AUGUST 24, 2017 – Alison Brookes has lived on the North Shore and been a member of Temple Sinai in Marblehead since she arrived from England with her husband, Anthony Zietman, 30 years ago. Both are physicians at Mass General in Boston, and they live in Salem. Alison is an internist and Anthony is a radiation oncologist. Their family of four recently expanded to six: their daughter, Willow, married Sarah in February of this year, and their son, Jack, married Ilana in June. The children are a law student, a rabbi, a blacksmithing artist, and a puppeteer and children’s therapist.
One of Alison’s many passions is her connection to the Lynn Shelter Association, which cares for homeless individuals and families. For the past 17 years, she has volunteered at the association’s emergency shelter, organized fund-raisers, and most recently served as the president of LSA’s board of directors.
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How was it to grow up in a Jewish home in London?
My parents were born in Northern England before World War II. They were teenagers in the war. Their grandparents had been immigrants from Eastern Europe. My mother taught French and Spanish in public schools in London, but she was best known for a very dry sense of humor and an extraordinary ability to win general-knowledge quizzes. My father was a scientific researcher in the physiology of bones, and an embryology professor; but also a Classics scholar.
I grew up in North London in the ’60s and ’70s. Our family was – and still is – close-knit, providing an eccentric mix of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish life rhythms with liberal open-mindedness. Our home was noisy and crowded, and full of books. The main thing we did that defined us a family was to sing together, and to be absolutely terrible at sports. At our Orthodox shul, I sang in the choir and learned the Jewish liturgy, but the opportunity to be called to the Torah and to lead services was not available because I was a girl. I was educated at a rather “posh” English school in the center of London, where my sister and I were considered somewhat unusual and called “The Jewesses.” We were misfits in the Orthodox shul, and misfits at school, but within our family, we were quite ordinary.
When did you decide you wanted to become a doctor?
I knew when I was 7 that I would be a doctor and have never questioned it. I feel a sort of pleasant responsibility to make sure that people are healthy and well cared for. I would make a terrible nurse, but I do like making decisions and have always been very bossy but with extremely good intentions. I find most people to be fascinating and I like hearing their stories, and helping them to determine what is happening to them and what would be their best course of action.
I went to medical school in London at age 18, and was a doctor, married to my childhood sweetheart, by the age of 23. I interrupted my studies at the age of 20 and traveled solo around Africa for 6 months, and did quite a few other things over subsequent years that could be generally described as “exploring the world.” I am deeply grateful for those years of traveling, talking, listening, and attempting to understand what makes all of us human, because the reason I like being a doctor is to share episodes of life with people who are going through things, and you have to know and love people to do that well.
What made you move to the US?
When we were 26, Anthony was offered a job at Mass General in Boston. I came with him, and was thrilled to be able to live in Nahant, by the sea. I did a medical residency at Salem Hospital, for which I am truly grateful. I learned so much from the physicians and it is because of what they taught me that I feel that I really belong here in Massachusetts.
We joined Temple Sinai, in Marblehead, as a young couple and we are definitely part of the temple family. We eventually settled in Salem. I have never forgotten being a newcomer to this country, being welcomed and experiencing what it is like to be “foreign.” I think that is why I care about Lynn so much. It is one of the first places in which our own Jewish community settled when they arrived in America. As an immigrant myself, it makes sense to me, to help the people who come to our country nowadays.
How did you get involved with the homeless and the Lynn Shelter Association?
I was a volunteer on Temple Sinai’s Social Action Committee about 17 years ago. The Lynn Shelter Association has an emergency shelter for individuals who have no place to call home. That Christmas, there was no special meal planned, so we showed up with the Jewish version of a traditional Christmas meal, which was very well received by the shelter guests. It felt so good to spend Christmas Day with the guests, and hearing their stories that I never wanted to stop doing it. Since then I haven’t missed a Christmas Day at the shelter, and actually we go every Thanksgiving as well. I just kept falling more and more deeply in love with the whole idea of supporting the organization.
I produced a number of fund-raisers for LSA, but more recently I realized that I would probably be more useful if I applied some of my other experiences from my life practicing medicine. I had learned a lot from current colleagues at MGH, where there is a “street clinic” alongside the clinic in which I work, run by Boston’s Health Care for the Homeless Program. I could see some opportunities for a change in the way homeless people are served at LSA. I became president of the board two years ago.
What do you feel you’ve accomplished as president?
The biggest accomplishment is that I have made myself redundant! My physical presence is not needed much now because LSA has an excellent management team with clinically trained staff, providing state-of-the-art care conforming to Housing First principles. This means that LSA’s staff is trained to provide trauma-informed care. People are sheltered unconditionally and the mission is to provide not only shelter, but also professional assistance to all guests with an overall goal of housing. We are measuring “outcomes” as well as “output,” and we are seeing significant improvements in the rate of housing, especially in our three family shelters. These are the realizations of big dreams.
Are there homeless Jews in the area?
Of course. Anybody can have a catastrophe happening in their life. We have people of every imaginable national and cultural origin taking refuge in our shelters, and I have met many Jewish people who are experiencing homelessness both there and in the MGH clinic.
What about Temple Sinai in Marblehead?
I was given the opportunity to sing Shacharit [morning prayers] on Rosh Hashanah, which I’ve been doing for 8 years. So now, Temple Sinai has offered me the part of Judaism that I thought was lost to me. Standing on the bimah and singing with my heart and soul, sometimes in front of the ark, is something I never thought I would have the chance to do.
Now Temple Sinai has officially adopted the Lynn Shelter Association and we are doing more and more projects together. This year, Temple Sinai has agreed to host a photo exhibit by the homeless guests of Lynn Shelter Association. “Off The Grid” will be in the lobby at Temple Sinai during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Homeless people are just as talented and worthwhile as everybody else. This exhibit gives them a voice. I hope the Jewish community comes to see the photos, because they are truly moving.