Author: Jeremy Burton

My Grandpa Joe was 4 when he crossed the border

As I arrived in Texas this week with a CJP mission, my thoughts went back nearly a century. One hundred years ago next April, my grandfather arrived in El Paso, Texas as a refugee from Mexico.

Jose Casillas Sandoval was four years old when he crossed the Rio Grande with his parents and his older siblings, fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution. I imagine what he would have endured if he had been separated from his parents at the border, if they had been turned back - to violence and bloodshed - by a nation with a hardened heart.

The Texas my Grandpa Joe grew up in wasn’t always an easy place to be a Mexican-American; children like him attended separate, segregated, Mexican-only schools. But he became a citizen and a patriot. With the help of a union apprenticeship, he finished high school and learned the skills he needed to operate and repair heavy machinery in the California steel mills. He served in World War II and he built upon the knowledge of electronics that he acquired in the Navy. With a good job at a good wage, he had a ladder to the middle class. He would become a respected leader in his church and community.

We came to San Antonio this week to learn about and to volunteer with the groups supported by CJP’s Fund to Aid Children and End Separation (FACES). In the wake of the recent family separation crisis at our southern border, Boston’s Jewish community has once again responded by putting our values into action; to reunify families and support migrants during trying times.

We learned about the work of The Young Center, CJP’s largest grantee in this fund, which is trying to change our immigration system so that children are recognized as such and treated in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are working tirelessly around the nation to reunify families, including in some of the hardest cases where parents have already been deported.

We provided service at the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), an all-volunteer partnership that welcomes refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women and children. We packed backpacks with basic supplies to be distributed to migrant children.

We saw with our own eyes how some of these families are dumped at the bus station in San Antonio by ICE after being released from detention - they’ve been given a chance to wait for a review of their asylum petition that can take weeks or years, but are left to fend for themselves with little or no resources. Terrified, traumatized, they need and receive immediate intervention and accompaniment from IWC until they can reach the next step in their journey to safety.

Both these organizations existed and have been working in the trenches long before the crisis of recent months. The brokenness of our immigration system goes back decades. The fears and the horrors that immigrant families face are not confined to the border.

Parents have been ripped away from their children by ICE here in Massachusetts too. People fleeing persecution from their home countries, seeking asylum, arrive at our borders and are shipped to different detention centers around the country, including jails here, in our city.

JCRC is doing what we can to offer support as these families resiliently fight to stay together. We are part of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN, pronounced ‘beyond’), a growing effort amongst faith organizations and communities. We are finding pro bono attorneys to support people facing deportation who would not otherwise have legal representation, along with more than 60% of detained immigrants nationally. We are raising money to bond people out of detention, so they can be with their families while their cases proceed. We are organizing synagogues participating in three sanctuary networks - in Newton, Jamaica Plain, and Cambridge - to help families avoid separation during this crisis.

This moment calls on us to do our work differently. It calls on us to be proximate to one another in ways we may have never been before - we live together; we pick each other up after release from detention; we have meals together; we are in close contact with each other’s families. Through it all, we are building a deeper community founded upon dignity and doing more than we have before.

I keep a picture of my Grandpa Joe on my desk, sitting in that segregated classroom. It reminds me of his story. It keeps me proximate to this part of my family’s immigrant experience and to a story of our nation’s past. It is a picture of the opportunity and of some of the hurdles we have offered to those arriving here fleeing violence and persecution. It is a picture of where we’ve come from and who we might become again.

Synagogues and others in Boston’s Jewish community understand this journey and are determined to place the values of welcoming and compassion back at the center of our society. We are choosing to be proximate with our new neighbors. And on Wednesday, August 15th, I hope that you will join us at 7pm at Temple Emanuel in Newton to learn more about this work and how you can support people in our community right here in Massachusetts as they face the horrors of family separation and detention.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Championing our community’s values in the 2019 MA Budget

A state budget is a financial document. But at its essence, it’s statement of values and an affirmation of what a government stands for. At JCRC, we’re keenly aware that for many in our Commonwealth, budget decisions are not abstractions, nor is the process a game of wins and losses. These debates have profound implications for the lives of real people. The determinations of lawmakers can make the difference between a stable job or economic despair, between staying in your home or being institutionalized, between living in safety or hiding in fear.

In partnership with our communal agencies, JCRC champions our community’s values by advocating for funding of three overarching priority areas: creating pathways to economic opportunity, supporting individuals and families in their homes, and ensuring safety for our most vulnerable.

Yesterday, Governor Baker signed the budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Below is a glimpse into our achievements, and the very tangible ways in which the services funded will improve lives.

Creating Pathways to Economic Opportunity
  • More than ever, a college degree is a foundational element to get a foothold in today’s evolving economy and for some, this pathway is simply unattainable. The Bridges to College budget line-item, modeled after the JVS program, helps students surmount obstacles and enter directly into credit bearing classes. This year, for the first time, we delivered additional dollars directly to JVS to meet the increased demand.
  • People in our community face multiple barriers to employment, and we’ve fought consistently for those who’ve been left behind.

We secured $150,000 for the Transitions to Work line-item, modeled after the innovative program developed by the Ruderman Foundation, JVS, and CJP to help adults with disabilities enter the workforce; $1,000,0000 to train immigrants and refugees who have come to Massachusetts to create their own futures;

and $1,000,000 to the Secure Jobs Initiative, (a $350,000 increase), envisioned by the Fireman Family to help individuals facing homelessness find stable jobs and supports to stay in their homes.

"I came to Boston from El Salvador speaking no English. I knew that I needed college to get a good job, but I did not even know where to begin. At JVS, I learned English, how to apply to college and financial aid, and as a result, I am the first person from my family to graduate college.” – Dimas, Jewish Vocational Services client

Supporting Individuals and Families in their Homes

“Having a baby as a single parent is hard enough as it is. Adding a layer of substance use is an added stress, something most other parents don’t have. The team at JF&CS have stood with me and my baby when it seemed like everyone else wanted to give up on us.” – Kelly, Jewish Family and Children's Services Client

  • At JF&CS, Fragile Beginnings and Project NESST were created to offer vital services to support the parents and caregivers of vulnerable infants who have had to stay in the NICU, including premature and substance-exposed babies. We helped secure $400,000 to provide services to these families as they transition home, and throughout their child’s developmental years.
  • We sustained funding of $642,000 for the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) line-item, a model which enables many seniors to stay in their homes and communities by bringing valuable programs and services to them. For the last decade, we have worked with JFS Metrowest, JF&CS, and JFS of Western Mass to expand this model of healthy aging in place.

“JFS works so hard to get outside speakers and entertainment to come to us and I am so thankful. They brought an exercise instructor to teach weekly aerobics classes and my doctors are so thrilled that I am getting weekly exercise at my apartment. The lunch group and trivia have been very helpful too. After my fall this winter, I feel that I have lost some of my memory and the trivia really makes me think."
Barbara, JFS Client

Ensuring Safety for our Most Vulnerable

  • In past years, this priority area focused exclusively on populations traditionally seen as vulnerable, including fragile seniors and those living on the economic margins. But with emerging threats to the Jewish community and other minorities, we’ve been called to respond to a new and disturbing vulnerability of our times.

"There's been a heightened sense of vulnerability and a documented increase in threats and hate crimes against Jewish community centers, African-American churches, and mosques, and it is very important that we provide these types of organizations, especially those on a shoestring budget, the means to put meaningful protections in place" – State Senator Eric Lesser

In response to these threats against JCCs and day schools, JCRC led efforts to create a pilot program to provide security support to communities excluded from a similar federal program. This year, the state doubled the grant to $150,000 and ensured that all regions of the Commonwealth have access to these vital grants.

While we took many steps forward as a Commonwealth during the FY19 budget process, we also experienced great disappointment. One of the most hotly discussed policy items considered during the budget debate was a compromise containing elements of the Safe Communities Act, to promote the safety and civil rights of our immigrant neighbors. These provisions, included in the Senate budget but absent in the final product, reflected long-standing constitutional protections, including an end to unlawful racial and ethnic profiling, the acknowledgment of the right to counsel in civil proceedings, and a ban on registries based on religion. The failure to act will result in continued persecution and danger for immigrants (and those perceived to be) and the trampling of constitutional rights which extend to all persons in the United States.

As the legislative session comes to an end on July 31st, we are grateful to our many partners in the House and Senate who worked with us to set these priorities, and we remain committed to work with our partners in advocacy and government to enshrine policies that reflect the best in our shared humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

Israeli & Palestinian Women Leading the Charge for Peace

I spent last week in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah as a facilitator for Encounter, following my experience as a participant last year. This time, my role was to support other American Jewish leaders who were there to listen and learn from Palestinians about their lives and experiences. I also had the opportunity to spend a few days touring in Jerusalem, with the ground partners we work with on our civic leader study tours, exploring new (to us) ways to engage.

Three “moments” that I would not have imagined possible only a few years ago have stuck with me as I returned home. They feature extraordinary women representing vastly different communities, but pursuing common goals with relentless determination and unimaginable courage.

With JCRC’s ground partners on Mount Zion, just outside the Old City walls, at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, I learn about current efforts by Palestinian Jerusalemite women (the vast majority of whom are not citizens of Israel) to organize and agitate for basic municipal services. Since they refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty, this community has been engaging in a 50-year-long boycott of municipal elections. One result has been their lack of representation at City Hall, leading to, among other things, chronic problems with services like street-light repair and garbage pickup. For decades, these issues were taken up by the clan leaders, the men in their communities – to little effect. But in recent years, the women have taken matters into their own hands, organizing, and even building coalitions with Orthodox and secular women in Jewish communities of the city. Their efforts are bearing fruit, including increases in budgets for services that are improving the quality of life  in their communities. Women, we are told, are getting the job done.

In Geula, a Haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem – a place I knew well when I was a black-hat yeshiva student living in that city in the 1980’s – a Hasidic woman leads us on a professional walking tour. She tells us about her own journey from 18-year-old married mother to a later-in-life college degree and profession. She engages us in an open and profoundly candid conversation – one I would never have imagined having with a woman from this community even 10 years ago – about social change and social issues in her community; women’s health education including birth control, LGBT issues, debates over higher education, etc. My friend asks her if she will have any issues walking on the streets with obviously outsider men (let alone any man other than her husband). “Things are changing. My neighbors understand the importance of what I am doing. This corner is fine,” she replies.

Then in Bethlehem, now having joined the Encounter group, I meet a Muslim woman who is involved in Women Wage Peace – a group of Israeli and Palestinian women working through non-violent means to build grassroots pressure on the political leadership in support of peace. This woman (names are protected because not all the people I met were on the record) tells us about her own journey and her determined efforts to teach her neighbors and youth in her community to see The Other – the Israeli, the Jew – as fully human, and to appreciate the feelings they have, that are common to us all.

She has brought her teenage son with her to this meeting with American Jewish leaders. He sits quietly next to her. At one point, as she tells her story, she talks about the first intifada in the 1980’s, when she was in college and I was a post-high school yeshiva student just down the road in Jerusalem. She did what all her classmates did: threw stones at the Jews. Jews like me, a mile away, I think to myself. And, as she tells this story, she reaches out and gently places her left hand on her son’s knee; only for a moment, while talking about her own violent past. And she doesn’t touch him again for the hour we are together.

I feel the message in that moment and in this boy’s presence in the room: She’s telling this story as a mistake she prays he does not repeat. She’s brought him here to see that her choice, to pursue non-violence as a practice, is a better one, and one that opens up doors of access to her, that brings her voice and vision before us visitors. It is a choice that needs validation and support. And over our time in Palestinian areas, we hear other activists who practice non-violence tell us that they need “wins.” Victories to show their neighbors that their approach works, that violence is not the path to a better future.

I come away appreciating that change is possible and continuing to happen. But that change never happens on its own. It takes bold vision and profound courage. And it needs our support; to amplify the visibility of activists, to celebrate and give strength to those pursuing non-violent social change. I’m proud that Women Wage Peace is one of the initial participants in the Boston Partners for Peace, our effort to amplify and connect with changemakers on the ground who are bridging the Israeli and Palestinian communities and paving the way to a better future.

We can have an impact in supporting the future of this place that continues to evolve before our eyes – only if we take the time to listen, to learn, to be inspired. But we must also act now, for we know that this possibility can be fleeting, and nothing is guaranteed to last forever. The question I ask myself is: What will these neighborhoods and communities will look like in another ten years, and how can our community be a part of cementing their progress long into the future?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

A Shabbat To Protest

With the increasing frequency of Saturday rallies and gatherings responding to current events I’ve been thinking a bit of late about JCRC’s “Shabbat policy.” Though it’s rarely discussed, our practice is not to sponsor or participate as JCRC in programs – from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. While we recognize and affirm that Jews have a wide range of Shabbat observances (including none at all), as a broad umbrella of our community, we believe we have a responsibility not to hold programming that would exclude participation from any part of our community. So while many, if not most of us, might attend a certain rally on Shabbat, some would not, and we as an organization do not.

This same principle guides our practice of “strict” kashrut for all our events – we never want a member of our community to be excluded in our space because of their observance practice.

As a community relations organization, this comes up with some regularity in our interfaith work, with Saturday often being the most convenient day for our partners to do an event. We’re just candid about the fact that an event on our Shabbat would exclude parts of our community. At times, that means that we miss out on certain things. The first anniversary of the Marathon Bombing fell on a holy day of Passover; we had no expectation that the city would commemorate it on any day other than the actual day. We communicated our regret over Jewish communal absence, which was recognized and honored.

In many cases, when there is an urgent need to stand with other communities as one united collective, we find another way. One example was last summer, in the days after Charlottesville. We knew that a massive mobilization was planned for Boston the following Saturday, in response to an anticipated local far-right rally. It wasn’t going to be moved – that was the day these folks had a permit. But many, including Governor Baker, Mayor Walsh, and our closest partners in the Christian and Muslim communities, were asking for some way we could all stand together as faith communities. Our response – under the umbrella of The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization – was a Friday evening program at Temple Israel in Boston. It was deliberately held early enough so that those who didn’t drive on Shabbat could reasonably get home to nearby suburbs; and Muslims too could get to Friday evening prayer before sundown. This powerful public gathering was our way of providing an expression for our solidarity, while holding true to principles we all shared about inclusion.

But with all the rallies and protests this past 18 months, this “organize a new event” approach just isn’t feasible every single time that there is a new reason to mobilize. And so we look to another aspect of our Shabbat policy, our desire to honor and lift up the Shabbat practices of the diverse individual parts of our community.

While we never sponsor or endorse Saturday rallies, we want to lift up and honor the efforts of those of our members who do. And we want to make known that there are options for members of the Jewish community who want to participate in this public activity as Jews. Because another guiding principle of ours is that it isn’t all about JCRC. We’re a network – 43 organizations, a dozen community partners, some 130 synagogues. Showing up in public space is not about any single organization – including JCRC. It’s about our entire community, in all of our diversity, participating in our democracy in ways that each of us feels called to do, and in concert with our Jewish values and practice.

So this Saturday - when so many of us are outraged over family separation and travel bans and are horrified by our government’s  dehumanization of asylum seekers and refugees –as rallies are being organized across the country, JCRC is not sponsoring any event, including this one at Boston City Hall that is being co-hosted by our close and valued partner, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

But we want you to know that many of our members are. So, if you feel compelled to be there, if you feel that this is what this Shabbat requires of you, you’ll see some of our members, including the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Workmen’s Circle. You might also consider joining Temple Israel Boston for Shabbat service, Torah study and the rally, or Congregation Dorshei Tzedek for a brief Shabbat service at the Make Way for Ducklings Sculpture, on Boston Common, before walking to City Hall Plaza. And while my personal practice of Shabbat means I won’t be there, you will probably see some of the JCRC team on the Common.

Whatever your practice entails, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.

p.s. I’m headed to Israel next week and will be taking the next two weeks off from this blog. I look forward to sharing some reflections from my trip when I return.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

Meet Stacey Bloom: JCRC’s New President

With all the change and transition going on in our community, I’m pleased to highlight an exciting change here at JCRC. Last week, the JCRC Council (the representative body of our 43-member organizations) elected our leadership for the coming year, including our new President, Stacey Bloom.

Stacey and I have been working together in one way or another for nearly seven years now, and I’m thrilled that JCRC and our community will have the opportunity to benefit from her leadership in this new role.

We sat down with Stacey and asked her to share a little bit about herself with all of us:

 

Tell us something personal about yourself.

I grew up just south of Boston, in Braintree, where I still live—just a few minutes from my parents and sister. I am lucky to have family nearby, since I work full time as an assistant general counsel for a busy state agency and I’m a full-time mom to an amazing five-year-old boy. Before I became a mom, I had more of an opportunity to indulge my love of travelling, a love I am imparting to my son. I am also an avid history buff, with a passion for World War II (I encourage everyone to take a visit to the WWII Museum in Natick – it’s a hidden gem) and Middle Eastern history.

What first drew you to JCRC?

I was active in CJP’s Young Leadership Division (YLD) and was the 2009 YLD campaign chair. During that time both Bill Gabovitch and Jill Goldenberg (who are now both past Presidents of JCRC) reached out to me to talk about JCRC. They spoke about JCRC’s mission and work—I found that this mission aligned with my core values, and that this was work that I wanted to be a part of, as it enabled me to continue down the same path I had been forged in the past. Specifically, I had worked in politics—both local and statewide—since high school. After law school I did a stint on a Scott Harshbarger’s gubernatorial campaign because I was inspired by his commitment to advocate for the weakest members of our society—those individuals who had no voice in the public arena. JCRC spoke to my belief in civic engagement, and to what we as a Jewish community could do to advocate for the elderly, the poor, and the disenfranchised.

I also came with a passion for Israel advocacyGrowing up, my parents always stressed the importance of Israel. They talked about Israel with great pride and instilled a love of Israel in my sister and me. My many visits to Israel not only solidified the lessons my parents taught me, but also made me even more committed to helping others understand Israel and its importance to the Jewish community and the Jewish people. My work with JCRC has allowed me to engage in issues that speak to my values in very different, but equally important ways.

What was the first moment when you knew this was the right fit?

I joined JCRC’s Council as a community representative in 2010 and the Board in 2011. At one of my first meetings, I floated an idea about how we could tackle some issueI don’t even remember what it was nowin a way that was different from the proposal on the agenda and what was currently under discussion. After mulling over whether I should weigh in as a very new JCRC Board member, I plunged in and offered my differing view point. Bill, then the President, listened to my rationale about a change in approach, and immediately responded, “Good ideawe’ll do it your way.” What resonated in that moment was that it didn’t matter how new you were to the organization, your voice and input were valued, and you were truly considered to be a full participant at the table. That moment was an important one to me. The idea that everyone around the table has something to contribute is one I hope to impart to all Board members, new and experienced alike.

So now you’re Bill, so to speaksetting the agenda, leading the Board. What’s important as you look ahead?

During the last year we began discussions with the Board and Council about JCRC’s need to respond to changing demographics of the Greater Boston Jewish community and the new challenges facing our community. During the last 70 years we have been “the table” where the organized community hashes out our views. As we move forward, we need to ensure that JCRC attracts and cultivates the next generation of leaders and engages them in tackling the issues our community and society will face in the future. 

In looking at JCRC’s future and the challenges and opportunities it presents, we don’t have to reinvent who we are; we need to renew who we are, without losing our sense of mission or our purpose. We will need to respond to new challenges in ways that underscore our organizational identity as a force for change and a resource for our community and greater society, and continue to represent our most cherished Jewish values.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share about JCRC?

As challenging as these times are, they’re also exciting. Our work has that much more importance and urgency, and presents an opportunity to bring people in; young people, people who haven’t been involved before. JCRC can be a part of helping them realize their vision for change. We live at a time when people really want to ACT and are rejecting apathy and disengagement. It’s up to us to help engage or reengage people who are hungry to make a difference. JCRC is uniquely positioned to meet the challenges ahead as we work with our community and our partner organizations to advocate for change and advocate for our Jewish values. The most challenging times also provide the most opportunity; and I’m grateful that the Council has entrusted me to lead JCRC in these times.


At the annual meeting, our Council also elected the following members to our leadership: Vice President Elise Busny, Vice President Sam Gechter, Secretary Ben Pearlman, Assistant Secretary Margie Ross Decter; our new Board members Josef Blumenfeld, Nicole Lieberman Gann, Rav Claudia Kreiman, Nathan Rothstein, and Debbie Isaacson; and our new Community Representatives to the Council: Elizabeth Bonney-Cohen, Lynda Bussgang, Abby Flam, Ilise (Lisie) Krieger, and Emily Levine. We welcome them all and thank them for taking on new roles in service to our community. And we look forward to working together in partnership with Stacey as our new president.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Rainbow Kippah

As a child in the Haredi Orthodox community in New York, I – along with all the other boys – wore a black cloth kippah, the “skullcap” whose origin goes at least as far back as the Book of Samuel when David ascended the Mount of Olives and covered his head. And while my relationship to this garment has its origins in the ancient rabbinic teachings about appreciation of the Divine presence, over the years I’ve developed a more multifaceted relationship with my kippah.

When I began my career, there were two models in my community of Orthodox men participating in public service; one was embodied by elected officials who were unapologetically in politics to represent the interest of the Orthodox Jewish community as they understood them, and the other was embodied by officials who wore their Orthodoxy openly and proudly, as a values system that informed their politics in service to a broader society. The first group wore their kippot (plural for kippah) on the floor of the state legislature, the latter were never seen with one while performing their public duties. I aspired to the second model of public service. I stopped wearing a kippah in public for over a decade.

As I turned thirty and committed to my second career, building Jewish community that was meaningful for myself and my peers, I put the kippah back on my head. I found meaning in explicitly claiming Jewish space and holding on to commitments to traditional practice while I was coming out of the closet. It became a part of my narrative of authenticity to my whole self, by not giving up one part of my identity – traditional Jewish practice – to live fully as another: as an Out person. That choice, to proudly affirm my full self, informed the work I was doing and the communities I was building, including serving as a leader of the first partnership minyan in the US. It was there, that years later, in my role as a gabbai (overseer of prayer service), I had the privilege of officiating, when – for the first time anywhere – Orthodox same-sex fathers were able to stand together and name their daughter at the bimah on Shabbat morning.

In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, I coordinated an investment by Jewish federations in recovery efforts beyond the Jewish community. On an early visit to New Orleans, a minister pulled me aside and said, in the most loving tone possible, “It is very courageous of you to wear that Jewish cap in these parts.” In that moment I was reminded of an exchange that Ruth Messinger, Former Manhattan Borough President and President of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), had shared with me: After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, AJWS quickly mobilized millions of dollars for relief and recovery. President George W. Bush invited her and other charitable leaders to the White House. She told him about how AJWS was providing fishing boats to villagers in Indonesia so that they could start rebuilding their livelihoods. The President praised AJWS’ efforts and added, “make sure that sides of the boats have painted on that this was made possible with support from American Jewish World Service.” He understood, and wanted to underscore the importance of visibility when Jews act on our Jewish values in service to the common good.

I kept that kippah on in meetings in Mississippi and Louisiana (though I did have the good sense to put a baseball cap on when I was out on the streets on my own). In the years since, and now at JCRC – where our work is to represent Jewish values and interests in the public square – I’ve become more conscious of my kippah, not only as an act of faith but as an expression of the visibility of the Jewish people. A garment can be not only about a relationship with the Divine, but also an expression of our culture and our presence when living and practicing our values. When I am at an interfaith rally or a hearing on public policy, I want to be seen as a member of the Jewish community, as part of a presence of our people in partnership with others. When I wear my Jewishness openly, I’m inviting conversations –opportunities to inform and educate – with those who approach me with questions and a desire for connection.

There are still those situations where I choose to be less visible. When I was in Germany, at the advice of local Jewish activists in Berlin, I kept my kippah off in public. It saddens and angers me to realize that there are places where it’s not safe to be Jewish. It is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.

This month, the kippah I’m wearing is a rainbow one – for Pride Month. Thirty years ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of wearing it, but now I do so as a visible expression of an identity that encompasses multiple parts. My rainbow kippah embodies how I’ve come to understand belonging, visibility, and the responsibility to show up proudly as our whole selves – in our community and in our work in the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jeremy

Stories We Cannot Tell

This post has been updated to reflect the latest realities of the work.

Every Shabbat in my congregation, we say a prayer for the government of the United States. Our version of this prayer asks that “God, who commanded all humanity to create just governments, bless and protect the elected and appointed officials of the United States,” and inspire them, among other things, to “let their actions reflect compassion for the poor, the defenseless, and the needy amongst us.”

These days, when I pray these words, I think about people like Armando Rojas, the beloved custodian of congregation Bet Torah in Westchester, NY. Armando worked there for 20 of his 30 years in this country before being detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Despite the congregation’s advocacy efforts on his behalf, Armando was deported to Mexico without a chance to gather his belongings or even say goodbye to his wife and young children. He was left at the border with no money, cell phone, or ID.

My prayer is filled with disappointment and anger toward our government. Because Armando’s story, and the stories of so many families these days – torn apart, some with children still in their infancy – should challenge us: Do these actions reflect who we aspire to be as Americans? Is this our compassion? And, bound by the injunction for the Jewish people to treat strangers as we would treat ourselves – and knowing that prayer is not enough in this moment – I ask: what actions are we called to?

As the targeting and harassment of immigrants in our communities escalated over the past 18 months, the stakes are now astronomical for families facing impossible choices. They want the same things that we all want for our own: safety and security for themselves and their children, the possibility of a brighter future, the opportunity to contribute to our community (as many have for decades), and the assurance that they will not be sent back to countries from which many of them fled in fear for their lives.

And ever-growing numbers of these people are living in terror right here in Massachusetts – terror of being detained, deported, and separated from children who, in many cases, were born in this country and have never lived anywhere else.

I want to share a vignette to put a human face on the work we’re doing right here in Greater Boston, but the risk in doing so is too great for our immigrant neighbors whose stories we’ve learned. They are so vulnerable to this cruel and unpredictable system of enforcement that we dare not share any details that could put them in peril. But I can tell you about the ways in which members of our Jewish community – alongside our interfaith partners in a new coalition called the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN) – are taking action in solidarity with the people who are being affected, and to accompany these individuals on a journey that is terrifying and lonely.

For families who have sought Sanctuary in churches in Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Newton, and elsewhere, we’ve mobilized 18 local Jewish congregations with hundreds of volunteers joining networks of support to provide round-the-clock companions, childcare, and resources to meet the families’ various needs. People held in detention have reached out to our coalition, which has responded by organizing a grassroots network of 700 volunteers, supporting over 150 detainees. BIJAN community members have attended 150 immigration hearings, provided pro bono legal counsel in 12 cases, and trained and mentored non-immigration lawyers to represent these individuals. Together with BIJAN, we’ve raised over $80,000 to bond 26 people out of detention, with ongoing fundraising campaigns to free more detainees.

There is no telling for how long these families – struggling to stay together and live in safety and dignity – will have to endure this ordeal. But our actions, together with other faith and immigrant communities, are helping some families to remain together; whether in churches providing safe havens, or freed from detention and given a shot at pursuing legal cases, or awarded asylum to stay in our country. When our volunteers show up our foreign-born neighbors are less alone in dealing with a frightening situation.

I invite you to learn more about our work and consider joining our efforts, through Sanctuary, accompaniment work, legal support, or contributing to bond funds. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of individuals and families here in Massachusetts as we take action to reclaim the compassion that is missing from our government.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

We can no longer say that anti-Semitism is in retreat

“Burton” isn’t a traditional Jewish surname. My grandfather was born Moshe (Milton) Bergstein. He grew up in Harlem in the 1920s along with his younger brother Levi (Louis). Louis aspired to become a sports journalist, but he knew a Jewish-sounding surname wasn’t going to get him on New York radio. So he changed his name, and his older brother – wanting to share a family name – did so with him. Louis Burton went on to have a distinguished career in New York sports journalism.

This history is not unique to my family.

In the 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement, Gregory Peck plays New York journalist Philip Green, who is surprised to learn that his secretary changed her name after being rejected for jobs with her Jewish surname. Green goes undercover as a Jew to research anti-Semitism, and discovers discrimination against us in housing, employment, services, and even within his own family. Several Jewish Hollywood producers didn’t want to make this film, fearing repercussions. Actors turned down the lead role. The film was a surprise hit at the box office and received many honors, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Jewish “defense” organizations, like JCRC in 1944, were created in this context; to unite our community in standing up to the socially acceptable anti-Semitism of those times. And when, over time, it appeared that anti-Semitism in America was in retreat, our focus shifted to other forms of defense and advocacy.

With expressions of anti-Semitism gaining in frequency (with multiple hate incidents of swastikas in schools last month alone), we can no longer say that anti-Semitism is in retreat. There has been a notable spate of violent attacks on Orthodox – i.e. “visibly” – Jewish people around New York City recently, along with incidents of Jews being harassed for wearing Star of David necklaces and other Jewish identifiers at some progressive marches, or being tossed out of an Uber for speaking Hebrew. Still, we can appreciate that the current experience of anti-Semitism in the US remains substantively different from the experience of many on the receiving end of rising hatreds and bigotries. Most in the Jewish community (ie, those presenting as White and straight) have generally not shared the experience of those in our community and others who were stabbed in the streets for holding hands with a same-sex partner, or had the cops called for sitting while Black in a Starbucks, or got screamed at by a customer for speaking in Spanish.

But here are some of the alarming realities we are facing here in the US: In several races around the country, neo-Nazis – espousing the removal of Jews from public service or even the country – are running for office. Disturbingly, these candidates are polling as high as 5, 10, and even 20 percent. Thankfully, local Republican parties are moving to vigorously denounce and expel these folks. While no one is anticipating – yet – a victory for these politicians, it is becoming acceptable to say: “yes, I know this candidate expresses these anti-Semitic views, but I’m still considering him as an acceptable candidate for public office.”

On the Democratic side, in various races we are seeing candidates openly acknowledge disturbing debates in their political circles about the very legitimacy of a Jewish state. These candidates are firmly asserting: “I support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.” But, it is becoming acceptable in certain spaces to espouse anti-Semitic notions about Israel (For a cogent articulation of the distinction between legitimate criticism of the policies of the State of Israel and the slippery slope that leads to left-wing anti-Semitism, read this excellent Washington Post op-ed by Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah).

My point is this: even amidst the recent wave of populism, and with rising expressions of hatred and bigotry of all forms, we – the Jewish community – aren’t (yet) as vulnerable and marginalized as we were in the 1940s. Nonetheless, we are seeing something insidious: the normalization, once again, of anti-Semitic expression in significant parts of our society.

Toward the end of Gentleman’s Agreement, Green’s fiancée describes herself being sickened by an anti-Semitic joke at a party. But she did nothing to challenge it. The lesson in this movie – and in this moment – is that silence condones bigotry.

Our charge today, and the charge of all decent people, is to not be complicit through our silence, and to confront and challenge anti-Semitism – and all forms of hatred – wherever and whenever they appear. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our fate is inextricably bound with that of other marginalized minorities, as one expression of bigotry fuels so many more. We must unite as a Jewish community, in solidarity with our partners, to make it socially intolerable to hold these views. Our failure to do so puts us at risk of becoming an America where, once again, our personal defense may come at the expense of proudly displaying our Jewish identities. That must be unacceptable in our great nation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jeremy

Shavuot and “Embracing the holy space”

This weekend we, the “People of the Book,” will mark the giving of said Book. Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, as we retell the experience of Moses ascending Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments.

For me, one of the most powerful aspects of this holiday is that it does not stand alone, but rather, it exists in direct relationship with Passover, exactly seven weeks earlier. And in that relationship comes an idea about the dynamic tension between values that is relevant to our times.

Passover celebrates our individual freedom, our liberty from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt. Shavuot marks the establishment of a collective law. This weekend, we celebrate the presentation of a social contract between the Divine and the People, but also – and more importantly – among the people. And these holidays are connected because the gift of freedom is incomplete without the gift of law.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, explains it thus:

“If freedom means only that I can do what I want, then my freedom will inevitably conflict with yours. If I am free to steal, you are not free to own...That is why Judaism sees the exodus as the beginning, not the end, of the journey to freedom. The culmination came in the giving of the Law. The biblical vision is of a society in which no one will be at the mercy of others. Its rules and institutions aim at creating a social order of independent human beings linked by bonds of kinship and compassion...The freedom to do what we want creates individuals. It does not create a free society.”

The idea of values that are incomplete without each other, and that are enriched in dynamic relationship to each other, is a theme of several books I’ve had the opportunity to read this past year; books that are deeply relevant to the challenges we face. Yascha Mounk, in The People Vs. Democracy, explores the dual threats of undemocratic liberalism and of illiberal democracy. Both tendencies, when implemented to excess, pose a risk to our civil society. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind explores another set of tensions – the moral values that compete within us and within societies to inform our politics. He examines the multiple foundations of human morality, and makes the case that by recognizing these foundations, we can become more open to other points of view.

In our Book and these books, as in the connection between Passover and Shavuot, we see values and ideas held and articulated, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. Each value or idea – freedom and order, liberalism and democracy, fairness and loyalty (two of the six values that Haidt enumerates) – may be of greater import to many of us some or all of the time. But none is fully developed without its relationship to the other(s).

And it is within this notion that we have an opportunity to offer a deeply Jewish approach to our ideologically siloed and divided society: To resist the temptation to define competing values as opposing ones. And to refuse to be bullied into rejecting the concerns and beliefs of those with whom we disagree solely because they identify elsewhere on the ideological spectrum.

Rather, we can insist that what are defined as ‘their’ values and ‘our’ values, ‘their’ ideas and ‘our’ ideas, exist in dynamic tension and conversation with each other. We can promote a radical idea – to hold the center and honor the whole – by embracing the holy space between competing ideas, beliefs, and values.

Together, as the People did in the wilderness as they journeyed from the split sea to Sinai, we can do the work of building communities enriched by all our members, informed by all our ideas, walking together on a path through the desert and toward a greater future.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Jeremy

From a place of love

In Leviticus 19:17, we read: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart, rebuke your kinsman and do not incur guilt because of him.” Unpacking this verse, Maimonides tells us: “When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise the person… Rather, we are commanded to make the matter known and ask the person: ‘Why did you do this to me?’ ‘Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?’"

Further, he explains: “A person who rebukes a colleague… should rebuke the person privately. S/he should speak to the person patiently and gently, informing them that s/he is only making these statements for their colleague's own welfare.”

I’ve been thinking about those words often of late.

Item A: In recent weeks we’ve been in conversation with one of our partners beyond the Jewish community about a recent action they took that deeply troubled many members of our community. This is not the first time when, in the complexity of intergroup or interfaith relations, we’ve found ourselves raising concerns with partners about their actions (and as they raise concerns about our actions as well). And as in many of these cases, we’ve also been in ongoing consultation with several of our members who are also invested in this relationship. Questions arise: how should we express our objections: publicly or privately? collectively or individually? And to what end; i.e. what answers are we looking for? Will we be satisfied only by a particular action taken or are there times when reaching a new understanding is enough?

Item B: Not a day goes by that we don’t get at least dozens of emails and calls “offering” feedback on something we’ve done or said. Many of those notes are of a “thumbs up” nature,” others are expressions of disappointment, or worse. Often, over time, the same person will send both positive and negative notes that are both interesting and informative. We listen to all of it, we try to acknowledge most of it, and we certainly weigh it as we continue to learn and to improve our efforts.

There are a small number of people – from a variety of ideological points of view – who write often (say 10 times a week or more) using the same cut-and-paste lines in almost every note, practically yelling about only one or two topics, whether or not those topics are the subject of the message they are replying to. Others write less often, but their messages are always laden with vitriolic language, sometimes starting with ALL CAPS headers, that make plain their assumptions about our I.Q.s, our morals, and/or our loyalty to the Jewish community. I for one find myself tuning these out: They all go straight to the circular file; no response required.

Item C: On Monday Ambassador Dermer was asked for his thoughts about American Jewish criticism of Israeli government policies. His response – and I am paraphrasing here – was that when an organization issues 100 press releases and 99 of them criticize Israel, the response is to tune them out. But when Israel’s friends, who’ve stood with them in challenge and celebration, criticize them on a couple of things, they hear that.

All of these are, to my mind, connected to an idea deeply rooted in Jewish wisdom such as from Maimonides; that rebuke (tochachah) is strengthened when it comes from a place of love (ahavah). This thread runs through the work of community relations. Whether, as in the example of the external partner, it is about the context of a trusting relationship in which to engage in authentic rebuke coming from love. Or whether, as with these members of our community, it’s about being effective in giving the rebuke. Or, as in the case of Israel (or all of these cases), it is about being able to be heard.

In our ancient rabbis’ discussion of why Aaron was mourned more broadly than his brother Moses, they tell us that Aaron “also… would prevent Israel from transgressing, however he would do this through words of appeasement and reconciliation.” I find myself thinking about how we give, and receive, constructive criticism. None of us is perfect. But as we strive to be more so, we welcome the wisdom and feedback of those we have come to trust.

May we learn to hear each other, and to be heard.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy