Millennial Jews finding ways to connect on the North Shore

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

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shedding a Special Light on Hanukkah at the MFA

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Younger Generation Speaks Up for An Infrastructure of Hope in the Middle East

Last summer, Ohad Elhelo received a phone call while he was home in Israel after volunteering to serve in the Protective Edge military operation in Gaza. The Israeli-American Council invited him to address a Combined Jewish Philanthropies-sponsored August 14 “Stop the Terror” rally in support of Israel that was expected to draw 3,000 people in Boston. The 25-year-old Israeli Brandeis University economics and business major wasn’t sure he wanted to accept.

“I believe in delivering productive messages — those that have added value. To go on stage and tell people ‘You must support the IDF’ didn’t seem productive because those people already supported the IDF. That’s why they attended the rally,” he explained.

“I thought, ‘If I am going to speak at this event, I want to give my own message, which is more complicated.’” And more liberal.

Elhelo believes military means alone will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It must be paired with a joint Israeli- Palestinian- American effort to rebuild the broken social and economic foundation of Gaza.

He calls this an “infrastructure of hope.”

Elhelo delivered a powerful six-and-a-half minute speech at the rally that went viral almost immediately, reaching over two million viewers http://www.ohadelhelo. com/#!video-gallery/cw47.

“Every round of violence in Gaza weakens the moderates and empowers extremism.

We say Hamas does not want peace and we are right. But being right is not enough. To succeed, we must be smart,” he told the crowd.

“The terrorist infrastructure is not just Hamas. It is also poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, desperation and a lack of political horizon. It is up to all of us — Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Americans — to build an infrastructure of hope,” he said, summoning the thousands gathered to rise to the challenge of building this joint Israeli-Palestinian organization.

Hundreds of people waited to greet him offstage, many to tell him that they could relate to his words.

“I love Israel and there is no arguing that,” the IDF Special Forces veteran of three military operations said. “Even when I spoke about some sort of criticism for the Israeli government, people were supportive.”

After the rally, he realized he had been given an opportunity to pursue a unique trek.

Right after the Boston rally, Elhelo was interviewed by major TV stations and newspapers in Israel and the United States. He also received invitations to speak at such high-profile fundraising events as the International Lion of Judah Conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, where 1,400 top female contributors of the world donated $27.2 million, and the CJP Major Gifts event in Boston.

At those fundraisers, many people expressed their support for what he was saying. “I came with a message that is slightly different from what some of the peace organizations are doing,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t believe in the “kumbaya” approach of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to talk about their feelings. “That is basically asking them to do what we want instead of what they want.”

Nor does he think about the leaders when he thinks about role models who can carry a message of collaboration and coexistence. “The current leadership on both sides cannot get along. That is a fact,” he stated.

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Ohad Elhelo and Lidor Cohen served in the Golan Heights, in 2011.

“I think about the entrepreneurs, the students, the young professionals. This is where I want to focus. What do young people care about? What prevents them from working together?” he asked. The answer, Elhelo believes, was they lacked a platform that interested them, one that focused on business startups, entrepreneurship and networking, rather than “coexistence.”

“My message was pragmatic and I needed to pursue this idea with pragmatic people,” he said.

He met with business executives and senior politicians, enlisting them to use their talents, experience and resources to help a younger generation make their voices heard and their constructive energy felt in the region. Brandeis’s senior administration was the first to sign on.

Elhelo explained his idea of setting up a foundation to bring outstanding Palestinian and Israeli students to American campuses to develop their leadership skills and build their own ventures with the goal of developing a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian leadership that will share a powerful vision for a common future. President Lawrence was one of the first to sign on and the Brandeis venture was born.

The cost for the program of two cohorts is $5.4 million, of which Brandeis is committed to contributing $1.4 million. The planning stage is completed and fundraising is in full swing. Projected launch date is either Spring or Fall 2016.

The Board of Advisors and list of mentors includes leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the U.S.

Under the  program, ten Palestinian and ten Israeli students will come to Brandeis each year for a 15-month Masters program in public policy and business that will focus on negotiations, mediation and leadership skills. Each student will have a mentor who has agreed to participate, including American, Palestinian and Israeli business executives and politicians, including parliament members, heads of security services and senior business executives.

The students will propose and establish their own ventures, up to three per year, from Brandeis and then bring those ventures back to their communities in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Elhelo gave an example of how the program is meant to work.

“If you go to a Palestinian community and ask the students, ‘What do your people care about?’ sometimes the answers will be fascinating. They might tell you, ‘We don’t really mind about the Israeli army but in our village there are no light bulbs on the road and there are many car accidents and that bothers us,’” he said.

If one of the  student ventures were to equip that village with light bulbs, then the single  fellow who returned to his village would be bringing change that the community wanted and needed. “That fellow will be seen as a leader. He is a change agent,” Elhelo said.

In the meantime, the recipient of the prestigious Brandeis University Slifka scholarship is a change agent in his own right. “Collaborative ventures are the answer. They are cheaper than rockets and have greater implications in the long run,” he said.

Pictured at top: Ohad Elhelo addressed the CJP Major Gifts event last fall.