Rabbi’s combating antisemitism by helping others discover their Jewish pride

On Jan. 6, an antisemetic incident occurred in the town of Swampscott near Redington Street and Forest Avenue where a swastika was spray painted on one of the sidewalks.

Six days later, the community rallied together at Linscott Park for a “No Place For Hate” rally, and at the forefront were two of the most prominent Jewish leaders in the town. Though the person responsible for the act attempted to create a rift in the community, Rabbi Michael Ragozin of the Congregation Shirat Hayam and Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore have dedicated their lives to bringing people together through their faith, and as a result, have combated antisemitism not with violence, or retaliation, but 

With anti semitic acts continuing to rise in the United States, having an incident occur in Swampscott brought the issue to a local level, and Ragozin said that any level of anti semitic act, even nonviolent, needs to be condemned. 

“I think rising antisemitism is a problem in our country. There are different forms of antisemitism which have different levels of impact for different people, but there’s no question that at the end of the day, the violent murder of Jews by antisemites happens. It’s a real issue that needs to be addressed.”

Ragozin grew up in Seattle in a home where his family celebrated Jewish holidays, but did not practice the faith regularly. He attended a Jewish preschool, and in middle school he read Exodus by Leon Uris, which led him to become a zionist. As he went through college, he realized his circle of friends were mostly Jewish, though like Ragozin, many were secular in their practices. He was proud to be Jewish, but realized that he did not know much about the faith, and decided that it was time to practice it fully. 

“From an early age I’ve had this sense of ‘Im Jewish and I’m proud to be Jewish,’” he said. “All of those things kind of culminated in my early 20s post college realizing ‘I’m really proud to be Jewish, but I Don’t know anything about it and I should do something about that.’”

From there, Ragozin learned the Hebrew Alphabet at age 25, studied with a Rabbi every Monday night, and then spent two years in Israel. 

Soon after, he became fully immersed in Jewish life and attended Rabbinical school in Virginia. After completing school, he began applying to Synagogues who were looking for Rabbi’s and found Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott after his initial search spanned only four cities. 

Ragozin has been at the synagogue since 2015 and enjoys the tight-knit community of the town. He has always had a passion for helping others, and that once again came out when local town officials and Jewish leaders came together for the rally.

While confronting antisemitism is something that Ragozin tries to do whenever he can, he realizes that he cannot devote all of his energy to it, but rather needs to focus on his teachings and helping others find their spiritual practices. 

However, he recognized that continuing to practice the Jewish faith and its teachings can be an indirect way of combating antisemitism. 

“I think that a lot of purpose behind spiritual practices is ‘How do I fully live as a human being and wear the pain that I observe and the suffering that I observe, and the fear and the angst that I might feel, but also then create space for the joy and the triumph, and the glory, and all the good things. I think for me a lot of the spiritual practice, particularly around Shibat, has to do with creating a life that allows us to continue to search for a meaning and purpose which, in some ways, helps us transcend the vagrancies and the challenges everyday living presents.”

Lipsker said that he couldn’t agree more with Ragozin’s statement. 

“I feel like teaching Judaism is itself the best answer to bigotry and hatred,” he said. 

Lipsker founded Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott in 1992 and has since expanded to Lynn, Peabody, and Everett. He grew up in Pennsylvania, but has had strong connections to the North Shore through Rabbinical school, and felt that the area, specifically Swampscott, was a place that needed a focus on helping individuals of the Jewish faith feel that they were a part of something bigger. 

“I felt that there was a real need for the kind of energy and an approach very much focused on the individual people as being the most important pieces of the wider picture.”

He gave an example of menorah lightings around the North Shore, which is something that Chabad of the North Shore started, and how it brings the Jewish community together in a way that promotes Jewish pride while also combating antisemitism in a non combative way.

“We have about 25 menorahs, one in pretty much every city or town on the North Shore. In particular, in the last few years, it’s grown. This year, we had an increase in the towns that wanted to have their own menorah and the gatherings themselves. All of those places together, close to 3,000 people came out to participate. In each place, there was an added layer of being cognisant of the need to address and send a clear message that antisemitism won’t be tolerated.” 

Last month, the town declared January as antisemitism awareness month, which added to a community that had already had a longstanding support of Judaism. Ragozin hopes that declaration continues to advance the conversation on antisemitism, starting in the classroom.

“It should create a priority for the school to ratchet up its holocaust education. It’s been proven that holocaust education is not just about antisemitism it’s been proven that holocaust education helps people develop a better awareness of other minorities and the importance of not being a bystander but an upstander. I think we should be seeing in the Swampscott schools an elevation of that type of education, which I think will create a better citizenry within the people who grew up in this town and hopefully have ramifications in a larger sphere.”

Whether it’s through education, or community menorah lightings, Ragozin and Lipsker continue to not only preserve their faith, but use it as a way to push antisemitism out of their community by helping others discover and be prideful of their Jewish identity.