The ones who wait

Jewish community shares feelings about living in a Christian society
By Lauren Belcher |

In St. Augustine there are more than 100 Christian churches but only three places of worship for a Jew. The local Jewish community is small and mostly comprised of retirees.

Within that community, Jews divide themselves by how they express their faith.

The First Congregation Sons of Israel synagogue has been in St. Augustine for 85 years.

It is a large white concrete building with dark red doors and a giant Star of David surrounded by Hebrew writings. To the right of the doors are the times of worship: Friday night, Saturday and Hebrew school on Sunday.

The building’s stained glass windows appear dulled from a protective seal.

Rabbi Samuel Cywiak, 90, is a short man with white hair. Thin facial hair creeps from below his ears down to a goatee at his chin. He wears a tie and a black coat with a large black hat. Behind his glasses were the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen, but they seemed to be filled with a pain that I did not yet understand.

“I suppose you want to know about me being in the Holocaust,” he said, matter-of-factly. His voice was thick with an accent from Eastern Europe.

I was speechless. I was ready to speak to a local rabbi, not a Holocaust survivor. I recovered. “I’d like to know everything.”

My meeting with Rabbi Mark Goldman was different. We met in a bistro and talked for a few hours.

Goldman, Reform rabbi, helped turn Temple Bet Yam into what it is today.

Goldman wore a button down shirt and a tie with a sweater pulled over it and slacks. He had nothing on top of his head but silver hair.

Goldman’s humor makes him standout around St. Augustine. He gave me a Reader’s Digest version of 4,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman is an adjunct professor at Flagler College, where he teaches Introduction to Judaism, so I should have known I’d be in for a long-winded history lesson.

“We’re not just a religion,” he said. Goldman scribbled a drawing of a pizza on a brown napkin.

“Here’s how I describe it to my students,” he said, while splitting it into several slices. “We define ourselves as a religious civilization. One slice of the pie is the Jewish religion.”

The other slices: the people, Jewish food, music, languages, humor and literature.

“I’m defining a culture in a civilization,” Goldman said. “We’re an ethnicity.”

The several groups of Jews are the Reform, the Conservatives, the Orthodox, the Hasidic Jews and other less common ones.

“Judaism is a meandering stream,” he said. “Wherever we have gone as a minority, we have adopted some of the culture.”

Orthodox Judaism is the original faith. Its members believe in one God and awaiting the Messiah.

The Reform movement is an attempt to modernize Judaism.

“The liberal, progressive branch,” Goldman said. “We’re not waiting for a Messiah. We don’t believe in a Messiah.” The movement began during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment in Europe. Reform Jews analyzed the Torah in a modern way. They also gave rights to women, including ordaining them.

The Conservative movement is the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Members hold most of the same values as Orthodox ones but are relaxed about some traditions.

“The largest group of Jews globally today, albeit we’re a minority in the world and in America, is Reform,” Goldman said. “Because it’s adapted, it reflects the modern world.”

David Cywiak is the Rabbi Samuel Cywiak’s son. He is frustrated with St. Augustine’s lack of Jewish culture.

He is a Latin Sephardic Jew. Despite his Orthodox upbringing, Cywiak describes himself as Conservative.

“The Conservatives don’t recognize the Reform and the Reform don’t recognize the Messianics,” he said. “But, nobody recognizes them.”

According to, Messianic Jews are Jewish-born people who believe that God made a man in his own image, Jesus Christ, and that he was the first coming of the Messiah.

“We believe that the whole of Scripture (the Tanakh, ‘Old Testament,’ and the Greek Texts, ‘New Testament,’ together) is the true, Perfect Word of God,” the Web site said.

It doesn’t mesh well with other Jewish denominations because it practices waiting for the Messiah, and doesn’t believe in two comings of the Messiah.

“The really Orthodox group, they’re so fanatic that they won’t consider anyone else Jewish unless you belong to their group,” Cywiak said. “Those below say ‘you’re Jewish because your mother is Jewish, or because you converted to Judaism.'”

Cywiak explained that Jewish people always separate, unless they’re under attack. “Then, when it’s peace time,” he said, “everyone goes their own way.”

The divisions are based on differences in faith, but intolerance is based on disrespect.

When Cywiak went to the Reform temple, he felt the service was disrespectful. The members were not wearing yamakas and were eating shrimp. They were reading from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, on Fridays instead of Saturdays. In the Jewish faith, Saturdays are reserved for Shabbat, a day of rest and worship.

Both David Cywiak and his father said they’ve never encountered intolerance in St. Augustine, but Rabbi Samuel Cywiak has a different perspective than his son.

Cywiak fears another Holocaust.

“I don’t think that it will stop,” he said. “It’ll happen again. 50 years, 60 years.”

He explained the recipe for a Holocaust; it takes a recession and a person with a big mouth that says “Hey, it’s the Jews fault. They have the money.”

“It’s hard for a Holocaust survivor to have that faith,” he said. But he believes that God will send a Messiah to make a different word. “If he comes with the power of God, people will start changing right away,” he said. “You can not fight God. That’s what they’re going to see. I hope it happens soon.”

Jerry Kass, a retired Marine and Jewish resident of St. Augustine, moved here in 1930 and has lived across the street from Flagler College, which was then a hotel, ever since.

Kass’ house has a large front porch. The mat at the door has a picture of a dustpan and a broom that says Schmootz, and he has a banner nailed into the doorframe that says Shalom.

Kass has salt and pepper colored hair, bright blue eyes and a mustache. The 95-year-old’s wife of 67 years, Rita Kass, passed away six months ago.

“I never imagined that I could miss someone so much,” Kass said.

He spoke fondly of her, laughing as though he had a personal joke he wasn’t sharing.

Kass said shiva, the Jewish term for the seven day period of mourning after someone passes, was beautiful.

The mourner sits shiva while family members cover all reflective glass. Mourners cannot look at their reflections during shiva. They must spend the seven days doing nothing. And they can never be alone. The process is to honor the dead and help those left behind.

“In death, everybody’s the same,” he said. “I didn’t follow some of the traditions, she knew I wouldn’t. I put her in a real pretty dress instead of the white nightgown we’re supposed to use.”

Kass grew up Orthodox but is now Conservative.

“The Reform, they don’t have hardly any Hebrew during their service. And the Orthodox are down on the other side. We’re right down the middle, we have Hebrew and English,” he said. “Now, I don’t want to belong to either one of those.”

Kass only lives for faith.

“I don’t really want to be here anymore,” he said. “I’ve done my time, I couldn’t do any of that stuff now.” Now, Kass sits on his porch, waiting for the Messiah, or for God to take him home.

Brittany Neizlik, 18, a Jewish Flagler College student, used to think of herself as a Messianic Jew but has been convinced by Goldman that she’s a Reform Jew.

“We all believe different things and follow certain customs,” she said. Neizlik sees division in the Jewish community but she doesn’t let it bother her.

After her mother passed away, Neizlik stopped attending services at Temple Bet Yam. She didn’t participate in shiva, or mourn the way the Jewish people wanted her to mourn. She still hasn’t fully mourned her mother’s death, which is the main reason she has avoided the faith.

Rebecca Fischbein, 25, a Jew, moved to St. Augustine from South Carolina less than 10 months ago to be a tutor with AmeriCorps.

She is not happy with what she calls the “Jew situation.” Fischbein was an active Jew in her youth. She attended Hebrew school through eighth grade and is still fond of faith. But, since moving to St. Augustine, Fischbein has stopped nearly all of her traditions.

“There aren’t many Jews here, although there are two synagogues, that doesn’t really make sense,” she said. “I haven’t met another Jew here.”

Fischbein describes herself as a Conservative Jew. She hasn’t found a fit with only three local options and, she admits that she probably won’t find it in St. Augustine.

“I looked at them [the synagogues] and opted not to [attend],” she said. “I’m Conservative, and the Reform one just wouldn’t cut it for me and the Orthodox is very Orthodox.”

Liz Bernstein, 21, comes from a long line of Jewish ancestors. Her great-grandparents helped form the First Congregation synagogue.

She said despite her loyalties to the synagogue, she went to the Reform Temple for her Bat Mitzvah.

“The reason why I did that is because I wanted to have freedom in the service,” she said. “I wanted to be able to do whatever prayers I wanted to and not be held back. At the Conservative synagogue, girls could only do certain things.”

She said many at First Congregation didn’t like her decision. Bernstein said they view Reform Jews as a bunch of rebellious teenagers.

Bernstein went back to First Congregation after her Bat Mitzvah. But she thinks that as the older generation fades out, the Reform will “reign supreme.”

“Those who classify themselves as Reform are pretty much saying, ‘I’m so open-minded and you are not,'” she said. “Well, if you’re going to turn around and say ‘you’re wrong because you’re not open-minded,’ it kind of means you’re not open-minded.”

Rabbi Levi Vogel is an Orthodox Jew that is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which focuses on bringing the Jewish community together. It is a worldwide Hasidic movement that reaches out to nonpracticing Jews and reminds them of their core beliefs.

I met Vogel at his home, which also doubles as a place of worship for his congregation. Walking in, I attempted to shake his hand only to find that he doesn’t do that “out of modesty.”

Vogel has a soft, calm voice. His speech is articulate and he explains things differently than the other Jews I spoke with.

He believes the Jewish separation is superficial and exterior.

“Labels are not for Jews, they’re for shirts,” he said. “What makes a person a Jew is the Jewish soul, which a person gets if he has a Jewish mother.”

He said that the Conservative and Reform movements have lots of issues.

“They came to modify Judaism, and our religion comes from God,” he said. “If it’s divine, you can’t really pick and choose what’s from God and what’s not from God.”

He believes the greatest threat to Jewish faith is assimilation, the losing of Jewish identity.

He focuses on reuniting Jews under Judaism as a whole.

The traditions were started to make the world a dwelling place for God. When everyone comes together, they can await the Messiah together.

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