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.

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.

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.