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.”

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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.