Gomley Chesed’s lions come home to Beth El

by | Feb 5, 2016 | Other News

Gomley Chesed Synagogue’s Lions of Judah—bronze-like sculptures with fierce snarling mouths and red-glowing eyes—were objects of affection for generations of that once vibrant Portsmouth congregation.

But neither the lions, most of the active members, or the memories are gone. They have just relocated to Congregation Beth El in Norfolk.

On Saturday, Jan. 16, almost all of those senior members from Portsmouth joined the previous, long-ago exodus of Bangels, Goldins, Katzes, Leons and Pecks in a Shabbat service that also served as a dedication of the lions’ plaque and a celebration of Gomley Chesed.

The service honored the recent senior members with aliyot and incorporated longtime Beth El members who have Gomley Chesed roots. In addition to the families mentioned above, parts of the Torah and Musaf services were carried out by representatives of the Ackerman, Beck, Branfield, Brewer, Dolsey, Frank, Hecht, Kopelove, Kozak, Lerman, Marcus, Ornoff, Salasky, Schoenhaut, Stark, Stein, Stromberg and Zedd families.

During the rabbi’s sermon, featured speakers were former Portsmouth boys: Paul Peck, a past president of Beth El; Mark Kozak, who initiated the lions’ move and celebration; and Dr. Mayer Grob of Richmond, son of Cantor Paul Grob, Gomley Chesed’s longtime cantor. In different ways, all three tied in the heart of the lions with the even more important influence of Gomley Chesed’s Hebrew and Sunday school education and junior congregation.

“One thing my parents (Dorothy and Paul Grob) both worked hard to accomplish was that anyone who made it through the religious school could participate in a Hebrew service.” Grob said. “That experience binds all of us together, but more importantly perhaps, it links us in time to all of those who came before us.”

“We were extremely blessed growing up in the community we did, and Gomley Chesed played a huge role,” Peck said. “In the shtetl of Portsmouth, you could say, Gomley was the backbone.

“When I celebrate the High Holidays here at Beth El, I look around and see all my friends and hear everyone davening, and it takes me back to my youth in Portsmouth.”

The unifying hook that brought about this reunion-like celebration, the Lions of Judah, are now mounted in Beth El’s memorial hall—a vestibule that also includes memorabilia from Suffolk’s former Agudath Achim congregation.

“These ever-present lions put the fear of Hashem in generations of little kids,” Kozak said. “And everyone I spoke to with Gomley Chesed roots couldn’t have agreed more about their significance.… They are more than a decoration; they are a symbol of the strength of that congregation in the face of a declining city of Portsmouth.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz spoke about Gomley Chesed’s continued presence through its senior members and its large leadership role in the community.

“Every Jewish community in the world rests on the shoulders of great communities that came before it,” he said.

“And that is truly the message of bringing the Gomley Chesed lions here to Beth El. We bring them not as an artifact reminding us of the loss of a once great Jewish community; we bring them as a reminder that our present and our future are very much wrapped up in the Gomley Chesed story.… Gomley Chesed isn’t really gone. It lives on here at Beth El through the influence of all of the former Gomley Chesed folks who now animate and influence our Beth El family,” said Arnowitz.

“I had several folks come up to me and suggest we make it an annual Gomley Chesed celebration,” said Arnowitz. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Note: The Friends of Gomley Chesed is still requesting donations to help fund the remaining costs of mounting the lions, the creation of a plaque, the printing of a special Shabbat program, and the sponsoring of kiddush. Donations may be made to Congregation Beth El’s Temple Fund, care of the Gomley Chesed Lions of Judah.

by Mark Kozak