Category Archives: Jeremy Burton

Our Legislative Work: Nonprofit Security, Aid for Ukraine, and more

It’s been a busy week for us on Beacon Hill, as most are. And as is often the case, unless you follow our social media closely, important updates can easily slip by. So as we come off of our JCRC/Mass. Association of Jewish Federations legislative reception just last night, allow me to draw your attention, briefly, to a few other items of interest this week. 

As you probably recall, in 2017 we worked with Senator Eric Lesser, along with Senators Cindy Creem, Harriet Chandler and many others, to establish a pilot Commonwealth Nonprofit Security Grant program to supplement and complement the federal Department of Homeland Security pool. What began as a $75,000 pilot, has – with active support from the legislative leadership and the governor – grown to a $1.5 million annual pool. This past week, the latest cycle of grantees received notifications. 

This week, 22 Jewish organizations across Massachusetts – synagogues, schools and a cemetery association – received a combined $732,238.29 in funding. 

I joined Senator Lesser in welcoming this latest round of support for our community and others who are targets of hate and violence. As he said in our statement together:  

Hate does not discriminate. It happens in Springfield, it happens in Quincy, and it happens in Boston where Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was stabbed eight times in broad daylight this summer. 

In this time of vulnerability, we welcome efforts by the Commonwealth to protect non-profit institutions that may be targets of antisemitism and violent extremism. These grants will make a meaningful impact for our community. I am grateful to Senator Lesser, all of our partners on Beacon Hill, and the coalition we’ve built of Jewish federations, JCCs, synagogues and other Jewish communities that have worked together in recent years to get here.  

This year, federations across the Commonwealth are calling for a doubling of this grant pool.  

On another, equally critical note, last week I wrote to you about things you could do to take immediate action to support the people of Ukraine as they struggle against the continuing onslaught of the unprovoked Russian aggression. Included in that note was information about how to urge our Congressional delegation to secure federal military and humanitarian aid. I’m pleased to report that this aid was included this week in a Congressional emergency package.   

Also this week, after consulting with MA Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, we’re supporting state legislative action requiring the Massachusetts Pension Reserve Management Fund (PRIM) to identify and divest from companies doing business with the Russia state. This comes days after we welcomed action by Governor Baker directing state agencies to terminate any contracts they have with Russian state-owned companies.  

As we wrote in our letter endorsing this legislation:  

Any money invested in Russia or companies doing business with the Russian state is tacit approval of the reprehensible actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin and those who prop up his regime.  

Finally, if you missed it last night, you can check out this year’s Legislative Reception on our YouTube channel.  We celebrated the work being done by our network of agencies to welcome refugees from Afghanistan. We expressed, again, our support for the Work & Family Mobility Act – which we hope will be sent to the governor for his signature very soon. We honored a fantastic group of legislative leaders on Beacon Hill, some of the staffers who’ve been key partners in advancing our shared priorities, and one amazing Cambridge City Councilor who we’ve come to respect and admire for her leadership combatting BDS there. This being the final year of the Baker-Polito administration, we also took time to thank the outgoing governor for all the ways he’s been a partner and friend to our community over the years.  

(By the way – In case you missed them, you can also see most of the programs we’ve hosted in recent years, our ever-growing library of speakers series, on our website and YouTube page). 

Its been a busy week, covering a diverse range of issues of concern – and not even close to all of the priorities we’re working on up on Beacon Hill. It’s a testament to our community that we can hold this diverse range of concerns – reflecting the values, interests and priorities of our community – and be effective on so many fronts. That’s thanks to all of you; our members, our partners, our network. 

For that, we’re grateful, and we look forward to our continued work together. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

  

Sharing my Favorite Graphic Novels

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By Jeremy Burton

Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust literary classic, Maus, has been very much in the news and in our conversations. So it is somewhat serendipitous that our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy is having a long-planned tutor training session this coming week about the treasures of graphic novels and how to best utilize them with students.  And when library teacher Liza Halley sits down with our volunteers, I’m sure that they are going to have a great discussion about the form, how to read these hybrid visual and word volumes, and how they can be used effectively in developing learning skills. 

Me being me, I’ve read a few graphic novels in my time and have a few hundred of them on my shelves at home; though I’m still unclear why the genre is collectively called graphic “novels” – all are graphic (visual panels of art on the page, like comic books), but some are history, science, memoir, and yes, novels too.  And while I promise I had nothing to do with selecting this topic for our program, I thought I’d take this opportunity to recommend a few of my personal favorites, in addition to Maus (of course). 

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The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, by Ken Krimstein. A biography of the great Jewish philosopher, her education, the discourses she had with other intellectuals, her flight from Nazi Europe, and how her experiences shaped her insights into the human condition. It is beautifully drawn in a style that complements the material and was a National Jewish Book Award finalist. 

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Dancing at the Pity Party, by Tyler Feder. This 2020 first work is the memoir of a young woman losing her mother to cancer while in college, sitting shiva, and processing loss. It is an honest, gut-wrenching, and very funny exploration of grief by a rising new artist.

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March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. Yes, THE John Lewis. He was a national treasure, and in these three volumes he gives a gift of memory and history to our future, taking us behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. It’s the powerful, stunning story of an extraordinary man who lived in, and shaped, extraordinary times. 

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The Arab of the Future, by Riad Sattouf. A hilarious and illuminating memoir of life as a child in Libya, Syria, and France in the 1980s. At three volumes so far, it is dark, vivid, and engaging on every level. He has an eye for detail, and the skill to present it.  

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Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. She is probably best known for her introduction, back in the 1980s, of the now famous “Bechdel Test” regarding the representation of women in movies (are two women having a conversation with each other that is not about the male protagonist? You’d be surprised how few movies meet this baseline). This is a memoir of her youth in Pennsylvania and her complex relationship with her father. It made the New York Times bestsellers list in 2006 and was adapted into a successful musical.

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Tunnels, by Rutu Modan. Actually, I’d recommend anything by Modan, as she is easily Israel’s most accomplished artist of this form. But this is her most recent novel (yes, an actual novel – there had to be one on this list) and she’s finally getting the recognition in the U.S. that long-time fans know she merits. This is a story about one family, but also about the politics of biblical archeology, among other things. Her stories are emotional, honest, and revealing.

These are just a few of the volumes and artists that I have come back to time and again, for their art, for their storytelling, and for the truths they present. I encourage you to check them out and let me know what you think of them and to share your favorites with me.

Happy reading!

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Jeremy Burton
JCRC Executive Director

Our responsibility to a global Jewish people

The Stolperstein initiative

This week, as we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m mulling over an encounter I had with one of the European Jewish communities at the center of the Shoah.

As some of you know, I’m keenly interested in the Stolperstein initiative. These “stumbling stones,” small bronze blocks engraved with details about the individual lives of Europe’s Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, are embedded in the streets outside their last known homes across the continent. In my travels I have sought these stones out and posted pictures of them on Instagram. I share my reflections in the moment; about their prevalence in certain central neighborhoods of Prague and the care they are given in areas of formerly eastern Berlin; about the places in Vienna where some current residents seek to hide them behind potted plants and bike racks so as to not be reminded of the history and legacy of the space they are in, and about the way in which this project has inspired another memorial - to Spain’s pre-Inquisition Jewish community - on the streets of Cordoba and Toledo.

In 2015, as part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders, I had the opportunity to visit Munich. At our first meeting, we were told by non-Jewish social activists that in this city, where the Nazis first rose to power, there were only two stolperstein, each on private property; the city refused the project permission to install them on public sidewalks as they have been positioned elsewhere. Surprisingly, the opposition came from the local Jewish leadership. 

The next day, our group met with the chair of the Jewish Council, herself a survivor and a prominent voice of German Jewry. We had been asked by these social activists to press her on this matter, to share with her the power of these memorials and to encourage her reconsideration. We discussed this request amongst ourselves and came to understand that our role as outsiders was not to presume that we knew what was best for another Jewish community, but rather, that we would seek a deeper understanding of their perspective. We agreed that we would ask her to help us understand her opposition. She shared her concerns not only about the lack of an endowment for the long-term upkeep of the stones, but more pointedly, about the potential pain she would experience as a survivor, at witnessing people stepping on the names of her family in the streets of the city she came back to after the Shoah.

The lesson from this exchange was that, despite whatever power I found in these memorials elsewhere, here, in the heart of Bavaria, the Jewish leadership’s primary concern was the experience of local survivors, who could be retraumatized by these stones. For now, there would be no such memorial – though some of the Jewish leaders we met acknowledged that a day may come when it would be a welcome and important addition to their community. This exchange reaffirmed an essential lesson: that as a Jewish leader from elsewhere, my responsibility was to honor the needs and the will of the local community.

I share this memory by way of illuminating a thought process that comes up often in my work: How do we understand our responsibility to other local Jewish communities when speaking publicly on events occurring in their cities that directly impact them?

Often the answers are easy, such as when we choose to lift up and be guided by the leadership of a community under attack, standing with the French Jewish federation after the Hyper Cacher attack, or asking my colleagues in Pittsburgh what they needed in the days and weeks after that unthinkably tragic shabbat. Sometimes it can be a little more complicated, for example when we take great offense at the comments or actions of a member of Congress from outside Massachusetts. In these instances, I find myself weighing our own rightful outrage about a member of our own government alongside the interests and relationships that another Jewish community has with its own representative.

Of course, not everything local stays local. The murder of George Floyd, for example, required a national conversation about a national crisis. Still, we consulted with and recognized the leadership of colleagues on the ground in Minneapolis who were in relationship with their local partners. Considering that JCRC’s public voice often has both local and national implications,  we carry a responsibility to a global Jewish people. We strive to maintain a level of humility for the effect that our voice will have on those members of our family who are most closely impacted by the issue at hand. 

There are dozens of factors and considerations that are weighed every time we speak out, and numerous voices and partners – within and beyond the Jewish community – who inform our thinking. But for now, this week of Holocaust Remembrance, I wanted to share this particular story of an interaction with a survivor that has stayed with me and enriched my understanding of what Jewish leadership requires of me, and of us.

I welcome your reflections as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The darkest night brings the greatest visions

By JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton

As a Jew, it is not hard to appreciate how Black Americans have drawn inspiration and motivation from the Exodus story over the course of their 400-year struggle for liberation in this country. The examples are plentiful, from Harriet Tubman being the Moses of her people, to Taylor Branch’s titling his seminal work on the civil rights era Parting the Waters, to the words and imagery so central to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King throughout his career, including, chillingly, his “I Have Seen the Promised Land” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated. The stories we tell ourselves every year as Jews as an integral part of our identity – at Passover and in our Torah reading every Shabbat – are also an integral part of the African-American identity, sustaining the hope of redemption in a community still working toward liberation in our country.

As an American, marking MLK Day this year, it is challenging to transcend the despair and outrage elicited by the events of the last year and the last week. As we honor the moral leadership and challenge of Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent action against grave injustice, it has only been a week since we witnessed a violent insurrection by white supremacists – carrying Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia – incited by the President. Of course, this comes after a year in which we have struggled, not always well, to reckon once again with the incomplete task of realizing the promises of Reconstruction and of the Civil Rights Movement for which Dr. King died, each of which was also set back by violent resistance to dismantling our nation’s caste systems.

As a patriot, it is essential to look forward to next week with hope, about our new President, Joe Biden, and our historic new Vice President, Kamala Harris. She will be our first woman and Indian-American elected to national office, and our first African-American VP. I am struck by the fact that the very marriage of her parents would have been illegal under laws struck down only recently in the long arc of our history. Vice President Harris’ very existence, let alone her historic accomplishment, is a direct carry-over from Dr. King’s generation and the civil rights they fought for.

Acknowledging this historic moment, both as a patriot and a Jew, I am filled with resolve; the resolve that comes from knowing that change is always possible even when it takes generations, or even centuries to achieve. Despite backlashes and setbacks, despite violent attempts to obstruct it and to reject the promise of liberty and equity for all Americans, change has and will continue to happen.

As a Jew who reads the Torah portion every week, as an American patriot grappling with the events of last week, on this MLK weekend I draw from this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, in the Book of Exodus. It is the beginning of the drama of Moses, embracing his role as interlocuter between God and Pharaoh, as our collective story of miracles and the promise of liberation unfolds. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his commentary on this week’s reading:

It is in the darkest night that Israel has its greatest visions. Hope is born at the very edge of the abyss of despair. No logic can give rise to hope; no law of history charts a path from slavery to redemption, exile to return.

Now is a time of both despair and hope. Let us honor the path envisioned by Dr. King by committing ourselves to make this weekend, and the weeks ahead, the beginning of a path to redemption for our nation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

Jeremy Burton
JCRC Executive Director

On being a force for good

"Stars of Hope" painted by teens on JCRC's MLK Day of Service

On Monday I had the honor of joining Governor Baker as he signed legislation releasing an additional $1 million in funding for non-profit security grants; a budget item that we at JCRC have prioritized. Afterward, a member of the press asked me if I was “happy” to be at the State House for this solemn occasion. “No,” I replied, “I’d much rather be here for other reasons, to advocate for the values and issues that we work on every day.”

I never imagined that confronting antisemitism would become a significant part of my daily reality in 2020. I came to this work over 20 years ago informed by a sense of my own purpose; to build Jewish communities that inspired engagement and activism for future generations, rooted in the same values, culture and traditions that enriched my own Jewish identity.

As violent Jew-hatred comes roaring back into our domestic American reality, I worry that as we fight against antisemitism, we’re going to lose our focus on the meaning and purpose of Jewish community. “Because, antisemitism” is not enough of a reason to evoke a commitment to living proudly and Jewishly in the world. “Because, they hate us” is not the foundation on which thousands of years of enriching Jewish culture is built.

Rather, I find meaning in the notion that our mission ought to be - as individuals, as Jewish organizations and as communities - in the words of Avraham Infeld: “to advance the continued renaissance of the Jewish people as a force for good in the world.”

So yes, I’m proud of the work that we at JCRC do every day, building relationships beyond the Jewish community, resulting in the support of allies who are with us as we confront this new reality. I’m proud and grateful that our Christian friends and partners, many of whom have played significant leadership roles in the work of JCRC, took it upon themselves to write a powerful statement on antisemitism last week, which has now garnered upward of 1,000 signatures. And I’m proud of the partnership we’ve forged with legislative leaders to fund non-profit security grants and anti-bias training in schools.

I’m also proud that we are a Jewish community in Boston that is committed to living our values in the broader civic space, affirming our interconnectedness and responsibility to our neighbors; a commitment we’ll be honoring in just over one week when we come together for JCRC’s fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

This year, JCRC is offering a record 13 partner sites with the capacity for 900 volunteers. Members of our community will be painting and making interior upgrades to the Catholic Charities/Haitian Multiservice Center in Dorchester. This facility serves a crucial role in the Dorchester community and is in desperate need of repairs that Catholic Charities cannot do on their own. This Center provides a multitude of services to local residents, including food and housing assistance, English language classes, teen enrichment, and afterschool programming.

We will also be at St. Stephen's Youth Programs at the Blackstone Elementary School, a longtime partner of our ReachOut! program. Volunteers of all ages will be working on beautification and revitalization projects throughout the elementary school. After volunteering, there will be a lunch and discussion about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and why this day has become a day of volunteering.

I’m looking forward to being back at the State House on January 24th for the Safe Communities Act legislative hearing. We, along with many of our member agencies, are deeply committed members of the coalition working to pass this bill to protect the rights of our immigrant neighbors and create standards for law enforcement interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And our team will be back at the State House to lobby on January 28th for Election Day Registration, a basic reform that would expand the franchise to more eligible voters, thus strengthening our democracy at a time when it is under assault.

I hope that you’ll join me for any or all of these activities. I also hope that the Governor’s actions this week will, as I said to him on Monday, help “give us the resiliency to continue to gather, to continue to meet, continue to celebrate our culture and our faith as a community.”

Because, as I concluded to that reporter at Monday’s bill signing, “these times are what they are.”

So yes, we’re grateful to our partners, including to the Governor for prioritizing our safety and including us in this week’s ceremony. And, I hope that because of our efforts to confront antisemitism and work for our community’s security, we will thereby strengthen our continued ability to be a force for good in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

From Israel: Finding Inspiration in Dysfunctional Times.

A short while ago, I arrived at Ben Gurion airport. Together with JCRC’s Director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell, we’re starting out on our biannual civic leaders study tour, this time together with members of the Massachusetts Senate.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with an Israeli friend with both British and American citizenship. This person, only half-jokingly, commented that, at the moment, it was hard to tell which of these nations had more dysfunctional politics.

It is, to my mind, a tough question; especially when I focus on the negative aspects currently manifesting in each system. When I was last in Israel – in July – the Israeli people were in the midst of their second national election campaign this year. I never imagined the possibility that during this week’s trip they could embark on their third election cycle in less than a year. Since summer, Britain has blown through its latest Brexit deadline, with national elections pending next week (and a deeply worried Jewish community to wit). And, in the US, well, where shall we start?

But there’s another way of looking at this, which is to see the half-full glass, the moments, people, and institutions that inspire hope.

Observing developments in Israel, of course there’s much to be said about a nation whose prime minister is facing a trial over corruption charges. But there’s also something to be said about a country where the attorney general who brought those charges was himself appointed by that very same prime minister. And, whether one agrees or not with specific policies of the government, it’s notable that the institutions of justice are taking a stand, and how that action – to many of us – compares favorably with the role of our own attorney general in our current political process addressing our own President’s behavior.

And while three national elections within one year appears chaotic, it is also worth noting that a large chunk of Israel’s electorate is “holding the center.” Politicians and parties are, through their “constitutional” process (though Israel doesn’t have an actual constitution) reaching out from center-left to center-right and trying to form a consensus politics about the direction of the state and its character. Does this compare favorably to our own fractured politics in the US where a House divided has become the default, and the idea of common ground or shared understanding seems a distant memory? I think so.

And at a time when Americans, obsessing in our like-minded bubbles on social media, increasingly living and working in red and blue silos, and telling pollsters that the greatest tragedy would be for our children to marry across party lines, I’m inspired by my friends here. Because the divides between Israelis and Palestinians are surely even deeper than much of what divides us as Americans. And yet, as on every trip, we’ll be meeting with folks who are reaching out across these divides to build empathy and compassion. 

Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are working together on grassroots projects for mutual recognition, dignity, and peace. We, through Boston Partners for Peace, believe in their ability to change the narrative and shape the future. They inspire us and I look forward to reporting on their efforts again after our visits this week.

So, I’m not ready to say which of our countries is most dysfunctional right now, nor do I think this is a particularly useful exercise. But what I can say – without in any way being naïve about the extraordinary challenges that Israelis, Palestinians, and the people of this region face, and the importance of supporting their efforts to resolve these challenges – is that I also think we can learn from and be inspired by what we witness here; people who don’t give up in the face of adversity; people who keep reaching out to each other and remain committed to building a hopeful future; and people who are representing the institutions and systems of a functioning democracy.

And maybe, just maybe, instead of judging them too harshly for their very human flaws, we Americans – who live in a glass house of our own – can be a little quieter and do a little more listening as we seek to understand the people who live here. And, hopefully, as I do on every trip here, I can come away a little more inspired, a little more committed to not giving up on the people here, and even learning from what they can teach us about our own dysfunctional politics right now.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

ED Jeremy Burton Remarks at ISBCC Jumma Service on March 15th, 2019

Brothers and sisters, salaam alaikum.

In the Jewish tradition, when we comfort, we come first in silence. “מצטרף בצערך, I join in your sorrow.” And so, I will speak, but really all of us are here just to be alongside you. Because you’ve been alongside us, because we’ve stood together as communities time and again, because, candidly, we’ve become too good at this. We’ve become too good at being with each other in this city, in Boston. When we have mourned and suffered we’ve known that we have not mourned and suffered alone. I want you to know that you do not suffer alone.

My teacher, Shaykh Yasir, has spoken so eloquently today of the teachings of the Abrahamic faiths, of the understanding of prophets that go all the way back to Adam. And as my teacher Shaykh Yasir has reminded me, there is so much that is shared within our traditions. The Koran teaches us in Surah 5:32, that if anyone killed a person, that it would be “as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” That same spirit, that same tradition, is part of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish understanding of the way in which we walk in the world together. Our Mishnah, our holy text, tells us that God cried out to Cain when Cain killed his brother, and said: “The bloods of your brother scream out!” And our Rabbis explore that and say anyone who destroys a life, and I’m quoting from our text, is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.

We share a tradition. We share a text. And our scriptures and our texts teach us, in understanding those verses, that it goes back to the very idea that when God created the world, and began with Adam, it was to begin with one individual, so that no one could say to their friend, “My ancestors are greater than yours.”

My brothers and sisters in Boston’s Muslim community, we stand with you because we understand. This terrorist and white supremacy are a sin against our traditions. They are a rejection of the teaching of God—that none of our ancestors are greater than any others. We stand with you to reject terrorism. There is no good on that side. There is no good to be found in those who march in praise of white supremacy and white nationalism. They are a threat to all of us. They are not the other side. There is only one side: It is the way of walking with God and understanding God as we each come to God in our own traditions.

And there is so much to share at a time like this. Know that you do not walk alone, that we will be with you. Shaykh Yasir spoke so powerfully, and in our tradition I want to share the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, who taught us that:

“We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing 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 neighbor and stranger, and the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution. These are the ways that we build a future in which the children of the world, of all colors, faith and races, can live together in peace.”

In the Jewish tradition, when we hear of a death, we say, “May their memory be for a blessing,” and when we visit a house of mourning, before we leave, we say, “May you be comforted amongst the mourners.” Today I leave you with this: Today on this day, there are far too many blessings in this world, and there are more mourners than you can imagine. Salaam alaikum.

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