Swampscott mother connecting hungry babies with donated formula

Keiko Zoll singlehandedly launched a nationwide site to match those needing baby formula with donors. Photo: Steven A. Rosenberg/Journal Staff

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Until her mom, who lives in New Jersey, casually mentioned the nationwide baby formula shortage to Keiko Zoll, news of the crisis was not on her radar. While Zoll was aware of the Abbott formula recall in February, as the mother of a 9-year-old son she hadn’t given it a second thought. “Recalls happen all the time,” she told the Journal, “and I’m a bit removed from the early parenting space.”

Sitting in her car, the nonprofit communications professional tuned into a podcast, “The Baby Formula Crisis,” to learn more. What she heard left her shaken and sobbing in her Swampscott driveway.

Story after story of mothers going to desperate lengths just to feed their babies unleashed memories of what it was like for her when her son was born six weeks prematurely and she had to locate a specialty formula that was critical to his survival and hard to find. She couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to deal with the added stress of a nationwide shortage at the same time.

An interview with a mother ready to pay hundreds of dollars for a single can of formula was Zoll’s tipping point. “As a mother, as a human being, how could anyone not empathize with these women?” she said. “For me, knowing there are babies who may die if they don’t receive the formula they need to survive – it was just too much.”

She knew she had to do something. That night, after her work as director of communications for the Boston Schools Fund, she started building a website to connect families who need formula with those able to donate it.

Just before midnight on Friday, May 13, the Free Formula Exchange website went live. Zoll emailed 300 personal and professional contacts in her network announcing its launch. By the end of the first week, there were 10,000 requests and 1,000 donors from all over the country.

“While this platform doesn’t increase the supply of formula, it does leverage existing supply that most people don’t realize they have access to,” she said.

Zoll and her son in 2013. The baby was born six weeks premature.

Zoll said she was outraged and disgusted by reports of people price-gouging formula online. She emphasized that freeformula.exchange is 100 percent free. Users must create an account to access its database, but no money exchanges hands.

“It was important to me to design a solution that removed the marketplace from the transaction. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to feeding children.”

Zoll is no stranger to rolling up her sleeves when it comes to helping others. She is a founding member of the Swampscott Antiracism Caucus and helped organize March Like a Mother for Black Lives in Boston in June, 2020, in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. She has volunteered extensively for and served on the board of RESOLVE New England, a nonprofit supporting those struggling with infertility.

She is also a member of the Tzedek LaKol: Justice for All committee at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, where she sits on the temple’s board of directors.

Zoll emphasizes that her experiences as a biracial woman have informed her activism throughout her adult life. “I know what it feels like to be unseen and unheard,” she said, referencing the bias, discrimination, and marginalization she has encountered

In addition, her personal values, which “exist at the intersection of Jewish belief and Japanese tradition,” have strongly influenced her volunteerism. She credits the Jewish emphasis on tikkun olam (repair the world) and the Japanese cultural belief known as wabi-sabi (an acceptance of the imperfection of life) as major guiding forces.

“My worldview settles into a comfortable space between these two beliefs: one that accepts our human flaws and also fights for just causes.”

Zoll knows firsthand how draining and overwhelming the onslaught of negative news can be. “It’s especially hard to be a parent in America right now. There are so few systemic supports and inequities abound,” she said.

She urges everyone who can to help out with the nationwide baby formula shortage, whether by scouring stores for formula to donate or simply providing a compassionate ear or shoulder or hug to support those parents who are totally stressed out.

“There are many ways we can all practice chesed (acts of loving-kindness) to our fellow humans in their time of need,” she said.

For more information and to request or donate formula, visit freeformulaexchange.com or follow @FormulaExchange on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Marblehead teen runs the Zoom camera at Shirat Hayam

Lucas Rosen at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Although formal Hebrew School technically ends after grade 7 and a bar or bat mitzvah at Congregation Shirat Hayam, many teens still want to remain involved in synagogue life. One way is through the Center for Jewish Education Madrichim (counselor or leader) Program. By helping out in the Shirat religious school lower grades, these teens serve as role models for the younger students as they continue to learn and grow.

Marblehead eighth-grader Lucas Rosen, however, has found his own way to combine staying connected with his love for video editing, and it is a win-win for both Lucas and CSH. Every Friday night and Saturday morning, he runs the Zoom that allows congregants to enjoy services from the comfort of their homes. His is also the friendly face that sits at the front doors, greeting those coming to services in-person, and checking their Covid vaccination cards.

Lucas, whose parents are Amanda French and Noah Rosen, says he started video editing when he was younger because he wanted to make “really good” YouTube videos and realized he lacked the editing skills and experience to make that happen. The problem was, he didn’t have anything to practice with because he lacked motivation to record his own videos. Then, the pandemic struck in 2020 and for Lucas, its silver lining was the desktop computer he received.

With more powerful and sophisticated programs now at his fingertips, his love for video editing suddenly flourished when people who needed edited videos asked him for help. Soon, he had a cache of material to work on.

He also “really got into gaming” and started doing observation for a video league he played in, essentially becoming the cameraman for video game matches. “I really enjoyed the virtual camera work. Doing it in real life seemed like the next step,” he said.

That opportunity arose when CSH President Ruth Estrich suggested that Perry Hallinan, whose team livestreamed Shirat’s High Holy Day services in 2000 and 2001, ask Lucas if he wanted to help his crew film this year’s Purim Spiel.

Although Lucas had plenty of video experience, he had never gotten behind a real camera until Purim. Hallinan spent an hour teaching him how to operate the 70-200mm lens camera, which easily slips out of focus. “It was nerve wracking. I was stressed I was going to mess something up and ruin it,” he said. Over 150 people packed the synagogue and Lucas says he kept thinking about how many more would watch the finished product.

Rabbi Michael Ragozin (left) and Lucas Rosen (rear wearing a red mask) during Shirat Hayam’s Purim Spiel

His camera station was at the back of the sanctuary, where he recorded the wide establishing shot to capture the action on stage. After 15 minutes or so, he felt like he had the hang of it. “Perry was very nice and trusted me to do things correctly. He didn’t control my every move,” Lucas said.

Hallinan, who has mentored many high school students throughout his career, was impressed by Lucas. “It was great to see Lucas be very present while recording the Purim celebration. He was able to engage with the community through filmmaking, and that was very cool to witness,” he said.

Hallinan has worked as a documentary filmmaker since graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1998, primarily with independent teams of filmmakers. His recent projects have included educational films about the importance of watershed systems in Salem and Manchester-by-the-Sea; training films for regional municipalities, and short films about telehealth medicine for the Veterans Administration and American Legions.

He also created the Salem Sketches Program with filmmaking colleague Joe Cultrera for the all-documentary Salem Film Fest, and teaches film production classes at the Phoenix School and Peabody Essex Museum. He is a series editor for PEM’s podcast and an independent editor on a series of films for the Basketball Hall of Fame for Boston-based Northern Light Productions (NLP).

“I’m always looking for new areas to explore where I can bring my talents as a storyteller to make an impact,” Hallinan said.

His first boss in the business was Shirat congregant and Swampscott resident Lenny Rotman, who is senior producer at NLP and recommended Hallinan for the High Holy Day jobs. “The introduction to the Shirat Hayam community opened up an unexpected area for me – to live broadcast a spiritual community into people’s homes. Who would have thought that a pandemic could create a meaningful bridge like this?” Hallinan said.

Hallinan looks forward to working with Lucas during the Purim editing process. With footage from three cameras, there will be plenty of material to choose from to tell the story. “The editing stage takes a lot of patience and focus, and Lucas has that,” he said.

Lucas hopes to take an editing-related elective next year at Marblehead High School. “This was a good next step in my filming/editing journey,” he said, adding that he hopes more opportunities with Hallinan await him at Shirat.

Hallinan sees the work he does with students as a way to give back to the community and share tools and basic skills with young people. “With all these projects, the commonality for success is in building relationships,” he said.

Event planner reflects on 40 years of catering the banquets of life

Bruce Silverlieb, The Party Specialist

By Shelley A. Sackett

LYNN — When Bruce Silverlieb, 61, was a 15-year-old growing up in Swampscott, he took a babysitting job to make extra spending money. That job set the trajectory of the rest of his life.

He started making dinner as part of his babysitting duties. Parents hired him whenever they entertained, and word spread. At 16, he printed his first business cards. The Party Specialist was born.

In April 1982, Silverlieb rented the space at 530 Chestnut St. in Lynn and The Party Specialist has called it home ever since.

A lot has changed in the event planning industry over 40 years, Silverlieb said. Small plates and passed hors d’oeuvres have replaced formal sit-down dinners. Production Manager Tammy Choquette of Lynn, Head Chef Richard “Richie” Mintzer of Swampscott, and Silverlieb are all certified in Food Allergy Awareness to accommodate a dramatic increase in special diet requests. Choquette joined the business in 1983 and Mintzer one year later.

Although The Party Specialist is primarily a catering service, clients sometimes request that the team organize the entire event. They have handled events for 3,000 people and tented affairs with a field kitchen lacking access to water or electricity. “Our adaptability allows us to create very special parties even in the most difficult situations,” Silverlieb said.

Silverlieb also works with clients to accommodate unusual requests, such as orchestrating a performance by silk trapeze artists over the guest table in a Boston castle or arranging fireworks displays as a bride and groom depart in a helicopter. “I like being the guy who says ‘yes,’” Silverlieb said with a smile.

He attributes his four decades’ longevity to three things: this “say yes” philosophy, his insistence on quality, and the loyalty and experience of his staff.

“In an industry known for high turnover, we boast an amazing team,” Silverlieb said with pride about the people who feel like family as much as employees. “It’s not unusual to have three generations of staff at a party,” he added.

SIlverlieb, who lives in Marblehead with his husband Dr. Mark Korson, admits that surviving COVID as a small business was the hardest challenge of his career, but is optimistic. “I just want to keep doing exactly what I am doing now,” he said.

As Shirat Hayam’s cantor is ordained, some wonder, ‘What exactly is ‘Renewal’?

ALEPH Dean of Students Hazzan Diana Brewer participates in the ordination of Cantor Sarah Freudenberger.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott was ordained in January, culminating more than five years’ training at the ALEPH Ordination Program, a Renewal-style program that promotes global Jewish music.

Candidates study classical Ashkenazi musical motifs as well as other genres, such as Sephardic. Graduates are able to navigate and lead in a wide variety of contexts, blending both traditional and contemporary styles.

Although she worked as a full-time cantor since her college graduation, Cantor Sarah ran into barriers when she discovered that mainstream seminaries didn’t accept students with non-Jewish partners.

“Even though I wanted to learn, I couldn’t,” she said.

Finally, she discovered ALEPH, a program founded by Reb Zalman, who believed that music is the carrier of the Jewish message. She chose ALEPH both because it was welcoming and, more importantly, because of its robust and comprehensive curriculum and respected reputation.

AOP dates its origins back to the mid-1970s, and progressively evolved over the course of four decades to where it is today.

It all started in Somerville in 1968. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – “Reb Zalman” – was instrumental in the founding of Havurat Shalom, a collective egalitarian spiritual community. He was a visionary pioneer in contemporary Jewish life. His ideas and work influenced the birth of the Havurah movement and the international Jewish Renewal movement.

In 2000, he engaged Hazzan Jack Kessler to develop a new kind of program that would train cantors who are grounded in tradition, but who could also keep Jewish music alive, relevant, and growing into the future. The two agreed this training would encompass additional skills that go beyond vocal performance and the knowledge that was once sufficient for someone to be called a cantor.

By 2001, Reb Zalman had ordained three hazzanim. He then turned over the effort to Hazzan Jack, who created a comprehensive program that embraces traditional and contemporary Jewish musical and liturgical creativity.
As of 2022, ALEPH has ordained 30 cantors. Cantor Sarah is the only cantor ordained in the 2022/5782 class.

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger

Conservative synagogues like Shirat Hayam are bringing in Renewal melodies, percussion, meditative prayer experiences, healing prayers, and an array of Renewal-style approaches to making communal prayer dynamic and participatory, Hazzan Jack explained.

“We believe that synagogues can once again become magnets for Jewish spiritual seekers, Jewish families, and anyone who cares about the continuity of Jewish life, where we can find prayer experiences that elevate our souls and activate our best selves. This is our commitment,” he said.

Cantor Sarah and Hazzan Jack at her ALEPH ordination

ALEPH Executive Director SooJi Min-Maranda reported an uptick in younger applicants who transfer from a more traditional seminary where they didn’t feel their approach to spirituality quite fit. “Most say they are excited about the way ALEPH brings emotional relevance to Jewish life,” she said.

Yet, for many lay people, two huge questions still remain unanswered: What exactly is meant by “Renewal?” And how can a synagogue be both Reform/Conservative/Orthodox and part of the Renewal movement?

Shaul Magid, the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and author of the seminal book, “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society,” spoke with the Journal.

From the beginning, according to Magid, Reb Zalman did not envision Renewal as a new Jewish denomination, but rather as a new vision that could revive late 20th-century Judaism. “He wanted different communities to adopt pieces of that vision as it suited its own inclinations,” he said. “Renewal offers a different template and assumes we are living in a new global [and not only Jewish] era that demands a more radical reevaluation of how we engage and encounter Jewish life.”

At Shirat Hayam, the Renewal approach informs services and life-cycle rituals. “The synagogue experience, particularly prayer, must be accessible, meaningful, and leave people feeling transformed,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin.

“Perfunctory ritual has failed to maintain the vibrancy of Jewish life. Renewal Judaism offers an approach to revitalizing Jewish practice.”

Music lifts the spirit at Congregation Shirat Hayam

Clockwise, from left: David Sparr, Jeremiah Klarman, Lautaro Mantilla, and Noam Sender

by Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Those who attend Holy Happy Hour and Saturday morning Renewal services know firsthand the beauty and grace four professional musicians bring to the experience. Some travel from afar; most also work in other congregations. Other than being musicians, the one thing they all share is their love for the welcoming Shirat Hayam community and its innovative approach.

“To walk into a job with a long roster of professional musicians already in place is such a gift,” said Cantor Sarah Freudenberger. “The history these musicians have in working with previous cantors and Rabbi Michael Ragozin, and the congregants knowing and loving them, is a great help to me as the new person in the mix. Each musician brings his own feelings and style, and our collaboration is special and new with every service.”

Pianist David Sparr, who lives in Nahant and joins Shirat at both services, has performed professionally for 47 of the 63 years he has been playing. He is music director at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline and also performs in jazz clubs, churches, synagogues, senior living facilities, and concert halls. He first came to Shirat through his acquaintance with Cantor Emil Berkovits z”l. The two performed together and Cantor Emil later recorded at David’s studio. He continued the connection with Shirat Hayam’s clergy.

“The spirit of the clergy and the welcoming embrace of the congregation always inspires me to perform at a high level,” he said.

Bostonian Jeremiah Klarman has played piano for 25 years and percussion for 15 years. He plays both at Shirat during Renewal services. He also plays at Temple Emanuel in Newton – where he is Artist in Residence – and recently started playing at an African Methodist Episcopal church. Other engagements have included weddings, concerts, and even accompanying an improv group.

Through a joint concert in 2017 at Temple Emanuel, Jeremiah met Cantor Elana Rozenfeld. She invited him to play for an event at Shirat. He joined her at Renewal service and has played there ever since.

“Among all the synagogues I’ve played at, Renewal at Shirat is unique. It has a mystical, more ‘song leader’ element [which speaks to me because I grew up in a Reform synagogue]. There is also a more Hasidic, “yearning” element. The repertoire we do is varied and speaks to this diverse approach of what Renewal offers for so many people,” he said.

His favorite part is when he, the cantor, and the rabbi are in sync about when and how a song should continue, get faster, get slower, etc. “There’s no planned formula and it just happens. As a musician, those are some of the moments I live for, and it’s very special to share those moments with others,” he added.

Lautaro Mantilla travels from Framingham to play guitar at Holy Happy Hour and Renewal services. The native Colombian guitarist and composer comes from a family of musicians and artists, and started playing when he was 3 years old. He has been playing for over 20 years and teaches at the New England Conservatory. He performs frequently at Jordan Hall and several other smaller venues in Boston and New York.

A couple of years ago, Lautaro was invited to play a classical guitar concert after a Yom Kippur service at Shirat, and “right from the start, the congregation was extremely welcoming and opened their hearts to me and my music, for which I feel very grateful and blessed,” he said.

What he likes best about playing at Shirat are “the incredible depth, energy, and powerful feelings that every service has, and how these feelings go with you after you perform. It’s a unique feeling that I always have performing there.”

Noam Sender is a multi-instrumentalist from Waltham who has been singing and playing hand percussion, guitar, and ney (Turkish flute) for over 50 years. Although these days he plays mostly in synagogues, over the years he’s performed in university auditoriums, music clubs, museums, and community centers.

He was introduced to Shirat about 10 years ago, when congregant Michele Tamaren organized the interfaith event, “Make a Joyful Noise! Uniting our Spirits through Jewish, Islamic and Christian Music.” He played Sufi music with the Islamic Ensemble and, unexpectedly, was invited to sit in with the Jewish Ensemble, where he first met Shirat’s Cantor Elana Rozenfeld. She invited him back to play at various events, including Shabbat Olam and Selichot services. Not long after, he became a regular musician at the Shabbat Renewal service.

“I love the Shirat community, and over the years I have made many friends here. I am grateful to be a part of the Renewal service and always set my intention to bring joy, upliftment, and inspiration to the congregation. Hopefully in the process, I also help create a sacred and soulful space,” Noam said.

He also teaches Jewish spiritual wisdom once a month at Nosh & Drash right after the Renewal service. “I discuss the mystical treasures hidden within the weekly Torah portion through a Hasidic lens, providing participants with spiritual tools and understanding for everyday life,” he said.

Beverly filmmakers document Alabama vaccination campaign; will screen at Sundance festival

Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine

By Shelley A. Sackett

It was spring 2021, the second year of the pandemic, and filmmakers Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine were depressed. They were living in Alabama, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

“We had nearly forgotten what it was like to make eye contact with other humans. We finally had a vaccine, but people weren’t getting the shot – at least not in Alabama,” Levine said by email.

The Massachusetts natives’ dour moods lifted, however, when they heard about Dorothy Oliver, a woman who was running a vaccination drive out of her mobile home convenience store in Panola, a rural Black town of almost 400 near the Mississippi border. Panola was too small for its own COVID vaccine center and the closest hospital is almost 40 miles away. Many residents don’t have cars; some still rely on horses for transportation.

Oliver and County Commis­sioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson hatched a plan to keep their town safe. Rather than try to bring Panola’s unvaccinated to the hospital, they would bring the hospital to Panola. They persuaded a local clinic to bring a pop-up site to the town under one challenging condition: They had to convince 40 residents to sign up for the vaccine.

Although Panola had its share of skeptics, a lot of residents wanted the shot. It was logistics – not anti-vax ideology – that kept them from getting it. As social justice advocates and activists, Levine and DeCruz were troubled by the underlying unfairness behind the public health reality of this poor, Black rural community.

They jumped into their car and drove out – unannounced – to meet Oliver at her store. “Instead of sitting on our couch in a state of existential dread, we set out to seek solutions – and frankly, some hope,” said Levine.

Oliver welcomed them like family from the beginning. “She showed us that even in trying times, even when discussing a politically fraught issue, the only way forward is with hope, warmth, and a sense of humor,” DeCruz said.

Levine and DeCruz were so struck by Oliver’s tenacity and the injustice of Panola’s situation that they decided to bring the story to a larger audience. “The Panola Project,” a 16-minute documentary they coproduced and codirected, chronicles Oliver’s campaign as she goes door to door, talking people into signing up and lightly chiding them about their fears and concerns. The film was recently named an official selection of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

DeCruz and Levine, who grew up in Beverly but met as adults in New York City, share a deep commitment to social justice issues. They were both raised in families grounded by Jewish values, culture and traditions. They moved to Tuscaloosa when Levine was hired as an assistant professor of media production at the University of Alabama.

Levine remembers learning about the Jews’ difficult history as a kid, when he attended Hebrew school at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. “This created a deep-rooted desire to fight for justice for all. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was important to my worldview from early on,” he said.

DeCruz’s life and identity were shaped by both race and religion. Her mother is white and Jewish and her father is Black. Growing up, she didn’t know many mixed-race families and at home, “We never talked about race, despite the fact that it was impacting each of our lives every day in numerous ways. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to figure out my place and understand the many layers of my identity. These factors were a large part of what drove me to do racial justice work,” said DeCruz, the associate director of advocacy at Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

“The Panola Project,” which spotlights the racial and social inequities behind public health policy, was a perfect fit for these two filmmakers professionally and personally, with Oliver as its perfect spokesperson. “I just felt like I had to do it because the government, nobody does enough in this area,” Oliver explains on camera. “This area here is majority Black. Kind of puts you on the back burner.”

Oliver received USA Today’s Best of Humankind/Best of Womankind Award, which recognizes and celebrates an everyday person who is making a difference in their community. Dr. Anthony Fauci thanked her, saying her work can serve as a model for the country.

DeCruz points out that, despite Alabama having one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, 99 percent of adults in Panola have now received their shots, thanks to Oliver and Russ-Jackson’s relentless campaign. “The film showcases the incredible strength of Black women who frequently serve as the backbone holding their communities together,” she said.

For Levine, who recently began as a communication, journalism, and media professor at Suffolk University, the power of storytelling became obvious at an early age. He clearly remembers the pivotal moment that set him on his journey as a filmmaker, or “visual storyteller” as he calls it.

He was a 7-year-old, fulfilling his Hebrew school assignment to record a relative’s story. Armed with a plastic Playskool cassette tape recorder, he interviewed his great-grandmother about her journey to the United States. She told the boy how – when she was just a child – her parents hired a smuggler to sneak her out of Russia under the cover of night to escape antisemitism.

“Had I not gone that day with a tape recorder, her story would have been lost. The connections to our contemporary stories of migration would have been lost with it. This showed me, at a young age, the power of stories,” he said.

To view “The Panola Project,” go to youtube.com/watch?v=j1wI4T9SKGA.

Danvers Holocaust Symposium asks ‘What does the Holocaust have to do with me?’

50th anniversary revival of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ storms the stage
Three swastikas have been found at Danvers public schools since the fall.

by Shelley A. Sackett

DANVERS — Last year, Danvers was in the news, but not for reasons that made its leaders and community members proud. Amid allegations of antisemitism, racism and homophobia in the Danvers High School hockey team, there were complaints about lack of transparency and accountability in the school and police departments. Then, in November, swastikas were discovered at the Holten Richmond Middle School and in December, a swastika was found at Danvers High School.

In response, about 200 people gathered for a “vigil of inclusion” organized by the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and the Danvers Interfaith Partnership. But Danvers officials, especially the School Committee and administration, wanted to go further.

To that end, Danvers Public Schools partnered with Lappin Foundation to host a six-week Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium on Zoom. The free program began Jan. 6 and includes 39 students and 34 adults.

“We need to continue to work on ensuring our school has a safe and respectful climate and empower all our community members to call out and fight against biased and hateful language and actions,” Danvers High School Principal Adam Federico said in an email. “This work needs to be done by students, faculty and families.”

Consisting of curated materials, primary sources, films, survivor testimony, a book read and discussions, the symposium was created in response to antisemitism, swastikas and racist graffiti showing up more frequently in schools and in community settings. Danvers is the fourth symposium (the others were at New England Academy and Duxbury and Newton North High Schools) and the first to be open to the entire community.

“I believe education is our best hope. Opening the symposium to students and adults in Danvers to learn together has been especially powerful,” said Deborah Coltin, who is Lappin Foundation’s executive director and also runs the symposium.

So far, participants couldn’t agree more.

At the beginning of the first session, Coltin posed the open-ended question, “Why are you here?” Many answered that they wanted to make a difference in Danvers and to be on the side of not making light of recent events. “I want to be rebooted in my attitudes,” a student said.

Tess Wallerstein, an 11th grade Jewish student, took comfort in knowing there are “actually people in Danvers who genuinely care about this topic.” She believes a large percentage of people spreading antisemitism either have an incorrect understanding of the Holocaust or are rooted in ignorance. “Symposiums like this could help lots of people gain a better understanding of major issues and could bring community members together in open discussions by connecting young and old,” she said.

Parent Mike Hass wants to help raise the bar on what is acceptable behavior. He also wants his daughter to learn more about the deeper societal issues that led to the Holocaust. “I want her to see and experience that speaking up and taking an active role in society is critical to shaping the world around her,” he said in an email.

Danvers Chief of Police James Lovell believes the program can serve as a framework for additional, admittedly difficult conversations that will help Danvers grow as a community. “More importantly, I hope to learn things I can do in my role as a public official and leader to ensure we properly investigate incidents of antisemitism and help create a culture where hate is not acceptable or tolerated,” he said in an email.

The program included the movie, “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” that uses rare footage to examine the Nazis’ rise and consolidation of power in Germany. Intended to provoke reflection and discussion about the role of ordinary people, institutions, and nations between 1918 and 1945, the film did just that.

Students and adults agreed that seeing video recordings from that era was much more impactful than reading about it in books. “Nothing is left to the imagination. This is a wake-up call,” said a student. “Seeing the sophistication of the Nazis’ approach, the normalization of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the hijacking of tradition – that really scared me,” added an adult.

For Selectman David Mills, Human Rights and Inclusion Committee co-founder, seeing the ease with which ordinary people were drawn into something so horrible disturbed him. “Do we all have that monster lurking just below the surface?” he asked.

Community member Carla King, who learned about the symposium through DanversCARES, has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and attended lectures on the topic. She thought she knew more than many about the Holocaust. After the first session, she realized and appreciated there was much more for her to learn.

She was unnerved to watch the events that led to Hitler’s rise to power. “It was very powerful for me thinking of the current climate in the U.S. and that some of what we see is how it all started,” she said in an email. “Our children need to be educated about what the swastika means. I don’t believe they really understand, and if they did, I don’t think they would be doing what they are doing.”

Mary Wermers, assistant superintendent of Teaching and Learning at Danvers Public Schools, thinks outreach like this symposium can help Danvers. “We need passive bystanders to become upstanders in the community. It is time that we call out biased remarks and/or actions, try to explain why it is hurtful and not stand by and let it happen,” she said in an email.

Dave McKenna, who co-founded the Human Rights and Inclusion Committee in 1993 and is superintendent of Jewish Cemeteries of the North Shore, would go one step further. “We need to find a way to reach those who have no interest in learning about these issues and enlighten them as to the cause and effect of divisiveness and how it leads to hatred,” he said in an email. “We still have a long way to go.”

Samuel Bak, who paints the past so we will never forget it, to be on display in Beverly

Samuel Bak in his Weston studio. Photo: Pucker Gallery, Boston

by Shelley A. Sackett

BEVERLY – Samuel Bak, the renowned international artist, speaks in a language of images, dreamscapes, and colors. A child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, Bak tells his life’s stories through canvases rich in symbol, metaphor and reorientation. Recognizable objects and figures appear shattered and reglued; a pear sports a smoke stack, broken teacups become surrealist landscapes, and a ruined house sits atop a mound of books.

Bak’s rich, thought-provoking works will soon be on view in Beverly. “Samuel Bak and the Art of Remembrance,“ an exhibition at Montserrat College of Art Gallery presented in cooperation with Pucker Gallery of Boston, brings together 37 paintings and works on paper created between the 1990s and today. The show runs Jan. 18 to March 4, with an opening reception to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

Persistence of Memory by Samuel Bak

His canvases tell the story of a world destroyed, a destruction he witnessed and survived. His work references Jewish and Holocaust history, challenging historical amnesia with difficult images of those times.

Yet, he does not consider himself a “Holocaust painter,” as he is often described, and despite the fact that what he witnessed during those times is the subject of many of his paintings. “I felt I have a story to tell and I wanted to touch other people. I refer to the Holocaust because it is something I know, but it goes beyond that,” he said over Zoom from his Weston home.

His paintings are meant to make the viewer wonder what happens when the world rejects equality and focuses on dehumanizing “the Other.” “My paintings ask questions. They don’t necessarily give answers because I personally don’t have any,” he said.

Despite scenes of anguish and despair, Bak also paints survivors, imbuing them with glimmers of muted hope and resilience. Rivers still run; painters still paint. The teddy bears and tea cups and humans are put back together again, but they can never be the same as our first memories of them.

Under the trees of Ponari by Samuel Bak

“I wanted to speak about the survivors, who are people who try to rebuild something that is similar to the reality that existed once, but cannot be totally reconstructed,” he said. “Somehow it is out of the bits and pieces of the horrors of the past that we can construct the sense of our being here and learn to prevent such horrors from happening again as much as it is possible.”

An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, middle-class family in Wilno, Poland. At age 3, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. At age 7, on the day after his first day of school, he and his family were deported to the old Jewish quarter of the city now called Vilna. At 9, he had his first exhibition, inside the Vilna ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its 200 survivors from a pre-war community of between 70,000 and 80,000 Jews.

“The major subject of my paintings is: How was it possible such events happened? How is it I am still alive?” he said.

He and his mother spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948 when Bak was 15. After working and living in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, he came to America and settled in Weston in 1993.

During his 85-year career, Bak has produced over 9,000 items. Since the 1960s, remembrance and its nuances has been a major theme.

“Memory is not a folder that is downloaded onto your computer and when you want to look at it, you give a click and the folder reopens exactly as it was before,” the 88-year-old said.

Persistence by Samuel Bak

Unlike a computer folder, Bak sees the human memory as unique and individual because it also contends with our failure to remember. “We are blessed that we have the possibility to forget. This is what keeps us alive,” Bak said. It is also why, when we want to remember, we must recreate that memory.

In his paintings, Bak is “recreating the image that I have of the world in which people live today. Images that somehow seem to belong to another world attract viewers and enable me or others who speak about my work to speak of the times they represent,” he said.

His paintings have been used to educate thousands of teachers and students about the Holocaust since 1978. That year, he exhibited in a national museum in Germany that drew large groups of teachers and young students. “It suddenly opened my eyes. I thought, ‘My goodness. My paintings can do that. That’s absolutely wonderful,’” he said.

Since then, the PBS show “Facing History” has used his art for over 40 years to teach about the Holocaust, reaching millions of students in thousands of classrooms. In 2022, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg will mount a yearlong exhibit of his paintings to commemorate its 30th anniversary.

Montserrat will sponsor a virtual artist talk with Bak and – COVID permitting – other school groups plan to visit the exhibit. “What is happening with this exhibition at Montserrat College is not something new, but it is something I know works,” Bak said.

Ruth Wisse will discuss her new memoir, “Free As A Jew,” in person at JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on November 7

Ruth Wisse

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ruth Roskies Wisse is no shrinking violet. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1936, she and her family escaped to Montreal in 1940, where her parents’ home became a salon and safe haven for Jewish writers, actors and artists who had also fled the Nazis. After graduating with a BA from McGill University in 1957 (where she befriended Leonard Cohen), she earned a MA in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, the only place in North America that offered such a program at that time. She returned to Montreal to raise her family and finish her Ph.D.. In 1968, she began teaching Yiddish literature and helped found a program that would become the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill.

No less a trailblazer academically, Wisse became a joint professor in the Departments of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University in 1993, where she taught until she retired in 2014. Her gender, religion, subject matter (Yiddish) and conservative political and social views set her apart from the get go. Her razor-sharp intellect and prolific authorship made her views impossible to ignore.

In 2000:, she received the National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship for “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture” and in 2007, she received the National Humanities Medal, which cited her for “scholarship and teaching that have illuminated Jewish literary traditions. Her insightful writings have enriched our understanding of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture in the modern world.”

Along the way, she developed relationships with Nobel Prize winning authors, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a bevy of Harvard University students, faculty and administrators.

A staunch neoconservative and supporter of Israel, Wisse is a prolific author. She has collaborated on Yiddish collections, penned numerous political essays (many of which appear regularly in Commentary, The New Republic and The Jerusalem Report), and authored several books, including the controversial “If I Am Not for Myself…The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” a Zionist critique of the American Jewish climate.

No less controversial is her new book, “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation,” a no-holds-barred memoir. Wisse will discuss her book with Andrea Levin, Executive Director and President of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), as part of the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on Sunday, November 7 at 3 pm at Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead. The in person event includes a reception and book signing.

According to Wisse , she began writing about parts of her life as a way of understanding the world around her. “Free As A Jew” takes her to the point of her retirement from Harvard in 2014. “One of the ways in which I’ve been fortunate is in the interesting people I’ve come to know. I’ve tried to write this as cultural history, and about myself as a minor participant in that history,” she said by email.

She chose the title carefully and deliberately. “I call it a personal memoir of national self-liberation because I concentrate on the public, intellectual, cultural, and political events I witnessed: most extraordinarily, the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish country. The defeat—at least formally—of German Fascism and Soviet Communism were great victories. Not for a moment can we afford to take those civilizational achievements for granted,” Wisse said. “But they are being taken for granted.”

The direction of current political and cultural life concerns her, particularly the uptick in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric and what she calls “contemporary loss of confidence.”

“It is no secret that the ideological and military war against the Jewish people has in many ways revved up rather than quieted down in recent decades. When people are under assault, many grow frightened, or apologetic, wanting to stay out of trouble. Some respond by trying to appease their attackers, or by becoming more like them. Jews have many things in common with other minorities, but no other minority is under the same sustained attack. This is confusing. Many lose confidence in their Judaism and blame their fellow Jews for the attacks against them,” she said.

Wisse stresses that her memoir is intended as neither homily nor “how to” book, but rather as another tool in one’s toolbox. “In explaining how I came to think about certain things, like the modern challenges to women, the nature of community, liberalism and conservatism, how literature works and why it matters, education and Jewish education, and so on, my story may be useful to others. No two lives are alike, but we all tend to have certain problems and opportunities in common,” she said.

The Exodus story of the Jews leaving slavery Egypt for freedom in Canaan particularly resonates with Wisse and also influenced her book’s title. “Jews learn that escape from bondage is only the first step of the process. We are a rabble — miserable, needy, and anxious — until we accept our pretty stringent set of laws. To be free as a Jew means to assume the responsibilities of freedom and to realize how liberating that really is,” she said.

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

College students immerse themselves in Israeli culture

By Shelley A. Sackett

Despite anxiety over civil and political unrest – and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 – three college students from Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam headed to Israel for summer internships.

They returned in agreement on three important points: Israel is a spectacular tourist destination; the country feels like one big family; and any young adult offered the opportunity to participate in a residential program in Israel should grab it.

As part of a gap year before heading to Stanford University this fall, 19-year-old Swampscott resident Anna Levenberg spent four months living in Israel through Aardvark Israel, an international program that provides internships and volunteer opportunities. She interned at Keren Or, the Jerusalem center for children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities. She also lived on an army base for a week, volunteering with Sar-El, an organization that partners with the Israel Defense Forces.

Anna Levenberg at Mitzpe Ramon

In between, she found time to explore new places: rafting in the Golan Heights, swimming in the Dead Sea, and skydiving in Haifa. Although this was not her first trip in Israel, it was her favorite.
“Being able to live in Israel for so long allowed me to get to know the country and the culture in a way that would be impossible if I were there only for a few weeks,” Levenberg said. “The communal values in this country are so strong, and people have such a willingness to help one another. From countless Shabbat dinners at my neighbors’ homes to being begged in the Shuk to make Aliyah, I know my presence is valued in Israel.”

Ethan Keller (second from left) at a Shabbat potluck dinner with trip participants in Israel.

Jerusalem was also home base for Ethan Keller of Whitinsville, whose six-week Boston Onward Israel internship residency gave him the opportunity to get to know Israel – and Israelis – in a deeper way than his three previous shorter and more structured trips.

Although his first couple of weeks were challenging, the 22-year-old Clark University student quickly adapted and focused on the summer’s rewards, including touring the country, making new friends, and taking advantage of the chance to dig beneath the superficial.

“This trip has been life-changing,” Keller said. “Israel is a complicated place with complicated people. I’ve had some really good conversations with Israelis, and I’ve had some less pleasant ones. There are people who don’t care about or want peace, and there are those working hard for it.”

He made a Palestinian friend who, along with having a startup in Tel Aviv, is working in his community in East Jerusalem to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians. “There is a lot of hate and misunderstanding in this country and the Palestinian territories, which makes it all the more important to fight against it,” he added.

Cole Cassidy atop a camel.

University of New Hampshire junior Cole Cassidy lived in Tel Aviv and worked as an Onward Boston intern for NOX Group in its marketing department, promoting the top clubs and bars in Tel Aviv. “With a city that doesn’t sleep at night and the endless beach days with sand that makes you feel like you’re on the moon, Tel Aviv felt like utopia,” the 20-year-old Swampscott resident said.

His first trip to Israel was four years ago with the two-week Youth to Israel program sponsored by the Lappin Foundation. He appreciated the freedom of living on his own with two months to discover the country in his own fashion, all while getting an internship under his belt and exploring his Jewish roots.

At first, he was surprised that all stores are closed on Shabbat. “It was definitely an odd adjustment to remember to get groceries or anything I needed Friday before sunset. I was also surprised that the culture is so friendly and outgoing. It felt like one big family here in Israel and within the community,” Cassidy said.

He was struck by the many occasions when being a Jew in a Jewish country collided in powerful ways, for example during a trip to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev for a Shabbaton. “Celebrating Shabbat in the desert under the most thrilling night sky where you are able to see every star was incredible,” he said.

Without hesitation, all three would offer the same advice to young adults considering an internship in Israel: Do it!

“Israel is unlike anything you will ever experience,” Cassidy said. “You can come here and feel like family instantly, not just like a tourist. This is the home of our people and the connection you will feel to our homeland is unbelievable.”

Levenberg recommends going out of your way to meet new people. “Talk to Israelis in the street; ask English speakers where they are from, and chat with your waitresses. My time in Israel has shown me the true power of Judaism. I love living in a place surrounded by Jews who are so proud to be Jews, who influence you to learn more about your religion and culture. It has been such a moving experience being able to connect with my religion alongside my peers from all around the world.”