Each year the Jewish Ledger chooses a few select “Movers & Shakers” from around the Jewish community who have made a difference over the past year. Here are the Ledger’s 2014 picks!
Dave Ratner calls himself the owner and CIO (Chief Instigating Officer) of his company, Dave’s Soda and Pet City.
Ratner started Dave’s Soda City in 1975, selling all different kinds of soda out of an abandoned gas station in Hadley. “About three years later, I was in a supermarket, and noticed that they had more pet food than soda. I thought, ‘Hey, what a great idea for a store!’”
Today, Dave’s Soda and Pet City has grown into a chain of seven stores with more than 100 employees, selling “every brand of pet food known to man and all kinds of nonalcoholic beverages and waters, pet supplies, fish, small animals, birds and reptiles.” This includes Dave’s Naturally Healthy Pet Foods, a line of top-quality, healthy pet food at lower prices. Dave’s Pet Food is sold in more than 2,000 independent pet stores across the country and has also been seen on the Home Shopping Network.
“Dave is very creative from a marketing standpoint,” said his cousin, Rick Ratner. “He seems to be able to come up with an idea that has legs and works, whether it’s starting off in the soda business and then getting into the pet food business, which is a pretty dramatic change. He was able to do it and do it successfully.”
Lauded for his great business sense, Ratner is a strong spokesman for the small business person. He has testified twice in front of the U.S. Senate and Congress about small business matters, was elected to the board of directors of the National Retail Federation for a three-year term, was the 2009 recipient of the National Retail Federation Silver Award and in 2012 was also inducted into the Massachusetts Retail Association’s Hall of Fame. Besides running his business, he also travels around the country leading seminars for small business owners, sharing his tips for success.
In the Jewish community, Ratner is a longtime member of the Temple Beth El board. He was the temple’s financial secretary and now is a vice president on the board of trustees, along with his cousin, Rick, who is treasurer. “His business sense has proven to be an asset to Beth El,” Rick Ratner said. “He has given good guidance.”
But it is his sense of humor that is one of his most outstanding characteristics. “He has a goofy sense of humor which drives our respective wives crazy,” Rick said. “He is a riot.”
Rhoda Peskin, executive director of the temple agreed. “He has a great sense of humor. We often have him do emceeing because he is a great speaker and a terrific guy.”
Ratner is also the author of the book, Customer Love: Make Your Customers Love You So Much They’ll Never Go Anyplace Else, is the star of his own TV show on pet care on ABC40, and is host of the radio show “Minding Your Business with Dave, The Wiz of Biz” which is broadcast throughout the greater Springfield area.
“Mel Cutler has always kept the Worcester Jewish community at the forefront of his philanthropy. He has and continues to make a difference in the quality of Jewish life here and in Israel,” says Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
The Worcester area businessman lives in Florida now, but Cutler’s commitment to his hometown as well as to Jewish community interests – local, national and international – remains vital.
He started his design-build construction company, Cutler Associates, in 1972, and a second business in financial advising, Cutler Capital Management LLC, in 2003. In addition, he is a founder of Flagship Bank and Madison Banc Shares.
The Melvin S. Cutler Charitable Foundation (MSCCF) has, for years, reflected Cutler’s deep belief in giving – and giving significantly. He makes the final decision about all allocations, drawing on information from the active members of his foundation’s board of trustees, including his son, Doug, daughter, Liz, and granddaughter, Kelly.
“It is Mel’s foundation and it is his mission that he tries to achieve that we as trustees try to support with our input, research and analysis of projects,” says trustee and advisor Robert Adler.
Cutler is, notes Adler, notoriously modest, and the Foundation does not seek publicity. That said, it has for years quietly and generously supported the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, the Worcester Jewish Community Center, and Clark University’s Holocaust Studies program.
Its recent establishment of an endowment for the Young Emissaries Program in Central Massachusetts with a gift of $300,000 followed long-term support of the SNEC program’s annual Shabbaton, hosted by Clark University’s Hillel. Gifts have also gone to the Jewish National Fund and the Anti-Defamation League as well as many other Jewish organizations.
In Israel, Cutler has supported a range of programs in Afula, Worcester’s sister city and the region from where young Israeli emissaries journey every year to spend time in southern New England. Some of the grant recipients include Emek Hospital, the Tarbut art program and a rape crisis program supported by Haifa Rape Crisis Center’s Valleys project.
At home in Worcester, says Rob Adler, the foundation’s “local community projects in large part support programs that assist certain populations achieve economic advancement; for example, a financial literacy program in a women’s shelter or halfway house.”
To that end, the MSCCF has given grants to Quinsigamond Community College, the local arts community through ARTS Worcester and a business education program for artists, and the Veterans’ Shelter. In addition, support has gone to UMass Memorial Medical School. A 2010 grant supports the independent research or young investigators and, in 2013, Cutler endowed a chair in his name and that of his late wife, Sandy, at UMass Memorial Medical School.
Linda Horvitz Post
“As far back as I can remember, the quiet one, doodling in the margins of my notebooks while I was supposed to be listening and taking notes, drawing portraits of my friends and classmates,” recalls Linda Horvitz Post, founder and executive director of the Northampton Paradise City Arts Festival, which just celebrated its 20th year.
Post and her husband, Geoffrey, founded the festival after spending 20 years participating in high-quality craft fairs around the country, selling the wares of the fine craft business they started after college.
“We were quite successful, but after 20 years we were ready to move on to something else. We had always fantasized about how we could improve on many of the existing shows, and decided it was time to try it ourselves,” she said. “Northampton, our hometown, was just starting to gain standing as an arts-centric city and the Paradise City Arts Festival could continue to build on that reputation and help increase Northampton’s viability as a travel destination. Since we had so many friends and connections in both the art and craft worlds, we were able to put together a great-looking first-year fair. And it was successful the very first year, much to our delight and surprise!”
Paradise City now takes place biannually – on Memorial Day and Columbus Day Weekends. Nearly 275 nationally juried artists exhibit and sell their work at the festival each weekend. Paradise City currently produces two additional shows a year in the Boston area in Marlborough.
A native of Fall River, Post received her BA from the University of Rochester. “My major was psychology (which has actually been very helpful in both my art and at Paradise City!) and I minored in studio art. After graduating, I studied printmaking for a year at Rochester Institute of Technology.”
Post, who works in pastels and monotypes, had her first solo show in 1984 at the Mary Ryan Gallery in New York City, which was reviewed by the New York Times. Since then, her art has been featured in American Art Collector; the Gettysburg Review; Epoch Magazine; the Great Goddess Calendar series; Poets/Artists Magazine; Preview Magazine; The Boston Globe; and American Artist Magazine. Her work has been collected by the Boston Public Library, the Mead Art Museum of Amherst College, Reader’s Digest and the City of Northampton, among others.
She was one of the first artists to exhibit at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton.
“When I moved to the Valley in 1979 and opened R. Michelson Galleries, Linda Post was one of the first artists I sought out,” said owner Rich Michelson. “I was stirred by the mystery of her work— its psychological explorations of human connections. It has been a source of pride to see Linda’s reputation grow and her art gain wide recognition as she became a pillar of the Northampton art scene. Yet beyond that, she and her husband Geoffrey decided to share their love of all things creative. The Paradise City Arts Festival provides a forum and community for other artists and craftspeople. We all owe Linda a debt of gratitude for her long standing contributions to Northampton’s vitality.”
Susan and Bill Firestone
When Susan Weiss Firestone sold her family’s West Springfield business, Plastic Packaging Corp., in April to Placon Corporation, she says she knew it was the right time to sell and the right time to give back to the Jewish community.
Already generous contributors to Jewish institutions locally and nationally, Susan and her husband Bill Firestone established the new William and Susan Firestone Family Donor Advised Fund with the Jewish Endowment Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., contributing $500,000 to the fund. They also made a $200,000 contribution to the Franklin & Ruth Weiss Family Charitable Fund.
“I actually felt the need to express my gratitude immediately concurrent with the closing…I couldn’t sell the company and not make an immediate gift, out of gratitude for the opportunities that I have been given and understanding that your resources aren’t really entirely yours,” she said. “We all have different gifts we’re given from God and some people are more financially successful than others, but whatever you have it is not all yours, whether you have a little or whether you have a lot. I think it is a commitment to tzedakah, in terms of the tzedek – the justice part of it – that is very important to me and Bill.”
Susan has long been a committed member of the Jewish community. She is the current president of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and serves on various local and national boards, including the Jewish Federations of North America, United Israel Appeal (UIA) and the International Board of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. She is a member of the JFNA Israel and Overseas Committee as well as the JFNA Global Planning Table. Locally, she is vice president of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Mass., where she chaired the PACE/LOJE program. She also serves as a vice president of Temple Beth El in Springfield and is a past board member of Heritage Academy, of which her children are graduates. She is a past member of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet and is a recipient of the Philip E. Saks Young Leadership award.
Bill Firestone is the founder and CEO of Capital Recovery Group, LLC, a global industrial auction firm specializing in complex manufacturing facilities. He serves the local community by conducting pro bono charity auctions (which to date have raised over $5,000,000), is active on the Jimmy Fund Council, and is a former board member of the Springfield Jewish Community Center, the Hebrew Free Loan Association and the national board of Synagogue 3000.
“Giving tzedakah is a very important part of our lives. Bill and I are very committed to the community and to tzedakah and that came from my family – from my parents,” she explained. “So, it was very clear to me from my parents that everything you have isn’t really yours and your life isn’t just about you. So it is just natural that supporting the community is something that Bill and I have always done.”
If you go to minyan at Temple Beth El in Springfield, you will nearly always find Dr. Paul Farkas (and his wife Esta) there. President of the temple since 2012, he and Esta had only joined TBE in 2010 after graduating from the Florence Melton School. Paul was asked to join the board, then asked to serve as an officer, and then was called on to be president.
“They immediately and enthusiastically immersed themselves into life at Temple Beth El,” said Rhoda Peskin, executive director of TBE. “I can’t think of anyone more deserving. For our congregation, he is a Mover & Shaker, 100 percent. Everything he does, he just throws his whole heart and soul into.”
Once joining TBE, Farkas quickly joined the centennial planning committee. He and Esta generously underwrote the Simchat Torah celebration that kicked off the centennial year. He is now spearheading the effort to possibly renovate the synagogue’s sanctuary.
“He is extremely smart and very well-organized. I think mostly, he has brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to what he has done here,” said Peskin, who added that he likes to be hands-on. Farkas even had Peskin teach him how to program the heat in the building in case there was a problem and Peskin wasn’t around. He can be seen watering the plants at the entrance of the temple, fixing a leaky toilet and even laying down some rock salt if the sidewalk is icy.
“He takes a real proprietary interest in everything that goes on here at the temple. As president he has his finger on the pulse.”
“Paul is a fabulous president,” agreed Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz. “He is visionary, organized, easy to work with, and very genuine.”
His greatest trait may be that he is a real mensch.
“Relationships are the essence of Paul’s leadership style,” Rabbi Katz said. “He cares about all our congregants and finds ways to express his care and concern.”
“More than anything, he has helped in our quest to be a warm, welcoming, friendly community here,” Peskin said. “Not that it wasn’t warm before, but he has really helped us to foster and grow that warm friendly feeling. I think if you talked to anybody who is a member here who has any interaction with him at all, they would say he is really easy to talk to, very approachable, even-tempered. It isn’t easy to get Paul Farkas flustered,” she laughed.
His wife concurred. “[His patients] stop me and tell me all the time how much they love him,” Esta said. “And people love working with him, whether at the hospital or office. They ask me, ‘Is he this nice at home too?’”
Professionally, Farkas is a gastroenterologist in Springfield and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Baystate Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center, where he is chief of gastroenterology, treasurer of the medical staff and a member of the executive board. His honors include fellowships through the American College of Physicians and the American Gastroenterological Association, the Excellence in Teaching Award from the American College of Physicians & American Society of Internal Medicine, and the Mercy Medical Center’s Distinguished Service Award.
Besides his service at TBE, he is also on the board of the TransAtlantic Institute of the American Jewish Committee. “Paul has always wanted to contribute to the [Jewish] community, something that was clear even in high school and college,” Esta said. “He has always been a strong Jew and strong Zionist.”
Rabbis Rachel Gurevitz, Aviva Fellman and Valerie Cohen
With the hiring in Worcester of Rabbi Aviva Fellman at Congregation Beth Israel and Rabbi Valerie Cohen at Temple Emanuel Sinai this summer — joining Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough – all of the three full-time rabbis in the greater Worcester-area are now women.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz came to Congregation B’nai Shalom in July of 2012 from Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Conn., where she served as associate rabbi. Born and educated in England, she was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2006. Immediate past president Gordon Manning said that he and Rabbi Gurevitz worked together to set the congregation in the direction of “relational Judaism.”
“She is very inviting; she meets people where they are at and makes them comfortable,” Manning said of Rabbi Gurevitz, who writes a popular blog in which she writes about real life issues and the Jewish take on those issues.
In October Temple Emanuel Sinai celebrated both the installation of Rabbi Cohen and its own consecration as a recently integrated congregation. Rabbi Cohen arrived in Worcester last June from Jackson, Mississippi, where she had been the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation for 11 years. Previously, she had been an assistant/associate rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis. Named one of the Jewish Daily Forward’s 36 most inspiring rabbis in 2013, she is a 1999 graduate of Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Cohen is the first rabbi chosen by the new congregation, which represents the integration of Worcester’s former Reform synagogues, Temple Sinai and Temple Emanuel.
“We believe that Rabbi Valerie will lead us beautifully on the next step on our journey,” says Merilee Freeman, a co-chair of the rabbinic search committee that brought Rabbi Cohen to Worcester.
Rabbi Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel, who most recently served as the associate rabbi and director of Congregational Educational and Jewish Learning at the Oceanside Jewish Center in Oceanside, New York, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and also holds a master’s degree from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem.
“Our community will be enriched by the presence of Rabbi Fellman,” said Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts. “She brings a youthful exuberance to the position that is refreshing. I have had the opportunity to talk with her about the congregation and community, and I am impressed by her and her enthusiasm.”
“I love being Jewish and try to give back to the Jewish community,” says Toby Richmond. “We are all Jews with a common bond whether we’re Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. We must all work together to keep Judaism alive.”
As a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts (JFCM), Richmond has spearheaded the revitalization and reenergizing of its Women’s Division in the past year.
Born and raised in Worcester, she is the youngest of four children of Anne and Abe Noar. “They taught me the value of helping people in need and giving back to the community, values which I would apply later on in life,” she says of her parents.
In earlier years, she focused on raising her children, Eric and Sue, while also “entering the world of tires, snowplows and auto repairs” at Martin Tire, her husband Chuck’s family business since 1934.
Long active in the local Jewish community, she has served on the boards of the former Temple Sinai (recently integrated with Temple Emanuel to become Temple Emanuel Sinai), the Worcester Jewish Community Center, and Jewish Family Service of Worcester. President of the Auxiliary of the Jewish Healthcare Center for three years, she then served as President of the Jewish Healthcare Center for another two years.
She also now serves on the Advisory Board of Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
In the fall of 2013, she joined the board of JFCM, where she quickly stepped up to the plate to focus on women’s giving. The former Women’s Division was renamed Women’s Philanthropy, and under Richmond’s guidance, a board of eighteen now meets regularly to plan programs and develop strategies to engage the women of the community in active philanthropy. She is also vice president of the Women’s Campaign this year.
But she also believes in having fun. With her homemade kugels as an added bonus, women have so far increased their giving to the Federation campaign by over 30 percent this year.
Last summer, along with Howard Borer, executive director of JFCM, she visited Greece and Israel as a participant on JFNA’s national campaign chair and directors mission.
The trip “opened her eyes to the vast reach of Federation and the incredible work that our partner agencies-the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-do for all of us in sustaining and enhancing the lives of Jews wherever they may live,” says Borer.
She is tireless in her devotion to that mission. “I now have the time to give back to my community, but I seem to receive more fulfillment from each project that I get involved in,” Richmond says. “I love working with people and building on relationships. This is what fundraising is all about.”
Rabbi Riqi Kosovske
When Rabbi Riqi Kosovske joined Congregation Beit Ahavah in Florence in 2007, she became the Reform synagogue’s first full-time rabbi. Originally from the East Coast, she spent 15 years in the Berkeley-San Francisco Bay area, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles before arriving in Florence. Prior to rabbinical school, she worked for more than a decade as an artist and educator, teaching and directing Jewish summer camps and religious schools, avant-garde Jewish high school and arts-enrichment programs. She also pursued Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees in Writing & Consciousness at New College of California. She then studied at the Jerusalem and Los Angeles campuses of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained as a rabbi in May of 2007.
Her interests both at Beit Ahavah and in the general community include the environment, feminism, artistic expression, social justice, interfaith issues and support of transgender equality.
“She often integrates [environmental] concerns into her sermons and into the curriculum of our schools. The solar Ner Tamid was a great example of this,” said Board member Jodi Page-Lacoff. “It was important to her that our temple have a Ner Tamid that was literally not a drain on resources. She went to great lengths to find an engineer within the congregation who was able to design a solar panel that charges the battery connected to the Ner Tamid that sits above our movable ark.”
Rabbi Kosovske turned the installation of the solar-powered Ner Tamid into a teaching moment for the entire congregation, including the Sunday school children who learned about it, visited a solar field maintained by a Beit Ahavah congregant in Leeds, and observed its construction. This effort, Kosovske said, showed that “Judaism and Jewish issues are really relevant to the issues that are facing the world right now and that we actually have all the tools we need to take care of the earth.”
Kosovske spearheaded “An Act of Faith: Western Massachusetts Interfaith Service for Transgender Rights,” held in Northampton
to raise support for the eventual passage of the state’s transgender rights bill.
And involved with Women of the Wall since its inception, “she has spoken of her participation in WOW worship services and sermonized the importance of the work,” Page-Lacoff stated. “She got our community excited about congregants getting their pictures (including women and girls) with the Torah to send to WOW in support of their efforts. Some members of our congregation were so enthused by her connection to the project that they also went and participated in a WOW service at the Kotel.”
Dr. Michael Hirsh
Dr. Michael Hirsh, the son of Holocaust survivors, has assumed the role of medical director of the Worcester Public Health Department, after having served as acting public health commissioner since April 2012. The medical director position represents a recent shift in the organization of the Board of Health from an advisory to a regulatory board.
While addressing emergency health concerns and evolving critical issues such as the Ebola crisis in relation to the city, Dr. Hirsh continues in his post as the chief pediatric surgeon, specializing in pediatric trauma, at the UMass Memorial Medical Center. Repeatedly nominated as Outstanding Medical Educator by UMass medical students, he is also a former president of the Worcester District Medical Society.
Prevention, both in terms of encouraging better overall health and injury avoidance, has been a lifelong focus for him, driving his goal to keep the community a safe and healthy place where families can live in a secure and peaceful environment.
Certainly, he sees his role as medical director as directly related to preventative health care.
In a 2012 interview, he told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, “I will be less busy (at the hospital) if I’m successful here (at the DPH) making people healthier on the front end.”
His career in Worcester has included the introduction of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, providing educational awareness, as well as the Mobile Safety Street Project, “a comprehensive program (that) encompasses pedestrian safety, bike safety (helmets), stranger safety, school bus safety, and burns and poisoning,” notes the Worcesterma.gov website.
He is also the principal force behind the Goods for Guns coalition, which aims to take guns off the streets in a number of local communities.
The impetus came from personal experience: grief and frustration at the senseless death in 1981 of John Chase Wood II M.D., a friend and fellow resident at Columbia Medical Center, at the hands of a boy with a gun in New York City. In the aftermath of Dr. Wood’s murder, Dr. Hirsh took to heart the concept that “peacemakers could help stem the tide of violence by reducing the accessibility of the handgun,” he later wrote for UMassMedNOW, the medical school’s newsletter. It was a catalyst to “my career-long work to prevent injuries of all kinds, but particularly firearm injuries.”
He and a colleague first created a gun buyback program while working in Pittsburgh in 1994. When he returned to Worcester in 2001, he joined with Mariann Manno, director of the Pediatric Emergency Department, to put together a collaborative to support a Goods for Guns initiative here. Since then, more than 2,300 guns have been exchanged for gift certificates to area stores and supermarkets.
Now in its thirteenth year, the Goods for Guns coalition includes the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Worcester, the UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center, UMass Memorial Trauma Center and the Worcester Police Department, endorsed by the Worcester District Attorney’s Office. This year’s buyback, conducted by Dr. Hirsh, the Division of Public Health and the Worcester Police, expands from Worcester to other communities, including Leicester, Millbury, Grafton, Shrewsbury, Northborough and Westborough. Grafton’s 2014 buyback took place on December 6, while the other communities are scheduled for Dec. 14.