Millennial Jews finding ways to connect on the North Shore

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Alex Powell and Toby Jacobson discuss the Six13 North program. Photo by Steven A. Rosenberg/Journal Staff

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Last November, a group of young Jewish professionals gathered at the home of Congregation Shirat Hayam Rabbi Michael Ragozin to brainstorm ways to engage their fellow North Shore millennials. Ranging in age from 22 to 45, few of them   had met before and most knew the rabbi only minimally.

Yet all shared the same longing to create a vibrant local community of Jewish friends. They quickly focused on their purpose: To maximize the number they would connect with over the next six months.

They decided to apply for a $2,500 Combined Jewish Philanthropies Young Adult Community Grant to start the group. Named Six13 North after the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, it defines itself as “an open community of young professional Jews and friends with the stated mission to design environments to create, grow, and deepen connections on the North Shore.”

Within two days, recent college graduates Alex Powell and Axi Berman delivered a draft business plan. The group collaboratively revised it and on Dec. 21, CJP awarded the grant and Six13 North was officially launched.

Its first event, Hometown & Homeland, will feature a tasting of local spirits and Israeli wines paired with light snacks at the Bit Bar in Salem at 8 p.m. on March 8.

“We wanted to create a fun, low-barrier social gathering for young, professional Jews and their friends,” Rabbi Ragozin said. 

Subsequent plans include a cooking class, a networking event, and an outdoor recreation get-together.

“Many millennials have the view that temple doesn’t have to be a weekly trip for them to have faith,” Powell said. “My hope is to create a social experience in which participants take the lead and decide what they want to get out of it.”

The Swampscott native attended Temple Israel and Shirat Hayam and grew up in a religious family where Shabbat dinners were frequent and family and friends always gathered to observe Jewish holidays. As a recent Franklin Pierce University graduate, he thinks traditional temple affiliations are more appealing to young families than to “a post-grad still strapped with student loans. There are other means to feel connected.” 

Elliot Adler-Gordon attended the inaugural Six13 North meeting with his wife, Jenna. “People choose to be involved with religion when they find it to be meaningful, and I think that the synagogue-oriented Judaism that many people have grown up with over the past 40 years can be difficult to relate to,” he said. “This is why there needs to be a focus on creating alternative opportunities.” 

Adler-Gordon grew up as an “involved Conservative Jew on Long Island,” attending Jewish day school through high school and Jewish summer camp. He was very active in Jewish life at the University of Pennsylvania and met his wife during a junior year abroad in Haifa.

A product marketing manager at GCP Applied Technologies in Cambridge, Adler-Gordon moved to the North Shore a few months ago from the Brookline/Brighton area after Jenna was hired as the second-grade teacher at Epstein Hillel School. They left behind a strong group of Jewish friends.

“We knew, moving to the North Shore, that there is not much of an involved Jewish young professionals community, so I was glad to hear Rabbi Ragozin was looking for a group to create such a community,” he said.

In addition to sponsoring large events, Adler-Gordon hopes Six13 North helps people meet friends who share interests such as hiking in the mountains or sharing Shabbat dinners. “I am optimistic there are people who live on the North Shore who are looking to be part of a Jewish community,” he said.

Rabbi Ragozin’s plans go far beyond that. By empowering organic leadership within the group, he hopes this self-organized leadership team will design experiences that “create such a buzz that there’s a natural flow of millennials from Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and Jamaica Plain into the North Shore.

“I’m speaking with as many millennials as possible. They’re hungry for spirituality and meaning. They’re looking to their faith tradition – Judaism – but not finding models from their childhoods that excite them today. They want the spirituality of social connections, Shabbat dinners, service projects, etc. Their first point of exploration is within Judaism, but up to now, they haven’t found it within existing North Shore Jewish institutions.

“Six13 North flips the script. We say, ‘You are the institution. You make it happen.’” 

To buy tickets ($10) for the Hometown & Homeland event March 8, visit bit.ly/Six13North01.

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‘Bernstein & Beethoven’ slated for March 4 at the Cabot

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Leonard Bernstein in 1973. Photo by Allan Warren

 

Symphony by the Sea, the North Shore’s premier professional orchestra, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth with “Bernstein & Beethoven,” a concert featuring excerpts from his most popular and enduring achievement, “West Side Story,” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”).

The historic Cabot Theater in Beverly will host the concert on Sunday, March 4 at 3 p.m.

Bernstein, whose given name was Louis, was born in Lawrence to Russian immigrant parents, and attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University. He burst onto the American music scene in 1943 when he substituted for the ailing Bruno Walter as an 26-year-old unknown assistant conductor, leading the New York Philharmonic in a critically acclaimed concert.

Maestro Donald Palma, music director of Symphony by the Sea, has a special and personal connection to Bernstein (1918-1990), who was the grandson of a Ukrainian Hassidic Rav (Rabbi) and the first American to become musical director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Palma grew up in New York, where he attended the Juilliard School and joined Leopold Stowkowski’s American Symphony at age 19. He worked with Bernstein on several other “awe-inspiring concerts” and attended many of his performances at the New York Philharmonic. “I even sent him a piece I wrote when I was 12-years-old!” Palma said by email.

In 1984, when the German classical music record label, Deutsche Grammophon wanted Bernstein to record “West Side Story” in Germany, he insisted the recording be made on the West Side of New York with New York musicians. Bernstein invited Palma, a prominent classical double bassist, to play principal bass on the record.

“One of the high points in my career was recording ‘West Side Story’ with its composer. We recorded not far from where the action of the play takes place,” Palma said. Bernstein’s children provided the spoken dialogue and the BBC documented the week’s proceedings.

A year after his conducting debut, Bernstein established his composing prowess when New York critics awarded his Symphony No. 1 (subtitled “Jeremiah,” in reference to the story of the sixth century B.C.E. Jewish prophet) their highest accolade, pronouncing it the most impressive new work of the year.

Although Bernstein was not traditionally observant, his life and music were steeped in Judaism. He accepted a commission from the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City in 1945 to compose liturgical music for Shabbat services. “Hashkivenu” for cantor mixed chorus and organ is Bernstein’s one work specifically for the synagogue.

He first visited Israel in 1946, when he conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and he was later appointed the first conductor of the Israel Philharmonic.

To create “West Side Story,” choreographer Jerome Robbins convened a quartet of Jewish artists – the composer, Bernstein; the lyricist, Stephen Sondheim; the librettist, Arthur Laurents; and Robbins, the director and choreographer.

The show transfers Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the tempestuous streets of 1950s New York City’s Upper West Side, where two star-crossed lovers find themselves caught between two rival gangs of different ethnic backgrounds: the white Jets and the first-generation immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Sharks.

The centennial concert adds an exciting twist to nine musical selections from “West Side Story” by combining them with stage direction by Penny Singh, narration by playwright, actress and Salem State University professor of theater, Anne Marilyn Lucas, and vocals by the Endicott Singers, directed by Rebecca Kenneally.

Although written over 50 years ago, Kenneally’s students uncovered contemporary messages. “The themes of gang violence, prejudice against immigrants, police brutality and troubled youth seem especially relevant today. The subject matter is as deep as the musical language Bernstein uses to discuss it, and the students are hungry to explore these depths fully,” she said.

Palma deliberately paired Bernstein’s “West Side Story” music with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. “Lenny was a larger than life figure and as great if not greater than his reputation. He taught so many of us, through his Young Person’s Concerts and Harvard Lectures, how to think about Beethoven’s music,” he said.

On March 4, the great Maestro’s legacy will live on under the baton of one who still feels the thrill of having been touched by his greatness.

For more information, visit symphonybythesea.org or call 978-922-1248.

Swampscott’s Saris takes LEAP into educating those in need

Above: LEAP for education cofounder and executive director Linda Saris (center) with brother and sister Josward Santana of Peabody (at left) and Idekelly Santana King of Lynn. Josward is a sophomore at Middlesex Community College and works full time at Citizens Bank. Idekelly graduated from Northeastern University in 2017 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

By Shelley A. Sackett

JANUARY 25, 2018 – SALEM – Linda Saris’ stellar resumé reads like every parent’s dream. A degree in economics and urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Chicago led to a career that culminated in the senior vice presidency of RSA Security, a fast-growing tech company with 1,300 employees and $320 million in worldwide sales. Her leadership and entrepreneurial skills reaped increasing responsibility and commensurate compensation.

Yet through her quarter-century career, she always felt something was missing. “As a mother and full-time employee who traveled a lot, there was little time for community engagement,” the Swampscott resident said. “I did work in support of women’s advancement opportunities in the workplace, but looking back, I should have done more.”

Her “wake up call to do something different” came in 2001, when the tech bubble burst after 9/11. Saris took advantage of a generous severance package and left the private sector to start a nonprofit with a mission to teach tech skills to young people and their parents.

“It was my time to give back and honor my family and cultural tradition of tzedakah,” she said.

Named Salem CyberSpace, the startup began as part of a larger nonprofit called North Shore Community Action Programs and served seven Salem students in 2003. Today, after going solo in 2004, it is known as LEAP for Education, and a $1 million budget allows it to reach over 800 students per year, primarily in Peabody and Salem.

With its mission to help low-income and first generation American students succeed in middle school, high school, and college, LEAP also educates parents on the college process and financing. It now has a staff of 17 and over 100 volunteers. Saris is understandably proud of LEAP’s 100 percent high school graduation rate and 85 percent college access and retention rates.

While LEAP continues to focus on teaching tech skills and emphasizes STEM – a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering, and math – it has adapted to changing demographics by also providing arts programs and English literacy for the growing immigrant population for whom English is a second language.

According to Saris, organizations like LEAP are especially important during this current administration. “LEAP helps to support, educate, affirm, and make feel welcome young people [and their families] from a variety of countries,” she said.

When new and longtime citizens meet and build connections across ethnic and cultural lines, Saris thinks the resulting familiarity and understanding creates respect, tolerance, admiration, and affection among a diverse citizenry.

“Those qualities are the antidote to prejudice, ignorance, and scapegoating,” she said.

Saris was raised in West Roxbury and attended Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Newton (now in Brookline), where she became a bat mitzvah in 1965 and attended Hebrew school through 11th grade. While her home life was “not overly religious,” her parents and temple educators stressed the importance of charity and community engagement.

As a high school student, she volunteered at ABCD in Dorchester, tutoring young children. “I talked incessantly about the inequities I saw in our community and my parents pushed me to put action behind my words,” she said.

Growing up during the 1960s empowered Saris. “It was a decade of citizen empowerment, of despair and of hope,” she said. “The events around me, my family, my Jewish cultural roots, all foreshadowed the path I decided to take.”

Her sister Patti Saris, older by 11 months, serves as chief judge of the federal court in Boston, and it is evident the sisters share views on immigration that are at odds with the current administration. Last September, Judge Saris issued a temporary order stopping the Trump administration’s deportation of Indonesians without due process.

At a hearing last week, The Boston Globe reported she compared the Indonesian Christians facing possible torture or death in their Muslim-majority homeland to Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazis on the St. Louis, a boat that left Germany with 937 passengers, mostly Jews, that was turned away by the US government in 1939. Many were later killed in the Holocaust.

“We’re not going to be that country,” Judge Saris said in court, according to the Globe.

“My sister has always been a source of inspiration and someone I always looked up to,” Linda Saris said. “She was very supportive when I changed my career. However, the drive to do what I did came from within me, with a lot of help from my family and the events of the day.”

Guthrie’s love song to her Jewish and folk family

By Shelley A. Sackett

Above: Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie, recently spoke at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.

 

JANUARY 25, 2018 – PEABODY – About once a year, Nora Guthrie presents “Holy Ground: Woody Guthrie’s Yiddish Connection,” a multi-media program about Woody Guthrie’s creative and collaborative relationship with his Jewish mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.

Last Monday, over 140 people attended Guthrie’s presentation, which was sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Organizations of the North Shore and CJP, and hosted by Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.

The hour-long storytelling piece included writings, artwork, music from a two-disc Klezmer project, home movies, and Nora Guthrie, telling the surprising story about how her father and grandmother bonded as fellow artists when the family lived in Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

Guthrie says she always begins by answering the question she knows is on everyone’s mind: what in the world does Woody Guthrie have to do with Yiddish poetry? “It’s this crazy story about two people from completely different backgrounds. My father had never met a Jew in his life and my mother had never met a cowboy. He grew up Protestant in a small Oklahoma town. She grew up in Atlantic City and was a student of early Zionism,” she said in a phone interview.

Her parents’ romance started in New York City in the early 1940s, where Woody Guthrie caught the attention of folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded the troubadour’s songs. Some were used in a Martha Graham Dance Company ballet called “Folksay,” a suite of dances set to American roots music. Marjorie Mazia was a dancer with the troupe. She jumped at the chance to meet the songwriter when she heard he was at his apartment in Greenwich Village. She was instantly smitten.

By 1942, the couple was living in Coney Island, the heart of Brooklyn’s Jewish community, across the street from Mazia’s mother, Aliza Greenblatt. By 1945 they were married and Greenblatt introduced her son-in-law to Jewish culture and, most importantly, to Jewish food.

Asked what growing up in Coney Island was like in the 1950s, Nora Guthrie laughs. “It was very Jewish. This was the Yiddish-speaking culture that left Hester Street and moved to Brooklyn. Everything was blintzes, borscht and knishes,” said Guthrie, who is the co-founder of the Woody Guthrie Archives and president of Woody Guthrie Publications.

On the other hand, she was barely aware that her grandmother was a renowned Yiddish poet whose poems were widely published in the Yiddish press and were also set to music and recorded by composers and performers including Abraham Ellstein, Solomon Golub, Theodore Bikel and Sidor Belarsky.

“Our relationship with her was purely bubbie and every aspect of bubbie. It was singing lullabies to us at night, it was taking us for walks on the boardwalk, it was feeding us every Friday night,” Guthrie said.

Shabbat meant family dinner at bubbie’s, and Nora and her brothers, Arlo and Joady, looked forward to the chopped liver, blintzes, sweet and sour meatballs, and liver and onions. In 1952, when Guthrie was just two-years-old, her father was hospitalized for Huntington’s chorea, the disease that killed him in 1967. She doesn’t remember anything special about her father and grandmother’s relationship.

“I was a kid. Bubbie was bubbie. My father was folksongs. When you’re little, you’re not paying attention to that stuff. I didn’t really have an awareness of them as artists and the depth of their creative collaboration, and so a lot of this program I am doing is really explaining the discovery I made as an adult about them,” Guthrie said.

The “discovery” is her father’s writings, drawings and journals that were put into boxes when he was hospitalized and sat unopened for forty years. As her mother moved from apartment to apartment, the unopened boxes went with her. When she died in 1983, they ended up in an office. Ten years later, Guthrie went to work in that office and started looking through her father’s papers. “I found over 100 songs that had to do with Jewish topics. I couldn’t believe my father wrote songs about blintzes and hamentashen,” she said.

Uncovering her grandmother’s legacy was equally happenstance. She received a call one day from Aaron Lansky, president of the Yiddish Book Center, and was informed that Greenblatt’s books had been digitized. Guthrie had no idea her mother had donated them to the center after her grandmother’s death. “I never even had the opportunity to learn of my grandmother’s story and her creative life’s work, especially her Yiddish poetry,” she said.

She created “Holy Ground” to draw attention to an unknown side to her father’s legacy and to the woman who inspired him. “It’s kind of my funny journey from a child knowing each of them as I’m growing up to now as I discover more and more about each of them as creative artists. As you get older, you want to learn more about what your parents did as adults. I didn’t put that together for a long time,” she said.