SWAMPSCOTT – You probably weren’t aware that there’s a free museum of North Shore Jewish history. What’s more, you probably have access to it right now – just reach into your pocket and grab your phone.
For the past 20 years, Jewish educator and Swampscott resident Rachel Jacobson has been uploading hundreds of videos of North Shore Jewish life to her YouTube channel. Simply type “Rachel Jacobson” into the YouTube search bar, and prepare for a stroll down memory lane, full of Jews of every age smiling, laughing, crying, singing, and dancing here and in Israel.
“Just click on the link, and you are there,” said Jacobson, who noted that she has hours and hours of tape she still hopes to upload. “It was my way of sharing our community with the people that live in this community.”
Jacobson got her first Sony camcorder in 1981, and began filming her family in Israel and America. “I always loved being behind the camera – I never liked being in movies myself,” she said. “I started practicing on my family in Israel, and my young children, and I found that fascinating, and I think I did look right there at the future, and said, ‘I need to document my children, for their children.’ And when I started teaching, I said the same thing.”
And she did exactly that. Jacobson has taught for the past 40 years at nearly every Hebrew school on the North Shore, and she decided that she wanted some sort of memento of each group she taught. Online, you’ll see all varieties of joyful Jewish education throughout the years from the North Shore Hebrew School: students dressed in pointy hats singing “La Kova Shelie Shalosh Pinot” in the Temple Israel social hall for Purim, 1992; two students quizzing each other on their Hebrew vocabulary in 1994, with occasional modifications and clues from an offscreen Jacobson; students singing to residents of the Jewish Rehabilitation Center in 1995; students haggling over erasers and bracelets at a virtual Israeli souk in 2001; Chabad of the North Shore students telling the story of Purim in Hebrew in 2002; Jacobson leading preschoolers in a chorus of “Hine Ma Tov,” the Hebrew song of friendship, in 2006.
Most of the people featured in the videos are delighted to bask in the nostalgia. “The reaction I get is, ‘Oh my goodness, I shared this with the whole group!’” she said. “And then, ‘Rachel, please, can you look through your library, if there’s anything you can find about me, any more movies?’ So I know there is excitement there.”
A cornerstone of Jacobson’s career has been educating people about and bringing people to her native Israel. On her channel, there are countless videos reflecting three categories of Israel excursions: imaginary trips taken by young Hebrew school students, who are so excited to discuss the details of their recent trip that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d actually been there. The second category is video compilations of the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel trips, which Jacobson joined from 1999 to 2009 (although in 2002 and 2003 the trips were to Eastern Europe because of terrorism concerns). The final category is adult tours of Israel, which include the Lappin Foundation’s Teachers to Israel trips, and Jacobson’s more recent Taste of Israel tours.
Jacobson says she loves nothing better than to experience people experiencing the land she so cherishes, and to help preserve those memories.
“This is my favorite part of taping videos, when I see people who have never been in Israel, experiencing for the first time the Kotel, and taking a photo touching the wall … and that face, and that expression in their face, will never come out of my head, and it’s there forever now,” she said. “And by documenting it, if those people don’t remember the excitement they go through, they miss one part of not seeing themselves, and Rachel comes to show them how they looked at that moment.”
Preserving history is one of the main reasons Jacobson always walks around with a camera. Many of her videos take place in spaces that no longer exist, like Temple Israel in Swampscott – which once hosted the now-defunct North Shore Hebrew School – and Temple Shalom in Salem. One video shows a large group of congregants transporting Torahs from the recently closed Temple Israel to Temple Beth El in 2005, when the Swampscott congregations merged into what is now Congregation Shirat Hayam.
Another shows the exact moment a bulldozer knocked down the last remnants of Temple Israel in Swampscott. Jacobson remembers seeing that fateful moment on the way to get coffee.
“Memories came to my mind about kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs, many years of teaching classes, and before you know it, I saw this big bulldozer take it down. It was a very sad moment, and I just watched in awe,” she said.
Jacobson recalled another video she wants to share, from the former temple in Salem.
“I have a service at Temple Shalom, a service with elderly – most of them are gone, but I videoed them at a really close shot of the members of Temple Shalom,” she said. “That’s very sad because Temple Shalom is also gone. I have to find out where that tape is and put it up.”