Author: Jeremy Burton

Holding complexity in a 280-characters-or-less world

As JCRC’s latest civic leaders study tour arrives in Israel today, this one led by Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell, I am both proud and envious to not be joining them.

I’m proud because this is the first time in seven years that I’m not traveling with JCRC’s winter study tour and my absence is a reflection of our success in implementing our strategic vision. We’ve developed a cadre of professionals – led by our Director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell – that allows us to reach more civic leaders and connect them with Israel. The fact that this work is no longer dependent on the presence of the executive director is an indication of our enhanced capacity to deliver these vital programs.

And I’m envious, because this past week, I’ve been reminded of how enriching I find these trips, with their ongoing discussion of complex and complicated issues: conversations which are all too absent from our daily political discourse.

Two events in particular have drawn my attention. The first is the controversy over Airbnb’s decision to delist properties in Jewish communities in the West Bank beyond the 1948 armistice line between Israel and Jordan – aka the “Green Line,” though not in East Jerusalem. The second involves aspects of the commemoration of the life of President George H.W. Bush.

In the reaction to Airbnb’s decision, there has been a fair amount of hyperbole for partisan purposes: Anti-Israel activists have wrongly claimed that a boycott narrowly targeting homes in “settlements” is a victory for their movement, equating this with boycotts of Israel “proper.” In fact, many people, including us at JCRC, differentiate between these actions. We oppose boycotts of Israel, and, while we don’t support boycotts of West Bank products, we do not believe that they inherently constitute a form of anti-Semitism.

This level of hyperbole indicates a lack of complexity: Supporters of Israel were right to be angry that Airbnb adopted, for now, a policy about one conflict zone that they chose not to adopt equally for all conflict zones. At the same time, it’s important to note that in effect, Airbnb merely made the same differentiation that Israel’s own government makes; distinguishing in practice between Israel “proper” (i.e. areas under Israeli sovereignty since 1948 and those areas in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights that have been formally annexed by Israel and live under Israeli civil authority) and Jewish communities in Area C of the Oslo Accords that have a temporary status until a final peace agreement is reached.

And then, regarding our public mourning for President Bush, I experienced several moments when people expressed flattering thoughts about Bush and his legacy – “decent,” “dignified,” “a statesman,” – and were then hammered for these expressions. Once again, there was a failure to acknowledge complexity, or to hold multiple and potentially competing truths at once. President Bush was both an ally and sometimes an opponent of various Jewish concerns, a transformational advocate for the disabled and yet also seemingly indifferent to the impact of the AIDS epidemic, a decent man whose campaign in 1988 was one of the nastiest in memory (at least at that time).

Complexity and nuance. Too often lost in our hurried and overblown rhetoric, our outrage-of-the-day, our tribalist “with me or against me” politics in a 280-characters-or-less world. Lost is the nuance and complexity, like the kind we offer on our study tours when we slow down and spend time over the course of a week hearing multiple and conflicting narratives from as many corners of Israeli, and Palestinian, society as we can expose ourselves to. We seldom make the space for the kind of interesting discourse that happens when we actually sit with someone and get to see them as a person with a life and experiences different from our own.

It’s in that space that generative ideas can emerge and real learning can take place, all of which I am envious to miss this week.

Or, as Frank Bruni rightly observed while reflecting on the discourse about Bush (I encourage you to read his whole piece):

“We do seem to be getting worse at complexity. At nuance. At allowing for the degree to which virtue and vice commingle in most people, including our leaders, and at understanding that it’s not a sign of softness to summon some respect for someone with a contrary viewpoint and a history of mistakes. It’s a sign of maturity. And it just might be a path back to a better place.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Protecting our community while protecting our values

This week we marked the shloshim for those murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by white supremacist gunman Robert Bowers; the 30 days following burial in which mourners refrain from some everyday practices and communities engage in performance of mitzvot to honor the dead.

This past Friday night the Jewish community experienced another attack on a congregation, this time in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mohamed Abdi attempted to run down two visibly Orthodox men leaving Friday night services while yelling anti-Semitic epithets. Thankfully no one was injured.

These and many other incidents of rising acts of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes have our communities wrestling with new challenges. Wherever I traveled this past month, leaders in institutions – synagogues, JCCs, and others – are grappling with the unenviable task of navigating the balance among competing core values and priorities of Jewish communal spaces: between being safe and being inclusive and welcoming. How much security is necessary? What are the best practices? What measures are “too much,” either because cost outweighs the benefit, or because they exacerbate the problematic experiences for Jews of Color, or otherwise limit the ways in which we aspire to welcome people into Abraham’s four-fold open space?

This is, to say the least, an evolving conversation. And it is one we’ve been having with our own leaders and member agencies here at JCRC. I don’t presume to have “the” answer for every congregation or community, beyond encouraging each of them to have these conversations, to explore their own values, and to ask how they will hold multiple values in a dynamic tension that feels appropriate for them.

Our responsibility at JCRC is to do everything we can to ensure that our governments, at all levels, are doing everything in their capacity to ensure the security of our community and its institutions.

Last year we worked with the New England ADL and the Mass. Association of Jewish Federations (MAJF, which is run by JCRC) to seek Governor Baker’s commitment to reconstitute the state’s Hate Crime Task Force, which he readily did. We’ve been appreciative of the Governor’s support after Pittsburgh and have been pleased in recent days to see him leading on working with the Task Force to encourage all law enforcement agencies to fully report hate crimes and to take other measures to ensure that there is a “zero tolerance” for hate in Massachusetts. Our joint commitment to the vitality of this task force remains strong.

MAJF and JCRC also worked last year with our partners in the state legislature to establish a $75,000 pilot for non-profit security grant funding, complementing the federal grants which we advocate for in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America. This year, the state doubled the funding to $150,000 and we will be working with the governor and the legislature to increase the pool and streamline the application process to expand eligibility.

And the Jewish Emergency Management System (JEMS), a partnership of CJP, JCRC, ADL, and the Synagogue Council, is helping our network of agencies access a series of trainings and briefings on the issues they are grappling with in this time.

We’re also continuing to work on the range of public policy matters that were important to our community before Pittsburgh, which have taken on increased urgency in its aftermath. We are more committed than ever to ensuring that the United States remains a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees from around the world, including supporting our noble legacy institutions like HIAS, supporting our network of synagogues here in Massachusetts working in concert with interfaith partners to pass gun-violence prevention laws, and challenging those at the very highest levels of public life who are validating and amplifying the kinds of bigotry and hatred that lead to these attacks.

A month after Pittsburgh, the Jewish community has been changed. We don’t know yet fully how. But we do know that we all have a role to play in facing that change responsibly, while also remaining constant in our purpose and our values about who we are in the world.

We have a choice: To react passively to unfolding events, or act with agency, to protect both our community and its most deeply held values. I, for one, choose the latter option.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our Concerns for 2020

With election 2018 (not quite) behind us, and election 2020 squarely in the headlights, we’re sitting in the brief moment between cycles of hyperbolic conversations about how non-profits engage on the great challenges facing our nation.

In the most simple sense, there is long standing legal guidance that allows 501(c)(3)s (the IRS designation for federal tax exempt nonprofit organizations) to address public issues – as we do in our advocacy for legislation and public policies – provided that we do so without expressing a preference for a party or candidate in an election, endorsing a candidate, or releasing a voter guide that is implicitly single issue or preferences one party.

More can be said on this (don’t consider the above paragraph as legal counsel to your organization!) but candidly, that’s a technical answer about what the law allows and what magic words one can or cannot say.

Of more interest to us is – what do we care about? What matters to us in the arena of government and policy? And how do we galvanize our attention on these matters?

It bears repeating that we at JCRC – a network of Jewish organizations coming together in shared purpose around the collective agenda of the Jewish community in the public arena – see ourselves as fundamentally invested in two core principles (as stated in our mission): advocacy for a safe, secure, democratic state of Israel; and promoting an American society which is democratic, pluralistic, and just.

To those ends, we intend to educate 2020 candidates about our views on the policy issues that stem from those principles, such as our support for the U.S. as an engaged leader on the international stage, including support for our ally Israel and efforts to achieve a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. It means informing candidates about the Jewish community’s commitment to civil rights for all Americans, the importance of addressing anti-Semitism and bigotry, fair and just immigration policies, and a strong social safety net. And we’ll also be listening to candidates, hearing their views, and sharing with our community about how they think about these policy concerns.

But frankly, there are concerns in 2020 that are both broader and potentially more urgent than these longstanding communal priorities.

It would have been naïve to think that this week’s election would resolve a much larger existential challenge facing our nation – our fractured and tribal culture, the fraying of our democratic norms and the institutions of our civic space, and the breakdown of our ability to work with each other across specific policy disagreements in service to a common notion of the American idea. Naïve because these challenges didn’t start in the past few years, though they’ve been greatly exacerbated; these challenges have been growing, albeit ignored by many, long before 2016.

A challenge that’s been festering over the past two decades isn’t going away tomorrow or in 2020. It’s going to take leadership over the next decades – and not just from those seeking high national office, but from all of us in positions of influence over the civic space and our public discourse.

So yes, heading into 2020, and 2022, and 2024, we’ll need to be educating candidates and ourselves about the policy issues we hold dear. We’ll also need to be asking them what their vision and strategy is for healing the divides that are fracturing our nation, challenging them to show leadership to that end – regardless of what others in public life might do – and challenging ourselves as leaders to model a better future for what ails our nation.

I invite your thoughts and insights on the specific things we can do to influence this conversation and model it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Standing Together During a Really Bad Week

It’s a bit of a “bad joke” amongst certain political and interfaith partners of ours that if we are gathered more than twice in one week it has been a bad week. This past week has been a really bad week.

Like all of you, I was shattered last Shabbat by the news out of Pittsburgh.

And, on Saturday night, I was struck by the immediate outpouring of love and support from partners and allies outside the Jewish community. The director of a mosque already reaching out to several rabbis before noon on Shabbat offering support “in any way.” The African Methodist Episcopal minister who, before we had even made Havdalah, emailed to tell us how our community’s solidarity with his following the church massacre in Charleston three years ago was seared in his memory; that what helped was to know that they “were not alone” and that “we will come at any time and in any way to support you.”

And there were texts and calls from public officials – some to me, many more to others who described them to me – the governor, the mayors, police commissioners, legislators, their aides; all offering help, all wanting to make sure we knew that they were ready with whatever our community needed in this moment.

Hearing these messages brought clarity; we needed to make sure that the experience of being held in love and support by the broader community would not be limited to a small circle of Jewish communal leaders. We needed to make sure that all of our community could be held by these folks; because our grief is not the private reality of rabbis and CEOs but of all of us, every single member of a community reeling in the aftermath of this unthinkable slaughter.

So we tapped into our network of member agencies, each with key relationships and unique competencies. Within hours, we had announced a vigil for Sunday afternoon on the Boston Common, and quickly had commitments from a broad array of the state’s leading public and faith figures. They stood wall to wall with us on Sunday. Their messages were heartfelt; understanding our pain, denouncing the hate motivating the attack and offering strength as we struggled to cope with the weight of events.

They invoked profound relationships: Cardinal O’Malley spoke of the partnership between our communities in supporting immigrants and refugees. They understood us and our fears: Shaykh Yasir Fahmy urged us to keep wearing our Judaism proudly and publicly, to “hold our yarmulkes tighter” just as he would tell his own youthful congregants to “hold their hijab closer” after an experience of Islamophobia. And with gentle and loving insistence, they challenged us to be with them as well, as Rev. Liz Walker did when she invited us to be in partnership with her community in Roxbury as it deals with ongoing and almost daily acts of violence.

Sunday was a beginning toward healing and also a reminder – we haven’t and won’t be facing violent anti-Semitism alone. And it was an invitation, made all the more resonant as we were reminded often this week – by the murder of a black couple in Kentucky last week, and then on Wednesday with the racist graffiti as Tynan School in South Boston – to be present in the struggles of our neighbors as well, as this country grapples with the toxin of hatreds targeting all of our communities.

The power of Sunday on the Common didn’t “just happen,” and it certainly didn’t happen in just a few hours on Saturday night. It was made possible through years of investment in relationships by the network of JCRC members. We have built deep and enduring ties with our interfaith partners on matters of common concern, while engaging in honest and challenging conversations about areas of tension and disagreement. We rolled up our sleeves to work with our friends in the state house over decades to advance our values and work together for the better good of the commonwealth. We heard “yes, of course I’ll be with you” from every partner we reached out to on Saturday night, because, for years, our community has invested in the urgent necessity of community relations.

And this morning I joined leaders from ADL New England and JALSA, along with many of those same faith and community leaders, at the Tynan School to show our support for our neighbors and to stand with them against hatred here in Boston. We stood together because we all need to be held and we all need to hold each other in these times if we are going to find a way forward as a nation.

L-R: Robert Trestan of ADL New England, Cindy Rowe of JALSA, and Jeremy Burton of JCRC

And as we enter this first Shabbat after Pittsburgh, we will again see many of those partners in shul this weekend. I am heading off to services tonight joined by so many of our friends who are joining Jews around the world to #ShowUpForShabbat.

The problem and the threat of violent anti-Semitism isn’t going to be solved overnight. And it is deeply intertwined with a larger challenge of violent and hateful extremism that threatens not only the Jewish community but all Americans – as members of threatened communities and as stakeholders in a nation being threatened by the normalization of hatreds.

So yes, seeing our partners so often means it has been a very bad week. But it has also been a week filled with hope – because they’ve shown up for us and we’ve shown up for them. Together we are finding the resiliency to move forward, stronger together and ready to do the work we do every day of holding community and communities in partnership.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Not shutting up in the face of complexity

Two sets of interactions over the past week have been on my mind.

This past Tuesday night our JCRC network member Israeli-American Council hosted a community meeting regarding ongoing concerns about curriculum standards in Newton Public Schools with regard to Middle East education. In the days leading up to the event I received numerous calls and emails from members of our community urging me to not participate on the panel (which was limited to myself and representatives of three of our member organizations). The argument against my participation, in sum and as these folks put it: That the discussion about this matter over the past six years had been made irreparably toxic through the actions of other, irresponsible people; thus any legitimization of the topic as a matter of interest and concern by us would only serve to advance and amplify the efforts of those extreme actors.

As posted on Twitter from the IAC-hosted community meeting in the “green” room
As posted on Twitter from the IAC-hosted community meeting in the “green” room

On a separate and unrelated matter, I’ve received a volume of communication amplifying a series of editorial columns circulating in recent weeks. The crux of the argument as these folks put it: given that no President of the United States has ever been as completely supportive of the priorities of a sitting Israeli government as the current administration, it behooves Jewish communal leaders - and specifically in their minds, JCRCs - to focus our efforts on thanking the President for his support. We as leaders are being urged to stop criticizing our government on other matters, even those where we have a broad consensus, such as on matters of immigration and refugee policy.

So what is the common thread in these two exchanges, with folks holding wildly different political and world views on totally separate topics? In both, we are being urged to reject complexity and just shut up. In this moment of polarization and oversimplification, we at JCRC are leaning into core principles to guide our work:

Much of our civic debate presents each and every issue as having two opposing and predictable positions, with increasing segmentation of society into two wholly opposed and yet internally fully aligned camps.

We at JCRC choose to examine each issue with the assumption of it having complexity and nuance. We see more than “two sides.” We know that when we allow the public debate to be defined only by those with the most polarized postures yelling the loudest at each other, we do a disservice to ourselves and our community. So, we embrace the complexity. We refuse to walk away from an issue that matters to us just because others behaved badly. And we seek to hold the broad middle, the place where consensuses can exist, and where, in the absence of consensus, at least some bridging of understanding can be built.

We decline to fall prey to the tribal and partisan traps, even as we offer a voice in admittedly politicized debates. We sit on the side of the values and priorities we’ve chosen to advance in the public space.

We call each issue as we see it, and we address  each of them in relationship with those whom with we disagree. If someone - an elected official or anyone else - is taking a position on a policy where we have a consensus in support, we’ll express that support. And when the same actor takes action where we have a consensus in opposition, we won’t be deterred from expressing that opposition. Sometimes that positions us in different places from our friends, and sometimes places us in alignment with those with whom we have deep differences on other issues. But in the end, the voice we bring will be the authentic reflection of our process and our consensus on that specific issue.

More and more we see folks fully align with “our” tribe on all matters and see the “other” tribe as not only wholly wrong but something to be disparaged and demonized. These trends are playing out within our Jewish community as well.

We are called to resist these trends and to side with the tribe of those who are bound by common values, seek to build bridges of understanding, and are willing to embrace complexity. I hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Beyond Books: Partnerships in Literacy and Learning

The route between High Street and Beacon Hill is a familiar and well-worn one for us at JCRC, as so much of our advocacy on this community’s priorities is realized through our close and enduring relationships with our legislative partners. But Boston City Hall is a much less frequent destination, since our dealings with the City of Boston are more limited. So, we were particularly proud to have our contribution to the City recognized last Wednesday when the Boston City Council honored our longtime volunteers from our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition (GBJCL) for Literacy program for their dedication to the schoolchildren of Boston.

The event was a proud display of the strong partnership that our program has enjoyed with the City of Boston for 22 years: connecting Jewish volunteers deeply committed to the success of young students, to Boston Public Schools, where their expertise can be leveraged to support both students and teachers.

The six volunteers representing GBJCL (with a total combined 100 years of dedicated service!) spoke of the profound bonds that they had formed with their students and about the impact of these relationships on their own lives. Florence Coslow, a volunteer with GBJCL throughout the program’s 22 years, proudly pulled out a stack of thank you cards she has received from her students over her decades of service.

GBJCL Volunteer Florence Coslow (center), with her sister (R) and Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George (L)

I was struck by one remarkable story, shared by GBJCL volunteer Kim Meyers. A member of Temple Beth Zion (TBZ) in Brookline, Kim volunteers with her congregation’s tutoring team at The Winship School in Brighton. For 19 of their 20 years, she has been TBZ’s team leader, organizing volunteer schedules with the school and acting as the liaison between the team of volunteers and school administration.

When GBJCL first initiated the partnership between Winship and TBZ, a small collection of books in a basement room at Winship served as the school's library. These books disappeared when the school was renovated, and the Winship school was left without any library at all.

When a new principal came to the school a couple of years later, Kim met with her to tell her about GBJCL and the one-to-one tutoring that volunteers were providing. She seized on this meeting as an opportunity to present the principal with a challenge:

"What this school needs is a library. How can you promote literacy without a library? If you get a librarian, we will build a library for you."  

The principal took Kim up on her offer. Within the year, she had secured the funding to hire a new librarian. Volunteers at TBZ started a book drive and collected a thousand gently-used books. When the books were delivered to the school, Kim had the chance to meet with the newly hired librarian, who presented her with a wish list of books that she had strategically selected for the new library. Kim brought this list back to the synagogue with a new challenge. Could TBZ provide the school with even more new books?

A bar mitzvah student asked for donations of new books from this list, collecting hundreds of brand new books as well as bookshelves. Rabbis at TBZ organized a mitzvah day and over 20 people showed up at the Winship School on a Sunday to build the bookshelves and then, proceeded to cover, label, catalog, and shelve the books.

GBJCL volunteers and the TBZ synagogue community built a brand-new library.

Years later, the library is still thriving and the partnership is still going strong. The TBZ team has continued to donate books to this library. Several bar/bat mitzvah students have collected books for the library as their service projects. In relaying this story, Kim said, “We feel it is important to foster literacy in all the students, not just the ones we tutor.” 

As with so many of our GBJCL tutoring teams, the deep bond formed from one-on-one tutoring blossomed into an entire Jewish community pursuing a shared dream with a neighboring community. We see this again and again as our GBJCL volunteers cultivate relationships throughout Boston, which evolve from supporting individual students to identifying a variety of creative ways to build rich learning environments.

You can be part of creating and strengthening these relationships by getting involved in GBJCL tutoring services or library projects. Please email Rebecca Shimshak, Director of GBJCL, to find out more information.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

“How Could it have happened? When will it stop?”

Each year on the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Jews around the world visit the graves of their parents to honor their memories. For many Holocaust survivors and their families, there are no graves to visit. Instead, JCRC and our partners host a Yizkor Service for our community’s local survivors and their families, a program that includes survivor testimony.

When I heard the below testimony from child survivor Frieda Grayzel, I knew that her story of survival needed to be heard by a much broader audience – and that her impassioned pleas for action on behalf of today’s “undesirables” were critical to promote. It is my privilege to share it, with the permission of this remarkable woman.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Greetings, dear fellow survivors, dear families and friends.

Shalom. 

My name is Frieda Grayzel, and I was born in Tomaszow, Poland in 1934.

I stand before you, a child survivor, at this very solemn Yizkor Service for the murdered 6 million of our families, friends, teachers, and unborn generations of fellow Jews whom we continue to mourn.

I come from Central Poland, from a large, close family long settled there. I was the cherished, beloved, cute little girl in a family of mostly boisterous boy cousins. My hair curled like Shirley Temple’s, my dresses lovingly made by my mother, and my elegant coats by my father, a tailor trained in Poland and Paris.

May 1939 - My fifth birthday party. Attended by aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends singing good wishes to me. Among my many gifts was a large red ball with big white dots and a carrying net, popular in Europe then, and a picture book of classical Greek and Roman mythology.

September 1, 1939 - Germany invades Poland. We flee to relatives in Warsaw. My sister Dorka is born on September 7th amidst exploding bombs. We are bombed day and night, trapped without food, running water, or electricity, spending many hours in damp, dark cellars turned into bomb shelters. Warsaw resists the Germans for 27 days.

October 1939 - We return home. New laws in quick succession quickly strip our civil and human rights, enforced by random shootings, humiliations, and brutality. 

Spring 1940 - We are forced to move into a walled ghetto in the worst part of town, many families crammed into each apartment. The ghetto population grows to 15,000 as the surrounding countryside is cleared of Jews. Hunger, cold, no electricity, no heat. Conditions worsen daily. Some lucky people get above starvation rations when they are employed in workshops making goods needed by the German Reich - tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, etc. My father becomes one of them.  

All of our valuables are confiscated, many people shot for trying to hide their jewelry, furs, money, household silver. The lies accumulate: the “Red Cross action”, the “Palestine action”, and on... working on peoples’ hopes that they can escape if only they prove that they have relatives elsewhere.  They are sent to their deaths. 

October 30 and November 2, 1942: The Aussiedlung ‘evacuation’: Aussiedlung: 95% of the ghetto told they will be sent to labor camps. A new lie calculated to minimize resistance. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends are all sent to Treblinka, the extermination camp, and murdered. The rest of us who have a close family member working in a workshop remain in the ghetto and are put to work emptying the apartments of those sent to Treblinka. In a large warehouse, we sort and clean all the possessions to be sent to Germany. My mother and I work sorting through the bed linens and bundling them. 

April 1943 – We are crammed into cattle cars, standing room only. Interminable trip, no air, no water, a cooking pot for a toilet. We arrive at Blizyn labor camp which also allows random killings and beatings for the smallest infraction. Separate camps for men and women, barracks with one board thick walls. 

November 1943 - My little sister Dorka, four years old, is ripped from my mother’s arms. My mother fights to go with her and is savagely beaten. All the children are sent to a nearby forest and shot.

December 1943 - My father and uncle are arrested, stripped of their shoes and kept in a wire enclosure on snowy, frozen ground. My mother scours the camp, manages to get a pair of wooden clogs and throws them over the wire fence to my father. She is beaten savagely with a board from a wooden fence, her ribs broken. That winter, a typhus epidemic sweeps through the camp and almost everyone comes down with raging fevers and hallucinations, no medical care. The “hospital” barrack is so full that I lie on the floor in the hallway. I survive. Soon I come down with malnutrition sores all over. 

July 1944 - We are crammed into cattle cars, an even longer journey. Blinded by light as the doors are slid loudly open, we are pushed, yells of ‘schnell, schnell, faster, faster’- to jump onto the platform many feet below the cattle car floor, surrounded by wildly barking dogs. We have arrived in Auschwitz- Birkenau. Men and women separate, we are told to strip. Many of us have our heads shaved roughly. We get through the showers, alive - water this time. We go through long lines under harsh flood lights to be tattooed with numbers - no more names. In Birkenau, camp B2B, overcrowded triple tier wooden board bunks, starvation rations. I am terrified as my mother risks her life over and over to procure us a bit of extra food. Hangings, shootings, and horrible punishments are all around us. Suicides by electric wire fences. We become used to the stench of the crematorium smoke. 

October 1944 - Our camp is herded to the FKL women’s camp in Auschwitz. We go through a selection by the infamous, white gloved Dr. Mengele. I am sent to the left, my mother refuses to go to the right- to the right go young women capable of work. She is beaten again, but then allowed to join me. As is my cousin Rena and her mother Hinda. Our little group – children and some older women, stand for hours in front of an iron and wood door - the gas chamber. As darkness falls, we are told to dress and walked to a fenced-in brick barrack, holding place for the gas chamber and ovens. We learned later that a small group of women prisoners, over a long period of time, had smuggled in tiny amounts of explosives from a munitions factory and exploded the crematorium– The Sonderkommando Revolt.

An SS woman approaches my mother the next day. She asks if my mother wants to save me and Rena.  Our mothers consult and say yes - they know what our fate will otherwise be. We are taken to the Twins barrack, enclosed by a wire fence. We were close in age. Dr. Mengele performs horrible, heartless experiments on twins. He himself was a twin. Daily some are taken away and returned – or sometimes not – in pain, with bandages, but they never talk. 

The winter of 1944 closed in, days darkened; the twins’ barracks is transferred to the “gypsy camp” after its occupants were gassed and cremated. After a while my mother found me and instructed me on what symptoms to complain of so I would be sent to a hospital barrack. Somehow they managed to get me and Rena transferred. Evacuations, the death marches, towards the West started. Rena and I were too weak to walk, so the four of us hid under the planks of an empty barrack, on the frozen ground.  When the Germans came through to look for any strays, they did not find us.  

January 27, 1945 - The Russian liberating soldiers arrived. January 27th became my second birthday, my re-birth-day.  

July 1945 - My father and uncle Nathan return from six concentration camps after hitchhiking from camp Ebensee in Austria. Rena’s eight-year-old brother Romek was killed in Auschwitz, her father shot a few days before liberation.  We were alive:  we were homeless and stateless. We ended up in Displaced Persons camps in West Germany. After four years of waiting our visas’ turn came and we arrive in the United States in 1949. Our readjustments begin again.

So – how could all this have happened?  Six million of our people and so many others tortured and murdered, one-and-a half million children murdered? 

How could it have happened? It tears my heart to remember, to talk about it – how could it have happened?

Is it when leaders and governments nurture lies and propaganda designed to denigrate and dehumanize some peoples? Is it when it calls people undesirables, as we were, when all borders were closed to us? Is it when people seeking asylum from dire conditions are called murderers and rapists? When it uses children’s separation from their parents heartlessly, as a means to control the borders? Do they not realize or care that the consequences of these actions never go away? For they never go away. 

I will never forget my four-year-old sister Dorka ripped from my mother’s arms, sent to her death in some nearby forest.  The echoes of the 1930‘s in our current situation here are too frightful...

Most of us, survivors, have built good and successful lives and families. We needed both strength and chance to survive. But we live with our experiences always, and so do the families we created. It is inevitable. 

So when will it stop? Will good people with open hearts be strong enough to stop it?  The deceptions, the lies, the heartless policies, the propaganda?  Let us hope so.

On Being Proximate and Not Being Paralyzed

The following is an excerpt from my remarks last Thursday at JCRC Celebrates…

At JCRC we like to speak of big, noble values like “our national purpose rebuilding the homeland of the Jewish people” or “defending the norms of Western democracy,” or “tikkun olam.” And right now, it can be too easy to become paralyzed by big ideas when facing the seemingly overwhelming nature of the challenges in our world and in our country.

But rather than do nothing, we look to Jewish tradition to provide us not only with a mandate for big noble ideas like the urgency of taking care of our own and of others, but also with practical wisdom about how to set about achieving this seemingly impossible task – and maybe more important – a strategy for warding off the paralysis of despair.

The Torah offers a concept (elaborated on by the Rabbis) of a circle of responsibility, where our greatest obligations are to those closest to us. This hierarchy reflects our most human impulses – to prioritize those with whom we are most proximate; our families and those whom we love. But the Torah also tells us that our obligations do not stop there. The circle of responsibility includes our neighbors, our cities and towns, and ultimately expands to encompass all of humanity.

If our circle begins with our own Jewish community, it expands to include all those who share our great Commonwealth. Through our relationships with those to whom we are proximate, those we draw near, we learn of action we can take right here and right now, that has impact on the lives of those we’ve grown close to.

So, rather than be paralyzed by the reality of 12,800 migrant children in federal detention right now, we at JCRC have organized 18 synagogues in 4 Sanctuary networks supporting a variety of families. With our Christian partners, we’ve mobilized 600 volunteers to support 160 people in detention, provided accompaniment at 170 court hearings, and – raised over $100,000 to bond out 32 people being held in federal detention who are awaiting hearings – all right here in Massachusetts.

Rather than be paralyzed by a sense of despair over the prospect of a two-state solution 25 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, we at JCRC have started Boston Partners for Peace. In partnership with CJP, we’re changing the conversation in Boston about coexistence. Through connection to Israeli and Palestinian success stories, we’re offering hope as an alternative to despair and inviting our community to work for the future in a proactive and positive way here in Boston.

Rather than by paralyzed by global hostility to Israel, we at JCRC mobilized a broad network of our member agencies, our allies, and our community in Cambridge this spring to defeat an effort to make the boycott Israel movement into city policy. We made visible the unseen community of support in that city. And then, in the state’s new Economic Development Bill, we worked with our friends on Beacon Hill to guarantee $250,000 for the facilitation and support of the Massachusetts-Israel Economic Connection to pursue economic collaboration between Israel and the Commonwealth.

Rather than be paralyzed by rising anti-Semitism and concerns about Jewish security, we worked with a network of Jewish agencies to advocate successfully for Governor Baker to reconstitute the state’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Then we worked with our partners in the legislature to establish a nonprofit security grant pilot last year, which was doubled to $150,000. Real money for institutions in our community and other communities at risk.

And we do work every day through Service – work that cultivates our proximity with others and nurtures the connections and shared community that reflect our Jewish values: mobilizing more than 1,200 volunteers each year in ongoing and one-day opportunities. Through 68 partners in the Jewish community and 134 service sites across the region, including 25 public schools, we’re doing the work of being proximate with our neighbors.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the “Rav” & founder of Brookline’s Maimonides School taught us:

During the Yom Kippur services, our prayerful concerns are almost exclusively with our own people…We are often accused of being parochially clannish. This may be true, for otherwise we would have succumbed long ago, considering our historical vulnerability. But this self-involvement is not hermetically exclusionary. The universal emphasis is prominent in all of our prayers, in Scripture, the Talmud and the Midrash;

It is (therefore) characteristic of the universal embrace of our faith that as the shadows of dusk descend on Yom Kippur day, after almost 24 hours of prayer for Israel, the Jew is alerted through the book of Jonah, prior to the closing of ‘the heavenly gates’ (Ne’ilah) that all humanity is God’s children. We need to restate the universal dimension of our faith.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

In 18 days, your vote has an impact on our criminal justice system

The Massachusetts legislative session just ended, with mixed results on issues dear to our community. We at JCRC were pleased with many aspects of the budget and the economic development bill, but we (and our partners in the immigration advocacy community) were sorely disappointed at the failure to adopt basic protections for immigrants being targeted in our community. And yet, on another issue of deep concern to our community, criminal justice reform, we celebrated the passage of the most significant and far-reaching state legislation in years. With our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) and the ACLU, we were greatly encouraged to see many of our own priorities (as determined by the JCRC Council – our representative body on behalf of our 43 member organizations) enshrined into law. And as with all other legislative victories, we knew that monitoring implementation of the new law would be critical in achieving justice that has been long delayed for so many in our community.

The ability of this new law to deliver a just criminal justice system hinges on a person whose influence is not universally understood: the District Attorney. And now, for the first time in recent memory, six of our eleven Massachusetts DA elections are contested and potentially decisive primary elections, scheduled for September 4th: only 18 days away.

So, those of us who have worked so hard for criminal justice reform are encouraging our community to become educated on this critical role, and to choose our candidates wisely.

Despite what we tend to believe about the determinative power of judges in our criminal legal system, a recent Boston Globe op-ed said that in fact:

“Prosecutors wield near absolute power. They determine which and how many criminal charges to file, with a grand jury typically rubber stamping the charges. Prosecutors then decide whether to offer a plea bargain and dictate its conditions. Given that more than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved through pleas rather than trials, these choices by prosecutors effectively determine the outcome of the vast of majority criminal cases, even if judges nominally oversee the entry of the plea."

That amount of power in any one person’s hand should draw our attention, especially because we live in the shadow of decades of “tough-on-crime” laws that have prioritized mass incarceration over rehabilitation. Now more than ever, we need our DAs to be our partners in ensuring that our criminal justice system is truly just.

Here are some steps you can take to be a fully informed voter on this vital issue:

  • Review the key issues for the candidates running in your county (and perhaps remind yourself what county you vote in – for example: Boston is Suffolk; Cambridge, Lexington, and Newton are Middlesex; Brookline is Norfolk – find your county here). Check out the ACLU voters guides for Suffolk County, Middlesex County, and the rest here. JCRC Councilmember Kathy Weinman has collected all of the candidates’ websites in a great blog post.
  • See the candidates in person. If you belong to a congregation that’s a member of GBIO, come to the Suffolk and Middlesex candidate forum that they’re hosting on August 23rd at the Boston Teachers' Union in Dorchester (reach out to our organizer Ben Poor for more information).
  • Learn more about what a DA does. You can attend the CourtWatch training on August 21st at Temple Israel in Boston, hosted by members of various congregations advocating for Criminal Justice Reform (anyone is welcome). ​​Court watching is a way to hold DAs accountable by attending court hearings and documenting what happens. You don't need any previous experience to come to the training, only a desire to hold judges and prosecutors accountable for fairness and equity.

As I head into the voting booth on September 4th, I’ll be thinking about the public servants who are charged with implementing the laws we work so hard to pass, and about the importance of having the fairest DAs – who will ensure public safety while also advancing a system that is equitable and just.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jeremy