Author: Jeremy Burton

Wisdom from our partners in Israel

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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

The Prosperity of Our City

Boston has a long and vibrant Jewish history. And while the greater Boston Jewish community is now spread across the towns and cities that make up our region, the city itself has some 30,000 Jewish residents, some 4% of the population – double the national average.

They are also an incredibly diverse community, spread across different neighborhoods: A 2Life senior living community and a vibrant Orthodox community in Brighton; Reconstructionist Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, home to multi-racial and interfaith families and queer Jews, the historic Reform Temple Israel in Longview that so often serves as an anchor and gathering place for Boston’s interfaith community in times of hope and of crisis; empty-nesters downtown, and young professional families in the South End. These, and others, are the mosaic of our community in this city.

Across this diversity, among the commonalities for this community - an important and sizable constituency – is an understanding about the importance of engaging in civic life and being in relationship with municipal leadership. The Jewish communities of Boston understand how decisions made at City Hall impact them, every Bostonian, and – candidly – the entire region.

And this is a moment of historic transition in Boston’s leadership, one that invites great interest and anticipation. We have our first Black and female mayor. This fall the city will most certainly elect, for the first time, a mayor who is not a white man. The decisions the next mayor will make, in public safety, education, transportation, climate, development, and equity, will impact every citizen of Boston and, in fact of the entire region, which for all intents and purposes, shares a single economy and eco-system.

So, it was an important evening this past Monday night, when, the Anti-Defamation League of New England in partnership with JCRC, along with fifteen co-sponsoring organizations from across this community, hosted a forum with the candidates for Mayor. Some 200 members of our community came online to hear five candidates (all were invited) address a broad range of issues and concerns.

(And here I will note that ADL and JCRC are non-partisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. We do not endorse or oppose individual candidates nor support a specific party. We do not take sides in electoral politics).

Questions came from a wide range of community members. They asked about how City Hall can help in the fight against antisemitism and expressed concern about the police’s treatment of Black and Brown people, including Jews of Color. They wanted to know what, as Mayor, the candidates, would commit to doing to close the racial wealth gap, and also whether the candidates would commit to opposing a municipal BDS effort such as we just saw in Cambridge (all five did commit). They were asked about their support for the reforms in the Boston Public Schools exam schools, and about the pilot ethnic studies program. They raised concerns about affordable housing, support for immigrant communities and transgender youth. They asked the candidates to support genocide education as a requirement in all schools (they all did).

As I listened to the candidates - John Barros, Councilor Andrea Campbell, Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George, Representative Jon Santiago and Councilor Michelle Wu – I heard different nuances, complexities, areas of focus and thoughts that they added (in addition to the “yes and no” of particular topics). It was an illuminating and enlightening evening and if you are a Boston resident, I encourage you to check out the forum here.

Between now and the preliminary election on September 14th I hope and expect that the candidates will continue to engage with our community. Five have already committed to single-candidate forums hosted by the Agudath Israel of New England, focusing on concerns in the Orthodox community; some are already making visits to 2Life senior living community in Brighton. And I know that our community will continue to engage with the candidates, not only in these spaces but as part of the broader civic fabric that we are a part of.

And for those of you who don’t live in Boston, remember; there are importance municipal elections happening across the region. As a Cambridge voter, I will be very focused on getting to know who the city council candidates are and what they stand for. I encourage you to do your own deep dive into the position of your local candidates on the issues that matter most to you.

Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper. – Jeremiah 29:7

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Changing the Politics of What Is Possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side of the wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“Boston is different”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our Jewish Communal Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

The Derek Chauvin Verdict and the Work Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Relationships that bolster our resiliency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Childhood Books that Shaped Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy