On Wednesday, November 28, The Bronx Jewish Historical Initiative, in conjunction with the Bronx Borough President’s office, inducted its 2018 Hall of Fame class. This fourth annual event was held once again at the Bronx Museum of Art. This year, the event was emceed by Michelle “Michal” Divon, Israeli journalist and Bronx TV 12 news anchor.
In his comments, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. thanked the Jewish community for creating such a solid foundation for the borough. “The Jewish community has created a solid foundation so we can be where we are today,” he stated. Diaz thanked the Jewish community for “stepping up big time” to help the people of Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane Maria.
The evening also included a centennial commemoration of WWI and celebrated U.S. Army Sgt. William Shemin’s receiving of the WWI Presidential Medal of Honor. Sgt. Shemin’s daughter Ina accepted the award on her father’s behalf.
Describing her father as a ‘pioneer and rebel’, Shemin explained that her father forged documents to enlist in the army before the age of 21 as he loved this country and believed his family could be safe and prosper.
The Jewish Hall of Fame class of 2018 included the following six individuals:
Michael Speirman, founder, artistic director and principal conductor of the Bronx Opera stated, “We had no idea we would last 52 minutes, less 52 years.” He also revealed his strong Bronx roots and added, “ I am originally from the Grand Concourse and Jerome Avenue near Bedford Park Boulevard, where I was brought home from the hospital, and where I resided ever since.”
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, co-director, Chabad Lubavitch of Riverdale, noted, “27 years ago, people mentioned to me there was no Chabad in Riverdale; there was no Chabad in the Bronx. I wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the community and the Rebbe gave me and my wife Sarah a wonderful blessing to come here to Riverdale, and the Bronx and to reach out to be a home to the Jewish people all over the borough and to bring yiddishkeit, Jewish education, Jewish programs and learning. So the Rebbe gave us a bracha; we did look into many other places but I guess it was meant for us to be here.”
Shemtov just opened a center in South Bronx near the Willis Ave. Bridge. He acknowledged the significance that the induction ceremony coincided on the Jewish calendar with Yud Tet Kislev, a historical day in Chabad history. On that day over 200 years ago, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe was released from prison. Shemtov described Yud Tet Kislev as a day to learn, to celebrate and to “take resolutions what each and every one of us can do to strengthen Judaism in our families and in in our homes.”
Ethan Geto, partner at Geto & de Milly, a top public-relations firm, explained the history of his surname. His great grandfather was named Zhitomirsky. On arrival at Ellis Island, Geto’s family believed an immigration officer changed it to Geto, because it sounded similar. In 1961, as he entered college, his father asked if he wanted to change their surname. He declined as “Geto is our Ellis Island immigrant legacy name and if I would ever change my name, it would be to Zhitomirsky.” Geto has been active on many local and national political campaigns since 1965.
Hon. Betty Weinberg Ellerin, former presiding justice of the New York State Appellate Division, 1st Dept, recalled, “I grew up in a small town in Connecticut where being Jewish made you very different; you had to answer for it.” Ellerin moved to the Bronx when she was 14 and that was liberating as being Jewish no longer made her seem different; she attended a school which was 95 percent Jewish. “The Bronx had an attitude that I can do anything! I can achieve anything.” She added, “My Jewish values did however have a great impact on me in terms of the kind of judge I became.”
Charley Rosen, professional basketball coach and author, recalled the games he played in the park: punchball, stick ball and “tie the little kid to a tree.” Attending Hunter Uptown (Bronx), he played baseball as a “an alternative to studying.” While he did receive a tryout for the New York Yankees, Rosen did not make it to the major leagues; however, he became an author of existential sports novels on baseball and basketball.
Renee Wexler Taylor Bologna, Emmy winning and Oscar nominated writer and actress, grew up on Pelham Parkway. “We thought Pelham Parkway was the East Side,” she said. Wexler’s most identified role was Fran Drescher’s mother on the hit TV series “The Nanny”. She revealed that when she tried out for that role, the producers wanted someone non Jewish to play Fran’s mother. Having seen Wexler in a previous role, Fran wanted her to play her mother and helped her get the part.
The Bronx Jewish Hall of Fame was established by the Bronx Jewish Historical Initiative in 2015. It is intended to honor Jewish individuals from The Bronx in recognition of their Bronx heritage and their lifetime achievement, epitomizing what makes the community great.
By Judy Berger