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.

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.”

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.