Author: Jeremy Burton

Back to School: This Fall’s Quandary

It’s hard to imagine a time when the phrase “Back-to-School” elicited as much angst and debate as it has this summer. Schools are still in the process of finalizing their plans for the start of the school year, with major uncertainty ahead. Families, daycares, and schools throughout Massachusetts are balancing the physical safety of students, teachers, and staff with the social, emotional, and learning needs of our community’s children, all in the context of dire budget constraints.

Given JCRC’s role connecting the organized Jewish community with public leadership and resources, we’ve found ourselves on the receiving end of urgent questions from many members of our community: “Is there government funding for PPE and other COVID safety measures?” “What resources are available to camps, daycares, preschools and schools to deal with the safety costs associated with COVID?”

From the early days of  the pandemic, we have brought Jewish leadership to the table where critical decisions are being made, and we’ve been in constant communication with our elected officials about myriad COVID-related issues. This is a moment in which we’ve doubled-down on our organizational purpose; to discern our community’s values, interests and priorities, and to work together – along with our civic and interfaith partners – to address our collective needs.

So, we reached out to our legislative partners to ensure that students across the Greater Boston community have access to a safe learning environment, and that schools have the support they need during this unprecedented moment. We advocated to Governor Baker and his administration to allocate the necessary funds to all public and private schools and daycares, enabling them to access resources they will need to comply with the required safety measures. And we are meeting our responsibility to provide updated information to individual schools and communities, overwhelmed by the urgent need to locate and access these resources. Click here for our page of information on COVID safety and funding from the state.

We are also supporting the public schools of Greater Boston to meet the unique requirements of remote learning. Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) is mobilizing and growing our cohort of volunteers to offer individualized attention to students,  an especially rare commodity this year. Many of our volunteers have already been tutoring students remotely throughout the spring and summer, taking advantage of the flexibility that tutoring via Zoom provides. Our volunteers have risen to this moment, providing crucial support to students and partnering with teachers to be a resource in the classroom.  And to their delight, they are finding that not only have they adapted to the strange new reality of connecting through screens, but that the connections with their students have actually flourished. In the words of Andy Koppel, a GBJCL tutor at the Winship School in Brighton:

 “The collaborative reading experience is remarkably effective. The students attend the sessions faithfully, and love the dedicated reading time...This has been an eye-opening and exciting experience, especially enhanced by the students’ positive attitudes and flexibility in dealing with this unprecedented and unanticipated immersion in remote learning.   

We are staying in close communication with all of the school districts in which we work, to learn about their evolving needs - and look forward to deploying our tutors who are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to reconnect with their young friends.

JCRC is committed to ensuring that all students in the Commonwealth have the resources to learn safely and effectively during this incredibly difficult time, and that the schools in our community have the funding they need to do so. We will continue to be a resource for the community to access information about COVID from our legislative partners. We invite you to join our tutoring community this fall.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Why the UAE Agreement Matters

Last week brought the welcome news of the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.  

I’m taken aback and frankly disappointed that this development has not been fully celebrated in all quarters here in the U.S. That may be, in some part, due to how we overwhelmed we are by domestic concerns right now, or maybe because of our fractured political times and the key role that our current administration played in facilitating this agreement.  It would be regrettable if we chose to ignore this historic moment only because President Trump was the one who announced the agreement from the White House.  

As Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) said this week: “Not everything needs to be partisan, and especially Israel.”  

So I’d like to take this moment to expand on our statement this week welcoming the announcement and to explain why we did so. 

First, anything that serves to normalize Israel's presence in the region is a good thing. Israel continues to be the only country that is not only challenged in the international arena for its actions, but also regularly questioned  for its legitimacy altogether. This step by the U.A.E. – and others that may soon follow – advances the just and still necessary cause of normalizing the very existence of the world’s only Jewish state.

Second, this new, important step strengthens the cause of peace. When the international community treats Israel like any other country, one which fully belongs among the nations, good things happen – such as the Egyptian peace, the Oslo Accords. Israel being treated like a pariah only amplifies the Israeli people’s legitimate sense of isolation and vulnerability as a country in a largely hostile region. Their understandable and reasonable reaction is to focus on self-defense as the primary driver of national discourse. This week’s events demonstrate to Israelis first and foremost that the benefits, for them, of peacemaking, are in fact possible and tangible; namely recognition and normalcy in the region. 

Third, “suspending” talk of plans for annexation gives everyone – including us in this county – an opportunity to step back from the heated rhetoric and emotional fractures of earlier this summer. From our synagogue Zoom rooms to the halls of Congress, we were tearing each other apart by debating and publicly criticizing something that never came to pass. At this point de jure annexation is farther from a realistic possibility than it has been for some time, a reality that, still this week, some in this country refuse to acknowledge. This past week’s events reinforce an Israeli political center that wants normalcy and engagement with its neighbors. The stakes of what could be lost for Israel’s center should talks of annexation rise again, have been heightened by bringing more Arab nations to the table of recognition, with all the commensurate benefits.  

To put it another way, as Ambassador David Friedman (someone who we at JCRC have been deeply critical of in the past) said: "We prioritized peace in the region over West Bank annexation...you can't have peace and annexation at the same time." That’s a shift. It’s a good thing. Let’s embrace and build upon it. 

Lastly, for us and for the Israelis we’ve come to know and believe in, peace with the Palestinians remains the ultimate goal. We know this can only be accomplished through building societies that recognize the dignity and humanity of the other. We believe that building and deepening public exchanges with a range of Arab countries advances a regional culture of such recognition. This development can help that process, and that is another reason that it should be viewed as a step toward progress.  

Of course, it’s only one step in a long line of many that must still be taken to build more ties between Israelis and Palestinians, so that they recognize each other’s dignity. We can hope that this past week’s developments will serve as a launchpad for further progress toward peace for Israel, the surrounding Arab States, and the Palestinians. And we urge Congress and the American people to invest the necessary capital for peacebuilding between Israel and its neighbors, to achieve progress toward peaceful coexistence in the region and encourage similar diplomatic actions in the future. 

On July 24th, the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA) was passed with bipartisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation would provide $250 million over five years to radically scale up peace and reconciliation programming. And now the legislation moves to the Senate. 

To learn more about the work of investing in peacebuilding and the role the U.S. Congress has to serve, JCRC of Greater Boston is partnering with the JCRC of Greater Washington and others to invite you to a program on August 27 at 2pm EDT to learn about our advocacy together with the Alliance for Middle East Peace in support of this legislation, "The Partnership Fund For Peace."It is an opportunity to learn about the legislation and the impact the fund would have on grassroots peace-building and economic development efforts in the region - directly from those doing the work, and also to learn what you can do to help champion this vital piece of legislation.  

We invite you to be a partner to the people of Israel, to the Palestinians, and to the kinds of forward-thinking responsible actors in the region who made these recent developments possible. 

Shabbat Shalom,  

Jeremy

Make a Plan of Who to Vote For

With the Massachusetts primary just over two weeks away and with voting already started, I am asked every day by friends and colleagues: “Who are you voting for, and why?”

It’s a fair question. Given my work, I have the privilege of meeting and engaging with almost every leading candidate in each cycle, in our region’s congressional and state races. But this is not a question I will answer. As the leader of a 501c3, my public comments are almost always viewed as an official pronouncement on behalf of our network of member organizations (except, maybe, when it comes to my praise of various comic books). Therefore, I should not and do not endorse candidates.

But what I can share is my process for answering that internal and personal “why.” It’s how I make a plan, before I fill out my ballot, to know who I am voting for. It’s really simple:

  • First, I ask myself: What do I care about in the leaders serving in this particular role? Of course, we at JCRC hold certain values and principles that we work for – on foreign and domestic concerns. I have some personal clarity as a voter that “I would never vote for someone who…” or “the most important thing I’m looking for in a dog-catcher is…”
  • Then, where there is an incumbent running for re-election, I can examine that person’s record: How did they vote, or if an executive office, how did they navigate the big challenges they faced in office? Where did they show up? When were they present or absent?
  • Mostly though, I want to research two things:

    1. What are the positions the candidate espouses? What have they said in their statements and position papers that tell me how they will govern and how they think about the issues that are of concern to me – in their own words. Fortunately, this is so much easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, thanks to search engines and to candidates’ websites. Their websites also tell me something about their priorities, i.e. the issues they choose to address and feature, vs. other concerns – some of which are very important to me – that they may deliberately make no mention of. In those cases, I ask myself what that absence says about them and my evaluation of them.

    2. Who has endorsed them? Again, in this era, almost every candidate features an endorsements page on their website. This tells me a lot about a candidate. It gives me a sense of what caucuses they might sit in if elected. Who will likely have initial access to them? Who are they likely to be most responsive to on the issues I care about? I can see which advocates of a specific cause or position are putting their own reputations out there to say, “this candidate is the best choice in this race to advance my cause.” That says a lot about a candidate, for me.

It’s not that hard to make a plan for how I will cast my vote. In some races it takes a little more time. For example, in the current congressional race in the MA 4th, researching eight (as of yesterday) democratic and two republican candidates takes a little time – and while I don’t live in this district, since so many members of our community do, I’ll help you all out by including links to all eleven of their websites below.

It is time well spent. As I wrote last week, we know that our vote is our most sacred task to hold government accountable in a democracy. I for one would never vote for someone without doing my due diligence. A couple of hours of effort to inform our role in the myriad tasks and challenges ahead over two, four, or even six years terms is certainly time well spent.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

As an example, the MA 4th primary candidates. These links are to their issue pages, but almost all have endorsement pages on their website banners as well, so check those out while you do your research:

Democrats:

Jake Auchincloss: https://www.jakeforma.com/priorities 

Becky Grossman: https://beckygrossman.com/issues

Alan Khazei:  https://alankhazei.com/vision/

Ilssane Leckey: https://ihssane.org/issues

Natalia Linos: https://www.nataliaforcongress.com/priorities

Jesse Mermell: https://jessemermell.com/issues/

Ben Sigel: https://bensigelforcongress.com/whyimrunning/ 

Chris Zannetos: https://www.chriszforma.com/priorities

Republicans:

Julie Hall: http://hallforcongress.com/

David Rosa: https://www.davidrosaforcongress.com/

The most powerful non-violent tool

I often say that good policy comes from good process. When it comes to the effective functioning of a healthy democracy, good process starts with an engaged electorate that votes.

I’ll keep this one brief because I know you don’t need to be persuaded: In times of crisis and in times of calm, there is no more sacred task than voting. It is, quite simply, the most direct tool we have to hold government accountable to those who are the governed.

This year, like no other, the process of voting involves a few more hurdles; the clearest and most dangerous being the COVID pandemic. Here in Massachusetts, our primary date is unusually early, September 1st, before Labor Day, incurring the risk of many folks “missing” the primary. This year’s primary features several important elections that will likely determine the victors in November as well. The stakes are as high this year as they have ever been.

So, it is very important that we get out the vote ahead of and on September 1st.

“Ahead of,” because due to mobilization by JCRC and our partner advocates, Massachusetts has a new law regarding election safety during the 2020 primary and general elections. This important legislation gives all eligible voters the opportunity to vote early in the primary and general elections, allowing us to vote by mail, and expanding access to absentee ballots. 

“On” September 1st, because time is running out to vote by mail.  Even if you don’t vote early, your vote is vital. There are several races of great interest to our community in Greater Boston, including the state-wide primary for the U.S. Senate, and congressional primaries in several districts with large Jewish populations, covering large parts of Greater Boston, from Sharon, Needham, Newton and Brookline, to parts of the city of Boston, and most of the North Shore.

Our community has values, interests and priorities that will be impacted by the outcomes of these elections. And because this year’s elections amidst COVID are more complicated, JCRC has prepared a comprehensive guide to the voting process in the MA primary, including important dates and instructions for how to vote by mail or vote early. If you want to vote by mail, you need to send in your application, which you should have received in the mail, ASAP.

Of course, while JCRC is a 501(c)(3) and does not endorse candidates or political parties, I encourage you to take the time before you vote, to learn about the candidates and their views on issues of concern to you and our community. For example, in the MA 4th Congressional District (currently held by Rep. Kennedy) you might check out the video of this recent primary debate hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, or this helpful candidate survey compiled by AJC New England. There are other resources as well and I urge you to research the candidates, their positions, and their endorsements before you vote.

As the late Congressman John Lewis, of blessed memory, said:

"I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy."

So please, make a plan to vote, not only in the general election, but in the primary. Tell your friends to vote and share this information widely so that they know how. Ask your congregations and organizations to help get the word out.

There is nothing more urgent right now than our participation in the democratic process, so that we can ensure that our voices will be heard.

On Holding Loss and Finding Hope

“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” by Francesco Hayez (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The past few weeks have been difficult here at JCRC, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished colleagues who were laid off as we suspended various programs because of economic pressures. As we gathered together as a smaller group for the first time this week, many of us were navigating new responsibilities and feeling the absence of coworkers while still holding great passion for our work and our hope for the future of our organization.

As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption, both close to home and as a society, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Yesterday many of us observed the fast of the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a trajectory that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem, and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked - along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the second temple by the Romans (and with it the beginning of our long diaspora) and the expulsion from Spain in 1492 - by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon, and the funereal music by which they are sung at our tables, are embedded in my heart. They express the profound mourning of our people’s loss, expressed in a moment of transition:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither…

Still, as we read the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of sorrow, that there are messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Moed, a festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts, our tradition, hold a triptych of emotions that feel so right for this current moment in our world: We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit in the anxieties and fears of a time of transition, and still we find a way to express our hope for the future. Sorrow, anxiety and hope are three disparate emotions; but we do not compartmentalize them to experience them on separate occasions.  Instead, we will sit with them all at once, because each is a piece of our current reality.

We need to grieve (and I am so grateful to Hebrew College and the other partners who organized a meaningful communal grieving ritual yesterday for those who we have lost to this pandemic). We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with transition, and; we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all of these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to build a future for our community and our collective world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The next generation committed to telling our story

The Hebrew month of Tammuz began earlier this week. Later this month we will usher in an intense, three-week mourning period, when I will join many other Jews around the world in fasting and engaging ritual mourning to lament the many calamities in our history, from the destruction of the first Temple through the Holocaust. Commemorating and retelling our history is a sacred obligation, shared from generation to generation. This obligation is acutely necessary today, as we continue to confront the dark elements of history and determine our role in creating positive and lasting change. Educating ourselves and understanding how history can continue to cause harm and injustice are the first crucial steps in this work.

At JCRC, we are proponents of this educational work, from our guided docent tours through the New England Holocaust Memorial, to our advocacy for Genocide Education in Massachusetts schools.

And we promote education through the JCRC Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest, giving students from across the Commonwealth, most of whom are not Jewish, the opportunity to confront the unimaginable crimes of the Holocaust and consider their role in standing up to current injustices. The contest, established by Holocaust Survivor Israel (Izzy) Arbeiter, provides students with a platform to share the lessons they have learned and express their commitment to work towards a more equitable world. We challenge our youth not only to remember, but also to reflect on the power of individuals, groups, and nations to effect change.

This year’s winning essay (chosen from among 200 submissions) is written by Livia Goldschmitt, a ninth grader from the German International School of Boston. Livia writes about her role as a German citizen to not just stand up to hatred and bigotry, but to reconcile the devastating impact of a painful legacy, a crucial lesson for all of us today:

Germans were the ones who killed and I am German. But we have to confront our history to understand it ourselves and to be able to learn from it….I am not responsible for what they did. But we do all have the responsibility to not let the lessons of our history be forgotten. Click here to read the full essay.               

Sadly, we could not gather in person this year for our annual Yom HaShoah commemoration where we honor our essay contest winners. Instead, we invite you to please join Izzy in recognizing this year’s Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest Winners in this video tribute.

I hope you will join me in congratulating these bright young writers who are standing up against injustice and hate in our world.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

What gave us strength this year

Our spring ritual at JCRC is to elect our new Board and Community Representatives  – as we did at our annual meeting this past Wednesday – and to reflect on the past program year; the challenges we faced and the accomplishments we achieved. What a year this one has been. Though I hesitate to use words that are now included in every sentence of our public discourse, this past year has been one of unprecedented challenges. We’ve seen a continued rise in antisemitic violence in this country, a global pandemic, economic catastrophe, the exposure of the country’s enduring racism, and a national uproar about police violence. Israel went through three elections. Challenges to our own democratic processes and norms here in the US continue to erode the America we cherish.

At JCRC, we draw strength to persevere in the face of these challenges, from our bonds that tie us to each other within our community and to our friends, allies, and partners in Boston’s civic public space. 

We rose to face the challenge of antisemitism and to address concerns about Jewish communal security. This year, in partnership with the Governor and the legislative leadership, we secured an allocation of $1.5 million for non-profit security grants available to house of worship, community centers, and other vulnerable nonprofit institutions. The state also allocated $400,000 for a pilot program providing anti-bias training and resources to communities.

After the attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, prominent Christian leaders in Boston – our longstanding, trusted friends and partners – organized over 1,000 Christian leaders from across Massachusetts to sign a letter decrying antisemitism. And this April, over 300 people joined our Virtual Community Yom HaShoah Remembrance & Reflection program, honoring our local survivors and paying tribute to the six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, with a message of solidarity from Governor Baker.

As the threats against our immigrant neighbors increase and the paths toward relief narrow, our Jewish community continues to step up. During the pandemic, JCRC and our partners in the Boston Immigrant Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN) are managing to keep our bond fund open while many others around the country have already closed. And as conditions in jails continue to worsen, our network continues to be attentive to the urgent needs of undocumented immigrants during this crisis.  

As divisions over how best to connect with and support Israel became even more pronounced, JCRC’s Boston Partners for Peace initiative launched our initial list of Community Endorsers. This group of over 60 community leaders – elected officials, Christian clergy, rabbis and others – is on record with their public support of our approach.  

As a Jewish community dedicated to living our values in the broader civic space, community service affirms our interconnectedness and responsibility to our neighbors. For our fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr Day of Service in January, we had a total of 1,108 volunteers across 13 community organizations throughout Greater Boston, tripling our numbers from the previous year.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve brought Jewish leadership to the table where critical decisions are being made about the shutdown and the re-opening. We’ve been in constant communication with our elected officials at the state and local level about myriad issues ranging from expediting the permitting process for a kosher food pantry, to the interests of Houses of Worship in the re-opening process, and advocating for the safety and protection of people who are incarcerated and at greater risk during the pandemic.

Finally, as the persistent racism that afflicts our nation erupts in the form of daily violence, our organized Jewish community is drawing on our deep partnership and relationship with leaders in the Black community. With the guidance of these friends - clergy members, elected officials, and other civic leaders - we are pursuing an action agenda to realize our commitment to criminal justice reform and the urgent work of advancing justice in our country.

Some of the challenges we now confront were not part of our collective imagination one year ago. Others are enduring and will persist long beyond this season. Still, whatever comes, we will face it with resilience and strength forged by the relationships we’ve been creating and weaving for decades. Our success in advancing our values and interests as an organized Jewish community is only possible because of the partnerships we’ve built, the alliances we’ve forged, and the relationships that we honor.

Particular challenges come and go, as do individual leaders, but our deepest values and most trusted relationships continue to inspire and sustain us. They will stand the test of time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

A Jewish approach to this moment

Next Friday, JCRC will be closed as Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot. We will retell and re-live the experience of Moses ascending Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments. The week leading up to Shavuot is the final week of the Omer, the intentional counting of the 49 individual days and the full seven weeks from the Passover Seder until this holy day.

This year, for nearly all of us, these seven weeks (and then some) have been spent sheltering at home. It seems almost impossible that we will now mark our second major Jewish holiday season without congregating in person for Torah reading, or for the recitation of our Yizkor memorial service. Counting the Omer has been very much on my mind this week as I’ve been immersed in the public discourse about physical distancing, government health directives, and personal sacrifices. Governors and mayors are easing restrictions. Here in Massachusetts, we now have guidance on safety protocols for re-opening Houses of Worship. While that guidance that has been criticized by some, we at JCRC recognize the multiple pressures facing our Governor and appreciate his efforts to provide guidelines for our safety.

Across the nation, even as a wide majority of Americans continue to support the difficult sacrifices of physically distancing, there is tension and debate regarding the balancing of constitutional rights, personal freedom, and collective safety. This plays out in ways both large and small as when some people refuse to practice basic measures like mask wearing in public spaces.

These debates about freedom and collective responsibility evoke the connection between our holidays. 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 establishment 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.”

In the connection between Passover and Shavuot, we see values and ideas upheld and articulated, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. These values – freedom and social order –each can be of greater import to us at any given moment. But neither is fully realized without its relationship to the other.

It is within this notion that we have an opportunity to offer a deeply Jewish approach to engaging the complexity of this moment. We must insist on having a society that prizes freedoms – enshrined in our constitution - including of assembly and worship. At the same time, with those freedoms come the responsibility of building a collective social well-being, both through laws and through our individual responsibility.

We can choose, as every Jewish denomination and nearly every synagogue in America has, to see state and local directives as a baseline, not a ceiling, for the precautions we take in gathering and protecting all of us, especially the most vulnerable among us.

We can choose to embrace masks, not just because of local civil directives, but as a way of saying to our neighbors that we are ultimately interconnected, responsible to each other and for each other’s health and well-being.

We can choose to take these steps and others, not as a way of winning a fight between left and right but rather as an articulation that we are, still, one society. We can affirm that citizenship in that society means valuing and living within the dynamic tension between personal freedom and collective social order and responsibility.

The journey in the wilderness formed the Jewish people. So too will we be transformed as a nation, as we journey from what we were before this pandemic to what we will be when it is over. Our Jewish tradition, and the days and weeks we’ve been counting off while sheltering at home, have something to teach us about the kind of society we are striving to shape.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The Jewish community is committed to social distancing

A central part of our work at JCRC, in good times and bad, is to ensure that government and civic leaders are listening to, understanding, and addressing the interests and values of our Jewish community. I emphasize the plural “s” on each of those because rarely are we uniform in defining those priorities and concerns.

This week, I want to lift up one specific area where I am hearing wall-to-wall unity on our community’s voices.

But first, a little bit of background on how we’ve been working to advance our community’s agendas with our government in recent weeks.

Since the earliest days of the stay-at-home order, our government affairs team has been working closely with the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office to provide a coordinated voice to our congressional delegation on the needs of the Jewish and non-profit sector. That resulted in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans being extended to include non-profits (and an estimated $20 million or more to our local Jewish organizations). And there have been public, national mobilizations to support efforts by our delegation, including Rep. Moulton’s efforts to include non-profit relief in the next package. We’ve also continued to work with our delegation on our local priorities, for example supporting efforts by Senators Warren and Markey and Rep. Kennedy to investigate events last Friday at Bristol County House of Corrections.

We’ve been working with our institutions, as well as our interfaith partners, to put Jewish leadership into the spaces where decisions are being made around the shutdown and the re-opening. We’ve been in constant communication with our elected officials at the state and local level about a range of issues. We’ve coordinated joint efforts by Jewish and general camping providers to be heard as part of a re-opening plan. Our rabbis have been in leadership roles in public and private engagement with Governor Baker, Attorney General Healey, and Mayor Walsh, amongst others.

I have no doubt that if we went down the litany of concerns that have come up in that work, little of it would fall under the “one thing we all agree on” even as all of this work reflects large portions of our community’s concerns.

Which leads me to one thing I want to lift up today: the wall-to-wall unity of our faith institutions, our congregations and rabbis, on social distancing during a pandemic. As some voices in other faith communities have demanded a quick re-opening of house of worship, the Jewish voice has been different. Yes, of course, our synagogues view congregating in faith as an essential need, especially in times of pain and suffering. But across the nation, they’ve taken a strong public stance to support and encourage continued social distancing where possible.

When a few western states never closed, all the synagogues went dark anyway. When some states re-opened hastily, across the denominational spectrum the synagogues chose to remain closed, as in Georgia.

In recent days, rabbis across the denominational spectrum in Missouri issued a public letter saying that voting by mail is a religious imperative. The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement made a similar statement (and if Massachusetts doesn’t act to extend vote by mail for this fall’s election, some rabbis here are already talking about following their example).

Yesterday, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, told Dr. Anthony Fauci that the OU “was advising congregations to wait two weeks past government opening dates to start returning to congregational prayer.”

My point is this: It’s not my place to tell rabbis, synagogues, and denominations what to do. However, it is JCRC’s responsibility to provide them with the information and tools from our government partners, so that they can make informed decisions. It is also our charge to lift up their voices in the civic space.

So when, in other communities, some are representing that faith gatherings are essential and must be opened up immediately, I want to underscore how, within the Jewish congregational leadership, there is near unanimous thinking to move slowly and not reopen our house of worship immediately, even when governments allow it. That’s our message right now to our civic and elected leaders.

I welcome your thoughts and input as we continue to advance the values, interest, and priorities of our community in the public square.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Defending democracy during a pandemic

Most people don’t remember that 9/11/2001 was a major primary day in New York City. I cast my vote for a nominee for mayor just minutes before the first tower was struck. After the second tower was hit, the governor rightly suspended the voting for two weeks. The notion of postponing the general election briefly became an issue, when the term-limited incumbent floated the idea of extending his tenure for a few months. But in the end, there was no delay, and the general election was held on its regularly scheduled first Tuesday in November, a celebration, of sorts, of the city’s resiliency, less than two months after the worst day our city had ever endured.

That memory resurfaced for me a few weeks ago when Wisconsin residents were forced to make an impossible choice between protecting their personal health and safety in the face of a deadly pandemic, or as “the People,” protecting their collective right to vote. The long lines in Milwaukee that election day were both an outrage and an inspiration, a profound act of civic duty and an insistent defense of democracy amidst this pandemic.

In times of crisis and in times of calm, there is no more sacred task than voting. It is, quite simply, the most direct tool we have to hold government accountable to those who are the governed. For JCRC, the health of our democracy is so essential to our self-interest as Jews and as Americans, that our mission states that we “promote an American society which is democratic, pluralistic, and just.”

For JCRC, those aren’t just words. They are guiding and enduring values that have informed our policy work and our advocacy for over 75 years. In the spring of 2019, before our current crisis, our Council – through its deliberative process of study and debate – adopted principles for defending democracy. At the time, our Council stated that:

Judaism’s view of human society includes many values that are key to a democracy. In accord with these Jewish values, the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy is the primacy of “We, the People”: an engaged electorate, with robust participation, and elected officials truly representative of home communities, from whom power flows. However, both history and current events are replete with policies and practices that water down the principle of “We, the People” by empowering the elite over the general populace.

This week, our Council met for our first regularly scheduled meeting since the onset of sheltering in Massachusetts. We began by taking the time to check in with and extend care to each other as a community. But we also spent time hearing from partners about the challenges ahead in conducting a free, fair, and safe election this fall in the midst of these daunting challenges.

Yesterday, building on our mission and our principles, we recommitted to comprehensive voting rights and affirmed our support for specific actions, including:

  • Expanding absentee voting including no-excuse absentee voting, permanent absentee voting, and other increased vote by mail options;
  • Preserving in-person voting, carefully balancing the safety of poll workers and voters, and minimizing suppressive tactics.
  • Expanding early voting options.
  • Advocating for immediate federal action and funding to support state and local elections, implementation of these reforms, and the United States Postal Service’s capacity and solvency to meet the increased demands from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with urgent priorities in human services, secure institutions, and caring for our neighbors, we’ll be working on these issues in the coming months. When this pandemic is over, we’ll continue to work on reforming and protecting our democracy, as we have for over 75 years now, because, as the Supreme Court held, over a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins: the right to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.”

The strength of our community and the resiliency of our society is protected when we act on our enduring values and principles, even – and especially – in a crisis. Once again, we are called to take affirmative action to defend our rights and the rights of all Americans. Please join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy