The Jewish Advocate: Merger of two congregations brings new rabbi

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

ANDOVER – Congregation Beth Israel of the Merrimack Valley is in the midst of a renewal. Born of a merger of Congregation Tifereth Israel of Andover and Temple Beth El of Lowell, the combined congregation this week holds an annual meeting at which it will review a feasibility study for its proposed new building and welcome Daniel Schweber as its new rabbi.

The first quality one notices about Schweber is his youth. Having gone directly from the University of Michigan to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he was ordained in 2004. Following a one-year stint as an assistant rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., he has been named Beth Israel’s first full-time rabbi before he even turns 30.

While his wife’s professional needs have brought him to the Boston area – she is a doctor in residency at Tufts New England Medical Center – both Rabbi and Dr. Schweber are enthusiastic about the move to Andover. “The area is beautiful,” he said in an interview at the temple earlier this week. “The one thing I’m trying to convince people is that we’re not so far from Boston.”

In retrospect, Schweber’s career path appears to have been inevitable: “I could be a poster child of the Conservative movement,” he said. His youth included time at a Jewish day school, involvement in United Synagogue Youth and summers at Camp Ramah. “In USY, I wanted to share my love of prayer with my fellow USYers, make tefillah [prayer] accessible to them,” he recalled. “People started asking, ‘Are you going to be a rabbi?’ and that planted the seed.”

Schweber credits the Jewish community at the University of Michigan with providing him the opportunity to develop his leadership style. By his second semester of college, he was already leading the Conservative minyan on campus.

His leadership skills will likely be a major element of his tenure at Beth Israel, where the recent merger brings unique challenges to community-building. “There’s an energy and an eagerness to make this merger work,” said Schweber. “They’ve worked a lot already on community-building. We now need to create Beth Israel, while preserving the history and the memory of the other congregations.”

The congregation is already feeling the effects of Schweber’s enthusiasm, with its summer bulletin filled with articles and announcements about opportunities to meet the new rabbi. As one such announcement puts it, “He looks forward to getting to know each and every congregant!”

Schweber said he is “willing and wanting to reach out” to every part of the congregation, with programs such as a monthly Young Families Shabbat, incorporating prayer, food and Sabbath ritual, and a regular teaching slot at the congregation’s Midrasha (Hebrew high school) program.

“It is so important, as a rabbi, to be involved with the kids,” he said. “They need that connection.”

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The Jewish Advocate: Jewish vote seen as vital to ‘diversity’ of Boston politics

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – There was a time when the words “Jewish vote” in Boston conjured up a picture of residents of the city’s Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods, predominantly immigrants and their young, often large families, actively participating in their tightly knit Jewish community and, beyond its borders, in the wider secular world.

In multi-ethnic Boston of the mid-20th century, involvement by Jews in politics often took the form of successful runs for office and recognition by candidates of all religions of the importance of the Jewish vote.

The storied G&G Delicatessen on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester became a must-visit stop for political candidates on election eve. It stands at the intersection of the avenue with Ansell Road, named for well-known politico Julius Ansell.

But as the Jews of those Boston neighborhoods began their flight to the suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s, the landscape that was Jewish Boston changed. A half-century later, with the city approaching an electoral season this fall, candidates, rarely Jewish now, approach “the Jewish vote” far differently.  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Boston College to launch Jewish studies program

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

CHESTNUT HILL – In an unusual move for a Catholic university, Boston College is unveiling a Jewish studies program this fall.

Initially, students will be able to minor in Jewish studies by taking six courses in that curriculum during their time at B.C. What makes the Jewish studies minor unique is that classes will be offered from nine different departments, including English, fine arts, history, music, philosophy, romance languages, Slavic and eastern languages, sociology and theology.

“We were struck by the large number of Jewish faculty on the campus and the significant number of courses that had a fairly hefty Jewish content in them already,” said program co-director Dwayne E. Carpenter. “What we wanted to do is to organize these disparate courses into a cohesive program that would enable students to better take advantage of B.C.’s rich curricular offerings.”  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Community, egalitarianism making for new minyanim

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

CAMBRIDGE – From the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline to the Cambridge Minyan across the Charles River, young leaders are gathering their friends in apartments, social halls, and even leased synagogue chapels to create communities they are not finding in existing Jewish institutions.  There may be rabbis present, but not necessarily as leaders.

These are the new generation of lay-led congregations. While such groups come and go on a regular basis, particularly in a student-filled area like Boston and its surrounding communities, many of the groups in this latest generation of minyanim are planting roots to ensure long-term stability.

Minyan organizers cite two main attractions for their members: a particular approach to services and a community atmosphere.  Yehuda Kurtzer, of the Washington Square minyan, sees these aspects as intertwined.  His minyan, he said, strives to “create a positive social atmosphere with davening, not to obscure core values [of quality davening], but to complement that.”

Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Profs gather for program about teaching on Israel

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

WALTHAM — More than 20 professors from universities around the world recently gathered at Brandeis University to complete a two-week intensive study of Zionism and Israel, followed by a weeklong seminar in Israel.

Now in its second year, the Summer Institute for Israel Studies is intended to assist professors in the design of new courses for their curricula on Israel.

The institute was established by Brandeis in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee’s Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations to increase the quality and scope of Israel studies courses being offered on the campuses of universities throughout North America.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Frogz

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Children’s theatre that delights and inspires young audiences is a rare treat to be commended. Children’s theatre that also entertains, or better yet, engages adults is even rarer. Frogz, a production by the Imago Theatre currently being presented by the American Repertory Theatre, falls somewhere in between. The show is more an exploration of movement akin to Cirque du Soleil than a legitimate play, featuring a series of unconnected, wordless scenes set to music. Each scene involves actors in elaborate costumes, invoking everything from animals to inanimate objects through the sort of exercises typical to those used in acting classes. For example, the show opens with three frogs staring at the audience for an uncomfortably long time. Then, one frog moves its head in a rather frog-like way, and we are all expected to delight in the veracity of its froggishness. To the production’s credit, the children in the audience giggle and squeal with excitement, although at the performance I attended, the adults remained nonplussed.

While some scenes feel like overblown descendents of skits from The Muppet Show – think dancing accordions and floating, black-lit string creatures – the show does get more interesting as it progresses. A cowboy whose face has been replaced by a contraption that scrolls drawings to tell the story is entertaining, if occasionally a little off-color for children’s theatre. A troupe of sloths have some funny business stacking boxes. Penguins play musical chairs. If it all sounds rather simplistic, well, it is, but there is often charm in simplicity.

The five performers – Rex Jantze, Jonathan Godsey, Kyle Delamarter, Danielle Vermette, and Leah James Abel – all ably throw themselves into the proceedings, squeezing the most fun they can from the material. Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad, together credited with creation, design, and direction of the show, have put together a stylish evening, but one can’t help but wish there was a little substance to go with the style.

Imago Theatre’s Frogz, presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Zero Arrow Street Theatre in Cambridge, now through July 31. Curtain times are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Ticket prices are $50 for Friday and Saturday evening, and $40 for weeknights and matinees. Kids (under age 15) pay half price. Seniors, students, A.R.T. subscribers and members receive $10 off regular prices. Tickets for all performances can be ordered in advance through the A.R.T. Box Office by calling (617) 547-8300, by mail, or through the Internet at the A.R.T.’s website at www.amrep.org. Box office hours are noon to curtain time on performance days, noon to 5 p.m. on non-performance days, closed on Mondays.

The A.R.T.’s summer offerings will also include the return of the sold-out centerpiece of the A.R.T.’s recent South African Festival – Pamela Gien’sThe Syringa Tree, directed by Larry Moss, for a limited engagement July 15 – August 7 at the Loeb Drama Center.
Photo: Jerry Mouawad

The Jewish Advocate: Jewish camps crafting new strategies

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – Jewish camping has always been an element of the Jewish experience in New England in summer, but recently it has moved front and center on the field of the organized Jewish community.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping last year appointed a new president, Newton resident Jerry Silverman, a former executive at the Stride Rite shoe company, and is aiming to create an agenda around Jewish camping for all of North America. And this year, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies launched the Jewish Camping Initiative, a pilot program with the goal of making Jewish educational overnight camping a part of the synagogue culture by providing incentive grants for first-time campers. In Waltham, the Hornstein Program for Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University has added a class on the Jewish camping experience, combining a study of the history of Jewish camping in America with in-depth research into practical issues on the topic. Continue reading