A Living Chain of Tikkun Olam in Chelsea

CHELSEA — Aweis Hussein tends his family’s vegetables in a community garden located at Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel. He grows okra, tomatoes and corn, staples in his native Somalia.

Eleven years ago, Hussein and many from his current Chelsea Somali Bantu community lived in a Kenyan refugee camp. He arrived at the camp in 1991 at the age of 14, in need of protection and sanctuary from the relentless persecution and discrimination the minority Bantus suffered in their homeland.

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Aweis Hussein

Today, ten years after arriving in Chelsea, he is the community organizer and leader of the SCA (Shanbaro Community Association). The SCA operates under the umbrella of the Chelsea Collaborative, an organization founded in 1988 to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of the Chelsea community and its people. The SCA’s mission is to support the 400+ Somali Bantu refugees living in the greater Boston area as they forge community relationships and adjust to their new surroundings.

“I was lucky to go to refugee school in Kenya,” Hussein told the Journal by phone. He learned to read and speak English. He learned what to expect in America. Most of his Chelsea community members weren’t as fortunate. “They have never been to school. They have never been to a big village. They were mainly farmers in Somalia. They did not know about flushing toilets and lights and grocery stores.” His leadership role is his way of giving back to his people and using his special knowledge to ease their transition.

Ellen Rovner, of Brookline, is a member of the boards of directors of Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel and the Chelsea Collaborative. She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and an academic passion for food. She also has a keen interest in Chelsea’s immigrant community and in bettering the world through tikkun olam.

The idea for the community garden at Temple Emmanuel came to Rovner five years ago, when she was doing field work for her doctoral thesis, “It’s Just Like Coming Home: Food, Gender and Memory in a Jewish Community,” at Temple Emmanuel. She reached out to Roseann Bongiovanni, associate executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative and director of Chelsea Green Space.

“Ellen and I started to talk several years back about making deeper connections between the established Jewish community and the newer immigrant population in Chelsea,” said Bongiovanni, who has worked at the Collaborative for 19 years. “At the same time, Aweis’ group was looking for a place in Chelsea.”

“Roseann contacted me and said, ‘Listen, we have a community of people who are coming out of refugee camps in Kenya, many of whom have spent almost a generation there. They are farmers and they need a place to gather,’” Rovner told the Journal. Hussein pulled together some interested families and Rovner contacted Sara Lee Callahan, Temple Emmanuel president. The temple board members decided to loan the families space in its side yard to grow a community garden.

According to Rovner, Marlene Demko is the person who really made the garden happen. Demko, a lifelong Chelsea resident and a member of Temple Emmanuel since she was a child, sits on its board and acted as liaison between the temple and the Collaborative.

Bongiovanni explained that the first three garden plots were built with donated labor from the NE Carpenters Union. The Union members worked with teens from the Collaborative’s Chelsea Summer Youth Employment Initiative. Teens from YouthBuild, a Cambridge organization, came in recently to expand the garden with three additional beds. They cleared overgrown brush and provided significant landscaping work as well.

Demko worked with them to create a vibrant vegetable garden in the temple’s side yard.

“It has been great to see kids from many different backgrounds in Chelsea get excited about bettering their community at the same time a group of Somali Bantu families is becoming more integrated into the community and growing some of their own food on a property owned by a synagogue,” Rovner shared. “Given what’s going on in the world today, that a group of Somali Bantu refugees can find some solace growing food on the temple’s property is fabulous.”

Demko was thrilled to offer the Journal a personal tour of Temple Emmanuel and its community garden. She proudly pointed out the many yahrzeit (remembrance) boards lining the temple’s sanctuary walls, explaining that as the number of Chelsea’s active synagogues dwindled from almost twenty to one, Temple Emmanuel wanted to be sure the Jewish community would always have a place to say kaddish. “We do tikkun olam in so many ways because we’re so grateful that we can do these things and give back,” she explained. The temple has been holding full Passover seders for over ten years for over 130 people, enabling many who might find it otherwise difficult to gather their extended families to celebrate this important holiday.

The Somali Bantu community vegetable garden has inspired Demko to plan several enhancements for congregants, including a temple peace garden and biblical herb garden on some of the rest of the yard. She also envisions a “walk of honor” with stones engraved with donors’ names. With the help of other temple volunteers, she hopes to start this project next spring.

“This will be my mitzvah,” she beams, eyes filling with tears.” I want there to be a peaceful place for the rabbi and congregants to come outside and reflect, even during a service.” The garden will have benches and five gorgeous new trees, donated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation through a grant with the city of Chelsea, the Chelsea Collaborative and the Department of Energy.

Sara Lee Callahan, of Swampscott, has served as president of Temple Emmanuel for ten years. She is proud of the part her temple plays in helping to better the world. “Temple Emmanuel was founded in 1929 and in recent years has experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Many temple members living all over the United States maintain a connection to this area through the immigrant generations who brought them here. As Temple Emmanuel looks forward to its bright future, and in the spirit of gratitude, we want to create a living chain of tikkun olam. The Somali Bantu’s community garden reflects this concept.”

Aweis Hussein is grateful that Temple Emmanuel has given his community the space to gather and farm together, growing healthy fresh food that is not easily accessible or affordable. More than that, however, he is grateful to meet people who understand what it means to be a persecuted minority and to live in a diaspora. “Many of the temple members are older. We try to talk about our history, to share our histories. It is helping us, this new relationship. I hope it continues,” he said.

Pictured at top: Fatuma plants her garden. (Melissa Shook)

The Gift of Elul

Elul, the lunar month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, marks a distinctive time in the Jewish calendar. By tradition, we begin the monthlong process of reflection and introspection that will culminate in the High Holy Days. We sound the shofar almost daily to awaken our souls and remind us of the special tasks that lie ahead. Much as we clean our earthly homes to prepare for Passover, we use this month to prepare our spiritual homes to welcome a new year.

We take stock of our relationships with ourselves, with others and with God, with the goal of making better choices to make the world a better place. It is a private, internal and personal task.

The process of looking inward is always challenging, but this year it is especially so. External events demand our attention. With Israel at risk and global anti-Semitism surging, self-reflection may feel self-indulgent. Too much danger looms, and too many need our support, to sit idly thinking about ourselves.

And yet, heeding the call of the shofar may be exactly what we need. Hearing the sound is meant to encourage us to search our souls and acknowledge our weaknesses, with the goal of becoming more compassionate towards each other and more reverent towards God. It is a time to celebrate life, an opportunity to resensitize ourselves and to renew our commitments. We are reminded that our individual choices matter and that every day we are given the opportunity to choose anew.

These times of large-scale political upheaval can make us feel frustrated and hopeless about our ability to improve the world. After all, others, much more politically powerful than us, are the decisionmakers. The month of Elul reminds us that each individual matters, that “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) depends on each of us doing our best. Quiet self-assessment and reflection may be a great place to start.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on August 28, 2014.

Gaza’s Real Enemy

On August 4, Nobel Peace Laureate Eli Wiesel published a full-page Op-ed ad rebuking Hamas for using children in Gaza as human shields against Israeli rockets. Titled “Jews rejected child sacrifices 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn,” it ran in major U.S. newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and was paid for by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World: The Values Network.

In the ad, Wiesel contended that the world must shift its criticism away from Israeli soldiers for the suffering of those in Gaza and instead hold the real culprit, Hamas, solely to blame. He used these points to build his case.

First, although Hamas and the Palestinians both live in Gaza, they are not alike. Hamas is a recognized terrorist death cult that uses children as suicide bombers and human shields. The Palestinian citizens of Gaza want a hopeful future of peace for their families. Instead, Hamas has imposed its murderous regime on them.

Second, Palestinian parents have more in common with Israeli parents than they do with Hamas. Parents in Gaza and parents in Israel are united by their love for their children and by the fact that neither would voluntarily put a child in danger. Hamas deliberately puts children and other civilians in harm’s way.

Third, both Israelis and Palestinians suffer at the hands of Hamas. Israel struggles for its survival as a nation. Those people of Gaza who reject Hamas’ credo of terror are disenfranchised and alienated by the very people they elected and entrusted to protect and defend them. Instead of the peace and hope they desire and deserve, Hamas gives them war and despair.

Last, both Muslim and Jewish cultures share a love of life and learning while Hamas promotes a barbaric cult of death.

Some have criticized Wiesel’s language as unduly provocative and forceful. The London Times even refused to run the paid ad. Stylistic affinities notwithstanding, he undeniably makes a powerful and rational argument for why Arabs and Jews and “all moderate men and women of faith” must view the war differently.

According to Wiesel, this is not a battle between Arab and Jew or Israeli and Palestinian as much as it is a battle between Hamas and Israel and Hamas and the people of Gaza. Israel’s fight with Hamas, a force determined to annihilate it, is for its right to exist. The true Muslims among the Gaza Palestinians, the ones held hostage and occupied by their own people, are unable to fight back against their Hamas oppressors.

Wiesel’s plea to the world to recognize that Hamas, and not Israel, is the real enemy of the Gaza Palestinians deserves to be heard.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on August 14, 2014.

A Trip Down Memory Lane with Bill Marx

The Marx Brothers created the kind of universally appealing comedy that transcends time and trend. Chico, Groucho and Harpo (and occasionally Zeppo) had worked on stage, screen and radio for nearly 50 years when their last film, “Love Happy,” premiered in 1949. They left behind a treasure trove of comedic classics, including “Cocoanuts” (1929), “Animal Crackers” (1930), “Horse Feathers” (1932) and “Duck Soup” (1933).

By the time television burst on the cultural scene in the 1950’s, the vaudeville-era stars were middle-aged and the transition to the new medium gave them the largest audience they ever had. The kinescope technology available then created poor quality recordings, but the development of film allowed preservation of such later classics as Harpo’s famous 1955 recreation of the “Duck Soup” mirror scene on the “I Love Lucy” show. This episode has rerun in syndication for decades and has been seen by millions.

Most of the Marx Brothers’ television performances were as guests on TV variety shows such as The Jack Benny Program, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and The Red Skelton Hour. Although they all forged careers as individuals on the smaller screen, only Groucho was successful with his long-running “You Bet Your Life.”

Thanks to the teamwork of Harpo’s curator son, Bill Marx, and Marxophile producer Robert S. Bader, a new three-disc DVD set, “The Marx Brothers TV Collection,” is now available from Shout! Factory with ten hours of shows, home movies, outtakes, commercials and interviews from their golden television years.

The Journal spoke by phone with Bill Marx about this project and about his memories of growing up as a member of such a famous family.

“The Marx Brothers embraced every facet of the industry,” Marx began. “Although you can see all their movies on the internet, this DVD set is kind of special because it’s all TV. In a way, it’s good they haven’t been overexposed. This compilation of their life’s work is a positive thing for Marx Brothers fans, especially the youth who can see these for the first time.”

He and Bader wanted to highlight segments not available anywhere else, which is why they did not include the famous Lucy episode in their collection.

Marx enthusiastically talked about his religious upbringing. His father Harpo (born Arthur) always felt Jewish growing up, although Harpo’s parents never had much time for embracing the outward traditions of being a Jew. “They were too busy trying to survive in turn of the century New York City. The only time they experienced being Jewish was when they had to defend it.”

Harpo, whose will donated two harps to the state of Israel, was heavily involved in United Jewish Appeal and other Jewish causes. His first trip to Israel was in 1961. When he came home, he shared his experience with his son.

“Dad was probably 72 or 73 at the time,” said Marx, who is 77. “He told me it was the first time he ever really felt his Jewishness without having to defend it. He was very moved by being in a place where Jews were not a minority. It was a real epiphany for him.”

The brothers rarely got together socially with their families. “They would see each other every day at a country club they belonged to for lunch. They were sick of each other,” he chuckled. He remains close to his cousins Bob (Gummo Marx’s son) and Miriam (Groucho’s eldest daughter).

Like his two brothers and sister, Bill Marx was adopted. His desire to pay tribute to his dad inspired him to create the website, harposplace.com, and to undertake this latest project. “I am the luckiest guy in the world to have ended up accidentally in the orbit of the Marx Brothers,” he said. “I don’t know how to repay anybody except by producing this kind of homage to them and to my dad, who was such a unique and special person.”

Although he never embraced a traditional Jewish journey, Marx observes Yizkor, lighting yahrzeit candles for his parents. “I don’t appear in temple all that much,” he said, “but Yizkor is the one Jewish observance I set aside.”

On a closing note, Marx revealed his thoughts about Israel. “I am one of those incurably optimistic kind of guys when it comes to Israel. I think they will somehow or another weather this. They certainly know how to take care of themselves.”

Visit harposplace.com for more information. The Marx Brothers TV Collection is available from Shout!Factory.com and amazon.com.