Thursday, March 28, 2019

A Vigil at Hebrew Cemetery

A Vigil at Hebrew Cemetery

At Jewish Newport
Tuesday, March 26,2019
also on facebook

Here are more details about the desecration at the nearby Fall River Hebrew Cemetery.

Initially, I shrugged this off as very bad. Then I learned the the stone of my great-uncle, Israel Pokross, and his second wife Lillie (Goldstein) was defaced. This hit me and members of our extended Pokross hard, especially their grand-children. 

Although this happened a week ago Saturday, and was discovered the next day,  a list of names on the defaced stones did not go online until late Friday afternoon.

Earlier Friday, I called the Fall River Police. An officer in the major crimes unit told me that the stones of Esther (Gabinsky) Pokross, and of Jacob and Sarah (Karnowsky) Pokross were also defaced. Pictures were not available. I proceeded to Fall River. Pictures are at 

A vigil organized by Rabbi Mark Elber of Temple, Jeffrey L Weissman of the Hebrew Cemetery and ADL New England was held Tuesday evening. At least 400 people attended, including Touro Synagogue’s Rabbi Marc Mandel. Four of my cousins and their spouses were there. The vigil was low key and quiet, reflecting the mood of the attendees. Cantor Shoshannah Brown led us in the 23rd Psalm. Watch a short video

My good friend and college roommate, recently retired Fall River attorney Clem Brown and his wife Helen were present. Clem was the town attorney for Swansea, Massachusetts for many years. Clem’s dad, the late James Paul Brown, used to write editorials for the Providence Journal before moving on to the New York Times. The Journal did not like an editorial he wrote saying that it was OK for Martin Luther King to speak out about his opposition to the Vietnam War. 

The Browns lived in Newport for a while, in the large house on Thames Street opposite Bridge Street. Clem’s mother Trudy recounted volunteering in the Thompson Library, where she met Eleanor Davis. She remembered Eleanor!  Later in life the Brown's moved to Camden Maine, Mr. Brown edited Down East magazine. Read more about James Paul Brown

Also present were several people I knew from Temple Israel in Sharon, Massachusetts and at least one other Sharon shul, from Temple Emanuel in Newton, and from Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich, RI.

I created a facebook group for Jewish Fall River to give people a place to share their feelings and their memories. I also wrote on behalf of my family to express our reaction. If I had been a speaker at the vigil, this is what I would have said.

Antisemitism is an abstraction until you are directly affected. The Hebrew Cemetery in Fall River was targeted by antisemites, probably on March 16, 2019. Fifty-nine headstones were either defaced with antisemitic graffiti or toppled over. This included graffiti on three stones of the Pokross family, of Israel and Lillie, of my grandparents Jacob and Sarah (Karnowsky), and of Esther M. (Gabinsky) Pokross, and of Barney Pritzker. They were all immigrants to this country. At least nineteen Pokross family members are buried there. 

The Pokross family settled in Fall River, New York and New Jersey over 100 years ago from Gorodishche, now in Cherkassy Oblast, Ukraine. The Karnowsky/Kaye family from Hnativka, Ukraine, near Kiev, and settled in settled in  Greater Pawtucket, RI. Both are large extended families. The Pritzker family settled in Fall River and NJ.

We are in pain. We feel that we have been personally attacked. Although we hope that we can learn something from this attack, the wound is still raw.

Heinrich Heine said, “First they burn books, then they burn people.”  A headstone is a short book. Ever present in our minds is the Holocaust, when many relatives were murdered, some by bullets, some by gas, and, yes, some by fire. 

If you go today to Hnativka, the Jewish cemetery is a field, rapidly turning into a neighborhood of suburban Kiev. Sometime after the Jewish community, which was 90% of the population, left after a 1921 pogrom, the cemetery was plowed under as were most of the houses.

In the Gorodishche Jewish cemetery, hundreds of fragments of headstones litter the ground. During Soviet times, a road was built over part of the cemetery. 

The damage to the stones reflects the damage to our hearts. Both will be repaired. But both the stones and our hearts will remember.

My grandparents’ grave was one of the defaced stones. My heart was broken before I knew theirs was amongst those defaced with a marker. Now the pain is even deeper. Thank you Fall River police for taking this seriously.” Syrel Dawson, granddaughter of Israel and Lillie

Would you be angry if this happened to your Family? Pokross & Pritzker are my Grandparents family. My Grandmother Anna Pokross Pritzker was born in Fall River. I was named after Esther Pokross.” Judy Wien, great great-grand-daughter of Esther Gabinsky Pokross and great niece of Barney Pritzker, both stones defaced.

I am of mixed feelings whether it would be better to remove the defacing or to leave it as a reminder of this mindless act. Israel [Pokross] was my grandfather.” Jay Leavitt

On behalf of Jay Leavitt, James Leavitt, Lois Kimelman, Judy Wien, Diane Knopf, Susan Stone, Syrel Dawson, Alan Flam and Judy Seminoff, Ellen Semonoff, Karen Pokross, David Fisher, Marcia Haber, Jay Lasky, Sarah Cline, Rebecca Kislak, Josh Posner, Linda Silverstein, Marjorie K. and Remmie Brown, Laura and David Kerstein, Amy Perry and 100s of other Pokross, Pritzker, and Karnowsky family members
with cousins, trying to return to normal

Jewish Fall River Facebook:

list of desecrated stones  #55 last name is Pokross, some are not in alphabetical order.

photos of  at Hebrew Cemetery by Aaron Ginsburg

Photos of defaced Pokross, Karnowsky and Pritzker stones.  

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Messages of Purim

The Messages of Purim
At Touro Synagogue
March 16, 2019
also on facebook

When I arrived at Touro Synagogue on Saturday, March 16, 2019, people were anxiously milling around. Would there be a minyan? Gradually people trickled in, and Congregation Jeshuat Israel co-President Paul Tobak was the tenth man. He took note of the crowd heading to the St Patrick’s Day parade, and thought we should say a special prayer for those who might suffer from their revelries.

When it came time for misheberachs, Dr. Jim Herstoff said a prayer for those who might do something silly.

As Jews we had our own silliness in mind. It was the Shabbat before Purim.  Purim is a silly holiday, with costumes and noise, with shpiel and spirits.

The torah reading was rather dry. The  sacrifices to give after an intentional or unintentional sin were listed. There were different sacrifices depending on the seriousness of the offense and on a person’s financial status. Judaism belongs to all of us, from the grand poobahs to the hoi polloi. From high and mighty to the humble, we transgress, and we expiate.

What was it really about? The sacrifices were a means  of dealing with lapses in our behavior. They helped to get past the offense, and made it possible to move on. Resilience is a human trait that prevents us from getting bogged down. This is also the purpose off yamim noraim...the days of awe, Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, when we symbolically shake off our sins at tashlich, and apologize to the one on high as well as to our fellow man.

An apology serves the same purpose as the sacrifices of yore, to clear the decks and move forward. Did you know that parliamentarians in Canada are not allowed to eat during sessions of parliament? Recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for a transgression. He was caught at parliament munching on a candy bar. Was this intentional or unintentional?  Rabbi Ron Fish of Temple Israel in Sharon Massachusetts pointed out that Trudeau is the son of a prime minister. He knows the rules, and was trying to pull a fast one when he got caught.

As we work out our future relationship with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, moving past the now-concluded court battle is an important step towards reconciliation.

Rabbi Marc Mandel’s sermon was noteworthy for dealing with current events. He warned us that it would be about questions, not answers.

“This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor — The Shabbat to remember. Shabbat Zachor reminds us that Purim is approaching this week (Wednesday night and Thursday).

“One of the themes of Purim is antisemitism.

“In the Book of Esther, Haman was an antisemite and he wanted to eliminate the Jews from the city of Shushan and all of Persia. Haman said to King Achashverosh, “The Jews are a different  nation. They’re not really part of our culture. We don’t need them — let’s get rid of them.”

“Recently here in the United States antisemitism has been an in issue — just a day or two ago a poster of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a New York City subway was defaced.

“The congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, made some comments about America’s support for Israel that sounded antisemitic. She talked about AIPAC’s benjamins and pledging allegiance to Israel.

“Who decides what’s antisemitic and what’s not? Clearly in the book of Esther —Haman was antisemitic and was urging the king to commit violence.

“But the congresswoman from Minnesota wasn’t encouraging violence, she was just asking questions? And she apologized. Haman never apologized.

“It’s very hard to define antisemitism. If you criticize Israel, is that antisemitic? Many Jews criticize Israel — does that make them antisemitic? Can someone be an antisemite if they are Jewish?

“These are difficult questions. Human relationships are complicated. Maybe that's why we drink a little extra on Purim, to recognize that we might not always get it right.

“There are parallels between the holidays and the congregation and its history, starting with Hanukkah. Our synagogue was dedicated on the first day of Hanukkah in 1763. The connection with Purim is that among our original members that we had conversos who had hidden their Judaism. Dr Elie Cohen, who's Yahrzeit is on Purim, was like Mordecai in the Megillah. He never hid his Jewishness [in his native Egypt] and was a proud Jew.”

This was really two sermons in one. Linking the yom tovim to the history of the congregation is a powerful idea and could be a sermon in its own right.

Two sermons for the price of one! I like a bargain.

In his discussion of antisemitism I think Rabbi Mandel was trying to get us to think, and warning us that we should not react in knee jerk fashion to whatever the latest pundit says.

The subject of antisemitism is somewhat of an abstraction until you are directly affected. The Hebrew cemetery in Fall River was targeted by antisemites, probably on Saturday. Fifty-nine headstones were either painted with antisemitic graffiti or pushed over. This included graffiti on three stones of my mother’s Pokross family, of Israel and Lillie, of my grandparents Jacob and Sarah(Karnowsky), and of Esther. Nineteen members of the Pokross family are buried there. The Laskys are also Pokross family members. Both of my mother's parents are part of large extended families. Members of the Fastiff family are also buried there.

Speaking for my Pokross family, we are in pain. I feel like I have been personally attacked. Heinrich Heine said, “First they burn books, then they burn people.”  A headstone is a short book. Ever present in my mind is the Holocaust, when many of my relatives were murdered. Some members of my Kusinitz family were literally burnt to death, in a synagogue in Dolhinov, now in Belarus.

After writing this, I can’t wait for Purim. I need a drink.

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

Thank you to Rabbi Marc Mandel for sharing his words and to Beth Ginsburg Levine for editing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Back to Shul Business

Back to Shul Business
At Touro Synagogue
March 18, 2019
also on facebook

I've met many visitors to Touro Synagogue since I started attending services regularly a few years ago. Many remarked on how welcoming our congregation is. One told me that Touro Synagogue is a place were all Jews can feel comfortable and welcome. 
As some of you know, I am a free lance reporter for the Boston Jewish Advocate, an English language weekly published since 1921. I've been asked to write an article about the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the appeal of the decision in the Congregation Jeshuat Israel vs Congregation Shearith Israel case.

In the course of my communications with the leadership of our Congregation, with our lawyer, Gary P. Naftalis, and with Louis M. Solomon, who is both the lead attorney for Shearith Israel and its Parnas (President), I kept hearing the same thing, and it was about the future, not the past! No one attempted to retry the case. 
CJI co-presidents Louise Ellen and Paul told us, "we are nevertheless confident that our congregation will continue to grow and thrive as it has for more than a century."
As Gary Naftalis put it, "We hope and expect that the Congregation’s right to continue to pray in the historic Touro Synagogue, as it has for over a century, will be respected." 
Louis Solomon said, "...we want to go into what we hope will be a very long and lasting period of harmony and cooperation with the congregation up there for the long betterment of the Touro Synagogue. We want to make sure that it remains an active vibrant house of worship open to all Jews."

Title Extending the olive branch Summary Taft, presidential 
candidate, offering olive branch to Senator Joseph Foraker, 
who opposed many of Roosevelt's policies. "Ohio" on 
platform.Contributor Names Rogers, W. A. (William Allen), 
1854-1931, artist Created / Published [1908?]
After I told Louis M. Solomon (Shearith Israel) that I was a CJI member, he asked me to pass the following message directly to Newport, " Please tell all of your friends we haven’t changed our position. If you remember, the congregation, I assume they told you, that last summer, after we won in the first circuit, we made a trip to Newport. I brought six of our colleagues, seven of us took the trip, to show Congregation Jeshuat Israel the respect that we had for them and to offer an olive branch and to move forward together in a cooperative way. 
CJI wasn’t in a position to do it at the time. They felt they needed to try their last licks at the Supreme Court. It was their right. I thought it was unfortunate but it was their right. So I'm pleased that that is behind us and I really hope that we can reengage in an instructive and harmonious way." 
He reiterated, "We're quite serious about it. It’s time to put this past behind us. There are not only decades but literally a century of harmony…and yes, ups and downs, but basic respect and harmony. Let’s re-achieve that." 
When I said I hoped to meet him ouside of court, he replied, "Agreed! Maybe we’ll be in shul together someday. That would be really nice."

Friday, March 15, 2019

I Bet You Can’t Sing Just One

I Bet You Can’t Sing Just One
At Touro Synagogue
March 9, 2019
also on facebook

On Saturday at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island we celebrated a special occasion. Saul Woythaler finished the recitation of every haftarah, the weekly portion of the prophets. When Saul was done, the congregation sang in delight. Rabbi Marc Mandel filled us in on the history of the haftarah, without his usual call urging us to be better people.

“Saul’s great accomplishment raises an interesting question. Why do recite a haftarah each Shabbat?

“We read from the five books of the Torah. Why must we read from the prophets? Where does this custom come from? What does it mean? There are many different theories on this.

“Some say, the haftarah was introduced to give the people a sense of consolation and comfort. The words of the prophets are comforting. They give people hope. The five books of Moses are not written that way — they don't really give comfort. According to this theory — there was no set haftarah. Depending on what was happening to the community they chose a הפטרה to deal with that situation.

“Another theory is that the haftarah was used as a theme for the rabbi’s sermon. In other words, the haftarah was the introduction to the rabbi’s sermon. Thus the word haftarah. The word פטר means opening — it was the opening of the sermon.

Another theory is that the haftarah was introduced when the Jews were not permitted to read from the torah, during times of persecution. Thus the haftarah is always connected to the parsha to substitute for the missing parsha.

“Another theory is that not every community had a sefer Torah. It's not so easy to have a Torah in a community. It has to be handwritten on special parchment. It's not a simple matter. We live in the twenty-first century — you can buy a Torah online, but that wasn't always the case. So in communities where they didn't have a torah, they read a haftarah instead.

“Rabbinic scholar Reuven Margaliot says that the haftarah was introduced as a response to the Samaritans, a group that did not accept the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem, nor did they embrace the authenticity of the words of the prophets. So they introduced the reading from haftarah with a special emphasis on the reports of Zion and Jerusalem.

“Whatever the reason is, we are here to celebrate with Saul today ashe has completed the entire cycle of haftarahs.

“It took Saul a very long time to complete all the haftarahs, because very often, this time of year, there are special Torah readings that would preempt the regular haftarah, so it had to be a leap year, and it had to be a year when the maftir was not preempted by a special Torah reading.

“We have a special diploma or certificate for Saul - we will give it to him after Shabbat.

“Saul - may you and Susan and family continue to be blessed with good health to continue all the great work you do for our community.

“Shabbat Shalom!”

Saul then led the service as the Shaliach Tzibur with a lilt in his voice as we returned the Torah to the Ark and recited musaf.

At the kiddish, sponsored by the Woythaler family, Saul explained that he had been reciting haftarahs since his bar mitzvah, and a few years ago decided to complete them. He gave tribute to his teachers, Rabbi Theodore Lewis and Rabbi Eli Katz.

Bob Davis continued with the theme of teachers, recalling, “After hearing Saul Woythaler honor the memory of the outstanding Hebrew education that Rabbis Katz and Lewis provided, I thought we should toast Rabbi Mandel for continuing the tradition. I also said that it occurred to me that the Rabbi's most cherished goal as a Rabbi would be to have his students praise his memory in the same fashion as Saul did.”

Rabbi Mandel added, “Saul was a personal inspiration to me to raise the bar higher for increased Torah learning at Touro, and that Rabbi Katz and Rabbi Lewis really did a great job educating this community. I was very touched by Bobby's comments about my role as a rabbi.”

The fun did not stop there. When Rabbi Mandel sang a song he composed for the occasion, he was joined by all (and you can join by singing along with his video), [blog continues below video]

“Saul makes us very happy ( la,la,la, )
He recites the Haftorahs very snappy ( la,la,la, )
He comes to shul every week ( la,la,la,
He probably doesn't get very much sleep ( la,la,la, )”

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

Thank you to Rabbi Mandel and Bob Davis for sharing their words, to Rabbi Mandel for singing and to Beth Ginsburg Levine for editing.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Redemption of Elie Cohen

The Redemption of Elie Cohen

At Touro Synagogue March 2, 2019

also on facebook

On Saturday the Cohen family sponsored a special Kiddush welcoming Marcia back to Newport from her trip to Arizona, in observance of the first yahrzeit of Dr. Elie Cohen, and in participation of Shabbat Across America. Hopefully, Marcia didn’t return for the weather.

I made an extreme effort to go,  gritting my teeth as I drove thru a snowstorm. I expected good food and good vibes and was not disappointed.

National Museum of American Illustration
 Marcia Cohen was there as were her three children and 
National Museum of
American Illustration
National Museum of American Illustration


We had some visitors including Jack and Fern Eiferman from Brookline, Massachusetts. Jack left a brief review entitled “Haimish” on TripAdvisor, “Lovely Shabbat services on a snowy day. I don't usually daven in a shul with a mechitza, but the ability to gaze up and see the sun shining on my wife's punim made for a wonderful morning. People very warm, welcoming and friendly.” I suspect it was wife’s countenance that cast the light.  As an attorney, he is used to writing briefs. Rabbi Mandel has a different training but also is brief.

At Kiddush Jack told us they had visited the Museum of American Illustration, which he enjoyed. He was curious about the mezuzah on the museum door, so I explained that the museum creators, Judy and Laurence Cutler, are Jewish and members of our congregation. In a message he wrote, “Please convey my thanks to your fellow congregants, the Cutlers, who brought warmth to my heart when I saw (and kissed) their mezuzah at the Museum of American Illustration.”

Sometimes a ritual or a ritual object can bring us together in unexpected ways. 

In his words of torah, Rabbi Marc Mandel started with an obscure question about Purim, and soon progressed to the redemptions of Purim, Passover and Elie Cohen,

“Today we blessed the new month. This year on the Jewish calendar it is a leap year and we have an extra month. We have two months of Adar.

“Purim is in on the 14th of Adar. Which Adar? the first Adar or the second Adar? The custom is to observe Purim during the second Adar.

“The question is, ‘Why do we observe Purim in the second Adar?’ Don’t we have a rule,   אין מעבירין על המצוית Ain ma’avirin al hamitzvot “we don't pass up the opportunity to do mitzvot? As soon as we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah we do it - we don’t pass up the chance.

“So why don’t we observe Purim on the 14th of the first Adar? The Talmud teaches us that we want the redemption of Purim to be as close as possible to the redemption of Passover. Passover is in the month following Adar, in Nisan - so if we observe Purim in the fist Adar it would be too far from Nisan because the second Adar would be in the way.

“The two redemptions, the redemption of Purim and the redemption from Egypt on Passover, are related. The two redemptions are connected.

“Purim is the yahrzeit of Dr Elie Cohen. Eli had two redemptions in his life. The first redemption was when he was able to leave Egypt. Elie was at the top of his medical class, but the politics in Egypt at the time made it difficult for Elie to live, so he had his first redemption when he left Egypt.

“His second redemption is when he arrived in the states, met Marcia, and started his family: Today, Elie and Marcia have a great legacy of  Larry and Christine, Audrey and Joe and their children and Renee. What a wonderful legacy!

“So Elie had two redemptions and the redemptions are connected just like Purim and Passover are connected. Elie lived the life of Passover and Purim.

“He was proud of his heritage and he helped people of all faiths to find a better life of health and success in the United States.

“We miss him very much and when we observe Purim and Passover, we will remember the great redemptions of Dr Elie Cohen.”

Rabbi Mandel also mentioned that Elie was the first orthopedic surgeon in Newport, that he was the first to perform many types of orthopedic surgeries here, always strove to be on the cutting edge of medicine, and spent his entire life studying.

At the kiddish rabbi addressed a difficult issue. He read a brief poem,


“I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
The rules of endings did not apply.

Should I feel guilty, sand and upset
That we were permanently separated as the sunset?

Your life was successful and we thought it would always be,
Never imaging that you we would never again see.

You were always there for us when we would call,
Whenever it is was winter, spring, summer or fall.

Goodby Eli - maybe now we can say it.
It’s not what we expected, but we must submit.”

Death is not something that we can schedule. Often we can’t say goodby when a loved one embarks on the final journey.

Good Shabbos from Jewish Newport!

And don’t forget to kiss both your mezuzah and your significant other. It’s all about connecting to each other and to Judaism.

Thanks to Rabbi Mandel and Jack Eiferman for sharing their words, to Judy Goffman Cutler and the National Museum of American Illustration for the photos, and to Beth Levine Ginsburg for editing. The National Museum of American Illustration