Author: Jeremy Burton

From Israel: Finding Inspiration in Dysfunctional Times.

A short while ago, I arrived at Ben Gurion airport. Together with JCRC’s Director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell, we’re starting out on our biannual civic leaders study tour, this time together with members of the Massachusetts Senate.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with an Israeli friend with both British and American citizenship. This person, only half-jokingly, commented that, at the moment, it was hard to tell which of these nations had more dysfunctional politics.

It is, to my mind, a tough question; especially when I focus on the negative aspects currently manifesting in each system. When I was last in Israel – in July – the Israeli people were in the midst of their second national election campaign this year. I never imagined the possibility that during this week’s trip they could embark on their third election cycle in less than a year. Since summer, Britain has blown through its latest Brexit deadline, with national elections pending next week (and a deeply worried Jewish community to wit). And, in the US, well, where shall we start?

But there’s another way of looking at this, which is to see the half-full glass, the moments, people, and institutions that inspire hope.

Observing developments in Israel, of course there’s much to be said about a nation whose prime minister is facing a trial over corruption charges. But there’s also something to be said about a country where the attorney general who brought those charges was himself appointed by that very same prime minister. And, whether one agrees or not with specific policies of the government, it’s notable that the institutions of justice are taking a stand, and how that action – to many of us – compares favorably with the role of our own attorney general in our current political process addressing our own President’s behavior.

And while three national elections within one year appears chaotic, it is also worth noting that a large chunk of Israel’s electorate is “holding the center.” Politicians and parties are, through their “constitutional” process (though Israel doesn’t have an actual constitution) reaching out from center-left to center-right and trying to form a consensus politics about the direction of the state and its character. Does this compare favorably to our own fractured politics in the US where a House divided has become the default, and the idea of common ground or shared understanding seems a distant memory? I think so.

And at a time when Americans, obsessing in our like-minded bubbles on social media, increasingly living and working in red and blue silos, and telling pollsters that the greatest tragedy would be for our children to marry across party lines, I’m inspired by my friends here. Because the divides between Israelis and Palestinians are surely even deeper than much of what divides us as Americans. And yet, as on every trip, we’ll be meeting with folks who are reaching out across these divides to build empathy and compassion. 

Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are working together on grassroots projects for mutual recognition, dignity, and peace. We, through Boston Partners for Peace, believe in their ability to change the narrative and shape the future. They inspire us and I look forward to reporting on their efforts again after our visits this week.

So, I’m not ready to say which of our countries is most dysfunctional right now, nor do I think this is a particularly useful exercise. But what I can say – without in any way being naïve about the extraordinary challenges that Israelis, Palestinians, and the people of this region face, and the importance of supporting their efforts to resolve these challenges – is that I also think we can learn from and be inspired by what we witness here; people who don’t give up in the face of adversity; people who keep reaching out to each other and remain committed to building a hopeful future; and people who are representing the institutions and systems of a functioning democracy.

And maybe, just maybe, instead of judging them too harshly for their very human flaws, we Americans – who live in a glass house of our own – can be a little quieter and do a little more listening as we seek to understand the people who live here. And, hopefully, as I do on every trip here, I can come away a little more inspired, a little more committed to not giving up on the people here, and even learning from what they can teach us about our own dysfunctional politics right now.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Can We Retire the Concept of “Conversion” To Judaism?

This blog post was originally published in the Times of Israel

My mother was raised Catholic. She became Jewish while in university, going through a process – guided by her rabbi and supervised by a rabbinical court in San Francisco – of wide-ranging study covering Jewish practice, history and culture. I was born Jewish a few years later. Growing up, at our shabbat table in New York, we regularly hosted men and women who were becoming – or had recently become – Jewish through our synagogue. These individuals, some of whom became part of our own extended family, came to us through our rabbi, who knew that they would need a mentor and guide with a shared experience of becoming Jewish – a responsibility that my mother readily embraced.

I tell you this so that you understand where I am coming from when I say that we need to stop using the term “conversion” – denoting a process specifically of changing one’s religious faith – when talking about the journey to becoming Jewish.

The very concept of Judaism as principally a religion is quite recent. Dr. Leora Batnitzky of Princeton University, in her excellent work How Judaism Became a Religion, writes that it is only “from the eighteenth century onward (that) modern Jewish thinkers have become concerned with the question of whether or not Judaism can fit into a modern, Protestant category of religion.” This came as a reaction to Enlightenment era Protestant thinkers in Germany who conceptualized the public sphere of citizenship in a nation-state, as separate and distinct from the private sphere of the religion which one practiced. If it was possible to fit Judaism into this concept of religion, then we too could become fully equal citizens of the European nation-state – or so we hoped. Prior to that time, Judaism was an all-encompassing idea of self and community, with laws governing all aspects of life and identity; it was, quite simply a civilization to which we belonged, albeit one with distinct concepts of the Divine, and rituals related to that concept.

While the denominational structure that emerged through thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn and Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th century Germany – and was then imported to America – formed around this concept of religion, there are within contemporary American Jewish life those who remain deeply commitment to our pre-Enlightenment concept of self. Examples include Hassidic communities that embrace a Judaism that encompasses all aspects of life, and the secular Yiddishists who built a deep Jewish community of culture without requiring a belief in God.

Throughout our history, to become Jewish was to join our civilization in all its facets.

The first journey we tell of someone becoming Jewish is, of course, the story of Ruth. At the side of the road she declares to her mother-in-law: “wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God…” For Ruth, and for everyone who followed her on this path, becoming Jewish is more than faith alone. It is where she will live and die, and who she will be as a citizen of our people and the mother of our kings.

To make this journey is termed in Hebrew as gerut. The one who makes this transition, a ger, begins the journey with the status of a stranger, the Other. It is a Hebrew root used in reference to those who are not Jewish, and also as well in our Bible for those who are excluded in other ways by our laws – whether that be the daughters of Zelophahad denied their inheritance in the land, or the funeral workers denied participation in the Passover meal for their ritual impurity.

In the Hebrew conceptualization, the path Ruth takes is a transition from a status of “Other” to a status of being “Of Us.”

For nearly two thousand years in diaspora, Jews have been unique amongst the nations of the world in that one could become a citizen of the Jewish people even without a state of our own. This process took place through rabbinical courts that historically had far more jurisdiction than on matters strictly of religion. In the self-governing shtetl, these courts oversaw both criminal and civil matters, in addition to adjudicating matters of a religious nature. Today, the State of Israel is unique amongst nation-states in that anywhere in the world, one can embark on this journey from Other to Jewish through a rabbinical court (or at least through one that is recognized by Israel’s government) and then become automatically eligible for citizenship in the State under “the right of return.”

So why is it so important that we retire the term “conversion” as our poor translation of the concept of gerut?

First, because the reformulation of Judaism as religion failed to achieve our liberation in Europe. One cannot know what Mendelssohn and Hirsch might think of the world that came after them. We do know that in the century that followed, Political Zionism emerged from the sober lessons of the Dreyfus Affair; that even an “enlightened” France that would continue to see the Jew as Other. And, the devastation of the Holocaust made clear that we would always be vulnerable unless we had a nation-state of our own.

And, this very formulation, of Judaism as a religion, has come to be weaponized by those who seek to deny our legitimacy as a nation with the right to a state of our own. It is ironic to hear the voices of the “enlightened” descendants of the very same antisemitic philosophers of Europe to whom we reacted in the eighteenth century, now arguing that a religion should not have a country and that, therefore, Israel as a state is not legitimate.

Finally, and foremost, we should lose the term “conversion” for our own sake and for our understanding of who we are as a people. The term, in English, reinforces an ahistorical self-perception. It continues to ascribe to an idea of Judaism that was formed in response to external forces. To move beyond the Jewish condition as a reaction to our experiences in Europe and to embrace our authentic identity as a People will require greater precision in our language.

It is time to retire the poorly translated term of “conversion.” Rather, I propose that, in English, we commit ourselves to language that more properly conveys the concept of this journey from Other to Judaism both precisely and expansively. As with those who choose to become citizens of a new nation, like the United States, through a process known as “naturalization,” so to, gerut can be better understood as the process of becoming a naturalized citizen of the Jewish people, with all the rights and responsibilities inherent therein.

Reading my way through Europe (and then some…)

This past summer, our professional staff used this space to post a delightful reading list of books they love and use in their work. During my sabbatical, I had the pleasure of finishing 36 books covering a range of subjects and projects in which I was interested. Many of my readings covered history, memoirs, Jewish and political philosophy and the current state of America. For now, I’d like to share with you just a few of the most enjoyable novels that, in reading and re-reading, enriched me.

As I traveled through Europe pursuing Jewish memory, several works of historical fiction enhanced my sense of presence with the experience. Chronologically (by the periods they cover):


A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua
As Europe approaches the year 1,000 CE, Franco-German Ashkenazi Jews are changing their practices in the context of the larger Christian culture, and a Jewish trader in Moorish Spain grapples with the growing cultural divide between two Jewish communities.

 


The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kaddish
Set primarily in 17th century London’s community of Jewish exiles from Spain, this is a delightful feminist fantasy by a local author about the great philosophical discussions of the time.

 


An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
A faithful fictionalized retelling of the documented events and central characters in the France’s most famous antisemitic show trial, the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the 19th century.

 


The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
While the author takes some license in portraying actual historical figures, this is a faithful story of how American activists rescued thousands of Jewish artists and intellectuals in Vichy France in the early years of World War II.

 

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgie Hunter
The author tells the remarkable, globe spanning true story of how her family survived the Holocaust after the invasion of their home in Poland by both the Nazis and Soviets in 1939.

As some of you know, I have a passion for great American literature. I am a collector and loyal patron of the Library of America. These are a few of the volumes from that collection (available in many other forms as well) that I dug into this summer:



My Antonia
by Willa Cather
Possibly “The” great prairie novel. A story of immigrants in 19th century Nebraska and the idea of American that they came here for.

 

 

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
A classic collection of interconnected short stories capturing the essence of the small-town American Midwest at the end of the 19th century.

 


Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Remarkable for its time, published in 1956, it holds up as a complex telling of a young American in France, torn between his female fiancé and the male bartender he desires.

 

The Hainish Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
While I’ve read many of these novels and short stories, published over the span of some 40 years, I’ve never sat down and read the entire series in chronological order. These stand-alone stories in a shared future galaxy, explore issues of race, class and gender and are in many ways still ahead of their times.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that, as a person who rereads The Handmaid’s Tale every five years or so, I devoured Margaret Atwood’s sequel (at last!) The Testaments, the day it was released. I was deeply satisfied.

I can’t possibly overstate my appreciation of this summer’s new release Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Fifty pages in you’ll be wondering why people are so excited about what reads like another Philip Roth novel (though I do love reading Roth). Trust me, you’ll be glad when you get to the twist in this feminist take on the genre.

Finally, allow me to recommend the graphic novel collection Locke & Key by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son). I read it when it first came out a decade ago and absolutely loved going back to read this magical horror story set in a fictionalized version of Nahant, MA.

Thank you to everyone who participated in my crowd-sourced recommendations process on Facebook last spring. I gained a lot by your sharing the books you were passionate about (in these subject areas). In posting this, I’m trying to pay some of that passion forward. And, I’d love to continue to hear from people about books you’ve recently read and why you enjoyed them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Should American Jews Stop Trying to Defeat Antisemitism?

This blog post was originally posted on Times of Israel.

Should we, American Jews, stop trying to defeat antisemitism?

It is a question I’ve been pondering as I recently spent a month traveling through Europe and experiencing Jewish memory. And it is a question I’d love to hear from others about: Should we, as an American Jewish community, stop carrying the fight to “end” antisemitism in our country?

Why do I ask this question?

Because antisemitism – prejudice and hatred targeting Jews – has been a reality of Western Civilization going back for the better part of 1,500 years. As James Carroll laid out in his monumental Constantine’s Sword some twenty years ago, antisemitism is an enduring and defining feature of Western Christian civilization. To experience Europe’s history is to be reminded that antisemitism is our civilization’s constant, ever-evolving vehicle for defining what it means to belong to the West by defining the “other” within, i.e. the Jew, as something else.

We Jews attempt to adapt and conform to evolving European projections of belonging within the larger collective, only to experience a consistent response in which the collective is redefined in order to ostracize and exclude Jews. The examples are endless: When we considered ourselves to be as authentically Spanish as the Catholic Monarchs themselves, they determined Catholicism to be a defining feature of Spanish identity. When Enlightenment Protestants defined the modern nation-state, and relegated religion to the personal and private sphere, we adjusted our public identity accordingly, categorizing Judaism as religion (an ahistorical primary definition of Jewish identity) so that we might belong to the nation. But then, in Germany and elsewhere, we experienced, with devastating results, the re-centering of a racial national identity, with the Jew as the outsider once again. And, when Jews unified around the political nation-state as the fulfillment of our national being, post-nationalist elites made Israel, “the Jew amongst the nations,” the singular target of their anti-nationalist fervor.

We as Jews in the Western diaspora have always experienced and lived with antisemitism. If we think we can defeat it, we are deluding ourselves. As American Jews, we’ve become complacent in recent decades, when we embraced the notion that antisemitism was behind us. We did so because for a very brief moment in this nearly 2,000 year old civilization – from sometime in the mid-1980s to the early part of this century – and in our one truly exceptional country, antisemitism ceased to be part of our lived daily experience; it was largely banished from social acceptability and from the laws of the land.

If the current moment feels abnormal for a generation of American Jews who came of age in the last quarter century, what we are experiencing is in fact a return to the normal we’ve known for over a millennium.

If this is an accurate assessment, then what is to be done?

First and foremost, we must continue to insist – as we must insist for any oppressed minority – that we are the only ones who get to define our oppression. Others have no right to tell us what is antisemitic, nor how we should feel in response to it.

We as Jews need to be honest with ourselves about the enduring nature of Western antisemitism (and yes, I’m fully conscious that there is also non-Western antisemitism, including that within Muslim civilization. But the taxonomy of that antisemitism differs from that of the West. Since I’m writing specifically in the context of our US domestic challenge, to the extent that it is socially and politically tolerated, it is done so within the context of the larger challenge of the West. So, I’d like to defer and unpack that challenge on its own another day).

But antisemitism ought not and need not define us as a Jewish people. What should define us is our work of advancing the continued renaissance of our people as a force for good in the world (to paraphrase Avraham Infeld).

Antisemitism is not our disease. It’s the disease of our larger society. It is not we who need to visit the doctor and take the antibiotics. It is the society in which we currently reside.

This is not to suggest that we should stand down. Nor should we shut down our defense organizations. Far be it. We have a particular role, as a Jewish community, in tracking incidents and identifying the problem; in providing education and support to those who seek to eliminate its expression in their schools, workplaces and other settings. And, we as a Jewish community need to be focused on the specific challenge of securing our institutions and spaces so that we may gather as Jews in safety; our partnerships with government and law enforcement must be leveraged to that end.

But it must be the work of faith and civic leaders beyond the Jewish community – our elected officials, our Christian neighbors, and others – to root out this virus. The emergency strategy meetings within our community about fighting antisemitism (of which I have attended many) need to be supplemented by the emergency meetings of the leaders of every Christian denomination, by special sessions of legislatures, by the urgent and sustained action of our society’s leaders.

Jewish tweets and statements of condemnation will not beat this hate (though there is value in our articulating to others what we are experiencing and why we feel the fears that we do). What is needed is the amplified public voice of others amidst this rash of violence and targeting of our people.

I am reminded of the words of French prime minister, Manuel Valls, in 2015, following the attack on the Hyper Cacher market. He said that: “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

If the US would be judged a failure for no longer being a place where Jews can live in safety and security, then who will be judged and who will be the failure? It is not us, the American Jewish community. It will be the failure of the nation as a whole, and of those who stood idly by as expressions of this ancient hatred flourished once again.

And so we Jews must go on doing what we’ve always been doing: Being a people of “joy and not oy” (as Dr. Deborah Lipstadt puts it), building communities of caring and meaning, teaching the Jewish ethical tradition to our children, and bringing its wisdom and power into our society.

We as a Jewish community should fight antisemitism in America because of what it means for this nation, of which we are a part, to which we pledge our allegiance, and that we love no less than any other Americans. We must, in the words of President Washington, “give to bigotry no sanction” because we are Americans and because it undermines the ideals of our nation.

But we need not be defined by antisemitism. And we should be taking note when the nation of which we are a part is failing to rise to its challenge.

I would welcome a conversation about this approach.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Journey Through 1,000 Years of Jewish Memory

Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors, where the Edicto de Granada was issued on March 31, 1492, ordering the expulsion of Spain’s Jews.

This week, I returned from sabbatical. I’m so grateful to our board for this privilege and for the ability to set aside three months for reflection and reconnection outside of the doing of our work.

It was an opportunity for quiet contemplation, hiking, reading, and getting in touch with friends far afield; for stepping away from our toxic and reactive public discourse and to think about our work. In addition, this was the opportunity for me to spend a month traveling across Europe on a deeply personal journey of connection with 1,000 years of my family and my people’s history and memory.

I had amply prepared myself for a trip that took me to Poland, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic; places where the most terrible horrors were visited upon our people and also where some of our greatest thinkers and communities thrived. Still, I was not prepared when, a day after an emotional visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, I had a visceral reaction when I saw antisemitic souvenirs being openly displayed and sold in Krakow’s Old Town.

Translated: "You must have a Jew at home! He will guard money."

A bust of Miklós Horthy in Budapest

In Budapest, where the national government is rehabilitating Nazi collaborators as persons of honor, I was shaken by the reaction of my host – a member of the local Jewish community – when we came upon a newly erected bust of one such figure. And, to walk the streets of Prague is to hold the tension of a city that publicly celebrates its connection to Jewish figures like Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal), Franz Kafka, and Albert Einstein, while also leaving in place medieval antisemitic symbols that are, today, signature tourist destinations.

After a short break stateside, I traveled through Spain, starting in Madrid and Toledo, working my way farther “back” through Jewish history to Andalucia – through Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada – to bear witness to the erasure of that nation’s crimes and the literal replacement of Jewish populations and spaces. It was deeply unsettling to stand in places where I could too easily imagine all that was and all that was obliterated when my own ancestors left here 500 years ago. I stood in the Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors and reconjured Jewish leadership in the public sphere, awed by the courage and pain of Don Isaac Abravanel, who in 1492 stood in this very same room and raged against the Catholic Monarchs who betrayed him and his people with the expulsion edict.

Inside Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors

I coupled this experience with some travel in the United States to consider, compare, and contrast how our nation holds our own uncomfortable and shameful history – the experiences of African and Native Americans – as well as how we as American Jews tell our own story in our country.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary on the Yom Kippur service, writes that:

“There is a difference between history and memory. History is what happened: memory is our attempt to discover meaning in what happened. History focuses on the uniqueness of events; memory on their repeated patterns, the structure visible through the details, the music beneath the noise.”

This was a journey of memory, to hear the music in the story of the Jewish people; continuously striving and evolving in response to a Western Civilization that has carried anti-Jewish persecution at its center for over 1,000 years. To sit with memory is also to hear the discordant notes of the American project as a unique and imperfect experiment within Western Civilization. It is to understand how precarious the threats to Liberal Democracy are today, and, why we are called – as Jews – to protect and expand a broader commitment to an American creed as the basis of our aspirational national ideal.

And, I am reminded that none of this – the opportunity to do this work, and the opportunity to truly step away for an extended period – would be possible without the amazing trust and support of partners. Most especially I thank our Deputy Director Nahma Nadich, my partner in thinking and action every day, who so ably led JCRC in my absence. I – and our community – are the beneficiaries of her leadership and her wisdom.

I return with too many memories and observations to adequately describe them all in one post. I hope to share more with you in the weeks and months ahead. But for now, I would add that to listen to memory is to be renewed in my own passion for the work we do and my sense of purpose in doing it. And, it is to be reminded of who I need to be in order to focus on the important and enduring challenges I want to help our community meet.

I look forward to hearing from you. Together it is our task to compose the next movement in our collective symphony, one in which we continue to thrive as we work together with our neighbors to meet the challenges of our time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Time to Reflect and Refresh: My Sabbatical

Ours is a challenging and often messy world. Doing effective community relations and civic engagement in this environment can be trying. It’s also incredibly rewarding.
 
People often ask me whether I’d rather be doing something else than leading a JCRC in these fraught times, or what I imagine doing after JCRC. My answer to that is that I can’t imagine, for myself, doing anything else than this work. I consider myself incredibly blessed that in a world where so many ask “what can we do?” I go to work every day with an amazing team – our professionals, our volunteers, our network or agencies and the leaders across our community – who together say: “This is what we need to do and are going to do.”
 
As we head into the dog days of summer, I’m immensely proud of all that we’ve achieved this year as a coalition representing Boston’s organized Jewish community in civic space. Just this week, the Massachusetts legislature passed a budget appropriating over $8 million to support priorities of our community’s social safety net – benefiting the entire Commonwealth. And, our Congressional House delegation unanimously supported H. Res. 246, rejecting the delegitimization of Israel by the BDS movement and strongly supporting a two-state approach to resolving the conflict. Successes like these don’t happen without a long-term approach of building relationships with civic leaders, partnering over time on many issues, and having a strong network of Jewish institutions working together.
 
I couldn’t imagine anything more rewarding. Candidly, it can also be consuming. The building of long-term relations and networks always competes with the daily reality of events that drive the news. Ours is a work premised on always seeing the horizon while living in the moment.
 
And with that in mind, I’m incredibly honored and privileged that, as I come to the end of my eighth year as Executive Director of JCRC, I am taking a three-month sabbatical.
 
Our board and management team began planning for my sabbatical over two years ago. It’s been an opportunity for all of us to think about organizational resiliency, our core values and strategies, and to intentionally deepen relationships across our network and with our partners that go beyond any one person.
 
During my sabbatical, Nahma Nadich, JCRC’s Deputy Director, will serve as the Acting Executive Director. I have known Nahma for two decades and we have worked hand-in-hand, side-by-side for eight years. I can say with absolute confidence that JCRC is in very good hands. Our incredible professional team has been preparing for this period without me and I’m already seeing them grow as leaders in advance of this experience.
 
I’m incredibly grateful to our board for offering me this special (and rare) opportunity, and to our professional team who shoulder the responsibility (and additional work) that allows me to step away.
 
Over the coming months I’ll be making a radical shift in my daily habits; Rather than absorb and react to global and local developments every day, I hope to - by and large - ignore them entirely. Rather than read twenty hot takes and ten different daily papers, I hope to read more books. And rather than offer a public Jewish voice that helps our community and the civic space understand how “we,” the organized Jewish community, understands the complexity of the events of the day, I’ll be spending some time traveling and having new experiences for my own personal growth and edification.
 
In June our board approved our new three-year strategic plan that will direct JCRC as we build on our strengths, adapt to the latest needs, and pursue a long-term vision as we celebrate our 75th year. I look forward to returning this fall refreshed in my sense of the purpose that drives me in service to our community, and with new energy to lead JCRC as we continue to add value to Boston’s civic space in the decades ahead.
 
In my absence I invite you to enjoy the voices of Nahma and other members of our team each Friday in this space and to follow them on social media. My last day in the office will be this coming Tuesday, July 30th. I look forward to returning at the beginning of November. Until then–
 
Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Invoking the Holocaust in Contemporary Debates

The New England Holocaust Memorial

In the coming year, we’ll be marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Shoah. Here in Boston, we’ll also mark the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM). NEHM was specifically placed in the center of our city, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, because its founders wanted the memorialization of the Holocaust to be a continued source of learning and relevance for generations to come.

As we prepare to mark these milestones, I am reminded of the privilege I had, a few years ago, to spend Shabbat with the Munich Jewish community and to pray at the Ohel Jakob synagogue. Ohel Jakob re-opened in 2006 almost 70 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. I write “1938” and many students of the Holocaust will assume this means that the synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” November 9th and 10th. In fact, Munich’s main synagogue was burned five months earlier, in June. This was a test of sorts, a test that the world failed. When nations remained silent, the Nazis read their silence as license to expand the persecution nationwide.  

I thought of that visit in recent weeks as debates over the appropriation of Holocaust terminology were back in the American political discourse.

Last month, Alabama adopted a law banning abortion that explicitly compared this medical procedure to the Holocaust and other genocides. And last week, the controversy over the horrific conditions under which migrant children are being held by our government veered into a Holocaust appropriation debate when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instragrammed, calling these detention centers “concentration camps.” 

So as others, seemingly increasingly, are invoking the Holocaust in contemporary political context, I have a few thoughts to share:

The Holocaust has both universal and particular legacies.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish community has felt an affirmative personal duty to work toward the global relevance of lessons derived from the Holocaust. As early as in 1951, it was an Israeli representative at the UN, Jacob Robinson, who helped draft the International Convention on Refugees. And today, that legacy informs our efforts to mobilize the Greater Boston Jewish community around our immigrant justice work and our commitment to the notion that the United States must continue to open our doors to refugees and asylum seekers.

Still and the same, every event is unique and to make direct comparisons does not serve us. We have a duty to preserve the specific nature of the Holocaust as a unique event in history. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, in “To Mend The World,” examines four specific and unique distinctions about the Holocaust: 1) It was a final solution of total extermination. 2) The “crime” was the Jews’ mere existence. 3) The genocide was an end in and of itself without other political or economic purpose—an end for which resources would be diverted. 4) It was committed, by and large, by otherwise ordinary citizens.

Fackenheim notes that while other genocides and atrocities contain some of these characteristics, none, other than the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany, contains all four.

Political actors must understand that to invoke the Holocaust as an applicable metaphor to contemporary events is to co-opt something that was incomparable, and in a way that is painful for many in our community.  That many who were silent regarding Alabama are condemning Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, and vice versa, is noted. The result is that a sacred Jewish vulnerability – including the profound trauma and lived experience of survivors who are still with us – is being weaponized for partisan purposes.

That’s unacceptable.

Further, to limit our outrage to “only” those things that accurately and adequately compare to the Holocaust is to fail to meet the moral necessity of calling out horrors for what they are. As Dr. Deborah Lipstadt rightly noted this week: “Conflating…two periods diminishes the specific, unique horror of each particular crime, and impedes our ability to understand them on their own terms.”

So we need to do better, as a society and especially as public leaders. Let us condemn the horrors being perpetrated in our name by our government for what they are. And let us do more to educate ourselves and our next generation about genocides, including the Holocaust. Ways to do this can include advocating for legislation like Massachusetts’ “An Act Relative to Genocide Education” (H.566 & S.327), sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, and supported by a coalition led by the ADL, JCRC, and the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts.

Because amidst a rising tide of hatred and bigotry, and as memories of prior atrocities are fading, one lesson from my visit to Munich and the reality of the lead-up to Kristallnacht remains all too relevant: If we fail to protest the first violations of people’s rights, then those in power who seek to do harm will themselves take our silence as a license to do even worse. It is our obligation to stand against this through action and education. I hope you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Penny & Anna: 8 Years of Reading Together

A GBJCL volunteer & her tutee

During this 75th year of JCRC, we're taking time to mark important milestones. The end of the school year is a very special moment that happens annually, when students and teachers reflect on all the learning that has taken place over the year and take pride in their accomplishments. Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) marks this moment together with our 29 school partners through end-of-year celebrations where students have an opportunity to say goodbye to their tutors. This year, GBJCL was able to present over 800 books with accompanying newly created literacy kits to students at their school celebrations, so that they can feel empowered and motivated to continue reading and learning in fun ways over the summer.

Every tutor-student relationship is unique. There are some students who are quiet and reserved and can take weeks or months of one-on-one attention to come out of their shells. Some students open up right away. Sometimes these bonds are so strong by the end of the year that the tutor becomes a core part of the student’s growth, and the student now has another adult role model who provides undivided attention and strengthens their self-esteem. And sometimes, that volunteer will be able to work with the same student as they move on in school. In the special case of one volunteer, Penny Schwartz, she was able to work with her student Anna for eight consecutive years.  

Penny has dedicated the past decade to one student, Anna, at the Healey School in Somerville that partners with Temple B'nai Brith of the same town. Penny was smitten right away with this social first grader. Anna was a joy, with an eagerness to learn and a desire to become a better reader.

When the end of the year came, the pair wanted to continue. Penny recalled, “Through the amazing cooperation of Anna's teachers—and the ok from Anna's family—we were able to continue our nearly weekly get-togethers through Anna's eighth grade graduation.” Throughout the eight years together, Anna’s teachers recognized the importance of the relationship. They could see how Anna continued to grow and learn with Penny’s support, and always made sure the two had time for one another.

Penny describes seeing Anna grow up through elementary and middle school. Penny recalled in 7th grade, when Anna beamed with pride when she received the school’s coveted Student of the Quarter award. And later that year, she was able to travel on the class trip to Washington, D.C. and exuberantly showed Penny photos of their visit to the National Museum of African American History and described in detail a painting she fell in love with.

The work continues as the relationship grows annually. Before Anna started high school, Penny encouraged two teens from Temple B’nai Brith (TBB) to meet with Anna and share “insider tips” for a freshman. Penny says, “But what really stands out for me is a mirror of what stands out for Anna: weekly, Anna has given up time to meet with me—a middle-aged white woman from another background— to share her thoughts and what she's up to in school, her ups and downs, to accept guidance—giving up rare chances to hang out with her friends. No question, I am still smitten.”

Penny feels she has been changed by the experience: “My life is made richer by getting to know Anna and her family—seeing her accomplishments, admiring her aspirations, and learning about the issues of the day in my own community—and a window into what it means to grow up today in an immigrant family. This extended relationship between GBJCL and TBB has been a constant reminder of the extraordinary devotion of school faculty and staff to support their students in and out of the classroom.”

As Penny prepares to say goodbye for the summer, however, it is a different form of goodbye, one that we are very accustomed to in Jewish tradition–a l’hitraot or “see you next time.” The pair plans to reconnect after the summer. And in the meantime, the relationship between Penny and Anna continues to grow and evolve. Penny hopes to be able to tutor Anna’s younger brother, staying connected to the family. And as Anna enters this next chapter of life, she knows she has many people who will be cheering her on as she pursues her goals.

I hope you will join us as we look to the next 75 years of JCRC, where we continue to mobilize over 200 volunteers annually to help elementary school children in underserved communities discover the joy of reading. To learn more about how you can get involved as a volunteer or support this work, visit the GBJCL website. It doesn’t require an eight year commitment. But we do need you to take the first step.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

75 years of civic engagement

Seventy-five years ago today, on June 14, 1944, leaders of sixteen local Jewish organizations gathered in Boston. These groups formed what has since come to be thought of as the “organized Jewish community,” by founding an umbrella institution “for the purpose of acting in unity in matters relating to civic protection” for the community — the Jewish Community Council, now known as JCRC.

This act of unity emerged from a climate of fear and urgency. Fear — of rising antisemitism and attacks on Jews in the streets of Boston. Urgency — in the face of the coming wave of refugees expected after World War II (this occurring just a week after D-Day), the overwhelming needs of a broken sister community in Europe after the Shoah, and very soon thereafter, a Jewish community in the Palestine Mandate on their journey to statehood in need of support.

This organized community, this JCRC, quickly came to understand that “civic protection” required civic engagement. That the strongest defense against antisemitism included standing up for civil rights, against hatreds and bigotries of all forms, for a democratic and pluralistic American society.

I suspect that, when we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary in 1994 – shortly after the end of the Cold War, amidst the hopes after Oslo, and with rapidly increasing Jewish leadership at the highest levels of government – few imagined that in 25 years we’d be struggling anew with rising antisemitism in America, with increasing demonization of Israel, and with existential concern over the future of American liberal democracy and our leadership in the world.

Over the last nine months, as part of a strategic planning process, JCRC conducted interviews, focus groups and surveys with 91 people from across the community.

When we asked our stakeholders to describe a single moment affirming the unique value of our Council, they had no difficulty naming it; it was our communal response after the horror of Pittsburgh last fall. That powerful day, when we gathered at the Boston Common bandstand to mourn the unthinkable loss to our People, tells a paradoxical story of the enduring truths that connect us to our moment of founding, and acknowledging how far we’ve come since then.

Back in 1944, the still-unorganized Jewish community leaders were scrambling in the face of impunity for violent attackers of Jewish kids in our streets, and the reality of a community too weak to compel action. They didn’t have the relationships – with local government, media, and other faith communities – to demand and secure action.  Compare this with the scene on the Common last fall, when we were surrounded by federal, state, and local officials, law enforcement, and the leadership of virtually every major Christian and Muslim institution, all there to demonstrate their solidarity and support.

What we heard from our stakeholders is that what we do is just as vital now as it was 75 years ago – organizing Jewish leadership, building deep interfaith connections to protect and defend our community’s interests. Much has changed in these years, including the fact that now these relationships enable us to work toward a more ambitious agenda, on a broader scale throughout Greater Boston; recognizing that the health and vibrancy of the broader community serves our interests as well. Through our network of agencies and organizations, today we are a community with the capacity and commitment to embody the teaching of Hillel:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Community relations and engagement in the public square are as powerful in meeting the challenges of 2019 as they were in 1944.  The times call on us to ensure our ability to represent the organized Jewish community in all its breadth, and to develop and support the deep bench of leaders across our network who are our best resources as a community for engaging in the work of public affairs. When so many in our community and nation are promoting ideological divides and pushing institutions and leaders toward fringe positions, JCRC is here to honor and amplify the vast and broad center of our community and our civic space. When our civic norms are being so profoundly challenged, we heed the call to lead boldly, to build upon our proud history, and to pursue new, ever more audacious goals.

Last night, representatives from our 42 current members and from the community at-large gathered for our annual meeting to elect JCRC’s leadership for the coming year. And our board unanimously approved a strategic plan that articulates a vision for our work and our value to the community in the years ahead.

Today, JCRC envisions a Jewish community that is a regional and national model – in civic engagement, building bridges, and initiating partnerships – in service to Jewish concerns and the collective good.

I hope that you will join us in celebrating this milestone year and partner with us in this work in the months and years ahead.

Shabbat Shalom.

Antisemitism that defies partisanship

Last week, I wrote about the importance of relying on mainstream institutions and leaders of our community to determine what is antisemitism. I identified three that I, as one individual, look to: the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Predictably – I got flak over my choices.

I heard from some on the left of our community who objected to these voices. They offered alternatives; progressive organizations with a solid track-record of calling out antisemitism on the right. Others, on the right of our community, had their own objections. And they suggested their own trusted sources; conservative groups with a solid track-record of calling out antisemitism on the left.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repetition because we’ve got a problem here. Antisemitism is on the rise in this country.

Right here in Massachusetts, over the last fortnight we’ve had incidents in at least seven school districts: Brookline, Melrose, Newton, Sharon, Watertown, Weston, and Westwood. We’ve had three arson attempts in Arlington and Needham. We’ve had vandalism at Brandeis University and seen a disgusting Holocaust-related cartoon at Harvard University.

Despite the protestations of ideological purists, the ways in which antisemitism is rising in the United States do not conform to some neat partisan confirmation. 

While we don’t know the perpetrators and motives for all of the above incidents, we do know that the man who killed eleven of us in Pittsburgh invoked the ideologies and conspiracies of white supremacy (and saw President Trump as too beholden to Jewish advisors). And the man who killed one of us in Poway published a manifesto deeply rooted in white Christian nationalist ideologies. And, as New York City, my hometown, experiences an unprecedented wave of violent attacks on visibly presenting (i.e. kippah-wearing) Jews, the evidence – in camera footage and comments by the attackers – makes clear that not one of those attackers yet identified could be classified as a white supremacist.

To further complicate matters, when it comes to public rhetoric by political officials, there have been Democrats (including in Congress) who have invoked antisemitic tropes when talking about Jews, including the charge of dual loyalty to another country. And, we have a sitting President who has invoked that same trope of dual loyalty to “your country” when talking to Jews. We have political actors on the left who normalize Louis Farrakhan even as he dehumanizes Jews with his antisemitic ravings, such as calling us termites. And, we have a President who refused to marginalize people who chant “Jews will not replace us” and has never walked back his “good people on both sides” comment about their rally.

I could go on for pages.

My point is simply this:

  • We cannot fight antisemitism in this country without confronting white supremacy in its most blatant form and in its more subtle presence in mainstream culture, and;
  • If we only fight the forms of antisemitism that present as white supremacy, then we are ignoring the circumstances in which the world’s oldest hatred also shows up in ways that have nothing to do with the far right.

An analysis of antisemitism that only critiques the other side of the ideological spectrum, no matter how thoughtful that op-ed is, is one that I personally view as unhelpful and even counterproductive for framing this crisis. Telling a progressive to look only at antisemitism on the right is dangerous for our community. Telling a conservative to look only at antisemitism on the left is equally dangerous for our community. There is no denying the fact that antisemitism motivated by a white supremacist ideology is more lethal in our country right now. We have been stricken with grief and horror in witnessing the murder of Jews celebrating shabbat in two different synagogues within six months. Yet, as an Orthodox Jew, I cannot deny the real concern and trepidation that I experienced while wearing my kippah in the streets of Brooklyn on my most recent visit.  All forms of antisemitism threaten our community and they need to be confronted.

One final point worth making this week, when ugly racism here in Boston is once again on the front page:

If we only fight antisemitism and don’t stand up to the other forms of bigotry that are rising in our society (and that are distressingly present in our own community) then we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and our country. We’ll end up alone and abandoned by many people we need as allies in this work, and we’ll end up with a country that isn’t a very good place to live for us and for a whole lot of other people.

I hope you’ll join us in this urgent struggle.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy