Celebrating 15 Years Of Community

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By: Hadassah David

Eight years ago, Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, was handed the then current issue of Community. A smile washed over his face as he recognized the young boy in the photograph on the cover. Over the past 15 years Communityhas touched the lives of countless people from all over the world. Every reader seems to have a favorite issue, story or feature. But what about the writers and partners behind the stories? To mark Community’s 15-year anniversary, we pulled back the curtain to reveal what some of our most popular authors and associates consider their most memorable articles and the impact they have witnessed through their association with Community.

Yehuda Azoulayhad the rare privilege to interview Hacham Ovadia Yosef in person for the feature Azoulay wrote about the Hacham called “A Portrait of a Prodigy” just a few short years before the – great sage passed away.

“It is certainly rare when a person of that stature picks up a magazine and reads an article about himself. He  really appreciated it,” Azoulay recalled.  Azoulay later went on to write the landmark biography about the Torah icon of our generation. 

Azoulay’s contribution to Community goes back to the article he wrote for the April 2008 issue, “Celebrating the Giants of Sephardic Jewry.”

“It got much exposure, and gave credit and honor to the Sephardic rabbis. I consider it a major groundbreaker for the public to see this. At the end of the day, it gave us Sephardim some pride. The focus was about the rabbis, the centrality really behind it was essentially to bring Sephardic awareness and Sephardic pride to these rabbis.”

To this day, he still receives comments about these aforementioned articles. “I often hear, ‘Finally, you filled a major void.’ There was a lot of positive feedback. It was refreshing to see that this magazine assisted the community in that way.”

As for the magazine itself, Azoulay asserts, “Community leaves a lasting impression on people. It gives them the sense of wanting to be a part of a greater cause. It connects a true community, an authentic community. It’s an important and indispensable way that we can all be tuned in and have a voice to be heard.” 

For writer Leon Sakkal the most significant development that stemmed from his work with Community is the fantastic relationships he has cultivated with readers.  He describes being approached often by community members – sometimes even strangers – who share how much they've enjoyed a particular article. There have been times he has made new friends as a result of these cold introductions.

One reader, Sakkal relates, told him that he was so inspired after reading The Miracle Mikveh (Vol. XIV No. 1) “He resolved to improve his religious life.” The disclosure left an impression on the young writer. “There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you've helped bring someone closer to his Creator.”

Sakkal says he’s also delighted to have had the opportunity to meet and interview so many special people, including students, laymen, philanthropists, and his personal favorite: the dedicated rabbis of the Sephardic community. 

“Whether questioning students about their time in school, rabbis about their kollels and yeshivot, or the backers of a worthy organization, time and again I find myself witness to the extraordinary care and solidarity of our community,” he adds.

“When covering an event, for example, I am always inspired to find friends and family enjoying each other's company and conversation, despite possessing different levels of religiosity and ideals.”

Sakkal relishes the opportunity to “keep readers informed of the activities and happenings within the community.”

Longtime copy editor David Silverberg describes how he came to the magazine as an outsider, having little knowledge of, or experience with, the Syrian community.  Over the last decade, working in various capacities with the magazine and other individuals and institutions in the community, Silverberg says he has gained great insight about the community and what makes it unique.

“The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the astonishing amount of hesed done in the community,” Silverberg stated. “More precisely, it's not just the amount of hesed, but the culture and mindset of hesed.” 

“From what I've seen over the years with Community Magazine, if you're a Syrian Jew who has enjoyed financial success, it's a given that you are going to donate generously to important charitable causes, and that you are going to build or support worthy institutions. Beyond financial assistance, it's remarkable  – and nothing short of inspiring – to see how much time and effort people give to a wide range of causes.” 

Silverberg says it’s astounding, the effort and emphasis community members place on giving back.  “I have often wondered how much sleep community members get  – between their work or businesses, families, services and programs in the synagogue, bake sales, Chinese auctions, fundraising dinners, semahot, school functions, and so on.”

Of special note for him was the story chronicled four years ago (Vol. XI No. 3) of Ronen Bokovza, a kidney patient that came to New York from Israel, who was warmly embraced by the community, both before and after he received a kidney from Tomer Naphtali. “That story exemplified the ‘family’ quality of the Syrian community, as well as the unique way in which it rises to the challenge when a fellow Jew needs help, showering him with love and support.”

As the community continues to grow, so too do its achievements and successes. “But, inevitably, it must also confront many different challenges.” Silverberg stated.  As our numbers grow, he added, more of the Jewish population will face tragedies and the ills of society, such as addictions, broken homes, disaffected youth, and the “other unfortunate realities that any large community will have to confront in today's era.”

Still, Silverberg asserts, “I believe Community Magazine plays an important role in maintaining the delicate balance between celebrating the community's countless successes, while at the same time drawing much-needed attention to the problems plaguing many families, and to the wonderful individuals and institutions which work to solve them.”

Jack Erdos,a trusted advisor and longtime advertiser in Community has a slightly different take. 

“There are other magazines out there, but this one always seems to have nicer things going on.”

Erdos sees himself as more than just the community – or Community – attorney.  He adds that he also deals with a lot of pro bono matters, is involved in politics, and is a member of the community board. Moreover, Erdos says he endeavors to help our neighborhoods with legal issues, whether it’s immigration, real estate, or elder law. 

“My view is that, I feel that by being engaged with the magazine I get involved in the day-to-day issues of the community, and am around to help out where I can. I’m also connected to the group here because I’m in their world, they see me every day.  My office is right down the block from Community’s main office” Erdos says.

“I feel that this magazine, for 15 years, gets to the heart of what our community has to offer. It’s been there for everyone, besides the religious side. It gets to a lot of the politics, the real community needs; it always tends to be right on point of what’s going on at the moment.”

A prominent advertiser whose name has become a household word, Joey Sasson, says that even advertisers have felt a deep, tangible connection to the magazine and what it stands for.  In Sasson’scase, his involvement developed into something more than just an ad on a page. When he began in the insurance field roughly a decade ago he sought a way to reach out to the community.

“I very much appreciated that I was able to spend my advertising dollars with a magazine that’s not just about how we dress and the kind of sunglasses we’re wearing, but more importantly about growing us as Jews and as human beings,” Sasson stated.

He took particular pride in knowing that his advertising dollars were not only working – given the feedback he received from those in the neighborhood  – but that he indirectly, in his own way, supported the continuation of Rabbi Mansour’s written monthly drashot, and “things that inspire us and continue to bring us back.”

While on the one hand Sasson greatly lauds our places of learning – yeshivot and schools – he points out the danger of underestimating outside influences, “considering that we’re bombarded with media from all around us that truly doesn’t represent our religious and traditional values, I think it’s of tremendous importance that we have a magazine that focuses on the values of the community and our history, primarily our Torah values, our traditions, our mesorah,”  Sasson says.  He also notes that no matter the age group or generation, there’s something for everyone to learn from and enjoy in Community.

Often, he will peruse the magazine to get “a global feeling for what’s going in within the community, and the direction in which the community is going.  I learn, from reading about the different events and even from looking at the advertisements.  I find out about things like a school opening, or a camp being set up,” he says. 

 “The fact that we have a magazine called ‘Community’ sends out a message of how important it is that we have some kind of binding force that brings us together.” 

Kelly Massryhas been a regular contributor since March, 2009.  For nearly seven years she has crafted articles, profiles, stories, and reflections.  She has interviewed wedding planners, personal trainers, real estate agents, private chefs, political activists, and community doctors. 

“I tried to record their vocations, visions, and philosophies as faithfully as I could,” Massry says.    “And in so doing, I gained an exponential amount of knowledge. How fascinating it was!” Massry added that she too has received many kudos from numerous members of the community.

What stands out for her as a writer are the stories that tug at the heart strings.  These included “stories that were poignant and transformative in the telling,” including the five-page expose she wrote years ago about the Forgotten Refugees documentary produced by The David Project. 

It was a heavily-researched article about the cruelty inflicted upon Jewish refugees from Arab countries, post-Holocaust.

“I saw their stories of hasty retreat, and [being subjected to] unimaginable indecency as a cry for help, as a plea to be remembered – and indeed it seemed that the rest of the world had forgotten them. In shedding light on the horror of their experiences, I felt I was providing them the service of commemoration.” 

Another story Massry remembers with fondness and emotion was that of little Rephael Elisha Cohen, a young boy suffering from a rare form of brain cancer. Massry’s article promoted a petition his parents had started encouraging the FDA to approve the use of certain experimental drugs for Rephael Elisha’s treatment. “What a grassroots movement it was!” Massry recalled.  “Volunteers mobilized on the ground, soliciting signature after signature. There was a human interest element to it – I wanted people to care enough about his life in order to save it.” 

The FDA approved the drug, although not in time to save Rephael Elisha. “Still the fact remained we had all come together to rally behind a great cause,” Massry stated. “We made extended efforts to save a life. Writing is elevated to the greatest of heights when it does that.  Our hope is that they helped others after him in similar life threatening situations. Our hope is that our activism did not go to waste.” 

Additionally, Massry has a great sense of pride in a more recent article, “The Hand of Hashem: A 9/11 Survivor Shares his Story.” Community member Sammy Cohen survived 9/11 with the help of one open miracle after another, Massry recalls.  Cohen’s story clarified “the presence of Hashem in this world for me.” 

“Hashem offers divine providence to each one of us if we deign to seek it – even in the most horrific and inescapable of circumstances. For the first time in 14 years, Sammy relived that day for me. He shared his story with bravery and heartrending vulnerability,” Massry recalls. “What a tremendous honor it was to be receiver of that story…  I was privileged enough to write articles on subjects I’m passionate about.”

Massry’s experiences as a writer are many.  She has spoken to a broad range of individuals who have, in their own way, inspired the way we think.  Additionally, Massry also derives a great sense of satisfaction that Community strives to offer something unique.

“[Readers] expect to read stories that will pique their interest, encourage them to see the world anew, make them laugh, and be more spiritual. They ask to be kept abreast of what’s going on – in the community literally, but also in the world,” Massry says.

“Through the magazine they keep up with trends, with seasons, with projects and influential figures. It is a huge responsibility the staff has undertaken – to keep readers coming back [and for the magazine to be] everything that they hoped for.”

Rabbi Daniel Levy,who has been compiling the Top Ten feature for four years, shares a related sentiment. 

[Writing the Top Ten] has enabled me to be able to do extensive research, and interface with rabbinic experts. It gave me the ability to give back to my own community, our community, and honor what they have given to me,” he says. 

On occasion, Rabbi Levy says, he receives input and appreciation from those who have read and enjoyed his insights. What’s more, he’s thrilled that they tell him “they can’t wait for next month’s tidbits of knowledge!”

On one occasion, a college student came up to him, saying how much he was inspired.  “You don’t know who you’re affecting and in what way,” Rabbi Levy commented.

Community has a good message that people should appreciate. A lot of magazines are heavy and negative. Our way is the Torah way,” Rabbi Levy says.  “Positive messages can still be ‘juicy.’ It’s about appreciating the good….” 

Dave Gordon, amonthly contributor since August 2003, has written on the gamut of topics. 

“There have been, of course, the articles about local events, coverage of fascinating happenings, yeshivot achievements, and local heroes like amazing Orthodox kidney donors who stepped up to the plate fearlessly. I have fun, and meet interesting people. I’m also particularly proud of the articles that shed light on important topics, information that I determinedly dug up by my sweat and ambition.”

Some of his work, he adds, has elicited controversy and some of the research he has presented “gave new perspectives on views that people may not have previously thought about.” 

“I clearly remember interviewing people who had seen rock bottom, and somehow, with Gd’s help, managed to climb back up. I heard the gut-wrenching stories of people falling on really hard times, falling through the cracks, and I was glad to add meaning to what happened, by helping others learn from their stories,” he says. 

“I want people to know that these problems exist, and I’m honored to bring them to the fore.  But what I also try to help people find hope, to make a difference, and to find community experts in the field to ask the pertinent question: what can we do about the problem?” 

This was the case with recent articles on the dangers of so-called supplements, and the dangers of hookah (and e-cigarette) use, throwing light on some long-held misconceptions. 

Gordon’s sweat and ambition were particularly evident when he found himself face-to-face with Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Community subsequently printed Gordon’s interviews with candidates McCain and Giuliani.  In his interviews Gordon asked some hard-hitting questions relevant to our particular concerns, such as how the candidates would deal with a nuclear Iran, where or if they would dabble in Israel peace negotiations, and whether they would free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard (Giuliani said yes; McCain answered absolutely never).

Marking Pollard’s 25thyear in prison five years ago, Gordon caught up with hard to reach legal experts and a CIA insider.  Gordon revealed not only the injustice of Pollard’s sentence, but also exposed troubling facts about the government’s case that were largely unreported by the mainstream media.

“There are some other favorites, too, such as the recent cover story about the Nazi hunter. Many people were outraged and frustrated to learn from that expose that Nazis still live and breathe among us. Yes, among us!”

Community Magazine is unafraid to tackle these and other weighty issues that have relevance to our neighborhoods, as well as the Jewish people. The recent tuition crisis piece that has also gotten people talking is another example of this,” Gordon points out. 

  There were also surprises along the way for Gordon himself.

“Interestingly, I was taken aback by my interview with Dr. Ofir Merin. He was the IDF surgeon who led an Israeli team of medics in Haiti just three days after the devastating earthquake in 2011. The lengths they went to help, to aid strangers, in such a circumstance – only our people snap to attention like that. Turns out, I had no idea, he had all kinds of Brooklyn Syrian relatives!” Gordon recalled.

But there was one truly unexpected surprise that Gordon still talks about to this day in fascinated wonder. For an article in honor of Veterans Day, Gordon met up with some local community elders who heroically fought for our freedoms during WWII and the Vietnam War. “These stories were riveting, scary, jaw-dropping, heart-palpitating, and yet I was so inspired by our brethren’s bravery – that they spoke about so humbly,” Gordon recalls. 

“David Zvenia, a WWII vet, a totally cogent, totally mobile, 83-year-old man with a great sense of humor – worked at one of our neighborhood Jewish seniors’ homes. I nearly dropped my tape recorder on the ground when he told me he guarded the loading of Little Boy (the first atomic bomb) onto the Enola Gay air force bomber.”

It just goes to show how much of an impact our community has, and how much of an impact Community has,” says Gordon. “I think that story was very much a metaphor for what the magazine does. Our community is one of influence, one of surprises and our vast and varied stories connect us to each another. When we reach people, we touch their hearts and open their minds; and through these shared experiences, individually and together, we become part of something bigger.”