Shirat Hayam intern investigates where spiritual practice and mindfulness converge

Benjamin “Beni” Summers

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT – Rabbi Michael Ragozin was thrilled when Benjamin “Beni” Summers indicated an interest in joining Congregation Shirat Hayam as its rabbinic intern from October 2021 until June 2022.

“This is an opportunity for CSH to be inspired by a rabbinical student, while providing greater service to our traditional minyan,” said Rabbi Ragozin.

Currently a Shanah Bet Rabbinical student at Hebrew College, Beni worked for the last eight years in the Jewish professional space. He is also about to begin an internship with SHEFA: Jewish Psychedelic Support. “My dream is to become a thought leader in the field of spiritual care for the emerging Jewish psychedelic movement,” he said.

Beni will lead the traditional Shabbat minyan (9 a.m.) and Nosh & Drash (10 a.m.) on Jan. 8, Feb. 12, March 12, April 7, and May 7.

Beni answered some questions to help introduce himself to the North Shore community.

What was your childhood like? What part did Judaism play in your family?

I was born in Salem and started my school journey at the JCCNS preschool. My mother, Leah Summers, worked at Cohen Hillel Academy for decades and we were deeply connected to the Jewish community of the area. We attended Temple Sinai when I was young. Some of my beloved ancestors were devout Chassids and members of the Yiddish intelligentsia of early 20th century Poland, and I grew up on stories of their wisdom, intellect and devotion to the Jewish people.

Can you tell us about your mindfulness training and how that fits into your life and your decision to become a rabbi?

The seeds of my relationship to the theory and practice of Jewish Mindfulness were first planted in 2015, when I was working at Temple Emunah in Lexington. Our rabbi mentioned at a staff meeting that he was working with a few congregants to start a new initiative within the community that would focus on offering contemplative experiences and programs centered around Torah and tefillah (prayer). Something deep within me welled up with intense excitement at the thought of investigating what Jewish spiritual practice and mindfulness might offer one another.

Turns out, it’s quite a lot! I spent the next several years building a routine meditation practice into my daily life, which eventually led me to attend several multi-day silent meditation retreats and to take advanced courses at Lesley University in their Mindfulness Studies master’s program to familiarize myself with the intricacies of neuroscience and predominant theories of Western mindfulness as sourced from Therevaden Buddhist roots. In 2018, I began hosting weekly meditation gatherings in my home in Somerville called “Sit & Sing,” where folks would gather together to sit in silence for 30 minutes followed by 30 minutes of singing niggunim, zemirot and other forms of devotional tunes.

In terms of how my practice interacted with my path to the rabbinate, I can say that the deliberation process was significantly aided by the spaciousness and quietude of the retreat setting. I also believe that as a society we would benefit from installing more methods for slowing down and practicing “radical amazement,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined it, into our daily lives. My hope is that as a spiritual leader, I can guide others in discovering how practices like mindfulness can be both personally healing and Jewishly enriching.

What do you plan to talk about in your monthly drashes (Torah discussions)?

I am thrilled to share my practice of contemplative and embodied Torah study with the community. Learning Torah is more than just an intellectual exercise. It can be a laboratory for spiritual experience and personal meaning-making that taps into realms of mind and heart beneath surface level. There is a teaching in the Talmud which beautifully refers to Torah learning for its own sake (Torah Li’shma) as a Sam Chayyim (A Drug Of Life), which can be likened to the other kinds of drugs out in the world which are sourced from nature, are medicinal, and help us to locate the Divine in our lives for the betterment of all.

This is just one of a growing number of ideas that I have been collecting from our tradition that will hopefully aid psychedelic journeyers, grousnding their experiences of expanded awareness back into the roots of their Jewish journey, which for me is crucial as we move into a new age of legal and regulated psychedelics being utilized for healing and for spiritual transformation in society at large.

Shabbat services at Congregation Shirat Hayam are both online and live. Visit shirathayam.org/spiritual/ for more information.

College students immerse themselves in Israeli culture

By Shelley A. Sackett

Despite anxiety over civil and political unrest – and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 – three college students from Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam headed to Israel for summer internships.

They returned in agreement on three important points: Israel is a spectacular tourist destination; the country feels like one big family; and any young adult offered the opportunity to participate in a residential program in Israel should grab it.

As part of a gap year before heading to Stanford University this fall, 19-year-old Swampscott resident Anna Levenberg spent four months living in Israel through Aardvark Israel, an international program that provides internships and volunteer opportunities. She interned at Keren Or, the Jerusalem center for children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities. She also lived on an army base for a week, volunteering with Sar-El, an organization that partners with the Israel Defense Forces.

Anna Levenberg at Mitzpe Ramon

In between, she found time to explore new places: rafting in the Golan Heights, swimming in the Dead Sea, and skydiving in Haifa. Although this was not her first trip in Israel, it was her favorite.
“Being able to live in Israel for so long allowed me to get to know the country and the culture in a way that would be impossible if I were there only for a few weeks,” Levenberg said. “The communal values in this country are so strong, and people have such a willingness to help one another. From countless Shabbat dinners at my neighbors’ homes to being begged in the Shuk to make Aliyah, I know my presence is valued in Israel.”

Ethan Keller (second from left) at a Shabbat potluck dinner with trip participants in Israel.

Jerusalem was also home base for Ethan Keller of Whitinsville, whose six-week Boston Onward Israel internship residency gave him the opportunity to get to know Israel – and Israelis – in a deeper way than his three previous shorter and more structured trips.

Although his first couple of weeks were challenging, the 22-year-old Clark University student quickly adapted and focused on the summer’s rewards, including touring the country, making new friends, and taking advantage of the chance to dig beneath the superficial.

“This trip has been life-changing,” Keller said. “Israel is a complicated place with complicated people. I’ve had some really good conversations with Israelis, and I’ve had some less pleasant ones. There are people who don’t care about or want peace, and there are those working hard for it.”

He made a Palestinian friend who, along with having a startup in Tel Aviv, is working in his community in East Jerusalem to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians. “There is a lot of hate and misunderstanding in this country and the Palestinian territories, which makes it all the more important to fight against it,” he added.

Cole Cassidy atop a camel.

University of New Hampshire junior Cole Cassidy lived in Tel Aviv and worked as an Onward Boston intern for NOX Group in its marketing department, promoting the top clubs and bars in Tel Aviv. “With a city that doesn’t sleep at night and the endless beach days with sand that makes you feel like you’re on the moon, Tel Aviv felt like utopia,” the 20-year-old Swampscott resident said.

His first trip to Israel was four years ago with the two-week Youth to Israel program sponsored by the Lappin Foundation. He appreciated the freedom of living on his own with two months to discover the country in his own fashion, all while getting an internship under his belt and exploring his Jewish roots.

At first, he was surprised that all stores are closed on Shabbat. “It was definitely an odd adjustment to remember to get groceries or anything I needed Friday before sunset. I was also surprised that the culture is so friendly and outgoing. It felt like one big family here in Israel and within the community,” Cassidy said.

He was struck by the many occasions when being a Jew in a Jewish country collided in powerful ways, for example during a trip to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev for a Shabbaton. “Celebrating Shabbat in the desert under the most thrilling night sky where you are able to see every star was incredible,” he said.

Without hesitation, all three would offer the same advice to young adults considering an internship in Israel: Do it!

“Israel is unlike anything you will ever experience,” Cassidy said. “You can come here and feel like family instantly, not just like a tourist. This is the home of our people and the connection you will feel to our homeland is unbelievable.”

Levenberg recommends going out of your way to meet new people. “Talk to Israelis in the street; ask English speakers where they are from, and chat with your waitresses. My time in Israel has shown me the true power of Judaism. I love living in a place surrounded by Jews who are so proud to be Jews, who influence you to learn more about your religion and culture. It has been such a moving experience being able to connect with my religion alongside my peers from all around the world.”

Shirat Hayam families adjust b’nai mitzvah plans in the time of COVID

by Shelley A. Sackett

Despite Covid-19 and the unpredictability of surges, declines and shifting Massachusetts social gathering rules, eight Shirat families celebrated Bnei Mitzvah over the course of this past year. Five held services at CSH with fewer than 25 guests; two held services in their homes with clergy support online, and one family held the service in their home with Rabbi Michael present.

(L-R)  Kay (age 11), Sara (Ewing), Nat and Jay Mahler

Nat Mahler had the distinction of being CSH’s first Covid-19 Bar Mitzvah. Scheduled for March 21, 2020, it was exactly eight days after everything in the state shut down, including CSH. The Mahler family decided to have the service in their living room. They borrowed a Torah and siddurim from CSH and Rabbi Michael officiated. Nat’s paternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins attended and everyone else connected via Zoom, “which was a novelty back in the day!” Sara joked. For Kiddush, Jay’s parents brought bagels.

They were saddened that Sara’s family couldn’t travel from out of state, that the service could not be in the synagogue and that the evening celebration had to be cancelled. “At first I felt disappointed, but I soon realized that I had to rise to the occasion and do my best,” Nat said. Fortunately, he was able to have all his Bar Mitzvah lessons in person. “Studying for my big event went well and I was more than prepared thanks to my awesome tutor, Jan Brodie.”

For Sara and Jay, having an actual Torah in their house was very special, a flip side of Covid-19 restrictions. “Also, the service was very intimate, special and a unique experience that will stand out in everyone’s memory,” Sara said. “And, our cat Pepper was able to attend!”

At first, Jeremy Sorkin, whose spring Bar Mitzvah was postponed until October 11, 2020  was worried that he might have to learn a new parsha when his original date was moved. But when Rabbi Michael suggested he keep the original parsha as an importance part of maintaining the significance of his Bar Mitzvah, he was greatly relieved. Although it was difficult to continue his lessons virtually, his tutor Jan Brodie and Aunt Nancy Sorkin spent countless hours preparing him during the fall. “This gave me so much confidence for performing the service on my big day,” Jeremy said.


(L-R): Jeffrey, Amanda, Jeremy, and Amy Sorkin

When Jeremy’s parents, Amy and Jeffrey Sorkin, moved the original May 23, 2020 date to Columbus Day weekend, they never imagined they would be having a virtual Bar Mitzvah, but as the date approached, it became evident they would. In October, there was a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings, and their immediate family could be accommodated with friends and family watching from afar. Even with the technical challenges of shulcasting, Amy and Jeffrey were able to find a silver lining. “Our family was able to focus on what the true essence of a Bar Mitzvah celebration is- a very meaningful service conducted by Cantor Alty (Rabbi Michael was sick), a thought-provoking Dvar Torah by Jeremy and dancing the hora with our close family. It was truly a memorable experience for our family,” they said.


Hannah and Vivian (age 10) Schwartz

Two weeks later, on October 24,2020  Hannah Schwartz also celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at CSH with a small family group and more than 100 others watching on Zoom. The weekend included a Shabbat dinner in an indoor/outdoor setting, a hybrid service Saturday morning, a drive-by parade after the service for local friends, a boxed Kiddush lunch outside, a Saturday night festive dinner and Sunday brunch- and lots of careful quarantining, testing and masking for those participating in person.

For Hannah’s parents, Janna and George Schwartz, the biggest challenges were the unknowns every step of the way, and they are grateful to everyone at CSH who helped them navigate the unchartered waters. While they missed many people, they felt blessed to have been able to integrate many personal elements into the ceremony, from Hannah’s sister Vivian playing Siman Tov on the piano to her cousin’s receiving an in-person Aliyah to her grandparents presenting her with her tallis. “Jews have endured carrying on our traditions despite difficult circumstances throughout history. This was ours- and one to be cherished,” Janna said.

For Hannah, though, the virtual experience was disappointing. “Not everyone was there. It didn’t feel like a ‘normal’ Bat Mitzvah, but it was a special family gathering and we made the most of it,” she said.

Liora Ragozin, whose September 25, 2020 Bat Mitzvah also took place in the CSH sanctuary with many others watching and participating virtually, missed having her cousins with her, but said that because her family (including her parents, Rabbi Michael and Sarah Ragozin and siblings Noam and Aliza) and friendship circle are small, “it felt good to celebrate the way we did. My favorite part was giving my Dvar Torah. I enjoy public speaking – when it’s in English!” she added.

Jake Dubow initially felt let down that his December 12, 2020 Bar Mitzvah didn’t turn out as planned. “For my whole life, I had been talking with my family about a big Bar Mitzvah and party,” he said. Instead of the 400-guest in-person ceremony in the sanctuary, sleepover with all his camp friends and a celebration at Boston’s Hard Rock Café, he had a small service with 17 guests in an open-sided tent in his Swampscott yard without his paternal grandparents, who couldn’t make it from Canada and Florida. Even the clergy were zoomed in.


(L-R): Jonathan, Jake, Rachelle and Charlie Dubow

Jake had started studying with Jan Brodie before the pandemic and felt grateful for the in-person lessons prior to having to shift to virtual tutoring. “Studying was hard work, but I was very diligent. Although I was nervous, I was also excited to show off my hard work on my Bar Mitzvah day,” he said.

For his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, the vagaries of Covid-19 were even more daunting. Rachelle grew up with a mother who was (and still is) a professional event planner and a grandfather who was a kosher caterer, so celebrating simchas in a “big” way has always been in her blood. They had already shifted  gears, with plans to still celebrate on Jake’s actual Bar Mitzvah date (also Shabbat of Hannukah) at CSH with Rabbi Michael and Cantor Alty, but with only 17 live guests and the rest of their friends and family virtually. Then, on December 8, CSH indoor rules changed, prohibiting any gatherings in the building. The Dubows pivoted to the tent, hardly missing a beat.

The family Kiddush was shared on Zoom, with Jake and his younger brother, Charlie, leading the prayers, followed by an outdoor pop-up and drive-by for well-wishers. “We had music playing and an amazing vibe going, so despite being outside and masked, it felt like a slice of normal,” Rachelle said.

Her biggest challenge was missing her in-laws and sister and her family, but the many rewards softened that blow. Because of Zoom, many friends and relatives were able to join from Israel, France, Canada and the US. The Wednesday before the Bar Mitzvah, two Torahs arrived at their home. “Just having those scrolls in my home elevated us spiritually in a way that is hard to describe. But most of all, it was the pride, the immeasurable, indescribable pride we had in our son who had worked so hard and handled all the pivots and little disappointments with such grace,” she said.

Like his fellow Covid-19 Bnei Mitzvah celebrants, Ned Jefferies was at first disappointed that his January 9, 2021 would be on Zoom instead of in the sanctuary, and then he was doubly disappointed that instead of Zoom (where he could have seen those watching), there were so many guests that they had to use Zoom Webinar. “It was cool seeing everyone’s messages in chat, though,” he said.


(L-R): Jennifer Mazur (Cat’s mother), Cat, Tom, Sophie, Ned, Yelena Jefferies and Joe Mazur (Cat’s father)

For his parents, Cat and Tom Jefferies, the event was actually wonderful, with Tom’s family in England and their friends all over the world able to join them. “For many, this was the first Bar Mitzvah they had ever been to. We were really touched by how meaningful they found it and it felt wonderful to be able to share it with them,” Cat said.

Although Cat admits they were nervous about the technology, J.R. Young, Rabbi Michael, Cantor Alty and Barri Stein all advised them. Family members were able to Zoom in and read Torah, take Aliyahs and read prayers “from California to Canada to England – and it all went smoothly!” Cat said.

Kiddush was Ned’s favorite dish, pesto pasta cooked by his grandmother, Jennifer Mazur. The eight family members sat around the kitchen table and then ran out to do a Mitzvah drive-by at CSH.

Having the Torah in their home was very special and a highlight of the weekend and a true family event. They set it on a 19th century tablecloth that had travelled to the US with Cat’s grandmother, and placed one of Tom’s paintings behind it. “We could really feel the love of our family, friends and the congregation during this momentous occasion,” Cat said.

What one Jewish educator did on her summer vacation

 

Yeshivagroup photo

Group photo of the Yeshiva students. Janis Knight is in the back wearing a hat

 

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva is still study time.

 

Veiled OrthodoxJewish women fashion mannekins1

Mannequins illustrate women dressed in full Orthodox cover at the Israel Museum exhibit.

 

Shirat Hayam Gets Down to Business

 

Anna Hataway

Anna Hathaway settles into her new office as Congregation Shirat Hayam. She is the synagogue’s first Business Manager.

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — For its first thirteen years, Congregation Shirat Hayam operated without a business manager. That changed on June 4th with the hiring of Anna Hathaway, a Middleton CPA, PFS and MST with 18 years of career experience.

 

Hathaway couldn’t be more pleased with her new position. “I wanted to find a place where I could work for the greater good, using my talents to help an organization accomplish its mission,” she said from her sunny office that abuts the social hall. “In today’s world, I believe it is important that people have both a place and an organization of people to be able to connect with something bigger than themselves. After meeting the staff at CSH, I was interested in joining the team and working with them to accomplish theirs.”

 

The need for a business manager surfaced as part of a three-year process undertaken by the CSH Strategic Planning Group and facilitated by Dennis Friedman of the Chesapeake Group. The group’s charge is to develop and implement a new Strategic Plan, Vision and Mission for CSH.

 

The journey began in 2017, when Renée Sidman became CSH Board President. She and fellow board member Larry Groipen approached the full board to fund a strategic visioning program. “We felt strongly that we needed to invest time into understanding who we were and where we were going. The best analogy was that we all needed to row the boat in same direction,” she said.

 

Friedman came highly recommended by Groipen, who had worked with him professionally for over 25 years. “Dennis was a fresh set of eyes to our community and brought his own experience as past president of his congregation in the South Shore,” Sidman noted.

 

What resonated most with Rabbi Michael Ragozin, however, was that Friedman remains with CSH to oversee the vision statement during its implementation. “That practical focus on implementation was very important to us. Many people on the Board sat on other organizations where an inordinate amount of time and resources is spent on creating a plan that simply sits on a shelf,” he said.

 

The resultant CSH Vision Statement has three prongs, including: “We embrace our responsibilities to invest in strengthening our Jewish community for generations to come.” Implementation of this prong led to creation of the business manager position.

 

As a business consultant with 28 years’ experience specializing in strategic planning and organizational development, Friedman concurred with the rest of the group that CSH had strong leadership in the religious and educational spheres, but needed a business manager to bring the same level of leadership in the physical and fiscal infrastructure sphere if it was to fulfill its mission “for generations to come.”

 

A successful candidate would be someone with strong financial expertise and management skills who could also work collegially with staff to assist them in increasing efficiency and effectiveness, the group decided. Hathaway’s resume was a perfect fit.

 

Born and raised in Lynn, Hathaway spent many summer days at Kings Beach. She and her husband Dave are parents to an adult son, DJ. She holds a Masters of Science in Taxation from Bentley College and a B.S. in Business Administration from Salem State University. Her experience includes: Controller/CFO of Quadrant Health Strategies, Inc.; Controller of Wakefield Management, Inc. (Midas franchises); Business Manager at Epstein-Hillel Academy, and Controller of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore (from 2001-2006).

 

After interviewing her, Groipen, a member of the Strategic Planning Group, knew that Hathaway was just the sort of person the group had in mind.

 

“Anna is a CPA, she has a lot of building knowledge, she understands enough about roofing, plumbing, landscaping, HVAC and building safety and security to make good decisions,” he said. “Above all, she wants to work towards continuing the welcoming experience we at CSH are so proud of.”

 

While Hathaway is ready to advance CSH’s vision for the future, she is also mindful of national current trends. “The biggest challenge facing CSH is similar to other religious organizations, namely attracting and retaining families to become active participants of the congregation,” she said.

 

Not Your Zayde’s Cheder

Darkeinulogo

By Shelley Sackett

 

Congregation Shirat Hayam will unveil Darkeinu (“our way”), a trailblazing post-b’nei mitzvah program modeled on a college education that gives Jewish teens credit toward Kabbalat Torah/Conformation for participating in a broad range of activities that they choose for themselves.

 

Students in grades 8 through 12 can earn credits towards their Darkeinu “degree” by participating in a variety of activities that encompass five basic areas of Jewish life: community services, ritual leadership, community leadership, study and Zionism.

 

“As an educator, I am really enthusiastic about giving teens flexibility and choice,” said Janis Knight, Director of Center for Jewish Education. “One thing is for sure — this isn’t your zayde’s cheder, or even much like your own Hebrew School experience any more!”

 

The program’s real groundbreaking innovation, according to Rabbi Michael Ragozin, is in offering credit for “life experience” already available throughout the North Shore and beyond. Teens can fulfill their course requirements by participating in any number of local programs, such as the Jewish Teen Initiative, the Sloane Fellowship, Lappin Foundation, BBYO, Cohen Camps and more.

 

They also have the option of proposing something they come up with on their own or studying with Rabbi Ragozin in a more traditional setting. Once a month, however, all Darkeinu participants will meet for a light dinner and discussion with the Rabbi and CJE Director as part of a mandatory 9-week character and Jewish values program called “Chai Mitzvah.”

Darkeinu1

 

“By giving teens credit for participating in an array of teen programs already in place, Darkeinu isn’t competing with existing local opportunities. Rather, we are encouraging participation in the unique activities that are right for each teen. Darkeinu is participant-centric, not institution-centric,” Rabbi Ragozin noted.

 

Perhaps most revolutionary is that Darkeinu is open to any teen that self-identifies as Jewish and has a whole-hearted interest in building their own authentic Jewish identity as they become an adult.

 

“We’re not trying to make anyone CSH members. We’re just trying to get Jewish kids together to explore being Jewish in their own way,” Knight said, adding, “And they get credit for it.”

 

One prong of the newly crafted CSH Vision Statement reads, “We will deliver the best childhood and teen education on the North Shore,” and Darkeinu helps fulfill that mission. A recent report from the Jewish Education Project, Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today, influenced Knight and Rabbi Ragozin as they brainstormed about Darkeinu. (see http://JewishEdProject.org/GenerationNow.)

 

The JEP study developed core questions for educators to imagine teens asking themselves, such as: Who am I? With whom do I connect? What is my responsibility in the world as a Jewish adult? How do I bring about the change I want to see? “Creating programs and experiences that help teens to ask and look for answers to those questions is our goal,” Knight said.

 

Rabbi Ragozin, who was equally affected by the study, agrees. “We know that Jewish teens are yearning for inspiring opportunities and that meaningful teen engagement opens new worlds of wisdom and practice as they become adults. We want all to have the best Jewish teen experience, whether it’s inside Shirat Hayam or outside,” he said. “But in the short term, our goal is that they feel energized and have fun.”

 

Darkeinu launches at a brunch on Sunday, October 14. For more information or to register, go to bit.ly/RegisterDarkeinu or contact Janis Knight, CJE Director at CJE@ShiratHayam.org or 781-599-8005 x25.

Davening to a different drummer: Meet Cantor Alty Weinreb

 

Aty Weinreb1

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When Alty Weinreb answered the ad Congregation Shirat Hayam placed for a new cantor, it was because he was attracted to its name. “I love music (shirat) and the ocean (hayam), so I thought it might be interesting,” he said from his New York City home. After he experienced Shirat’s Shabbat Renewal Service during a weekend at the Swampscott synagogue as one of three candidates invited for live auditions, he was convinced it was more than an attraction to a name that led him to the Swampcott synagogue — it was bashert (meant to be).

It all goes back to Weinreb’s childhood. Raised in a very observant Flushing, New York Orthodox home, he would wait all week to go to shul (synagogue) to hear the cantor sing. “His voice became my refuge and inspiration,” he explained.

 

In addition to attending services, his family would head back to shul on Friday evenings after prayers and dinner for a group sing-along called Oneg Shabbos (Joy of Shabbos). “Here I was, a child surrounded by mostly grown men singing with full-throated joy and deep feeling. When everyone sang together, I was transported to a magical place,” he said.

 

Shirat’s Shabbat Renewal services, where congregants are invited to enter a meditative spiritual place through prayer and music, brought Weinreb back to those magical moments of his youth. It also reminded him of a funny story.

 

One Shabbat, he remembers the cantor was “wailing from his soul and it flew into my soul. I became lost in a davening (praying) ocean, swimming in deep waters, transfixed,” he said. Without thinking, he began hand drumming on the table in front of him.

 

Alty Weinreb2

 

His beat was getting louder and louder. Suddenly, the cantor stopped singing. “Then the Rabbi turned around and looked at me and screamed, ‘Alty, STOP! There’s no drumming in shul, young man. You are in a lot of trouble,” Weinreb continued.

 

He was mortified, but did not understand what the problem was. Fast forward to the adult Alty, recently walking into Shirat for the first time and seeing a collection of drums next to the bima (Torah ark). “Then the Rabbi invited me to play the drums during prayers,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect. “Hallelujah! Poetic justice!”

 

Weinreb began his cantorial studies because he loves Jewish prayer music. “It makes me feel alive when I sing it. It allows me to connect with people of all ages and maybe inspire in others what I first felt as a child,” he said. He holds a BA from St. Louis Rabbinical College and studied at Yeshiva University Belz School of Jewish Music in New York, where he trained in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions.

 

“I started out taking Ashkenazi cantor training and then fell in love with the Sephardic melodies,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have studied with two of the greatest living cantors — Cantor Joseph Malovany (Ashkenazi) and Hazzan Moshe Tessone (Sephardic).”

 

Since 2000, Weinreb has been a cantor during High Holidays and at nursing homes and hospitals. He has also taught drum and percussion and performed with a number of musical groups, including the Judeo Flamenco group, the Simcha All Stars Klezmer Band and the Cuban Jewish All Star Klezmer Band.

 

Shirat is his first residential synagogue cantor position. Weinreb feels it is the right time in his life to contribute to building a community, especially one that is such a perfect fit. “I love Shirat’s desire to rethink basic assumptions about ritual and spiritual practice,” he said. “I hope to continue on the great path that Cantor Elana Rozenfeld blazed” during her seven years at Shirat.

 

He also hopes to add some new items to Shirat’s Shabbat Synaplex™ menu, such as “Storahtelling,” a Torah service that creatively fuses traditional chanting with English translation, dramatized commentary and audience interaction that brings text to life. “I have been energized by Storahtelling,” he said.

 

Although he counts among his “most fun gigs” playing drums for Shlomo Carlebach at a Purim show and performing with his Judeo Flamenco group for 1,000 singing and dancing concertgoers at NYC’s World Music Pier 70 Concert Series, he is excited to settle into his new apartment in Salem with his wife, Elizabeth, and begin his new job on July 1.

 

So is Shirat Board President Renée Sidman. “I cannot wait to see what he will bring on a weekly basis!” she said.

 

To listen to some of Cantor Alty Weinreb’s music, visit cantoraltyshul.com/about/

North Shore religious schools struggle to engage parents

By Shelley A. Sackett

MARCH 29, 2018 – Carrie Dichter grew up in Marblehead, where she attended religious school at Temple Emanu-El through post-confirmation. She is parent committee chair of Temple Tiferet Shalom Hebrew School in Peabody, which her nine-year-old daughter has attended since pre-school. “My husband and I feel religious school is important,” she said.

Asked if there are any changes she would like to see, she answered with three words: more parental involvement.

“While life has always been busy, religion often falls between the cracks because of school, sports, clubs, arts and other special interests in addition to many families where both parents are working outside the home. Everyone is trying to navigate it in the best way possible,” she said.
Parents, teachers and rabbis from the North Shore’s religious schools who were interviewed for this article echo Dichter’s sentiment.

Over her 20-year career teaching different ages in three different schools, including her current position at Temple Emanuel in Andover, Marcie Trager has seen Hebrew School become less of a priority for parents. “Attending religious school has to come from their parent’s commitment,” she said.

Not only are parents today stretched thinner than their parents were, they also may not have fond memories of their own religious school experiences.

“When it comes to supplemental Jewish education, I have no doubt that parents who are more engaged with their child’s Jewish education will produce better results. Through anecdotal conversations, I’ve learned that a majority of adults view their own childhood experience with Hebrew school negatively. For some, they found it hypocritical that their parents forced them to attend Hebrew school, but did not engage themselves in meaningful Jewish practice,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.

Many feel that the key to increased religious school enrollment and better attendance is family programming, beginning for toddlers long before they enter Hebrew School.

“Getting children started early with preschool, pre-K and programs like PJ Library, Tot Shabbat and other Lappin Foundation programs will help get more kids involved and enrolled,” said Allison Wolper, an educator at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly who has taught religious school for 25 years.

To be successful, parents and educators believe that family programming at religious schools must also acknowledge the changing demographics of congregants, and stress inclusivity. At Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, according to Phoebe Potts, director of the temple’s Family Learning, 75 percent of the religious school families are intermarried.

Stephanie Band, who teaches grade K-2 at the Gloucester temple, points to many religious school offerings that are also open to parents and families. “The importance of learning together has grown significantly as many children are learning alongside their parents and caregivers,” she said. “Families need to model for their children what they want their Jewish future to look like.”

Band stresses the importance of inclusivity in religious school and the temple community. “These families need and deserve to be treated as equitable members of the community,” she said.

Lauren Goldman, who has taught at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly for 16 years, also emphasizes the responsibility religious school teachers have to both honor sacred traditions and make all families feel welcome. “We must be inclusive of the LBGTQ community, children with disabilities and their families, mixed faith families – everyone,” she said. “Family programming is tantamount to involving the parents and other generations of the children’s families.”

Curricula that stress projects and social interactions – rather than traditional text-based learning – acknowledge another factor that plays a crucial role in getting parents to prioritize religious school attendance over other extra-curricular activitites: busy parents are more likely to transport their children to religious school if their kids enjoy it. “It’s very important today to make the parents happy by creating a kind of easy going environment,” said Rachel Jacobson, who teaches at Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center.

Stacey Chicoine, parent of third grade twins, appreciates Chabad’s innovative and hands on approach. “My Hebrew school growing up in Framingham was strict and I was slow in learning. I always felt uncomfortable asking for help,” said the Melrose resident. “Chabad is so intent on engaging the children and it has paid off. After a long day of school, my children look forward to attending.”

Parents also give religious schools high marks for establishing a sense of Jewish identity and kinship in their children. “I was hoping religious school would be a place where our kids would not only learn about Jewish tradition and history, but also make connections and feel part of a Jewish community,” said Rebecca Joyner, who attended religious school until her bat mitzvah and whose fourth and sixth grade daughters attend religious school at Temple Emanuel in Andover. “They are getting out of it what I had hoped. Some of our daughter’s closest friendships are at Hebrew school, and the temple has become a big part of their lives.”

Overall, once parents commit to sending their children to religious school, they and their children seem happy with the experience. Educators say the biggest hurdle is figuring out how to get more kids enrolled and, once enrolled, how to get their parents more involved in religious school and synagogue life.

Rabbi Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead believes the key lies with a parent’s own Jewish practice. “The most important learning comes when our students are able to witness their parents’ valuing of Jewish education, and when what they are learning at temple comes to life in their own home and lives,” he said.

Rabbi Ragozin agrees and considers it the synagogue’s role to engage both parent and child. “Synagogues have a responsibility to offer a variety of gateways into meaningful and accessible practices, not only for the sake of adults, but also for the sake of educating children via their parents’ engagement,” he said.

Nonetheless, he is realistic about changing parents’ attitudes overnight. “Ultimately, we all need to have reasonable expectations,” he said.

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.

Marblehead, Swampscott congregations unite to study Israel’s history

DECEMBER 14, 2017 – Round tables in the Temple Emanu-El social hall were draped with white paper cloths. The coffee pot and cookies beckoned from the corner. Around five minutes before 7, a steady flow of adults greeted each other, staking out a seat within just the right view (and hearing range). They clutched textbooks and pens, and bore the excited, eager look that marks adult learners.

For four Tuesday nights this fall, 30 people attended a class co-taught by Rabbis David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. Titled “Israel’s Milestones and Their Meanings: The Legacy of the Past and the Challenge of the Future,” the curriculum was developed by the Shalom Hartman Institute iEngage in New York and addressed three pivotal moments in Israel’s history: 1917, 1947, and 1967.

The rabbis alternated locations, with two classes at Shirat Hayam and two classes at Temple Emanu-El. While the class appreciated the readings and history, it was the interaction of the rabbis that most resonated.

“I love the idea of co-teaching between the two rabbis,” said Temple Emanu-El member Judy Mishkin. “They are wonderful together, they are wonderful separately.”

For Brenda and Shelley Cohen of Marblehead, these evenings were a way to share. “My husband is a history buff and he fills in everything I don’t know,” Brenda said with a laugh.

Asked what “Tuesday night date night” meant to him, Shelley, a Shirat Hayam member and retired dentist, deadpanned, “A quick supper.”

The rabbis stressed the importance of uniting a community challenged by divergent views toward Israel and American politics. “We thought we could do something that would bring a measure of healing and acceptability into the conversation around Israel,” Rabbi Ragozin said.

“There’s something inherently beautiful about bringing the two congregations together. The participants don’t necessarily know each other, so they might feel they’re in a safe setting to openly discuss and critique Israel.”

Rabbi Meyer agreed. “We really sought to create a fresh dialogue and a new conversation about Israel, about the role Israel plays in the world and in our lives,” Rabbi Meyer said.

The two also relished the idea of working together. “I’m always learning something from David. He’s a mentor and a mensch,” said Rabbi Ragozin, referring to himself as “the new young rabbi in town.”

“Our congregations are separated by only a mile and a half, but our programming tends to be separated, so it’s certainly allowed Michael and me to work together and get to know each other,” Rabbi Meyer said. “And that’s all positive.”

“It’s a luxury to have two rabbis teaching us,” said Margaret Somer, a Swampscott resident and Shirat Hayam member. Even more important to her, however, was thinking about the 1967 Six-Day War, especially as the celebration of another historical miracle – Hanukkah – approaches.

“It was a major, major moment in history, a transformation of how the Jewish people feel about themselves, the confidence and assertiveness,” she said, pausing as she searched for the exact words that summed up how she felt. She smiled broadly. “It’s OK to be Jewish,” she said triumphantly.