Author: Jeremy Burton

Changing the Politics of What Is Possible

In the days following Sunday’s installation of the new Israeli government, I’ve been struck by the negativity of some of the ‘hot-takes’ I’ve seen and heard: “Bennett is just another right-winger.” “This coalition won’t last more than 3-months.” “This government won’t make big moves on the issue I’m passionate about.”

Granted, a lot of that negativity is coming from people who are habitually negative about Israel. But it also strikes me as missing the mark at a fundamental level about what this new government is, what it represents, and why this new coalition is a cause for hope and inspiration; for those who believe that we can still find leaders who are willing to put aside their personal differences for the common good.

It is true that one can look at the new prime minister and say, “he’s a former director of the council of Jewish communities beyond the Green Line, and he’s said some pretty problematic things over the years.”  And, it is true that one can look at this coalition and see instability:

Eight parties with none, other than Yesh Atid, the party of coalition architect Yair Lapid, having double-digit seats. The thinnest possible majority in parliament, representing wildly diffuse parts of Israeli society, from hard-left Tel Avivniks to Modern Orthodox Jews living beyond the Green Line; hawkish secular Russian emigres alongside an Islamist party – the first Arab sector party to sign a coalition agreement.

But looking through our own particular lens means we’re missing what is happening here. Leaders and factions who have every excuse not to work with each other have instead decided to say: “We need to change how we do politics in this country, and it starts with taking huge risks to sit across our differences, to compromise in ways previously unimaginable and forge a new path forward – even if we don’t quite know yet what that way will be.”

If one thing binds this coalition, it’s the desire for a change from the politics of the personal, and from the politics of division, that have defined so much of the Israeli political sphere in recent years (as it has in so many countries). It’s a willingness to sit at a table, as one government, across profound disagreements, and say: “we will work on what we agree on, and we will work through those things about which we do not; debating them as people with a shared interest in the future of our coalition and our country.” It is also, not least, a government of leaders who, despite their differences, understand that corrosive partisanship hasn’t been good for their own country’s politics, nor for how they relate to their partners, including the United States.

It is also a statement that no one person will define the government, and no one person is essential to the security and the future of the nation. We Americans tend to disproportionately view the head of the government as the only person holding meaningful power.  It’s a political instinct that we are far too habituated to; focusing, for example, on electing a President and not turning out for mid-term elections for everything from school committees to the Senate. And it is also a growing trend in Israeli political dynamics, with an increasingly American-style premiership, which leads to diminished visibility of and leadership from other members of the cabinet.

This new government has chosen to break that mold, to elevate its own dramatic diversity, to hold shared power across divides, and to speak with a shared voice. Bennett is the premier, but every party is essential, all will be visible, and all will have influence.

It’s also an invitation to Israelis to imagine a future that isn’t defined by the centrality of any one person as prime minister. Young adults, and certainly those coming of age now, who are finishing high school and entering military service, have little memory of a nation before Netanyahu, and a politics not dominated by his personality and style. Change, even if modest – and this is hardly modest – can begin to expand young people’s imaginations about the politics of what is possible.

As has been noted by others, each of these parties has taken extraordinary political risks to form this coalition. It may be a majority-of-one, but it is a majority in which every single member has a vested interest in its success. And, by its own terms, its success – while we do not yet know how that will manifest on every issue, and even if it is limited in scope in certain important cases – could profoundly affect how Israelis do politics. Success, now, would be an adaptive change, and successful adaptation makes more adaptation possible in the future. That’s something that Israelis, their region, and our world need more of right now.

I look at this government and see genuine leaders, who are placing their sense of citizenship and collective responsibility above personal factions and any absolutism on issues. Given what we continue to see in the fractured politics of our own country, this gives me hope for what is possible. And so, I’m ready to reject the negativity out there about this government and to bet hard on the hope that it represents, and I’m eager to learn from their example.

On the other side of the wall

This past week I sat down, separately, with two of our partners in Israel, Mohammad Darawshe and Raz Shmilovich. We had asked each of them to join us to share their experiences, as an Arab and a Jew, and as Israelis, during these recent, difficult weeks. How, we wondered, do they and their neighbors think about the tensions of recent events?

Mohammad Darawshe is the Director of Equality and Shared Society at Givat Haviva. We’ve met with him often over the years, both in Israel and here in Boston, to talk about his work, building a shared society for all of Israel’s citizens. In recent weeks he and his family have experienced harassment and danger, even to the point of Mohammad having to hide his Arab  identity from Jewish extremists in Afulah, and his children facing racist comments at school and work.

Raz Shmilovich lives in Moshav Netiv Ha’Asara. A farming community, this is the closest Israeli village to the Gaza strip, where we visit regularly to talk with him and his neighbors. Even during relative calm, their lives can be unimaginable to us. Bomb shelters are everywhere, but even during the best circumstances, residents only have 5 seconds to reach a shelter once a mortar is fired. We’ve seen where terrorists dug a tunnel under the wall and came out amidst their greenhouses, along with the ongoing efforts to protect the residents by building an anti-tunnel barrier outside their homes.

My conversations with them reminded me of a much-commented upon event in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach. This portion tells the story of the spies, sent from the wilderness to scout the land of Canaan. Famously, when they return to the Israelite camp, they make a report:

“The people who inhabit the land are powerful, and the cities are fortified… more over we saw Anakites (giants) there.”  Numbers 13:28

Their report evokes fear in the Israelite camp. And yet, some forty years later, in the time of Joshua, in a story we also read this shabbat, we learn that the Canaanites of this story were afraid of the Israelites as well. In Jericho, a Canaanite woman, Rahab, tells a new generation of Israelite spies that “dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking.” (Joshua 2:9)

The medieval scholar Rashi, in his commentary on our Torah portion, looks at these two moments and explains that “the higher the walls, the more fearful the people.”

I asked Raz what he is telling his children right now. He said he tells them about the need for Palestinians and Israelis to actually live together “two or three generations living one by each other, next to the other, we would learn not to fear.” He grew up with open fields and roads, riding his bike in Gaza to markets and playing basketball with Palestinian friends, a human experience his children have never been able to share. Raz appreciates the full humanity of the parents on the other side of the wall. But this is not an experience his children have ever known. “When my kids come to me… happy for someone being killed, that’s a wake-up call for me. I don’t want anyone to die. But for them, Gaza is like an entity.” He tells them about a kid, Ahmed, on the other side of the wall, in Gaza, who goes to bed afraid. “He doesn’t have a bomb shelter to go to. He doesn’t have a school to go to.” And Raz hopes that Ahmed’s father is telling him the same story about Raz’s children, who also live in fear.

I asked Mohammad about the fear that he and his family have experienced and what he, as a long-time co-existence advocate, says to his own grown children right now. He tells them that people are living in the heat and anger of the moment, and trying to exercise power – even if they don’t have it – to cause damage. He tells his children to reach out to their friends, including their Jewish friends, just to say hello. He’s initiated 100 calls in the past week with Jewish friends to say that “just because there’s a meltdown out there, we don’t have to be part of it. It doesn’t mean we have to disconnect from our hope for partnership… The duty to get out of the problem, is for each individual to pick up the phone and say… lets have coffee, let’s sit and talk.”

Now, there are times when security needs require protective walls. Security barriers have successfully reduced violence, here and elsewhere. But the wisdom in Raz and Mohammad’s words, and their implicit response to Rashi’s message, is that when we build walls - literal and metaphorical – even for all the right reasons, they can also close off the social interactions that can reduce fears. Walls limit our ability to see and hear other people as human beings, with full lives, dreams and hopes, and fears.

What Raz, Mohammad, and so many of our friends on the ground are doing is refusing to be defined by their own fears and fears that others may have of them. They are teaching their children first-hand how to reach out and to connect. They may (or may not) see some walls as necessary at some times, but they also believe there must always be a door to the other side.

There are people on the ground who are doing the necessary work of peace, of creating and opening these doors, like so many of the organizations we support through our Boston Partners for Peace initiative. This week we have an opportunity to support their critical work. Please join me in signing this letter from the Alliance for Middle East Peace to the Biden Administration, encouraging them to support the International Fund for Peace at the upcoming G7. This funding will ensure that peacebuilding organizations such as Givat Haviva and the others featured on our Boston Partners for Peace platform will have the resources they need to transform their communities.

I look forward to seeing you at further conversations with our partner organizations, and I encourage you to read about them on the Boston Partners for Peace website.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“Boston is different”

One of the more meaningful moments of my career in community relations, before I moved to Boston and in my early time here, was how often I was told that when it comes to Jewish communal life, “Boston is different.” As a newbie, I took that mantra and acknowledged it. I can’t say I always believed it.

I can tell you now about one way in which Boston is most certainly different in 2021: the way that we collaborate and network within our Jewish community.

A lot of attention has been given in recent months to divisions within our organized Jewish community, both nationally – in Pew findings that show increasing polarization and fracturing – and at the JCRC table, where we’ve debated, and will no doubt continue to debate, who gets to be here, and what is out of bounds. And it has been noted that in this, Boston is different, because of our uniquely ‘big table’ approach to a JCRC, which sometimes invites messy debates.

But when a city councilor in Cambridge chose to put an order on the agenda to single out and demonize Israel, I was privileged to be a part of a relational and collaborative community; in a way that I know does not always happen in other local Jewish communities.

During a meeting held on Shavuot – a sacred holiday that for many but not all of us precluded participation in the debate –  the lead sponsoring city councilor rejected the request, on behalf of Cambridge’s observant Jews, for a religious accommodation to participate in the debate at a later date. He asserted that the actions of a foreign state, Israel, absolved Cambridge of any obligation to accommodate its own citizens (a vile notion, to be clear). But another councilor, Patricia Nolan, invoked her right to table the action until after the holiday, specifically to accommodate that request for our community. We are all grateful to her, and to other councilors who would have also invoked that right, for continuing to respect and welcome the participation of observant Jews, and Jewish organizations, in Cambridge civic life.

During the week in between the first and second council meetings, Jewish communal organizations and activists came together for genuine collaboration – not only those mentioned in the various public statements this week, but grassroots communities and congregations in the city. Just one example: a powerful joint testimony by 250 residents that explicitly respected the council’s time by not adding another five hours to a seven-hour hearing. This would not have happened without collaboration from many different groups including Hillel students and Cambridge synagogues.

And after that second hearing, when the voices of hundreds of members of our community, along with our friends and partners, were heard – both in written and spoken testimony, we finally watched the Council debate. Councilor Nolan spoke passionately about her own connection to our community as a past board member of the Workers Circle – a member in good standing, to this day, of JCRC – as she, along with two former mayors, Marc McGovern, and Denise Simmons - presented the substitute order that was ultimately adopted.

I thought of all this when, at one gathering of tired and sleepless advocates this week (it has been a challenging few weeks for everyone) several of my colleagues spoke with passion about the collaboration here in Boston: “This is unique.” “This doesn’t happen everywhere.”

That’s true. I hear it from colleagues around the country all the time: disparate Jewish communal voices competing for credit, breaks of trust between the local offices of various agencies, criticizing one another to their shared donors, or separate coordinating coalitions trying to achieve the same local objective.

We here in Boston are in fact different. After all, our JCRC Council is literally the ONLY room in the country – either nationally and locally - where J Street, the Israeli-American Council, the ADL, AJC, New Israel Fund, the federation, and AIPAC, and so many others, all sit in one room together to hash out shared communal views.

And we are better for it. Yes, sometimes it gets messy. But it also invites a sense of shared community, and purpose, across our differences. What our community, and our country, need right now, are more people and more communities willing to work through the hard stuff together.

This week’s Torah reading has a passage in which God instructs Moses to make trumpets of silver to summon the congregation (edah) and cause the camps (mahanot) to journey. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z’l, has a wonderful essay on this passage – I encourage you to read it in full, it merits hours of conversation and study on its own – in which he discusses the concept of the edah, a community formed through shared projects and a vision for the common good.  “It comes into existence” he writes, “by internal decision. (A camp) is reactive, (an edah) is proactive.”

“Judaism in the past two centuries has fissured and fractured into different edot: Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, and the many subdivisions that continue to atomise Jewish life into non-communicating sects and subcultures. Yet in times of crisis we are still capable of heeding the call of collective responsibility, knowing as we do that Jewish fate tends to be indivisible. No Jew, to paraphrase John Donne, is an island, entire of him- or herself. We are joined by the gossamer strands of collective memory, and these can sometimes lead us back to a sense of shared destiny.”

May the struggles of crisis this past month, and the example of our community here in Boston that still strives to be more than individual camps, one edah, be a source of inspiration and a catalyst to go forward and do the proactive work of “the continued renaissance of the Jewish people as a force for good in the world.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our Jewish Communal Table

As most of you are aware, our Council met on Tuesday night. In a four-hour long meeting, they debated and addressed a number of questions regarding who sits at our table, and the boundaries of our “big tent.”

I suspect that this meeting, and the eight-months-long process that led to it, will continue to be discussed and studied in the months and years ahead. And I expect that this study will place our debate within a larger, national, Jewish conversation about whether there is or can be one communal table anymore in the twenty-first century. It is not lost on me that it was during and following World War II that most of our collective networks were established, to provide a voice to all parts of our community, and to speak as powerful entities, united by common purpose.

JCRCs. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The Conference of Presidents.

All of these bodies and others, we created in the shadow of the Holocaust, and in the dawn light of the State of Israel; The darkest and the brightest points in 2,000 years of a Jewish diasporic story, in rapid succession.

This ability to sit together across differences at one table in this country was informed by many dynamics; a sense of despair and hope; of powerlessness by American Jews to prevent the Shoah and a newfound sense of obligation as the largest, most influential Jewish community in the world, emerging from its rubble; of aspiration, as Jews and Americans, to defeat antisemitism here at home and to care for our refugees – both from Europe and then from the Middle East, as our Mizrachi cousins were driven out of country after country after 1948.

In recent years, we’ve had debates here in Boston about the presence of two different JCRC founding member organizations, and their continued place, at our table. In each case, vast gaps in analysis of what threatens American and Global Jewry’s future were a central aspect of the conversation, vast differences in perception over what is antisemitism, and which antisemitism matters most, were subtext, if not text.

The very notion that these two organizations and so many others at our table could come together, as they did in 1944 to combat antisemitism in the streets of Boston, seems implausible, if not impossible in 2021. In other words: If we didn’t already have the JCRCs and the Conference of Presidents, would we be able to create them today?

I, for one, am confident that there are still compelling reasons for us to work together across our differences, that there are shared interests to advocate for. Some of them are practical and local. For example:

Just last week Massachusetts released the latest round of non-profit security grants, 53 grants totaling $950,000, of which 31 grants, totaling $525,000 went to Jewish institutions.

This would not have happened without a network like JCRC leading the work and advancing our interests on Beacon Hill, building a bipartisan coalition, bringing together Jewish institutions across the Commonwealth, and building partnerships with other vulnerable and targeted communities, on a matter that we’ve prioritized.

On a broader level, I believe that a community that is but 2% of the American people, and a small fraction of the global population, needs to work at building a renewed sense of common purpose and cause, a reason for holding together in fractured times. I also recognize that the younger people coming of age in today’s Jewish world, some of whom are already leading and others of whom will hopefully lead our community in the decades ahead, will, if we are successful in offering continued vision and purpose for our institutional structures, be leading organizations that were established fully a century before their time.

I’ve long felt that Avraham Infeld (a giant of Jewish communal leadership including at Hillel and at Birthright Israel) said it well when he articulated the notion that our mission ought to be - as individuals, as Jewish organizations and as communities - “to advance the continued renaissance of the Jewish people as a force for good in the world.”

Creating an inspiring and shared vision for our community and our institutions, for a century after that renaissance began, is no easy task. It will require a lot of hard work, difficult conversations, and a willingness to engage with far more respect for each other and our differences than has been evident in recent years. I don’t pretend to have the answers for how we do that work, but I know it is worth doing, and I hope that you’d be willing to do that hard work with us.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

The Derek Chauvin Verdict and the Work Ahead

On Tuesday afternoon, like so many of us, I spent an hour anxiously waiting for the Derek Chauvin verdict to be announced, after which I connected with others to share our reflections. A dear colleague shared that recently they had been feeling that if they can’t fix all the things in our world that are broken, why even try? Why not just give up amidst the heartbreak and the overwhelming demand put on our moral compasses?

Still, amidst the despair, there was that moment, in the first hour after the verdict, when so many of us had an initial reaction of relief, thanking God that a measure of justice was achieved.

And then we pulled back and reflected on the larger scope of what was happening. That this was not justice. Justice would be George Floyd being alive today. This was accountability for one officer who had committed murder. Justice would be a world in which this conviction was not so profoundly newsworthy as it is in the world in which we live, where only 1 in 2,000 deaths at the hands of law enforcement result in this kind of accountability.

So, what does this moment in Minneapolis mean? And equally important, what does it not yet mean?  How do we sustain and build on this all-too-rare moment of accountability to imagine a different future, one that values the humanity of all Americans, protects their lives and provides them with all that this country has to offer?

It means that a single police officer committed an act so heinous, that his fellow officers did all they could to disassociate themselves from his violence – and that he was held accountable in a court of law for those actions. We hope and pray that for the family of George Floyd, of blessed memory, there is some measure of comfort and healing that can take place now that his killer was convicted.

Yet, as we have been reminded by so many Black voices this week, ones often tinged with anguish and rage, justice would mean that Black Americans wouldn’t have to calculate their every movement, for fear of being killed as they go about their daily lives. Justice would mean that Black Americans would have the freedom to spend their energy pursuing their dreams, instead of battling unimaginable exhaustion as a result of having to weather chronic and persistent racism.

I am thinking back to a meaningful moment, early in my own entry to the work of police reform and racial justice, when in 1999, Amadou Diallo was gunned down on his own front steps by four New York City police officers. In the weeks that followed, protests occurred at One Police Plaza demanding accountability, almost exclusively by Black and Latino public officials and community leaders. At a JCRC (New York) breakfast, Congressman Charlie Rangel was asked by reporters about the protests, and he noted memorably that white New Yorkers were more inclined to take to the streets after the death of a Central Park carriage horse than they were over police accountability.

Together, with friends, and through the vehicle of JFREJ, a local Jewish social justice group that I would later co-chair, we organized. Within a week, and fueled by participation from the majority of the seminary students at both Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, I, along with 126 rabbis and Jewish activists, was arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience that dominated the news cycle. Our presence affirmed broader and more diverse support for this cause than was being claimed by City Hall.

Those four officers would be indicted, and then, to our dismay, acquitted at trial despite the 41 shots at an unarmed man.

A year ago, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, we witnessed the extraordinary sight of Americans of all races taking to the streets to demand justice, on a scale not seen in decades. They – we – understood that all of us are implicated in the racial inequities that plague this country, and that all of us are needed to effect real change.

At JCRC, we doubled down on the long term and painstaking work of systemic change, informed by the experience and expertise of Black members of the Jewish community and by our legislative and interfaith partners. We joined with them to advocate for police reform in Massachusetts. We connected synagogues and churches craving meaningful ways to act together to build a more just community. We gathered with our friends at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to hear from the members of their 50+ diverse organizations, about the issues that matter most to their lives and to build the power to address them together.

How do I respond to that colleague, holding tension between this moment of possibility and the vastness of the challenge?

Unfortunately, there is much that hasn’t changed in 22 years. And yet there are, moments like the one we experienced this week, of genuine progress, including in the scope of public consciousness, and the diversity of people who are holding ourselves and each other accountable to do this work.

And I told them that I am reminded of the second century rabbi, Tarfon, who taught us: “It is not for you to complete that task, but neither are you free to stand aside from the work.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Relationships that bolster our resiliency

For those of us who advocate on Beacon Hill on behalf of our communities, working to advance a broad agenda of budget and legislative priorities, the past year has been exceptionally challenging. Hearings and meetings over Zoom don’t have the same tactile richness as connecting in person. A virtual legislative reception, like the one we hosted last month, doesn’t allow for the small conversations, introductions and fortuitous moments that are so essential in finding common ground and overcoming differences on policy.

So we at JCRC are all the more gratified, as you know, to enjoy continued legislative and budgetary wins even now.

As many of you know, last week we said farewell to Aaron Agulnek, JCRC’s director of government affairs, who has been with us for almost twelve years. We’re grateful for all that he’s done in his time here on behalf of our community – advocating for non-profit security funding, workforce development, criminal justice reform, and the continuing effort to mandate genocide education were all sources of pride for him as he departed JCRC. We wish him the greatest success in his next ventures.

In my tenth year here, I’ve been thinking back on the many meaningful moments during my tenure. One that keeps coming back to me, is from my first days. When I was interviewing and then during the transition, there had been genuine concern about an “outsider” being able to do this job. And while “outsider” in Boston often means anyone who’s grandparents were not born here, in my case it wasn’t just that I came from somewhere else to take the job, but that I was stepping in without the benefit of relationships on Beacon Hill.

In those early months, I learned an essential lesson; that the strength of our network and our ability to be effective rested on no one person, not even someone with decades of history. Rather, it rests on a wide web of relationships built by volunteers and professionals across our member agencies. There were leaders on the Hill who didn’t know me, but knew us, or parts of us. Many of them were leaders in their own right within the Jewish community, others had been in the trenches with us and had bonds that were both deep and wide.

This season, as we jump into our second legislative session during a pandemic, I’m struck by the resiliency that comes through thick relationships. I was reminded of that again this week when the House budget was released, reflecting shared priorities championed through the leadership of so many of our friends on Beacon Hill.

So thank you to House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz (a former JCRC Council member) and Speaker Mariano (a recent JCRC legislative leadership honoree) for championing a historic budget that increases funding and support for crucial programs and social services, needed now in our recovery, more than ever. It’s great to see funding included for Transitions to Work, a longtime collaboration by Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Boston, CJP, and the Ruderman Foundation, that creates job training programs for adults with disabilities. Chair Michlewitz has shepherded the work  to provide key funding to help young adults get into college for long-term success, a priority for us and our partners at JVS.

We’re thrilled to see continued investment in the Secure Jobs initiative, which provides job placement, housing support and stabilization services to those who are housing insecure. Leader Joe Wagner has helped us build this program over so many years. Rep. Ruth Balser, a leader in the Newton Jewish community, has been a passionate advocate and partner, working with us to bolster state funding to protect our at-risk institutions, including places of worship. 

Thanks to the leadership of members like Rep. Tommy Vitolo, Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) funding in the budget will help seniors stay in their homes and have access to exercise, socialization, healthcare and other services.  The Jewish community has also been a leader in providing training to new immigrants and refugees, such as our partners at JVS. State funding helps make sure this continues and Rep. Mike Moran has long led the charge for this.

Of course, the work is not yet done. In a few weeks, the Massachusetts Senate will present its budget plan, and then the two legislative branches will have to work out their differences. Down the line we look forward to thanking, again, those senators who’ve partnered with and championed the priorities of JCRC, our network of agencies, and the organized Jewish community.

But for now, we express our gratitude to  Rep. Michlewitz and Speaker Mariano and all of our friends In the House for their longtime deep support of the Jewish community and the programs above. And we are reminded, again, as I was ten years ago, that the strength of our relationships runs deep and wide, and that each generation of community leaders builds upon the work of those who came before us, and we will then pass the baton to the next generation who will carry the work forward.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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.

NativeTongueElgin

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