Rabbi Michael Ragozin was born and raised in Seattle. He met his wife, Sarah Plymate, of Tacoma, Wash., in 2002, and they were married in 2004. The couple has three children: Liora, 13, Noam, 11, and Aleza, 2. Rabbi Ragozin attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was ordained as a rabbi in 2008. He first served as a rabbi at Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Va. For the past six years, Rabbi Ragozin has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. He lives in town with his family.
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up and your family background?
I was raised in a wonderful secular Jewish family in Seattle. Judaism was present and positive, but in a limited way. My family did not belong to a synagogue, I did not attend Hebrew school, nor did I celebrate becoming a Bar Mitzvah. My formative Jewish experiences included celebrating holidays [Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover], attending the JCC preschool, reading Leon Uris’ “Exodus” [which made me a Zionist], and watching Holocaust films. Together, these childhood experiences shaped my Jewish identity and bound our family together.
Sports were a major part of my childhood. I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and ran track in the spring, until my mother let me play Little League baseball in sixth grade. In high school, I focused solely on soccer. I was a goalkeeper, winning a state championship on my club team and stopping the final penalty kick in a shootout to advance my high school team to the state championship.
My family’s Jewish practice meant missing school and sports games on the High Holy Days. This made a strong impression on me. While I didn’t enjoy it when I was a child, looking back, that “sacrifice” was critical to my Jewish identity formation. It helped me affirm my uniqueness.
You were an algebra teacher before you became a rabbi. Are there similarities between math and Judaism, and have you always liked to teach?
After college, I entered Teach For America and taught high school algebra in Baltimore. That experience opened my eyes to others’ experiences. Ninety-eight percent of the students were Black. Seventy percent were on free or reduced lunch. Only one in five would graduate from high school. It was heartbreaking to know that so many of my students’ life opportunities would be negatively impacted by the environment into which they were born.
You also lived in Jerusalem. How was that experience?
In my 20s, I became aware that I was very proud to be Jewish, but I knew nothing about Judaism. I began going to shul. I learned Hebrew. I took a class with the rabbi. I loved all of it, but I didn’t know much more about Judaism.
I had no idea that I could go study in Israel, until a friend told me about the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. At age 27, I quit my job as a technology consultant, and boarded a plane for Israel.
The experience of living in Jerusalem and studying Torah at Pardes from 2000 to 2002 transformed my life. I highly recommend that every 20-something study at Pardes. I discovered worlds of meaning and purpose through that experience. I loved learning Torah and gaining the skillset to access the Jewish bookshelf in its original language. I loved Shabbat – the prayers, meals, singing, conversation, and friendship.
What made you want to become a rabbi?
Leaving Pardes, I didn’t want to work in the Jewish community. I loved learning Torah and Shabbat, but I wasn’t comfortable with God and mitzvot. On the flight back to Seattle, I met Rivy Kletenik, whom I knew was one of the best Jewish educators in Seattle. Before the plane landed, I had accepted her offer to be her assistant at the Hebrew High School.
Back in Seattle, I missed the vibrancy of Friday night prayers and Shabbat dinners, so I started Our Minyan, a Friday night Shabbat experience for 20- and 30-somethings. I formed a hevruta [Talmudic study pair] with Jeff Alhadeff. Through our study of Sefer Shemot [Exodus], I developed a new understanding of God and mitzvot. Finally, I wanted to pursue a career in non-profit management, so I sought a fundraising position. The only organization willing to take a chance on me was the Seattle Jewish Film Festival.
After six months in Seattle, everything I was doing was Jewish. Realizing my love for the Jewish people, for Torah, and for Judaism, I decided that I should combine the professionalism of technology consulting with my passion for serving people. But this time I would serve my people and become a rabbi.
Your synagogue, Congregation Shirat Hayam, is on the ocean and means “Song of the Sea” in Hebrew. Is the ocean a big part of the spirituality at the temple?
Pre-COVID, I would stop at Phillips Beach and gaze at the ocean on my Shabbat walk to shul. The ocean is always changing. It can be calm or stormy. It can glisten in the morning light or appear dark and murky. The waves crash with consistency. It’s a vast expanse with foreign lands on the other side. Whatever the ocean showed me became a part of the service that morning.
What’s the most rewarding part of being a rabbi?
There are so many blessings to being a congregational rabbi. One that stands out is simply that people let me into their lives. I feel such honor and gratitude for the relationships this role has given me. It’s not just life cycle moments [births, b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and death], but even a simple phone call can open into a conversation of meaning and depth. That, to me, is what makes this profession truly holy.
This has been a challenging year for all because of COVID. It has upended so much of traditional synagogue life – from communal prayer to Hebrew school to burying our dead. As a rabbi, what are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face this year and how have you dealt with them?
What I hear time and time again from my congregants is that the quality of services and programs is important, but what matters most is the people. It’s been incredibly challenging to maintain the meaning that participation in a spiritual community offers. As good as our services are, the interpersonal connections are limited online. Yes, we’ve called our members, some multiple times, but the enrichment that comes through community is significantly diminished.
What’s energized me is the incredible work of the Shirat Hayam community during this ordeal. For example, Shir Chesed has been caring for bereaved members, those returning from the hospital, and those who are single. Others have been dedicated participants, showing up for each other, at daily minyan, Friday night, and Shabbat morning. For the first time, we had a High Holy Days committee, comprised primarily of lay people, who offered ideas that transformed our High Holy Days. Kudos to Cantor Alty [Weinreb] for recording incredible videos. Our staff, as well as our board, has worked very hard to maintain Jewish life during the pandemic.
I could offer more examples, but the point is this: COVID has challenged our essence, to be a thriving spiritual community. Our response was found in the sheer determination of people who valued the Shirat Hayam community pre-pandemic and were willing to work even harder to maintain it in this time of isolation.
What’s your message to congregants and fellow Jews who have been isolated during this time?
One prayer that I turn to in moments of hardship is a verse from Hallel [Psalms 113–118]:
מִן־הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ
Min hameitzar karati Yah, anani vamerhav Yah.
From the straits I called to Yah
Yah answered me with wide-open space (Psalm 118:5)
A strait is “a narrow passage of water connecting two seas or two other large areas of water.” So, the verse is about being in a state of confinement [i.e. COVID-19], yet the very existence of the strait necessitates an expanse of water nearby, suggesting hope. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for straits, meitzar, is related to Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, implying that ancient Egypt – where we were slaves – was a place of confinement and narrowness.
For me, this verse acknowledges feelings of pain, being trapped, and hopelessness. Consumed by those feelings, all we can do is cry out, cry out to God.
The end of the verse offers uplift, which I interpret in two ways. First, our cry may have been answered and we have been transformed from feeling confinement and constriction to feeling openness and expansiveness. Second, even if the condition of our suffering hasn’t yet changed, maybe the answer is simply achieving a new perspective. We can find deliverance by viewing our lives from a perspective of expansiveness, rather than confinement.
Shirat Hayam has a Renewal Minyan and a Traditional Minyan on Shabbat. It also incorporates live music into its prayer. How important is music in Jewish prayer?
For my community, music is very important. Particularly, with Hebrew prayers, where the language itself is unknown to many, music offers a prayer language that people understand. Melody, tone, timbre, and rhythm do not entertain the worshipper, but rather they allow us to access the depth of our soul and from that place of inner authenticity and realness connect with the Divine.
When you’re not in synagogue, how do you like to best spend your time?
I love being in nature. We, here on the North Shore, live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We have the beach, the ocean, and many hikes nearby. Most of all, I enjoy backpacking and recently discovered the White Mountains. This summer, I plan to take my son Noam on his first backpacking trip and to complete the Pemi Loop with my daughter, Liora.