Davening to a different drummer: Meet Cantor Alty Weinreb

 

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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.

 

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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/

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Rare genetic mutation sends family on an unexpected journey

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Luke Heller proudly shows a drawing to his speech therapist, Jessica Brown. / Photos by Shelley A. Sackett

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT—Jody and Noah Heller brought their newborn son, Luke, home to Swampscott in December 2013. Although he was a “sweet baby with an infectious laugh,” by nine months they noticed he was not hitting the same developmental milestones his older sister Lucy had by that age.

 

The Hellers knew something was off. Luke wasn’t able to sit up independently or crawl and never tried to put anything to his mouth. “If you picked him up, his body felt a little floppy,” Jody said.

 

Their pediatrician said Luke had low muscle tone and recommended an early intervention program. He also sent them to a neurologist. “Kids his age usually put everything in their mouths,” Jody said. “He was concerned.”

 

Luke began receiving physical, occupational and developmental services at Aspire Early Intervention in Lynn, but as he got older there were more delays.

 

He didn’t crawl until he was18 months and didn’t walk until he was 2. No one really knew what was wrong. His diagnosis was the umbrella term “globally delayed.”

 

Later, Luke was diagnosed with apraxia of speech, a condition where the brain has difficulty sending signals to the mouth to create speech. Luke knew what he wanted to say, but he didn’t know how to form the words to say it.

 

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Luke, Noah and Jody Heller at their Swampscott home.

 

The Hellers were determined to dig deeper, and visited the Genetics Department at Boston Children’s Hospital. Genetic tests in 2015, when Luke was 18 months old, were inconclusive, but the doctors urged them to keep trying. “They said, ‘we’re learning so much about genetics every day,’ and recommended we come back in two years,” Jody said.

 

When Luke turned 3 and aged out of Aspire, the Hellers enrolled him at Northeast Arc, a not-for-profit organization that helps children and adults with disabilities. It was perfect timing, because Luke would often get frustrated at not being able to express himself, which was causing behavior issues.

 

Through Northeast Arc, behavioral and speech therapists work with Luke at his home. Jessica Brown, his speech and language pathologist, also goes to Luke’s Chabad pre-school with him, where she helps him use a special iPad speech device that gives Luke a voice he otherwise doesn’t have, enabling him to “talk” to his classmates.

 

“Northeast Arc allows us to communicate with our son. He has made so much progress,” Noah said.

 

Still, the Hellers wanted to do more than just treat Luke’s symptoms—they wanted to know what was causing all these delays. Last July, they returned to Boston Children’s Hospital, ready for Luke to take a genetic sequencing test that identifies every protein-coding gene in the body.

 

This time, just before Luke turned 4 years old, they received definitive information. “The geneticists told us that he had a mutation on the TECPR2 gene, but that there wasn’t a lot of information on the disease. It was extremely rare,” Noah said. Only eight children in the world had the same mutation, most of them living in Israel, where the mutation was first discovered in 2012 by an Israeli neurologist.

 

Both Jody and Noah, who are of Ashkenazi descent, tested negative for the Ashkenazi Panel screening test, which assesses the risk of having a child with any of 11 disorders, including Tay-Sachs disease. TECPR2 is not on the panel, but can be prenatally tested by request.

 

The Hellers asked for the Israeli doctor’s name and contacted her immediately. “That started a whole new journey for us,” Jody said.

 

The Hellers hope to get the TECPR2 mutation added to the Ashkenazi Panel in the near future. Jody started a Facebook page for TECPR2 families, and several families are now following the page and sharing stories.

 

“There are definitely others with this genetic syndrome out there, but they have been misdiagnosed as something else,” Jody said. “That’s why we’re really trying to bring awareness to this newly discovered syndrome.”

 

The Hellers and their families are also attacking the disease on the medical front. They started the Luke Heller TECPR2 Foundation, a privately funded entity with the goal of finding a cure for Luke’s mutation. The Boston-based foundation has enlisted scientists from around the globe.

 

In the meantime, Luke continues to work hard and to charm those he encounters with a quick hug and a ready smile. “Luke is smart and determined. We are so grateful to the Northeast Arc,” Jody said.

 

Noah acknowledges that reconciling what happened to Luke has not been easy. “We have a strong, loving family that has really helped us. Jody has done a lot of work to keep our family together and everybody happy. She is the center and strength of our family,” he said.

 

Filmmakers plan to bring Mass Hysteria to Salem

 

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By Shelley A. Sackett

Salem residents are used to mass hysteria in their seaside city during the month-long Halloween season, but a group of local filmmakers plan to extend the spell into the summer months when they begin shooting their comedy-thriller, “Mass Hysteria,” on the streets of Salem.

 

Set over the course of Halloween Eve, the films centers around a group of historical re-enactors who are falsely accused of witchcraft when a tourist dies on Halloween Night in Salem. The wrongly accused heroes flee as another tourist dies, then another…making it clear this is not just a random accident.

 

“Halloween in Salem is an experience of a lifetime, and we wanted to recreate a modern witch hunt surrounding this annual event. The majority of tourists come to Salem in October with no idea of what actually happened in 1692. Our goal is to make a thriller/comedy that is truthful and entertaining, but also shares the dangers of the effects of a modern-day witch hunt,” said Matt Peruse, producer of First-Names Films.

 

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Production stills from the test shoot for “Mass Hysteria,” shot on-location in Salem last October. Pictured from left: Matt Perusse and co-director/producer Jeffrey Ryan.

 

The film is set to begin production on the North Shore as early as mid-July and wrap by mid-August. The cast has not been disclosed, but Perusse promises “a great ensemble of new and veteran actors.”

 

Co-directed by First-Names producer Arielle Cimino, “Mass Hysteria” unites three former Salem residents on a project dear to their hearts. “We love the juxtaposition of Salem’s rich, historical past colliding with the reality of today’s Salem through the conduit of the millions of visitors to the city each year,” said First-Names Films co-director and producer Jeffrey Ryan in a statement.

 

First-Name Films started as an idea to create a production company that would operate as a collective of like-minded producers who strive to create independent films on a regular basis. “We aim to involve the communities around us in order to help these smaller films reach a massive audience,” Perusse said.

 

Cimino, Perusse and Ryan collaborated on “YouthMin,” First-Names Film’s last feature film, which was produced in Beverly and won the Boston Independent Film Festival’s Audience Award. The film pre-premiered at CinemaSalem to a nearly sold-out audience. With “Mass Hysteria,” the producing team aims to once again engage the town in production of the Halloween comedy/thriller through community involvement and corporate sponsorship.

 

Cimino and Ryan first met at college, where they performed together on the improv comedy team. “We discovered through improv that we not only had similar goals for our film careers, but also a strikingly similar sense of humor that would lend itself to writing and creating comedies together,” Cimino said. After graduation, they started working together on short films and TV pilots to gain experience for their eventual goal of producing and directing independent feature-length films.

 

Perusse met Ryan after returning to Massachusetts a few years after working for a time in Los Angeles as an actor. A mutual professor introduced them with the purpose of discussing how to be a working actor in New England. The two struck up a friendship, which led to an eventual collaborative relationship. “YouthMin” was their first feature-length film.

 

As filmmakers, the three share a common goal of engaging, inspiring and entertaining their audience. With “Mass Hysteria,” they aim to take the audience on a thrilling and comical journey through one of the most exciting nights of the year — Halloween in Salem. “As a result, our audiences will not only appreciate Salem’s rich historical past, but also gain an appreciation for Salem’s standing as a modern, creative and vibrant 21st century city,” said Perusse.

 

For more information, visit firstnamesfilms.com

Swampscott’s Zabar to be honored by Northeast-Arc on May 3

 

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Larry Zabar is the honoree at the Northeast-Arc’s May 3 fundraising event.

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

On Thursday, May 3, the Seaport Hotel in Boston will be transformed into a local star-studded runway as the Northeast Arc hosts its signature fundraising event, “An Evening of Changing Lives.” Emceed by Kim Carrigan, longtime Northeast Arc advocate and host of “The Boston Morning Show” on WRKO-AM, the evening also honors Larry Zabar of Swampscott, Executive Vice President for The New England Council and longtime Northeast Arc supporter.

 

“We are honoring Larry to shine a spotlight on all the remarkable work he has done throughout New England, especially in creating opportunities for people with disabilities,” said Jo Ann Simons, CEO, NE-Arc. She expects over 450 people to attend the event.

 

Zabar serves as a NE-Arc board member, chair of the development committee and vice chair of the advisory board. He is also the longest serving member of The New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business organization.

 

“Receiving this award allows me to shine a spotlight on, and hopefully raise funds to support, an organization and a group of employees who really deserve this recognition. No one works at the NE-Arc because it’s easy and no one works there to get rich. They work there because of the importance of the mission, the value of giving back, and the difference they can and do make every day in the lives of people with disabilities,” Zabar said.

 

The NE-Arc is a not-for-profit organization that helps children and adults with, or at risk for developing, disabilities become full participants in the community.

 

The evening also features a fashion show spotlighting local celebrities, dignitaries, and business leaders who will be paired with individuals whose lives are changed as a result of the community’s support of the NE-Arc’s services.

 

“This is not a typical fashion show,” Simons explained. “It’s about our mission, and the fashion show and clothes are the vehicle to demonstrate how we change lives.”

 

The show will feature 12 models that represent the entire range of NE-Arc services, including early intervention, family support, employment and residential services. These families who receive NE-Arc services will be paired with local notables, such as Boston Globe Journal Editor Doug Banks and Dan Cahill, Representative for the 10th Essex district.

 

Among those walking on the runway will be the Heller family, whose son Luke has been diagnosed with a rare genetic mutation.

 

“NE-Arc has done so much for Luke and our family. The runway event is an opportunity to say thank you and to raise money and awareness in the community, because NE-Arc is so important to many families like ours,” said Jody Heller, Luke’s mom. Luke started with NE-Arc’s specialty early intervention program, Building Blocks, and now receives services through its Applied Behavioral Analysis program.

 

“The Arc has been life-changing for us,” Heller said.

 

“The Hellers are a remarkable extended family who represent part of the village that it takes to raise a child who has additional needs,” Simons said.

 

Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe, who served as a judge for last fall’s ArcTank competition, will model with her 5-year-old son. who has autism.

 

“Each pair has a story that is inspiring and helps represent the 10,000 lives we change every day,” Simons said.

 

Honoree Zabar humbly added, “This award is not about me. So many businesses in the New England Council support organizations like NE-Arc. The common thread is we all see value in what they and other groups do to make lives better.”

 

For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://ne-arc.ejoinme.org/MyEvents/AnEveningofChangingLives2018/tabid/940603/Default.aspx or contact Paula Vrattos at (978) 624-3080 or pvrattos@ne-arc.org.

 

Lights, camera, action! JCC film festival screens in Marblehead, Salem

 

 

 

APRIL 26, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – Film fans on the North Shore who love Jewish movies but don’t love driving over bridges or through tunnels to see them are in for a treat.

From Tuesday, May 8, to Friday, May 18, the fifth annual JCC of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival will bring 12 award-winning films to theaters in Marblehead and Salem. With a range in genre from historical fiction and documentaries to mystery, comedy, and drama, the 2018 lineup has something to satisfy every taste.

The 21 members of the Film Committee and co-chairs Izzi Abrams and Sara Winer selected films that showcase Jewish- and Israeli-themed topics. None of the films have been previously shown locally and half include post-screening speakers.

The 2018 festival includes two unique Israeli films, one for mature audiences (“The Cakemaker”) and one dealing with an international problem that affects all combat veterans (“When the Smoke Clears”).

Films will be screened at the Warwick Cinema in Marblehead, the Salem Visitor Center and – for the first time ‒ Cinema Salem. Several films will be screened twice, with both evening and matinée offerings.

“This festival is a signature JCCNS event, one that we look forward to bringing to the community each and every year,” Marty Schneer, executive director of the JCCNS and Film Committee member, said in a statement.

Barbara Schneider recalled how the film festival got started. About eight years ago, when she was publisher of the Jewish Journal, the owner of the Gloucester Cinema approached her about collaborating with the Journal. But the timing wasn’t right.

After a brief and loose affiliation with the Boston Jewish Film Festival, the idea lay dormant until Schneer became executive director of the JCCNS in 2012 and revived it.

“Marty was a key motivator,” Schneider said. He started pulling together a group to help organize and plan the film festival. “I said to Marty, ‘If you want this to be successful, you need to get Izzi Abrams,’” Schneider added.

Schneer did just that and Abrams chaired the first festival in 2014 and every one since, sharing the duty for the first time this year. “It really took off. People were very excited,” Schneider said.

“Itzhak” is the Opening Night celebratory screening at the Salem Visitor Center at 7 p.m. on May 8. This inspirational American-made documentary dives below the surface of violinist Itzhak Perlman, disabled polio survivor and masterful musician, to reveal the charming and entrancing essence of the man. Dessert and live music follow the film.

Also noteworthy is “RBG,” a new documentary about the diminutive but fierce legal warrior and Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At 85, Ginsburg’s unique personal journey has been largely unknown, but the filmmakers shed light on this daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and her stunning legacy. It will be shown May 10 at 8:15 at Cinema Salem.

Of special local interest is “Etched in Glass,” the remarkable story of concentration camp survivor Steve Ross, who founded the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Mike Ross, Steve’s son, and the film’s director, Roger Lyons, will speak after the screening (May 11 at 2:30 p.m. at the Warwick Cinema).

While several films share roots in the Holocaust, their styles are completely different. In “1945,” (in Hungarian and Russian with English subtitles), an Orthodox man and his grown son are treated with suspicion and fear when they arrive at a small Hungarian village. Similarly, Holocaust researcher uncovers a long-buried secret that casts doubt on his family history in “The Testament” (Austria). “Bye Bye Germany” (Germany) combines upbeat klezmer music and a fresh historical perspective to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to postwar Frankfurt to strike it rich.

Rounding out the lineup are: “Humor Me,” a father-son comedy starring Elliott Gould and Sam Hoffman; “My Hero Brother” (Israel), an inspirational story about young Israelis with Down syndrome who trek through the Himalayas; and “An Act of Defiance” (South Africa), a riveting historical drama about the fight against apartheid and the lawyer who risked his life to defend them.

“Les Enfants de la Chance,” a coming-of-age drama set in 1942 France and based on a true story, will be shown at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, at the Salem Visitors Center. Light refreshments and live music by Jack Skowronski follow the film.

For tickets and more information, call 781-631-8330, or visit jccns.org.

Swampscott celebrates little known Harold King Forest on May 6

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Members of Troop 53 proudly pose beside the kiosk they built at the entrance to Harold A. King Forest. Pictured from left to right: Mr. Jessie Davis, Duncan’s Volunteer Eagle Rank Coach; Ethan Grant, Boy Scout; Mr. Charlie Page, (brother of Duncan); Duncan Page, Life Scout, working towards his Eagle Rank; Mr. Chuck Page, Scoutmaster and Harris Havlicek, Boy Scout.

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

About a year ago, 16-year-old Eagle Scout candidate Duncan Page was thinking about what he might want to do for his Eagle project requirement. As the culmination of the Scout’s leadership training, Page knew the project has to demonstrate leadership while performing a project for the benefit of the scout’s community. He also knew he had to have all his Eagle Scout requirements completed before his 18th birthday.

 

Page went to the Swampscott Town Hall, and looked through a list of projects the town had requested. The Harold King Forest caught his eye.

 

“It was a green space and resource I didn’t even know our town had, so I went for a hike though the trail and I saw the potential and the amount of work it would take to have the trail reach it’s potential,” he said.

 

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Duncan Page with the Harold A. King Forest kiosk that was part of his Eagle Scout project.

 

Wedged in the northern-most corner of Swampscott, between Lynn on one side and the quarry on the other, the forest is about the size of Tedesco Country Club.

 

Many years ago, boy scouts marked the trail, but it was only rarely used and is not currently maintained. It is also marked in only one direction. “There was no way of retracing your steps if you wanted to turn around and go back,” said Danielle Strauss, Swampscott Recreation Director.

 

Page went to see Strauss to ask if he could do his project at Harold King Forest. Part of his proposal was to mark the trail in the opposite direction, clean up the trail and build a kiosk at the end of Nichols Street, where the forest’s entrance lies. “There wasn’t even a sign that said Harold King Forest,” Strauss said.

 

Little known even by families that have called Swampscott home for several generations, Harold King Forest (also known as the Oscar Short Conservation Land) is 47 acres of wild and rugged forested land that has been dedicated as public conservation land and is managed by the Conservation Commission. Primary access is down an uneven slope from a small, paved parking is at the end of Nichols Street. It serves as habitat for both birds and mammals. Passive outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, on-leash dog walking, and wildlife observation is permitted, along with educational and nature study.

 

Strauss was delighted when Page approached her. “Harold King Forest has always been on our radar, ever since we did the Open Space and Recreation Master Plan [in 1983],” she said, adding, “Most of the people who live in Swampscott don’t even know it exists.”

 

Once he got the Town’s approval and the Recreation Department’s sponsorship, Page set to work. He solicited friends, family, scouts and other interested organizations. To demonstrate the leadership component of project, he organized teams and made sure they had the materials and direction they needed, and organized their scheduled breaks.

 

“As you can imagine, there’s no rehearsal, so there were a lot of questions,” said Troop 53 Committee Member Paul Rizk, a “scouter,” or registered adult scout. Over two full weekends, he and other adults and scouts worked directly on the project. Non-adults cleared the one marked trail with hand tools and marked trees with standardized markings. Adults operated power tools when necessary.

 

Once the trail was cleared and the kiosk was up, Strauss knew she wanted to create some kind of event with the Boy Scouts that would shine a light on the forest. “We wanted to raise awareness of this community asset. Part of living in Swampscott for a lot of people is about getting out and doing things,” she said.

 

“Celebrating the Harold King Forest” will take place on Sunday, May 6 from 1 to 3p.m.. The Boy Scouts from Troop 53 will give guided tours and answer questions. The Health Department will give out information about ticks and Strauss will provide information about invasive insect species.

 

“The event is strictly about information and the environment,” Strauss said. She also enlisted the Conservation Commission, which will hand out information about their new “Friends of Conservation” group, and Colleen Hitchcock and her Girl Scout will acquaint attendees with the iNaturalist app and the Swampscott Biodiversity Project.

 

Page, who was elected Troop 53 Senior Patrol Leader by his fellow scouts, has received positive feedback on the quality of the trail and the kiosk. His biggest hope for the May 6 event is just that people realize the Harold King Forest trail exists. “It is a hidden gem our town has that very few people know about,” he said.

 

Strauss agrees. “Everyone knows Swampscott has beaches, but not many people know that on the other side of town, we also have a forest,” she said.

Mr. Fish makes a big splash at Salem Film Fest

By Shelley A. Sackett

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Producer Ted Collins, Mr. Fish and SFF moderator Debra Longo at the PEM post-screening Q&A.

 

Dwayne Booth wears many hats.

 

He lives in the Philadelphia area, where he is a loving family man and a popular lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

For the last 25 years, he has also been known as Mr. Fish, the controversial and enormously talented freelance editorial cartoonist whose work has been published in some of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals, newspapers and web magazines, currently at Harpers.org and Truthdig.com.

 

Although Fish (as he prefers to be called) has written three books of cartoons and essays and won several prestigious awards, his was hardly a household name. All that has changed with the release of the documentary feature, “Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End,” which screened last Friday evening at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of the Salem Film Fest.

 

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From the left: Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth), flanked by his two daughters, producer Ted Collins and “Mrs. Fish”, Diana Booth.

 

Not your average editorial cartoonist, Fish’s radical and sometimes outrageous work brims with controversy and biting satire, drawing from politics, propaganda, religion and social taboos. His rebellious anti-establishment philosophy is a throw back to the 1960s, yet his angst is contemporary. He has been called a poet with a cartoonist’s pen.

 

Nothing is off limits to Mr. Fish — he dares us to look away and invites us to cringe all the while challenging us to examine our assumptions and question the status quo. “I want cartooning to be dangerous and to be more than ink on paper,” Fish says to the camera.

 

Director Pablo Bryant shot over 90 hours of footage over the course of five years, and his film lets its audience through the keyhole into Fish’s private family life. Against a backdrop of Fish’s art and animation, the film explores his relationships with his wife Diana and their children; the beginning of his career; his views about money, war, and environmental catastrophe; the decline of the print industry that used to publish his work, and the diminished commercial appeal of his art.

 

“Where is the threat to the dominant culture today? There’s still so much work to do. Who’s going to do it?” Fish says in the film.

 

Watching Fish effortlessly draw his cartoons is one of the film’s greatest pleasures. Bryant’s unobtrusive camera allows the audience to eavesdrop as Fish explains how he comes up with his ideas and what drives him.

 

“The fact that I use art to communicate what it feels like to be human and why it’s significant to me- I feel like I have no other choice,” he says. “A lot of people go thru life masking what it means to be a human being. I would rather use art to demonstrate the injustice of the overall society.”

 

Faced with compromising his creativity to earn a living or staying true to his artistic and moral compass, Fish is at a real financial tipping point by the film’s end, and the audience is left wondering whether Fish will have to sell out after all.

 

Luckily, Fish, his family and the film’s producer and Massachusetts native, Ted Collins, were on hand for a lively and intimate 30-minute Q&A once the near sell-out crowd stopped clapping and settled down.

 

Asked if he was receptive to being the subject of a documentary, Fish said he really didn’t care one way or the other, but credited his wife Diana (who, with their twin daughters, later joined Fish and Collins for the Q&A) with deciding to invite director Bryant to stay with them while he was filming. “For a filmmaker, it was sort of like Jane living with chimps,” Fish said, referring to Jane Goodall.

 

Asked what happens to the original art he creates if it has no current market, Fish told a story about his early career, when he was fiercely opposed to the commodification of art. He would take his cartoons to Staples, make copies and destroy the originals. When he met the famous Los Angeles gallery owner Robert Berman ten years ago, Berman asked him for the originals. “Luckily, I had a few I was too lazy to throw away,” he said as the audience laughed.

 

Fish said that since Trump was elected President, there has been a renewed interest in his art. He published a new book in 2017, “And Then the World Blew Up,” and has two more scheduled. He even has a line of skateboards.

 

“I’ve been told, ‘Now is your time. Now you have a purpose.’ My job is very hard, though. What I don’t want to do is to turn Trump into a clown or a monster. That turns it into burlesque and ignores the underlying problem,” he said.

 

When an audience member asked Fish how parent-teacher conferences went, given his known proclivity for the graphically vulgar and obscene, he invited his family to join him on stage. His daughters told a story about their 6th grade teacher who fished their lunch bags out of the trash during a field trip because he knew Fish drew cartoon portraits of the girls.

 

Diana told about the time she entrusted her husband to attend parent-teacher open house, which included attending the girls’ classes to meet their teachers. When she received a call from Fish, she asked him why he wasn’t at the open house. “He told me he was cutting their classes,” she said.

 

Salem Film Fest Program Director Jeff Schmidt knew “Mr. Fish” would be a good fit for the Salem festival. “As a programmer, I’m constantly on the look out for films starting to make their way onto the film festival circuit.  I ran across “Mr. Fish: Cartooning From The Deep End” early on and reached out to producer Ted Collins and director Pablo Bryant to encourage them to submit to the festival. Our programming team loves films with unique characters who take chances, and Mr Fish certainly fits that bill,” he said.

 

 

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.

North Shore religious schools survive by adapting

MARCH 22, 2018 – When Rachel Jacobson started teaching at Hebrew schools on the North Shore in 1977, the conservative synagogues held classes three days a week with mandatory attendance expected on Shabbat. She remembers the curriculum’s concentration on learning to speak and write Hebrew, and on learning prayers at Shabbat. “The kids were comfortable with the language,” the Jerusalem native said.

“I won’t say the kids were extremely happy to be there, but on the other hand they learned and parents made sure their kids were there. Hebrew school was part of the family’s daily lives. I felt the parents were behind us,” she said.

After 40 years of teaching all age groups, from preschoolers to adults, at religious schools at reform, conservative and orthodox congregations, she is concerned that today’s religious schools are not preparing Jewish children for the future.

“I’m worried about this generation – that is not connected enough to Israel, to Jewish history and to the Hebrew language,” she said, noting that parental involvement and commitment to their children’s religious education has also decreased. “We need to get to our parents.”

Religious schools have always competed with secular activities (especially sports) for students’ limited after school time. Contemporary Hebrew schools face significant additional hurdles in attracting and keeping their students: intermarriage, diminished Jewish institutional affiliation, and the fact that in many families, both parents work full-time, making scheduling and involvement even trickier.

Despite these obstacles, total enrollment at religious schools in Andover, Peabody, Gloucester, Newburyport, Beverly, Marble­head and Swampscott is more than 750. The North Shore pedagogic styles span the gamut from structured and traditional to student-driven, interactive and contemporary. Their enrollment numbers range from 22 to 247 and schools meet from fewer than three hours to more than two times per week. Few go beyond B’nai Mitzvot ages.

Delving below the surface, however, reveals the schools have more in common than it might seem. They all share common goals of teaching their students Hebrew, Torah, prayer, Jewish values and Jewish history, and they all thrive by adapting to conditions that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Raizel Schusterman, who directs the Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center’s Hebrew School of the Arts, focuses her curriculum on multisensory, hands on experiences. The age 3 to grade 7 school uses interactive stories, art projects and research to teach Hebrew, customs and Jewish history. “You’re not going to come into a classroom and see children sitting at a desk and writing,” she said. “Kids are up and moving.”

At Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, 190 religious school students attend grades pre-K through 12. Liz Levin, Temple Educator, describes the reform synagogue’s curriculum as “emergent.” She explains that each grade has a topic of focus and the teacher creates lessons and projects based on what the students themselves find interesting within that topic.

“Our goal is to teach students how to ask questions about Judaism and how it affects their daily lives, and then help them learn how to find answers to those questions,” she said.
The preparation to go out in the world and make a positive difference resonated with Julie Zabar, who graduated as a 12th grade post-confirmation student two years ago. “The most important thing I learned in Hebrew school was how to be a person anyone would be proud of simply by following many of the Jewish values I was taught,” she said.

A mile down the road, Congregation Shirat Hayam’s Conservative Center for Jewish Education enrolls 95 students from pre-K through 7th grade. Religious School Director Janis Knight describes the curriculum as project-based learning with differentiated lessons that use more technology on non-Shabbat days.

Shirat Hayam recently changed its Sunday class day to Saturday, a challenge for younger grade teachers whose lessons could not include cutting, writing or drawing. However, parents are delighted with the change, despite kids sometimes dragging their feet on Saturday mornings. “My 6th grade daughter, Jasmina, feels very at home at Shirat Hayam and connected to the community. Our Saturday morning program, which brings the whole family to shul for various programs, services, music and lunch, has played a big role in that,” said Alex Shube.

Returning or beginning a model of Saturday Shabbat schools is a trend that Dr. Deborah Skolnick Einhorn, Assistant Professor of Jewish Education, has seen anecdotally in the thesis research of her master’s students at the Shoolman Graduate School at Hebrew College. “I see a lot of schools doing it, or at least playing with it. Part of it is embracing an orientation of experiential education,” she said. “It’s a way to create a more vibrant congregation and to bring the students’ families in with them.”

Facilitating family involvement in synagogue life has become an important function of today’s religious schools. A generation ago, families supported synagogue school for their children’s Jewish life; today, the synagogue school often supports the Jewish life of the family.

“In 75 percent of the families connected to the synagogue, one of the parents isn’t Jewish,” said Phoebe Potts, director of Family Learning at Gloucester’s Conservative Temple Achavas Achim. She sees her job as not only overseeing the 22 K-7 students in the religious school, but also helping parents to raise Jewish children. “With less of a Jewish influence at home, a synagogue and synagogue school becomes the majority of some students’ contact with Judaism,” she said.

Conflicting priorities of families and making religious school accessible to busy families are also topics Dr. Skolnick Einhorn overhears a lot of her students discussing. “There are at least one or two theses each year that try to attack that,” she said. Some proposed solutions have included adding one day that can be done on line, using a flex model of scheduling, and reducing the total number of hours.

At Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, a “full service synagogue that follows the principles of the Conservative movement,” Educational Director Deb Schutzman has tried to accommodate scheduling challenges of working families. The school meets Sunday and students choose either Tuesday or Thursday. “We found offering just one day was too limiting. It’s so important to engage and educate the entire family,” she said.

Although many religious schools have teen “madrichim” (teachers/aides), post 7th grade classes are rare. Nonetheless, Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and Temple Emanuel in Andover all have post-B’nai Mitzvot classes that include confirmation (grade 10) and, in Marblehead and Andover, post confirmation through grade 12.

Judy Matulsky, administrative director in Andover said changing classes to once a month and lowering the tuition brought back many of the grade 8-12 kids, with current enrollment at 50. “Once you get a few, the others seem to jump on board,” she said.

Many administrators and directors bristle at the suggestion that a religious school that changes its curriculum and schedule to adapt to families’ 21st century needs has “watered down” the Judaism taught in the more traditional Hebrew schools of previous generations.

“Parents are not looking for the same thing our parents were looking for. If we are to keep the kids and families engaged for the next generation, we need to be innovative, exciting and hands on,” said Schusterman, of Chabad of Peabody.

Schutzman, of Beverly’s Temple B’nai Abraham, agrees. “The whole idea behind Judaism and its beauty is the idea that it is open to change and interpretation. There are so many different ways to explore, teach and inspire spiritual growth and understanding.”

Community Seders bring us together on Passover – Dayenu!

MARCH 8, 2018 – As sunset approaches on Friday, March 30, and Saturday, March 31, Jews all over the world will observe the centuries-old tradition of sitting down to a Passover Seder, the ritual feast that commemorates the exodus from Egypt.

Some will host families and friends, setting the table with treasured dishes filled with recipes handed down from generations past.

Many living on the North Shore will choose to join one of over a half dozen community Seders led by spiritual leaders at synagogues in Beverly, Gloucester, Marblehead, Peabody, and Swampscott.

“A community Seder may be someone’s only opportunity to have a Seder. They may not have one at home, they may not have family, they may be out on their own,” said Rabbi David Meyer, who will lead 180 to 200 people at a Saturday night Seder that is already sold out at Temple Emanu-el in Marblehead. “While we like to say everyone has a seat at a table, it’s not always true.”

Rabbi Meyer credits the popularity of Temple Emanu-El’s Seder in part to the hard-working volunteers who cook all the food in the temple’s kitchen. “There is a very heimish [Yiddish for homey] feel that all the food has been cooked by your fellow congregants,” he said.

Heidi Greenbaum, one of the kitchen organizers, has volunteered at Temple Emanu-El since becoming a member 19 years ago, helping with the Seder for the last decade.

“Many people who have never met before come together to help shop, prep, cook, bake, set tables, and more,” she said. “You see new relationships forming and feel a strong sense of community.”

On the same night a mile down the road in Swampscott, Congregation Shirat Hayam will hold a Seder fully catered by Becky Convincer. Rabbi Michael Ragozin expects a mix of congregants without local family, and those who choose to attend a community Seder “because they enjoy it. We try to tell as much of the story through song, led by Cantor Elana Rozenfeld and the Ruach Band,” he said.

Rabbi Alison Adler will use the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov as the central theme when she leads between 80 and 100 congregants at Temple B’nai Abraham’s second night community Seder in Beverly, which will be catered by Levine’s Kosher Meat Market.

‘“The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, and even in every day,’” she said, quoting Nachman, a great-grandson of the Hasidic movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov.   

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center, agreed. “The theme of Passover is always Exodus. The question is, ‘What’s the definition of Exodus?’ For every person, their personal exodus is going to be different depending on what area of restriction or limitation they’re experiencing. This will be a journey of freedom from that.”   

Based on past years, Rabbi Schusterman expects from 45 to 75 people will attend the Chabad’s first night Seder, which his wife, Raizel, and volunteers will prepare. “Because Passover dietary laws are very specific and strict, this is one of the things you just can’t outsource,” he said.

At Temple Sinai in Marblehead, Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez, his wife Cynthia, and a volunteer congregant couple will cook and prepare their first night community Seder, which is capped at 50 attendees “to try to keep that homey, intimate feeling,” the rabbi said.

Born and raised in Panama, where his family has been a part of the Jewish community for 130 years, Rabbi Cohen-Henriquez has vivid memories of attending community Seders during his youth. Two international influences he will bring to Temple Sinai’s Seder are his family’s time-honored Sephardic Caribbean charoset recipe and a unique ritual he picked up a few years ago in Los Angeles from a Persian community he worked with: Participants whip each other lightly with leeks during “Dayenu” to imitate the Egyptian taskmasters who whipped the Jewish slaves.

Rabbi Steven Lewis and Temple Ahavat Achim are hosting a second night Seder in Gloucester. As a sign of our times and the welcoming spirit of the temple, both a chicken and a vegetarian meal are offered at the Seder, which is always a sellout.

The recent uptrend of community synagogue Seders does not surprise Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University Professor of American Jewish History and Chief Historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community. He traces the rise, fall, and revival of synagogue Seders to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Reform Judaism de-emphasized outward ritualized worship (such as celebrating a Seder) in favor of a focus on beliefs and ethics.

By the time the tide turned in the mid 20th century, many Jews had never experienced a family Seder. “Synagogues really took on the role of teaching how to make a Seder,” Sarna said.

Years later, with the advent of more Jewish education, the convenience of kosher-for-Passover foods, and the availability of new haggadahs and “how-to” Judaism books, creating a Seder at home became less intimidating and the trend shifted away from the communal and back to intimate family Seders.

Although Sarna has not studied whether the trend is reversing yet again back to community Seders, he would not be surprised if that was the case, citing the rise of intermarriage and the increase in women working outside the home.

“Making a big Seder at home is very difficult, especially if you didn’t grow up with one,” he said.

While Rabbi Meyer acknowledged that many people attend a community Seder because they have nowhere else to go or don’t have the time to make a Seder at home, he stresses that many choose to come simply because they enjoy the camaraderie and the opportunity to learn more about the holiday.

“The communal Seder is one of the few occasions when the silos of participation in temple life are broken through,” he said. “Religious school families, seniors, young professionals, different aged groups – everyone sees everyone. Those kinds of opportunities don’t pop up that often during the course of the year.”

Community Seders

Most sell out, so try to reserve a seat early:

Temple B’Nai Abraham
200 E. Lothrop St., Beverly
Second Night:
$40/adult. Children: Free/ages 0-5; $10/ages 6-12; $18/ages 13-22
978-927-3211, tbabeverly.org

Temple Ahavat Achim
86 Middle St., Gloucester
Second Night:
$36/adult before March 16; $40/adult after March 16;
$18/Children ages 4-13; free/children 3 and under.
978-281-0739, taagloucester.org

Temple Emanu-El
393 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead
Second Night
Members: $25/8 years and older; $18/ages 3 to 7; free/ages 2 and under. Non-members: $36/8 years and older;
$25/ages 3 to 7; free/ages 2 and under.

781-631-9300, emanu-el.org

Temple Sinai
1 Community Road, Marblehead
First Night:
Members: $36/adult; $18/child under 12.
Non-members: $45/adult; $18/child under 12.
781-631-2763, templesinaiweb.org

Temple Ner Tamid
368 Lowell St., Peabody
First Night:
Members: $42/adult, $15/child (12 and under).
Non-members: $52/adult, $15/child.
978-532-1293, templenertamid.org

Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center
682 Lowell St., Peabody
First Night:
$40/adult reserve by March 20; $50 after March 20.
$25/child (12 and under)
978-977-9111, http://www.jewishpeabody.com

Congregation Shirat Hayam
55 Atlantic Ave., Swampscott
Second Night:
$60/adults; $25/children (ages 2-8); Free: (under 2)
781-599-8005, shirathayam.org