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Berdina Shorten: Her long and circuitous journey to returning to her Jewish roots

Left: Infant Berdina with family in
Netherlands, 1943: father Theo,
mother Anna, & brother Corey
Right: Berdina with her late
husband, Ken Shorten

By BERNIE BELLAN Berdina Shorten has lived in Winnipeg since coming here with her family from the Netherlands in 1953. Although Berdina was Jewish by ancestry (going back to her great-grandmother), she hadn’t been raised Jewish. It was only several years after having come to Canada – and having got married, that Berdina – and her late husband, Ken Shorten, both converted to Judaism.

 

Typically, the stories we publish in this paper about people’s wartime experiences have to do with the Holocaust. Those stories are all certainly horrendous – and almost always riveting, but when I happened to be talking to Berdina about a totally unrelated subject (the renewal of her subscription) and the conversation got around to her wartime experiences, I said to her that I wanted to write about her story.
I should also mention that I had heard Berdina speak at the Shaarey Zedek several years ago, but at that time I didn’t take any notes. (I can’t recall exactly why I was there or how I happened to be in the room when Berdina told her story, but I remember thinking that this would make a great story for the paper some day.)
In any event, here’s a recounting of the first part of Berdina’s story, based on a phone interview that I conducted with her on February .
First, a little history is needed, in order to understand the context for what happened to Berdina and her family.
The German army had invaded Poland in September 1939. After consolidating its gains there, Germany turned its attention to Western Europe in April 1940, first by invading Norway and Denmark, then launching an attack through Belgium into that country, also the Netherlands and Luxembourg (despite those three countries having adopted positions of neutrality).
The German invasion of The Netherlands began on May 10, 1943.

That is where Berdina’s story picks up. But first, a little background on her family history.
Berdina’s father, Theodore (or Theo, as he was known) was a master leather cutter. His “family was Protestant, but his mother was Catholic, so he was raised Catholic,” she said.
As Berdina explained, “his family had come from France in 1610. He used to say the reason his family didn’t go to the New World was ‘no pretty cruise directors, no first class cabins, no air conditioning.’ The real reason was they were Huguenots and they weren’t allowed to go to the New World – unless they went to England and went with the Protestants,” e.g., the Pilgrims on the Mayflower.)
Berdina’s mother (Anna), however, “was born Jewish” but, as Berdina noted, “the family never practiced Judaism. What happened was her mother was born Jewish to a Dutch girl and a German Rhine skipper. Her father died when she was four years old, so her mother went back to Holland, but her family wouldn’t accept her back because she had married someone who was not Jewish. She raised her child (Berdina’s grandmother) with the help of local charities and working in a grocery store.
“When she met my great-grandfather, he was more Catholic than the Pope, so she never practiced her religion and she raised her children as Catholic – but they were actually Jewish – by Jewish law.
“It wasn’t until I was 12 – and I had been sent to Catholic school. I was always challenging the nuns. I wanted to check out Judaism, but I wasn’t allowed.
I asked Berdina whether “she had an awareness that she was Jewish?”
She said she did. “I always knew. My mother knew also, but they hid it.”
I asked then how she knew about her Jewish heritage?
She answered: “My relatives. I heard conversations when I was a child.”
While, Her mother “didn’t practice any religion, her “father did. He’d go to Mass once in a while,” Berdina noted.
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands, Berdina’s father was in the Dutch army, fighting on the “Grebenberg (or the Grebbe line, the main line of Dutch defence)– where they held the Germans back for many days.” (Actually, it wasn’t many days at all – only three. The Dutch were badly equipped and totally outmaneuvered by the Germans.)
Berdina continued her story: “My father was a fantastic shot…But the Queen (Wilhelmina) capitulated. They were bombing the hell out of Rotterdam (May 14, 1940).” The Netherlands surrendered the next day.

Berdina’s father was taken prisoner and sent to work as a forced labourer (in Germany): “So my father was taken and put into a factory. He was a master leather cutter – making shoes.”
Berdina’s family lived very close to the German border with the Netherlands. Thus, even though Theo was forced to work in Germany, it was only a three-hour walk for him to return to his hometown – and his family. It seems somewhat strange to think of someone who’s kept as a forced labourer – which Berdina described as “slave labour”, yet who was allowed to return home on weekends, as she explained:
He was allowed to go home (where mother lived) once a week, Berdina said. “He was given one egg a week, so he would take that egg with him, so my brother (Corey, who was born four years before Berdina) would be able to have at least a little bit of protein in his diet.”
All the while Theodore though, was part of the Dutch underground– meeting with other members of the underground surreptitiously while he was in forced labour for the Germans.
Berdina told this story about one harrowing brush with danger her father had while he was in the resistance: “A story he told was that he was going to a meeting (of the underground) with a friend. They were caught by a young German soldier and the soldier” pointed his rifle at them and “told them to put their hands up. Somehow my father was able to overtake this young soldier.
“His friend said ‘We have to run.’ My father said, ‘No, we can’t. If we run and they find him (the soldier), they’ll kill ten people on this street.“ (That was the retribution the Germans typically exacted, Berdina explained.)
“So my father was able to get a hold of some liquor, put it over the kid’s mouth, then took his guns and papers to the nearest police station, which was controlled by the Germans, and said: ‘One of your soldiers was drunk and we took his guns and papers before he hurt someone.’
“My father was given a pass to go anywhere he wanted that night.”
I asked Berdina if she knew when it was that her father fled the factory for good and ended up going totally “underground” with the Dutch Resistance, but she said she didn’t know exactly when that happened.
When the Canadian army reached Holland in September 1944, anyone who had been in the Dutch army was able to join the Canadian army, Berdina explained, so her father ended up joining the Canadian army.
“When the Dutch army reorganized, he went back to the Dutch army.”
Her father was uncomfortable talking about what he did during the war, Berdina noted, but according to her brother, Theo had once told him that he “had killed at least one German that he knew of (a sniper) and probably more, but he wasn’t sure.”

I asked Berdina whether there were any other memories from the war that she wanted to talk about.
She said there was a young girl – only 14, in her town, “who was the first girl (in Berdina’s home town) to get pregnant by a German soldier.”(That soldier died in a plane crash coming back from North Africa, Berdina added.) “She was also the first girl to get pregnant by a Canadian soldier.
“After the war the people in that community were going to get her and shave her head and send her packing.
“My mother said to my father: ‘That little girl is still only 15 years old. She’s still walking around in Bobby socks and skipping with a skipping rope. Theo (Berdina’s father), could you please do something to stop those people from hurting her?’
“My father went out on to the street and he saw about 50 people coming for the girl. He stopped them.”

In 1953, Berdina, along with her parents and three brothers (two of whom were born after the end of the Second World War), came to Canada.
“My father started to work as leather cutter in the Canada West shoe factory,” Berdina explained.
“Maitland Steinkopf hired him. Eventually my father started to work in St. Boniface Hospital; he’d had a year’s medical training in Edinborough after the war – so he started to work in the hospital, in the x-ray department.
“He worked four hours a night doing piece work for Maitland. He made more money doing that than he did in the hospital.”
I was curious to know more about Maitland Steinkopf and his connection to the shoe business. I knew that Steinkopf was a very successful businessman who also played a leading role in the development of the Centennial Concert Hall, as well as being a prominent Conservative politician and cabinet minister, but other than that I didn’t know much about him.
Berdina said to me that Steinkopf’s success in the shoe manufacturing business was a result of his decision to go to Minneapolis at one point and come back with the Canadian rights to a line of shoes called “Hush Puppies”. That reminded me of another famous decision made by a local Jewish businessman – Samuel Cohen, who decided to begin importing transistor radios made by a company called Sony.

Turning to Berdina’s decision to become Jewish, here is how she explained how that came about:
“My late husband, Ken Shorten (whom I incorrectly referred to as Frank in my previous article), came from an Irish family – that originally came to Canada in 1690, and they farmed in the McCreary area.
“He worked in Eatons – and I worked in Eatons as well. That’s where I met him and we got married.
“Well, he was Protestant and I had been raised in a Catholic environment. We decided that we weren’t going to let the difference in our faiths have a negative effect on us, so we just stuck to ourselves when it came to the religious part.
“But that didn’t work for me and it didn’t work for him and I always knew about my Jewish heritage, so I said to him one day: ‘You know, I’d like to learn more about Judaism; it’s part of my heritage.’ And he said: ‘Me, too.’
“He had some very good Jewish friends at the time (who were all in the NDP). One of them was Cy Gonick, another was Harry Shafransky. He got to know quite a few Jewish politicians. He liked their ethics, liked their values, and so we started to look into Judaism.
“We went to see Rabbi Nesis and (the late) Rabbi Berkal, and we studied with them for two years, and then made the conversion.”
Interestingly, Berdina said that she also spoke with (the late) Rabbi Weizman, who told her that “You can’t convert – you’re already Jewish”.
“But, I said to him, ‘It’s my decision. It’s my journey. I want to do the process.’
“We had two children that we had adopted before we decided to convert – and we brought them in with us.”

I asked when this all happened?
Berdina said the conversion process went from 1973-75.
“We were officially converted in May of ’75,” she said, “and then we were married in the rabbi’s office again.”
“I sang in the Shaarey Zedek choir for 36 years,” Berdina added, “and my son, Theodore, sang in the choir for 20 years…and both kids had their bar and bat mitzvah together.”
“It was the best decision I ever made in my life,” Berdina observed. “It completed me as a human being. I finally fit – because I used to question those nuns. I must have been a real pain in the tuch.”
I asked, “Do you have relatives remaining in Holland?”
Berdina answered: “Yes, I have many.”
I asked, “Are any of them Jewish?”
She answered, “I have one cousin who recognizes himself as Jewish – and that’s it.”
I said to Berdina that what she had told me about her Jewish ancestry and her family’s subsequent conversion to Christianity, it jives with what I had read about how commonplace it was for Jews to have become Christians. I said that I recalled hearing from the late Rabbi Rappaport that only about one-quarter of all Jews in Europe remained Jewish through the years. The rest either converted willingly or by force.
During the course of our conversation, Berdina told me many more stories about her wartime experiences in the Netherlands, all of which were fascinating. Since she was only two years old by war’s end, naturally the stories she tells are one that have been recounted to her by others, but they are all worth retelling.
One that stood out for me in particular was about a Jewish doctor who was kept hidden by his Dutch housekeeper, unbeknownst to anyone else in the town. According to Berdina, when German soldiers came to the house looking for the doctor in 1940, the housekeeper said to them: “I kicked him out long ago when I knew you would be coming. He was miserable to work for and he never paid me enough.”
All through the war that housekeeper was ostracized by her fellow townspeople, as the doctor was universally loved. As Berdina told it, when the town was liberated by Canadian soldiers in 1944, the doctor emerged from the basement – where he had been kept hidden the entire period of occupation by the housekeeper.
Berdina is a great storyteller and when I asked her whether she’d be willing to tell her story to other audiences – as I had heard her do several years ago at the Shaarey Zedek, she readily agreed. If a day comes when Berdina will be able to tell her story to a new audience, I’ll be sure to post something in this paper.

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Features

Remis Lecture Group at Gwen Secter Centre attracts large crowds to hear from two well-known speakers

Mayor Scott Gillingham speaking to the Remis Lecture group at the Gwen Secter Centre Thursday, May 16

By BERNIE BELLAN On two successive Thursdays in May (May 16 and 23), the usual fairly small number of attendees at the Remis Lecture Group luncheons more than doubled in size as large numbers of guests came to hear two well-known speakers: Mayor Scott Gillingham (on May 16); and Doctors Manitoba President Dr. Michael Boroditsky (on May 23).

The Remis group is open to anyone to attend, but anyone who is not a regular member of the group is asked to notify in advance that they will be attending by calling 204-291-4362.

I thought it might be interesting to provide readers with snapshots of what both Mayor Gillingham and Dr. Boroditsky had to say, despite my writing for a Jewish newspaper (and website) and trying to think desperately how I could tie in either speaker to a Jewish theme. How about if I mention that the mayor said he really enjoyed the kosher meal provided by the Gwen Secter Centre, which featured kugel as the main dish?

In a separate article I’ll write about Dr. Boroditsky’s talk. (I have posted about his having said that a new association of Manitoba Jewish physicians has been formed. You can read that article at https://jewishpostandnews.ca/faqs/rokmicronews-fp-1/jewish-physicians-in-manitoba-form-association-in-response-to-antisemitism/: )

Scott Gillingham began his remarks by telling the audience that he was born and raised in Brandon, where he honed his skills as a very good hockey player. First elected to Winnipeg City Council in 2014 and reelected in 2018, in 2022 he ran for mayor.

Readers might remember that former mayor Glen Murray had entered that race and was, at first, considered the heavy favourite to win the election.

Gillingham told this amusing story about election night, which was October 26, 2022: Apparently CTV News had called the election in Murray’s favour shortly after the polls had closed at 8:00 pm.

But, as events transpired, CTV was quite wrong, and it wasn’t long before Gillingham took the lead for good. As he noted to the Remis group, “By 8:30 I had lost and won the election all within a half hour.”

Gillingham explained to the audience of 38 that, as this year is the 150th anniversary of Winnipeg’s incorporation as a city, he wanted to give them a brief history of the city.

The first mayor of the city was Francis Cornish, Gillingham noted, elected by a total of 398 people who voted in our city’s very first election. The Gillingham family’s own history of settlement in Manitoba began in 1907, he said, when the first Gillinghams arrived from England, “and headed as far west as they could go until they ran out of money.”

The key event in Winnipeg’s history, he suggested, came when businessman J.H Ashdown convinced the federal government of the day to route the first trans-Canada railway through Winnipeg rather than Selkirk. Ashdown was instrumental in Winnipeg’s quickly building a bridge across the Red River, which turned out to be decisive in the government’s eventual decision. “That kind of vision and action built the city that we love,” Gillingham suggested.

Continuing on the theme of building upon that which has been laid down already by visionaries in the city’s past, the mayor said: “The fortunate thing for me is stepping into this role has afforded me the opportunity to inherit what’s already in place.”

For that, Gillingham thanked the many generations of entire families that have contributed so much to “the health and welfare of this city. Yes, we have challenges,” he admitted… “we have struggles, we have potholes,” but we still have a great city, he insisted.

He pointed to two specific projects in Winnipeg’s history that came about as the result of great vision and determination: the building of the gravity-fed aqueduct from Shoal Lake and of the Winnipeg Floodway. Gillingham also noted former Mayor Stephen Juba’s role in the building of City Hall in 1962 as another example of vision, as was the construction of the Manitoba Legislative Building in an earlier era.

“As we look back over these past 150 years,” Gillingham said, “we realize there’s a lot to inspire us.”

Turning to some of the more immediate problems that continue to fester here (as they do in almost all major urban centres), the mayor admitted “we don’t have enough housing…I’ve challenged our staff to approve 8,000 units of housing in 2024.” (He added that, as of the day he was speaking, 3,500 units had already been approved, so the goal of 8,000 was well within reach.)

He noted, as well, that new census figures for Winnipeg are about to be disclosed “next month” – which means they may already be out by the time this is read, and the anticipated fairly large increase in Winnipeg’s population is only going to add more pressure to build more housing.

As Gillingham put it, “I love my kids, but I don’t want them to live with me forever.”

The mayor also referred to some of the improvements in technology that are underway in the delivery of certain services to the public. He referred specifically to an enhancement to 911 service that will allow anyone calling that number to send a photo to the 911 operator, which should lead to a much better understanding of what type of emergency situation is being talked about. (By the way, Gillingham noted, the very first 999 service – which was the antecedent of the current 911 service, began in Winnipeg, under Mayor Juba, in 1959.)

Gillingham spoke of the need to challenge the Chamber of Commerce to come up “with an actionable set of recommendations which Winnipeg should focus on.”

He noted, as well, that in meeting with business leaders throughout North America, he has learned that they are specifically “interested in Winnipeg – and not Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, or Calgary” and each time he’s asked them “what it is they’re looking for and how we can provide it in Winnipeg?” Later in his talk he returned to this topic and elaborated on what it is that business leaders are looking for, saying they’re looking for “skilled labour and are we connected to markets?” As well, he noted, many are looking for “green energy and a quality of life for their employees” which, he suggested, Winnipeg has in abundance, with “world class arts, pro sports, universities, a diverse population, and cottage country within an hour and a half.”

At that point the mayor began to field questions from the audience. The first question posed was “Whether, in concentrating on growth for the future, are the needs of the inner city being ignored?”

Gillingham answered that there is currently a major investment in housing in the downtown. “There is $122 million in federal funding” earmarked for downtown housing, he said, of which “$30 million has already been received – which will lead to 600 new units of housing downtown.” He added that there will also be “new spray pads in the north end” this year.

The mayor also noted the creation of a new “concierge service” for anyone wanting to build something, whereby if “you call one number you can correlate all the housing requirements,” rather than having to contact a number of different city departments.

He also mentioned the next “round of funding” from the federal government, which “will focus on transportation infrastructure for rapid transit.”

Someone asked Gillingham to define what the term “affordable housing” actually means?

The mayor answered that it would be “80% of the market rate,” so that if housing is renting for $1,000 then $800 would be affordable. He pointed to new housing that will be going up where the old Public Safety Building once stood. “It will include units for less than $1,000 a month,” he said. “If a builder can include at least six units of affordable housing we’ll give them money to offer those,” he added.

Another question was about the Arlington Bridge and what will happen to it?

The mayor answered that “we’re waiting for a consultant’s report.”

I posed a question about cycling, noting that both the mayor and I are ardent cyclists, but for anyone who wants to take their bike downtown, it is extremely difficult to find a secure are in which to leave it. I suggested that the city ought to take one of the many vacant lots downtown and build a secure (above ground) compound, in which cyclists could leave their bikes. I even proposed to the mayor that it could be called “Gillingham’s Island.” (For anyone under a certain age that reference might be totally lost, but lucky for me the Remis group – and the mayor, are of sufficient age to have got the joke.)

Gillingham did address the issue of bike thefts in the city (and I just had another bike stolen not too long ago), saying that anyone can register their bike for free by going to 529garage.com. It would help police in locating the owner of a stolen bike if it’s recovered.)

The final questions were about Portage and Main. The first questioner wondered why this time around the mayor was in favour of opening up Portage and Main whereas in 2018 he was opposed?

Gillingham responded that “something happened between the plebiscite (whether to open Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic) in 2018 and today that’s shifted people’s attitudes.”

He was also asked “When you open Portage and Main will you be closing the concourse?”

The answer was “No, more information is needed.”

Finally, someone wondered whether the skywalk system could be extended to connect the west side of Portage Avenue to the east side – and thus to the skywalk system which connects east of Main Street.

Gillingham said that “We’re open to the conversation. The only date we have in mind is the reopening of the street at street level.”

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Features

Connecting the Dots: Ari Posner- Meet Ari Posner

Ari Z. Posner, son of Barry and Bebe on the left and Ari P. Posner, son of Gerry and Sherna with the cap on the right

By GERRY POSNER I suppose we are not the only family to have inter-related connections. At least, not in the old days of the shtetl. What I do know is that finding my way through these family relationships took me years to figure out and understand. Recently, the dots got connected once again.

It all started (at least as far back as I can go) when around 1905, one Isaac Posner married one Kayla Shulman. They were living at that time in the same shtetl or at least close to the same shtetl of what was then known as Propoisk (now Slavgorod) in present day Belarus. From this marriage emerged three children: a daughter, Lillian Posner – later Romalis;l a son, Samuel L. Posner; and another son, Solomon Posner. That was simple enough. As it turned out, Issac Posner was an older brother of my grandfather, Herman Posner. Isaac’s wife, Kayla, was the sister of my other grandfather, Harry Shulman. Even that was not terribly complicated. In short, my father’s uncle Issac, married my mother’s aunt Kayla. That marriage linked the Posners to the Shulmans in Round 1.

When Isaac and Kayla’s kids married, a son, Sol, married a woman from Iowa City Iowa, named Rhea Markovitz. Not long after, in December, 1937 a son of Herman Posner (my grandfather) – Samuel R. Posner, (my father), married a woman named Rhea Shulman ( my mother) also from Iowa City, Iowa. She was a daughter to Harry and Anna Shulman of Iowa City. Thus, in Iowa City there were two first cousins – Rhea Shulman and Rhea Markovitz, born less than a year apart and both of whom later married men from Winnipeg, both with the initials SP – one Sol Posner and one Sam Posner. Of course, the marriage of my mother, a Shulman, to my father, a Posner, created Round 2 of the Posners and the Shulmans joining together. Are you still with me?

When, in the course of time, Sol and Rhea and Sam and Rhea began to have children, they created a relationship for their children in what might be considered by some to be almost incestuous. Rhea and Sol had two sons, Barry and Craig (of blessed memory), both of whom were and are likely still known to many readers to this day. My parents had Linda, my brother Michael, and me. We were, and still remain, cousins to Barry to this day. I was, and still am related to Barry and Craig in no less than three ways. Why? First of all, Barry’s father Sol was a first cousin to my father Sam. Secondly, Barry’s father was a first cousin to my mother Rhea. Thirdly, Barry’s mother Rhea was a first cousin to my mother Rhea. So the ties are deep. Confusing as well.

Of course, what solidified these roots even further was the fact that Sam and Rhea, my parents, and Sol and Rhea, Barry and Craig’s parents, all lived for the rest of their lives in Winnipeg. So, there were two S. Posners – three in fact, as Sol had a brother, Samuel L., a pharmacist. But, let’s not get sidetracked. The two Rheas were very close and I suspect there had to be much confusion about these two women with the same name and almost the same age. Moreover, the two families shared similar experiences each summer. That was because Rhea Posner – Barry and Craig’s mother, took her kids to Iowa City to spend part of the holidays with her parents, while my mother – Rhea, would also take my siblings and me to visit her parents in Iowa City, Iowa. My cousin Craig and I were the same age (born one month apart ) and hence spent much time together, both in Winnipeg and Iowa City. I never could quite get the picture as to why I saw him in both locations. All I knew was that he was my cousin.

Well, we all grew up with this similar history and genetic connections. When Barry married the former Bebe Melmed, three kids followed. The eldest son was Ari Z. Posner, who grew up in Montreal – where Barry and Bebe lived. When I married Sherna Bernbaum, we also had three kids, the eldest of whom was Ari P. Posner. The fact that these boys had the same name – Ari, was more of a fluke as they were not named for the same person. Oddly, (or maybe not given the past history) Ari Z’s middle name is Zvi, the same name as my son, only in the case of my son, Zvi is his Hebrew middle name. Ari Z. is about 5 years older than Ari P. That difference is about the age difference between Barry and me.

Recently, and to my delight, my son Ari had a good reason to go to L.A. to receive a music award and, to my greater delight, he expressed an interest in seeing the other Ari, whom he had never met. L.A. is where the other Ari Posner resides. As it turns out, their names were not the only dot that connected them. Both have made a career in the arts, Ari Z has done it in writing, creating and producing for TV primarily – and has been very successful in his field. Ari P. is a composer. He is not that far removed from the other Ari since he often writes music for TV in the US and Canada.

I think of grandfather Herman Posner and his brother Isaac. Would they not be amazed at this connection? Or better yet, what would my great-grandfather Shmerya and wife Yudasha have to say about two of their descendants now – approximately 170 years after their births, meeting and reinforcing the family ties. As much as so much has changed, this little bit of Posner history is the same.

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Features

New website for Israelis interested in moving to Canada

By BERNIE BELLAN A new website, titled “Orvrim to Canada” (https://www.ovrimtocanada.com/ovrim-en) has been receiving hundreds of thousands of visits, according to Michal Harel, operator of the website.
In an email sent to jewishpostandnews.ca Michal explained the reasons for her having started the website:
“In response to the October 7th events, a group of friends and I, all Israeli-Canadian immigrants, came together to launch a new website supporting Israelis relocating to Canada. “Our website, https://www.ovrimtocanada.com/, offers a comprehensive platform featuring:

  • Step-by-step guides for starting the immigration process
  • Settlement support and guidance
  • Community connections and networking opportunities
  • Business relocation assistance and expert advice
  • Personal blog sharing immigrants’ experiences and insights

“With over 200,000 visitors and media coverage from prominent Israeli TV channels and newspapers, our website has already made a significant impact in many lives.”
A quick look at the website shows that it contains a wealth of information, almost all in Hebrew, but with an English version that gives an overview of what the website is all about.
The English version also contains a link to a Jerusalem Post story, published this past February, titled “Tired of war? Canada grants multi-year visas to Israelis” (https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-787914#google_vignette) That story not only explains the requirements involved for anyone interested in moving to Canada from Israel, it gives a detailed breakdown of the costs one should expect to encounter.

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