Davening to a different drummer: Meet Cantor Alty Weinreb

 

Aty Weinreb1

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Alty Weinreb2

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Israeli Stage presents blistering, sensual drama ‘The Last Act’

 

Guy Ben-Aharon, c:o the director, photographer Esra Rotthoff

Director Guy Ben-Aharon

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to be an unavoidable topic of discussion: in the news, in the gym, even in the produce aisle. From May 18 through June 1, the conversation will move from side bar to center stage when the Israeli Stage presents the world premiere production of award-winning playwright Joshua Sobol’s latest play, “The Last Act” at Martin Hall in the Calderwood Pavilion.

 

Known for controversial work that challenges and provokes, Sobol’s newest work boldly addresses a difficult question: once society legitimizes branding and treating a group as the “other,” is there any hope the two sides can ever see each other as anything other than an enemy?

 

Playwright Joshua Sobol

 

Crafted as a play-within-a-play, the blistering and sensual drama centers on Gilly, a Jewish-Israeli unemployed actress leading a dull, settled life, and Djul, a Palestinian actor. The two share a passion to put on theater that is risky and matters. They mount an adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” a play about an aristocratic woman and a senior servant, Jean, whose mutual attraction leads to tragedy.

 

Like the characters they play, Gilly and Djul feel a magnetic pull towards each other despite the cultural, political and social barriers that separate them. The plot thickens when Gilly’s husband, Ethan, a Jewish-Israeli intelligence officer, receives a surveillance assignment that involves spying on his wife and her Palestinian co-star, whom Ethan’s boss falsely assumes is a Hamas operative.

 

New York-based actress Annelise Lawson is just getting to know her character, Gilly, and she likes what she is discovering. “Her genius is her intuition; she picks up on everything. She is unabashedly assertive in pursuing her loves and doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” she said. “I’m a little envious of how she navigates her world.”

 

At one point, Gilly growls, “Theatre should be dangerous, or else it should not be!” Lawson agrees. “To get along in our daily lives, we have to edit ourselves constantly, making sure we express our opinions in just the right way. Theatre is one of the few places where we can drop the social mask and take the temperature of our culture. The act of telling the truth is dangerous.”

 

Sobol sees many parallels between “Miss Julie,” with its irrational and rigid focus on impenetrable social class barriers, and the situation in Israel. “The Israeli-Palestinian ‘mess’ has long abandoned the territory of sound reason,” he said, pointing out that the mutual prosperity Palestinians and Jews have experienced should have convinced the two communities they can only gain from a peaceful acceptance of each other. “But instead of thriving together in peace, the Hosseini belligerent leadership of the Palestinian community opted for a forceful showdown.”

 

The Israeli Stage’s mission is to share the diversity and vitality of Israeli theatre, and Director and Producing Artistic Director Guy Ben-Ahron considers “The Last Act” a perfect fit. “While the play is inherently Israeli, it is utterly universal. The peril of the surveillance state is a global phenomenon. The option for society to choose fear or hope is one that faces all Americans today,” he said.

 

Artistically, he appreciates that the play-within-a-play structure distorts the lines of reality, inviting the audience to tune into two realities simultaneously. “It blurs the lines of comedy and tragedy- it’s funny, it’s sharp and it’s poignant. I love the playfulness of the script,” he said.

 

Nightly dialogues will follow each performance, providing an opportunity for communal reflection. “Our vision is to create an opportunity to listen, inquire and reflect deeply at a time when our world suffers mightily from divisions and distrust. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit,” Ben-Ahron said.

 

For more information or to buy tickets, visit israelistage.com or call (617) 933-8600.

 

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.

Israeli artist breaks gender barrier with ‘A Fringe of Her Own’

By Shelley A. Sackett

MARCH 29, 2018 – Two summers ago, Tamar Paley started thinking about what she wanted to focus on for her senior thesis project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan.

As one whose work is inspired as much by her own life and opinions as by form and materials, she decided to use the thesis platform as a way to bring attention to two matters she cares strongly about – feminism and gender inequality – and the “non-recognition of progressive Judaism from Israeli authorities,” the 26-year-old said by email from Tel Aviv.

Paley came up with the idea to create feminine Jewish ritual items based on but totally different from those traditionally reserved for men, including tefillin, tzitzit, and tallit. Her collection, “A Fringe of Her Own,” calls on her talent for jewelry making with delicate, inventive, and exquisite pieces specifically for women.

Soon after finishing her studies, she ran across an open call for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s artist-in-residence program and submitted her work for consideration. She was selected from 30 applicants, and “A Fringe of Her Own” is now on display at HBI’s Kniznick Gallery at the Women’s Studies Research Center in Waltham through June. This is Paley’s first solo show and the first US exhibition of her work.

Initially, her peers and professors at Shenkar were unenthusiastic about her proposal. “This is not ‘mainstream’ in Israel and more than that, it is a subject of deep controversy that has led to confusion and identity questions,” she said. Once she explained what she wanted to do and why, “they got it. The support was amazing and opened up a new realm of discussion beyond design and into worlds of faith and femininity.”

Growing up in a reform/progressive Jewish community, Paley was part of a group that accepted women as religiously equal to men when it came to participating in what mainstream Israeli Judaism considers exclusively male.

“In Israel, everything is political, so women wearing a tallit or using tefillin feels like a very bold statement, sometimes even scary and uncomfortable,” she said.
Even among other progressive Israeli women, using and seeing tallit and tefillin on women doesn’t always feel natural. “They still feel like they culturally belong to men,” Paley said.

At Brandeis, her bold, innovative work was welcome.

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s mission is to support “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender world-wise,” and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Shulamit Reinharz director of the institute.

“We are excited by the challenging beauty of her work and by the role that dialogue with women in the progressive movements in Israel played in her design process,” Joffe added, noting Paley will continue that conversation with women in the region through lectures and workshops.

The groundbreaking exhibit builds on Paley’s belief that jewelry can make a strong social statement while reflecting beauty and aesthetics. She deconstructs traditional patriarchal Jewish ritual objects and redesigns them to reflect a feminine consciousness using material such as German silver, handwoven textiles, found objects, gold foil, printed parchment, Lucite, and printed silk.

The results are breathtaking in their symbolism, feminine energy, and exceptional craftsmanship. The combination of graceful silverwork, delicate fringe, and carefully chosen snippets of text against a backdrop of elegant yet bold blue textile creates wearable objects with religious and spiritual significance and beauty.

“A Fringe of Her Own” garnered Paley a prestigious American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. She also presented the collection at the world-renowned Marzee International Graduation Show in the Netherlands.

Joffe hopes visitors take away awareness that Israeli women are part of a vibrant art scene that is exploring contemporary issues of Jewish identity. Paley hopes for something a little deeper.

“I want attendees to leave with the notion that religion is in our hands, literally, and it is our responsibility to design and reflect our needs and beliefs,” she said. “I hope I can be a voice for some women out there, at least hopefully the friends I grew up with, and that this will encourage them to be proud of who they are and to fight for what they believe in.”

The Kniznick Gallery is located on the Brandeis University campus in the Epstein Building, 515 South St., Waltham. The exhibit is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with special weekend hours April 15 and 22. For more information, visit brandeis.edu/hbi/arts

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 

Millennial Jews finding ways to connect on the North Shore

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

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.