The Chai Society
Wagner College, founded in 1883, takes pride in the diversity of its students and its service to the community. Today, Wagner College continues to build on this longstanding commitment by recruiting students from all groups: religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, demographic, and cultural. In 2004, Wagner College established the Chai Society, an organization dedicated to promoting Jewish culture and identity on the Wagner campus and within the surrounding communities with programming. We are proud to also support the Wagner College’s Holocaust Center whose mission is to educate future generations about prejudice, anti-Semitism and racism as well as create a space for exhibits, learning, and reflection.
The mission of the Wagner College Chai Society is to strengthen the ties between Wagner College and the Jewish Community through support of academic studies and co-curricular activities on Judaism, Israel and the Holocaust; to support a vibrant Holocaust Center, Hillel and other programs; and to educate continuing generations on the ramifications of prejudice, anti-Semitism and racism in order to promote openness to all.
The Chai Society is facilitated through the joint efforts of Wagner College’s Office of Institutional Advancement, the Chai Society Steering Committee, Hillel, and Dr. Lori Weintrob, Professor, History Department and Director, Wagner College Holocaust Center.
Thank you to our 2022 Chai Society Virtual Community Mitzvah Award Supporters!
Thank you to our generous 2021 Community Mitzvah Award supporters!
Thank you to our generous Chai Society 2021 Virtual Community Mitzvah Awards supporters:
- Ashley L. Alexander
- Alison Arant
- Ronald Avis
- Kim and Victor Avis
- Daniel Azar
- Sonya Bakshi
- Terry and Stephen Baver
- Susan and Jack Bender
- Eileen and Alan Bernstein
- Elaine and Dennis Bloomfield
- Linda Brill
- Kevin J. Brosnick and family
- Kim M. Calvo
- Jay Chazanoff
- Harvey Cohen
- Joel and Nancy Cohen
- Congregation B’nai Israel
- Joseph Conte
- Harold and Wendy Crater
- Joseph Delaney
- Marilyn De Sario
- Charles DeStefano
- Aletta Diamond and Bob Diamond
- Mary Dujmich
- EG Healthcare
- Ira Einhorn
- Yvette Elgart
- Peter Falcone
- Susan Finkelstein
- Allan Firestone
- Andrew Friedman
- Bette Goldstein
- Ruth and Israel Greenwald
- Stephen Greenwald
- Dr. Esther Grushkin Seminars for Adult Jewish Education SAJE
- Jerome Grushkin
- Carin and Richard Guarasci
- Mr. David H. Gutman
- Ann R. Gutman
- Ruth Gutman
- Joan Herschfeld
- Robin and Rabbi Michael Howald
- Jewish Community Center of Staten Island
- Barbara and Norman Kanter
- Michael Kormanik
- Brian J. Laline
- Efrat LaMandre
- Susan and Ralph J. Lamberti
- Lauren’s Heroes Inc.
- Ronna Lasher
- Ruth and Myron Lasser
- Lisa and Marc D. Lebovitz
- Michelle Lee
- Devorah Lieberman
- Orit and Eduardo Lender
- Sandra Levy
- Elyse Mancher
- Ginny Mantello and Michael Mantello
- Ana Mendez
- Lisa and Patrick Mooney
- Laura and Paul Norden
- Pakistani Civic Association of Staten Island NY Inc.
- Sharon Pekuly
- Janice Rappaport
- Laurie Raps
- Richmond University Medical Center
- Ram Roth
- Linda and Henry Salmon
- Fay Schiff
- Diane Schwartz
- Carmen Sherlock
- Ruth and Arnold Shurkin
- Damian Slattery
- Barbara Smith
- Arlene and David Sorkin
- Arthur Spielman
- Staten Island Giving Circle
- Staten Island Performing Provider System LLC
- Shira Stoll
- Elaine Sussman
- Rabbanit Bonita and Rabbi Gerald Sussman
- Javaid Syed
- Nancy and Robert Tricorico
- Terry Troia
- Sharon Weerth
- Frank and Staci Weile
- Jennifer Weile
- Will Weinstein
- Sheila and Barry Weintrob
- Bobby Weissglass
- Fern Zagor and David Zagor
- Stanley Zlotnick
Chai Society Community Mitzvah Awards
The Chai Society is proud to continue in its support of Wagner College’s Holocaust Center and its mission to educate future generations about prejudice, anti-Semitism and racism as well as create a space for exhibits, learning and reflection.
David Sorkin, Monroe J. Klein ’66 Humanitarian Award
David Sorkin is the Executive Director of the Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center of Staten Island, one of Staten Island’s premier Social Service/ Recreational/ Educational and Cultural institutions serving over 40 thousand participants at over 30 locations. He has been in this position since January 2007. He has proudly worked at seven JCC’s across the United States and his career in the not-for profit sector has spanned over forty-four years.
He is currently the President of the Association of Jewish Community Center Professionals, Chair of the Business Council of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation and past chair and current board member of the Staten Island Not for Profit Association. He also services on the SI Tackling Youth Substance Steering Committee, chairs the Coalition of Organizations Active in Disaster and was appointed by Governor Cuomo as the Co-Chair of the NYS Rising Steering Committee.
Congressman Max Rose, Civic Leadership Award
An army veteran and former non-profit healthcare executive, Congressman Max Rose proudly serves New York’s 11th Congressional District, representing Staten Island and South Brooklyn. Upon being sworn in, Congressman Rose pledged to fight for Staten Island and South Brooklyn and focus on the transportation needs of his district, fighting the opioid epidemic, and rooting out corruption in Washington.
Congressman Rose currently serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security working to ensure our city and country are properly prepared to defend against any threats, while bringing fresh ideas and perspective to the Committee’s work. As a proud veteran of the U.S. Army, Congressman Rose also serves on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Serving in Afghanistan, and now as a member of the National Guard, Max has seen firsthand how our service members and veterans struggle when they return home and how steps must be taken to improve veterans’ healthcare and make sure they can seamlessly access the benefits they earned. As the only combat veteran with experience in the healthcare sector, Max brings a unique background to these critical discussions.
Max served as an active duty officer in Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Combat Infantry Badge. Congressman Rose is Ranger-qualified and continues to serve in the National Guard and is the first post-9/11 combat veteran to represent New York City.
Imam Dr. Tahir Kukiqi, Spirit of Change Award
Imam Dr. Tahir Kukiqi, has been an active leader and volunteer with several community faith based organizations on Staten Island and throughout New York City for the past 15 years. He is the Vice President of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, which was founded in 1991. The Cultural Center serves the religious and educational needs of Staten Island’s Muslim community and promotes understanding and friendly relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Imam Kukiqi serves as a preacher to the Islamic community and performs various religious services. He is the author of numerous books focused on the Islamic faith and is an Islamic studies teacher for the Miraj Islamic School in Tompkinsville. Imam Kukiqi served as Chaplin for Muslim students at Wagner College from 2011-2014.
He is a member of the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders Interfaith Advisory Clergy Group and a member of the Board of Directors for the Bernikow Jewish Community Center of Staten Island; The Mission of the Immaculate Virgin – Catholic Charities; Project Hospitality; The Virtual Enterprises International; the Cross Road Foundation; the Christopher Whitehouse Foundation; the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation and the Board of Directors of the University of Notre Dame Alumni Club of Staten Island.
Bea Victor, Courage Award
Bea Victor is the embodiment of the word “doer” – standing up for those who can’t for themselves and inspiring the community to make changes when she noticed a need. Bea’s childhood dream was to become a nurse and she fulfilled that dream, serving as a nurse in the U.S. Navy, taking care of soldiers during World War II. She joined the Navy because she wanted to do something to help the servicemen. She said, “As a Jew, I learned how our people were being slaughtered and I wanted to anything that I could to help overthrow those who were persecuting my people.” After completing her tour, she worked as a private duty nurse in numerous hospitals and several private practices.
Bea joined the JCC when she moved to Staten Island. Bea’s involvement at the “J” spans from being a Cub Scout leader to later helping develop their SeniorNet, a computer instruction class for adults. Bea was also instrumental in helping open one of the first group homes on the Island for individuals with developmental disabilities Bea has been recognized for her community involvement with a “Woman of Achievement” award from the Staten Island Advance and the senior Olympics that she brought to the Island is now affectionately known as “Beatrice Victor Senior Olympics” in her honor.
Ruth Kupperberg ’20, Next Generation Award
Ruth Kupperberg just completed her junior year at Wagner College. She is a Theatre Performance Major and a Holocaust and Human Rights Minor. Ruth will be the first student at Wagner to hold the honor of graduating with this minor. She is currently is the President of the Wagner College Hillel. Since becoming president in 2018, she has worked with other students on campus to expand the club’s membership, programming and overall outreach. As a Hillel Peer Engagement Intern, her goal has been to build relationships on campus to strengthen Wagner’s vibrant and meaningful Jewish community.
Ruth also has been a vital member and intern for the Wagner College Holocaust Center. In 2018, she starred in the Holocaust Center’s play, “In The Light of One Another,” which shed light on actual testimonies of Staten Island Holocaust survivors. Her participation in Holocaust education at Wagner inspired Ruth to visit a concentration camp last summer while studying vocal performance in Dresden, Germany. This experience rounded out her knowledge and sentiments towards the subject.
Rabbi Avraham Hakohen “Romi” Cohn, zt”l
Courage Award (posthumously)
Avraham Romi Cohn was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on March 10, 1929. When he was only 10 years old, his hometown was invaded by Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism against the Jews escalated. By 1942, when mass deportations of Jews from Slovakia began, Romi crossed the border into Hungary illegally to study at a yeshiva. At age 15, he returned to Bratislava with forged Christian identity papers and joined the underground. He was able to help find housing and support over 50 Jewish families in hiding. He worked with a janitor in Gestapo headquarters to authenticate documents. Exposed for carrying false documents, Romi was arrested. After a daring escape, he joined the partisans. He used his connections to forge a German military travel order, identifying him as a Nazi officer and allowing him to ride in a train of SS officers to the border. As one of the few Jews in his unit of Slovakian partisans, he had to hide his identity. His brigade drove the Germans back and captured, interrogated and executed SS officers. When Hungary was liberated, Romi returned home and was reunited with his father and two sisters, Sara and Hanna. Tragically, his mother, Emilia; two sisters, Deborah and Hindi and two brothers, David and Yaakov, were killed.
After moving to Brooklyn, Romi married Malvine Geldzahler, a survivor from Antwerp-Belgium in 1949. He became a rabbi and also worked as a real estate developer. Notably, he built 3,500 homes on Staten Island. Romi found another avocation as a mohel, performing over 30,000 circumcisions on newborns and adults, free of charge and trained over 100 mohels.
Concerned about rising Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, Romi co-authored a book with Prof. Leonard Ciaccio in 2001 based on his tragic life experiences, titled The Youngest Partisan: A Young Boy Who Fought the Nazis. He recently wrote a second book on his mentor, The Ribnitzer Rebbe.
He had been a good friend and supporter of the Wagner College Chai Society. Rabbi Cohn’s gift of his Gestapo “travel order” (false I.D. card) was the first donation to the Wagner College Holocaust Center. In 2015, he spoke at and frequently lit candles at our Kristallnacht and Yom ha’Shoah events. He was very proud of how Wagner students memorized his testimony and captured his experiences in the play Young Holocaust Heroes, which has been seen by over 2,000 students in New York and New Jersey.
Rabbi Cohn received an honorary doctorate from Wagner College in 2016. Rabbi Cohn’s message to the next generation was to have courage to stand up to anti-Semitism on the street or in the community. “…this could happen in a civilized country, overnight…Within 6 months, propaganda turned the population completely.”
On January 29, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Congressman Max Rose asked Rabbi Cohn to deliver the opening prayer before the United States House of Representatives.
Last year, the Wagner College Chai Society selected Romi to be the recipient of the Courage Award at the 2020 Chai Society Community Mitzvah Awards. Romi had graciously agreed to accept the award and said that he was honored to have been selected. Sadly, Romi passed away on March 24, 2020 at the age of 91, from complications from COVID-19. The Wagner College Chai Society was grateful to call Romi a friend; may his memory be a blessing.
Charles DeStefano – Monroe J. Klein ‘66 Humanitarian Award
Charles DeStefano is a trial attorney who has maintained a private practice in Sunnyside representing injured persons for 31 years. He was born in Brooklyn and moved to Staten Island in 1973. He is a graduate of Monsignor Farrell High School, Fordham University (BA) and Pace School of Law (Juris Doctor).
He currently serves as Law Chair of the Democratic Party of Richmond County, Chair of the Mayor’s Committee on City Marshals and President-Elect of the Staten Island Trial Lawyers Association.
Charles has happily committed himself to Staten Island Community Affairs, including as a member of the Board of Directors of the Richmond County Bar, La Colmena (immigrant support organization), Integrated Community Facilities (assisting the disabled with permanent living management), the Jacques Marchais Tibetan Museum of Art, the Staten Island Interfaith Community Days, the Latino Attorneys Association and the NYC Comptroller’s “Red Tape Commission” (improving conditions for small businesses.) He is the founder of the Staten Island Trial Lawyers Association Student Internship Program which mentors high school and college students interested in careers in law.
Charles is most proud of his wife, Ana, and their two sons, Joseph and Matteo. His family has served as “elves” to his “Santa” each Christmas to provide toys and clothing to the children of Mount Carmel Church. This past year was Charles’ 23rd year doing so.
Charles most recently accepted the honor of serving as a member of the Wagner College Holocaust Center Advisory Committee. His son, Joseph, age 13, has been active in Holocaust studies and he purchased and donated five artifacts, including three letters from prisoners of Dachau and Mauthausen. Joseph also created a “Google Class” to educate his eighth grade classmates about the Holocaust.
Charles is deeply honored to be a recipient of the Monroe J. Klein ‘66 Humanitarian Award. He noted that Rabbi Romi Cohn, who is being honored posthumously, was an inspiration to him and personal hero.
Marc D. Lebovitz ‘91 – Allan Weissglass Civic Leadership Award
Marc D. Lebovitz is President of Romark Logistics and oversees all strategic and daily operations of the family business. Founded in 1954, Romark Logistics has grown organically and through strategic acquisitions into one of the top third-party logistics and cold chain providers in North America servicing some of the leading food, beverage, pharmaceutical, and retail customers around the world. Romark owns and operates over 8 million square feet of warehouse space with locations in NJ, PA, TX, GA and CA.
Marc also serves as a Principal of Woodmont Industrial Partners, which owns and manages a portfolio of more than 3 million square feet of industrial properties. Woodmont Industrial Partner investments focus on globally oriented seaport and inland port markets in the Eastern United States. Marc is actively involved in various associations and groups within the supply chain and logistics industry.
Marc is a supporter of the Chai Society and also played a critical role in the expansion of the Wagner College Holocaust Center. He participated in awarding honorary degrees to Nobel-Prize winning author Elie Wiesel in 2014 and Jewish partisan Rabbi Romi Cohn in 2016. In 2017, he was instrumental in arranging for the WC Holocaust Center to receive a $50,000.00 grant from the Leonard B. Kahn Foundation to enhance Jewish life in New Jersey. With this support, over 2,000 youth and community members were immersed in an original play In the Light of One Another (now called Young Holocaust Heroes), that mourned and celebrated six Holocaust survivors, with original music in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. As an active member of Congregation B’nai Israel-Somerset Hills Jewish Center in New Jersey, Marc arranged for his synagogue to host the play.
Since 2010, Marc has served on the Wagner College Board of Trustees and has contributed many ideas as well as support which has enhanced the lives of Wagner students. He donated a state-of-the-art scoreboard for Wagner’s football stadium, which is also used by lacrosse and soccer teams, to help strengthen our athletic programs and game experience. Marc graduated from Wagner College in 1991 with a BS in Business Management. An offensive lineman, Marc was also a special teams’ player on the 1987 squad. Marc and his wife Amy have four children: Zachary, Emily, Jeremy and Natalie.
Bella Smorgonskaya – Spirit of Change Award
Bella Smorgonskaya is a resident of Staten Island. She started her career at the JCC of Staten Island in 2008 where she taught English as a Second Language for the Adult Education Department. Bella then became the Russian Outreach Coordinator through a UJA Federation Grant to bring Russian Culture to the JCC to engage and educate the Russian community on the Center’s programs and services. Bella was also a big part of the JCC’s Center for Lifelong Development (CLLD) program from its inception. As the Cultural Arts Coordinator she put her heart and soul into every program, event and trip and continues to meet the needs of the senior population. Bella gives everyone social, intellectual and emotional connections that enhance their lives. She is loved by all participants.
Bella is currently the Director of Cultural Arts bringing various programs to enlighten the Staten Island Community. She is committed to highlighting Jewish Culture through Dr. Esther Grushkin Seminars for Adult Jewish Education (SAJE) lectures, films and concerts. Her passion for cultural programs is evident in all the details of her work.
Bella spends her personal time with her loving family and enjoys music, theater and traveling abroad. She is a wife to Benjamin and a devoted mother/grandmother to Katie and her grandsons Michael and Ethan.
Emma Luxemburg ‘22 – Next Generation Award
Emma Luxemburg is a rising Junior at Wagner College from South Windsor, CT with a major in Theatre Performance and minor in Government and Politics. She is deeply engaged in Jewish life on campus.
From a young age, Emma has been an active member of her local Jewish community and grew up in a household where Judaism was a pillar of identity. In high school, Emma became the president of her synagogue’s USY chapter and worked with JTConnect, a community program for Jewish high school students in Greater Hartford, CT. As part of Ramah Israel Seminar, Emma toured Poland and Israel the summer before her senior year of high school. She grappled with the devastation of the Holocaust at Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau and visited once-active centers of Polish Jewish life like Krakow.
The Wagner College Holocaust Center has been a great platform to continue Emma’s passion for Holocaust education. As an intern for two years, she has helped educate over 500 Staten Island students through various school visits. Additionally, Emma is especially grateful for the experiences she has had with survivors Brenda Perelman, Shirley Gottesman and second-generation survivor Manny Saks. Meeting so many Holocaust survivors on Staten Island has inspired Emma, more than ever, to ensure our society never forgets.
Next year, Emma will be the President of the Wagner College Hillel after two years on the board. Emma has been dedicated to Hillel since becoming Vice-President her freshman year. She has worked closely with Hillel president, Ruth Kupperberg ‘20 to expand club membership, provide exciting programming, and improve outreach. Through her time at Hillel, she has built lasting friendships with her peers and connections, as well as with our Staten Island Chabad partners Mushkie and Yossi Katzman. With more students than ever active in Hillel on campus, Emma plans to continue her work to engage with the Wagner Jewish community.
This summer she will be studying in Dresden, Germany at the highly selective Orfeo Vocal Arts Academy (dependent on COVID-19 restrictions). Emma is also a Lead Student Ambassador and tour guide through the Wagner College Admission Office, Class Representative for Completely Student Productions and a recipient of the WC Founder’s Academic Theatre Scholarship. After graduating, Emma plans to pursue a career in the Theatre industry whether it be as a performer, educator, casting director, or wherever her passions may lead her.
The Courage Award celebrates an inspirational individual who personifies strength and resilience in overcoming adversity and prejudice and is a role model to others.
Arthur Spielman was born in December 1928, in Krakow, Poland. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family with his father, Simon, mother, Czarna, and two sisters, Helen and Barbara. Arthur’s neighborhood in Kazimierz, Krakow was primarily Jewish. In 1939, the Nazi flag was raised at the Wawel castle marking a German victory, the invasion of Poland, and the beginning of World War II. The Germans declared Krakow as the designated capital of the General government. Hans Frank was appointed Governor-General and established his headquarters in the Wawel Castle, former home to Poland’s royalty. The Nazi officials wished to remove Jews from the rest of the Polish society. After December 1939, Jews living in ghettos were required to wear identifying badges or armbands and a decree was issued requiring them to perform forced labor for the German Reich. Arthur, a young boy at the time, remembers being afraid to walk in the streets in fear of deportation.
Although his family was not required to move into the Krakow ghetto due to his father’s status as an international diplomat, the Spielman family chose to move to live closer to their extended family. Within the Krakow ghetto, Arthur lived in a single apartment with his parents, sisters, and grandparents. In 1942, the Gestapo entered the ghetto and took Spielman’s grandparents. Arthur never saw them again. Many of Arthur’s relatives were brutally murdered in the ghetto. Due to the escalating violence, Spielman’s father moved the family to a secluded house outside of the ghetto. Soon after, the Spielman family was given a tip that life was going to get much worse in Krakow, so they left.
Arthur’s father paid a man to take him and his sister Helen out of the ghetto into Slovakia and then Hungary, where they were placed in different orphanages. Later, his parents and youngest sister, Barbara, also fled to Hungary, where they reunited while visiting him in the orphanage. Arthur’s father received word that the Nazis would be liquidating the orphanages, so he sent a Polish officer to release Arthur and his sister Helen. The officer approached Arthur and told him, “Follow me. Don’t talk, don’t say anything, just follow me.” His parents had papers as Christians, so he went to a Polish ministerial and said he was Roman Catholic to get his papers using the name of Nieczkowski in order to receive them. From Budapest, they went to Miskolc, another city in Hungary, and lived there as Gentiles for about a year.
In April 1944, the Nazis marched into Hungary. Arthur recalled, “Everything was happening very fast. We had some Jewish friends. We warned them to do something, go into hiding or run away. A lot of them did not believe the stories we were telling them about what happened in Poland, they didn’t think what happened to the Polish Jews would happen to them. We saw people walking carrying their belongings. We ourselves went into hiding. We were afraid, so we didn’t go out of the house. For a couple of weeks, every morning at like 10 o’clock in the morning sirens blew and there were planes over the city bombing the factory.”
He recalled hiding out, only leaving when his mother sent him to the marketplace. Arthur said, “We lived across from a marketplace which was huge. They mistook the town market for an army camp and dropped the bombs on the town market and a lot of people were killed.”
“Towards the end of the war before the Russians came in, we were hiding in the wine cellars, most people were hiding in wine cellars in Miskolc. There were bombs going back and forth. We didn’t have much food then. I was standing in line at a bakery…a bomb hit and a few people got killed next to me. I slid into a basement, I don’t know how I wound up there and I was saved by just a scratch. We stayed in the wine cellar for about six weeks, from October until we were liberated. We slept between barrels, big barrels with thousands of liters of wine. A lot of times we had no water to drink [so] we drank fresh wine. My mother cooked on a little furnace, gas stove, whatever she could make, soup blette, vegetables, fruit, meat, fish occasionally. We were very lucky in the city of Miskolc. We were hearing news from other people and propaganda papers. While we were in the wine cellar we heard cannons, shooting, then it quieted down…a few hours later first patrol, then half an hour later Russian soldiers on horses, then trucks and boogies filled with soldiers. They were coming by the thousands and then we realized we were liberated.” Arthur and his family left the cellar and returned to their apartment a few days later. He recalled his Hungarian neighbors were shocked when they found out Arthur’s family was Jewish. “A little later me and my father went to Krakow to Poland, by train. We walked part of the way over the mountains, went to see if there were any survivors.” Tragically only two out of 300 family members survived. Arthur and his family lived for three years in Displaced Persons camps outside of Munich and immigrated to the United States in May 1949.
Arthur continues to share his story in hopes of preserving the significance of the Holocaust, encouraging meaningful conversations, and teaching respect and appreciation to younger generations. He has spoken at Susan E. Wagner High School, Port Richmond High School, Lavelle Prep Charter School, P.S. 19, Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island, Ben Porat Yosef in New Jersey, and at a 3GNY Descendants of Holocaust Survivors event. His message for the younger generation is simple – “never forget.”
Monroe J. Klein ’66 Humanitarian Award
The Monroe J. Klein ’66 Humanitarian Award is given in memory of the Wagner alumnus, businessman and veteran, and recognizes an individual who exemplifies the same spirit of “loving kindness,” Gemilut Chassadim and generosity.
Born in old Staten Island Hospital on May 25, 1929, Joel Cohen is a lifelong Staten Islander. The only child of Shirley and Irving Cohen, he (along with Ron Avis, among others) attended a two-room public schoolhouse through grade 3-B, then P.S. 16, Curtis High School and Wagner College. He then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, before serving for three years in the U.S. Army.
Upon discharge, he worked successively as a reporter for a trade newspaper, speechwriter for the Secretary of State of New York State, and publicist for the news division of ABC-TV. Joel then became a full-time freelance writer, publishing some 35 books, most for young readers, with or about prominent sports figures, as well as biographies of Norman Rockwell, Bill Cosby and a Holocaust survivor. He fulfilled a variety of assignments, including three years writing a weekly family-humor column for the Staten Island Advance and articles or essays in Parents magazine, TV Guide, the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun. Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald and magazines of Brown University and Smith College.
For three year recently, he wrote a weekly column for the online San Diego Jewish World. Some columns were on serious subjects, such as learning he and Anne Frank were born less than three weeks apart, and the implication thereof…but most were spoofs of former President Trump. Recently Cohen compiled about 30 of those columns in a book titled, “Mostly Mishegas (craziness)…How Trump Tried to Make My People Greater than Ever.” via, among other means, gefilte fish and Borsht Belt humor.
Joel and his wife, Nancy (who met at the Jewish Community Center of S.I, where he later served as President) have four children: Ann, Harvey, Alan and Ivan; and have one grandson, Adam; as well as two daughters-in-law and one son-in-law. One couple lives on the Island of Kauai in Hawaii; the others in Manhattan. Nancy and Joel now live in Bay Terrace and are members of Congregation B’nai Israel, and the Staten Island Giving Circle.
Dr. Ginny Mantello
Allan Weissglass Civic Leadership Award
The Allan Weissglass Civic Leadership Award recognizes an individual committed to Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” through their persistent efforts to make our community stronger and more just. This award is given in memory of Allan Weissglass, a business and community leader who served on boards of hospitals, art museums and Jewish institutions.
Dr. Ginny Mantello, is the Director of Health Wellness, Office of Staten Island Borough President, Attending Neuroradiologist, at Montefiore Medical Center and Main Line Health System, PA, Current and Past Co-Chair of multiple large initiatives and Coalitions including, Staten Island Asthma Coalition, Staten Island Child Wellness Initiative, SI Medical Ecosystem for Disaster Preparedness.
Dr. Mantello works very closely with public health focused agencies like SIPCW (Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness) and the Staten Island Performing Provider System (SI PPS) working on emerging public health needs, Medicaid Health reform and Population Health improvement projects. She also works closely with the two hospitals and five Federally Qualified Health Centers and 10 skilled nursing facilities along with over 75 Health Care, Government and community based partners on Staten Island.
Her focus is upstream primary prevention and early intervention in the youth, with emphasis on Asthma, Obesity and Behavioral Health. In the past she has worked closely with schools on implementing Wellness Councils and prevention programs and with the community on promoting preventive screenings and Healthy Lifestyle programs.
Over the past year she has dedicated a large part of her time leading a COVID Incident Command System team and local Emergency Operations Center to help our community during the Covid-19 pandemic. She is currently involved and focused on vaccine roll out on Staten Island, particularly focusing on the vulnerable populations including seniors and those with Developmental Disabilities. Dr. Mantello has received numerous awards for community service including the DaVinci Society’s Renaissance award, the Carnation Award for improving the Health and wellbeing of Staten Islanders through the Richmond County Medical Society, women of distinction award through the Staten Island Borough based council, the Leadership and community service award offered by Community Health Action of Staten Island and the YMCA Community service award to name a few. Dr. Ginny was also one of few recently named on the City and State Staten Island Health hero list for her work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reverend Dr. Terry Troia
Allan Weissglass Civic Leadership Award
The Allan Weissglass Civic Leadership Award recognizes an individual committed to Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” through their persistent efforts to make our community stronger and more just. This award is given in memory of Allan Weissglass, a business and community leader who served on boards of hospitals, art museums and Jewish institutions.
Reverend Dr. Terry Troia, is President and CEO of Project Hospitality, an interfaith effort providing emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing & services to hungry and homeless New Yorkers, where she has worked for the last 35 years. She is also the minister of the Reformed Church of Huguenot Park in Staten Island.
The Reverend is actively involved in racial, economic and social justice work related to health, housing and educational equity, LGBT inclusion, immigrants’ rights and the right to shelter. Troia serves by appointment to the Governor’s Clergy Council, the Mayor’s Clergy Advisory Council, the NYC HIV Health and Human Services Planning Council, the NYPD Training Advisory Committee, the NYPD SI Borough Command Immigrant Task Force, The Richmond County District Attorney Hate Crimes Task Force, the NYC Council Gun Violence Task Force, the New York State Interfaith Immigration Network, the NYC Supportive Housing Task Force.
She serves on the board of directors of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, Homeless Services United, El Centro del Inmigrante, New World Prep Charter School, and Coordinated Behavioral Health. Locally she serves as President of The Staten Island Long Term Recovery Organization and is chair of the Staten Island Tackling Youth Substance Abuse Initiative and serves on the executive committees of the Staten Island Immigrants Council, Communities United for Respect and Trust, Staten Islanders Against Anti-Semitism, the Staten Island Inter-Religious Leadership, Staten Island Council of Churches, Staten Island Family Health Care Coalition, New Brighton Coalition of Concerned Citizens and the Port Richmond Civic Association.
Efrat LaMandre, FNP-C
Spirit of Change Award
The Spirit of Change Award honors a leader with visionary and innovative approaches to transforming the lives of others in the most profound ways and motivating and mobilizing others for a common purpose.
Efrat LaMandre is a Family Nurse Practitioner that owns and operates her own Family Medical practice, EG Healthcare. Her practice includes Pediatrics, Primary care, Women’s Health/GYN, and Mental Health services. Recently, she added a holistic branch to the practice which offers Integrative Medicine treatments as well as vitamin infusions. The practice also prides itself in being LGBTQ friendly and collaborates with a practitioner that provides transgender health care. The practice consistently meets and exceeds industry standards and has achieved the honor of PCMH status indicating excellence in patient care.
In addition to her practice, Efrat is the President-elect of the Nurse Practitioner Association New York State Board. The mission of The Nurse Practitioner Association New York State is to promote and support the highest standards of healthcare throughout New York State; through education, advocacy, leadership and fostering the empowerment of the nurse practitioner professional practice.
She is also the Vice-Chairman of the Staten Island University Hospital Foundation Board of Trustees. The mission of the foundation is to achieve philanthropic relationships for support and endowment, providing highest quality care, services and state of the art equipment. It helps improve the hospital’s healthcare, quality of life and better serve the patients and their families throughout our community. She is the only NP to sit on this board.
Recently, the College of Staten Island Athletic Department also asked her to be on their medical team. Her practice now serves as the primary care provider for the athletes of the school.
In addition, she is a Clinical Faculty member at Wagner College. She lectures on several topics including Healthcare Finance and Policy. Her practice also provides medical exams and clearances for every nursing student in the college in all undergraduate and graduate programs.
Efrat is married to Gina LaMandre who is a Physician Assistant and a Professor at Monmouth University. Together they raise three children and four cats. In addition, to helping humans, they spend their time and resources helping animal rescues.
Bethany Friedman ’21
Next Generation Award
The Next Generation Award recognizes a student, devoted to Jewish life and to Holocaust education, who performs mitzvot, “good deeds,” and stands up for others.
Bethany Friedman ’21 is a senior at Wagner College from Manalapan, New Jersey. She is a Philosophy major and English minor pursuing law. Bethany is currently the president of Hillel and the founder of Shir Levav (Sing from the Heart).
Three years ago, she met Auschwitz survivor Hannah Steiner as an incoming freshman at Wagner College. Hannah is brave, smart, personable, and beautiful. Even in Auschwitz, Hannah kept her spirits up by sharing recipes with those around her. In a course that paired Holocaust Studies and Acting, Bethany had the privilege to pick a monologue from Hannah to perform for her classmates, with guidance from Professors Theresa McCarthy and Lori Weintrob. She was ecstatic when she found out that she would be reading her monologues in an original play, Rise Up: Young Holocaust Heroes. It was an honor for Bethany to recall Hannah’s hope and tragedies in her own words.
Bethany will never forget the day she met her and got to talk with Hannah Steiner. She found out about Hannah’s love story with her husband, Abraham, how proud Hannah was of her children and grandchildren, how much she loved elephants, she got to see all of her family pictures. Bethany and Hannah talked to each other for hours and Hannah looked so happy.
After her experience interacting with Hannah, Bethany wanted to continue to see her, because she truly cared for her. This is when Bethany started to think about the other survivors she studied or met. Bethany then formulated the idea of an organization where students of Wagner College could use the arts to make Holocaust Survivors and others of that generation smile. Shir Levav means Sing from the Heart in Hebrew. With support from the Wagner College Holocaust Center and Chai Society, Bethany and Dr. Weintrob took action. Shir Levav sang and connected with survivors starting in 2019 and in 2020-2021, even virtually during quarantine. Bethany believes that the arts give people the opportunity to connect with others in a universal way. It is amazing to see that Holocaust survivors have the same favorite songs as members of Shir Levav or love the same meals. Through Shir Levav students learn about their heroes in a way which truly connects them – through music.
In addition to Shir Levav and Hillel, Bethany was Professor Mickey Tennenbaum’s assistant director for the second production of “Rise Up: Holocaust Heroes”, which premiered at the St. George Theatre in 2019 for hundreds of young students. She has also been a Holocaust Center Intern since her freshman year at Wagner College.
Bethany is the president of the Pre-Law Society and a member of Omicron Delta Kappa. She volunteers for the CLARO Group on Staten Island. And during the fall she offered free LSAT tutoring to the students of Wagner College (LSATurday).
Dr. Victor and Kim Avis
L’Chaim Exceptional Leadership Award
Victor Avis is a third-generation philanthropist, community activist, humanitarian, innovator and dentist in the Staten Island community. He is passionate about our community, to the point where he can’t imagine moving anywhere else. He loves the small-town community feel that Staten Island exudes; the tolerance with which the various ethnic and religious sects treat each other, and the effort that is being spent on bringing them closer is of particular interest to Avis. Victor went to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for his undergraduate degree and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for his dental degree. Victor and Kim met in college, and are married with three children. Kim gives her effort and time to many projects which raise funds for charities and organizations which serve many people and causes, and also works with Victor in his office. The Avis family has been very involved with the JCC and Wagner College for many years. Just this year, Victor and Kim stepped back from their roles as the Chai Society Co-Chairs, although they still remain active members of the steering committee.
Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon
Allan Weissglass Civic Leadership Award
District Attorney Michael E. McMahon took office in 2016, working to build a modern prosecutor’s office focused on precision prosecution, neighborhood-centered crime prevention, and bridge-building between law enforcement and the community. Utilizing his broad and deep experience in law and public service, DA McMahon has addressed the issues most affecting Staten Islanders: From the opioid epidemic to traditional street crime and gun violence; from domestic violence to economic crime; from crimes against our children to assaults on women and seniors, and creating a new unit to protect animals, DA McMahon continues to work with partners across law enforcement and the community to drive down crime numbers and keep Staten Islanders safer.
Growing up in Záluz, Czechoslovakia, Shirley Gottesman (b.May 6, 1927) lived on a farm and enjoyed Purim and other holidays with her grandparents Malka and Zalman Berger, her parents Laizer and Blima and siblings. During the war, she moved to nearby Munkacs to train to be a seamstress like her mother. In April 1944, Shirley’s entire family was forced to move to the ghetto. Worse, they were then packed into a cattle car for three days to Auschwitz. Just 17 years old, Shirley was assigned to Kanada, an area near crematoria IV where clothing was sorted that belonged to those Jews who were killed. When she found her mother’s shoe among the belongings of those Jews sent to the gas chambers, she knew the Nazis had murdered her. She sometimes found extra bread or sardines. Shirley was an eyewitness to the October 1944 uprising in Auschwitz. Shirley married and came to the U.S. in 1949. Lester born in 1952. Lori born in 1957. Her experiences have been published as Red Polka-Dotted Dress: A Memoir of Kanada II. The photo Shirley holds shows her brother Moshe and two aunts who survived. Her other siblings Fiaga, Ester and Rifka were killed in Auschwitz.
In 1934, 14-year-old Margot Wolf (b. October 10, 1920) was denied the honor to be the valedictorian of her grade school in Rülzheim, Germany under the Nazi Regime. Despite laws that barred Jews from the movie theaters, one neighbor allowed Margot to sneak in to see films starring her favorite actress Shirley Temple. Margot became an eyewitness to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, barely fleeing the local synagogue in time. Fearing for her safety, Margot’s mother sent her at age 18 to England. She spent a year there before coming to the United States as a refugee. Margot’s brother Paul built a new life in Sweden, but her parents were killed. As a refugee, she began a new life and married Eric Capell, a World War II U.S. veteran whose family had fled Germany too. In October 2021, Margot turned 101 years old.
Hannah (born 11/29/1925) grew up in the city of Oradea, Romania, where she helped her mother Helen with sewing and played the violin. In 1941, after the Hungarian police took away Helen’s license, they moved to Budapest, Hungary. There, Hannah fell in love at 15-years old with Abraham Steiner, whom she met at a dance. Abraham was taken to a labor camp when the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944. Hannah credits her mother’s love for her survival after their deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. To distract from acute hunger, “we were cooking…verbally. We cooked! We said: my mother did this and you did this.” Tragically, they were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where Helen died of typhus in Hannah’s arms after liberation. Weighing 62 pounds, Hannah was taken to Sweden to recuperate. She was reunited in Israel with Abraham after seven years of separation. They got married August 22, 1950 and remained together for 60 years. Her first son Michael was born in Israel in 1951. Four years later, Jake was born 1955. After living in Israel (Holon), they sought better employment opportunities. They moved to San Paulo to be with her brother Julius Abraham, who was also an Auschwitz survivor and had moved to Brazil. After a few years, they moved to Brooklyn where their daughter Helene was born in 1963. Hannah continued to work as a seamstress and Abraham worked as a jeweler. They were among the early members of Young Israel of Canarsie. In 2000, they moved to Staten Island where she participated in Cafe Europa at the Alan and Joan Bernikow Staten Island Jewish Community Center. Initially hesitant to share her story, Hannah took tremendous pride in speaking with the Wagner College Holocaust Center to students in public schools. She later spoke at several yeshivas as well. She developed meaningful relationships with Wagner College students who heard her tragic story. She received many meaningful notes from students of all ages. Her life was reenacted on the stage in the production of Rise Up: Young Holocaust Heroes (St. George Theater, 2019) and featured in the NY-Emmy winning series Where Life Leads You. Hannah has seven grandchildren (Adam, Craig, Eric, Daniella, Rebecca, Natani and Mark) and nine great-grandchildren.
Gregg Breinberg, M’98 P.S. 22 Chorus
Spirit of Change Award
The PS22 Chorus of Staten Island, directed by Gregg Breinberg, is the Webby Award-winning internet choral sensation ft. 65 public school fifth graders. PS22 Chorus was formed in the year 2000 – an ever-changing group of 5th graders from a public elementary school in Staten Island, New York. PS22 is NOT a school for the arts,. and the chorus is not a magnet program. PS22 Chorus simply features ordinary children achieving extraordinary accomplishments. Indeed, the PS22 Chorus videos have garnered hundreds of millions of views across YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. The group has been featured on Nightline, Oprah, The View, Sesame Street, The Today Show, and perhaps most notably the 2011 Academy Awards! The kids have sung with Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, Leslie Odom Jr., Tori Amos, and a host of other phenomenal artists. The mission of the multicultural group is to model harmony, both musically and otherwise, and to serve as a reminder that through hard work, anything is possible!
Elisabeth Pollicove ’22
Next Generation Award
Elisabeth Pollicove is a psychology and biology student whose passion for learning has no limits. As a member Wagner College’s graduating 2022 class, her past four years have been filled with lessons of academics, friendship, and leadership. Her love of Judaism has led her to Wagner’s Hillel and Chai Society. She is currently planning on attending an accelerate nursing program post-graduation, and will miss Wagner greatly.