“Boston is different”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy