The Chai Society

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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 establishment of Wagner College’s Holocaust Center whose mission is to educate future generations about prejudice, antisemitism and racism as well as create a space for exhibits, learning, and reflection.

The Chai Society is facilitated through the joint efforts of Wagner College’s Office of Institutional Advancement, the Chai Society Steering Committee, Hillel, and Rabbi Dr. Abraham Unger, assistant professor and director of urban programs at Wagner College.

Make a gift to the Chai Society

Thank you to our 2020 Chai Society Virtual Community Mitzvah Awards Supporters

Ashley Alexander
Angelo Ariamo
Kim & Victor Avis
Dr. Ronald Avis
Susan Bender
Eileen & Alan Bernstein
Elaine & Dennis Bloomfield
Linda & Alan Brill
Ellen & Alan Camhi
Dr. Leonard Ciaccio
Jazzmine Clarke-Glover
Jo-Marie Damato
Marcia & Robert Diamant
John P.  Esser
Peter Falcone
Linda Greenberg
Ruth & Israel Greenwald
Stephen Greenwald
Jerome Grushkin
Carin & Richard Guarasci
Ruth Gutman
David Harris Collection
Linda & David Herschfeld
Michael Howald
JCC of Staten Island
Sharon Kaplan Luchow
Steven Kessler
Jeffrey Kraus
Harold Krater
Debra Kupperberg
Roz Kurland
Ruth & Mike Lasser
Marc D. Lebovitz
Michelle Lee
Orit & Ed Lender
Emma, Susan & Maury Luxemburg
Jack Luxemburg
Jan & Joel Martin
Patrick Mooney
Mark Nemiroff
Allan Poritz
Theresa Reed
Aaron Richman
Karen & Manny Saks
Lois & Chuck Schwartz
Ruta Shah-Gordon
Damian Slattery
Bella Smorgonskaya
Kimberly Spiro
Jennifer & Philip Straniere
Shira Stoll
Nancy & Robert Tricorico
Wagner College DaVinci Society
Sharon Weerth
Jennifer Weile
Frank Weile
Sheila & Barry Weintrob
Fern & David Zagor

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.

View our 2017 award recipients

View photos from the 2017 dinner

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.

View our 2018 award recipients

View photos from the 2018 dinner

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.

UPCOMING EVENTS

Thank you for your interest! Information regarding the 2021 Wagner College Chai Society Community Mitzvah Awards will be posted soon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020 – 7:00 p.m. via Zoom