Author: Jeremy Burton

Telling the True Story of a Place

Earlier this week I sat down with one of our beloved Israel educators, Yishay Shavit. Yishay used some of his time during the pandemic – and shut-down of Israel’s tourist industry – to co-edit a fascinating collection of pieces by his guide colleagues, titled Heartbeats: The Insider’s Guide to Israel. 

We had a great conversation about the publishing process, the stories in the book, and about some of his own experiences during the pandemic, as a parent at one of the seven Hand-in-Hand schools, a shared-society initiative that we are proud to feature through JCRC's Boston Partners for Peace initiative.  

I talked with Yishay about our experience working with him and some of the other educators in the anthology, and the deliberate effort he made to include a diverse set of voices from across the Israeli spectrum – right and left, secular and religious, Mizrahi, Russian, and Arab citizens of Israel. Knowing that he has Palestinian friends and colleagues who are not Israeli citizens and who guide under the Palestinian Authority tourism ministry, I asked him why those voices were not in the book. 

His response is one I’m continuing to sit with. 

Yishay said that the easy answer would be that this is a book about Israel. “But that would be a lie. You cannot understand Israel without the point of view of the Palestinians.” He went on to say that their plan had been to include at least one story from a Palestinian guide who was not an Israeli citizen. A Palestinian guide had in fact submitted an essay. But then, Yishay tells us, this guide withdrew from the project. 

His Palestinian colleague told Yishay: “To talk to a group on a bus, it is wonderful. But to have everything printed, in a book… Someone is not going to be happy with what I wrote, Israeli or Palestinian.  I could pay a heavy price for that and I simply don’t want to take the chance.”  

Yishay then approached four other Palestinian colleagues, who raised similar concerns. Regrettably, he and his co-editors concluded that “it simply wasn’t going to work.” 

Yishay called this a “tragedy.” “That people are too scared to write their own opinion, about the conflict… and print it in a book” (and to be fair, he notes, a book printed by Israelis) is why he and the other guides featured in this book are unable to capture the complete spectrum of the issues and nuances of the region.    

For me, this story really gets at the complexity of telling the story of what’s happening in a place, particularly in a place like Israel. There’s such a difference between reading an article in a newspaper or book in America and traveling there and actually engaging with people on the ground. There’s no replacement for having authentic conversations with people to learn about them, their lives, and their realities. There are things people choose to tell or not to tell a reporter. And there are things people choose to have or not have on the record, in print, forever. The best, most illuminating, and most real conversations are the ones that happen in people’s living rooms – or on the bus - where they can tell me their truths, ones I sometimes find challenging to hear, but whose authenticity I cannot question.   

I am, as always, grateful for Yishay’s wisdom, and for the stories that he and his colleagues share in this new book (and I encourage you to check it out). And I am grateful for the reminder that not all truths will be found in reading about a place. I’m yearning to get back to Israel as soon as I possibly can to continue these conversations. I’m excited for the pastors who will be traveling with us and Yishay next summer.  

And I’m encouraging everyone to remember that you can’t really know everything about any place, and certainly not somewhere as complicated as Israel and the Palestinian Areas, by reading an article or a book. You have to go and have the conversations with the people who live there; with as many and as a diverse a representation of them as possible. In doing so, we can truly begin to understand this place, in all of its complexity, that we care so deeply about – while at the same time acknowledging what we still have yet to understand.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Jeremy 

Jeremy Burton 
Executive Director 

My Conversation with Rep. Auchincloss

Dear Friends,

Earlier this week I had the privilege to sit down with Congressman Jake Auchincloss for a wide-ranging and thought-provoking conversation.

We talked about Build Back Better, human services and infrastructure; rising antisemitism and the security needs of our institutions; the U.S. role in building on the success of the Abraham Accords, his efforts to strengthen economic and research partnerships between Israel and the United States, and also to support efforts that advance a two-state resolution for Israel and the Palestinians.

We thanked Congressman Auchincloss for his recent votes supporting funding for the Iron Dome and for the Infrastructure Bill, and for showing up in Brighton this summer when Rabbi Noginski was stabbed just blocks from his district.

We talked about mental health and about the work of our human service agencies during these demanding times. And we expressed our support for his leadership in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to our shores.

That’s just a bit of what was covered. You can read more about our conversation, and in particular the Congressman’s concerns about rising antisemitism as well as his thoughts about his support for the US-Israel relationship, in this extensive Jewish Insider piece. Our full conversation is available for viewing here.

I’m always grateful for these opportunities to hear from our elected leaders about how they are thinking about issues of concern to the organized Jewish community, and to share with them our priorities. Thank you again Congressman Auchincloss for your time and your friendship.

p.s. One of the topics we covered was U.S. credibility and leadership on the world stage. I referenced my own past writing on this topic. If you are interested, you can read my 2017 column about the need for bipartisanship in foreign policy here.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Remembering Izzy Arbeiter

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Malden Mayor Gary Christiansen, Izzy Arbeiter z”l, Former Consul General of Germany to New England Dr. Ralf Horlemann, Malden High School Students

Our community lost a giant last week. Izzy Arbeiter z”l, 96, was the survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Attending his funeral and shiva this week has been a blessing in itself; to witness the outpouring of memories, to retell the impact he had – as a fierce advocate on behalf of his fellow survivors' needs, and as a passionate transmitter of memory of the Shoah to future generations. As co-founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial and in many other ways, he had a long and deep history working in partnership with JCRC, and sometimes, challenging us to do more. You can read a wonderful obituary of his life here.

I won’t retell all the great Izzy stories here. I have no special claim to them as one of thousands in our community who have had the privilege of knowing him. But I witnessed first-hand a quintessential Izzy story several years ago, of which I was reminded at his funeral on Monday.

In 2017, the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM) was desecrated, not once, but twice, in the span of a summer. The second time the glass was shattered, days after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, the person responsible was a teen from Malden. The morning after the attack, the community gathered at the Memorial. Mayor Marty Walsh, who - like every mayor of Boston since Ray Flynn - had embraced the sacred responsibility of stewarding this site, invited Malden Mayor Gary Christiansen to join Izzy, myself, leaders from the Jewish community and our partners. Christiansen expressed being “completely disheartened” to learn that the vandal was from his community. Izzy took the mayor on a tour of the memorial and shared his own experience, as he had with thousands of others before. It was the beginning of an amazing and inspiring friendship.

In the weeks that followed, Christiansen came back to NEHM with Malden students, to meet with Izzy, Janet Applefield, and Anna Ornstein, all Holocaust survivors in our community; to listen, learn, and to take action. One of the students, a young Muslim woman, told them: “We have seen the damage hate and intolerance can cause. We have experienced it ourselves.” She continued with a written declaration from the students: “We are here to come together to try and reverse hate. We will not stand for hate. We will come together with love, peace, and dignity; to celebrate our differences, because that is what truly brings us together. In order to start the healing of the damage caused by hate, we have come here tonight to honor victims of the Holocaust.”

Izzy responded: “To see you all here, to talk to you, to get to know you, to see the diversity of the students, gives me such hope for the future.” He went on to speak in front of 500 students at Malden High School, so they too could bear witness and hold his story.

As we buried Izzy this week, I found myself standing next to Mayor Christiansen. He talked about his close friendship with Izzy. The dinners and lunches they shared over the years, visiting him and his wife Anna and hearing this message of hope right up until these final weeks. “I love Izzy” he said to me. I was profoundly moved to witness the mayor expressing that love of Izzy one last time, as he performed the special mitzvah of participating in the burial, shoveling dirt onto Izzy’s grave.

There have been dozens, if not hundreds of stories shared this week: The relationship Izzy built with German leaders, and the powerful personal reflections shared by Nicole Menzenbach, Consul General of Germany to New England, on behalf of all those who held her role and became his friends over the years. My predecessor, Nancy Kaufman spoke at the shiva about when Izzy and Stephan Ross z”l (who passed away last year) insisted, and convinced everyone, to move the community Yom HaShoah gathering from Newton to Faneuil Hall because it needed to be in the heart of the city and be open to the entire greater Boston community, not just Jews. Izzy and Stephan realized their dream of building the New England Holocaust Memorial just steps away, embedding it into the fabric of Boston for all to experience.

I have my own personal memory, of my second week here, when Izzy and I had lunch and he took me through the NEHM for my first time. Over lunch he then extracted, quite willingly on my part, a “blood oath” (his words; though no blood was shed there was some playfulness with a butterknife) that we at JCRC would always prioritize work with civic leaders and education beyond the Jewish community at the Memorial, and that we would always stand up to neo-Nazis and others who perpetuate antisemitism and hate in Boston.

That’s who Izzy was. Always there to share his story of survival with one more person. Finding hope in young people of all backgrounds who could receive his experience and be inspired to act morally in the world today. Challenging leaders to do more and to ensure that even as we approach the end of this period in which the survivors walk amongst us, we will always place the Holocaust, its memory, and moral calling at the center of our city and our collective conscience.

Izzy Arbeiter’s memory is and will continue to be a blessing, not just for the work he did, but for the work we are charged by him to continue doing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Jeremy Burton

JCRC Executive Director

Holding Complex Relationships

Earlier this week I was doing my morning meditation, following a prompt to reflect on the reality that when someone causes harm to someone else, more likely than not, the person causing the harm moves on quickly. Meanwhile the person who was harmed continues to carry it, in the form of anger. That anger prevents us from being able to be curious about why the harm was done, and by extension, to understand the motive behind the harm done. 

I’m paraphrasing that – because one doesn’t stop to take notes during meditation. It was also a bit disruptive to my session because it really got my mind going in that moment; thinking about some of the civic relationships that our community has been navigating of late. 

Over the summer I’ve been privileged to sit in on a series of meetings organized by the Agudas Yisroel for the Orthodox community in Brighton to engage with all of Boston’s mayoral candidates. I admire how these congregations have come together to talk about their specific concerns that are impacted by municipal government, along with their resilience in the wake of a violent antisemitic attack on the community this summer.  

And, this week I attended a meet-and-greet organized by the new ‘Cambridge Jewish Civics Club’ with most of the candidates for our city council. I observed my neighbors engaging with a range of candidates on many issues. Not all those conversations were easy; several people, rightly, challenged one incumbent who had made – what many of us interpret as antisemitic remarks at a Council meeting last May, for which he has yet to publicly apologize.  

I’ve been feeling hopeful as both of these parts of our community are mobilizing and registering voters ahead of the consequential elections next month. 

Heads Up: The last day to register for the MA municipal elections this year is next Wednesday, October 13th. You can still register here. 

And, of course, there’s the relationship that I discussed with the Jewish Insider last week; a relationship with our community, that has, at times, been very warm but has also become fraught and that, to judge by the responses I’ve received from our leaders and activists, draws a wide range of strongly held feelings.  

In other words, it is fair to say that in community relations work, it is not uncommon for someone – whether in civic space, or within our own community – to say or do something that causes genuine harm; to us, to the causes we are passionate about, to people who matter to us. And, we are all, including myself, sometimes angry and always passionate about harms done to us.  

Still and all, we’re in the business of relations, which is a bit more complex and nuanced than simply being advocates. We’re not only mobilizing our supporters and those who agree with us; we’re building bridges of understanding across disagreements. I, and we, can and need to be “angry and tired” at times, but I also get energized by the relationships we nurture, in all their complexity. And, I am energized by observing and supporting grassroots efforts – like the ones described above, but also many others – that build our community’s civic engagement and relationships.  

So, for now, I’m carrying our anger where I need to, and my curiosity, always. And I’m hopeful that the efforts of our community, in its diffuse parts, are helping to forge understanding and change as well as accountability where needed.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton 

p.s. While October 13th may be the deadline to register to vote this year, JCRC is working in coalition with Common Cause MA and others to eliminate the gap between election day and the voter registration deadline. This week, the Massachusetts Senate passed the Votes Act, which would, among other reforms, establish same-day registration, already available in 20 states. Props, especially, to Senate President Spilka, Senator Creem, Senator Finegold, Senator Rausch and Senator Rodrigues for their leadership on this issue. But this bill is not a law yet and there is more work to be done. If you want to join us in working to enact this law, consider registering to join us at the VOTES Act coalition lobby day next Wednesday, October 13.    

Reflecting on my decade at JCRC

Dear Friends,

Ten years ago this very morning, I entered (what is now) the Kraft Family Building for the very first time as the new director of JCRC. 

On that first morning, when I turned the corner onto High Street, waiting for me outside the building was our board chair, Bill Gabovitch, who ceremoniously held the door open for me and took me through security and then to a welcome breakfast. An hour later, I was called up to CJP to a meeting in Barry Shrage’s office with several members of his team. There was some problem to be sorted out; something to do with some issue at City Hall. Barry looked at me in a mischievous way that I would come to recognize and appreciate, and in front of everyone, he asked: “So, how does our JCRC director advise us?!?” 

Looking back on that morning, I don’t even recall what the particular problem was. What I do recall was the next step, something akin to: “Well, let’s take an hour to make some calls to some of our leaders who’ve been invested in these relationships, and see what they are thinking before we decide.” 

At least once a year – every October 1st – I’ve thought of Bill waiting to welcome me to Boston. And there have been, over the past decade, quite literally thousands of times when a version of that exchange about making some calls has occurred. In my mind, these two meaningful moments from my first morning on this job have cemented for me the essence of what our work here has been about; passionate leaders who care deeply about JCRC and our community, and a wide network – our board and staff, our member agencies’ leaders, and all the others in our community – who have invested in relationships with a wide range of civic leaders, and who are willing to work together and with us to tackle challenges and seize opportunities for our community.

For those of you who joined us last night for JCRC’s Celebration, thank you. If you were unable to join, please take a moment to watch the event here.

And if you have not yet had a chance to join me in supporting JCRC's work, please consider doing so today.

I am honored that our Board decided to recognize me as I begin my second decade in this position. But I’m more honored by the investment every one of you makes in being part of this network – not just on celebratory nights, but every day of the year. It is all of you who have made every challenge we’ve faced these past ten years a collective one to overcome, and every success we’ve had a collective win for all of us.

I am looking forward to our next decade – to all of the calls (and the texts, and the WhatsApps, and all the different ways we exchange thoughts) from you and to you as we figure out the next steps, and the path ahead, on all the challenges and opportunities we will face. I am excited to continue to learn from and with you as, together, we advance our community’s values, interests and priorities for many years to come. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Remembering 9/11

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a time to commemorate, as people will in places around the Commonwealth tomorrow.

Over these two decades, more often than not – at least for me - the conversation this time of year has been one of sharing experience. Where were you? When did we know? Did you lose anyone? And so on.

But twenty years clarifies that as time has passed, this sharing of our own experiences begins to shift to conveying an experience to those who have none of their own from that horrific day; who did not live through the change in our nation and the world in the days and years that followed.  Tragically, we’ve been reminded, in recent weeks, that there are soldiers serving and dying for our nation who were not yet born on that day. There are students in college, young adults in the workforce, who are of the generation after. They have no experience of 9/11 or the world before that day. They only learn about that day from others and experience their world, the world that came after.

For them, and for more and more people in the years ahead, 9/11 is history. Recent, vital, history, but still. Something that is learned about as a fact, at a distance.

In Biblical Hebrew and the Jewish tradition, we do not have a word for “history.” We of course have history; our ancestors wrote chronologies (divrei hayamim), and we have a deep record of events, but the word we use to understand that narrative and its meaning to us, the descendants of those who experienced events, is the word zakhor, or memory.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’tl, writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy that “there is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is ‘his story,’ an account of events that occurred sometime else to someone else. Memory is ‘my story.’ It is the past internalized and made part of my identity. History is an answer to the question, ‘What happened?’ Memory is an answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’

Rabbi Sacks further observes, that “as with an individual suffering from dementia, so with a culture as whole: the loss of memory is experienced as a loss of identity.”

9/11 is part of our collective identity. It should never be limited to the transmission of history. It is formative to who we became as a nation on that day and since then, an experience to be transmitted from generation to generation as part of our memory.

As Rabbi Sacks writes: “you can delegate history to computers, looking it up when you need it. But you cannot delegate memory. Memory is inescapably personal. It is what makes us who we are. If you seek to sustain identity, you have to renew memory regularly and teach it to the next generation.”

For every one of us who lived that day, 9/11 is part of our experience. But how I, and you, and we, convey that experience to the next generation is how we make sense of it as part of our shared identity, a memory to be transmitted.

And so, I continue to remember that beautiful, near perfect late-summer day in Manhattan going to vote, before the sky came down and the air stank for weeks. I remember the experience of learning about specific individual losses, about the hopes of neighbors then shattered. I remember the emotions, the anxieties, the fears and vulnerabilities that have been so present these past twenty years, and I remember that they were not always as so, so very present in our national identity. I remember what was lost that day, and I commit to helping future generations to remember as well.

This date of memory also comes amidst, for us, a season of remembering; as we gather in synagogues to pray the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur and Sukkot for our loved ones who have passed. It is also a season when many Jews visit the graves of our ancestors.

For many survivors of the Shoah, there are no graves to visit of those taken from us in the Holocaust. Here in Boston, we have a developed a tradition of holding a “Yizkor service” at the Statue of Job on the Brandeis University campus on the Sunday before Yom Kippur. Organized by JCRC in partnership with the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston and Brandeis Hillel, the event will, as it was for the first-time last year in this continuing period of COVID, be available online this year. I invite you to join us this Sunday at 11:00 am in this service of memory.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our community’s commitment to those seeking refuge

This was a week that challenged our capacity to absorb the horrors of the world. Like so many of you, I wanted to avert my eyes watching some of the videos coming out of Kabul. While we may have a diversity of strongly held views regarding the 20 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, I am reminded, once again, how deeply and broadly our Jewish community’s commitment is to those seeking refuge and asylum in our country. 

Over the last decade our community has come together, time and again, to take action: Our Jewish Family Service of Metrowest led a synagogue effort to host Syrian refugees. Jewish Vocational Service has done extraordinary work with refugee clients. Combined Jewish Philanthropies has partnered with Catholic Charities to help asylum seekers. We at JCRC have supported all these efforts and others, including leading our own efforts with our network and other partners to raise $1.3 million in bond funding, free 280 people from detention, organizing 50 Jewish households to house asylum seekers, and provide legal support for hundreds of asylum seekers. 

Together we have demonstrated through our actions that we are committed to actualizing our shared core values: that we stand together on the side of empathy and religious tolerance, that we believe that America must open the gates of compassion to those seeking safety, and that the United States must provide responsible leadership for the protection and resettlement of refugee families.  

As Congressman Jake Auchincloss, who served as a platoon commander in Afghanistan, said this week when discussing the need to evacuate local U.S. partners: “It’s an especially resonant point for the Jewish people who know so intimately the story of the refugee.” 

When Governor Baker stated that “Massachusetts is ready to assist Afghan refugees seeking safety and peace in America” we at JCRC responded in affirmation, making the commitment that “the Jewish community, our congregations, and our human service agencies, stand ready to work with (him) to assist Afghan Refugees seeking safety and peace in our Commonwealth.” 

We don’t yet know exactly what we will be called to do here in Massachusetts in the days and weeks ahead. We are in the early stages of developing a new partnership to engage Jewish communities in the work of resettling refugee families, including, most likely, Afghani refugees in the wake of these latest developments. We are connecting with our partners and are ready to mobilize as needed. Right now you can take action with our partners at HIAS: 

Tell the White House: The U.S. Must Evacuate At-Risk Afghans This is the top priority – to demonstrate unwavering public support for at-risk Afghans. Evacuating the refugees is the first step in supporting them. 

Learn more about the crisis and our role in the response. Attend the HIAS Briefing Call on Monday, 8/23 at 4:00 p.m. EDT. 

To learn more about ways for your community to be involved in supporting refugee families here in Greater Boston, please contact our Director of Synagogue Organizing, Rachie Lewis, and let us know how you stand ready to help as soon as refugees begin arriving.  

Together we can reaffirm our commitment to being a welcoming nation that does not close its doors, with the awareness that those who are desperate to leave Afghanistan this week, share the same desires as every generation of American immigrant and refugee families: safety, security and the opportunity to pursue the promise of the American Dream for themselves and their children. We believe that the United States has the moral responsibility and the capacity to welcome refugees. And we know from the experience of earlier generations that welcoming them to participate fully in our society will only enhance our community.  We will continue to act on these beliefs, with your partnership. 

I’d be remiss if I did not note the other crisis this week: the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing 2,200 people, including 10,000 injured. Boston has a strong and vibrant Haitian community that we at JCRC have been in partnership with over many years. They have formed the MA Haiti Relief Task Force to coordinate a Haitian-American led response to assess needs on the ground, and ensure that all funds and goods collected reach those in need promptly and safely. Please join me in donating. 

National Jewish agencies are also taking action to assist in this crisis. The JDC is mobilizing to provide emergency medical equipment and other assistance to those wounded, and American Jewish World Service is delivering critical, emergency aid to communities affected by this earthquake, as well as supporting activists facing the ongoing spread of COVID-19. 

These are times that test our bandwidth for empathy and action. Together, let’s meet this test as we have so many times before. 

Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

When Community Memorials Fall on Shabbat

One of the most traumatic experiences of the past decade here in Boston was the Marathon Bombing, on April 15th, 2013. I think back to the many meaningful moments of interfaith collaboration in the weeks that followed: Working with Governor Patrick’s team on the interfaith healing service with President Obama; then the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization pivoting (not the word we used in those days) so that our U.S. Senate special-election candidate forum with then Representative Markey and Representative Lynch – Sunday night following the lockdown – became a community gathering of prayer and support. It was a period that both challenged and strengthened interfaith partnerships and I was proud of the work we did at JCRC. 

In recent days I’ve been thinking of the events of the first anniversary, in 2014. That year, April 15th fell during the sacred first days of Passover, and Patriots Day, along with the marathon itself, was during the final days of Passover. This coincidence of the calendar created a dilemma for many Jews and our institutions. At the time, I told the Times of Israel that “One way or another, like so many in our Jewish community, I will be navigating this space of being Jewish and being part of One-Boston in the same breath this week.”  

When then Vice President Biden came to Boston for a city-wide memorial on the 15th, the service did not include official representation or participation by the Jewish community. And that was okay. Others on the program, our interfaith partners, acknowledged our absence on one of our sacred days; and folks were fine with it. Because April 15th was, is, and always will be the anniversary of the attack, and it should be marked on that day. 

And when the marathon was held a week later, many individuals in our community ran, or volunteered at the event – to honor the victims and to celebrate Boston’s resiliency. And some, like myself, whose holiday observance precluded volunteering, walked over to the race after morning services to cheer on our friends and neighbors and to be part of this unified celebration of our city.  

These memories come to mind now because, in a few weeks, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on our nation.  And, this year, September 11th will fall on Saturday, our shabbat

We all share the trauma and impact of that day. For so many of us, especially here in Boston, in New York (where I was living and working in Manhattan that morning) and in DC, the memories remain vivid, sometimes painful.  

Still. 9/11 was, is, and always will be on September 11th. And the national and community memorials should and must go forward on that day, not the day before or the day after. 

So, in recent weeks I find myself reminding and assuring our community and our partners that it will be okay, this important anniversary year, that there will not be official Jewish representation or participation at memorials on that day. And it is most assuredly okay that there will be events on that day – including faith-based days of service and volunteerism, for example – that will not be “interfaith”.  

I imagine that many rabbis and synagogues will find ways to mark the day during our sabbath services. Personally, I’ll probably walk over to whatever memorials are happening in Cambridge (where I live). I’ll be there in my personal capacity, as a member of my community and as a citizen of our society. I’ll be there to take a moment to reflect on the memory of those who I knew who died on that day, and to pray for those who I know who live with their losses to this day. But I won’t be there on behalf of JCRC or the organized Jewish community. 

And that’s the way it should be, this year. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Wisdom from our partners in Israel

Capture

With my friend and teacher Mohammad Darawshe, of the Givat Haviva Center for Equality and Shared Society.

Yesterday I returned from 10 days of travel in Israel, made possible thanks to a CJP solidarity mission last week. I was privileged to participate and grateful that I could extend my time – when so few are fortunate enough to be able to travel – visiting with many of our partners; the groups we work with through Boston Partners for Peace and our connection to the Alliance for Middle East Peace, our on-the-ground partners who we work with on Study Tours, and the many thinkers and doers who educate and inspire us.  

I came with a desire to support our friends and partners, and also to search for inspiration and wisdom to inform our own commitment to the challenging work of bridging differences and supporting the hard conversations and initiatives that build shared society and cross-border connections. I wanted to hear how they have navigated COVID, how they make sense of the events in May, what their perceptions are of Israel’s new coalition government, and perhaps most important, what they are thinking about the road ahead.  

Amidst numerous rich and informative conversations, some topics and themes came up repeatedly. Folks were eager to talk about the recent Jewish Electorate Institute poll indicating increasingly harsh criticism of Israel by growing numbers of Jewish Americans. The people I met with weren’t terribly interested in talking about regional issues, both positive (normalization with various states) or threats (e.g. Iran). What was most on their minds seemed to be the challenges to the social fabric of society here, whether that was – depending on the meeting – between Jewish Israelis, all Israeli citizens, or all the people living in Israel and the Palestinian Areas. 

I heard a degree of optimism about the new government from people we’ve been working with. For Hamutal Gouri – a leader in Women Wage Peace - there is inherent opportunity in the fact that folks who had not been in decision-making rooms until now, are newly "in the room where it happens” (to paraphrase her), including many of Gouri’s allies in the feminist movement. At the same time, leaders are grappling with the brokenness of political and civil discourse; Rachel Azaria – a former Member of Knesset and Jerusalem deputy mayor who has, for now, left electoral politics – is working to develop a new language of civic and political discourse; the rhetoric she experienced in her time in the Knesset (where half the country calls the other traitor, and, the other half call their opponents, fascist) wasn’t helping solve problems and is actually dangerous. I also met with leaders who are doing the hard work of being in conversation and relationship with religious extremists, including radical nationalists in the Jewish and Muslim communities, because it is, to their mind, the extremists who need to be reached in service to progress, not the liberals who already embrace openness and dialogue. 

Two voices are staying with me. The first is my friend and teacher Mohammad Darawshe, of the Givat Haviva Center for Equality and Shared Society, who met with the CJP group. He’s done a lot of thinking over the years about building a common society for all of Israel’s citizens, and about the role of diaspora Jews as a third stakeholder with Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the future of the country. One point he underscores repeatedly, is that productive intergroup dialogue and shared identity work is possible only when one first comes in with a strong sense of personal and group identity. In his work, Jews and Palestinians are encouraged to develop and strengthen their own narratives and identities in order to facilitate the work of hearing the stories of others, without being threatened by them. 

The second voice is Shivi Froman, a new relationship for me. The son of Rabbi Menachem Froman (of blessed memory), he lives in Tekoa, a Jewish community beyond the Green Line. As I sat with him in his living room, he told me about his work with Roots/Shorashim/Judur and with Syrian refugees (that led to him addressing the UN in New York a few years ago), but mostly about his ethos on extremists and moderates in his communities.  

Shivi tells me about a teaching his father liked to share, an idea from the kabbalistic tradition that asks why we need two ears, two eyes, and two arms. The teaching goes that the left side is to hold the personal space – he puts out a stiff-arm with a palm out like a stop sign – the space of protection and defense of self. The right side – and here he hugs himself with one arm – is to draw close, to see and hear the other and to embrace them fully as they are. Shivi embraces his father’s wisdom that one needs both sides in balance. He compares this to a bird flying with only one wing or someone paddling a boat only on one side.  The bird and the sailor would perceive themselves as moving forward when in fact they would be moving in circles and not making any progress. One has to do both – protect the self and embrace the other – in equal measures, or one isn’t achieving anything lasting. 

There is wisdom here from Mohammad, from Shivi, and from all the others I’ve been meeting with, about how to have courageous conversations and to challenge oneself to be in difficult relationships across differences. There is also wisdom here regarding the challenges we face as a Jewish community in America, in our own identities, in our conversations with each other, and in our work with others – including those who are extremists in their own ways. In order to do effective relationship work, we must first fully develop our own identities and narratives, and we also must ensure that we are balancing both our defense and willingness to be open.  

I come away, as always, from my time in this place I love, inspired and challenged by the people I meet and care about, committed even more so to their work, to our work supporting them, and to what we can learn from their leadership. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Enhancing the New England Holocaust Memorial at a Critical Time

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L-R Governor Baker, Mayor Janey, Addison Dion (grandaughter of NEHM founder Steve Ross), Survivor Janet Singer Applefield, Jeremy Burton

In 1995, Holocaust survivor Steve Ross (z”l) had a dream: to honor his family and every other victim of the Holocaust with a memorial in downtown Boston that would serve as a lesson to future generations. He brought together his Jewish and Christian neighbors and fellow survivors, and with the help of his friends, including Mayors Raymond Flynn and then Thomas Menino, he founded the New England Holocaust Memorial.

The Memorial (NEHM), six luminous glass towers, was dedicated in a public ceremony on the steps of City Hall in October 1995, with Elie Wiesel and many community and civic leaders in attendance. It was intentionally placed in the heart of Boston, along the Freedom Trail, so that its lessons would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

Yesterday, JCRC, along with our partners at CJP and Facing History and Ourselves, officially unveiled a new website and interactive mobile tour, which will greatly enhance the experience of visitors. The tour features testimonials from local Holocaust survivors, a short history of the Holocaust, the symbolism of the Memorial and resources for educators, all accessible through QR codes. Additionally, we have transformed the Memorial’s website, which now includes a walk-through feature that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. These components will open up the New England Holocaust Memorial as an educational experience for a broader audience and generations to come, ensuring that even more people have the opportunity to learn.

These updates were planned over two years ago, but the timing of this event could not be more appropriate. We are all aware of the alarming increase in violent antisemitism and hate speech and violence, as well as the astonishing, growing ignorance about the historic realities of the Holocaust. Just here in Massachusetts, one only needs to mention events of this year in Duxbury and Lowell, or even these past weeks in Winthrop and Brighton. Now is exactly when we need to publicly reaffirm the value of genocide education, and the Memorial in particular, as part of a broad commitment to teaching about hatred and the consequences of unchecked bigotry.

And so, we were grateful to our public and interfaith officials for joining us yesterday to recommit to Holocaust awareness and fighting antisemitism, as their amplified public voices are more crucial now than ever before; friends like Reverend Lorraine Thornhill, Pastor of Kingdom Empowerment Center, President of the Cambridge Black Pastors Alliance and Chaplain Cambridge Police Department who spoke powerfully of our shared work in combatting bigotry and antisemitism; and, Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Family Philanthropies, whose ‘Final Whistle on Hate’ initiative made this digital project possible.

It was my privilege to introduce Governor Charlie Baker, who has stood with us often, one might say ‘too often’ in this space, responding to rising white supremacy, violent attacks on Jewish communities, and desecrations of this sacred site. Even more special, for me, was the honor to welcome Mayor Kim Janey. The Memorial has a long and meaningful connection with the office of the Mayor of Boston, beginning with the essential role of Mayor Ray Flynn in the selection of this site, sitting just below the windows of his City Hall office.

As our survivor community grows older, we are obligated to retell their firsthand accounts and to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust lives on. The memorial’s new in-person and virtual touring capabilities capture their stories and enable present day and future visitors to bear witness.

As I introduced Mayor Janey in her first official event at this site as Mayor, as she recognized the presence of Mayor Flynn’s son, City Councilor Ed Flynn, and as we heard from survivor Janet Singer Applefield, and Stephen Ross’ granddaughter, Addison Dion, one could sense the spirit of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. A torch was being passed to a new generation of Boston leaders and the descendants of survivors, and to all of us in the community who will continue to bear witness in perpetuity.

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Survivor Janet Singer Applefield

Together, we remain committed to a high level of Holocaust programming, to the importance of education, and to sustaining and expanding the legacy of the survivors in the Greater Boston community. We do so through our work at the NEHM, and, for JCRC, by continuing to advocate with our partners for a genocide education mandate for all youth in Massachusetts.

Visit nehm.org to join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy