Walnut Street Shul Preserves the Future

Rabbi Kagedan proudly stands at the Walnut Street Synagogue bimah.

Unbeknown to the ten Chelsea families who founded the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Shalom in 1897, they had erected their synagogue in a city that in their lifetimes would become home to the largest percentage of Jews of any other city in the United States except New York.

 

In 1890, 82 Jews lived in Chelsea; by 1910, that number swelled to 11,000, one of every three residents. By 1930, almost half of Chelsea was Jewish, earning it the moniker, “Yerushalayim d’America.” If it seemed like there was a synagogue on almost every corner, that’s because there was: in its 1.8 square miles, Chelsea housed 18 synagogues.

 

When tragedy struck and the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 reduced most of the city, including Agudath Shalom, to ashes, the shul’s immigrant founders were undaunted. They rolled up their sleeves and in 1909 rebuilt the synagogue on Walnut Street, which inspired the new building’s nickname, the Walnut Street Shul.

 

Designed by architect Harry Justin Joll, the magnificent building boasts ceiling frescoes painted by immigrant artists and an awe-inspiring ark by Sam Katz, the renowned master woodworker from the Ukraine who made Chelsea his home in the 1920’s.

 

Fast forward to 2017, and most everything about Chelsea has changed.

 

Gone are the kosher butchers, bakeries and religious and cultural institutions. Yiddish and Hebrew have been replaced by the mother tongues of recent immigrants from Central America, Asia, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. According to the most recent Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies survey, Chelsea’s Jewish population has shrunk to statistical insignificance.

 

Of the 18 synagogues, two remain: Temple Emmanuel and the Walnut Street Synagogue.

 

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The Walnut Street Synagogues’s congregants are determined to revitalize their synagogue and, while they’re at it, to blaze a new trail for Orthodox Judaism. Last September, they hired Rabbi Lila Kagedan, the first female clergy member in the United States to preside in an Orthodox synagogue using the title “Rabbi.”

 

Within the world of Orthodox Jewry, this is a big deal.

 

Rabbi Kagedan attended Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s religious training program founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the Bronx, New York. Because rabbi is a masculine word, Rabbi Weiss allows his graduates to adopt whatever title they want.

 

Some choose rabba (a feminized version of rabbi) or maharat (a Hebrew acronym Rabbi Weiss invented that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality and religious law). When Rabbi Kagedan and her two female classmates graduated in 2015, she alone chose the title rabbi.

 

“It was the title that most accurately described the work that I trained to do. Like calling a doctor ‘Doctor,’” she said. “People did try to discourage me because it hasn’t been a typical choice in Orthodoxy, but I always wanted to serve the community and use my training and knowledge to support the Jewish community with pastoral and halachik needs.”

 

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which represents over a thousand Orthodox rabbis across the United States, saw the matter differently. It adopted a policy in the fall after Rabbi Kagedan’s graduation prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.

 

 

“Should it be allowed? Who’s going to make it illegal?” asked Jonathan Sarna, the prominent author, historian and Brandeis University professor who has written extensively about American Judaism. “In America, the congregants make their own decisions. We don’t have a Chief Rabbi. We don’t have a Ministry of Religion. Every congregation is, in a sense, a law unto itself,” he said by phone from Jerusalem.

 

None of these religious politics mattered to Board Secretary Richard Zabot, whose grandparents arrived in Chelsea in 1905 from Russia and helped found the Walnut Street Synagogue. In Rabbi Kagedan, he saw a perfect fit. “She showed a willingness to work with the unknown in order to achieve our goal: the rejuvenation of our synagogue,” he said.

 

Fellow Board member Eddie Medros, who grew up in Chelsea in the 1950s and attended the Elm Street Synagogue, agrees. “She is infectious with her drive and enthusiasm. She brings warmth, passion, inclusiveness and a love of Judaism,” he said, noting she has already reached out to the local community in a meaningful way.

 

The attraction was mutual. “The shul presents a challenge, which I am always up for. I also feel committed to keeping a shul that has existed for so many years going. Continuity is powerful,” she said.

 

Devra Zabot, Richard’s daughter and events chair of the shul’s museum, described the extensive vetting process Rabbi Kagedan received before the synagogue board offered the ultimate vote of confidence. “Given that the board members are all over the age of 70 and mostly male, this was a heavily discussed decision,” she said.

 

In the ten months she has been at the spiritual helm, Rabbi Kagedan has been busy learning the ropes and making connections with the greater Jewish and local Chelsea communities. Almost immediately upon arrival, she led the High Holiday services and organized a Chanukah celebration with a klezmer band that attracted over 150 people, including Zahava Stern, a new young member.

 

“I met a lot of people who grew up in Chelsea and were bar or bat mitzvah-ed in this shul, but have since moved out to Sharon or Brookline. They were so excited to come back and see an active community in a place they hold so dear to their heart,” she said.

 

Stern also noted that Chelsea’s location attracts families from the North Shore, East Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. “It’s a secret gem right in the middle of the action,” she said.

 

The Walnut Street Synagogue offers monthly Shabbat and holiday services, classes on a variety of Jewish topics and holidays, and pastoral counseling and services. Rabbi Kagedan is the founding member of the Chelsea Interfaith Council and has met with the City Manager and other non-profit organizations about partnerships and integrating the shul with the Chelsea community.

 

The shul is supported by its board and members and by the Chelsea community at large, including citizens, city councilors and non-profit organizations. There are 120 members, and it operates as a fully Orthodox shul, with a mechitza on Shabbat and during high holidays services. The Jewish Chelsea Home generously opens its doors to the Rabbi and her family and guests to stay over on Shabbat.

 

Somehow, Rabbi Kagedan also finds time to serve on several professional and religious boards. “My peers have been largely supportive and open. Once people meet me and get to know me and see or experience the work I am doing, there is less anxiety and hype about being a woman Orthodox rabbi and people see me as just simply an Orthodox rabbi,” she said.

 

For now, Chelsea and the Walnut Street Synagogue are her prime focus. “Chelsea was at one time a real center of Jewish life in the region. My priority is to get Chelsea back on the radar of Jews in Massachusetts and to let people know the Walnut Street Synagogue is operational,” she said.

 

This is music to Richard Zabot’s ears. He remembers as a child when all 1,109 seats would be occupied during the High Holidays. “The shul hasn’t lost any of its charm or awe. We’re inviting 900 new people to join us this Yom Tov and be part of the preservation of the future,” he said.

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Bringing It Home: PJ Library Takes Parents to Israel

 

 

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Sara Weisman of Beverly, at center with white hat, took part in the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I). Photo courtesy of the Lappin Foundation.

Last May 11, on Yom Ha’azmaut (Israel Independence Day), Debbie Coltin was reading a story to a group of children and their parents as part of the PJ Library program when a little girl turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, does Israel really look like that?”

 

The mom, who had never been to Israel, panicked and made eye contact with Coltin, the Lappin Foundation Executive Director.

 

“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got to get these parents to Israel,’” she said. And get them to Israel she did, with the creation of the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I).

 

“We get the teens excited about Israel [with Y2I, the Lappin Foundation teen trip to Israel], but this hits a different generation. If we didn’t organize it, when would they go? Our dream is to have this missed generation of young parents who didn’t do birthright, who are busy professionals, go to Israel,” she said.

 

Less than a year later, from April 25 through May 4, Coltin led the first PJLP2I trip with 29 participants, including ten interfaith families. The subsidized trip was open to PJ Library parents of all faiths who live in the Lappin Foundation’s service area and who had never been to Israel.

 

PJ Library is a Jewish family engagement program that focuses on the bond created between children and parents during story time right before bed. Jewish children ages six months to eight years old are eligible to receive a free Jewish book and CD-of-the-month. The Lappin Foundation partners with Cohen Hillel Academy as local funders of the international program created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

 

The PJLP2I’s immediate goal is straightforward: to educate and empower parents to speak about Israel to their children from first-hand experience. According to Coltin, the bigger picture is to create ambassadors and advocates in the community for Israel.

 

“That generation is all about social media,” she said referring to the many participants who posted daily pictures during their trip. “Their friends and parents of other kids were already commenting on their postings. So it works,” she said.

 

Participants were from three distinct geographic areas — Newburyport, Marblehead/Swampscott and Beverly/Peabody. They and their families had three opportunities to meet prior to the trip. “It was a specular community building and growth experience,” Coltin said.

 

Sara Weisman, a Beverly mom and member of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, was very skeptical of Israel and hesitant to take the trip. She returned “totally blown away by the experience” with plans to return.

 

“This trip changed my impression of Israel completely. In some sense, I didn’t learn anything new, but I gained insight that can’t be learned at a distance or read in a book about the value of having a Jewish nation. What happens in Israel feels very personal in a way it didn’t before,” she said.

 

Al Pica from Swampscott is father of two young children and a member of Temple Emmanuel in Marblehead. He was most surprised by the unwavering patriotism among all Israeli people — Christians and Arab Israelis as well as Jewish Israelis — and how that differed from his preconceptions. He left the U.S. as an ambassador to Israel, but returned home “with a sense of duty to do even more — spread the good word, clear up myths and misconceptions about Israel, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, etc.,” he said.

 

The trip affected both Weisman and Pica as parents. “I had previously been to other Holocaust museums, but a tour through Yad Vashem, and in particular the Children’s Memorial, had a tremendous impact on me as a parent of Jewish children,” Pica said.

 

Weisman feels she now understands Biblical history a lot better after visiting places where some Biblical events took place. “The mental scale I had of cities, distances, landscapes and so on wasn’t connected to physical places before. I want to share this with my children, as well as a sense of pride in the modern nation of Israel,” she said.

 

Coltin was most impressed by the sacrifices many had to make to participate. “Look at the demographics we were appealing to. One mom had four little kids. That’s brave, right?” she said.

 

She is delighted with the parents’ post-trip evaluation comments, especially the number who said the trip was “life changing” and “eye opening”. “The goal was to bring it home and instill it in your kids. I’m sure those conversations will take place,” she said.

 

 

 

 

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.

Opening the Door to Jewish Spirituality

For over half a century Rabbi Arthur Green has taught Jewish mysticism, Hasidism and theology. He recently noticed a new trend. “Young people are asking a question that was never asked in my generation. They are asking, ‘Why be Jewish?’” said Green, who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Brandeis University and Hebrew College.

To answer that question, the preeminent authority on Jewish thought and spirituality and author of more than a dozen books wrote “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide to Seekers.”

“I write for people who think they don’t have a home in Judaism,” Green said. “I want to show them that they do, that there is something interesting and spiritually fascinating and attractive about this tradition.”

The 100-page pocket-book reveals Rabbi Green’s personal understanding of Jewish tradition, based on his experiences teaching, studying and translating sacred texts. Ten chapters address the core tenets of Jewish life, such as simcha (joy), tikkun olam (repair the world) and Talmud (education) in a style that combines warmth and humor with practical applications for contemporary life. “Shabbat — Getting Off the Treadmill,” for example, offers ten pathways toward a new Shabbat with five “to do’s” and five “not to do’s.”

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“In this day of freer choices of identity, I want to show people that Judaism is an important tradition that still has something to say to the world.

I believe we have things to teach the world and that the best years of this tradition are ahead of us, not behind us. I’m an advocate, and that’s what this book is about,” said Green.

At Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School, which he founded in 2004 and where he is Rector, ten percent of the rabbinical students are converts to Judaism. “These Jews by choice are among the most serious and dedicated future rabbis we have,” said Green. “One part of the audience for this book is people who are considering conversion to Judaism.”

Green believes in opening the gate to Judaism and welcoming people who are seeking a spiritual path, whether they are Jewish or non-Jews. “This book is a door-opener,” explained Green.

In the course of his teaching and lecturing, he also met people who told him they didn’t believe in God but somehow believed in a soul and wanted to have an inner life. “They thought they had no home in the Jewish community because they didn’t believe in God. They found themselves attracted to spirituality through one Eastern teaching or another because Eastern teachers didn’t say, ‘You have to believe first.’ These too are precisely the people I am writing to,” said Green.

Although raised in a nonobservant home (“my father was a militant atheist,” he has said), Green found himself drawn to spiritual language after he read “God in Search of Man” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as a high school senior. When he was 16 and a freshman at Brandeis University, he became interested in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism which originated in Hasidic Judaism) after he heard Zalman Schachter, a leading Hasidic Rabbi, Kabbalist and founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, speak at a campus event. “He impressed me tremendously,” Green said.

Green eventually founded Havurat Shalom, an egalitarian Jewish community in Somerville in 1968, and remains a leading independent figure in the Jewish Renewal Movement.

Although Green no longer teaches at Brandeis University, his connection to the institution spanned many generations. He attended as an undergraduate (B.A. 1961) and graduate student (Ph.D. 1975), and taught there from 1994 until 2004. He thinks of Brandeis as engaged in a continued struggle with its Jewish identity. “Brandeis positions itself as an American university. In its very short history, it has achieved a remarkable reputation as a leading American university, but with one difference: most of its support comes from the Jewish community. Does that make it in any sense a Jewish institution, and what might that mean?” he questioned. This is a question, he said, that Brandeis has struggled with throughout its history.

Despite Green’s busy teaching, writing and lecturing schedule, he does make free time for himself. “I have a mystery life as an antique collector of early American glass,” he confided. “There’s a group of people out there who only know me as Art Green, the glass guy from Boston. They have no idea that I do anything else. I’m happy to have a second identity. I treasure that.”