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

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The Jewish Advocate: Religious schools resurging as they launch initiatives, professionalize staff

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – Religious schools, once feared to be in decline in the face of the growth of the Jewish day school movement, are enjoying a resurgence through innovations in structure and initiatives intended to raise the level of teaching.

“It’s not by accident that the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world select a form of Jewish education related most directly to synagogues,” said Daniel Margolis, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Newton. “People are looking for places that provide them with a total context, a link among all of the avenues that a congregation provides to its membership, all wrapped up in one place.”

But the built-in constituency of being part of a “package deal” within a congregation does not mean religious schools are merely getting by. Today’s schools are centers of both learning and fun, with more innovation than parents might expect. A glance at the educational offerings at Jewish institutions in Greater Boston makes one fact clear: Hebrew schools have moved well beyond where they used to be and are exhibiting far more diversity than ever before.

The religious school at Congregation Mishkan Tefila of Chestnut Hill made a difficult decision three years ago, changing its long-held schedule of three days a week to a two-day schedule to better fit in with the busy lives of today’s children. Education Director Stephen R. Simons said he wanted to ensure that the content and quality of the instruction would not be diminished.

“Students still attend five and a half hours of academic learning,” he told The Jewish Advocate. He noted that they had six hours of instruction in the past, but it was often diluted with assemblies and other programs. Now, those programs are part of a burgeoning “Yom Hug,” or “club day,” an option available twice a month on Thursdays. Students choose from a range of activities, including Jewish arts, choir, klezmer band, student newspaper and even Jewish cooking.

At Temple Israel in Sharon, Evelyn Briar has seen a different trend, with her 10-hour-a-week intensive program expanding. “The numbers seem to be increasing in terms of the number of kids willing to make the kind of commitment the intensive program requires,” she said. “Our incoming fifth-grade intensive class will have 18 kids – over a third of the class!”

Briar sees benefits to the intensive program beyond the additional instruction. “Because the kids are together for ten hours a week, it creates a chevra, a sense of community,” she said. She also noted that her students in the intensive program continue their Jewish education in both formal and informal ways into high school and beyond in much higher percentages than other students do.

It is exactly that desire for continuation that led to a surprising move at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, where the congregation has moved its sixth and seventh grades into its high school Havayah (“experience”) program.

“We really wanted our b’nai mitzvah students to see sixth and seventh grade, and the whole b’nai mitzvah process, as the beginning of their education,” said Rachel Happel, Havayah director. “Last year, we moved our seventh grade into the Havayah program, with their own separate track. We had almost a 75 percent retention rate for this year from that group.”

One major source of so much innovation across schools in this region is the increasing professionalization of the schools’ faculties. Many school directors hold advanced degrees in education or Jewish studies, and more are seeking out teachers who hold certifications in teaching. However, most schools do not rest on their laurels once their teachers are hired.

“We’re seeing much more training of teachers inside the schools, making these schools a serious place to work,” noted Marion Gribetz, director of institutional and professional development at the Bureau of Jewish Education.

Kesher, a unique, independent Jewish educational after-school program with branches in Cambridge and Newton, is at the forefront of professional development for its teachers. Prior to the start of the school year, the schools this week held an eight-day staff orientation. The Jewish Advocate visited this year’s training at the midway point, joining a session led by Allison Cook, Kesher’s head of teacher development.

“Everyone is capable of developing as a teacher, and it’s an expectation for the sake of the students that we do,” said Cook. She also made clear to her teachers that professional development is distinct from curricular work, with professional development focusing on the teachers’ abilities and career growth.

Cook is a regular member of the Kesher staff, visiting classrooms year-round to observe the teaching. She has a dual responsibility of looking for emerging issues across classrooms, as well as analyzing individual teachers’ needs. “It’s more formative than evaluative,” she told the teachers. “I want to support you and help you become better teachers in an ongoing way.”

While other schools may not have a staff member devoted to professional development, many spend considerable time on “in-service learning,” paid working days set aside for professional development. At Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, teachers will participate in seven in-service days throughout the year, all focused on one overarching theme. Jennifer Rudin-Sable, director of congregational learning at Kehillath Israel, has committed funds to send her staff to professional conferences as well.

“Our staff has worked all summer, meeting regularly for five weeks, mapping our curriculum for the entire year and lesson-planning as a team,” said Rudin-Sable. “That’s key. People can bounce ideas off of one another and work together to really create meaningful experiences in the classroom.”

The Jewish Advocate: Guide to Jewish Boston

Each year, The Jewish Advocate publishes a directory of Jewish organizations, institutions, businesses, and services to be distributed as a supplement to the paper, hoping to entice those new to the city to subscribe. While most of the content doesn’t change much from year to year, there was an effort to keep the guide fresh by publishing new introductory essays to the various sections each year. This was my contribution to the 2005 guide. I believe it ran as the general introduction to the guide as a whole. In retrospect, it feels like a little bit of foreshadowing to the role I’d take on half a decade later at JewishBoston.com.

Welcome to Boston. If you’ve made it far enough to be holding a copy of this guide in your hands, you’re already off to a great start. Inside, you’ll find listings of all sorts of businesses, organizations, and institutions that will enrich your time here in the Bay State. And, just in case addresses and phone numbers aren’t your thing, we’ve included a handful of helpful essays to point you in the right direction and tell you a little bit about our home.

The first thing to understand about Boston is our rather unique approach to geography. While Boston is itself a city with clearly defined borders, to locals, “Boston” can describe anywhere from Providence, RI to Worcester, MA. When a college student tells you they “go to school in Boston,” they’re as likely to be speaking euphemistically about Harvard or MIT (both in Cambridge) as they are to be actually talking about Boston College (in Chestnut Hill – technically not Boston) or Boston University (in Allston, which technically, is Boston.) Each area of Boston – and of “Boston” – has its own unique character and something different to offer.  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Jewish arts thrive at summer camps

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NORTHWOOD, N.H. – Nearly 150 campers from seven area camps gathered at Camp Yavneh last week for the annual Jewish Arts Festival. The event, which rotates among participating camps each year, brought together performers from Yavneh, JCC Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, N.H., Camp Tevya in Brook-line, N.H., Camp Pembroke in Pembroke, Mass., Camp Tel Noar in Hampstead, N.H., and Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass.

The festival was founded in 1980, the brainchild of George Marcus, then the executive director of the Cohen Camps, and Charles Rotman and Paul Abrahamson of Camp Young Judaea. “We were talking in the off-season about how to motivate the Jewish part of our program,” remembered Marcus, “and this is what we came up with.”  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Camps to review hiring process following arrest

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

Jewish camps in New England are examining their hiring procedures following a recent incident at Camp Young Judaea. Although most camps operate background checks on all employees, at least one director stressed the importance of tightening up their hiring processes.

Last week, an employee of Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, N.H., appeared in district court on charges concerning pictures that he allegedly created by digitally altering nude photographs. The employee will appear before a grand jury in superior court later this month.  Continue reading

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.”

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