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.

 

 

 

 

Salem’s So Sweet Kicks off February 9

Salem Sweet

Shelley A. Sackett

Salem will look like a mid-winter’s night dream on Saturday, Feb. 10 when dozens of illuminated ice sculptures beckon even the most thin-blooded to bundle up and stroll the historic city’s streets.

As if the magic of glistening ice sculptures were not treat enough, there will also be delectable chocolate samples, trolley rides and discount Valentine’s Day shopping during Salem’s sweetest event of the year: the 16th annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate & Ice Sculpture Festival.

From Friday, Feb. 9 through Sunday, Feb. 11, Salem Main Streets, the Salem Chamber of Commerce, Destination Salem, and local businesses work together to create the much-anticipated weekend that helps distract from the long, cold slog of New England winters.

The festival kicks off officially on Friday, Feb. 9 with a Chocolate and Wine Tasting at Colonial Hall at Rockafellas, 231 Essex St. from 6:30–8:30 p.m. Featuring wine and chocolate samplings and music by Molly Pinto Madigan, the event is the highlight of the season and sold out early in past years. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased in person at the Salem Chamber of Commerce, by phone at 978-744-0004 or online at salemsosweet.com.

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, many downtown businesses will offer free chocolate samplings and sweet discounts. The “Golden Ticket” is a 10 percent discount valid Feb. 10 and 11 only: shoppers making a full-price purchase at one participating downtown business receive a 10 percent discount off the next purchase at a participating business. The tickets are inserted in brochures found throughout the city.

Photographer John Andrews, whose organization Creative Salem supports community-based festivals and often teams up with Salem Main Streets, said Creative Salem has introduced two new Salem’s So Sweet events this year.

Galentine’s Day at Ledger restaurant on Saturday, Feb. 10 will celebrate ladies celebrating ladies. Inspired by the Amy Poehler character from the show “Parks and Rec,” the event features a nighttime brunch, DJ and photo booth. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit eventbrite.com/e/galentines-day-at-ledger-tickets-41705352833.

On Sunday, Feb. 11, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Creative Salem will host the first Pop Rocks Pop Up Craft Market at Old Town Hall, with dozens of local artisans.

“Midwinter is challenging for small downtown businesses,” Andrews said. “We are happy that Salem Main Streets and other organizations are constantly working to support the business, creative and resident communities.”

Even though Salem is abuzz with these various exciting activities and events, the ice sculptures steal the show as well as people’s hearts.

Last year, there were a record-breaking 25 ice sculptures installed around downtown and for the second time local company Retronica illuminated them on Saturday night “which really adds a whole new sense of celebration in the face of February’s cold, dark nights,” said Salem Main Streets Executive Director Kylie Sullivan.

Sullivan has two favorite festival moments. One is about mid-day on Saturday, when everyone begins discovering the sculptures for the first time.

“But the illumination on Saturday night has also become one of my favorites,” she said. “To look around and see the downtown so full of people of all ages, locals and visitors – on a night in the middle of February when you wouldn’t normally see anyone out – is so cool and is really the reason we have the festival in the first place,” she said.

Mayor Kim Driscoll agrees.

“The Salem’s So Sweet Festival is a unique and festive way to celebrate this season and all the terrific local businesses that participate,” she said. “I hope folks will have the opportunity to get to the many events, restaurants, and shops taking part this year. I’m especially looking forward to what we’ll see with this year’s ice sculptures.”

Israelsohn and Noss to receive social action award

By Shelley A. Sackett

JANUARY 11, 2018 – BEVERLY – When Eve Israelsohn Noss was a child, her mother, Elaine Israelsohn, and a friend started the Ipswich League of Women Voters (LWV). The two women held planning meetings at each other’s homes, usually in the kitchen. Eve recalls sitting under the table, coloring and “listening to them talk about voter education and water resources.”

Elaine’s dedication to social issues and activism extended to the family supper table. “We encouraged our kids to participate and be knowledgeable of what was going on around them politically,” she said by email.

Her mother’s community involvement and growing up in Ipswich, where she and her brothers were the only Jewish kids in the entire school district, shaped Noss’ career choices and her commitment to social justice and interfaith community building issues. “Ipswich has always been ethnically and economically diverse,” Noss said.

When the educator and mediator returned to the area years later, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, joining the Beverly LWV, co-chairing two local studies on domestic violence and child abuse, and serving as its co-president.

Mother and daughter remain dedicated to tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly and throughout the North Shore and Essex County, their multi-generational commitment spanning half the temple’s history.

On January 12 at 7 p.m., the TBA Social Action Committee will acknowledge them at its Social Action Shabbat with the third annual Leah Shriro Social Action Honor, which pays tribute to members who represent the best of TBA through their community involvement.

“Eve and her mother represent two generations of compassionate, caring, engaged members who are also active in the larger community,” Rabbi Alison Adler wrote by email. “It became clear that honoring Eve and her mother, Elaine, had special significance on MLK weekend, as we remember all who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement together across religious boundaries.”

The inclusive Shabbat service includes a speaker and reflections from Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and other sources that fit with themes of social justice and interfaith activism.

The social action award was created in 2016 in memory of Leah Shriro, a longtime temple volunteer and founder of the Social Action Committee who died in 2015 at the early age of 62. The award brings into focus and salutes the passionate dedication of members who have been working for social justice and creating caring community both within TBA and in the world at large.

In addition to her work with the local and state-level LWV, Israelsohn also served on the board of Bridging the Generations, a Beverly coalition that dealt with social issues and city-wide preventative programs, and represented TBA on the Beverly Interfaith Council.

She served on the temple’s board for many years, including as vice president, and created its historic archive collection. “Preserving the history of our community is so important and she has done so with great love,” Rabbi Adler said.

The seed for Noss’ work embracing interfaith marriage and community relationships was planted when she moved back to the North Shore in 1985 and started attending temple programs as a young interfaith family. “It became clear at High Holiday and regular services that in a Conservative congregation, the Jewish spouse was expected to convert the non-Jewish spouse to Judaism,” she said by email.

She met many other couples that were grappling with similar issues, including Leah Shriro, who became one of her closest friends. In response, she helped develop an interfaith family group for couples with and without children and parents whose young adult children were dating non-Jews. These families celebrated holidays together and discussed what it meant to raise children together. “Eve really helped change TBA into a more welcoming place for interfaith families,” Rabbi Adler said of the TBA past president.

Swampscott native takes the helm at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters

DECEMBER 28, 2017 – When Harvey Lowell steps down after 21 years as president and CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, he will pass the baton to Kimberlee Schumacher, who brings strong vision and 20 years of executive experience, including as vice president of strategy and development of the organization.

“The fact that Kimberlee has been leading our strategic planning process for the last 18 months, and helping us create a vision for our future, will ensure a smooth transition into her new role,” David Franklin, chairman of the board of trustees, said in a Dec. 12 statement announcing Schumacher’s appointment.

Schumacher, a Swampscott native who now lives in Arlington, will bring a blend of innovation and respect for past practices to her new position. “I am incredibly honored and humbled to be in the position of implementing the new strategic plan,” she said.

One aspect of Lowell’s legacy Schumacher plans to maintain is a deep commitment to the mission of JBBBS: reaching out to the most vulnerable children and adults in the community.
She was selected following a national search conducted by Commongood Careers, a leading executive search firm specializing in nonprofits.

Founded in 1919 as the Jewish Big Brother Association, the JBBBS is New England’s oldest youth mentoring organization. Today, with financial support from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, The United Way, and other foundations and grants, the Newton-based organization matches over 250 Jewish and non-Jewish children from over 90 towns in eastern Massachusetts with adult mentors.

In 1992, JBBBS inaugurated Friend 2 Friend, the first program of its kind to pair adults with mild to moderate disabilities with a mentor. The program currently serves 175 adults who benefit from the social interactions it provides.

One of the biggest challenges the organization faces is finding and keeping volunteers. “We are always looking for new volunteers,” Schumacher said, noting the current waiting list of around 80 kids and adults with disabilities. “I’d like to encourage anyone who is interested to consider volunteering. It’s truly an incredible experience and our community needs you.”

Schumacher credits her parents for instilling such a strong love of Judaism. “They taught me the value of committing to and being part of the Jewish community,” she said. Growing up, she belonged to Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.

As a teenager, her involvement in the Temple Emanu-El SMARTY youth group provided a platform to develop leadership skills at a young age. She became its president while a Swampscott High School junior and worked as a SMARTY adviser while an undergraduate at Brandeis University.

Schumacher believes her experiences as a teen leader fueled her passion to continue working in the community at CJP, the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, and now at JBBBS. “I am extremely grateful for the mentoring relationships I formed in high school. The wonderful people I worked with then remain my mentors today,” she said.

She is also grateful to be at the helm of JBBBS. “I believe strongly in giving back to the community, and working in the nonprofit world allows me to live my life according to the values I was raised with,” she said.

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.

‘Arc Tank’ competition is changing lives of disabled through innovation

NOVEMBER 30, 2017 – In 2002, Jo Ann Simons and Steven P. Rosenthal happened to pick neighboring elliptical machines at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead. During their workout, they chatted. Simons learned of Rosenthal’s interest in philanthropy; Rosenthal learned about Simons’ interest in intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Neither had a clue that 15 years later, they would partner to revolutionize the way their two fields could intersect.

It all started when Rosenthal was planning his 2017 donations. The Marblehead resident and former CEO of Northland Investment Corp. knew he wanted to do more than just write the traditional check to a nonprofit that supports his core values of “tikun olam” (repair the world). He wanted to inject innovation and creativity into the process, setting an example that might encourage other philanthropists to think outside the box.

He immediately thought of Simons, now CEO of Danvers-based Northeast Arc, which is at the forefront of providing innovative services, education, and training to 9,000 adults and children with disabilities each year.

“We are a thought leader. We want to establish ourselves as the most innovative, creative, strategic organization in our industry,” Simons said of Northeast Arc, which has 1,100 employees and a $250 million budget, and reaches 190 communities throughout eastern Massachusetts.

It was a good fit. Rosenthal, who now runs the Boston real estate investment firm called West Shore LLC, donated $1 million to Northeast Arc to launch The Changing Lives Fund. He, Simons, and the Arc board of directors then brainstormed to come up with a groundbreaking approach to spending that money.

“We thought, what a novel concept if — instead of keeping the money — we decided we were going to try to inspire the most creative ideas within our industry,” said Simons, who lives in Swampscott and is a Swampscott High School graduate. “Steve’s vision of philanthropy helps us identify a new, nuanced role.”

Borrowing from the name and competitive methodology of “Shark Tank,” the popular ABC television show, the team created “Arc Tank,” where anyone with a creative concept to aid people with disabilities can pitch an idea and compete for funding from The Changing Lives Fund.

“We realized we can develop initiatives that support our mission and leverage the money for a greater impact if we give it away,” Simons said.

Of the 100 proposals from all over the world that flooded in after the competition was advertised, 45 were selected for the “holding tank.” Outside reviewers recommended seven finalists.

The inaugural Arc Tank contest, collaboration between Northeast Arc and the JFK Library Foundation, took place on Nov. 15 at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum and awarded $200,000. Over 300 people attended.

A panel of judges awarded grants to three winners who “positively disrupted the conventional methods of providing services to persons with disabilities.”

• Pathways to Inclusive Healthcare,” submitted by Dr. Carolyn Langer, associate professor at UMass Medical Center in Worcester, received $80,000 to develop a pipeline of healthcare professionals to ease the transition from pediatrics to adult medicine care.

• The Center for Public Representation of Northampton, a public service law firm, received $85,000 for its proposal, “Disrupting the Guardianship Pipeline,” to create an effective alternative to guardianship, often the only option for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

• “Water Wise,” submitted by the YMCA of the North Shore in Beverly, addresses the fact that drowning is a leading cause of death for children with Autism spectrum disorder by developing a water safety program that targets specific needs. The $30,000 grant will fund the program in two locations next year, with plans to expand to eight sites by 2019.

In addition, two incubator proposals were awarded $2,500 each.  Andrew Holmes of Winchester, a junior at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, is developing “Shop, Drop and Roll,” a wheelchair attachment that simplifies the transport and accessibility of goods on the back of a wheelchair. Nathaniel Lorenz Galdamez, a freshman at Swampscott High School, is designing “The BIONIC hand,” a wrist device to assist computer usage.

Rosenthal couldn’t be more pleased with the first Arc Tank. “The event was a terrific success. I think we have started an important and much needed conversation about innovation and philanthropy,” he said.

Salem Film Fest presents special Thanksgiving weekend screening

FOR AHKEEM

By Shelley A. Sackett

Above: Daje Shelton in “For Ahkeem,” a documentary film directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest.

BEVERLY — By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, even the most diehard football fan and Black Friday shopper should be ready to trade leftover pie for popcorn and venture out to the Cabot Theatre where Jeremy Levine, a Beverly native and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker from New York, will be returning home to screen his latest feature film, “For Ahkeem.”

The film tells the intimate and frank story of Daje Shelton, a strong-willed Black 17-year-old girl in North St. Louis, Missouri. The audience walks beside her as her path takes her from public school expulsion to the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy, an alternative school for delinquent youth and her last chance to earn a diploma.

Shot over a two-year period against the charged backdrop of nearby Ferguson, we witness Daje’s struggles as she copes with academic rigors, the murders and funerals of friends, teenage love and a pregnancy that results in the birth of a son, Ahkeem.

With motherhood comes the realization that she must contend with raising a young Black boy in a marginalized neighborhood. The film illuminates the challenges that many Black teenagers face in America today, and witnesses the strength and resilience it takes to survive.

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest Presents — the documentary fest’s first cinema presentation outside of Salem. Levine will be on hand at to answer audience questions at the post-screening Q&A.

Salem Five Charitable Foundation is underwriting the screening and three local organizations are community partners: The Beverly Human Rights Committee, First Church Salem, UU and Salem No Place for Hate.

For Levine, who attended Beverly High School and worked for years as a counselor at the Waring School, the film he co-directed is more than a simple coming-of-age story. “It highlights the horrible effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, where we suspend and expel huge numbers of students — especially black and brown students — and the impact that has on girls like Daje from the time they’re five-years-old,” he said by phone from New York City, where he and co-director Landon Van Soest run Transient Productions, a full-service production company.

The film also approaches some of the most pressing social challenges facing America today — racial bias, social inequality, public education, police brutality and a biased criminal justice system.

“We wanted to tell a deeply personal story about what it means to live your life when so many systems are set against you,” Levine, an Ithaca College alumnus with a degree in Documentary Studies, said.

“For Ahkeem” has had an award-winning festival run starting in February at the Berlin Film Festival, followed by prestigious showcases like the Tribeca Film Festival, Canada’s Hot Docs, and the DMZ International Film Festival in South Korea.

While the film’s worldwide audience and awards —such as the Grand Jury Prize Award at Boston’s Independent Film Festival — thrill Levine, for him the screenings and discussions at high schools and prisons fulfill a greater mission of trying to do better for future generations of children.

In Tribeca, New York City, for example, approximately 500 high school students attended a screening. “When Daje came out for the Q&A afterwards, the kids erupted in applause,” Levine said.

The ensuing discussions included kids “really opening up about some of the challenges they face in their lives. It was really incredible,” Levine added. He is currently working to bring the film to more public high schools through a grant program.

Screenings at prisons have been equally powerful. When the lights came up at one screening for 100 inmates, all the tears in the room full of men touched Levine. “One of them wrote a poem for Daje and Ahkeem. Another man said, ‘Who knew I could learn so much about being a man from the story of a young woman?’” he said.

Levine credits the culture of Judaism and Hebrew School lessons at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, “a part of my life growing up”, with imbuing in him a sense of responsibility to try to make the world a better place. “I learned about the long suffering of our heritage and the injustice of that. That kind of moral underpinning is definitely huge in the work I do,” he said.

 

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest presentation. For more information or to buy tickets, visit theCabot.org.

Manna rains on Marblehead interfaith project

 

Pictured left to right: Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Pastor Jim Bixby

When Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Pastor Jim Bixby from Clifton Lutheran Church first met at a Marblehead Ministerial Association meeting last summer, they both sensed a spiritual connection that went beyond them being among the youngest in the room.

“His church and Temple Sinai have a lot of similarities,” said Cohen-Henriquez, who is known as “Rabbi David” to his congregants. “Both are small. Both are in Marblehead. And both are dealing with contemporary theological challenges where people are not going to services like they used to. We are both striving to find ways to engage the new generations.”

Bixby, who congregants call “Pastor Jim,” grew up in Miami next door to many Panamanians, and he was fascinated when he found out Cohen-Henriquez was born in Panama. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t think I know anyone from Panama who is Jewish, let alone a rabbi, let alone a man with a hyphenated last name and a gift for storytelling,’” Bixby said with a chuckle.

The two spoke at length and realized their connection ran deeper than congregational size and demographics. Both aspired to engage their communities into social action while connecting personally and spiritually with their neighbors of different faiths.

Bixby learned of Temple Sinai’s decision to focus its social action on homelessness and of its support for Lynn shelters. He shared his church’s emphasis on helping recently arrived refugees and immigrants at Lynn’s New American Center.

With both congregations committed to providing food for marginalized people in need in Lynn, the two spiritual leaders decided to combine forces.

The result is “The Manna Project,” a joint mission with three components: a pulpit exchange, a Harvest Festival, and a food-packing event to benefit the needy in Lynn.

The September pulpit exchange was a huge success. Bixby addressed a Friday night Shabbat service and Cohen-Henriquez spoke at a Sunday morning church service. Both events drew congregants from both communities and thrilled the two clergymen.

Cohen-Henriquez had been in churches before, but had never been to a Sunday service, and certainly had never spoken to a congregation from a Christian pulpit.

The similarities between the two traditions impressed him. The Lutheran selected reading (similar to the weekly Torah parsha) during his appearance happened to be about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, known to Jews as the parting of the Red Sea. He captivated the churchgoers with midrashim that retold familiar biblical stories in ways outside the traditional Lutheran framework.

“Seeing people react to these stories that fill in the blanks, appreciating and rediscovering treasures that were already there, was really satisfying,” Cohen-Henriquez said.

The communitywide Harvest Fest, timed to coincide with the end of Sukkot and Oktoberfest, was a fund-raiser with vendors, games, and food, which both communities prepared and sold together. Shepherded by Temple Sinai Executive Director Susan Weiner, and Clifton Lutheran Church UpReach Council member Pat Small, the event raised $2,000 toward its $5,000 goal. Each dollar raised buys a meal for a family of four.

To fill the fund-raising gap, The Manna Project will sell tickets for a monthlong daily raffle in January. Bixby and Cohen-Henriquez went to local Marblehead businesses soliciting donations. (“Seeing a pastor and a rabbi entering your store must be like the opening of a joke,” Cohen-Henriquez said with a laugh).

Both were struck by how generous the business owners were and by how much they appreciated seeing clergy from different traditions work together.

The Manna Project’s third and capstone event is a food-packaging gathering on March 4, which will involve both communities’ social action committees and many volunteers. “We will need as many hands on deck as possible in order to get out the 3,000 to 4,000 meals we hope to prepare. Many hands make light work!” said Small.

In the meantime, both the pastor and the rabbi are positive their collaborations will not end with The Manna Project.

“Our communities are getting to know each other. We even see our missions as intertwined,” Bixby said.

“It’s a consciousness that transcends how you pray,” echoed Cohen-Henriquez. “There are many more things that bond us than separate us.”

For more information on The Manna Project, call Temple Sinai at 781-631-2763 or Clifton Lutheran Church at 781-631-4379.

Ruderman Summit gives voice to disabled

 

Above: Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, presents Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin with the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion in Tel Aviv earlier this year.

BY SHELLEY A. SACKETT

NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – Over 1,000 attendees will have the opportunity to hear 50 speakers address ways to open doors for people with disabilities when the Ruderman Family Foundation holds its 2017 Inclusion Summit at the Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center in Boston on Nov. 19 and 20.

Among those who will appear are disability activist Marlee Matlin, a Jewish performer who is the only deaf film star ever to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God;” Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire; Richard Marriott, chairman of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities; and Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi.

“These are people who spend time and effort trying to change their community,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

For over a decade, the foundation’s philanthropic mission has emphasized both advocacy for the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community. This is the second Inclusion Summit, and Ruderman expects the conference to sell out.

“Our approach to disability inclusion is very holistic and includes all aspects of life, from birth to death: entertainment, education, employment, housing, sports, politics, and more,” Ruderman said. “The purpose of the summit is to convene the movers and shakers in all these fields to share best practices and network. We want to amplify the momentum of the disability rights movement so that it can have a more prominent presence in mainstream American culture.”

Although the foundation  – which has offices in Boston and Israel – has a global reach, it has invested more than $20 million in strategic multiyear initiatives in the Metro Boston area. These programs touch the lives of people of all ages with all types of disabilities.

On the North Shore, Temple Sinai in Marblehead and Congregation Shirat Hayam are partners in the Combined Jewish Philanthropies/Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, which helps create religious communities where people of all abilities can fully participate. The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore also partners with the foundation to offer a year-round early childhood education program and an inclusive summer camp that makes a fun experience available to both campers and staff with   disabilities.

It doesn’t stop there. The foundation’s partnerships with CJP and Newton-based Gateways: Access to Jewish Education provide opportunities for children with disabilities in kindergarten through grade 12 to receive a Jewish education in an inclusive community. The Morton E. Ruderman scholarship helps defray the cost of both school-based and ancillary services for students with physical and emotional challenges. The goal of both programs is to mainstream students with disabilities in Jewish educational programs.

High school students benefit from a number of Ruderman Family Foundation partnerships. Student-athletes with visual or mobility impairments can participate in high school sports across eight states through the Northeast Youth and High School Inclusive Sports Initiative, a joint program with Adaptive Sports New England. New England Yachad and the foundation sponsor high school clubs, a youth leadership board, and a Jewish youth group network that provide opportunities for participants with and without disabilities to attend retreats, leadership training, and meetings.

Young adults with disabilities can receive training and job placement though Transitions to Work, a partnership among the Ruderman foundation, CJP, and Jewish Vocational Services. Since 2011, 200 individuals have graduated from the program. Of the 72 percent who achieve competitive employment, over 90 percent stay at their jobs for at least one year.

Partnerships with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and Dorchester; Brookline Community Mental Health Center; Mass. General Hospital; and the Boston Jewish Film Festival all further the foundation’s mission: inclusion of children and adults with disabilities as a social justice imperative.

Jay Ruderman feels strongly that bringing public attention to injustices suffered by people with disabilities is critical to starting a public debate. His family’s foundation’s current strategy of developing a strong advocacy presence is aimed at raising the general public’s awareness.

“We recognize that our grantees are excellent at providing services, but to change minds, and ultimately to change social attitudes, we also need advocacy,” he said.

All this activity and global impact is the outgrowth of the belief and commitment of foundation founder Morton E. Ruderman that disability rights are civil rights. When Jay Ruderman contemplates how far the foundation has come since it was established in 2002, he thinks his father, who died in 2011, would be surprised.

“We started out as a foundation that was really focused on the Jewish community in Boston, and now we’ve expanded to having worldwide reach. I think he’d be proud of that,” he said.

For more information or to register, visit inclusion2017.org.