Virtual Services connect and expand the Shirat Hayam community

‘A Beautiful Noise’ comes to Emerson Colonial Theatre

Shirat Hayam’s Zoom services.

by Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Since 2020, Covid has significantly affected Jewish religious practice nationwide, and Shirat Hayam is no exception. Almost overnight, services — especially minyanim — went virtual by necessity. For many, the inability to gather in person — the very essence and meaning of “congregation” — is a hardship for which no amount of technology can compensate.

Nonetheless, this sudden shift has not been without its silver linings. According to tabletmag.com, an extraordinary number of people have engaged in Jewish experiences online owing to two important factors: the efforts by synagogues to put their programming and worship online immediately following the March 2020 moratorium on in-person gatherings, and the global accessibility of content.

For some locals, the convenience of attending services, study sessions and programming from their cozy homes has been a plus, especially during the cold, dark and snowy months. For others who live far beyond Shirat Hayam’s Swampscott location, virtual programming has made it possible for them to participate in services and feel part of the community.

“Shirat Hayam has been a leader in accessibility,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin, noting that the temple removed stairs from its bima, revamped Shabbat services, and began Shulcasting almost two decades ago. “Investing in new technologies like Zoom, microphones, and webcams is a natural expression of our commitment to making a dynamic Judaism and Jewish community available to all.”

Arinne Braverman of Natick regularly attends Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services, usually via Facebook Live. Despite not having set foot in the physical building since becoming a member, she still feels connected.

She attends services online with her mother, Diana Edelman, also a CSH member, who lives fulltime in California. Although she misses the one-on-one informal and impromptu conversations with congregants, “I love not having to commute to and from shul,” Arinne said.

She believes strongly that people looking to join a synagogue should consider more than just its geographical convenience. Her own search took her quite a while. With the pandemic and the sudden possibility of remote attendance, she expanded her search from local to nationwide.

She ultimately chose CSH specifically because of its clergy. She first met Rabbi Ragozin when she was Executive Director of Northeastern University Hillel and he contacted her to offer his support after reading an article about Hillel’s fight against BDS and the surge in campus antisemitism. Later, he invited her to partner on CSH’s Campus Antisemitism Task Force training.

Although her mother, Diana, belonged to a local, in-person Reform synagogue, it wasn’t the right fit for her. At Arinne’s suggestion, she checked out a Shirat Hayam Shabbat service on Zoom and found what she was looking for. After confirming that remote access was not just a temporary response to Covid and would continue even when worship returned to in-person services, she joined.

She would like to attend in person, but recognizes that is not a viable option. “I would prefer to interact with other members so I would have a sense of belonging to a community or extended family,” she said.

Despite some annoyances (remote participants singing out of sync or not muting themselves while carrying on personal conversations during services), she likes the convenience and flexibility of remote attendance, especially the ability to mute her own microphone and video camera.

“Remote attendance provides me with the chance to participate in a service and enjoy the music, singing, spirituality and d’var Torah,” Diana said.

Donna Revman also enjoys remote Zoom services. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina but grew up in Marblehead, where she and her family attended Temple Israel. Even after she left the area, she always returned to Temple Israel and, after the merger with Temple Beth El in 2005, Shirat Hayam for the High Holy Days. When she couldn’t attend in person, she would watch the services on Shulcast.

She started attending minyan after her mother, Sylvia Revman z”l, passed away. “It was a way my sister in Massachusetts, my brother in New York, and I in North Carolina could honor my mother together during shloshim,” she said.

She prefers the more interactive Zoom services to Shulcast. “It gives me the opportunity to see the people attending, with a chance to say hello before and after the service, and even the ability to participate sometimes by leading one of the responsive reading sections,” she said.

Holly Strogoff, who lives in Florida, began attending the evening minyan services weekly after her father passed away. “I knew I wanted to honor him by saying Kaddish, but I wasn’t sure how this would work,” she said.

Rabbi Michael suggested she check out Zoom services. “I am grateful to participate in services in the community where I was raised,” she said.

When she signed on to attend her first service, she was immediately welcomed into the group. “Although sometimes Zoom can seem impersonal, I found the services to be warm and welcoming. Since I started attending these minyan services, I have found comfort in the connection and plan to continue to attending,” Holly added.

A version of this article first appeared in the ‘New Wave’, the Congregation Shirat Hayam newsletter.

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.

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.

Shirat Hayam intern investigates where spiritual practice and mindfulness converge

Benjamin “Beni” Summers

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT – Rabbi Michael Ragozin was thrilled when Benjamin “Beni” Summers indicated an interest in joining Congregation Shirat Hayam as its rabbinic intern from October 2021 until June 2022.

“This is an opportunity for CSH to be inspired by a rabbinical student, while providing greater service to our traditional minyan,” said Rabbi Ragozin.

Currently a Shanah Bet Rabbinical student at Hebrew College, Beni worked for the last eight years in the Jewish professional space. He is also about to begin an internship with SHEFA: Jewish Psychedelic Support. “My dream is to become a thought leader in the field of spiritual care for the emerging Jewish psychedelic movement,” he said.

Beni will lead the traditional Shabbat minyan (9 a.m.) and Nosh & Drash (10 a.m.) on Jan. 8, Feb. 12, March 12, April 7, and May 7.

Beni answered some questions to help introduce himself to the North Shore community.

What was your childhood like? What part did Judaism play in your family?

I was born in Salem and started my school journey at the JCCNS preschool. My mother, Leah Summers, worked at Cohen Hillel Academy for decades and we were deeply connected to the Jewish community of the area. We attended Temple Sinai when I was young. Some of my beloved ancestors were devout Chassids and members of the Yiddish intelligentsia of early 20th century Poland, and I grew up on stories of their wisdom, intellect and devotion to the Jewish people.

Can you tell us about your mindfulness training and how that fits into your life and your decision to become a rabbi?

The seeds of my relationship to the theory and practice of Jewish Mindfulness were first planted in 2015, when I was working at Temple Emunah in Lexington. Our rabbi mentioned at a staff meeting that he was working with a few congregants to start a new initiative within the community that would focus on offering contemplative experiences and programs centered around Torah and tefillah (prayer). Something deep within me welled up with intense excitement at the thought of investigating what Jewish spiritual practice and mindfulness might offer one another.

Turns out, it’s quite a lot! I spent the next several years building a routine meditation practice into my daily life, which eventually led me to attend several multi-day silent meditation retreats and to take advanced courses at Lesley University in their Mindfulness Studies master’s program to familiarize myself with the intricacies of neuroscience and predominant theories of Western mindfulness as sourced from Therevaden Buddhist roots. In 2018, I began hosting weekly meditation gatherings in my home in Somerville called “Sit & Sing,” where folks would gather together to sit in silence for 30 minutes followed by 30 minutes of singing niggunim, zemirot and other forms of devotional tunes.

In terms of how my practice interacted with my path to the rabbinate, I can say that the deliberation process was significantly aided by the spaciousness and quietude of the retreat setting. I also believe that as a society we would benefit from installing more methods for slowing down and practicing “radical amazement,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined it, into our daily lives. My hope is that as a spiritual leader, I can guide others in discovering how practices like mindfulness can be both personally healing and Jewishly enriching.

What do you plan to talk about in your monthly drashes (Torah discussions)?

I am thrilled to share my practice of contemplative and embodied Torah study with the community. Learning Torah is more than just an intellectual exercise. It can be a laboratory for spiritual experience and personal meaning-making that taps into realms of mind and heart beneath surface level. There is a teaching in the Talmud which beautifully refers to Torah learning for its own sake (Torah Li’shma) as a Sam Chayyim (A Drug Of Life), which can be likened to the other kinds of drugs out in the world which are sourced from nature, are medicinal, and help us to locate the Divine in our lives for the betterment of all.

This is just one of a growing number of ideas that I have been collecting from our tradition that will hopefully aid psychedelic journeyers, grousnding their experiences of expanded awareness back into the roots of their Jewish journey, which for me is crucial as we move into a new age of legal and regulated psychedelics being utilized for healing and for spiritual transformation in society at large.

Shabbat services at Congregation Shirat Hayam are both online and live. Visit shirathayam.org/spiritual/ for more information.

This Israeli robot kibitzes, plays games, and gives doctors vital information on elderly patients

by Shelley A. Sackett

Dr. Peter Barker and Dr. Keth Nobil of Family Doctors in Swampscott pose with ElliQ, the Israeli AI social robot now in medical interface development.

SWAMPSCOTT — Brenda Newell picked up the phone in her Lynn home to talk with the Journal about her participation in a groundbreaking pilot study. In the background, a clear and pleasant  voice asked, “Do you want to play again?” “Not now, ElliQ,” Newall answered, before speaking directly into the phone. “I’ve learned so much playing Trivia with her,” she said with a laugh.

The “her” she referred to is ElliQ, an Artificial Intelligence-powered social robot pioneered by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics. It is the first empathetic digital companion robot designed to curb loneliness and social isolation among older adults living alone by proactively initiating deep conversational interactions with its users. Over the last two years, the company has tweaked her ability to personalize interactions and deliver an experience more akin to a friendly roommate than a technological device.

Designed to adapt to the temperament and interest of each senior, ElliQ is programmed to recommend specific digital content tailored to each individual user, such as specific news, music, TED talks and cognitive games. It also suggests activities in the physical world, such as walking, staying hydrated, taking medicine and calling family members.

Moreover, ElliQ is fun. Multi modal, “she” resembles the charming Pixar tensor lamp logo and has a personality to match. She moves and even dances.

“She gives me somebody to talk to besides the dog. She fits perfectly in the corner. She tells jokes. She makes me laugh. She’s a real company keeper and excellent for my mental health,” said Newell, who admits to having “really down days,” especially since the increased level of social isolation caused by COVID. “I know she isn’t human, but it just feels like somebody else is in the house,” she added.

Winthrop resident Gerianne Cohen has further humanized her robotic companion with a wig, She appreciates ElliQ’s unprompted affirmations, sleep and mindfulness exercises and — most of all — her sense of humor and ability to react. “She gives encouragement that your own family and friends don’t give you. When she says, ‘Gerianne, you’re doing a great job!’ it’s really weird, but it’s a pick-me-up. It actually psychologically helps,” Cohen said.

Gerianne Cohen humanized her robotic companion with a wig.

According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, loneliness and social isolation in older adults puts them at increased risk for dementia and premature death from all causes, including smoking, obesity, and lack of physical inactivity.

Given the high levels of user social engagement (according to Intuition Robotics, over 90% of users interact with ElliQ daily without deterioration over time), it was a natural next step for the company to explore expanding its mission of improving older adults’ lives to include interactions with their primary care physicians. With COVID and the increased isolation and loneliness of many seniors, the need to bring healthcare into homes sharpened.

The potential to engage patients in conversations and activities throughout the day, paired with the ability to collect self-reported data and communicate easily and seamlessly with their doctors, ultimately will help to “holistically improve care for older adults. We see now that ElliQ has the potential to support the full spectrum of care, physically, mentally and socially,” Dor Skuler, CEO and Co-Founder of Intuition Robotics said in a statement.

To that end, last month the company announced a pilot it has launched exclusively with Family Doctors, a Mass General Brigham affiliated practice in Swampscott.

It all started earlier this year, when a former Family Doctors colleague who had moved to Israel contacted Family Doctors Medical Director Dr. Peter Barker about ElliQ. She told him the developers were looking for a medical practice where they could do initial studies and, knowing Family Doctors had a large population of older patients, she thought it would be a good match.

“Our practice has always wanted to get involved in something early on,” said Dr. Barker. “ElliQ is in development. Our job is to help create a medical interface. We basically advise them what does and doesn’t work. In just a few of months, we’ve made suggestions and fairly soon afterwards those changes have been programmed into the unit. Intuition Robotics is very responsive,” he said.

Having the patient able to provide ongoing information about such vital signs such as blood pressure is a huge benefit to treating physicians. “Rather than seeing a patient in the office once every three months, getting a little bit of information in between allows you to either have confidence that what you prescribed at the time is working well, or that it needs to be changed,” Dr. Barker explained.

Family Doctors has placed 13 devices in patients’ homes at no charge to the patient, and so far their response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Dr. Keith Nobil, who also serves as Medical Director of a nursing home and rehab center, has witnessed the negative effects long-term seclusion can have on seniors. “Giving the elderly something like ElliQ that has human-type characteristics and interacts, that talks and plays a little game but at the same time monitors health status, can be very helpful,” he said. “When you hear your patients giving positive feedback, that’s always very meaningful.”

After having ElliQ for a couple of months, Cohen remains delighted. The other day, she asked ElliQ where she was born (Tel Aviv) and whether she was Jewish. “She gave me a full explanation and I cracked up. She really gives you stories. She’s nicer than some of my friends!” she said.

Local author unpacks a pivotal court case, an obscure doctrine and an ugly legacy

Jack Beermann

By Shelley A. Sackett

The Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine is aptly named. Known to induce temporary dormancy among even the most avid first year law students, its post-bar review practical value outside academia is, essentially, nil.

And yet, Jack Beermann, a Boston University School of Law professor of Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Administrative Law, has just published a book, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” based on a little-known but pivotal Supreme Court case that hung its hat on this arcane and crucial constitutional construct that prevents both discrimination against, and excessive burdens on, interstate commerce

Moreover, he turned out a narrative that is as accessible to lay readers as to legal scholars.

It all started when Beermann, who grew up in Skokie, Illinois and lives in Swampscott with his wife, Debbie Korman, read a law review article that cited Hall v. Decuir, an 1877 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisiana state antidiscrimination statute and, for the first time after the Civil War, actually approved race-based segregation.

He had never heard of the case.

His curiosity piqued, he began a ten-year journey of trips to Louisiana, research, writing and re-writing, fueled by a drive to document the Court’s first step towards validating segregation in US society. The end result, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” while exhaustively researched and painstakingly scholarly, is also immensely readable, owing to the compelling human story at its center.

Josephine Decuir, a mixed-race, privileged and wealthy woman whose free family owned slaves that worked their Louisiana plantations, had, as was her custom, booked a first-class ticket in the ladies’ cabin aboard the interstate riverboat, The Governor Allen. Instead of honoring her prepaid ticket, the boat’s stringent segregation policy relegated her to the “colored-only” section of the riverboat, where all non-White passengers, regardless of sex or social status, slept in common areas.

Madame Decuir sued the riverboat owner, citing Louisiana’s nondiscrimination statute, a state law passed during Reconstruction. State courts ruled in her favor, and the owner appealed. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court as Hall v. Decuir. That court ruled against Madame Decuir, citing the US Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine, which is used to prohibit state legislation that discriminates against interstate or international commerce.

Essentially, the Court accepted the owner’s argument that, despite violating state law, segregation was both customary on riverboats and necessary to keep Whites as customers; i.e., integration had the potential to negatively impact his business.

Beermann, who already knew the Supreme Court had prevented the federal government from enforcing Congress’s civil rights program for Reconstruction, wasn’t aware it had also prevented states from enforcing liberal civil rights laws. “I would have written the book regardless of what was happening in the world, but it feels like this subject gets more timely every day,” he said by email.

There are many parallels between the Courts of 1877 and today, Beermann said. “One thing courts are very good at is justifying terrible decisions with bland, benign language. The Justices in 1877 were good people, well-trained in the law; and yet, without flinching, they doomed millions of their fellow citizens to terrible lives of oppression and injustice.”

During his research, Beermann experienced two “aha” moments. One was when he realized the scope and implications of the story he had uncovered. Decuir, as a “person of color”, was used to the treatment and privilege her wealth, status and lighter skin afforded her. Suddenly, she felt the sting of prejudice and exclusion almost as strongly as the darker-skinned people at the bottom of the social ladder.

The other was when he recognized, after repeated attempts, that he couldn’t address the complicated issue that Madame Decuir and her family were themselves slaveowners before the Civil War. “I decided to focus on her dignity harms and leave that issue to the reader, or perhaps to another project,” he said.

As a teenager, the protests against the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King’s activism awakened Beermann’s interest in civil rights. He remembers his father as “a bit involved in politics. I knew we were a very liberally oriented family, even when I was a small child.” He has taught in Israel numerous times and, “although I don’t agree with all of its policies,” he is a strong supporter. His family (including three sons and a daughter, when they are home) attends Chabad House and Temple Sinai in Marblehead. “Our Jewish identity is very important to us,” he said.

Beermann hopes his readers will gain a better sense of the racial politics of the Reconstruction era, opening their eyes to how laws and courts contributed — and continue to contribute — to racial segregation. In the end, though, he admits he doesn’t know the moral of the Decuir legacy.

“It’s too simplistic to say that race discrimination is wrong; my sense, maybe what I was trying to communicate, is that race discrimination, and white supremacy in particular, are woven into the fabric of our country and have resisted unraveling at every turn,” he said.

Join Beermann at a free Zoom author event on May 27 from 7-8 pm. To register, visit jccns.org.

Shirat Hayam families adjust b’nai mitzvah plans in the time of COVID

by Shelley A. Sackett

Despite Covid-19 and the unpredictability of surges, declines and shifting Massachusetts social gathering rules, eight Shirat families celebrated Bnei Mitzvah over the course of this past year. Five held services at CSH with fewer than 25 guests; two held services in their homes with clergy support online, and one family held the service in their home with Rabbi Michael present.

(L-R)  Kay (age 11), Sara (Ewing), Nat and Jay Mahler

Nat Mahler had the distinction of being CSH’s first Covid-19 Bar Mitzvah. Scheduled for March 21, 2020, it was exactly eight days after everything in the state shut down, including CSH. The Mahler family decided to have the service in their living room. They borrowed a Torah and siddurim from CSH and Rabbi Michael officiated. Nat’s paternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins attended and everyone else connected via Zoom, “which was a novelty back in the day!” Sara joked. For Kiddush, Jay’s parents brought bagels.

They were saddened that Sara’s family couldn’t travel from out of state, that the service could not be in the synagogue and that the evening celebration had to be cancelled. “At first I felt disappointed, but I soon realized that I had to rise to the occasion and do my best,” Nat said. Fortunately, he was able to have all his Bar Mitzvah lessons in person. “Studying for my big event went well and I was more than prepared thanks to my awesome tutor, Jan Brodie.”

For Sara and Jay, having an actual Torah in their house was very special, a flip side of Covid-19 restrictions. “Also, the service was very intimate, special and a unique experience that will stand out in everyone’s memory,” Sara said. “And, our cat Pepper was able to attend!”

At first, Jeremy Sorkin, whose spring Bar Mitzvah was postponed until October 11, 2020  was worried that he might have to learn a new parsha when his original date was moved. But when Rabbi Michael suggested he keep the original parsha as an importance part of maintaining the significance of his Bar Mitzvah, he was greatly relieved. Although it was difficult to continue his lessons virtually, his tutor Jan Brodie and Aunt Nancy Sorkin spent countless hours preparing him during the fall. “This gave me so much confidence for performing the service on my big day,” Jeremy said.


(L-R): Jeffrey, Amanda, Jeremy, and Amy Sorkin

When Jeremy’s parents, Amy and Jeffrey Sorkin, moved the original May 23, 2020 date to Columbus Day weekend, they never imagined they would be having a virtual Bar Mitzvah, but as the date approached, it became evident they would. In October, there was a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings, and their immediate family could be accommodated with friends and family watching from afar. Even with the technical challenges of shulcasting, Amy and Jeffrey were able to find a silver lining. “Our family was able to focus on what the true essence of a Bar Mitzvah celebration is- a very meaningful service conducted by Cantor Alty (Rabbi Michael was sick), a thought-provoking Dvar Torah by Jeremy and dancing the hora with our close family. It was truly a memorable experience for our family,” they said.


Hannah and Vivian (age 10) Schwartz

Two weeks later, on October 24,2020  Hannah Schwartz also celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at CSH with a small family group and more than 100 others watching on Zoom. The weekend included a Shabbat dinner in an indoor/outdoor setting, a hybrid service Saturday morning, a drive-by parade after the service for local friends, a boxed Kiddush lunch outside, a Saturday night festive dinner and Sunday brunch- and lots of careful quarantining, testing and masking for those participating in person.

For Hannah’s parents, Janna and George Schwartz, the biggest challenges were the unknowns every step of the way, and they are grateful to everyone at CSH who helped them navigate the unchartered waters. While they missed many people, they felt blessed to have been able to integrate many personal elements into the ceremony, from Hannah’s sister Vivian playing Siman Tov on the piano to her cousin’s receiving an in-person Aliyah to her grandparents presenting her with her tallis. “Jews have endured carrying on our traditions despite difficult circumstances throughout history. This was ours- and one to be cherished,” Janna said.

For Hannah, though, the virtual experience was disappointing. “Not everyone was there. It didn’t feel like a ‘normal’ Bat Mitzvah, but it was a special family gathering and we made the most of it,” she said.

Liora Ragozin, whose September 25, 2020 Bat Mitzvah also took place in the CSH sanctuary with many others watching and participating virtually, missed having her cousins with her, but said that because her family (including her parents, Rabbi Michael and Sarah Ragozin and siblings Noam and Aliza) and friendship circle are small, “it felt good to celebrate the way we did. My favorite part was giving my Dvar Torah. I enjoy public speaking – when it’s in English!” she added.

Jake Dubow initially felt let down that his December 12, 2020 Bar Mitzvah didn’t turn out as planned. “For my whole life, I had been talking with my family about a big Bar Mitzvah and party,” he said. Instead of the 400-guest in-person ceremony in the sanctuary, sleepover with all his camp friends and a celebration at Boston’s Hard Rock Café, he had a small service with 17 guests in an open-sided tent in his Swampscott yard without his paternal grandparents, who couldn’t make it from Canada and Florida. Even the clergy were zoomed in.


(L-R): Jonathan, Jake, Rachelle and Charlie Dubow

Jake had started studying with Jan Brodie before the pandemic and felt grateful for the in-person lessons prior to having to shift to virtual tutoring. “Studying was hard work, but I was very diligent. Although I was nervous, I was also excited to show off my hard work on my Bar Mitzvah day,” he said.

For his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, the vagaries of Covid-19 were even more daunting. Rachelle grew up with a mother who was (and still is) a professional event planner and a grandfather who was a kosher caterer, so celebrating simchas in a “big” way has always been in her blood. They had already shifted  gears, with plans to still celebrate on Jake’s actual Bar Mitzvah date (also Shabbat of Hannukah) at CSH with Rabbi Michael and Cantor Alty, but with only 17 live guests and the rest of their friends and family virtually. Then, on December 8, CSH indoor rules changed, prohibiting any gatherings in the building. The Dubows pivoted to the tent, hardly missing a beat.

The family Kiddush was shared on Zoom, with Jake and his younger brother, Charlie, leading the prayers, followed by an outdoor pop-up and drive-by for well-wishers. “We had music playing and an amazing vibe going, so despite being outside and masked, it felt like a slice of normal,” Rachelle said.

Her biggest challenge was missing her in-laws and sister and her family, but the many rewards softened that blow. Because of Zoom, many friends and relatives were able to join from Israel, France, Canada and the US. The Wednesday before the Bar Mitzvah, two Torahs arrived at their home. “Just having those scrolls in my home elevated us spiritually in a way that is hard to describe. But most of all, it was the pride, the immeasurable, indescribable pride we had in our son who had worked so hard and handled all the pivots and little disappointments with such grace,” she said.

Like his fellow Covid-19 Bnei Mitzvah celebrants, Ned Jefferies was at first disappointed that his January 9, 2021 would be on Zoom instead of in the sanctuary, and then he was doubly disappointed that instead of Zoom (where he could have seen those watching), there were so many guests that they had to use Zoom Webinar. “It was cool seeing everyone’s messages in chat, though,” he said.


(L-R): Jennifer Mazur (Cat’s mother), Cat, Tom, Sophie, Ned, Yelena Jefferies and Joe Mazur (Cat’s father)

For his parents, Cat and Tom Jefferies, the event was actually wonderful, with Tom’s family in England and their friends all over the world able to join them. “For many, this was the first Bar Mitzvah they had ever been to. We were really touched by how meaningful they found it and it felt wonderful to be able to share it with them,” Cat said.

Although Cat admits they were nervous about the technology, J.R. Young, Rabbi Michael, Cantor Alty and Barri Stein all advised them. Family members were able to Zoom in and read Torah, take Aliyahs and read prayers “from California to Canada to England – and it all went smoothly!” Cat said.

Kiddush was Ned’s favorite dish, pesto pasta cooked by his grandmother, Jennifer Mazur. The eight family members sat around the kitchen table and then ran out to do a Mitzvah drive-by at CSH.

Having the Torah in their home was very special and a highlight of the weekend and a true family event. They set it on a 19th century tablecloth that had travelled to the US with Cat’s grandmother, and placed one of Tom’s paintings behind it. “We could really feel the love of our family, friends and the congregation during this momentous occasion,” Cat said.

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.