JewishBoston.com: Four Questions with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

created at: 2011-05-09Last month, Rabbi Jill Jacobs became Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, an organization working to involve Rabbis in the United States and Canada in being moral voices in current human rights issues both at home and in Israel. Rabbi Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009) and Justice Shall Dwell There: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights, forthcoming in June 2011). She writes a regular column, “Public Judaism,” for the Forward, serves as a panelist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and blogs at the Huffington Post. She was Rabbi-in-Residence of Jewish Funds for Justice from 2005 to 2010, and Director of Education and Outreach at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs from 2003 to 2005. Rabbi Jacobs received rabbinical ordination and an MA in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter College, and a BA from Columbia University. She is an alumna of the Wexner Fellowship Program and spent the 2009-2010 academic year as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute. And perhaps most relevant to JewishBoston.com, she grew up in Framingham, MA.

What’s the origin of your passion for social justice?

My very first social justice campaign ever was when I was a junior in at Framingham High School, and my principal was quoted in the local newspaper saying there was no teen pregnancy problem in Framingham. I thought otherwise because I walked the halls of my school and saw pregnant teens. I did a little research, called Planned Parenthood, and found that Framingham had one of the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates in the US. We were one of the few schools in Massachusetts that had no sex education whatsoever, and I figured those two facts weren’t disconnected.

I started meeting with the school board about making sex ed and condoms available at our school. At the time, I had no idea that was connected to Judaism – that Jewish women had been involved in reproductive health battles for a long time.  I did notice that my parents were supportive and that my synagogue was supportive, so I knew there was something vaguely Jewish about it, but I couldn’t put it together. Only as an adult did I learn that Jews had been involved in reproductive health forever, and Jews had been involved in social justice work, and Jewish law includes thousands of pages on how we should behave in civil society.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Four Questions with Barry Shrage

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

created at: 2011-04-22Barry Shrage has served as president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) for over 20 years. We spoke with him just before Passover started to find out about how he celebrates with his family.

How does Passover happen in the Shrage household? Who does cleaning, cooking, set up, what are the steps there?

Well my wife does 85-95% of all the work. So I basically, my job is to take the cars to the car wash and make sure they are thoroughly vacuumed. This year, I’m supposed to be shampooing all the rugs, but I’ve never done that in the past. That’s going to have to be something I try to do this year. Also, I need to be there for the shopping — at least 2 shopping expeditions. We go to this crazy place called the Butcherie, in Brookline, and it is not a one person job. It’s a frightening place to be during the weeks before Pesach. And if you’re there like the Sunday before, you better get there at 7:30 in the morning because it’s a complete lunatic asylum. I’m talking about lines that run outside the doors and all that, so that would be something that I need to help with. And while I’m there I usually make a trip over to the Israel Book Store to figure out what new Haggadahs there are.

How do you prepare for leading the seder?

I try to write in new sources and figure out what we need to say and it depends on part on who’s going to be there, whether they’re all people who’ve had a lot of background. We’ve in recent years had a number of interfaith families who’ve joined us and for me, that’s an opportunity to join together the Christian story and the Jewish story. And help people to understand how deeply the Passover story intersected with the Christian story about Jesus and the crucifixion.  So I do that.

The ultimate message of the Bible in relation to Passover is entirely a message about feeling the pain of the oppressed and the stranger. It’s almost as if the whole experience of slavery was strictly to teach us what it means to be in pain and weak and have no one to take care of you. And it gets transformed through the story of the exodus from an individual idea into a group statement about justice and concern for the stranger. And yet there’s none of that in the Haggadah. You have to figure out, why is there none of that in the Haggadah. And the only thing you can say, since it’s so obvious what the Torah wants us to feel, and since it’s absent from the Haggadah, you know what, it’s probably that the Haggadah was written at a time when the oppression against the Jews was so deep that we could barely get out of our own misery to consider what the real meaning of this is. And that needs to be said some place.

You just celebrated the birth of your second grandchild. Mazel tov! How has being a grandparent changed your perspective on Passover and sharing the story with another generation?

It’s just been more fun. They’re both a little young to have much share with them. Noam is weeks old and Ayelet is 3 years old, but she’s very attracted I think to the party aspect of it. This will probably be the first time she’ll be asking the 4 questions at my house which will be very special. But I think for me, Judaism and the seder has always been about passing this tradition on to the next generation. So since I’ve had kids, it’s always been… you know, we didn’t make our own seder until we got to Boston 23 years ago. Before that, I was always going to my parents. And making the seder, it’s just so much more fun when you can craft it yourself, you’re not using the Maxwell house haggadah anymore, it’s a big step.

At the end of Passover, what’s the first thing you eat when you can eat bread again?

A bagel. A New York style frozen bagel which you get at the supermarket which toasts up really nice after Passover.

JewishBoston.com: Four Questions with Josh Ruboy of The Butcherie

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

created at: 2011-04-11Meet Josh Ruboy from The Butcherie. A member of the family who owns this Brookline institution, Josh has worked at the Harvard Street shop for twenty years. He’s a chef, overseeing the full-service catering arm of the business, with a hand in the prepared foods, the deli, and even the meat butchering in the back room. We chatted with Josh about Passover, the busiest time of year for The Butcherie.

Passover’s not here yet, but you’ve been surrounded by it for almost two months now. Are you sick of Passover before the holiday even happens?

You get used to it. We live it for seven weeks because we have to start producing matzah balls and knishes — we make everything by hand in our kitchens, and we need to supply everybody who comes to buy. It’s not just a quick in and out for us. We really start 10 – 12 weeks out with all of the foods coming in. We have to place our orders in December and January, and we start taking product in 8 – 10 weeks prior to the holiday.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Jewish Options for Recovery: An Interview with Jenny Levine

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

created at: 2010-12-28We’ve recently started featuring blogs about addiction treatment from a Jewish perspective, posted by Treatment4Addiction. The person behind those blog posts is Jenny Levine. Jenny grew up in the Boston area in the Jewish community. She is now living in California and working for Treatment4Addiction, and last week she spent some time chatting with us about the work she’s doing.

What is the work that you’re doing?
The website, Treatment4Addiction.com, is one of the world’s largest recovery resource databases.  We have listings of treatment centers, sober living, therapists, nutritionists, and outpatient programs throughout the country. We also have a database of thousands of blogs on substance abuse, drug information, mental disorders such as eating disorders, and behavioral addictions like gambling and love addiction.  We also have a blog that we update weekly on current issues regarding drug use, our personal stories, and related topics in the news.   Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: From Brookline to the Big Time: Eli “Paperboy” Reed Makes Major Label Debut

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

created at: 2010-08-25A number of years ago, I received an excited phone call from a friend. “You’ve got to hear this guy I just met,” she enthused. “He’s a little Jewish kid from Brookline who sings soul like the best of Motown.” She was talking about Eli “Paperboy” Reed, the baby-faced Bostonian who’s been one of Massachusetts’s best-kept musical secrets for years.

That’s finally starting to change, with the release of his first major-label album, Come and Get It!, which debuted from Capitol Records a couple of weeks ago. If you’re already a fan, you’ll be delighted to find exactly what you’ve come to expect from Eli and his band, the True Loves: exciting rhythm & blues music that bounces from explosive excitement to palpable yearning, backed by the best horn section this side of Blood, Sweat & Tears.  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Behind the Spandex: Secrets of the Superheroes

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate. I feel compelled to mention that I was not responsible for the headline or subhead. 

It’s a bird … It’s a plane … No, it’s comic book writer A. David Lewis

BOSTON – When over 8,000 people gathered at the Bayside Expo Center at the start of the month for Boston’s first WizardWorld comics and pop-culture convention, there was the expected smattering of fans dressed like their favorite superheroes waiting in long lines to snag an autograph from the likes of Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the “Superman” films) and Lou Ferrigno (TV’s ‘Incredible Hulk”). But tucked away in the back corner of the convention hall was a room devoted to a program called Wizard School, a series of classes offering aspiring writers and artists the chance to learn from industry professionals.

Most of the Wizard School classes centered on practical skills and technique. But Saturday night, the room was packed with fans for different kind of class. The session was entitled “Ever-Ending Battle: Superheroes and Mortality.” The brainchild of Allston resident A. David Lewis, the program brought together comic book pros to look at superheroes through the lens of thanatology, the study of death. Thanatology is still a relatively young area of inquiry, but two of its products have already permeated the culture: hospice care, and the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Lewis is quick to note that “it’s not a bad thing to be concerned about death.” However, he came to the project through comics first. “Over the last few years, I was finding it curious that all these characters were getting killed and brought back. I don’t have any agenda other than discussing it.”

While his research is at an early stage, he has amassed the support not only of convention organizers, but also of the Popular Culture Association, comics journalists, and comics writers and artists. However, he is not new to the field of comics research, having taught classes on comics at Georgetown University and presented papers at conferences on topics such as “The Relationship Between Biblical Midrash and Comic Retcon.”

Although he’s an academic by day, currently teaching at Northeastern University, Lewis has a secret identity of his own as a comic book writer. “I can never decide if I like writing or writing about them better,” he said.

Lewis’s latest project looks at a different kind of superhero: Moses. His graphic novel “Lone and Level Sands” retells the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt from the perspective of the Egyptians. “I had the idea a long time ago,” he said. “I went to Hebrew School [at Temple Beth Am in Framingham], had my bar mitzvah, but the first time I really gave it any thought was then the movie “Prince of Egypt” came out and I didn’t like it.”

The film’s account of Moses’s life didn’t mesh with Lewis’s memories of the Torah text, so he launched into a research project to find out what Egypt was really like during the time. “The challenge became how to make history and biblical myths live together.”

Lewis cites films about the Holocaust as well as modern American disasters as providing an important conceptual frameworks for him. “I didn’t want it to paint all Egyptians as evil,” he said. “I wanted to tell the full story, see their reaction to the plagues – not just being freaked out when frogs are falling. When everything is done, was there an emergency response plan to deal with the frogs on the ground?”

While Lewis deals with the details of the events, there’s one big detail he’s left up to the readers’ imaginations: “You certainly don’t see God [in the book]; there’s no guide with a beard, voice from the heaven, or hand pointing down,” he said.
He’s also left open to interpretation whether the Egyptian gods are present in the story. “A lot of characters are asking these questions,” he said. “I just never let them have an answer.”

The product is a 160-page story, illustrated by mpMann [yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the cover] that debuted in a black and white edition last April, published by the authors. It generated enough press and sales that Archadia Studios Press has picked it up for broad release. The publisher is now readying a full-color, hardcover edition for December.

“I would love for Hebrew Schools and Jewish groups to read and discuss this,” Lewis said. “But it’s not toeing the company line. It’s not evil Pharaoh and pious Moses. I would love to inspire dialogue.”

The Jewish Advocate: Old B&B record striking a chord with young Jews

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

Bagels and BongosA record cut more than 40 years ago in Boston is at the center of a new nonprofit organization’s efforts to grab the attention of young Jewish adults. “Bagels and Bongos” was a hit for the Irving Fields Trio in 1959; now, a group of community-minded individuals are hoping “Bagels and Bongos” will strike a chord with unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s.

The folks behind the record launch are Reboot Stereophonics, a division of Reboot, a nonprofit described by Jules Shell, one of its founders, as “starting an open space for conversation … about identity, about who we are.”

Fields is still active at age 90, playing six nights a week at Nino’s Tuscany in midtown Manhattan. Last week, he spoke with The Jewish Advocate by phone to reminisce about the Boston roots of “Bagels and Bongos.”  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Wiesel, fascinated with Jewish tales, still spinning them

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – For 31 years, Elie Wiesel has been sharing his “Fascination with Jewish Tales” with increasingly large audiences of his long-running lecture series by the same name. Next week, Wiesel kicks off Boston University’s annual three-lecture series with a talk entitled “Why Pray?”; it will be held at Metcalf Hall on the university’s Commonwealth Avenue campus.

“I love tales, I always have,” Wiesel told the Advocate in a telephone interview Monday. He credits the centrality of storytelling in his life to his early upbringing in the Hasidic world of Eastern Europe. “Hasidism is not only tales, but it’s also tales. No other religious movement concentrates so much on storytelling and tales as the Hasidic movement,” he said.

His love of storytelling is apparent even in a phone conersation, which continually veered onto tangents as new anecdotes sprang to Wiesel’s mind. Whether adding color to facts or imparting advice to a young reporter, Wiesel cannot help himself when a story comes to mind.

Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: New Brighton Rabbi Aims for Inclusiveness

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BRIGHTON – At first glance, Azriel Blumberg could easily be mistaken for a visiting yeshiva student. Yet in reality, this youthful man is the new rabbi of Congregation Kadimah Toras-Moshe, Brighton’s oldest Orthodox congregation.

This New York transplant takes on the leadership of the congregation from retiring Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, who served the community for 39 years. Kadimah Toras-Moshe is Blumberg’s second pulpit, following Young Israel in Eltingville, N.Y., on Staten Island.

He arrived last week with his wife Michal, a social worker, and his four children, ranging in ages from nine months to 5-1/2. On Monday, he welcomed The Jewish Advocate into his synagogue to share his enthusiastic vision for the future.

“I want to build a sense of energy, vitality and focus,” he said. “I’m very impressed by the precedents set by Rabbi Halbfinger. He set up a shul where he never made himself into the be-all/end-all of the community. He encouraged the participation of all.” Blumberg noted that the synagogue’s motto, coined by Halbfinger, is “all are welcome.” He aims to intensify the message into “all are important.”

“Each person is counted on to be a vital part of decision-making and vision: practical aspects of the day-to-day as well as long-term goals,” he said. “One of the best compliments I know is to say, ‘We need you.'”

The goals Blumberg has set out for himself and his community are broad. He looks to enlarge the community’s reputation as an Orthodox synagogue where all Jews can feel comfortable, regardless of their individual level of observance. He also looks to further strengthen the congregation’s relationship with other Jewish institutions in the community.

But it is clear that Blumberg’s most important goal, the one he keeps returning to, is deepening his members’ investment in their own community at Kadimah Toras-Moshe. “There is no typical demographic of who belongs here – from the very educated to the not very educated, people who speak only English, or only Yiddish, or only Russian, people who would identify as right wing, as left wing,” he said. “The great thing about the shul is it doesn’t matter. We’re all here for the same goal: to get closer to God.”

Blumberg has launched himself into this endeavor at full speed. Barely a week since his arrival, Blumberg is opening his home to the congregation’s teenagers to foster the establishment of a teen program. He acknowledges the existence of a strong children’s program, and in the same breath he talks about formalizing and enlarging it.

Far from ignoring the needs of his adult constituency, Blumberg speaks enthusiastically about offering spiritual learning programs along with enjoyable community-oriented events. “People will feel this is not just a place to come and daven, but a nucleus of the Jewish community,” he said. “We want to be involved in all aspects of their lives.”

Looking at the task ahead of him, Blumberg sees both challenges and opportunities. But at the center of it all, he sees the individuals that make up his congregation. Summing it up, he said, “As we go forward, I’m going to make sure we take everybody along with us.”

The Jewish Advocate: Rabbi retiring in Brighton shows no signs of quitting

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kadima-Toras Moshe in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, steps down this week from the position he has held for the last 39 years.

A New York native ordained at Yeshiva University, Halbfinger, 70, initially came to Massachusetts for his first pulpit in North Adams, in the western part of the state. After sojourns in Quebec City and Lawrence, Mass., the rabbi in the mid-1960s brought his family to Brighton where they have been ever since.

“I like Massachusetts,” Halbfinger told The Jewish Advocate on Tuesday. “As the children got older, we decided we wanted to come to the big city. My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Soloveichik, was in the Boston area, and I wanted to be close to him.”  Continue reading