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Gulfport's Rabbi Israel Dvorkin celebrates 100th birthday

Rabbi Israel Dvorkin leads Congregation Beth Sholom.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times (2008)

Rabbi Israel Dvorkin leads Congregation Beth Sholom.

Some measure of entitlement comes with living to 100.

If you're Rabbi Israel Dvorkin, it means skipping Sabbath services on occasion, indulging a sweet tooth and saying whatever is on your mind.

Dvorkin turned 100 on Saturday, but his Gulfport synagogue celebrated a week early, inviting the city's mayor, the rabbi's doctors, family and others to the festivities. Regular services at Congregation Beth Sholom usually draw about two dozen worshipers, but this particular Sabbath, the synagogue at 1844 54th St. S brimmed with well wishers.

"Why did God give me such a long life? I was a heavy smoker. I wasn't active and didn't exercise,'' Dvorkin mused during an interview last week. "I wasn't a lady's man either. I just lived a normal life.''

The rabbi was born in London's East End at a time when the district shaped by waves of immigrants was home to a thriving Eastern European Jewish community. There was "a synagogue on every block,'' he said as he munched cookies and sipped coffee last week.

An only child, Dvorkin recalled that most students at his public school were Jewish, as was his headmaster, who was a cantor at a synagogue on weekends. He said he was brought up in a strict Orthodox home.

The centenarian saw firsthand the signs leading up to the Holocaust while studying at a yeshiva in Lithuania before World War II. He said his wife, Rachael, lost her mother and other relatives in the mass slaughter that followed. During the war, he served as the officiating chaplain of a military base about 40 miles outside London. Besides his native England, Dvorkin lived in Newfoundland before it became a Canadian province, as well as South Africa. He moved to the United States in 1958.

"I still think this is the best country,'' he said.

Dvorkin, who received his rabbinical degree from the chief rabbi of the then British Empire, headed synagogues in Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio and Georgia before coming to Florida. He first became rabbi in Gulfport in the early 1980s, but left after four years when his wife became ill. She died in 2004, a loss Dvorkin said he still feels deeply. They'd been married for 70 years.

Daughter Sylvia Rogalsky said her parents had "the love affair of the century.''

"They adored each other,'' she said. "He had a very beautiful tenor voice when he was younger and my mother did, as well. She was a lovely soprano. They used to sing together all the time. There was always music … in our home. And it was music from the greatest operatic singing to religious music, to Al Jolson.''

Dvorkin became rabbi of the tiny Congregation Beth Sholom again in 2002. "I come most Saturdays. When I don't feel like it, I don't come,'' he said. When he is unavailable, the service is led by a cantor and lay members.

The March 7 celebration, which also marked the 87th anniversary of the rabbi's bar mitzvah, drew family from Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Florida. He has two daughters and a son, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

At 100, Dvorkin still drives, but only short distances and not at night. Members of Beth Sholom help. Last week, Lili Robinson drove him to the synagogue for an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

"He's a dear man,'' she said.

Once a month, a helper stops by to clean his St. Petersburg apartment and do his laundry. Rogalsky travels from Hollywood about once a month to cook and freeze batches of matzo ball soup, chopped herring and salmon patties for her father.

"He makes himself breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and then he has a good, cooked meal,'' she said.

Rogalsky has been unable to persuade her father to move closer to family.

"Now, of course, I won't even try,'' she said, because he loves his rabbinical duties.

"I think all of that is what is keeping him going,'' she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Gulfport's Rabbi Israel Dvorkin celebrates 100th birthday 03/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 3:20pm]
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