Walnut Street Shul Preserves the Future

Rabbi Kagedan proudly stands at the Walnut Street Synagogue bimah.

Unbeknown to the ten Chelsea families who founded the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Shalom in 1897, they had erected their synagogue in a city that in their lifetimes would become home to the largest percentage of Jews of any other city in the United States except New York.

 

In 1890, 82 Jews lived in Chelsea; by 1910, that number swelled to 11,000, one of every three residents. By 1930, almost half of Chelsea was Jewish, earning it the moniker, “Yerushalayim d’America.” If it seemed like there was a synagogue on almost every corner, that’s because there was: in its 1.8 square miles, Chelsea housed 18 synagogues.

 

When tragedy struck and the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 reduced most of the city, including Agudath Shalom, to ashes, the shul’s immigrant founders were undaunted. They rolled up their sleeves and in 1909 rebuilt the synagogue on Walnut Street, which inspired the new building’s nickname, the Walnut Street Shul.

 

Designed by architect Harry Justin Joll, the magnificent building boasts ceiling frescoes painted by immigrant artists and an awe-inspiring ark by Sam Katz, the renowned master woodworker from the Ukraine who made Chelsea his home in the 1920’s.

 

Fast forward to 2017, and most everything about Chelsea has changed.

 

Gone are the kosher butchers, bakeries and religious and cultural institutions. Yiddish and Hebrew have been replaced by the mother tongues of recent immigrants from Central America, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. According to the most recent Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies survey, Chelsea’s Jewish population has shrunk to statistical insignificance.

 

Of the 18 synagogues, two remain: Temple Emmanuel and the Walnut Street Synagogue.

 

RabbiArk2

 

The Walnut Street Synagogues’s congregants are determined to revitalize their synagogue and, while they’re at it, to blaze a new trail for Orthodox Judaism. Last September, they hired Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first female clergy member in the United States to preside in an Orthodox synagogue using the title “Rabbi.”

 

Within the world of Orthodox Jewry, this is a big deal.

 

Rabbi Kagedan attended Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s religious training program founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the Bronx, New York. Because rabbi is a masculine word, Rabbi Weiss allows his graduates to adopt whatever title they want.

 

Some choose rabba (a feminized version of rabbi) or maharat (a Hebrew acronym Rabbi Weiss invented that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality and religious law). When Rabbi Kagedan and her two female classmates graduated in 2015, she alone chose the title rabbi.

 

“It was the title that most accurately described the work that I trained to do. Like calling a doctor ‘Doctor,’” she said. “People did try to discourage me because it hasn’t been a typical choice in Orthodoxy, but I always wanted to serve the community and use my training and knowledge to support the Jewish community with pastoral and halachik needs.”

 

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which represents over a thousand Orthodox rabbis across the United States, saw the matter differently. It adopted a policy in the fall after Rabbi Kagedan’s graduation prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.

 

 

“Should it be allowed? Who’s going to make it illegal?” asked Jonathan Sarna, the prominent author, historian and Brandeis University professor who has written extensively about American Judaism. “In America, the congregants make their own decisions. We don’t have a Chief Rabbi. We don’t have a Ministry of Religion. Every congregation is, in a sense, a law unto itself,” he said by phone from Jerusalem.

 

None of these religious politics mattered to Board Secretary Richard Zabot, whose grandparents arrived in Chelsea in 1905 from Russia and helped found the Walnut Street Synagogue. In Rabbi Kagedan, he saw a perfect fit. “She showed a willingness to work with the unknown in order to achieve our goal: the rejuvenation of our synagogue,” he said.

 

Fellow Board member Eddie Medros, who grew up in Chelsea in the 1950s and attended the Elm Street Synagogue, agrees. “She is infectious with her drive and enthusiasm. She brings warmth, passion, inclusiveness and a love of Judaism,” he said, noting she has already reached out to the local community in a meaningful way.

 

The attraction was mutual. “The shul presents a challenge, which I am always up for. I also feel committed to keeping a shul that has existed for so many years going. Continuity is powerful,” she said.

 

Devra Zabot, Richard’s daughter and events chair of the shul’s museum, described the extensive vetting process Rabbi Kagedan received before the synagogue board offered the ultimate vote of confidence. “Given that the board members are all over the age of 70 and mostly male, this was a heavily discussed decision,” she said.

 

In the ten months she has been at the spiritual helm, Rabbi Kagedan has been busy learning the ropes and making connections with the greater Jewish and local Chelsea communities. Almost immediately upon arrival, she led the High Holiday services and organized a Chanukah celebration with a klezmer band that attracted over 150 people, including Zahava Stern, a new young member.

 

“I met a lot of people who grew up in Chelsea and were bar or bat mitzvah-ed in this shul, but have since moved out to Sharon or Brookline. They were so excited to come back and see an active community in a place they hold so dear to their heart,” she said.

 

Stern also noted that Chelsea’s location attracts families from the North Shore, East Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. “It’s a secret gem right in the middle of the action,” she said.

 

The Walnut Street Synagogue offers monthly Shabbat and holiday services, classes on a variety of Jewish topics and holidays, and pastoral counseling and services. Rabbi Kagedan is the founding member of the Chelsea Interfaith Council and has met with the City Manager and other non-profit organizations about partnerships and integrating the shul with the Chelsea community.

 

The shul is supported by its board and members and by the Chelsea community at large, including citizens, city councilors and non-profit organizations. There are 120 members, and it operates as a fully Orthodox shul, with a mechitza on Shabbat and during high holidays services. The Jewish Chelsea Home generously opens its doors to the Rabbi and her family and guests to stay over on Shabbat.

 

Somehow, Rabbi Kagedan also finds time to serve on several professional and religious boards. “My peers have been largely supportive and open. Once people meet me and get to know me and see or experience the work I am doing, there is less anxiety and hype about being a woman Orthodox rabbi and people see me as just simply an Orthodox rabbi,” she said.

 

For now, Chelsea and the Walnut Street Synagogue are her prime focus. “Chelsea was at one time a real center of Jewish life in the region. My priority is to get Chelsea back on the radar of Jews in Massachusetts and to let people know the Walnut Street Synagogue is operational,” she said.

 

This is music to Richard Zabot’s ears. He remembers as a child when all 1,109 seats would be occupied during the High Holidays. “The shul hasn’t lost any of its charm or awe. We’re inviting 900 new people to join us this Yom Tov and be part of the preservation of the future,” he said.

North Shore Jews Pray with their Feet in Salem’s Pride Parade

 

By Shelley A. Sackett, Journal correspondent

 

Laura-Jillian

(L-R): Laura Shulman Bronstein and Rabbi Jillian Cameron with their “totes gay” tote bags.

 

The sixth annual North Shore Pride Parade and Festival will wind its way through Salem on Saturday, June 24, and for the first time, there will be an official Jewish North Shore group participating.

 

Even though the parade takes place on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest on which observant Jews refrain from various forms of labor, 30 people have committed to marching under a banner that identifies the group as “Jew(ish) Tribe for Pride” and includes the logos of its sponsors, InterfaithFamily and Cohen Hillel Academy. 40 more have expressed interest.

 

It all started at last year’s parade, in which Laura Shulman Brochstein, Rabbi Jillian Cameron and Liz Polay-Wettengel marched with their families. They were chatting on Salem Common, where the parade ends, lamenting the lack visibility from the Jewish community, despite what they knew to be a welcoming Jewish community for LGBT individuals and families.

 

They figured the likely reason was that the event took place on Shabbat.

 

Liz with Sign

​Liz Polay-Wettengel holds an equality sign at last year’s North Shore Pride Parade.​

 

“Because of our collective professional experience working for Jewish organizations over the years, we knew that for many, this was the barrier for participation,” said Polay-Wettengel, who lives in Salem and is National Director of Marketing and Communications at InterfaithFamily.

 

Brochstein is a social worker from Marblehead and the North Shore Outreach Manager for Jewish Family and Children’s Service; Rabbi Jillian Cameron, of Salem, is the director of InterfaithFamily/Boston.

 

“We thought, ‘What if we marched as individuals and not as an organization?’” Polay-Wettengel continued. Over lunch one day, the three decided that, as Jews in the North Shore community, they wanted their LGBTQ friends to know that the Jewish community supported them.

 

The three women organized an independent Jewish group, called Jew(ish) Tribe for Pride, creating an opportunity for North Shore Jews to march together, regardless of institutional or rabbinical support or opinions.

 

As a Jew, a rabbi and a member of the LGBT community, Rabbi Cameron can’t think of a better way to spend Shabbat on June 24 than marching with her North Shore community. “For me, this is a sacred act, an act of prayer, a way to seek out greater connection with my fellow human beings and with God,” she said.

 

Although Beverly’s Temple B’nai Abraham members will participate in the Pride Parade for the third consecutive year, they march with the Beverly Multi-faith Coalition. After their Shabbat morning services in the TBA chapel have ended, “We will pray with our feet (as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described his experience marching for civil rights),” said TBA’s Rabbi Alison Adler.

 

“ I don’t see walking in a parade in support of equality and inclusion as a violation of Shabbat – just the opposite,” she said. “Shabbat is supposed to give us a taste of the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to inherit, a world of equality, free of hatred. I am thrilled that there will be more of a Jewish presence this year under the Tribe for Pride banner.”

 

Rabbi Adler was instrumental in getting the North Shore Pride Board to change the night of the interfaith service preceding the march from Friday to Thursday. As a result, most North Shore rabbis and cantors will attend this year, leading a song together as part of the service.

 

Rabbi Michael Ragozin, of Conservative Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, applauds Rabbi Adler’s success and will attend and publicize the Thursday night event. However, he cannot do the same for Saturday’s parade.

 

“Shabbat and support for the LGBTQ community are two values that I hold dearly. Unfortunately, the North Shore Pride parade conflicts with Shabbat, and I will not publicize events that conflict with Shabbat,” he explained.

 

Rabbi David Meyer of Marblehead’s Reform Temple Emanu-el supports any of his congregants who wish to attend and participate in the parade, although he thinks it would be in poor judgment to have the Temple play an official role in a secular event that takes place on Shabbat.

 

“Although certainly not a traditional approach to Shabbat observance, sharing in the work of increasing civil rights, justice and peace in our community, nation and world is very much in keeping with Reform Jewish principles,” he said.

 

Rabbi Cameron welcomes everyone to march under the new Jew(ish) Tribe for Pride banner. “In life, there aren’t many parades, aren’t that many times we get the opportunity to show up and physically express the things which are important, which makes us who we are,” she said.

 

For more information, email northshorejews@gmail.com. or visit salem.org/event/north-shore-pride-parade/. To RSVP, go to bit.ly/NorthShorePride.

For Two Local Synagogues, Inclusion Is a Priority

 

Inclusion

Transition to Work graduates.

 

 

Congregation Shirat Hayam (CSH) in Swampscott and Temple Sinai in Marblehead were among the dozens of synagogues that applied for Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RISP) grants in 2016. They both were selected and on May 23, they will be among the nine 2017 Cohort of RISP Congregational Partners welcomed and recognized at the annual CJP “Celebrating Inclusion” event.

 

“We are very excited to be working with two synagogues on the North Shore this year and are very interested in regional collaboration,” said Molly Silver, who manages the partnership between the CJP and RISP. “Being inclusive is a sacred and holy imperative of Jews and this project helps synagogues realize their own unique vision of inclusion.”

 

For over a decade, the Ruderman Family Foundation philanthropic mission has emphasized disability advocacy and inclusion. Its newest initiative, RISP, awards $5,000 grants to synagogues in the Greater Boston and North Shore communities to help fund programs that ensure that all people, including those with profound disabilities, are able to participate in congregational activities.

 

RISP started as a pilot program in 2013 with just three Boston synagogues.

 

Sharon Shapiro is the daughter of founder Morton E. Ruderman and a Ruderman Family Foundation trustee. As Community Liaison, she is in charge of all projects in the greater Boston and North Shore areas, including RISP.

 

“There is a group of people who are not coming to synagogue because they feel there’s nothing there for them,” she said. “RISP raises awareness for inclusion in general, but specifically for people with disabilities because that is the focus of our foundation.”

 

Silver was particularly struck by Temple Sinai’s and CSH’s strategic and thoughtful Inclusion Action Plans and ambitious goals. “What stood out about their applications was a deep and profound desire among both communities to be a “kehillah k’dosha”, a holy community that strives to welcome everyone who walks through their doors.

 

Rabbi Michael Ragozin hopes CSH will become fully inclusive of children with disabilities and their families. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of rejection that families, seeking to raise their children in a Jewish community, families whose children will thrive in a Torah environment, have experienced,” he said.

 

Beyond the letter of the grant, he also hopes CSH will become even more inclusive of interfaith families, the LGBTQ community, households with varied incomes, and individuals experiencing mental health issues.

 

“Inclusion is a clarion call to honor the uniqueness of each one of us,” he said.

Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez agrees. “To be able to reach and kiss the mezuzah, to be able to drink water or go to the restroom, to have access to the bimah and the Torah, to be able to read and hear the services are things we might take for granted,” he said, noting many others in the community might not be as fortunate.

 

Both synagogues have formed Inclusion Committees with ambitious and concrete goals and plans for the coming year. Amanda Clayman and Michele Tamaren co-chair CSH’s 14-member “Shir Lanu: One Song – Every Voice” committee. Deborah Shelkan Remis chairs Temple Sinai’s nine-member committee.

 

Remis pointed to the network already operating for congregants who need rides or meals, have hearing assisted devices or need large print siddurim. “This is just the beginning,” she said.

 

AT CSH, Hebrew School director Janice Knight leads Torah study focused on inclusion as a Jewish value and has invited trainers to work with staff and teens through “Gateways: Access to Jewish Education”. CSH greeters have received training on the use of inclusive language. An accessibility handout itemizes available inclusion support.

 

“We believe inclusion is holy, just and divine. Everyone is welcome and must feel welcome at Shirat Hayam,” Clayman said.

 

Ruderman trustee Shapiro remembers about five or six years ago when someone from CSH with an adult son with disabilities was trying desperately to make changes at the synagogue. “I think it took this project and other families coming forward to make the wok really impactful in the synagogue top down and bottom up,” she said.

 

That “someone” is Marcy Yellin, whose 32-year-old son Jacob is a regular at CSH events and services. “I’m thrilled for Shirat Hayam to be included in the Ruderman Foundation grant. I have great respect for all the things the Foundation does. It’s wonderful to see that people are taking disabilities seriously and mobilizing together to support our most vulnerable, especially in the Jewish world,” she said.

 

She paused for a moment and then added with a smile, “we have waited a very long time for this.”

Rosh Hodesh, Mother’s Day and Me

 

 

I am a mommy-in-the-middle: I have a mother and I am a mother. I get a lot of pleasure from both roles, but every year, Mother’s Day falls flat for me. I’m so busy being either mother or daughter that I never feel a personally meaningful or satisfying connection.

 

Yet, I certainly connect to being a mother. I just don’t connect to Mother’s Day.

 

So I decided that this year, rather than accepting and ignoring the hollowness of Mother’s Day, I would dig deeper until I discovered something that resonated with me in the way traditional Mother’s Day was supposed to, but didn’t.

 

Before discarding it out of hand, however, I thought I should learn more about Mother’s Day. It all started in the 1800’s when Ann Reeves Jarvis, an Appalachian social activist and women’s event planner, created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to help educate women about how to care for their children and keep them healthy. After the war, she organized “Mother’s Friendship Picnics” to encourage Confederate and Union loyalists to ignore their differences and remember their common bond of motherhood.

 

When Ann died, her daughter Anna wanted to celebrate her beloved mother. She organized an honorary event in West Virginia on May 10, which soon spread to a number of states. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, declaring that the holiday offered a chance to “[publicly express] our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

 

Anna’s idea was that children would spend the day with their mothers in appreciation of all they had sacrificed for them. When the day quickly turned into a retail gold mine, she was so disappointed that she spent the rest of her life fighting to have its holiday status revoked. She failed, and by 2014 Americans spent almost $20 billion on Mother’s Day goods and services.

 

While building personal bonds among mothers was a terrific legacy worth preserving, Anna Jarvis had correctly recognized that her original Mother’s Day had morphed into something commercial and trivial.

 

Many cultures and religions — including Judaism — have other ways for women to gather and pay homage to their unique feminine qualities.

 

We Jewish mothers are lucky to have Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish lunar month, which coincides with the new moon. It is a minor festival that has long been associated with, and sacred to, women. Midrash (biblical legend) holds the holiday was given to women as a reward for their refusal to give up their jewelry to help create the Golden Calf.

 

Women’s Rosh Hodesh groups started springing up in the 1980s as a way to revive its observance in a modern, more meaningful way.

 

My own introduction to Rosh Hodesh took place soon after moving to Swampscott in 2001 when I was invited to join a Hadassah evening of study and community. The focus was Rosh Hodesh. We each received a copy of “Moonbeams”, Hadassah’s guide to Rosh Hodesh modern practices. It still calls to me, the enchantment of its watercolor cover and thoughtful readings undiminished.

 

The next year, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day. Rosh Hodesh and I had some sort of special bond, but the connection wasn’t yet clear.

 

Then, about five years ago, I learned to chant the Rosh Hodesh Torah parsha, which I have done almost every month since, always using my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah yad. Last week, at Rosh Hodesh Iyar, something felt different.

 

I felt a spark of kinship with the spirits of all women who ever stood where I stood, especially my daughter and my mother when the three of us shared the bimah in celebration of her Mother’s Day Bat Mitzvah 15 years ago. How had I forgotten?

 

That personal, spiritual way to connect with Mother’s Day I longed for was right in front of my eyes all along. All I had to do was to open them and notice.

 

This year, when I send that Hallmark card and buy that Mother’s Day gift, it will be with a full and grateful heart. Mother’s Day is my holiday too.

 

Bringing It Home: PJ Library Takes Parents to Israel

 

 

PJ-two

Sara Weisman of Beverly, at center with white hat, took part in the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I). Photo courtesy of the Lappin Foundation.

Last May 11, on Yom Ha’azmaut (Israel Independence Day), Debbie Coltin was reading a story to a group of children and their parents as part of the PJ Library program when a little girl turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, does Israel really look like that?”

 

The mom, who had never been to Israel, panicked and made eye contact with Coltin, the Lappin Foundation Executive Director.

 

“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got to get these parents to Israel,’” she said. And get them to Israel she did, with the creation of the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I).

 

“We get the teens excited about Israel [with Y2I, the Lappin Foundation teen trip to Israel], but this hits a different generation. If we didn’t organize it, when would they go? Our dream is to have this missed generation of young parents who didn’t do birthright, who are busy professionals, go to Israel,” she said.

 

Less than a year later, from April 25 through May 4, Coltin led the first PJLP2I trip with 29 participants, including ten interfaith families. The subsidized trip was open to PJ Library parents of all faiths who live in the Lappin Foundation’s service area and who had never been to Israel.

 

PJ Library is a Jewish family engagement program that focuses on the bond created between children and parents during story time right before bed. Jewish children ages six months to eight years old are eligible to receive a free Jewish book and CD-of-the-month. The Lappin Foundation partners with Cohen Hillel Academy as local funders of the international program created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

 

The PJLP2I’s immediate goal is straightforward: to educate and empower parents to speak about Israel to their children from first-hand experience. According to Coltin, the bigger picture is to create ambassadors and advocates in the community for Israel.

 

“That generation is all about social media,” she said referring to the many participants who posted daily pictures during their trip. “Their friends and parents of other kids were already commenting on their postings. So it works,” she said.

 

Participants were from three distinct geographic areas — Newburyport, Marblehead/Swampscott and Beverly/Peabody. They and their families had three opportunities to meet prior to the trip. “It was a specular community building and growth experience,” Coltin said.

 

Sara Weisman, a Beverly mom and member of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, was very skeptical of Israel and hesitant to take the trip. She returned “totally blown away by the experience” with plans to return.

 

“This trip changed my impression of Israel completely. In some sense, I didn’t learn anything new, but I gained insight that can’t be learned at a distance or read in a book about the value of having a Jewish nation. What happens in Israel feels very personal in a way it didn’t before,” she said.

 

Al Pica from Swampscott is father of two young children and a member of Temple Emmanuel in Marblehead. He was most surprised by the unwavering patriotism among all Israeli people — Christians and Arab Israelis as well as Jewish Israelis — and how that differed from his preconceptions. He left the U.S. as an ambassador to Israel, but returned home “with a sense of duty to do even more — spread the good word, clear up myths and misconceptions about Israel, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, etc.,” he said.

 

The trip affected both Weisman and Pica as parents. “I had previously been to other Holocaust museums, but a tour through Yad Vashem, and in particular the Children’s Memorial, had a tremendous impact on me as a parent of Jewish children,” Pica said.

 

Weisman feels she now understands Biblical history a lot better after visiting places where some Biblical events took place. “The mental scale I had of cities, distances, landscapes and so on wasn’t connected to physical places before. I want to share this with my children, as well as a sense of pride in the modern nation of Israel,” she said.

 

Coltin was most impressed by the sacrifices many had to make to participate. “Look at the demographics we were appealing to. One mom had four little kids. That’s brave, right?” she said.

 

She is delighted with the parents’ post-trip evaluation comments, especially the number who said the trip was “life changing” and “eye opening”. “The goal was to bring it home and instill it in your kids. I’m sure those conversations will take place,” she said.

 

 

 

 

Rosh Hodesh, Mother’s Day and Me

 

 

I am a mommy-in-the-middle: I have a mother and I am a mother. I get a lot of pleasure from both roles, but every year, Mother’s Day falls flat for me. I’m so busy being either mother or daughter that I never feel a personally meaningful or satisfying connection.

 

Yet, I certainly connect to being a mother. I just don’t connect to Mother’s Day.

 

So I decided that this year, rather than accepting and ignoring the hollowness of Mother’s Day, I would dig deeper until I discovered something that resonated with me in the way traditional Mother’s Day was supposed to, but didn’t.

 

Before discarding it out of hand, however, I thought I should learn more about Mother’s Day. It all started in the 1800’s when Ann Reeves Jarvis, an Appalachian social activist and women’s event planner, created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to help educate women about how to care for their children and keep them healthy. After the war, she organized “Mother’s Friendship Picnics” to encourage Confederate and Union loyalists to ignore their differences and remember their common bond of motherhood.

 

When Ann died, her daughter Anna wanted to celebrate her beloved mother. She organized an honorary event in West Virginia on May 10, which soon spread to a number of states. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, declaring that the holiday offered a chance to “[publicly express] our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

 

Anna’s idea was that children would spend the day with their mothers in appreciation of all they had sacrificed for them. When the day quickly turned into a retail gold mine, she was so disappointed that she spent the rest of her life fighting to have its holiday status revoked. She failed, and by 2014 Americans spent almost $20 billion on Mother’s Day goods and services.

 

While building personal bonds among mothers was a terrific legacy worth preserving, Anna Jarvis had correctly recognized that her original Mother’s Day had morphed into something commercial and trivial.

 

Many cultures and religions — including Judaism — have other ways for women to gather and pay homage to their unique feminine qualities.

 

We Jewish mothers are lucky to have Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish lunar month, which coincides with the new moon. It is a minor festival that has long been associated with, and sacred to, women. Midrash (biblical legend) holds the holiday was given to women as a reward for their refusal to give up their jewelry to help create the Golden Calf.

 

Women’s Rosh Hodesh groups started springing up in the 1980s as a way to revive its observance in a modern, more meaningful way.

 

My own introduction to Rosh Hodesh took place soon after moving to Swampscott in 2001 when I was invited to join a Hadassah evening of study and community. The focus was Rosh Hodesh. We each received a copy of “Moonbeams”, Hadassah’s guide to Rosh Hodesh modern practices. It still calls to me, the enchantment of its watercolor cover and thoughtful readings undiminished.

 

The next year, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day. Rosh Hodesh and I had some sort of special bond, but the connection wasn’t yet clear.

 

Then, about five years ago, I learned to chant the Rosh Hodesh Torah parsha, which I have done almost every month since, always using my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah yad. Last week, at Rosh Hodesh Iyar, something felt different.

 

I felt a spark of kinship with the spirits of all women who ever stood where I stood, especially my daughter and my mother when the three of us shared the bimah in celebration of her Mother’s Day Bat Mitzvah 15 years ago. How had I forgotten?

 

That personal, spiritual way to connect with Mother’s Day I longed for was right in front of my eyes all along. All I had to do was to open them and notice.

 

This year, when I send that Hallmark card and buy that Mother’s Day gift, it will be with a full and grateful heart. Mother’s Day is my holiday too.

 

Shedding a Special Light on Hanukkah at the MFA

 

 

It was beginning to feel a lot like Hanukkah at the Museum of Fine Arts last Wednesday when the Shapiro Family Courtyard was transformed into a large-scale celebration for the senses. The oversized interactive menorah cast its magic light over the crowd as some swayed to Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band, some created their own menorahs at the nearby crafts table, and some checked their official program guide, trying to fit as many of the evening’s overlapping art, music and storytelling offerings into their time schedule as possible.

menorah-making

Young and old gather in the Shapiro Family Courtyard to create one-of-a-kind menorahs.

 

Harriet and Jeff Brand of Marblehead were among the more than 1,000 attendees. At the third annual event “It’s just so festive and wonderful to see all the families here,” said Harriet, as a group of toddlers scrambled past. “It’s exciting the MFA is recognizing the joy of Hanukkah,” added Jeff.

 

“Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights” was presented by the MFA in partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP) and the newly formed Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts), with support from the Consulate General of Israel to New England.

menorah2

The large-scale, interactive menorah changes whose flames change color as visitors approach.

 

This year’s celebration featured “Inworlds”, a cutting-edge mixed reality short performance created by Secret Portal in association with Dudley Square Studios that was as experiential as experimental. A live actor and a volunteer who wore a virtual reality headset interacted on a stage bathed in projected visuals that mirrored what the volunteer was seeing. The first-of-its-kind exploration told a story of loss, miracles, friendships and discovery, meant to reflect the miracle of Hanukkah itself.

 

For Laura Mandel, JArts Executive Director, this was the highlight of the 2016 event, and not just because her husband is part of the creative team behind it. “I have loved watching the evolution of our virtual reality endeavor. The end result is a beautiful look into the most current technology out there,” she said. “It excites me that we can inspire artists to push these boundaries in innovative ways, all tying us back to the miracle and illumination of Hanukkah.”

 

JArts was launched last December when the Boston Jewish Music Festival and New Center for Arts & Culture joined forces to create a bold new initiative to share the history, artistry and universality of Jewish Culture. Joey Baron, who co-created the Boston Jewish Music Festival with Jim Ball, is JArts Creative Director.

 

Baron’s selection of the evening’s musical events included a Hanukkah sing-a-long with cantor and klezmer clarinetist Becky Khitrik, the klezmer band Ezekial’s Wheels, a group Boston Jewish Music Festival helped introduce to Boston audiences, and the award-winning Nigun Chamber Ensemble.

nigun

The award-winning Nigun Chamber Ensemble perform Jewish songs from pre-war Eastern Europe.

 

Baron was most enthusiastic about Wendy Jehlen’s performance. Jehlen is founder and artistic director of Anikaya Dance, which weaves together music, dance and storytelling from disparate traditions and different ways of understanding.

 

“I’m not all that much of a dance fan, but there’s nothing like experiencing a dancer performing to live music in such an inspiring setting as a museum gallery setting. I think it could be magical,” he said.

 

Throughout the evening, “Spotlight Talks: Judaica” explored works of Judaica in four galleries with 15-minute talks that featured exploration of one or two specific pieces. A panel of curators, artists, Rabbis and educators discussed Judaica and Judaism at the MFA, in Bosoton and beyond.

 

No Hanukkah festivity would be complete without gifts, and the MFA celebration was no exception. The crowd eagerly awaited the unveiling of the just released 2016 Hanukkah stamp, its official party favor of the evening. The United States Postal Service’s official representative did the honors with great flourish to the sounds of snapping cameras and cell phones and robust claps and cheers.

 

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A United State Postal Service representative officially unveils the 2016 Hanukkah stamp.

But it was the installation of the giant menorah that really stole the show. The unique art menorah installation, “Step To Hanukkah Lights”, uses advanced technology to enable visitors to “light” a menorah by stepping on a platform with nine, free standing 8-foot candles. When they approach each candle, their proximity changes the menorah’s colors. The number of people close to the menorah and to each other alters the intensity and the color of the “flames.” It is quite something to behold and even more amazing to experience.

 

The menorah will remain on display at the MFA for two weeks and was created by a team of three local artists: Saul Baizman, Fish McGill and Andrew Ringler.

 

Neil Wallack, chair of CJP Board of Directors, was one of eight who offered remarks prior to the candle lighting. He referred to the evening as illustrative of “our combined efforts to repair the world. The light in our community gets brighter when we are together.”

 

After the menorah was lit, everyone joined in singing the Hanukkah prayers. “I get goose bumps every time I see 1,000-plus people singing Hanukkah blessings in the courtyard. That moment is the definition of community to me,” said Mandel, holding her squirming 18-month old.

Justice Is Not Denied in “Denial”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When historian Deborah E. Lipstadt walked onto the stage on September 22 for a Q&A after a preview of the film “Denial”, she was asked what it felt like to be portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “It was surreal,” she said with a laugh, noting that the most remarkable part was hearing her own Queens accent perfectly mimed by the English film and theater star.

 

But with that, any light-heartedness faded as discussion turned to her real life role as defendant in a British lawsuit brought by Hitler admirer and “historian” David Irving. After Lipstadt labeled him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, claiming her false statements had harmed his reputation.

 

Her subsequent ten-week legal battle in 2000 to defend herself and establish the “historical truth” that the Holocaust did indeed occur formed the basis of her “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), the book on which playwright David Hare’s script for “Denial” is based.

 

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Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in the true story, “Denial”.

 

As Irving knew, in Britain libel laws favor the plaintiff. The defendant must prove that statements the plaintiff considered libelous, or false, are indeed true. In this case, Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust really happened, and that, therefore, Irving intentionally lied when he insisted there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Nazis had never murdered any Jews.

 

As if this isn’t complicated (and heart wrenching) enough, Lipstadt and her team had two additional stumbling blocks. The first was a lack of physical evidence. The team had to amass their case despite the facts that the Nazis never allowed photographs of prisoners being gassed in Auschwitz and further covered their tracks by destroying the gas chambers.

 

The second was defense counsel’s decision not to allow Lipstadt or any Holocaust survivors to testify for fear that Irving, who was acting as his own attorney, would humiliate and exploit them. For Lipstadt, this was worse.

 

“A trial is not therapy,” Lipstadt’s British solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, known to TV’s “Sherlock” fans as Moriarty), tells her. Furious, she tries to make him understand that it is not their own catharsis the survivors seek. “You think they want to testify for themselves? It’s not for themselves. They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.” Unmoved, Julius replies, “It’s the price you pay for winning.”

 

The bulk of the film centers on the trial and all the testimony comes directly from the actual trial transcripts. “This was a film about truth and it had to be truthful,” Lipstadt said during the Q&A. Although some of the film’s detailed court procedures may be confusing (and boring to a non-attorney), the exchanges between Irving (Timothy Spall) and the defense’s Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) crackle, due in large part to the stellar acting of both.

 

Spall, who recently starred in “Mr. Turner”, has a rubber face perfectly suited to playing the duplicitous and self-impressed Irving. One minute, he is all smarmy self-justification, buttering up the judge and showboating for the spectators. The next, he is at his most infuriating, spewing diabolical anti-Semitic racist invectives and then playing the victim, accusing Lipstadt of tarnishing his reputation with a “verbal yellow star”.

 

The always-terrific Wilkinson brings weight and nuance to a cool-headed performance that hints at the roiling emotion lurking just below the surface. The film’s most satisfying moments are when his Rampton slyly lures Irving in during cross examination, then ferociously pounces, drawing and quartering his squirming prey.

 

Its most moving scene is during the legal team’s visit to Auschwitz. When Rampton steps on a barbed wire shard on his way to the gas chamber entrance, he suddenly understands the enormity of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. To imagine a barefooted Jew stepping on a piece of barbed wire on his way to his imminent murder is unspeakably unjust — and real.

 

Given the extraordinary pre-release press “Denial” has engendered, it can hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Lipstadt won her case. The Holocaust scholar, however, hopes the biggest takeaway of the film is not her victory, but a recognition that not all opinions merit defending.

 

“There are not two sides to every story. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. There are some things you cannot debate,” she said. “I will debate you on the facts. I will not debate liars.”

 

Noting that earlier in the day, the New York Time used “lie” to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said, Lipstadt is worried about what lies ahead. “We are living in a time when lying has become mainstream. The needle has moved so far,” she said. “There is an anti-intellectual, anti-factual attitude which is frightening.”

 

She paused for a moment and then directed the Q&A session towards the audience. “Where does that put us? As academics and people interested in social justice, what do we do?” she asked.

 

Rosh Chodesh, Elul and Me

Every month, I look forward to Rosh Chodesh. This started in September 2001, soon after moving to Swampscott from Denver, when I was invited by some new acquaintances to join them at a Hadassah evening of study and community. The focus of the evening was Rosh Chodesh, and we all received a copy of “Moonbeams,” a guide to Rosh Chodesh celebration and ceremony. The cover charmed me with its watercolor image of a woman in tallit, backlit by a pink sky filled with clouds, stars and moon. Fresh from Denver’s two-year Florence Melton Jewish studies program, I was thirsty for traditional knowledge and also contemporary customs. “Moonbeams” had both, with poetry and other writings as a bonus. And it was so pretty.

Then in 2002, my daughter was bat mitzvahed. On a Sunday morning. On Rosh Chodesh. On Mother’s Day. The stars and moon had aligned. I was like the mother of a bride who wants a barefoot potluck wedding in a pasture in Vermont instead of the sit-down, catered affair I had envisioned for her. My connection to this event eclipsed hers. My daughter soldiered through it all, and still shudders at the recollection of the process and the day itself. For me, it was another sign that Rosh Chodesh and I had some sort of a special bond.

All this rose to a new level when I started attending morning minyan on a regular basis and realized that my favorite ritual, the blowing of the shofar, occurred more often than during the High Holidays. In fact, it occurred monthly, on the first day of every Jewish lunar month. Hearing its ancient call more than compensated for the fact that services that morning, with the additions of Torah, Hallel and Musaf, were twice their usual length.

Next came my learning to chant the Rosh Chodesh parsha from the Torah (so far just parts 1, 2 and 3 but I will master 4 before long). My beloved and dearly missed spiritual guide and minyan companion, Cantor Emil Berkovitz, inspired and encouraged me to study trope at the classes he taught on Sunday mornings. As part of the study, we learned the Rosh Chodesh parsha. Makes a lot of sense if you’re only going to learn one: you get to do it 12 (sometimes 13!) times a year. That’s a lot of bang for the buck. I have read these three parts of the parsha at most Rosh Chodesh services this past year, always using the yod I had bought for my daughter to use at her bat mitzvah.

It was Rosh Chodesh Elul some years back when I discovered that, for the entire month, we blew the shofar every morning (except, of course, Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashanah). That’s how special Elul is.

Preparing us for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Elul begins the month-long process of putting our spiritual homes in order to welcome the New Year, much as we clean our earthly homes to prepare for Passover. It is a sacred time of self-reflection and quiet, private assessment. It is a reminder that each of us matters and that tikkun olam (repairing the world) depends on each of us doing his best.

This morning, Rosh Chodesh Elul 5775, I stood at the torah. I chanted what others have chanted before me for thousands of years and what others will chant for thousands after. With my daughter’s yod lighting my way, I felt blessed by the feeling that in that one moment and by that one act, I was indeed being and doing my very best.

One Handful of Mud at a Time

Pictured above: Professor Mohammed Khallouk

When is the last time you read the same two articles in a Jewish newspaper and an Islamic e-magazine?

This is a story about a Muslim professor and e-magazine publisher and a Jewish writer and editor who saw in each other’s writing an opportunity to broaden the horizons of their readerships. It is a story about hope and possibility. It does not dwell on the challenges that politics, culture and religion pose. Instead, it focuses on common human ground and the way each of us can build a better future, one relationship at a time.

As editor of the bi-weekly Jewish Journal, I received scores of unsolicited articles and opinion pieces. A small percentage of the ones I actually read were appropriate for our publication and of those, I only had room for a handful in every issue.

Every now and then, however, an article would reach out and grab me in a way that I knew I had to publish it. Professor Mohammed Khallouk’s “Can Sworn Enemies Ever Become Friends?” was one.

This is how it began:

“In my youth in Morocco I was taught to hate Jews, and especially Israelis. I was convinced that Jews and Muslims could never become friends and that the relationship between Israelis and Arabs was based on hostility. The reality of cultural and religious pluralism in my new home country of Germany and an examination of Moroccan history, which shows that Jews and Muslims have lived in harmony for centuries, have convinced me that differences in religion cannot be the true reason for the animosity between them in the Middle East today.

I recently traveled to Jerusalem and wrote a travelogue about the experience. My meeting with one Jewish shopkeeper in the Western part of Jerusalem was especially unforgettable. My experience with this friendly and open-minded man named Abraham motivated me to write him a letter, which I included at the end of my book. This letter is a mirror of my experiences in the Holy City on the whole and my experiences meeting Abraham in particular.”

In his letter to Abraham, Professor Khallouk’s describes his revelations while in Israel, the gist of which are reprinted here:

“Even more than at the Holy Sites, I experienced this sense of brotherhood in Jerusalem’s everyday life. There were Jews like you who approached me as a fellow human with neither awkwardness nor fear. Appearance, origin and religious belief were unimportant. You saw me as a person who needed your assistance, and you spontaneously offered your help.

This human interaction has shaped my view of Jerusalem ever since. Jews are henceforth in my consciousness no longer my sworn enemies. I was able to experience them as my friends, soul-mates and spiritual brothers. While I continue to disagree in many key points with the State of Israel’s political stand on the Middle East conflict, Jews in West Jerusalem now matter to me as much as do Arabs and Muslims in the east of the Holy City. You have shown that you understand the importance of humanity essential to both Islam and Judaism.

The experience of seeing people of different cultures and religions coexisting so closely makes me long to return one day to the Holy City. The warmth with which we dealt with each other makes me hopeful that it might also inspire the political and social leaders. This is how political conflict can be overcome. Brotherhood and solidarity need to be the dominant image that Jews and Muslims have of each other.

I recognize your human kindness as a model for the rest of the world as well. This applies not least to German society, in which despite its cultural and political pluralism sometimes indifference and self-centeredness prevail. In Jerusalem I met a Judaism that reaches out to others. The guiding principle can be expressed thus: Only in dealing with the You, can the I find its identity.”

I emailed Professor Khallouk, telling him how much his message moved me and that, while I would have to edit it due to print space constraints, I wanted to publish it. I wanted our Jewish readers to hear a reasoned and reasonable Muslim voice, one that advocated human kindness and empathy, one that, these days and especially recently in the Journal’s pages, is too often ignored.

We exchanged several increasingly friendly emails. His article appeared at the top of the Jewish Journal May 28 Opinion page. Mine appeared at the bottom, an article entitled “Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony” that praised the interfaith Tufts University Baccalaureate ceremony for being a powerful reminder that we are members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, the differences of our separate identities.

When I sent Professor Khallouk the pdf of the Opinion page, he replied with this email:

Dear Shelley,

Thank you very much for the publishing of my  article. It was a great pleasure for me to find it on the same page with your nice literary report about diversity and the baccalaureate service.

If you do not mind I would like to translate  your piece into German and publish the translation on the website of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany

I also wish you a beautiful day and would be happy for another opportunity to work together with you.

Mohammed

The article appeared recently at http://islam.de/26575.php.

The point of the story is quite simple. We can recognize and seize opportunities to shape the future with a foundation of coexistence and compromise, or we can construct it from a place of separation, hostility and stereotyping. Either is possible and both require the same action: human hands, building together, one handful of mud at a time.

Prof. Mohammed Khallouk is a political and Islamic scientist with German and Moroccan roots. He is an expert in Islamic Thought and Politics, Political Islam and is skilled in intercultural dialogue between the West and the Islamic World.

Prof. Khallouk received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Political Science at the Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. His doctoral thesis dealt with Political Islam in his country of origin, Morocco. His M.A. degree in Political Science at Marburg University in 2003, based on his thesis about the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was honored with the German Academic Exchange Prize. He also received a M.A. degree in Arab and Islamic Thought at Mohammed V – University of Rabat, Morocco, in 1997.

Khallouk served as a lecturer in Political Science from 2008 to 2012 at Philipps-University of Marburg and from 2010 to 2012 at the University of German Federal Armed Forces Munich. Since 2014 he has served as Professor for Islamic Studies at Qatar University, Doha.

To read Professor Khallouk’s complete article, go to  http://boston.forward.com/articles/187449/can-sworn-enemies-ever-become-friends/#ixzz3fGMBw3Yy