JCC’s International Jewish Film Festival presents a virtual array of history, culture, and inspiration

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its eighth year – and second straight virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 restraints – with a diverse menu of 13 films inspired by Jewish history, culture, and values.

The festival runs from April 5 through April 25 and includes prerecorded and live Zoom conversations with filmmakers.

This year marks the first time the festival has partnered with the Central Mass International Jewish Film Festival, widening its audience to include the Worcester area. Tickets are $15 for individual films, with three discount packages for six, nine, or all 13 films. Films may be purchased ahead of time or when you are ready to watch. Eventbrite is the festival’s box office and screening platform, with tickets and information available at jccns.org.

Opening Night (April 5) presents the blockbuster “Six Minutes to Midnight,” starring Dame Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard. Set in 1939 at a finishing school in an English seaside town where influential families from Nazi Germany have sent their daughters, this taut, heart-racing espionage film heats up when a teacher figures out what is going on and tries to alert British authorities.

The social justice documentary, “Shared Legacies,” uses a treasure trove of archival materials to weave together crucial historical lessons of Black-Jewish alliances, starting with the founding of the NAACP in 1909. Narrated by eyewitnesses, activists, Holocaust survivors, and movement leaders, a prerecorded conversation with head writer-director Shari Rogers and members of the ADL’s Black-Jewish Alliance is included.

Among the other documentaries, “Code Name: Ayalon” recounts the 1975 discovery of The Ayalon Institute, a secret ammunition factory built by Haganah underground youth in 1947 during the British Mandate. The David vs. Goliath story includes interviews with surviving group members and a live discussion with the film’s producer, Laurel Fairworth, on April 21 at 7 p.m.

In 1977, Aulcie Perry, a basketball legend from Newark, New Jersey, was recruited by Maccabi Tel Aviv while playing a pickup game in Harlem. “Aulcie” chronicles this inspiring story and includes a live discussion with the director, Dani Menkin, and the raffle of a basketball signed by Aulcie on April 13 at 7 p.m.

Tamar Manasseh, the subject of “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” is a force to be reckoned with. Tired of the violence that has plagued her south side Chicago neighborhood, the Black rabbinical student builds bridges between her two worlds with grassroots activism and Jewish community celebrations. This timely and moving portrait includes a live discussion with director Brad Rothschild and Manasseh on April 23 at 7 p.m.

Filmed over 10 years, “A Lullaby for the Valley” introduces Eli Shamir, an Israeli artist who paints the view from his studio overlooking the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. Director Ben Shani documents the artist at work, neither guessing at the changes that would occur over their decade together. A live discussion with the filmmaker is April 18 at 2 p.m.

The remaining seven features range from comedy to drama to historical docudrama. “Adventures of A Mathematician” reenacts the story of Stan Ulam, the brilliant Polish-Jewish scientist who worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. A live discussion with the film’s team will take place on April 11 at 1 p.m. In “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto,” the discovery of a puzzling photograph sparks an Italian student to probe the history of Rome’s Jewish ghetto and the fate of one little girl.

Sparks fly in the screwball romantic comedy, “Kiss Me Kosher,” when two families from wildly different cultural backgrounds – German and Israeli – collide to plan a same-sex wedding. On a more serious but no less romantic note, the historical drama, “An Irrepressible Woman,” tells the true story of Janot Reichenbach, who fell in love with French-Jewish socialist and three-time Prime Minister Léon Blum when she was a teenager and abandoned all to be by his side decades later when the French government fell to the Nazis.

“Here We Are” is the touching story of a devoted father who has dedicated his life to raising his autistic son. The docudrama “Winter Journey” features Swiss actor Bruno Ganz in his final screen role. The film blends reenactments and archival materials to relate a Jewish-German couple’s poignant pre-World War II romance and is based on the book by their son, NPR radio host Martin Goldsmith.

Finally, closing night (April 25) showcases “The Crossing,” the story of Gerda and Otto, Norwegian siblings whose parents are arrested for resistance activities. They discover two Jewish children hidden in their basement, and decide to risk helping them cross into Sweden to escape the Nazis.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.eventive.org.

Gloucester violinist helps keep the sound of Yiddish music alive

Klezmer violinist Abigale Reisman recently received a grant from Club Passim’s music fund. Photo: Bryce Vickmark

by Shelley A. Sackett

Abigale Reisman was a 19-year-old undergraduate at The Manhattan School of Music when she fell in love. The classical violin performance major was listening to a lot of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, but something was missing. She yearned for the Jewish music she grew up with in synagogue and Jewish day school, and the special place it had in her heart.

A friend suggested she check out a genre of music she had never heard of – klezmer – and for Reisman, it was obsession at first listen. Luckily, she lived in New York City, home to some of the leading klezmorim. She booked a private lesson with violinist Alicia Svigals (co-founder of the Grammy-winning band The Klezmatics), and attended KlezKamp – a yearly Klezmer music and Yiddish culture festival – in the Catskills.

“It was a beautiful introduction to the klezmer world and I never left,” Reisman said from her Gloucester home.

Almost 15 years later, the Atlanta native is a violinist, composer, and educator. She wears many musical hats, from klezmer and classical to experimental and pop. She is a cofounder of Thread Ensemble, an experimental trio that creates music out of interactions with their audiences; a member of Tredici Bacci, which was featured in Rolling Stone’s “10 Artists You Need to Know: November 2016;” and a composer, arranger, and performer in the International Jewish Music Festival award-winning band, Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band.

Although Reisman doesn’t have a favorite musical genre (“I love it all in different ways”), she plans to focus her energy on recording a series of videos that explore the treasures of the Jewish violin, thanks to a grant from Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund.

Her purpose is two-fold: To create and release her own interpretation of the music she loves so dearly, and to reveal to the average Jewish music listener the complex history of the violin in East European Jewish music.

“The fidl [Yiddish for violin] truly mimics the human voice, especially the cantorial sound,” Reisman said. “It speaks in Yiddish sentences and gestures. It plays pieces full of bubbling trills, moans, slides, and specifically Jewish phrasing.”

The grant money will ensure the sound and video qualities of her recordings will capture these subtleties.

Since 2008, the Iguana Music Fund has awarded gifts annually to musicians for career building projects and for those that provide community service through music. Abby Altman, Club Passim manager, said Reisman is known for being part of great ensembles. Her application stood out because it focused on her as a solo artist working in a genre she is passionate about.

“We’re excited to see what she creates when she is in complete control of the material,” Altman said.

Reisman’s target audience for her videos is both the casual Jewish music listener and the next generation of serious klezmer violinists. Although most contemporary audiences think of the clarinet as klezmer’s dominant melodic instrument, for hundreds of years the violin was the epicenter of Eastern European shtetl music. Reisman wants to introduce this fidl-centric music to those whose only exposure has been to the 20th century jazz-influenced clarinet-centric version of klezmer.

She also wants to provide serious klezmer violinists with 21st century videos that contain both archival repertoires and clear views of the technical aspects of playing klezmer. Reisman recalled she didn’t know where to turn to when she started to play klezmer fidl. The only archival recordings she found were scratchy and difficult to decipher. She wants her videos to make it easier for violinists to get an immediate sense of the music they could play. “I also want to lure them into listening to the archival recordings,” she said.

Ashkenazi Jewish culture has played a large part in Reisman’s life since she was a child. “It creates a beautiful community and gives me a familiar access point to spirituality, morality, and kindness,” she said. She remembers feeling especially connected to Judaism as a young Jewish day school student. “I liked following rules and they had a lot of rules,” she said with a chuckle.

COVID-19 has been hard for her and her musician husband, Charles Clements. Although Reisman lost a lot of summer gigs (weddings, outdoor festivals, etc.), she has been able to teach and perform virtually and has helped create an online global klezmer community.

She’s also been able to slow down and think about the future of her career and the important, constructive role artists play in safeguarding our humanity. “This is why I’ve finally been able to conceive of the start of this project that has been in the back of my mind for so many years,” she said.

To learn more and listen to Abigale Reisman’s music, visit abigalereisman.com.

From Marblehead to Hollywood, where she now makes movies that touch the soul

Filmmaker Jerri Sher and former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien on the set of “Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain.”

by Shelley A. Sackett

Jerri Sher is no shrinking violet.

In the 1980s, she and her husband Alan, a tax accountant, were raising their family in Marblehead. Their daughters, Heather and Amy, attended Hillel Academy (now the Epstein Hillel School), and Alan volunteered as treasurer of the Jewish Journal. After teaching at Endicott College, Jerri decided to enter the business world. But, she didn’t just quietly switch careers; she smashed through a glass ceiling as the first woman to work in the transportation industry in the Northeast corridor.

Sher rose quickly in the sales and marketing department at Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, where she was trained by Tony Robbins, the top life coach and business strategist. “The male-oriented industry of transportation was difficult because people were not used to dealing with a woman, so I had to prove myself to be better than any man,” she said from her Los Angeles home.
Sher learned on the job, and she learned fast, negotiating freight contracts for Fortune 500 companies such as Gillette and Raytheon. “Little did I know that all of the skills I was learning were getting me ready to be a producer,” Sher said.

Sher’s schooling and first career were in the arts. The Fall River native earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a master’s in art education from Springfield College, where she later became its youngest professor. Despite a demanding schedule in the trucking business, her creative drive never slowed down. With no formal training, she wrote a novel about a woman in the trucking business. “The Twig Painter,” a medical thriller that became a screenplay, fused her two careers – art teacher/painter and trucking sales representative – and wet her appetite for her third: movie screenwriter, director, and producer.

She dove in, determined to learn as much as she could about the filmmaking process. She helped out on any movie set that came to the North Shore and before long, one director recognized her business smarts and creative skills and told her she should set her sights on being a producer rather than “just” an art director.

Although a member of the elite LA-based Directors Guild since 1998, she had no access to its benefits from Massachusetts. After successfully producing several movies for others, she decided it was time to direct her own. “I was in my mid 50s when I said, ‘let’s move to LA,’” Sher said.

That was 18 years ago.

Other than missing friends and family, Sher found Hollywood spectacular. Despite never attending film school, her career flourished as she finally had direct entrée into the hub of the industry’s network. “I knew I was right where I was supposed to be,” she said.

Although Sher faced obstacles as a woman in another male-dominated industry, she already had overcome that challenge once and never let it bother her. “I am proving myself in this industry and am climbing to the top of the ladder despite the discrimination,” she said. “The word ‘no’ did not exist in my vocabulary. I had all the tools I needed to make films and thrive.”

Sher has since completed 22 film and television projects, including “Santa Monica Cares Step Up,” which earned her 2014 Emmy awards for directing and producing. This short documentary film, about a homeless man rescued by charity, was the highlight of Sher’s career. “It made me realize I only wanted to work on projects that would positively influence society,” she said.
Her latest film, “Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain,” is a documentary about traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, athletes, and others. Released last month on Amazon and Vimeo, the film explores under-publicized, non-pharmaceutical approaches that have led to complete healing in brain injury patients.

Based on “Tales from the Blast Factory,” the book by brothers Andrew and Adam Marr, the film highlights the breakthrough work of Dr. Daniel Amen (psychiatrist, clinical neuroscientist, and brain imaging specialist) and neuro-endocrinologist Dr. Mark L. Gordon, whose patients have been cured by his treatments. Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien, Ben Driebergen (winner of “Survivor” and ex-Marine), and Shawn Dollar (champion surfer) tell their heart-wrenching stories of trauma and recovery. Podcast host Joe Rogan, an active Wounded Warriors supporter, interviews Gordon and Andrew Marr.

Although the film’s 10 characters are from all different walks of life with different clinical histories, they share one thing: at some point, each wanted to commit suicide. After watching the film together, they cried and hugged each other, grateful that others might understand the agony they had suffered.

“For Dr. Gordon, a neuro-endocrinologist, to come up with this treatment is mind boggling. Why does the whole world not know about this?” Sher asked. Her hope is her film will educate its audience ‒ especially doctors – about these groundbreaking solutions that help those with traumatic brain injury to heal.

Sher had a solid foundation in Judaism, and credits her Jewish background with steering her artistic choices and storytelling toward messages of tikkun olam (repairing the world). “I am definitely all about healing the planet and the people on it. Most of my recent projects are about healing and health,” she said.

Right now, however, she has two goals. One is for an Oscar to keep her two Emmy awards company. The second is to get the Veterans Administration to institute Dr. Gordon’s protocol. “And if we can do that, then I’ve done so much for society,” Sher said.

For more information, visit jerrisher.com and quietexplosions.com.

Trayf is in Eye of the Beholder in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello) in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Hasidic teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel, the main characters of the New Repertory Theatre’s “Trayf,” are, at face value, typical 1990s adolescents. They love cruising around New York City in their brand-new van, blasting their favorite music and singing along at the top of their lungs. Their good-natured banter, conversational short cuts and puppy-like rapport reveal a chemistry borne of lifelong friendship. They talk about everything, from music to families to the riddle of sex. Any mother would be proud to claim them as her budding mensches.

Yet, on another level, Zalmy and Shmuel are anything but typical teens. They have never left their insular Crown Heights, Brooklyn community and Manhattan’s secular streets, bejeweled and beckoning with the forbidden (trayf), startle them. In their Chabad-Lubavitch (Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement) uniform of black hats, facial hair and black coats, they hardly blend in. The van they drive is a Mitzvah Tank, a makeshift synagogue-on-wheels with an ice cream truck-like banner that reads, “Mitzvahs on the Spot for People on the Go.” The music they adore is Hasidic pop/rock. These two are not trolling for babes. They have but one mission: to inspire Jews to do mitzvahs. “We’re the Rebbe’s foot soldiers going to battle in the most secular city in the world,” Shmuel solemnly declares.

New York based playwright Lindsay Joelle deftly uses this distinctive community and these two friends as the platform from which she launches her exploration of weighty themes such as commitment, identity, loyalty, tolerance and what being Jewish means (and doesn’t mean) in 21st century America. By nimbly plumbing Zalmy and Shmuel’s rich relationship, she keeps “Trayf” light, comedic and fluid while digging deeply beneath the surface.

During Zalmy’s (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel’s (David Picariello) chatty drives into the City, their individualiities surface. Shmuel is scandalized by Times Square; Zalmy is intrigued. Shmuel is devoted, resolved and unquestioning. His is a world of bright lines: black and white, kosher and trayf. Zalmy is more open-minded and daring; he can sense the gray of a possible middle ground, and it draws him in.

Swimmer, Picariello

Joelle carefully places this tinderbox of conflict beneath the teens’ friendship. Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), who approaches the Mitzvah Tank looking for “spiritual belonging,” is the flint that ignites it.

Jonathan is a young man who was raised Catholic. While cleaning out some of his father’s things after his recent death, he came across his birth certificate, showing his father emigrated from Germany and was, in fact, Jewish. Convinced that exploring these Jewish roots will fill the emptiness inside him, he is drawn to the Mitzvah Tank like a drowning man to a life boat.

Zalmy is happy to take Jonathan on as a student, especially after he learns he is a record producer and might be his conduit to secular musical delights. Shmuel is predictably skeptical. “He doesn’t feel like a Jew,” Shmuel says. “Why would anyone pretend to be Jewish?” Zalmy counters.

For the first time in their decades long friendship, Zalmy and Shmuel follow divergent paths. Zalmy takes Jonathan under his wing, bringing him home every week for Shabbos. “You’re so lucky, Zalmy. With your family I feel connected. I feel God,” Jonathan says. Zalmy is just happy to receive some of Jonathan’s secular trayf tapes.

Well into the intermission-less 80-minute production, Jonathan’s Jewish girlfriend Leah Caplan (Kimberly Gaughan) shows up, angry at her goyishe boyfriend’s makeover into a full-blown Chabadnik, hat, beard and all. The granddaughter of survivors, she “knows what it means to be Jewish” and has chosen a Catholic partner on purpose. She has also just courted him through an intense period of mourning and feels betrayed by his sudden change.

Picariello, Kimberly Gaughan as Leah

Leah seems to want more of a therapy session that an intervention from Shmuel, her need more to vent than to be soothed. Shmuel, however, sees a parallel with his relationship with Zalmy and his tone and body language suddenly shift and soften. He tries to comfort and calm her and to get her to see what he is only beginning to embrace and understand. “There is no love, only acts of love,” he tells her, quoting the Rebbe.

From here, the characters’ paths diverge, merge and change course in ways both predictable and surprising. Picariello and Swimmer bring a chemistry and effortlessness to their roles that is helped by Joelle’s character development and dialogue. She is not as successful with Jonathan and Leah. They are two-dimensional, cardboard props, more symbols than flesh and blood. Their role is one of foil rather than relatable people.

Celine Rosenthal’s direction keeps the play moving and her choice to put Zalmy and Shmuel as front and center as the script allows is a wise one. Grace Laubacher’s set is minimal but effective, the Mitzvah Tank its main focal point. The backdrop of a Manhattan skyline has a Marc Chagall shtetl feel, an acknowledgment to Crown Heights as a bridge between the Chabad’s Eastern European birthplace and its modern digs. Whether intentional or not, it’s a nice touch.

For Joelle, “Trayf” is the culmination of over five years’ research that started with her friendship with a former Chabadnik who shared with her how he had “dipped his toe into the secular world” until he finally broke from his roots and embraced a secular life.

She hopes the audience leaves wondering what each character will do next as they embark on their transformative journeys. “I’m most drawn to Shmuel’s newfound understanding that ‘acts of love’ include giving friends space to change and grow, and that true friendship transcends ideological beliefs,” she said.

A version of this review appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

“Trayf”. Written by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Scenic Design: Grace Laubacher. Lighting Design: Marcella Barbeau. Costume Design: Becca Jewett. Sound Design: Aubrey Dube. Stage Manager: Jenna Worden. Produced by New Repertory Theatre in partnership with Jewish Arts Collaborative, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through November 3.

 

What one Jewish educator did on her summer vacation

 

Yeshivagroup photo

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

 

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva

Lunchtime at the Yeshiva is still study time.

 

Veiled OrthodoxJewish women fashion mannekins1

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

 

‘Never Again!’ Teen Holocaust Legacy Fellows return from Poland and Berlin empowered and committed

Aus-Bir tracks

HLF teens walk the tracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie.

 

Shelley A. Sackett

On August 12, Marblehead High School incoming senior Jillian Lederman was not at the beach, enjoying the North Shore summer with her friends. Instead, she stood on the grounds of Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. She saw the dusty shoes piled to the ceiling and a massive mountain of human ash. Majdanek made the stories of abuse, anti-Semitism and genocide suddenly real.

 

“It didn’t seem that any human could commit such atrocities, that the rest of the world could just sit by and let it happen,” she said. “I saw all that remained of thousands of Jews who were brutally and mercilessly murdered and it clicked. The Holocaust happened. It was real and it was terrible.”

 

Majdanek-Schwartz

“I believe that this trip is to open our eyes and see first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive in order to counteract and spread the antithesis of spreading hatred.” -Jonah Schwartz, Framingham, Gann Academy

 

For Lederman and her 15 fellow teen travelers, their journey began in April 2018, when Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman stood in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah and promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action. The key to fulfilling their commitment, they decided, lay in creating future Jewish leaders in the community who would learn about and fully understand the Holocaust.

 

A mere 16 months later, they took a group of teens to Poland and Berlin on the first fully subsidized trip of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (a non-profit they created, funded and co-direct). The 16 HLF teens came from 10 Greater Boston cities and towns. None had previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

 

“Our biggest challenge was knowing that nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for a visit to Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek, or to stand in Buczyna forest where 800 Jewish children were murdered in one mass grave,” Kipnis said.

 

Veksler and Richmond

Victoria Veksler, Marblehead High School, and Danny Richmond, Needham High School, at the Wannsee Conference Center reading the Final Solution where, in just 83 minutes, the extermination of the Jews was drafted.

 

Participants were required to keep a journal during the trip as a means of coping with their mix of emotions and to record what they saw and heard from their tour guide, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. “Keeping the journal was extremely helpful. It served as my personal therapist during the trip,” Victoria Veksler of Marblehead said.

 

 

The itinerary started in Berlin, Germany, where the teen fellows toured Wannsee, the site where high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials discussed and coordinated implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. “One of the teens said to me, “I can’t understand how this could happen here. This place feels so normal,” Ruderman said.

Chak

Alan Chak, Middleton, Masconomet Regional High School, outside the crematorium in Majdanek wondering why the world stood by while 6 million Jews were brutally murdered.

 

From Berlin, the group travelled to Warsaw, Poland where they visited the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp. For most, it was their first visit to the site of a concentration camp. “I visited Treblinka and I felt a strong sense of purpose. I understand why we are here. We need to teach the Holocaust so it won’t be forgotten,” Alan Chak, of Middleton, wrote in his journal.

 

On their way to Kraków, the group toured Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie. “The things I saw there will never escape my memory. This is where I realized the true inhumanity of the Nazi officers. Even more impactful, though, was hearing the testimony of the survivors. Listening to stories of children sacrificing the little food they had so they could keep their parents alive another day broke me,” Adam Zamansky, of Marblehead, said.

 

Nonetheless, their tour guide, Sara Pellach, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, filled the teens with hope that Jewish life can be re-built. She described her family for them: four children, 18 grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and another on the way.

 

All was not doom and gloom. While in Kraków, the teens visited Oskar Schindler’s factory, where they learned about his saving the lives of 1,100 Jews despite being a Nazi himself. They also experienced Kraków Old Town, the biggest market square in Europe, and visited the JCC, which coordinates programming open to the entire community and meant to foster Polish-Jewish relations.

 

And everyone looked forward to the daily respite of creamy, delicious Polish ice cream.

 

It was Majdanek death camp, however, that most horrified the teens, according to Kipnis. Unlike Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek is completely intact, from barbed wire to barracks, from gas chambers to crematoria.

 

Majdanek-2019HLF

2019 Holocaust Legacy Fellows outside Majdanek

 

“There were countless people who could see the smoke from the crematorium, and others who saw Jews walking the 4km from the train station to the camp. They said nothing about it, pretending as if nothing were wrong at all. I thought a lot about all those bystanders,” Danny Richmond, of Needham, said.

 

Every night of the 10-day trip, group dialogue and role playing helped the teens transition back to everyday life. “The biggest reward for the teens in our opinion were the engagement and interpersonal relationships that formed. Their nightly discussions could have gone on for hours had we let them,” Kipnis added.

 

The HLF program did not begin or end in Germany and Poland. In preparation, teens attended mandatory educational meetings and met and heard from Holocaust survivors firsthand. Now that they have returned, they have to: write a post-trip reflection of their experience; prepare and deliver a presentation on the memory and lessons of the Holocaust; participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Service; pledge to transmit the lessons and memories of the Holocaust to future generations, and serve on the Holocaust Speakers Bureau.

 

“Holocaust Legacy Fellows was designed to create an empowered community of critical thinkers who will illuminate the world with hope, respect and responsibility. This alone sets our Holocaust education program apart from any other,” Kipnis said.

 

The HLF capstone is a graduation ceremony on September 8th at 4pm at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe columnist, will be the keynote speaker and the teens will read their reflection essays.

 

Kipnis and Ruderman’s goal of inspiring the 16 HLF graduates to take on the mantle of leadership and inform their communities about the Holocaust seems to have hit its mark.

 

“This trip changed my life in so many ways and has given me an important purpose in life. The post trip assignments do not feel like a burden. They are an opportunity for me to fulfill a deep desire to educate others and advocate on behalf of myself, HLF and the Jewish people,” Max Foltz, of Newburyport, said.

 

The trip was also transformative in intangible but indelible ways. “We saw first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive and to counteract and spread the antithesis of hatred,” Jonah Schwartz, of Framingham, said.

 

“For the first time, I truly thought of the Jewish people as my people,” Katie Hubbard, of Arlington, added.

 

Teen Legacy Fellows preserve and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust 

by Shelley A. Sackett

In April 2018, Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman visited Auschwitz with their dear friend David Schaecter, a 90-year-old survivor who spent over two years of his youth in this indescribable death camp. “While standing in front of David’s bunker, he turned to us and said, ‘Hear me, understand me, and let me tell my story,’” Kipnis said. By the end of their trip, she and Ruderman began to understand what their friend was asking.

“The imminent passing of survivors will occur during your and our children’s lifetimes,” Ruderman explained, noting the alarming results of a survey conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that showed the Holocaust is fading from global memory. “While no one alone can change this disturbing trend, by the conclusion of our visit, Jody and I committed ourselves to do what we could to assure this does not happen.”

The two made a pledge while standing in the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah in April 2018. “We promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action,” Kipnis said.

When they returned home, they conceived of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (HLF), whose mission is preserving and perpetuating the memory and lessons of the Holocaust for future generations by inviting teens throughout Greater Boston to meet survivors, learn about the Holocaust and make the trip to the places that forever changed Kipnis and Ruderman’s lives. Kipnis and Ruderman are its co-directors and funders.

By coincidence, Kipnis’s daughter, Gann Academy student Gillian Pergament, was on the 2018 Y2I trip and told Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah Coltin about the Holocaust travel program her mom and Ruderman were interested in starting. “I said I would love to know more and asked her to tell her mom,” Coltin said. She and Kipnis connected within days of her returning from the Y2I trip and, together with Ruderman, their ideas came to fruition.

“Debbie is an expert on teen travel and engagement. With her help, we pulled this together in just three months,” Kipnis said. She and Ruderman also enlisted the assistance of the Lappin Foundation (which has run the Youth to Israel program since 1971) to administer and implement HLF, and hired Coltin as education and program development consultant.

David Schaecter shows his tattooed number from Auschwitz.

Kipnis said HLF is in the process of becoming its own stand-alone non-profit organization.

Eligible teens for the 2018-2019 HLF pilot year needed to be juniors in high school; have participated in an organized Israel experience; be able to attend all pre- and post-trip meetings; agree to complete all homework assignments; and not have previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

As HLF Educator, Coltin, who has three decades experience teaching the Holocaust, created the curriculum, and will be one of the staff on the fully subsidized August 4-13, 2019 Poland and Berlin trip. She plans all meeting lessons, teaches the classes, and schedules survivors to speak to the teen Fellows.

“The curriculum reflects the human face of the Holocaust. The Fellows meet survivors in person, the last generation to do so. They bear witness to the Holocaust by hearing the survivors’ testimonies about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, and what the enormous price in particular Jewish people paid for such hatred that went unchecked,” said Coltin.

The 16 inaugural Fellows represent Lynnfield, Middleton, Newburyport, Beverly, Arling­ton, Marblehead, Newton, Needham, Framingham and Swampscott. “I wanted the participants to be from ‘Greater Boston,’ not just one area. These kids have a responsibility to preserve and perpetuate the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. How else will we get the word out?” Kipnis said.

After attending an orientation and hearing survivor Schaecter speak last October, nominated teens wrote a paragraph describing why they wanted to be a Fellow. “In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, it is more important than ever that we continue discussing the Holocaust. I want to be part of the movement that ensures that nothing even close to it ever happens again,” wrote Dina Zeldin, a junior at Newton South High School.

“I hope to gain a new level of knowledge about the Holocaust and use that in my community, my country and someday even the world. I want to bring a sense of hope in such a dark trip,” Max Foltz, a junior at Newburyport High School, wrote.

For Coltin, the HLF trip will be her first time traveling to Poland and Berlin. While she admits that going to these sites so deeply connected to the Final Solution is “way out of my comfort zone,” she is thankful for the opportunity to open up and learn more.

“The Holocaust journey should be personal. We will be learning our history, our story. Knowing who we are as Jews puts us in the best possible position to support and promote the mission of Holocaust Legacy Fellows,” she said.

“Jody and Todd had a phenomenal idea and they followed through. Our community is truly blessed,” she added.

For more information, visit https://holocaustlegacyfellows.org/.

Stellar ‘The Return’ marks Israeli Stage’s final production

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

“I think I may have done something wrong,” the Jewish Israeli character known as Her says to the Palestinian Israeli character known as Him. “I want to understand and make it right.”

“The Return,” the provocative and extraordinary two-character play performed by Israeli Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion through May 19, slowly unravels the mystery of love and betrayal that underlies the relationship between these two very human beings trapped within a politically complicated country. Their backstory is a roadmap that examines Israel’s establishment and its contemporary social and political order through a Palestinian lens.

Because it is impossible to avoid spoilers in a full-throated review, broad brushstrokes must suffice. The writing (Palestinian-Israeli Hanna Eady and American Edward Mast), acting (Philana Mia and Nael Nacer) and directing (Guy Ben-Aharon) are brilliant. The set design (Cristina Todesco) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) are powerful, yet unobtrusive, subtly evoking an interrogation room. And the post-performance moderated dialog last Saturday evening was as thought-provoking and engaging as the play itself.

The 65-minute intermission-less show is a product of the ongoing 20-year collaboration between the Seattle-based playwrights, who met through mutual friends soon after Mast returned from his first trip to Israel. The two talked a bit that night. The next day Hanna asked Mast if he would be interested in teaming up on a project he had in mind. “Aside from being a good playwright, Ed is an activist for human rights,” Eady said.

That project became their first play, “Sahmatah: Memory of Stones,” based on interviews with refugees from the Palestinian village destroyed during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In 1998, it was produced in Arabic in the Masrahal-Midan Theater in Haifa, and on the ruins of the village of Sahmatah in the Upper Galilee.

Eady, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Fine Arts in drama and directing from the University of Washington in Seattle, grew up in Buqayah, a small village similar to Sahmatah, also in the Upper Galilee region of Israel. “A mixed population of Palestinian Druze, Christians, Muslims and Palestinian Jews lived there together for thousands of years. In 1948, Israel was established and the harmony of their life in the village was destroyed,” Eady said. A large part of his family fled and are now scattered around the world in five continents.

His intent in writing “The Return” is twofold. “I would like the audience to feel the tragic reality of daily life of the Palestinian people, to see they are deprived of the most simple and natural thing in life, which is normal human contact,” he said. He also wants theatergoers to notice the play’s message of hope and spread it. “A good play changes attitudes and motivates the audience to take action,” he added.

Mast, who grew up in California, was “a very typical uninformed passive supporter of Israel” when he befriended a Palestinian coworker. “Through their eyes, I began to see things differently,” he said. He and Hanna have much in common. They both act and direct, and are compatible personally, politically and artistically. “We know a lot of beloved people who are in danger every day because of a system that places one people in power over another.”

When Guy Ben-Aharon founded Israeli Stage in 2010 as a 19-year-old Emerson College student, his goal was to expose American audiences to Israeli plays. Over nine seasons, the company has become known for its commitment to diversity, empathy and building community bridges through shared dialogue. “It’s so easy to exist in echo chambers, and have our own thoughts and opinions regurgitated for us. It is much more challenging to confront dualities and a multiplicity of experiences,” the Israeli native said.

“The Return” marks the last play of his company’s final season, and Ben-Aharon is “really glad” to share this Palestinian-Israeli perspective on the reality in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It is the very first time we will have done that in nine seasons’ worth of work. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit.”

The Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts is located at 527 Tremont St., Boston. For tickets, visit IsraeliStage.com or call 617-933-8600.

This year’s Jewish Film Fest will leave you on the edge of your seat

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – Jewish film festivals are wildly popular, and according to jewishfilmfestivals.org, moviegoers had 170 to choose from worldwide in 2018 in locations ranging from Nebraska to Nepal. For the sixth year, local residents need travel only a few miles to Marblehead and Salem to view 13 films offered by the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival from April 28 to May 9.

While films about the Holocaust are natural candidates for a Jewish film festival, this year’s lineup features several films that – although set during World War II – are more character than history-driven. Bookending the 12-day festival are opening night’s “The Catcher Was a Spy,” a thriller starring Paul Rudd based on the true story of Moe Berg, the Red Sox catcher who became a WWII spy, and closing night’s “Prosecuting Evil,” a gripping documentary about Ben Ferencz, the remarkable 99-year-old and last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.

Gordon Edes, an award-winning sportswriter and Boston Red Sox historian, will speak and answer questions following “The Catcher Was a Spy,” and both films include a post-screening reception.

The remaining 11 films are a well-balanced mix of documentary, drama, and comedy. In “Winter Hunt,” a riveting German contemporary psychological thriller, a young woman on a personal mission of vigilante justice goes to extremes as she seeks reprisal against a suspected ex-Nazi. Powerful performances, an edgy score, and a tight script fuel the suspense.

Jewish women are front and center in three films that look at dilemmas they face as they struggle to forge their own paths in a world complicated by religious tradition and social conformity. “Working Woman” addresses the complexity of contemporary life in Israel, chronicling the predicament faced by Orna (played by the remarkable Liron Ben-Shlush) as she juggles motherhood, marriage to a struggling restaurateur, and a meteoritic rise in the corporate real estate world. When her boss relentlessly sexually harasses her, her entire world is brought to the brink of disaster.

Life for women in pre-state Israel was no less complex, as illustrated by “An Israeli Love Story.” Based on a true story and set in 1947, the well-shot and edited film explores the relationship between an aspiring actress and a kibbutznik who is also a member of Palmach, an elite fighting force. In “Leona,” a young Jewish artist in present day Mexico City finds herself torn between her traditional, observant family and a forbidden love.

On a lighter but no less poignant note, the award-winning “Shoelaces” traces the relationship between Reuven, a surly parent, and Gadi, his charismatic adult son with special needs, as the two slowly develop a tender and life-affirming bond of devotion. The popular film is thought-provoking and unexpectedly funny.

Three documentaries reveal different facets of present-day Jewish life. “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” follows two local men on the cusp of middle age as they nosh their way through a series of classical eateries and share their community’s 100-year Jewish history. “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” charts the underdog journey of Israel’s national team to the 2017 World Baseball Classic in a story of sports, patriotism, and growth.

“Sustainable Nation,” shown in partnership with CJP as a free community event in honor of Israeli Independence Day, follows three visionary Israelis as they bring water solutions to an increasingly thirsty planet.

Poland and France are the settings for the rest of the line up. “Who Will Write Our History” is a documentary set in 1940, after Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. The story of Oyneg Shabes, a group of journalists, scholars and community leaders who resolved to fight Nazi propaganda with pen and paper, is told through writings, new interviews, rare archival footage and dramatizations.

In her deeply personal documentary, “Chasing Portraits,” filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki travels to Poland to find the remaining work of her great-grandfather, a prolific impressionistic painter who captured scenes of pre-war Jewish life.

“A Bag of Marbles,” based on a true story, follows two young Jewish brothers as they fend for themselves, making their way through German-occupied France to reunite with their families.

Many films have post-screening guests who will speak to issues raised by the films.

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

Salem Film Fest screens ‘The Accountant of Auschwitz’

by Shelley A. Sackett

In 2015, a frail 93-year-old former Nazi officer made international headlines when he went on trial in Germany, charged with complicity in the murder of 300,000 Jews at Auschwitz.

Nicknamed “The Accountant of Auschwitz,” Oskar Gröning was hardly the architect of the Holocaust. He was a 21-year-old soldier, following orders to collect and account for the items taken from Jewish prisoners as they were herded off trains and ultimately sent to their deaths.

Nonetheless, he was there, witnessing and abetting a system where 1.1 million people died at the notorious Nazi camp.

On the stand over 70 years later, with some who had survived Auschwitz in the courtroom as witnesses and testifiers, Gröning unemotionally described what he saw and what he did. He wanted to speak out as a witness because more than anything, he said, he wanted to debunk Holocaust deniers. On the other hand, as a participant, his hands were hardly clean. The issues raised were murky ethically and morally, asking questions with no clear answers.

Gröning was found guilty but died in March 2018, before he could begin the four-year prison sentence he was given.

If this sounds like it would make a great documentary film, director Matthew Shoychet and producer Ricki Gurwitz agreed. They teamed up to make the award-winning “The Accountant of Auschwitz,” which will screen at Peabody’s Black Box Theater (located inside the ArcWorks Community Art Center, 22 Foster St., Peabody) on Saturday, March 30, as part of the Salem Film Fest.

Shoychet, who grew up in a “pretty secular household” in Toronto, always was interested in Jewish subjects, but felt a special link through film. His grandfather showed him the 1959 film, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which opened his 7-year-old eyes to the Holocaust.

Years later, “Schindler’s List” had a strong effect on him, Shoychet said. Although he is not a grandchild of survivors, many of his cousins and relatives were murdered. “I knew, as a Jew, I was connected,” he said.

Gurwitz attended Jewish day school in Toronto in a family she describes as a mix of conservative and reform. A “history nerd,” she was always interested in how her Jewish community has persevered through the centuries in the face of constant persecution.

Their paths crossed and they became friends in 2013 during an International March of the Living, the annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred.

Shoychet took the trip again in 2015, where he met and befriended Holocaust survivor Bill Glied, who had to leave early to testify at the trial of another former Nazi in Germany.

“I didn’t know Nazi trials were even possible anymore,” Shoychet said.

By coincidence, Gurwitz, who was working as a TV producer, called Shoychet two months later to tell him about a story she just covered: the German trial of the former “Accountant of Auschwitz.” The two combined forces, created a pitch, and started filming as soon as they could.

They faced many challenges. German law does not allow filming inside courtrooms, so animations and graphics fill in the blanks. But the biggest challenge to Shoychet was for people not to dismiss the film as “just another Holocaust film.” His unique storytelling resists a chronological approach, instead interweaving side stories that take history and relate it to Gröning’s trial.

“There is a feeling of a race against time. Soon, Nazi perpetrators and Holocaust survivors will be gone,” Shoychet said.

For Gurwitz, making the film was a “life-altering experience. Witnessing a former SS officer testify in court is something I will never forget,” she said. “I want to challenge preconceived beliefs about justice, punishment, and culpability. There are two sides here, and I could argue both of them. I want audiences to explore the complexities surrounding this trial and ask questions about how we punish war crimes, who is responsible, and what is the statute of limitations.”

Salem Film Fest 2019 runs from Friday, March 29 to April 4. For more information or to buy tickets, visit salemfilmfest.com.