Author: Jeremy Burton

Childhood Books that Shaped Me

Moments of serendipity have been all too rare this year – yet I had one this week when I connected with a dear and trusted colleague, a faith leader in the Christian clergy, after a meeting. Our discussion led to an exchange about representations of God in science fiction. That’s an essay for another day. But, it did get me thinking about some of the books I read growing up (I’ve always been a huge Sci-Fi fan). Having recently shared what is currently on my night table, I thought I would take you on a journey back in time to some of the literature that shaped my youth and continues to influence me today.

Mild spoilers (of forty-plus year-old novels) ahead:

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To this day, I carry a vivid memory of a flight I took across the country to visit my grandparents in the late 1970’s, during which I first read Sylvia Engdahl’s This Star Shall Abide. The main character, Noren, comes of age in an agrarian medieval society – with a twist. In this civilization, there is a sacred technology, restricted to the use of a priestly class of “scholars” and “technicians”. The book’s faith system places all sorts of restrictions on day-to-day life. For example, citizens are forbidden from drinking water that hasn’t been properly blessed by technicians, and there are warnings of dire consequences for even the smallest sin against these mandates.

Noren becomes a heretic, on the run and hunted by the scholars. During his journey, he learns about the origins of his faith, its texts, and the rituals. I won’t give away the ending, but behind the sacred memories that have been transmitted through generations, Noren finds that while the faith as taught may not be entirely literal, there is purpose within the texts, a purpose that provides meaning and relevance, even for a heretic like him.

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I first read another book, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, while in high school (and it was most certainly not on my yeshiva syllabus). It is the story of a not-too-distant future America where the Nineteenth Amendment has been repealed and women have no civil rights. It has similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in this world, some women, from very select families, are allowed to work as translators in human-alien commerce and diplomacy.

Nazareth, the protagonist, is a talented translator who understands that the language we use shapes how we perceive the world around us (think, for example, of how we assign gender to objects and how an object’s gender changes depending on the language we use). In Nazareth’s world, a language created by women has the potential to be a vehicle of their liberation by revolutionizing the perceptions of a future generation of native speakers.

These novels have stayed with me, and I revisit them every few years. There are ideas here that have shaped me, and have found their way into my work and writing over the years:

  1. Faith can transmit deep truths without having to be literal. When we engage with both facts and stories, we find deeper meaning in each of them. We can interrogate truths without rejecting them. The boundaries between questioning and heresy, and between faithfulness and rejection, are neither simple nor fixed.
  2. Perceptions are informed by the languages we use and the metaphors we place in them. To translate something is to change our perception of it, and by extension our understanding of the world it connects to (for example I’ve written about what gets lost when we translate the Jewish understanding of the Ger to the Christian concept of the “convert”).
  3. To be open to the perceptions and stories of others, is to be able to see versions of the world that are no less true than our own. To apply meaning to someone else’s words, without first comprehending their understanding of those words, is to miss the truth of what they are saying.

These are just two of the hundreds of books I read in my youth that I continue to think about and that inform who I am. As I let my mind wander back to these memories, I am struck by the value and importance of children’s literacy. By teaching a child to read, one contributes powerfully to their future. I wouldn’t be who I am if my parents and teachers hadn’t nourished this skill and passion in me.

It is why we at JCRC are so committed to bolstering literacy in Boston area public schools and why, even during COVID, even with a loss of serendipity, the volunteers of the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy have continued to tutor across the region, supporting the next generation of students who will look back on the books of their youth and tell those stories. It is work that I am proud of, and I was reminded of that pride this week.

P.S. Please share with me your stories and memories of the books you read in your youth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

What Duxbury Needs to Teach Us

Like so many of my generation of Jewish-Americans, I grew up with Holocaust survivors as a part of the fabric of my daily life. Both of my step-parents were hidden children. I had classmates whose parents had survived as teen slave-laborers in death camps. The twin sister of a leader in our synagogue endured horrific medical experiments at the hands of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor.

All these people have been on my mind in recent weeks, as the light of day has shined on long-ignored antisemitism in Massachusetts schools. In February, a Lowell school committee member called the school’s former finance director a ‘kike’ on live TV. He followed up with “I hate to say it but that’s what people used to say behind his back.”

Then, last month came the news that the Duxbury high school football team used antisemitic and Holocaust references as audible play calls in a game. It was further revealed that they’ve been using this language in practice for years.

The school committee member and the coach have since resigned, but let us pause to underscore that “people” heard this language being used for “years.” Colleagues in Lowell? The players, staff, or coaches in Duxbury?

People knew. And they said nothing.

This past Monday in New York City, a 65-year-old Asian woman was kicked repeatedly in the head and body as she lay helpless on the sidewalk. A 38-year old convicted murderer has been charged with the hate crime.

The video is horrifying in its brutality, but I was even more alarmed by the reaction of  the bystanders. A delivery man simply watches from a few feet away. A security guard (since suspended) literally steps forward to close the building’s glass door, while the woman lies bleeding on the sidewalk right in front of him.

We have a problem. It is a failure to know and understand the history of genocide and the lessons of that history. It’s a generation being raised with chasmic moral blind spots; it is the dangerous implications of raising bystanders instead of upstanders.

There are many steps we need to take as a society to deal with these issues. One key action is mandating genocide education in our schools.

A 2018 study found that Holocaust memory is fading. Forty-five percent of Americans cannot name a single concentration camp. Sixty-six percent of youth 18 to 34 didn’t recognize  the word “Auschwitz.”

Here in Massachusetts, there are many great resources for educating about the Holocaust and Genocide, including curricula and programs from our partners such as Facing History and Ourselves. But these are electives, not requirements. This is why JCRC, along with ADL New England and the Armenian Assembly of America, are championing An Act to Mandate Genocide Education (HD.1167/SD.1592).

This effort is led by Rep. Jeff Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who have been working tirelessly for years with a broad bipartisan coalition of supporters to bring this legislation to a vote and enactment. This week they received a vigorous endorsement from both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. ADL is urging Massachusetts residents to contact their representatives in support of this effort.

Yom HaShoah is next Thursday. We will commemorate this day on Sunday, April 11th at 2pm, with our annual communitywide ceremony: Preserving our Collective Memory, featuring reflections from survivors in our community.

The youngest child survivors, the parents of my friends, are now in their late seventies. Those teen slave laborers still able to tell their stories are now in their nineties. We’ve been blessed over the years to become witnesses to their experiences. We are now in the final years that a new generation of Americans are able to receive that witness first-hand.

The most important things we can do right now to ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on are: commit to transmitting this personal witness by attending survivor testimony events and inviting others to join us so long as these events are possible, and; advocate for a mandated genocide education curriculum that will ensure that their memories will endure as a lesson for future generations.

The time to act is now. We owe this to those survivors we have been blessed to know, who survived, against all odds, and to those who were taken from us during the Shoah.

Please join us in this sacred and necessary work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Greater Boston Tabernacle

A couple of years ago, one of my closest thought-partners in the Boston interfaith space, Kathleen Patrón, lead organizer of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), asked me for my thoughts on an idea they were considering, a ‘refounding’ for GBIO. This interfaith network of some 40 congregations and faith institutions was considering pausing much of its action work to focus on growth – building relationships with and bringing in new members – to ensure that the organization could more authentically represent the diversity of Greater Boston.

JCRC’s commitment to GBIO goes back decades, before my time, when several great leaders in our community had the wisdom and vision to recognize that it was in the Boston Jewish community’s interest to be in partnership across faith lines, and to invest in the region’s civic life together. They worked to bring JCRC and many synagogues into this interfaith network – where Jewish institutions have comprised a significant portion of the membership over the last two decades.

Together, with our Christian and Muslim partners in GBIO, we’ve had a powerful direct impact on healthcare reform, affordable housing and racial justice work over the years, to name only a few issues. We’ve also built deep relationships with clergy and congregational leaders of other faiths, that have been essential during critical moments in recent years. We have stood together time and again when our communities have been challenged by increasingly violent attacks rooted in bigotry, racism, and antisemitism, as we were called to do yet again this week, following the brutal murder of eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian American women. We invite you to join us in expressing our solidarity with Asian American neighbors in this town hall next week.

In recent years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we forge common bonds across communities to have a common civic purpose. 

In recent years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we forge common bonds across communities to have a common civic purpose. These challenges aren’t just across faith and ethnic communities, but within them as well; as we see in the struggles that many Jewish communities have when managing our own internal disagreements. What’s clear, at least to me, is that what gives us the resiliency to navigate differences, is our sense of shared vision and common purpose, a project or projects that move us to work through our differences. I’ve been inspired and enriched by the work I’ve been part of with GBIO colleagues over the last decade, and these experiences have informed my own efforts to stay in relationship with so many people across so many differences, and to seek ways to build bridges of partnership.

All of this went through my mind in that conversation with Kathleen, and my response was an enthusiastic “yes”. I knew that it was clearly in the self-interest of JCRC and of the Jewish members of GBIO to renew this network and expand the collective to reflect the diversity of Greater Boston. We understand the power of partnership in shared civic space, and the relationships that can be fostered through shared campaigns.

This week, GBIO celebrated the success of this effort with a Refounding Assembly, welcoming 19 (!) new members, including Temple Emunah of Lexington. Over 1,000 people gathered in a Zoom meeting, with many more on Facebook, to hear stories of individual and institutional commitment, to stand together, and to plan for the work ahead. I was asked to tell a brief story rooted in Jewish tradition and practice, and my mind went to the readings we just finished last weekend at the end of the book of Shemot (Exodus). I said:

“In my tradition, we root ourselves in the stories we read each week from the Torah, our Bible. Right now, we’re retelling the story that comes after the exodus from Egypt, of twelve disparate tribes journeying through the desert, trying to become one people. We’re telling the story about these tribes uniting to build a tabernacle, a gathering place, a shared sacred space. Every member of every tribe had a role in building this tabernacle, each contributing their own unique skills, and by doing so, through the collective building, becoming one people, one community, together.

For me, GBIO is my gathering place, where I come as part of one tribe and offer what I have of myself, joining with everyone here in becoming one community, in building something more powerful than any of us alone could do. This, here, is my sacred gathering, my tabernacle in and for Greater Boston.”

If you are part of a GBIO member institution, I encourage you to participate in GBIO events with your team. If you’d like to learn more about GBIO and organizing, you can attend a training here. And I invite all of you to become our partner at JCRC in the building of tabernacles and spaces of shared purpose in service to our communities.

Thank you and Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

Celebrating “On” Beacon Hill

We have a spring ritual at JCRC, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Passover cleaning. Rather, every March we find ourselves rushing to put the finishing touches on the JCRC and MA Association of Jewish Federation (MAJF)’s annual Legislative Reception, the advocacy event of the organized Jewish community on Beacon Hill.

We know that nothing can replace personal relationships, forged over a hearty handshake and the clinking of glasses, but our world has been remade this past year, and as we have all adapted, so has the reception. Though we will miss the schmoozing over hors d’oeuvres, we are joining with our legislative partners to bring the reception to your home. The open bar will be replaced by the contents of your fridge.

This year, we will be honoring Chief Justice Ralph Gants z”l of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court with a special remembrance tribute. In 2016, Chief Justice Gants visited with the JCRC Council to share his wisdom as we grappled with criminal justice reform, an area to which he devoted his life. He and Rahsaan Hall, Director of the Racial Justice Program at ACLU, discussed their perspectives on the moral imperative for criminal justice reform and the principles necessary to bring more justice and humanity to a flawed system. The rich conversation informed JCRC Council discussions for years to come and directly influenced our advocacy in support of comprehensive criminal justice reform. We brought Justice Gants’ passion for equity with us to Beacon Hill to advocate in support of the monumental legislation later signed into law.

Even virtually, this reception remains a key opportunity for us to honor the legislative partners who have worked with us to advance the values and priorities of the organized Jewish Community. We are especially grateful to our 2021 Legislative Award Recipients:

  • Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who has visited all 351 communities in the Commonwealth, connecting with MA residents where they live and work, to inform her work on behalf of local communities. As co-chair of the Reopening Advisory Board, Lt. Governor Polito was instrumental in advising the administration on strategies to reopen the economy in phases based on health and safety metrics. In this capacity, Lt. Governor Polito was a vital sounding board as JCRC advocated for the summer camp industry, early and secondary education providers, and the equitable allocation of PPE and testing supplies to all schools.
  • Senator Will Brownsberger, who played a key role in the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform and the 2020 Police Reform legislation, utilizing his thorough understanding of policy and the legislative process. Senator Brownsberger deeply believes that an informed electorate is essential to a proper functioning democracy. He is accessible, consistent, and a tireless advocate for justice, and also happens to be a competitive triathlete.
  • Representative Garlick, a registered nurse who has led from the start on issues supporting mental health, substance abuse and health equity. As Chair of the Committee on Elder Affairs, she has worked with JCRC to support programs like Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCS) which keep seniors independent and living in their own homes. Representative Garlick has been a key leader as our state has navigated through the pandemic.
  • Representative Chynah Tyler, who began her career as a Case Manager for Federal Inmates, assisting those nearing release with securing employment, housing, and community support. In 2016, at just 26 years old, Representative Tyler ran a successful campaign to succeed the long-time incumbent. From that experience, she grew to understand the importance of state government in delivering valuable resources to the most vulnerable populations. She serves as Chair of the Black and Latino Caucus, and her work has always had an equity focus, whether on criminal justice reform, homelessness prevention, or education.
  • Jeremy Spittle, Legislative and Policy Director for Senator Rodrigues, whose passion for public service was instilled in him at a young age during a middle school field trip to the Massachusetts State House. Over the last 13-plus years, Jeremy has gained invaluable hands-on experience working on Beacon Hill, where he provides government affairs expertise and support to Senator Michael Rodrigues. JCRC has worked closely with Jeremy on genocide education and the state budget, and he has always been both accessible and accountable.

These public servants have answered the call for leadership in a time of great challenge, and together, we have worked to improve quality of life and access to opportunity for all Massachusetts residents. I hope you will join us at this year’s Legislative Reception on March 18th at 5pm to recognize them. No one person or group can do this alone: partnerships between the Jewish community and the public sector have flourished and led to innovative solutions to a wide variety of complex problems. On March 18, we will stand together in our shared commitment to protect the most vulnerable, support the programs that preserve our communities, and to promote a more just and equitable society.

I hope to see you there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

What’s on my nightstand

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When I’m looking for a respite from the noise of the day, I withdraw into the comfort of reading. I try to finish at least two books every week, and often have as many as five or eight open at any one time. This week, I thought that I’d share with you what’s currently on my bedside table:

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AFRICAN-AMERICAN POETRY; 250 YEARS OF STRUGGLE & SONG

Edited by Kevin Young, Director of the Schomburg Center in New York.

I’m a huge fan of poetry. The best poetry draws us in, immerses us in its  visual and lyrical structure, and invites us to feel and to think. This anthology has been hailed as one of the best works of 2020 and is part of the Library of America’s continued collection of our literary heritage (full disclosure, I am a patron of this organization).  It’s a collection of hundreds of published works by Black poets in chronological order by era, from Phillis Wheatley in the 1770’s, right up to Clint Smith and Aja Monet in the last decade. It includes an introductory essay from Young, brief biographies of hundreds of our nations’ finest poets, and historical notes on the text. I’ve been working my way through it over the past few months (it’s over 1,000 pages long) and it has been taking my breath away every single day.

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THE NEW JEWISH CANON; IDEAS & DEBATES – 1980-2015

Edited by Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and Claire Sufrin, Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University.

This reader collects selections from some 80 previously published works on the great debates over Jewish politics, memory, and identity. I approached it with some hesitation, having read many if not most of these pieces when they were originally produced. What makes this work a ‘must’ for anyone interested in our communal conversation are the new essays that follow each piece. These commentaries – from some of the leading educators and academics of our time – offer context, reflections, and insights that enhance the original works and will generate discussions for decades to come.

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AVENGERS; THE CHILDRENS CRUSADE

Allan Heinberg, writer, with a team of artists from Marvel Comics.

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you already know that one of my COVID hobbies has been a deep dive into documenting the representation of Jewish superheroes in American mainstream comics. I’ve been tracing this path from the metaphorical (Superman in 1938, Captain America in 1941), to the first explicit representation (DC’s Colossal Boy celebrating Chanukah in 1979) to the centralized identity (the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde, introduced in 1980, and Batwoman, introduced in 2006). This week, I came to this Avengers mini-series, which I first read when it ran in 2010. In it, three generations of Magneto’s family grapple with their family trauma; and, when his grandson Wiccan describes himself, in canon, as a “Gay Jewish fanboy”, well, suffice to say I felt personally represented.

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AMERICAN DEMOCRACY; 21 HISTORIC ANSWERS TO 5 URGENT QUESTIONS

Edited by Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus of the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Yes, another anthology, again from the Library of America. If you’re reading this,  you might have read some of my other blogs, or attended some of our recent programs, such as the panel discussion hosted by the JCC of the North Shore on the film American Creed. In that case, you’re aware of my interest in the intricate debates over the values and ideas that lie at the heart of our nation. This collection contains a range of historic pieces, from George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, to selections from Hannah Arendt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Andrew Jackson. Reading them together is to grapple with questions such as “Who are ‘We the People’?” and “What is the Government For?” These were urgent questions when these authors addressed them, and they remain urgent for all of us in 2021.

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THE RABBI WHO PRAYED WITH FIRE; A RABBI VIVIAN MYSTERY

Rachel Sharona Lewis, author

This one is on almost every nightstand at team JCRC this week. It’s the just-released first novel by someone familiar to many of you, our own director of synagogue organizing, Rachie Lewis! By her telling, she was inspired by the 1960’s Rabbi Small series and decided to try her hand at an updated take that speaks to our contemporary communities. The result is the first of what we hope will be many great stories about a young, queer, female, rabbi who attempts to serve her congregation and engage meaningfully in the life of her city. It is a novel of our time, and we’re so proud of Rachie for this gift to the new canon of our community’s literature.

I’m loving all of these books and I highly recommend each of them. If you’ve read them, I’d love to know what you think. Please respond and tell me what is on your nightstand these days!

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton

Connecting with Boston’s Students Goes Beyond Books

This week, JCRC hosted a conversation between Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj’Yahya, Director of Arab-Jewish Relations at the Israel Democracy Institute, on the barriers to equity in education in their own communities: Campbell here in Boston, and Dr. Haj’Yahya as an Arab Israeli.

Both women shared their personal struggles, as they attested to the power of education to transform their lives and enable their success. But they were also painfully aware of how unusual their stories were, and how badly inadequate education systems failed others, including their own siblings.

The current pandemic has exacerbated existing barriers to educational equity in each of their communities, they told us, with the lack of universal access to technology for learning (also known as the “Digital Divide”) being a central factor.

We at JCRC are acutely aware of the potentially dire consequences of the pandemic for young school children, particularly in the high needs schools we partner with through our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) program. So, we are especially heartened to see our tutors maintaining their connections with their young friends virtually, as 60 of them are now tutoring online. The strength of these relationships has transcended the barrier of physical distance, and the pairs continue to share the joy of reading, through their screens.

GBJCL serves students who sometimes fall through the cracks — especially during the pandemic, when students are so isolated and disconnected from their learning communities. This year, GBJCL went beyond academics to focus on the value at the core of our work: our relationships with students.

Like so many other GBJCL volunteers, Nancy Krieger, a two-decades-long GBJCL veteran from Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, connected with her students virtually, even tutoring one student who returned home to the Dominican Republic to be close to family during the pandemic. Despite being separated by thousands of miles, Nancy and her student were determined to continue their work from the previous school year and keep learning together. Nancy is passionately committed to her mission to maintain the joy of learning for this student. Nancy also leverages her professional expertise as a Dance-Movement therapist to offer movement breaks to her students virtually – something we can all benefit from after all these months of sitting at home!

Another volunteer, Judy Elder of Temple Emanuel in Newton, has continued to work online with a child she has tutored for multiple years, knowing from the start that it would take flexibility and innovation not only to maintain her student’s attention online, but also to create a fun experience. Judy and her second grade friend enjoyed reading “Pete the Cat” together, on an online book sharing platform GBJCL introduced her to, and Judy used the same platform to teach her fifth grader’s about Jewish traditions, through “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”

Virtual tutoring has resulted in an unexpected benefit – a new opportunity to connect with parents. Judy and her student’s mother teamed up to support the at-home learning; with the mother printing out pages so student and tutor could read from the same text and supplying her iPhone for her daughter to use when the Internet failed.

As teachers and students face tremendous obstacles, and are stretched to their limits, GBJCL volunteers provide crucial support. In some cases, they also work closely with school administrations to identify teachers and students in need of support, then pairing these students with volunteers. This enables teachers to concentrate on virtual learning, knowing that their students are receiving the one-on-one attention they need.

The online community that GBJCL tutors have built not only improves the tutoring experience but also enriches their own lives. As a population of individuals mostly over age 65, many face isolation in their homes due to the pandemic. As they serve their students, GBJCL provides added value and purpose to their lives.

It is hard not to feel lonely and adrift as we enter our second year of being at home. There is no more powerful antidote than the joy that comes with helping a young child to discover the joy of reading

You can join us in championing a young reader by signing up to become a tutor.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our responsibility to a global Jewish people

The Stolperstein initiative

This week, as we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m mulling over an encounter I had with one of the European Jewish communities at the center of the Shoah.

As some of you know, I’m keenly interested in the Stolperstein initiative. These “stumbling stones,” small bronze blocks engraved with details about the individual lives of Europe’s Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, are embedded in the streets outside their last known homes across the continent. In my travels I have sought these stones out and posted pictures of them on Instagram. I share my reflections in the moment; about their prevalence in certain central neighborhoods of Prague and the care they are given in areas of formerly eastern Berlin; about the places in Vienna where some current residents seek to hide them behind potted plants and bike racks so as to not be reminded of the history and legacy of the space they are in, and about the way in which this project has inspired another memorial - to Spain’s pre-Inquisition Jewish community - on the streets of Cordoba and Toledo.

In 2015, as part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders, I had the opportunity to visit Munich. At our first meeting, we were told by non-Jewish social activists that in this city, where the Nazis first rose to power, there were only two stolperstein, each on private property; the city refused the project permission to install them on public sidewalks as they have been positioned elsewhere. Surprisingly, the opposition came from the local Jewish leadership. 

The next day, our group met with the chair of the Jewish Council, herself a survivor and a prominent voice of German Jewry. We had been asked by these social activists to press her on this matter, to share with her the power of these memorials and to encourage her reconsideration. We discussed this request amongst ourselves and came to understand that our role as outsiders was not to presume that we knew what was best for another Jewish community, but rather, that we would seek a deeper understanding of their perspective. We agreed that we would ask her to help us understand her opposition. She shared her concerns not only about the lack of an endowment for the long-term upkeep of the stones, but more pointedly, about the potential pain she would experience as a survivor, at witnessing people stepping on the names of her family in the streets of the city she came back to after the Shoah.

The lesson from this exchange was that, despite whatever power I found in these memorials elsewhere, here, in the heart of Bavaria, the Jewish leadership’s primary concern was the experience of local survivors, who could be retraumatized by these stones. For now, there would be no such memorial – though some of the Jewish leaders we met acknowledged that a day may come when it would be a welcome and important addition to their community. This exchange reaffirmed an essential lesson: that as a Jewish leader from elsewhere, my responsibility was to honor the needs and the will of the local community.

I share this memory by way of illuminating a thought process that comes up often in my work: How do we understand our responsibility to other local Jewish communities when speaking publicly on events occurring in their cities that directly impact them?

Often the answers are easy, such as when we choose to lift up and be guided by the leadership of a community under attack, standing with the French Jewish federation after the Hyper Cacher attack, or asking my colleagues in Pittsburgh what they needed in the days and weeks after that unthinkably tragic shabbat. Sometimes it can be a little more complicated, for example when we take great offense at the comments or actions of a member of Congress from outside Massachusetts. In these instances, I find myself weighing our own rightful outrage about a member of our own government alongside the interests and relationships that another Jewish community has with its own representative.

Of course, not everything local stays local. The murder of George Floyd, for example, required a national conversation about a national crisis. Still, we consulted with and recognized the leadership of colleagues on the ground in Minneapolis who were in relationship with their local partners. Considering that JCRC’s public voice often has both local and national implications,  we carry a responsibility to a global Jewish people. We strive to maintain a level of humility for the effect that our voice will have on those members of our family who are most closely impacted by the issue at hand. 

There are dozens of factors and considerations that are weighed every time we speak out, and numerous voices and partners – within and beyond the Jewish community – who inform our thinking. But for now, this week of Holocaust Remembrance, I wanted to share this particular story of an interaction with a survivor that has stayed with me and enriched my understanding of what Jewish leadership requires of me, and of us.

I welcome your reflections as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“Unity.” That’s it. That’s the message.

“Unity.”

That’s it. That’s the message.

This week, President Biden delivered what is, to my mind, the best and most important inaugural speech we’ve heard in generations. It didn’t have the poetry of a Reagan or Obama speech, but it had, at its core, an urgent faithfulness to the “American Idea,” and a deep sensitivity to the fragility of our national project. It was a call to action for every patriotic American to commit ourselves to the work of achieving one central goal: “Unity.”

It only took hours for some to question whether our new President was committed to this work, to challenge the notion that it is even possible, and to, of course, knock one another around on social media.

On Wednesday the President said: “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

This week, as we prepare to mark International Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I’m reminded of the work of survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl. He taught us that even in the darkest times we can survive; that no matter what challenges we face, we have a freedom, via our choice of how to respond to the most daunting circumstances. We can persevere by nurturing a hope for the future within ourselves.

It bears repeating that comparisons of present-day circumstances to the Holocaust, a uniquely horrific chapter of history, are never wise or warranted. But what wisdom can we draw from Frankl, who survived the unimaginable with a sense of hope and purpose?

It struck me while listening on Wednesday, that this week we will continue to read the Exodus story in synagogue. In the Torah it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. In America in 2021, our President – a man of deep personal faith – is reminding us that our future and our hopes for our nation obligate each individual American to choose not to harden our own hearts.

We all need to make a choice now. Are we each, as individuals, on the side of renewal and commitment to the very idea of a shared national project as Americans, or are we not?

For me, the answer is a most enthusiastic “yes!”

At the same time, I reject the misguided notion that unity demands conformity. I am well aware of the danger inherent in that premise.

Unity has, in the past, been to the detriment of freedom and diversity. We know this as Jews who have experienced, far too often, a demand for national unity that included “one church”, a so called “unity” that excludes us. I can also recall this exclusion as someone who understands the history of my LGBTQ ancestors who were forced into the closet for the sake of conformity. Today, it can be rightly observed that there is, at times, an unhealthy and unproductive demand within some communities and movements that require conformity in all matters.

The goal of our unity is not to suppress debate and differences. It is, as the President put it so clearly, to bring to an “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.” It is vigorous debate over policy, but with civility built on “tolerance and humility.”

Unity requires the hard work of a shared national idea, a story we tell about who we are and a project to which we dedicate ourselves, as one. That’s no easy task, in no small part because within our shared national story, we need to make space for experiences that differ from how we personally perceive the world.

On a panel last week, I talked about “the American Creed,” which in some ways can be summed up as a promise: “In this country, if I work hard and follow the rules, I can give my children a better life than the one I know.”

The challenge of that promise is that for more and more Americans in these times of expanding economic gaps, it is not the reality they experience. At the same time, for many Americans - in particular those experiencing our nation through the fractures of caste or racism - it is a promise that they have never known.

Unity requires that we listen to those stories and attempt to understand the differing experiences of our shared national narrative. We need to have the humility to know that ours is not the only interpretation of this great nation, and commit to debate policies, with civility, that can renew the promise of America, for every American.

This shabbat, as we read the words to “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt” I’m remembering the call to action we heard from our President this week, and renewing my commitment to my personal responsibility as an American, to the freedom and unity of all Americans.

For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it

-Amanda Gorman

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The darkest night brings the greatest visions

By JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton

As a Jew, it is not hard to appreciate how Black Americans have drawn inspiration and motivation from the Exodus story over the course of their 400-year struggle for liberation in this country. The examples are plentiful, from Harriet Tubman being the Moses of her people, to Taylor Branch’s titling his seminal work on the civil rights era Parting the Waters, to the words and imagery so central to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King throughout his career, including, chillingly, his “I Have Seen the Promised Land” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated. The stories we tell ourselves every year as Jews as an integral part of our identity – at Passover and in our Torah reading every Shabbat – are also an integral part of the African-American identity, sustaining the hope of redemption in a community still working toward liberation in our country.

As an American, marking MLK Day this year, it is challenging to transcend the despair and outrage elicited by the events of the last year and the last week. As we honor the moral leadership and challenge of Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent action against grave injustice, it has only been a week since we witnessed a violent insurrection by white supremacists – carrying Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia – incited by the President. Of course, this comes after a year in which we have struggled, not always well, to reckon once again with the incomplete task of realizing the promises of Reconstruction and of the Civil Rights Movement for which Dr. King died, each of which was also set back by violent resistance to dismantling our nation’s caste systems.

As a patriot, it is essential to look forward to next week with hope, about our new President, Joe Biden, and our historic new Vice President, Kamala Harris. She will be our first woman and Indian-American elected to national office, and our first African-American VP. I am struck by the fact that the very marriage of her parents would have been illegal under laws struck down only recently in the long arc of our history. Vice President Harris’ very existence, let alone her historic accomplishment, is a direct carry-over from Dr. King’s generation and the civil rights they fought for.

Acknowledging this historic moment, both as a patriot and a Jew, I am filled with resolve; the resolve that comes from knowing that change is always possible even when it takes generations, or even centuries to achieve. Despite backlashes and setbacks, despite violent attempts to obstruct it and to reject the promise of liberty and equity for all Americans, change has and will continue to happen.

As a Jew who reads the Torah portion every week, as an American patriot grappling with the events of last week, on this MLK weekend I draw from this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, in the Book of Exodus. It is the beginning of the drama of Moses, embracing his role as interlocuter between God and Pharaoh, as our collective story of miracles and the promise of liberation unfolds. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his commentary on this week’s reading:

It is in the darkest night that Israel has its greatest visions. Hope is born at the very edge of the abyss of despair. No logic can give rise to hope; no law of history charts a path from slavery to redemption, exile to return.

Now is a time of both despair and hope. Let us honor the path envisioned by Dr. King by committing ourselves to make this weekend, and the weeks ahead, the beginning of a path to redemption for our nation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

Jeremy Burton
JCRC Executive Director

Our Wounded Democracy

The sadness and the anger we feel right now can be overwhelming. This political moment is supposed to be a time to celebrate the strength of our democracy, a time when the world should look on with admiration – as it first did over two hundred years ago when President Adams left office – when we mark the peaceful transition of power between political opponents. Instead, the world and our nation watched in horror as violence erupted in Washington.

What we saw was a violent uprising, incited by the President of the United States and his enablers. A seditious mob, many wearing explicitly Nazi and antisemitic garb, many carrying the confederate flag – the ultimate symbol of white supremacist violent insurrection in this country – attacked police, breached the Capitol and briefly took control of the hallowed chambers of our Congress. The President who had incited them for months told them later that afternoon “I love you,” an echo of his “very fine people on both sides” response four years ago after Charlottesville.

In two weeks, Joe Biden will be our President and Kamala Harris will be our Vice-President. But even if our current President honors his statement (delivered through aides early Thursday morning) that there will be an “orderly transition,” it will have already been marred by this violence.

Still, I go into this weekend with undiminished optimism. Because the struggle for the American idea that I cherish is not won or lost in a single day or even in a single election. It is the work of generations.

I was reminded of this recently while watching American Creed on PBS. This film follows former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, historian David Kennedy and a diverse group of Americans as they explore whether a unifying set of beliefs can prove more powerful than the issues that divide us.

There are many inspiring and thought provoking moments in this film, but one theme in particular has been giving me strength this week. The Boston based Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz talks about how “people at the margins can bear witness to the reality of our nation and what our future needs to be.” It is an idea picked up by Kennedy throughout the film, and in particular, when he speaks about his own father’s experience during the Great Depression, namely, that the American Creed, the idea of this nation, is a promise. But it is not always a promise fulfilled. There is a gap between the idea and the reality. The challenge for us as Americans is to not allow that gap to provoke us into giving up on the idea.

Our work is to see the gap, to name it, to talk about it, and to re-affirm our commitment to the work of making progress to achieve the promise of America.

The promise of America, and the promise of our democracy, has been wounded this week. But it always was, and still remains an idea, an aspiration, something that can and must be worked for.

I’m very grateful to my friends, our member agency the JCC of the North Shore, and to our partner Facing History, for bringing this film to my attention. They invited JCRC, the Israeli-American Council and others to partner in hosting a program about the film next Thursday night, January 14th. I’m looking forward to joining a panel discussion where we will address themes from the film in an effort to engage our community in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about Jewish and American ideals across the deepening divides.

I encourage you to watch American Creed and then to join us this week, and in the years ahead, not only to discuss its themes, but to do the work of bridging the gap between the realities of America and the promise of our nation that inspires us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy