Author: Jeremy Burton

Deeply Troubling Essay in The Boston Globe

I am deeply troubled and disappointed that The Boston Globe would publish the essay, “A shocking number of Jews have become willing collaborators in white supremacy.” This piece misappropriates Holocaust imagery in a reductive way and amplifies an anti-semitic trope without making the case for the author’s underlying thesis. To apply the term “kapo” to any Jew, and in general to use terminology related to the Holocaust in any context other than specifically talking about actual Nazis and the Holocaust is reductive and hurtful to Jews and victims of the Shoah. We at Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston have called out conservative Jews (inc. specifically Amb. David Friedman) for using the term “kapo” with regard to progressive Jews. It’s wrong when they do it and it is wrong when Jews on the left use it in political discourse regarding Jews on the right.

Further: It’s fine to go after Michael Cohen for his crimes and his actions. It’s fine to go after him as the son of a Survivor for his willful blindness to hatred & antisemitism that he had a part in elevating (he put that issue on the table himself). But to go from Michael Cohen to a larger thesis of “a shocking number of Jews” being “willing collaborators” to white supremacy elevates and perpetuates the anti-semitic trope of the nefarious Jew behind the curtain, aiding & abetting. In this case, specifically, the author makes the case that this is “a more extreme version of the same deal so many light-skinned Jews make with white supremacy” amplifying the hateful notion of the selfish Jews, putting ourselves and our interests above all else.

That the author does all this without ever making the case or offering data that Jewish individuals are overly represented amongst Trump abetters relative to our percentage of the population (or to exclusion of all the other trump abetters) is itself deeply problematic. Not to mention that the author makes no effort to take note that the vast majority of American Jews have rejected Trumpism (82% voted Dem in 2018) and many are leading the charge against him in a variety of forms.

In addition: This author uses language and framing that specifically and explicitly places Jews, as a whole, in the “whiteness” bucket in a way that minimizes Jewish experience and invisibilizes Jews of Color & Jews of sephardic/Mizrahi origin.

In sum: S. I. Rosenbaum is wrong to use term “kapo” in application to contemporary Jews, is wrong to lift up tropes that amplify anti-Semitic perceptions of Jews, and is wrong to oversimplify Jewish racial identity. And the Boston Globe was wrong to publish this piece.

Looking to the past, embracing a bold new future

Newspaper clipping, 1944

On June 14, 1944, one week after D-Day, 16 Jewish organizations in Boston came together to establish the Jewish Community Council “for the purpose of acting in unity in matters relating to civic protection and fund-raising.” Under the leadership of President Casper Grosberg and an “administrative committee” of 11 members, this coalition understood that there were collective challenges facing our community 75 years ago that required a collective response. Challenges such as anti-Semitic violence in the streets of Boston, preparation for the refugee challenges that would come with the end of the Holocaust, and, within a few years, to mobilize community support for the emerging Jewish state.

I thought of those “good men of the town” (and yes, they were all men) this week as our board convened to work on our next strategic plan. Under the leadership of our current President, Stacey Bloom, we dove into questions about our vision for Boston’s Jewish community and all the people of our region, the challenges of the current moment in Diaspora-Israel ties, and the opportunities that lie ahead as we map out our vision for the next several years of our work.

We, as a people, have always held our history and experience deeply, inviting tradition to inform our hopes for the future. And so, today, as we launch a months-long celebration of JCRC’s 75th anniversary, we are honoring the Jewish way of looking to the past as we embrace a bold new future.

The early rabbis, in the years after the Roman destruction of the Jewish commonwealth nearly 2,000 years ago, looked to the past – a Temple service no longer available to them, with its traditions practiced by Jews assembled in a capital of our own that was now ablaze – to imagine and inform the future. In a moment laden with deep despair, they marshalled their hope, and established new forms of assembly through synagogue ritual in the diaspora as we waited for renewal and return. Our rituals and practices would remind us of the Temple service – an eternal light above an ark, a central reading table where once we had an altar, an order of prayer modeling the sacrifice schedule – and have endured to shape the ways we congregate to this day.

When we gather each year at our Passover seder, we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we were present at the formative moment of national identity some 3,500 years ago. And we teach our children well so that they may look to the future with hope, with a passion for the values of Judaism and a commitment to the lessons of Passover for future generations. The story isn’t just a history lesson. It is a charge for future work.

Past and future in dynamic conversation, each deeply resonant and meaningful. Each informs our understanding of the other, guiding us as we look forward even in times of crisis and challenge. Because even in the times of the lowest despair – the burning of Jerusalem, the destruction of Europe – our leaders rose to face the challenge and look to the future with hope.

Today we launch our 75th anniversary celebration, chaired by Justin Wyner, our past President (1971-73) and Samantha Joseph, a rising leader on our board. And with thanks to the archives at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center, we’re honoring our past to inform our future. In the coming months, we’ll be filling in this JCRC timeline and telling the stories of pivotal moments and the impact we’ve had. Each month we’ll be highlighting historical moments from different areas of our work, starting with Government Affairs in honor of our Legislative Reception this coming week. I’m already excited by stories I did not know, like how we organized a coalition to change restrictive immigration laws in 1952 and worked in Washington to pass a bill against employment discrimination in 1954.

I’m looking forward to hearing these stories from our past, and reflecting on the valuable lessons they can teach us about our charge in the years ahead. I invite you to join me in this celebration and this journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

An Urgent Agenda

It has been over twenty years since the American Psychiatric Association deemed so-called conversion therapy (attempts to “repair” a person’s sexual orientation) to be harmful. Still, shockingly, 698,000 LGBTQ adults, including about 350,000 people who received treatment as adolescents, have been subjected to this traumatic practice in the U.S. alone.  Last month, after years of effort, the practice was banned for minors in New York, making it the 15th state to do so.

You may be surprised to learn that Massachusetts is not among the states that have banned this practice for minors. JCRC wants that to change.

Boston JCRC has a long and proud record of openly advocating for LGBTQ rights. Many years before I arrived here, Boston was the first Jewish community relations council in the country to fight for marriage equality. JCRC has supported legislation against conversion therapy in the past. And just a few weeks ago our Council’s Public Policy Committee unanimously affirmed that House Bill 2848, a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors in MA, should be one of JCRC’s priorities for this legislative session. I’m proud that we will be working to ensure that teenagers are no longer subjected to this sadistic practice masquerading as “treatment.”

Our advocacy on this bill, along with all our government affairs priorities this legislative season, once again reflects our commitment to defending civil rights and safeguarding long fought gains against discrimination, hatred, and bigotry. We are committed to working with our partners in government to enshrine policies that protect people across the Commonwealth—along with the lives of members of our community.

In 2017, the ADL tracked an 86% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools right here in Massachusetts—with many of these incidents involving Holocaust-related imagery and language. We need to act decisively to stem this disturbing tide. So, we are working with ADL to advocate for passage of An Act Concerning Genocide Education, to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in social studies classes in Massachusetts, enabling students to understand how unchecked prejudice and hatred can escalate to atrocity.

These are just two of seven bills that JCRC supports in our current Legislative Agenda, which includes a bill to protect immigrants being targeted for deportation, and others to help individuals and families overcome obstacles to opportunity and inclusion. Our legislative collaboration includes parties in the private and public sectors: philanthropists, social service agencies, our network of member organizations, and community leaders.

Each year at this time, we take the opportunity to recognize our partners on Beacon Hill who have joined with us to build a more just Commonwealth and a more vibrant democracy. JCRC’s annual Legislative Reception celebrates the importance of building powerful coalitions to improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for all in the Commonwealth. We lift up the work of the organized Jewish community to unite with others and act together for an urgent agenda; from civil rights to human services, economic opportunity to safety and security, supporting the vibrant MA-Israel partnership, and the protection of democratic values.

On March 5th, JCRC will honor four remarkable public servants who exercise their leadership to promote the common good. We will present awards to Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Joan Lovely, Representative Ron Mariano, and Springfield Council President Justin Hurst. These four public servants have answered the call for leadership in a time of great challenge, to address the urgent issues before us.

A well-functioning society and a responsive government would not be possible without outstanding, public servants like these four individuals, who honor their duty to the people of the Commonwealth. We look forward to coming together as a network to celebrate these four leaders and to recognize the work of JCRC and our partners. I invite you to join us.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

All Community Relations is Local

JCPA Opening Plenary: "Community Relations: The Past & Future of an American Jewish Success Story"
L-R: ED Jeremy Burton, AT&T’s Marissa Shorenstein, Rep. Jeremy Raskin (D-Md.), and David Brown

In recent weeks, a Jewish Federations of North America/Jewish Council for Public Affairs task force (of which I was a member), and the Reut Institute each released reports and recommendations on the future of the Jewish community relations field. Each calls for a reinvigoration of the network of JCRCs as an indispensable vehicle for the Jewish community – combining advocacy and relationship building efforts addressing both particularistic and universalistic issues – to navigate today’s polarized landscape and to advance core priorities and interests of our community. This past Sunday I was invited to respond to these reports as part of the JCPA Conference’s opening plenary.  What follows is drawn from my remarks:

Allow me to offer two metaphors to frame what the Jewish community relations (CRC) field needs.

Being from New England, the first metaphor is from football. When we look at the national field, some of our national agencies operate between the forty-yard lines, others work in the red-zone, but together the broad range of agencies – both JCPA members and other Jewish organizations – largely cover the field. There is virtually no issue, coalition, or partnership on the national stage where there is not some Jewish participation. There is virtually no leader of consequence with whom someone from across our network isn’t in relationship.

But there’s a second field, the field of the whole country across fifty states, and this one is not fully covered. And here, I offer a second metaphor. Since I live in Cambridge, MA, I’ll paraphrase our former congressman Speaker Tip O’Neill: All community relations is local.

Let me give you a glimpse of what my colleagues, CRC professionals around the country and I – do every day.

Each one of us is called upon (often multiple times daily) to hold the center of our local Jewish communities, listening and giving voice to a broad array of Jewish perspectives, and speaking to the values and interests of some 80-90% of American Jews. We know what those views are because we are the most over-studied and over-polled minority in American history. And we need to set and articulate boundaries – both to the left and to the right – to ensure that we are authentically representing the beliefs, opinions, and values that are the consensus of the vast majority of American Jews.

We are challenged – in an increasingly fractured time – to hold the center in broader civic space, finding ways to be in authentic and meaningful partnerships with evangelicals and LGBTQ activists, the Catholic Diocese and feminist leaders. We engage with all of them while also setting boundaries of hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism, both on the left and the right; that small percentage of folks to whom we will give no quarter.

In civic spaces we are expected to act as interpreters, representatives, and advocates; Interpreters of the diversity of Jewish perspectives and representatives of the organized Jewish community’s concerns. And advocates for the priorities of our communities.

CRC professionals are looked to provide vision, design, strategy and execution. We are expected to build programs, partnerships, and relationships in service to a collective agenda. We are on the front lines of the hardest conversations and the moments of crisis that impact us all.

Which is to say that if we are serious about the findings of these reports (i.e. that community relations is a valuable and strategic resource that requires a serious investment) then our response needs to be a major investment in local JCRCs, in my colleagues around the country, and especially in those communities where there is currently little or no JCRC work being done right now.

We need to develop the professionals and volunteers who are committed to and trained in the practice of community relations. We need to support them in the challenging local work even when other forces try to nationalize every squabble and social media amplifies every fracture. We need to invest in local capacity to experiment and pilot in doing this work. And we need to measure and replicate those experiments in other local communities.

The organized Jewish community, through the community relations network, needs to cover the field. We need a fifty-state strategy of local community relations practitioners. These practitioners must have the benefit of a vibrant national peer network from whom they can learn and adapt to meet unique local relational needs.

Together with funders, national agencies, and other partners, we can strengthen this local work across the country. Now is the moment to look forward and to build the capacity and the tools to tackle our collective public affairs goals in a profoundly disruptive time.

The Chorus of Remembrance

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was seven years old when, in 1946, she boarded a ship to America with her two sisters. Four years earlier, in a French internment camp, they had been torn away from their parents. While they were hidden for a time in France and then smuggled into Switzerland, their parents were each sent by cattle car to the death camp at Auschwitz and gassed upon their arrival. (pictured above: Sylvia (center), with her two sisters, Switzerland, 1945)

The voyage to America was difficult. The ship was filled with desperate refugees and reeked from the rotting vegetables that were their sustenance. Like many passengers, Sylvia became sick, soiling her dress multiple times. When she and her sisters arrived in New York, they were met by their aunt and uncle, who took in the traumatized girls and helped them start a new life.

Newly enrolled in school and struggling to learn a new language, Sylvia chose a special item for “show and tell”; one that that would help her share her story. She brought in the dress she wore on the ship. She told her classmates about her journey on the smelly ship, and about the murder of her parents. Her teacher, Mrs. Lynch, immediately grabbed Sylvia’s arm, hissing, “You little liar! Be quiet and sit down!” Many years would pass before Sylvia would share her experience again.

That cruel incident took place at a time before the world had fully faced and come to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, as we would in the decades to follow. And yet, seventy years later – we find ourselves with new challenges of knowledge and memory.

A 2018 survey of United States residents showed that forty-one percent of millennials believe that only two million Jews or fewer were killed in the Holocaust. Sixty-six percent of them could not identify what Auschwitz was. In Europe, a third of those polled knew "just a little or nothing at all" about the Holocaust. These numbers are obviously deeply concerning, especially as the very youngest of the survivors who can give first hand witness to the Holocaust are advancing into their eighties.

Through programming connected to the New England Holocaust Memorial, JCRC’s Holocaust education work is centered around survivor testimony. We are committed to providing opportunities for survivors to transmit their experiences for as long as they are able. The Memorial was intentionally placed in the heart of the Boston, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, so that this memory would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

In this spirit, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day this past Sunday, we invited Sylvia to share her story (documented in her extraordinary memoir) of unimaginable loss and remarkable resilience with an audience of some fifty people at the Brookline Booksmith. And on Monday, we brought survivor Jack Trompetter to Lynn Classical High School. This was the first and perhaps only time that the 400 students assembled will hear a firsthand account from a Holocaust survivor.

JCRC also worked with our partners these past weeks to promote Holocaust remembrance with a Boston City Council commemoration and as part of the “We Remember” social media campaign organized by the World Jewish Congress. Elected officials from across the Commonwealth took part to lend their voices to the chorus of remembrance.

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The Boston City Council for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

But faced with the alarming figures about the lack of knowledge, we need to double down to ensure that the Shoah is remembered, through meaningful education of the next generation.

Senator Rodrigues

To protect the transmission of history, Holocaust education cannot be relegated to special occasions like the ones this week, but must be fully embedded into the curriculum of all our schools. That is why JCRC has joined with the ADL and others to support legislation mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Social Studies classes across Massachusetts. The bill, filed by Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Jeff Roy would ensure a curriculum designed to lift up the very stories and experiences shared by Sylvia, Jack, and the survivor community.

As a community, we understand our sacred obligation to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. We remember the warning signs ignored and the indifference of those who knew what was being done at that time; an indifference that provided the necessary cover for this horror. We hear and tell the stories of our survivors – so that we may bear witness to their experiences and carry their memories forward.  Our work of memory is entwined with our hope for the future; it informs and inspires our efforts to build a future where anti-Semitism, all bigotries, and the indifference that enables them, will someday find no quarter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“A Day On”

I will admit that I was slow moving getting out of the house on Monday morning. It was a federal holiday after a challenging work week. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in having difficulty getting to sleep on Sunday after the adrenaline rush of that amazing Patriots overtime. And my driveway needed to be shoveled.

But while some of us here were deeply focused on our Council meeting last week, much of our staff had been hard at work planning our fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, and I wasn’t going to miss that. So at 9am, I happily joined a team of volunteers – mostly parents with teens – at the Haitian Church of the Nazarene in Waltham to help refurbish and revitalize their space. 43 volunteers painted and helped with other much-needed repairs to several areas of the church, which is preparing for its Annual Celebration ‪on January 27th. And then I went to Temple Beth Am in Framingham, where 120 teens and adults had gathered to bake lasagnas and banana bread for soup kitchens in the MetroWest area that are supported by our partners at Jewish Family Service (JFS).

Before these teens – many of whom do service on other service initiatives through Jewish Teen Initiative and JCRC’s TELEM program – began their work, they gathered around for an overview of poverty and food insecurity issues, and to frame the day through the prism of Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, or Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue – the familiar (to many of us) words from the Torah that call and inspire us to action.

Over the course of a bitterly cold day, over 300 volunteers joined JCRC at 10 project sites around greater Boston. Families sorted through donations of clothing and toys in the Cradles to Crayons Giving Factory— enough to help 210 low-income and homeless children. Volunteers and Hebrew Senior Life residents wrote 24 letters to Congress in an effort to keep the Temporary Protected Status program alive (TPS is a designation for people who could not return safely to their countries). We did refurbishment work at a public school in the South End and, in partnership with Rebuilding Together Boston, helped make repairs to homes in Mattapan and Dorchester that will make it easier for senior citizens to age in place in the communities where they’ve lived for many decades.

One important part of JCRC’s work is responding to Rabbi Hillel’s charge: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But Monday, and every day of our program year, JCRC places service at the center of our work in response to Hillel’s second question: “If I am only for myself, who am I?”

And if our enduring commitment to service is our way of connecting Boston’s Jewish community to the broader civic space as partners, then Monday was also a day for embracing the teaching of the Rev. Dr. King, who, in part echoing the words of Hillel, challenged us: “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'” 

When I came home Monday evening, I was re-energized from our “day on.” Renewed in my enthusiasm for a JCRC that responds to all aspects of the teachings of Hillel, including his third question, a charge to urgency: “If not now, when?”

Those are the words that get me going this – and every – morning, in service to our values and the common good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

A Special Post Announcing A Decision Made by Our Council Last Night

Seventy-five years ago, in 1944, a group of Jewish organizations in Boston formed a coalition to confront threats to the Jewish community, including and specifically anti-Semitism. That coalition, JCRC, came to act as a representative voice of the organized Jewish community, and over time, its constituent organizations developed abiding principles and values that live on in our mission statement.

JCRC’s priorities and agenda have evolved over time but our principles have endured.

In our early years, support for a safe, secure, Jewish, democratic state of Israel meant working for the survival of a nascent state and supporting the early upbuilding as it absorbed Holocaust survivors from Europe and Jews expelled from Arab countries. Today it calls us to defend the State of Israel from those seeking to delegitimize its very existence, while working with our Israeli and Palestinian partners in support of their efforts to achieve the full promise and inspiring vision embedded in the Israel declaration of statehood.

Our commitment to promote an American society that is democratic, pluralistic, and just was a call to action for a generation of post-War American Jews working to find their place in a country where neighborhoods and associations could still say “No Blacks, No Jews.” Today, we face other and real threats to the norms of our democracy, challenges to the credibility of the institutions that bind us together as a society, and the fraying of our national sense of shared purpose around an American creed.

Six months ago, a member organization of JCRC signed on to a statement organized by a self-identified Jewish organization aligned with the global BDS movement, a movement that denies the legitimate national aspiration of the Jewish people. That action triggered questions and concerns within our coalition, given our long-established view that support for BDS is contrary to our mission. Our Membership Committee began a process of discussion and dialogue with our member organization.

In the course of those conversations, that member organization questioned whether JCRC’s long abiding principles were not only operative, but also whether they were in fact the view of the Council as a collective (comprised of 43 member organizations, 29 community representatives, along with our Officers, Board of Directors, and past presidents), affirmed through its decision-making process. To ensure a transparent democratic process, last month the JCRC Membership Committee asked the Council to reaffirm and codify our view.

As JCRC does when we are at our best, we entered into a deliberative process across our network. We circulated draft resolutions and rationales to all of our member organizations, who then went through their various internal processes to determine their views, articulate changes they would seek, and guide their votes on a final, codified view. Member organizations lobbied each other and community representatives on the Council. Caucuses came together around various specific issues and wording. Alternative motions were circulated and re-drafts were shared.

Last night, the Council came together at its regular meeting to hear the report of the Membership Committee and to make a decision.

The debate was tinged with sadness and humility.

Sadness that, in their frustration and anger with the government of Israel, some Jews would choose to hold the Jewish state to an unjust double standard; to act from an ahistorical ideology; to be part of organizations that lend credence to noxious and anti-Semitic views outside the Jewish community.

Sadness that at the end of this JCRC process we may ultimately separate from a venerable organization, the Boston Workmen’s Circle (BWC), a founder of our coalition and a home for many Jews in Boston who have no other Jewish space that resonates for them.

Humility that our actions have consequences. We are clear that we are mandated only to define the compacts that bind this coalition together, and not to define who is a Jew or who should be excluded from the broader Jewish community. Even so, our hearts are heavy in the knowledge that the steps we take may be read by others as rejection of them as individuals and Jews; not just of an ideology that is counter to our mission.

Humility that we must do more to create spaces and pathways to action for those in our community who are disappointed and dismayed by the actions of Israel’s government. Pathways that connect them to Israelis and Palestinians who share their hopes and sense of urgency, without denying the legitimacy of our people’s national aspirations.

Our debate was held in the spirit of argument for the sake of heaven, with the understanding that good people who share a commitment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state can and often do have different ideas about that future and how to achieve it. It was a debate in the spirit of the houses of Hillel and Shammai as recorded in the Talmud, two vigorously dissonant views on issues fundamental to the codification of rabbinic Judaism but who, at the end of each debate, went home inextricably linked to each other as one community.

And then, finally, by a vote of 62 ayes and 13 nays, with 8 abstentions, our Council resolved:

That no member organization of JCRC, through its programs, activities and practices, shall partner with – in particular by co-sponsoring events primarily led or co-led by or by signing on to statements primarily organized or co-organized by – a self-identified Jewish organization that declares itself to be anti-Zionist;

such action is not compatible with, and is in conflict with, JCRC’s mission, and could be grounds for removal from the JCRC upon the determination of and through the procedures of this Council and its bylaws.

While our dialogue with BWC will continue in the coming weeks, we took an important step in clarifying who we are as a coalition, and what boundaries define this coalition in advancing JCRC’s mission. We did so through our process of deliberative and representative democracy on behalf of our organized Jewish community; a process that we rely on to form our principles and our policies; a process that is the foundation of the legitimacy to do public advocacy and community relations on behalf of this coalition. And we move forward.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, My Latinx And Jewish Histories Intersect

This blog post was originally published as an op-ed in The Forward.

At a Hanukkah party on Sunday night, Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared that “generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews.”

In doing so, she publicly joined a vast community of people, including my family, in embracing the space where Jewish and Latinx identities intersect.

It is a story that, sadly, has long sat at the margins of both the experiences.

My family story begins with a journey of exploration. In the early 1960s my mother, Diane Marie Sandoval, born and raised Mexican and Catholic in California, informed her parents that her path was leading her to conversion to Judaism.

My grandma was not enthused by her daughter’s decision, finding it difficult to reconcile it with her own faith and identity.

But my grandpa’s reaction was quite different. He told her, “I’ve always felt myself to be of Jewish soul and heritage.”

In the years that followed, my mother and others in our extended family embarked on a journey of discovery into our roots. This journey was made possible in large part by the meticulous record keeping of the Catholic Church in New Spain (Mexico, including the current U.S. southwest) and later by advances in DNA testing.

The record of my grandfather’s family takes us back to the earliest identifiable Sandoval of our line in Mexico, in the mid-18th century. While we have known ancestors named Pacheco, a historically Sephardic name, appearing in the records some 200 years ago, we eventually hit an adobe wall and were unable to trace them back farther.

In the end it is unprovable what Jewish ancestry nurtured Grandpa Joe’s Jewish “feels.”

The story takes a more remarkable and yet profoundly normal turn on my grandmother’s side.

Our Martinez family of New Mexico, again through church records, traces us directly back to Francisco Gomez Vicente. Born in 1576 in Portugal, he crossed the Atlantic and joined the Oñante’s Expedition. His was among the first families to settle Santa Fe, arriving in 1598.

His wife, Maria Ana Robledo Romero, came from a family known to be related to many Jews.

We know that the Gomez de Robledo family lived under suspicion of being hidden Jews. After his death, Francisco’s son, my great-uncle many times over, came under the eye of the Inquisition in New Spain. He was “examined” to determine whether he was a Jew and was found to be so, as my ancestor had circumcised his son.

After serving time in jail, my great-uncle appealed his case, and was examined once again — resulting, of course, in the same finding (one wonders how he hoped for another outcome).

This is just one story amongst thousands in the Spanish Jewish, or Sephardic, Diaspora. It is a story of how families made a difficult decision in the centuries after the expulsion of 1492 to conceal their identities and move to the edges of this new empire, just as Spain was expanding its reach.

These Sephardim were determined to put distance between themselves and the inquisitors. But they escaped as individuals, without rabbis and teachers.

There was only so much that could be passed on.

For my grandmother’s family, by the time that they fled in a harrowing 300 mile march from Santa Fe to El Paso de Norte after the Pueblo Uprising of 1680, they had lost any Jewish identity.

Three centuries years later, it was hard to reconcile a daughters’ choice with a mother’s strongly-held Catholic faith.

Other families held on with converso practices such as lighting candles in the basement every Friday night. But, as with my grandfather, an identity passed down only as lore can be very hard to prove.

Ocasio-Cortez, in the course of her own personal journey through her history, made a profoundly normal discovery. As she tweeted:

“To be Puerto Rican is to be the descendant of: African Moors + slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, Jewish refugees, and likely others.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For myself, to be Mexican-American is to be the descendant of Spanish and French colonizers, of the Basque, of the Tarahumara native peoples and yes, of Jews.

There were Jews all over the place in New Spain.

What matters now, to paraphrase Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi of Columbia University in his seminal work Zakhor (Memory), is not whether one can prove one’s ancestry through baptismal and Inquisition records or through DNA tests.

What matters is not whether one embraces an identity of being Jewish or practicing Judaism as faith.

What matters is whether this heritage of Jewish persecution, hiding, diaspora and identity is meaningful to you.

That this discovery is meaningful enough to Ocasio-Cortez that she chose to share it publicly should be celebrated by all of us.

Her story, and all of ours, are part of the Latinx story and equally part of the Jewish story.

By honoring her story, we honor our own heritage.

Holding complexity in a 280-characters-or-less world

As JCRC’s latest civic leaders study tour arrives in Israel today, this one led by Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell, I am both proud and envious to not be joining them.

I’m proud because this is the first time in seven years that I’m not traveling with JCRC’s winter study tour and my absence is a reflection of our success in implementing our strategic vision. We’ve developed a cadre of professionals – led by our Director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell – that allows us to reach more civic leaders and connect them with Israel. The fact that this work is no longer dependent on the presence of the executive director is an indication of our enhanced capacity to deliver these vital programs.

And I’m envious, because this past week, I’ve been reminded of how enriching I find these trips, with their ongoing discussion of complex and complicated issues: conversations which are all too absent from our daily political discourse.

Two events in particular have drawn my attention. The first is the controversy over Airbnb’s decision to delist properties in Jewish communities in the West Bank beyond the 1948 armistice line between Israel and Jordan – aka the “Green Line,” though not in East Jerusalem. The second involves aspects of the commemoration of the life of President George H.W. Bush.

In the reaction to Airbnb’s decision, there has been a fair amount of hyperbole for partisan purposes: Anti-Israel activists have wrongly claimed that a boycott narrowly targeting homes in “settlements” is a victory for their movement, equating this with boycotts of Israel “proper.” In fact, many people, including us at JCRC, differentiate between these actions. We oppose boycotts of Israel, and, while we don’t support boycotts of West Bank products, we do not believe that they inherently constitute a form of anti-Semitism.

This level of hyperbole indicates a lack of complexity: Supporters of Israel were right to be angry that Airbnb adopted, for now, a policy about one conflict zone that they chose not to adopt equally for all conflict zones. At the same time, it’s important to note that in effect, Airbnb merely made the same differentiation that Israel’s own government makes; distinguishing in practice between Israel “proper” (i.e. areas under Israeli sovereignty since 1948 and those areas in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights that have been formally annexed by Israel and live under Israeli civil authority) and Jewish communities in Area C of the Oslo Accords that have a temporary status until a final peace agreement is reached.

And then, regarding our public mourning for President Bush, I experienced several moments when people expressed flattering thoughts about Bush and his legacy – “decent,” “dignified,” “a statesman,” – and were then hammered for these expressions. Once again, there was a failure to acknowledge complexity, or to hold multiple and potentially competing truths at once. President Bush was both an ally and sometimes an opponent of various Jewish concerns, a transformational advocate for the disabled and yet also seemingly indifferent to the impact of the AIDS epidemic, a decent man whose campaign in 1988 was one of the nastiest in memory (at least at that time).

Complexity and nuance. Too often lost in our hurried and overblown rhetoric, our outrage-of-the-day, our tribalist “with me or against me” politics in a 280-characters-or-less world. Lost is the nuance and complexity, like the kind we offer on our study tours when we slow down and spend time over the course of a week hearing multiple and conflicting narratives from as many corners of Israeli, and Palestinian, society as we can expose ourselves to. We seldom make the space for the kind of interesting discourse that happens when we actually sit with someone and get to see them as a person with a life and experiences different from our own.

It’s in that space that generative ideas can emerge and real learning can take place, all of which I am envious to miss this week.

Or, as Frank Bruni rightly observed while reflecting on the discourse about Bush (I encourage you to read his whole piece):

“We do seem to be getting worse at complexity. At nuance. At allowing for the degree to which virtue and vice commingle in most people, including our leaders, and at understanding that it’s not a sign of softness to summon some respect for someone with a contrary viewpoint and a history of mistakes. It’s a sign of maturity. And it just might be a path back to a better place.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Protecting our community while protecting our values

This week we marked the shloshim for those murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by white supremacist gunman Robert Bowers; the 30 days following burial in which mourners refrain from some everyday practices and communities engage in performance of mitzvot to honor the dead.

This past Friday night the Jewish community experienced another attack on a congregation, this time in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mohamed Abdi attempted to run down two visibly Orthodox men leaving Friday night services while yelling anti-Semitic epithets. Thankfully no one was injured.

These and many other incidents of rising acts of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes have our communities wrestling with new challenges. Wherever I traveled this past month, leaders in institutions – synagogues, JCCs, and others – are grappling with the unenviable task of navigating the balance among competing core values and priorities of Jewish communal spaces: between being safe and being inclusive and welcoming. How much security is necessary? What are the best practices? What measures are “too much,” either because cost outweighs the benefit, or because they exacerbate the problematic experiences for Jews of Color, or otherwise limit the ways in which we aspire to welcome people into Abraham’s four-fold open space?

This is, to say the least, an evolving conversation. And it is one we’ve been having with our own leaders and member agencies here at JCRC. I don’t presume to have “the” answer for every congregation or community, beyond encouraging each of them to have these conversations, to explore their own values, and to ask how they will hold multiple values in a dynamic tension that feels appropriate for them.

Our responsibility at JCRC is to do everything we can to ensure that our governments, at all levels, are doing everything in their capacity to ensure the security of our community and its institutions.

Last year we worked with the New England ADL and the Mass. Association of Jewish Federations (MAJF, which is run by JCRC) to seek Governor Baker’s commitment to reconstitute the state’s Hate Crime Task Force, which he readily did. We’ve been appreciative of the Governor’s support after Pittsburgh and have been pleased in recent days to see him leading on working with the Task Force to encourage all law enforcement agencies to fully report hate crimes and to take other measures to ensure that there is a “zero tolerance” for hate in Massachusetts. Our joint commitment to the vitality of this task force remains strong.

MAJF and JCRC also worked last year with our partners in the state legislature to establish a $75,000 pilot for non-profit security grant funding, complementing the federal grants which we advocate for in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America. This year, the state doubled the funding to $150,000 and we will be working with the governor and the legislature to increase the pool and streamline the application process to expand eligibility.

And the Jewish Emergency Management System (JEMS), a partnership of CJP, JCRC, ADL, and the Synagogue Council, is helping our network of agencies access a series of trainings and briefings on the issues they are grappling with in this time.

We’re also continuing to work on the range of public policy matters that were important to our community before Pittsburgh, which have taken on increased urgency in its aftermath. We are more committed than ever to ensuring that the United States remains a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees from around the world, including supporting our noble legacy institutions like HIAS, supporting our network of synagogues here in Massachusetts working in concert with interfaith partners to pass gun-violence prevention laws, and challenging those at the very highest levels of public life who are validating and amplifying the kinds of bigotry and hatred that lead to these attacks.

A month after Pittsburgh, the Jewish community has been changed. We don’t know yet fully how. But we do know that we all have a role to play in facing that change responsibly, while also remaining constant in our purpose and our values about who we are in the world.

We have a choice: To react passively to unfolding events, or act with agency, to protect both our community and its most deeply held values. I, for one, choose the latter option.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy