit Shabbat brings Shapiros solace

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Shabbat in the Rockies with Synagogue of the Summit

My husband Larry and I were enjoying our annual stay in the Colorado Rockies. As we had done many years before, we were hiking, spending time with our family, and taking advantage of all a summer in Summit County has to offer. The world surrounding us, however, was filled with troubling news. Both of us—especially me—needed to find peace and comfort. Fortunately, we were able to find both when we joined Synagogue of the Summit (SOS) for Friday night Shabbat service at Sapphire Point on this past June. 

The overlook sits at 9,500 feet between Keystone and Breckenridge atop of Swan Mountain Road. We placed our potluck snacks onto the waiting tables and set up our lawn chairs in anticipation of the evening service. We joined several SOS congregants for an easy hike along the half mile Old Dillon Reservoir trail, offering spectacular views of the Ten Mile Range and the Continental Divide. 

Barry Skolnick, SOS’s lay leader, began the service shortly after the hikers’ return. I will lift up mine eyes unto mountains from whence shall my help come, Skolnick said, quoting Psalm 121. My help shall come from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Barry swept his arms to point to a perfect blue summer sky etched with the Gore Mountain Range as Lake Dillon Reservoir sparkled below. 

Skolnick’s beautiful voice and the guitar and percussion accompaniment of musicians Ron and Betsy Cytron immediately drew me into the Shabbat service. Some of the melodies and prayers were new, but others were familiar to me from our congregations in Upstate New York and Florida. Board members and congregants were called up to light the Shabbos candles (non-flammable, to conform to the fire ban in the mountains), and take part in readings throughout the service.

Just before the Kiddish, Leah Arnold gave a short dracha—sermon—on Parashat Balak, the Torah portion for the week, The passage from Numbers recounts the story of Balak, the king of Moab, who summons the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way to his mission, Balaam is berated by his donkey (Yes, the donkey talks!), who realizes that an angel of God is blocking their way. Whenever Balaam attempts to pronounce his curses, his mouth instead pours out blessings.

In a moment of pure synchronicity with my own feelings, Arnold reflected that this particular week seemed to be filled with curses raining down on those who were trying to make the world a better place. “The possibility of turning back curses lies not directly with God or magical donkeys or angels,” Arnold shared with me later, “but with us, and our ability to channel the Divine within ourselves by following the prophet Micah’s words: ‘to seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’” 

Her closing poem was a reminder to all that calling out for God to help us do what He wants of us  is more useful and effective than simply cursing our situation. “I meant to curse you.” Arnold said, reading from a poem by Stacey Robinson. “Instead, I called out Your name.”

After the closing prayers, everyone shared challah, wine, and the food attendees had brought. Larry and I were warmly greeted by many members of SOS. One had a daughter and son-in-law moving to Frisco, four blocks from my own daughter’s family. Another sported a shirt from a golf community near us in Florida. His wife and I, both writers, found we had been impacted by a collection of children’s drawings and poems discovered after the Holocaust and captured in the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Another couple owned a condo in the building next to ours. As we made our way back to our car, I told Larry we had found our summer Jewish home in the Rockies.

Over the next few days, I learned more about the congregation through research on the SOS website and conversations with its synagogue board members.

Although Denver has had a significant Jewish presence—over 40,000 in the 1970s—the Jewish population of Summit and adjacent Eagle counties was small. Religious services were held in the Interfaith Chapel at Vail, requiring a ride over Vail Pass. A beautiful drive, but treacherous during the winter months in the Rockies.

Recognizing the need for a Jewish community in Summit County,  Sandy Greenhut of Dillon organized the Summit County Jewish community and formed Synagogue of the Summit in 1990. The first years barely drew enough people for a minyan—the required ten adults over the age of thirteen. Meetings and High Holy Day services, as well as a Sunday School for children, were held in people’s homes for the diminutive but enthusiastic group. 

By the mid-1990’s the population of Summit County grew, as more people discovered life in Colorado. The Jewish population increased. Many purchased second homes or moved permanently to the mountains. “SOS membership now ranges between 120 and 140 families. About half the congregation are permanent residents, while the other half spends two to six months in Summit County,” stated outgoing SOS president Jonathan Knopf.

Jackie Balyeat, the incoming president, is optimistic about the future of the synagogue. “As newer members move into the county, they bring their previous work experiences enabling the congregation to tap into a variety of talents allowing SOS to offer different programming as well.” 

Although the majority of the congregants are retirees, young families are always welcome and SOS has several. The synagogue offers educational programming customized to the age of the children. There have been one or two Bar or Bat mitzvahs each year. 

SOS has no permanent building, a situation supported by the congregation. “This gives the congregation the opportunity to hold services in places all over Summit County,” explained Knopf.  Activities have been held in Breckenridge Library, the Frisco Senior Center and historic chapel, and the Silverthorne Municipal Building. Churches have also opened their doors to SOS, including Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and the Dillon Community Church, where High Holy Day services will be held this September. In August, Skolnick conducted  a Shabbat Morning service at the historic Temple Israel in Leadville.   The building dates back to the 1880’s when Jews were participating in the mining days.  Although it is no longer an active synagogue, it is open for special events like those offered by SOS. 

Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, serves as the congregational rabbi six weekends a year. She also officiates at High Holy Day services, the annual Passover Seder, and special events. Whether run by “Rabbi Ruthie” or lay clergy, whenever possible, services and Torah studies are held at breathtaking outdoor locations throughout Summit County, including Sapphire Point, Keystone Mountain, and Lily Pad Lakes hiking trail. 

Along with spiritual events, SOS offers many social, cultural and outdoor programing.  Upcoming events this summer include potluck dinners, a hike to Shrine Pass near Vail, and a field trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. 

The congregation also is connected to the greater Denver Jewish community. Several members participated in the recent 22nd Annual Leadville Jewish Cemetery Cleanup Weekend sponsored by B’nai Brith. More than eighty people of all ages, are signed up to participate in the congregation’s first Annual Mitzvah Day on July 15th. The congregation will take on four service projects throughout Summit County, including trail clean-up in Breckinridge; landscaping of the Frisco-based safe house for Advocates for Victims of Assault; a path upgrade along Lake Dillon; and repair work at the Silverthorne Blue River Horse Center.

More information about Synagogue of the Summit is available through their website http://www.synagogueofthesummit.org

  

  

Repairing the World

The following is the first essay in my upcoming second book of essays, Tikkun Olam: Living Kind in an Unkind World. Look for it on Amazon soon!

The Shabbat prayer book in our synagogue includes the following meditation: “I harbor within—we all do—a vision of my highest self, a dream of what I could and should become. May I pursue this vision, labor to make real my dream.”

Melting glaciers and rising seas. The threat of nuclear war. The uptick of racist and xenophobic acts. Despite or maybe because of the current state of our world, it is more critical than ever for me to find “my highest self.” I am determined to use my moral compass to point me in a direction that follows my values and helps create change for the better for others.

Until recently, I did not consider myself an activist. I was—admittedly—marginally involved in the Vietnam War protests and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment fight. Although I have voted in almost every local, state, and national election, I have minimally involved myself in campaigning. 

Recent headlines, however, have inspired me to become politically involved in the democratic process. In 2016, I participated in organized phone calls and mailings to support candidates in whom I believed. Two years later, I continue to be an activist. I participate in a grassroots organization to effect change at a local level. I contact my legislators on a regular basis through phone calls, emails, and letters. In addition, I have met with my United States representative, worked on post card campaigns, written postcards to encourage voter participation in recent off-year special elections, and provided financial support to organizations and publications that support my views. Even though these efforts are often met with defeat and disappointment, at least I have made a sincere effort to make a difference. 

In turn, I work to be more accepting of those whose political views differ from mine. I listen more carefully and non-judgmentally without rushing in with my own opinion. I have expanded my reading to include a wider range of media and publications in belief that my knowledge will help me better understand why people think like they do. Such research also gives me insight as to how the country and the world got to where it is today .Maybe—just maybe—if friends and family members talk and share and communicate, we can encourage our government to take a more bi-partisan approach. 

Finally, I strive to be kind. Whether it be coaching a local Special Olympics track and field team with my husband; extending a smile to strangers, or offering a helping hand to those impacted by recent natural disasters, I believe individual acts of goodness can make a difference. “Not all of us can do great things,” Mother Theresa said. “But we can do small things with great love.” 

Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew expression translated often as “repairing the world” is the Jewish moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. This is the vision of my highest self. Through my voice, my writing, and my actions, I hope “to do small things with great love”—to make our country and this world a better place for our own and future generations.

Adapted from “Living My Values, The Jewish World, April 5, 2017

 

Patriot Weissman was POW in World War II

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Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman

Melvin Weissman didn’t have to fight in World War II. 

As a machinist for an essential industry, he needed permission from his company to even enlist. He was first rejected by the army as he had flat feet. But the twenty-two year old was determined to fight for his county.

Undeterred, Melvin, along with several of his friends, tried to enlist in the United States Army Air Corp. This time, he was accepted, flat feet and all. When he said good-bye to his family, Weissman was overcome with emotion. “I knew I would never see my father again,” Weissman later told his daughter Diane Silverman. 

After basic training, Weissman was assigned as a flight engineer flying B-17s with the USAF, 94th Bomb Group, 331st Squadron, out of Bury-St. Edmunds, England.

Worries of a Jewish GI

Weissman had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Nathan and Dora Weissman, Jewish Russian immigrants. He knew that “H” for Hebrew,  Jewish designation on his dog tags could cause a problem if he was captured by the Germans. He requested that his tag be changed to “P” for Protestant, to be worn on each bombing missions. 

Weissman and his fellow soldiers flew ten successful missions over Germany. On his eleventh mission, however, the plane was hit. He and several soldiers jumped out the plane safely; others lost their lives when the plane crashed.

When his parachute brought him into enemy territory, Weissman realized that he had accidentally worn the dog tags with the Jewish designation, the letter  “H.” He quickly tossed them away before a ten year old German boy found the scratched and bruised solider and turned him over to Nazi soldiers.

During his interrogation, Weissman was asked questions in English from a commander. In the same room, behind a screen, was another commander telling the interrogator in German what questions to ask the captured soldier.  Because his parents spoke Yiddish in their house, Weissman understood the Germans and knew the questions ahead of time. To further hide his Jewish identity, he gave his name as “Veismann,” a more German form of his Jewish name.

Weissman was sent to Stalag 17-B, where he remained a prisoner of war from January 11, 1944, to May 3, 1945. While he was in prison camp,  a neighbor of the Weissmans heard a blurb on the radio that Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman had been captured. His father, who was in failing health, said the he would believe this was true only when he heard from his older son.  A letter finally came to their Brooklyn address on April 2, 1944. Nathan Weissman died the next day.  Weissman’s premonition had come true. “My aunts told me he was just waiting to hear that Melvin was ok.” said Diane

In April 1945, as the war was coming to a close, 4,000 of the POWs at Stalag 17-B began an 18-day march of 281 miles to Braunau, Austria. The remaining 900 men were too ill to make the march and were left behind in the hospitals. These men were liberated on May 9, 1945. Those who survived the death march were finally rescued by American troops.

J is for ?

Weissman and his fellow liberated soldiers were shipped home to New York City. While sailing, Weissman was taken ill. When he arrived, he walked down the gang plank where doctors, pulling him aside, put a giant yellow J on his shirt. When he asked how they knew he was Jewish, they laughed. “We don’t know if you’re Jewish,” they said. “But we DO know you are jaundiced.”

Weissman spent three months in a hospital in New Jersey recovering from his imprisonment and subsequent illness. When a rabbi came in to tell Weissman that his father was dead, Weissman said, “I know. My mother and sisters never mentioned him in his letters, but I knew I was saying my last goodbye to him when I left for basic training.” 

Once he was healthy, Weissman returned home and got a job as a machinist for Templet Industries in Brooklyn, New York. He met Sylvia Laskowitz in January 1948. They were married six months later, on June 27, 1948. Their daughter Mona was born fifteen months later, and their second child Diane was born in 1953. 

Diane remembers a happy childhood, marred only by quirks that she attributes to his status as a POW. 

PTSD

“Dad was not a very trusting person except for his wife and two daughters,” said Diane. Although he never spoke about his war experiences while she lived home, Diane remembers hearing her father cry out in his sleep. She often found him sitting on the edge of the bed, covered in sweat. Diane did her best to soothe him, to try to help him move past his nightmares. 

By 2007, Sylvia, his wife of 58 years,  and Mona had both passed away. Weissman had severe heart problems and reoccurring bouts of  post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) As he was no longer able to live alone, Diane and her husband Mark moved him into their home in Clifton Park, New York. More war stories started coming out. Weissman talked about his time in the camp. Conditions may have been difficult for American soldiers, but he spoke sadly of the treatment given to Russian and Polish POW’s. He also recounted his long days on the death march and his rescue. 

By 2010, Alzheimers had set in, and Weissman became very combative, “a tortured soul.” After some violent episodes in which he threatened Diane physically, Diana and Mark made arrangement to move him to Albany Stratton VA Medical Center. Three days before he was to make the move, Diane found her father dissolved in tears. “What is wrong, Daddy?” Diane asked. 

“I killed a man!” sobbed her father. 

“Do you mean in the war? Do you mean you killed a German soldier?” 

“Yes.”

“Daddy, if you didn’t kill him, he would have killed you. And you never would have been married to Mom or had your daughters, your four grandchildren, and the great-grandchild you have on the way.” 

This calmed him. It was also the last coherent conversation Diane had with her father. Hero’s Way, the hospice unit of VA Hospital, provided the care the exhausted and haunted ex-GI needed in his remaining days. Seven weeks later, on September 11, 2011, Melvin Weissman quietly passed away. His great-grandson Judah Benjamin Rome, who was given the Hebrew name Moshe Dov after Melvin and a paternal great-grandfather, was born November 22, 2011.

Noting Veterans’ Efforts

For several years, Congregation Beth Shalom had had a low-key breakfast on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Soon after his father-in-law died, Mark asked Diane if she wanted to honor her father by having them sponsor the breakfast.

Diane agreed, but only on her own terms. The danish and coffee were accompanied by huge plates of Diane’s luchen kugel, homemade quiche, and fresh fruit. Between seventy-five and one hundred members of the congregation and their guests, many themselves veterans,  attended the elaborate brunch for the next six years until the Silvermans moved to Connecticut in 2016.

Diane still has the American flag that was draped on her father’s coffin, and she proudly displays it on the wall of her living room. “I brought it to every Veterans Day brunch, and I proudly display it on the walls of our home,” said Diane. “It is my way of remembering an American Jewish GI, a former prisoner of war, and the best dad in the world!”

Originally published in The [Capital District] Jewish World on May 31, 2018 and the Heritage Florida Jewish News on June 1, 2018