Author: Jeremy Burton

Our Wounded Democracy

The sadness and the anger we feel right now can be overwhelming. This political moment is supposed to be a time to celebrate the strength of our democracy, a time when the world should look on with admiration – as it first did over two hundred years ago when President Adams left office – when we mark the peaceful transition of power between political opponents. Instead, the world and our nation watched in horror as violence erupted in Washington.

What we saw was a violent uprising, incited by the President of the United States and his enablers. A seditious mob, many wearing explicitly Nazi and antisemitic garb, many carrying the confederate flag – the ultimate symbol of white supremacist violent insurrection in this country – attacked police, breached the Capitol and briefly took control of the hallowed chambers of our Congress. The President who had incited them for months told them later that afternoon “I love you,” an echo of his “very fine people on both sides” response four years ago after Charlottesville.

In two weeks, Joe Biden will be our President and Kamala Harris will be our Vice-President. But even if our current President honors his statement (delivered through aides early Thursday morning) that there will be an “orderly transition,” it will have already been marred by this violence.

Still, I go into this weekend with undiminished optimism. Because the struggle for the American idea that I cherish is not won or lost in a single day or even in a single election. It is the work of generations.

I was reminded of this recently while watching American Creed on PBS. This film follows former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, historian David Kennedy and a diverse group of Americans as they explore whether a unifying set of beliefs can prove more powerful than the issues that divide us.

There are many inspiring and thought provoking moments in this film, but one theme in particular has been giving me strength this week. The Boston based Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz talks about how “people at the margins can bear witness to the reality of our nation and what our future needs to be.” It is an idea picked up by Kennedy throughout the film, and in particular, when he speaks about his own father’s experience during the Great Depression, namely, that the American Creed, the idea of this nation, is a promise. But it is not always a promise fulfilled. There is a gap between the idea and the reality. The challenge for us as Americans is to not allow that gap to provoke us into giving up on the idea.

Our work is to see the gap, to name it, to talk about it, and to re-affirm our commitment to the work of making progress to achieve the promise of America.

The promise of America, and the promise of our democracy, has been wounded this week. But it always was, and still remains an idea, an aspiration, something that can and must be worked for.

I’m very grateful to my friends, our member agency the JCC of the North Shore, and to our partner Facing History, for bringing this film to my attention. They invited JCRC, the Israeli-American Council and others to partner in hosting a program about the film next Thursday night, January 14th. I’m looking forward to joining a panel discussion where we will address themes from the film in an effort to engage our community in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about Jewish and American ideals across the deepening divides.

I encourage you to watch American Creed and then to join us this week, and in the years ahead, not only to discuss its themes, but to do the work of bridging the gap between the realities of America and the promise of our nation that inspires us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Hope for the year ahead

This being the final working Friday of 2020, I’ve been feeling a certain pressure to write something expansive and thoughtful; reacting to one last big topic we’re wrestling with, or reflecting on one more dynamic that informs how we as Jews navigate our internal debates, participate in American civic life, and understand the great issues of our day.

While I hate to disappoint you, this – my final blog post of 2020 – is not that.

What this is, though, is a simple and brief expression of gratitude.

2020 has been hard. For all of us. Granted it’s been hard in different ways, depending on the nature of your pod, the status of your work, the needs you are being asked to meet for those who are proximate to you, and so many other factors. And while some have thrived and some have struggled more than others, it won’t be a year that many of us look back on with fondness.

Even as we watch the inspiring scenes of truckloads of vaccines beginning to arrive at our hospitals (@2ShotsInTheArm has been a source of joy, inspiration and hope to me every day this week), I’m under no illusion that the challenges of 2020 will magically fade away in the coming year. We’ve got extraordinary repair work to do, and as a community and a society, we don’t even have a shared diagnosis of the problem. 

Nevertheless, I’m profoundly optimistic about what come next, largely because of you.

Despite the fact that we’ve spent most of 2020 apart, isolated to various degrees, I have never felt alone in all this. At every step of the way, when there have been struggles, whether they be personal or collective, I’ve seen individuals, institutions, and communities step in and hold people, help people, and extend a hand of support and solidarity. 

Even as we’ve all been dealing with our challenges in 2020, you’ve never not been there for me, for us, and for larger work of building civic space and shared society. I hope that I, in turn, have been present for others as well.

That strength, that support, that active expression of connection to each other even now, gives me hope for the year ahead. 

So, thank you. Thank you for being generous with me and with JCRC this year. Thank you for giving me hope by being generous with each other.

You inspire me, and will continue to do so.

Shabbat Shalom, and wishing you a Happy New Year.

Jeremy

How to spell Chanukah and other arguments

Tis’ the season of the Hanukkah wars. We can’t even agree how to spell it in English. Thankfully, this year, Twitter is being inclusive on this point.

Jokes aside, for two thousand years Jews have been ascribing differing meanings and symbolisms to this holiday. Is it a celebration of liberation from an encroaching Greek foreign power, or is it a celebration of religious rejection of creeping cultural secularism? Is the miracle a military victory, or the extension of a small quantity of sacred oil for multiple days?

Yes. To all of these answers and more. Because Hanukah, a post-biblical holiday without a Temple rite of its own or a commanded observance from the time of Moses, a holiday that doesn’t even get its own book in the Talmud, is more pliable for the rabbis and the cultural interpreters of our people through the centuries. So each of us draws our own meaning from this holiday.

If you’re on Jewish twitter you know that the New York Times recently published a column – written by someone who was raised in the church and who does not self-identify as Jewish – rejecting the celebration of this tradition because it didn’t feel “authentic” to celebrate a Jewish “religious” event. The backlash on #Jwitter was voluminous and warranted.  I’m fairly certain that my Christian friends would be rightly offended if I wrote a piece about how Easter lacks authenticity for me, and a major newspaper justified the publication because some of my cousins are Catholic and I’ve occasionally attended a mass out of curiosity or friendship.

One response that I appreciated was from AJC, which invited people to share #WhatHanukkahMeanstoMe. As I consider that question, I am reminded of one aspect of this holiday, about which there is  broad consensus in Jewish circles: It is just not that big a deal for us.

Now, I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Chanukka. I enjoy this holiday tremendously. But as suggested above, it just does not rise to the category of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the trio of festivals that mark our calendar and our understanding of our experience in the Sinai. It is not the high holy days or Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. It isn’t even Purim, which gets its own book in the Torah.

Some Jewish communities, like that of Ethiopian heritage - having already lived apart from most Jewish centers of population prior to the creation of this relatively new (barely 2,200 year-old) Jewish tradition - don’t even celebrate Chanuqa.

The simple truth is that Chanukkah has been elevated far beyond its place in the Jewish cycle only recently - largely in North America and other places where we Jews have predominantly achieved full acceptance within nations that are defined by our Western, and Christian, Civilization. It is a credit to our status of belonging as Americans, and to our yearning not to be excluded, that in the midst of a season that is deeply significant to Christian civilization, we – and American consumer culture – have elevated this minor holiday. It’s a statement of belonging that we can gather as families, exchange gifts (not a historical tradition of this holiday), have our own (quite delightful – thank you Daveed Diggs!) Disney Holiday seasonal songs, and broadly be in the seasonal spirit, without being forced to convert (as was true in the past) or to celebrate the birth of another faith community’s messiah.  I think it’s great that, even as our nation’s culture is defined by its heritage within Christian civilization (with December 25th as a national holiday), we as Jews get to be part of this national culture without abdicating our own civilization’s heritage and traditions.

So, this Hannukah, like every other year, I get to revel in two aspects of my identity and heritage simultaneously. I get to celebrate a piece of Jewish tradition that has meaning because it has been passed down by our ancestors for two thousand years, and I get to enjoy the holiday season and wish my cousins and friends a Merry Christmas without being made to feel excluded from our shared American heritage.  

This week I’ll light my menorah, spin my dreidels, wear my holiday socks, eat some latkes and Bimuelos, and be grateful to be both Jewish and American.

I’d love to hear what Chanukka means to you.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukah!

Jeremy

More than a Moment

After months of drafts, redrafts and negotiations, we were heartened when earlier this week, the MA legislature approved a bill focusing on a JCRC priority: police reform. The “Act relative to justice, equity and law enforcement in the Commonwealth” now awaits the governor’s signature. We join with our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in thanking Governor Baker for his early leadership in support of several key components contained in this comprehensive legislation, and we will stand with him when he signs it into law. At the same time, we know that this bill does not include all that its advocates hoped for, and is in fact, just a starting point. As Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and one of the six conference committee members who negotiated the final version said “…one bill is not going to address every issue… there is a lot more work to be done”.

In many ways, this week here in Massachusetts encapsulates the moment we’re in as we approach the end of 2020. While much has happened in the months since this summer when millions of Americans took to the streets in support of racial justice, many of the commitments that came from those weeks of action are still being negotiated, and much remains unresolved. It is for this reason that now is a time to be explicit in recognizing and articulating the unfinished nature of the work of 2020. We do so at a moment where conversations are taking place at every level of society, from what has to happen next in Massachusetts, to the fierce debates and jockeying over priorities on the agenda for the Biden administration and the next Congress.

As was true in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd, we at JCRC are holding ourselves accountable to our partners. We are committed to listening to them and honoring their priorities and, where we can, making their priorities our own. We see ourselves, the organized Jewish community in Boston, as bearing the responsibility of citizenship,  working hand in hand with others toward a collective vision for the improvement of our society, and the realization of a commonwealth that benefits us all.  

To that end, we invite you, leaders and activists within our Jewish community, to join us on Tuesday, December 15th, 12pm, for the next installment of our Speaker Series. We’re thrilled to be joined by the Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, and best-selling author and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers. We’ve invited these two partners of JCRC and of the Jewish community to talk with us about the work ahead in pursuit of racial justice in our country. We’ll hear from them about how they understand this moment, and their guidance for their Jewish partners about what we are called to do in meeting it.

The weeks and months after George Floyd’s murder were a profound moment in our nation’s reckoning with our legacy of racism. But moments can be fleeting and windows too often close. It is our responsibility, all of us who stood up for racial justice in June, to make sure that 2020 is remembered as more than a moment. Of course, we, as Jews, understand that work worth doing is also ongoing. As Rabbi Tarfon taught:

It is not our duty to complete the work, nor are we free to desist from it.

                                                                        (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

We hope that you’ll join us on December 15th and that you’ll be a part of the work ahead, with JCRC, toward an American society that is more just.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

The Most Jewish and American of Holidays

This week, I’ve noticed two themes emerging, as we anticipate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday during the pandemic. The first, largely amplified by public health officials and responsible civic leaders, is a plea to the American people that we stay home and not risk the further spread of COVID by getting together with those outside of our immediate bubbles. I wholeheartedly endorse this plea.

The second thread contains suggestions that we postpone our celebrations entirely, during this challenging time. Some argue that now - when a thousand people are dying every day, when so many are in economic despair, when our nation is still so riven by divisions - is not a time to celebrate.

It is hardly a revelation to note that Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the most Jewish of American holidays; in its format - extended family gathered for a bountiful meal - and in its message of gratitude. So much of Jewish ritual, of our way of being in the world over thousands of years of persecution, has focused on gathering together in appreciation for what we have, despite conditions in the world around us. In our tradition, from the moment we arise and say the Modeh Ani prayer, to the time we say the Sh’ma and go to sleep, we are giving thanks - not because all is right in the world but rather because we are still walking in it. This attitude of gratitude is, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes (without apologies for my citing him two weeks in a row here), even in our name as a people:

Giving thanks is beneficial to the body and the soul. It contributes to both happiness and health. It is also a self-fulfilling attitude: the more we celebrate the good, the more good we discover that is worthy of celebration.

This is neither easy nor natural. We are genetically predisposed to pay more attention to the bad than the good. For sound biological reasons, we are hyper-alert to potential threats and dangers. It takes focused attention to become aware of how much we have to be grateful for. That, in different ways, is the logic of prayer, of making blessings, of Shabbat, and many other elements of Jewish life.

It is also embedded in our collective name. The word Modeh, “I give thanks,” comes from the same root as Yehudi, meaning “Jew.” We acquired this name from Jacob’s fourth son, named by his mother Leah who, at his birth said, “This time I will thank God” (Gen. 29:35). Jewishness is thankfulness: not the most obvious definition of Jewish identity, but by far the most life-enhancing.

And in the American context, a day devoted to national Thanksgiving was actually an innovation by President Lincoln, during the darkest days of a nation at war with itself. Prior to 1863, the holiday was celebrated at separate times in different localities, mainly in New England. But one of our greatest presidents would, at the behest of Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, come to see it as an opportunity to reaffirm our national unity.

On 3 October 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation:

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People…

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It is in this spirit, one both deeply Jewish and deeply American, that I look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week. I will mark the day both as a day of contemplation and mourning for those who we have lost to COVID, and a day of gratitude for those who are still with us in this world. I hope we can hold it as a day to appreciate the gifts we have, and by doing so, discover a path to more good that we may celebrate. For me, it will be a smaller gathering (one of just myself) than is normal or desired, but it will be a day of Thanksgiving, and for that I am grateful.

Wishing you all a holiday of gratitude, and a Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Remembering Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Last Saturday night, many of us first learned that President-Elect Biden had won the election only after coming back online after Shabbat. That was also when we learned the very sad news that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, had passed away.

In addition to his life of service to the British Jewish community, Rabbi Sacks was a prolific Torah scholar, as well as a writer on moral philosophy and ethics in the modern world. His work as a teacher and public intellectual reached far beyond the Jewish community, probably more than any contemporary rabbi.

I am not the one to offer a personal tribute to him. For that I encourage you to read and view the memorials this week from those close to him, such as this one from his daughter Dina Sacks, who writes that “he recognised the beauty and the pain of life and knitted them together in a compulsion to build, to renew, to hope.”

I will, however, briefly note that his teachings deeply informed our work here, and like so many other Jewish institutions, we have quoted him often over the years when framing a Jewish approach to some of the most significant challenges of our times.

Five years ago, on this very week, during one of his many trips to Boston, Rabbi Sacks reached out to JCRC and expressed a desire to sit down with interfaith leaders. We discussed his newest book, Not In God’s Name, in which he examined the phenomenon of violent religious extremism as a misreading of all three Abrahamic faiths, and the role that faith leaders play in overcoming these desecrations of our traditions.

Thus, in a room at Harvard Divinity School, hosted by Dean Dudley Rose, a dear friend and partner of JCRC, students, teachers, rabbis and ministers gathered to learn with Rabbi Sacks. For a full hour, we were mesmerized as he spoke eloquently, with no notes, graciously answering our many questions on the critical themes his book addresses. His topic was the use of violence to resolve religious disputes, characterizing it as a conceptual error at a fundamental level. He talked about how “victory does not establish truth” and why “religion and power are two separate enterprises that must never be confused.” He quoted Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Robert Putnam.

He challenged us:

"We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbour and stranger, the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faith and races, can live together in grace and peace."

I was reminded of this memory this week while engaging in one of my own practices. This year I have been re-reading Sacks’ collection of readings on the weekly Torah portion, Covenant & Conversation. For tomorrow’s reading, Hayei Sara from the Book of Genesis, he has a piece exploring Abraham’s relationship with Hagar, the mother of his son Ishmael. Rabbi Sacks notes the presence of both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, at his funeral; a family reunification that Sacks calls “surprising” given the earlier treatment of Ishmael. Sacks teaches “an extraordinary midrash” that explains that father and son had been reconciled through Ishmael’s second wife, a woman named Fatimah, who herself embodied Abraham’s approach to welcoming strangers into the tent.

Sacks notes that this midrash is from an eight-century work, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, and that given that timing, the offer of the name Fatimah – also the name of Mohammad’s daughter in the Koran – “is highly significant… making an explicit, and positive, reference to Islam.”

Sacks goes on to say that “the hidden story” of this week’s parshah “has immense consequences for our time” in its story of reconciliation. “Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.”

This week the Jewish people and the world lost a giant. I am blessed to be amongst the millions who have had the opportunity to learn with and from Rabbi Sacks. I know that his work, his moral core, and his hope for the role of united faith communities as a transformative force in western society will continue to inform our work in the years to come.

His memory is, truly, for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Hope for a Shared Civic Space

As I write this on Thursday afternoon, we don’t yet have a declared winner and a concession in this week’s Presidential election. Much will be said in the coming months as the votes and the exit polls are analyzed and debated. But just this week, I found a series of interactions to be particularly illuminating.

Midday Wednesday I shared a tweet from Josh Kraushaar, a columnist at National Journal. He wrote that according to one exit survey "Nineteen percent (19%) of Trump voters said they kept their support for Trump a secret from most of their friends, compared to just 8% of Biden voters." A short while later I posted a Forward op-ed by Bethany S. Mandel, in which she shared what she describes as public abuse in Jewish spaces in response to her saying that she would vote for President Trump this year.

I shared these with the intention of exploring why the President underperforms in polls relative to his actual vote totals. But what happened next is what’s sticking in my head today.

Withing minutes of those tweets, I began receiving DMs and texts from colleagues challenging me on why I would ever post anything by Mandel. Please understand that we’ve been in a public relationship for many years including, for example, a panel discussion we did together for The Forward earlier this year on Jewish life post-COVID. Then, also within minutes, I heard from friends, including activists in Boston’s Jewish community and within JCRC’s work, who told me, essentially: “It’s me.” “I’m the Jewish Trump voter who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing that part of me in my circles.”

I say this to lift up two observations as we await the conclusion of counting and begin shifting into the next phase of our electoral process.

First, I want to encourage us all, once again, to be mindful that any outcome (to almost any election) will disappoint and dismay some members of our cherished community. That’s a feature of a pluralistic, diverse and broad community – not a flaw.

Second, there’s a deep brokenness to our politics and our community when members have beliefs, fears, hopes, and values that they don’t feel comfortable expressing to their friends and peers. And here I should add that I’m mindful that our progressive members also regularly articulate great hesitation about expressing certain values and concerns in group settings, and they too describe to me the abuse they’ve received in Jewish spaces for doing so. This is not a one-way problem.

More than anything in the wake of this election, I’m sitting with this struggle that has and will continue to challenge us in the years to come. To truly be one community, we’ve got to find a way to be honest with one another and to hold our differences in a way that allows us to engage with them. I can’t honor your fear if I don’t understand it. I can’t join in your hope if I don’t even know what it is. And if I don’t see all of you as who you are, as a person in this world and in this work, then I’m not seeing you fully as part of Tzelem Elohim, created in the Divine Image as we all are.  

I’m not going to offer a solution here today and frankly this is not going to be solved by waving a magic wand. It’s going to take a commitment by all of us who want to be in community across our differences, and it is going to take a lot of hard work to build curiosity, empathy, and respect. I for one think that it will be worth the effort. If we don’t find a way back to a shared civic space, the centrifugal forces of our differences will continue to tear us apart as we slug it out to a standstill over and over again. That world is a much harder one to build a share future in. I remain convinced that we can do better, and committed to doing my part in helping us realize our potential as a strong and united community.

I hope that you will join me in making a commitment to that work.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

Voting, Sacred Duty, and, Prayer

Chances are pretty good that most of you reading this have already cast your votes for next week’s election. For those who haven’t, it’s probably fair to say that you have all the information you need to decide how you are voting. And, for those very few who are still undecided, if it’s Ranked Choice Voting (Question 2 in Massachusetts) that you are undecided about, give me a call this weekend if you are interested in hearing a case for #YesOn2.

With the debate over “who to vote for” largely behind us, I’ve been thinking about how we relate to our vote as a sacred civic duty, and contemplating the prayers we say for our governments.

I was recently reminded at a Hartman@Home Symposium of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a singular Orthodox authority and a giant of Torah scholarship; an immigrant who came to New York seeking refuge from the antisemitic oppression of the Soviet Union. Rabbi Feinstein was asked by the New York JCRC in 1984 about the obligation to vote. I still recall the impression that his letter made on me when it was read at my high school. He wrote:

On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety.

A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.

Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible, and by voting. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.

I love this articulation of our sacred duty, the sense of obligation to community and to society, the responsibility to protect the freedoms and benefits that our society provides us, and to regard voting as an act of guardianship and appreciation.

In this spirit of the sacred mindfulness we bring to our voting, I appreciated the recent JewishBoston compilation of Prayers for Voting. Different ones will resonate with different folks, so I encourage you to check it out, but allow me to excerpt from a prayer composed by David Seidenberg for My Jewish Learning:

With my vote today I am prepared and intending to seek peace for this country, as it is written: “Seek out the peace of the city where I cause you to roam and pray for her sake to God, for in her peace you all will have peace.”

May it be Your will that votes will be counted faithfully, and may You account my vote as if I had fulfilled this verse with all my power.

Finally, a word about prayers for the government. Whole volumes have been written on this subject, and suffice it to say that Jews have been saying such prayers for some 2,500 years. The prophet Jeremiah began this practice after the loss of  our self-government, to implore God to guide our foreign rulers. Over the last 600 years or so, these prayers evolved and developed in different countries, for the monarch, for the state and in keeping with the spirit of the times and places. Most synagogues in our American diaspora continue to say some form of such a prayer each Sabbath till this day.

And so, in what will be my last blog post before we begin counting the votes this year, let me conclude by offering an excerpt from the “Prayer for the United States of America” that we say in my congregation every week. It was composed in the 1990’s by Dr. Ester Fuchs of Columbia University for the Modern Orthodox think tank, Edah:

God, who commanded all humanity to create just governments, may you preserve and protect our democracy. Bless the elected and appointed officials of the governments of the United States to carry out their duties consistent with the Constitution…

Place in their hearts devotion to justice, truth and equality for all who live in our great nation.

Let their actions reflect compassion for the poor, the defenseless, and the needy among us. Inspire them with the courage to use the might of the United States for good throughout the world…

May this be your will, and let us say, Amen.

These are the prayers that I will be saying this week. I invite you to share yours with me.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

How do we get back to “we”?

We who work in community relations tend to spend an unhealthy amount of time imagining how things could go badly, and planning for the worst-case scenarios. If you look at the nomenclature of Jewish communal systems, JCRCs are literally called “defense” agencies. We think about how our communities should respond to attacks, to wars, to stuff going sideways.

This isn’t a particularly new line of thinking for me. If I’m being candid, our deputy director, Nahma Nadich, likes to tease me that my propensity for reading post-apocalyptic novels makes me well-suited for this life.

But in the past few weeks, it feels like I’ve attended a bit too many of these kinds of meetings. With our election season (not a day anymore) reaching the pivot point between casting ballots and counting votes, there have been endless meetings – Jewish and interfaith, local and national, with our partners and with government officials – all planning for the many ways that this season could play out. Will there be disruptions to the democratic process? Will there be violence and if so, from what corner and in what form?

While these conversations are critical, as is all the obsessive planning, they can be more than a little dark at times.

Which is why, right now, I want to be practicing hopefulness regarding this season of elections.

Before you jump on me, let me be clear that this is not an expression of hope regarding a particular outcome. As I was sitting at our Council meeting the other night, I was mindful that any and every outcome will disappoint at least some people in our community; and most of us have fears about the results that we are not hoping for. Do not mistake my hopefulness for naivete. I’m under no illusion that any outcome will result in rainbows and unicorns and kumbaya at noon on January 20th. The fractures that plague our society have been building for decades and won’t heal overnight.

There’s been much discussion in recent months about what is broken in our society. I thought this recent Atlantic piece by Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute was helpful in making sense of the “brokenness of the American condition.” Writing about recent protests in New York City he says:

“the idea of obligation as a key element of citizenship—a burden that citizens take on themselves, and that is also expected of them by their leaders—is embattled… Americans are being told that rules requiring personal sacrifice to advance the public good are a violation of their civil liberties, rather than the foundation on which those liberties stand, and that government is at odds with religion. There is enormous irony in the conjunction of these two beliefs, of course; religious communities are deeply committed to the very idea of mutual obligation these protesters are attacking.”

I was struck by his focus on the tearing of the fabric of civic obligation, by partisans of various flavors, in recent decades. What was once John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you…” call to mutual obligation has now become “what’s in it for me?” Kurtzer writes:

“The coronavirus is ours to defeat, if we are prepared to ask what we can do for our fellow Americans. To be American is to be obligated. People of faith should be the first to understand that, lining up—six feet apart—to restore public health, and rebuild American democracy.”

As Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garret observe in their new book “The Upswing”:

“The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

So how do we do reclaim our sense of obligation to one another? How do we rebuild our social contract? How do we get back to “we”?

Tackling that question is what makes me hopeful, even amidst all the current rancor and divisiveness. The very act of voting represents the potential to restore the “we” back into our democracy. My vote is my act of stewardship, my inserting myself in the tide of history that connects our past and our future; and with all the drops joining that river, I get to impact the downstream flow of what we will bequeath to the next generation.

In this moment, we are all called upon to weave, to bring together people with differing views and aspirations for the outcome of this election, and to engage united in the building of civic space. Community relations need not and should never be just about imagining the worst outcomes. Our goal is to connect across differences of communities to identify and build on our shared hopes.

Though that connection has been harder during COVID, I remain hopeful. We have still managed it despite the challenges.

One last image: Lately I’ve had the 1989 AIDS film Longtime Companion stuck in my head, specifically the final scene, in which survivors imagine a day, after the cure, when they will gather again in celebration – on a beach – without fear.

I too have been imagining the day, soon I hope, when once again we will gather in community and across communities, as we have so many times, to face our shared challenges together. I’m dreaming of and hoping for the day when thousands of us gather once again to sing, and hug, and to build our collective strength and solidarity in service to a shared dream of what America can be.

I look forward to seeing you there when that day comes.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

The collective and deliberative will of our community

 As happens every year when summer turns to fall, we recently had our orientation for new Council members. I was excited to welcome the newest members of our 117-person Council; half of whom are charged with representing organizations from our member network, and the rest serving as representatives of the community at large.

As we prepared them for their service to the community – walking through the processes of our Council for addressing whatever issues come their way this year – I was reminded of how grateful I am for their service, knowing how their work will strengthen our community. Because while process may be boring (to some) I believe it leads to better outcomes.  Knowing that JCRC’s public agenda is determined by our network of organizations, rather than by any one individual, underscores the legitimacy of our decisions and the integrity of our actions

Some stories I often tell:

A few years ago, the student arm of one of our members was publicly and privately lobbying me to speak out and criticize Israel’s government on a specific matter. Instead of me telling them yes or no, we invited them to present to the Israel and Global Jewry committee of our Council. The students made their case and then our leaders discussed it. These leaders, representing the fullest diversity of our Council (including representatives from the New Israel Fund, CAMERA, J Street, the Israeli-American Council, AIPAC and AJC) decided not to speak publicly on this issue. They did instruct me to convey their shared concerns to Israel’s Consul General, to let the students know what we were communicating, and to commit to elevating the public discussion on this issue without JCRC taking a public stance.

On another occasion, a leader on the JCRC board was pressing me to speak publicly on a specific controversy in Israel. They would ask me to do this every few weeks, and they were clearly frustrated by JCRC not taking a public stance. My repeated response – reminding them that they were in the room when our Council debated a set of issues related to this matter and explicitly tabled a specific principle on this, for lack of a consensus – wasn’t satisfying them. After several conversations, as it became clear that they thought I was personally opposed to the position they advocated, I asked them what they thought my opinion was on this issue. To hilarious effect, I pointed out my long pre-JCRC track-record on this particular issue, which clearly ran counter to the view that they assumed I had. As Executive Director, my public silence was then – and will always be – reflective of our Council’s will, despite my own views, no matter how deeply felt.

This comes up all the time in domestic matters as well.

A few years ago, at the request of some legislators, our Council took up a discussion on principles related to a bill being considered on Beacon Hill. Now, I will admit it was not an issue I’d given much thought to, nor did I think that weighing in on that particular bill was essential to JCRC’s identity. Also, the Chair of the legislative committee reviewing the bill is a friend and told me that they thought it was a poorly considered piece of legislation. But many of our allies wanted the bill to pass, and many members of our Public Policy Committee cared passionately about it, so the committee endorsed it. After the vote, our Director of Government Affairs jokingly told me that I’d need to find a clever way to inform the Chair about our new position and just accept that I may have to brace myself for this legislator’s displeasure. Well, JCRC submitted testimony, the bill has been adopted into law, and our relationship with the Chair is as strong as ever.

Of course, I and the staff bring many issues to the Council and its committees for consideration. But we do not initiate our own agenda. Rather, we come to them when we’re hearing from members, allies, and local partners who are asking us to weigh in and when we have no clear guidance from the Council on how to respond (we have a complex chart that outlines this process and every Council member gets a copy – as I said, we’re fans of good process).

The result is that sometimes, we, JCRC, are silent on certain debates and issues until the Council takes action. During that time, I and our staff guide the Council and its committees in their study of those issues. I help our leaders – from across our 40-agency network – to weigh the costs and implications of various outcomes. That sometimes comes at a cost – as we let the debate play out, others misinterpret our silence as inaction.

But once the Council has made its decision, I am also proud to represent the “we,” all of us, this network that makes up the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston, in actively advancing our values, interests and priorities. Our stances: in support of our immigrant neighbors; to preserve and strengthen our democracy; to address and confront the racial disparities in our criminal justice system; to fight antisemitism and to combat the BDS movement’s demonization of Israel, all come from the power of the collective and deliberative will of our community.

It is the power of our network and the strength of a consensus that drives JCRC. I’m proud to be a part of that, and grateful to those of you who are committed to doing this work with us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Jeremy