Category Archives: Jeremy Burton

Standing Together During a Really Bad Week

It’s a bit of a “bad joke” amongst certain political and interfaith partners of ours that if we are gathered more than twice in one week it has been a bad week. This past week has been a really bad week.

Like all of you, I was shattered last Shabbat by the news out of Pittsburgh.

And, on Saturday night, I was struck by the immediate outpouring of love and support from partners and allies outside the Jewish community. The director of a mosque already reaching out to several rabbis before noon on Shabbat offering support “in any way.” The African Methodist Episcopal minister who, before we had even made Havdalah, emailed to tell us how our community’s solidarity with his following the church massacre in Charleston three years ago was seared in his memory; that what helped was to know that they “were not alone” and that “we will come at any time and in any way to support you.”

And there were texts and calls from public officials – some to me, many more to others who described them to me – the governor, the mayors, police commissioners, legislators, their aides; all offering help, all wanting to make sure we knew that they were ready with whatever our community needed in this moment.

Hearing these messages brought clarity; we needed to make sure that the experience of being held in love and support by the broader community would not be limited to a small circle of Jewish communal leaders. We needed to make sure that all of our community could be held by these folks; because our grief is not the private reality of rabbis and CEOs but of all of us, every single member of a community reeling in the aftermath of this unthinkable slaughter.

So we tapped into our network of member agencies, each with key relationships and unique competencies. Within hours, we had announced a vigil for Sunday afternoon on the Boston Common, and quickly had commitments from a broad array of the state’s leading public and faith figures. They stood wall to wall with us on Sunday. Their messages were heartfelt; understanding our pain, denouncing the hate motivating the attack and offering strength as we struggled to cope with the weight of events.

They invoked profound relationships: Cardinal O’Malley spoke of the partnership between our communities in supporting immigrants and refugees. They understood us and our fears: Shaykh Yasir Fahmy urged us to keep wearing our Judaism proudly and publicly, to “hold our yarmulkes tighter” just as he would tell his own youthful congregants to “hold their hijab closer” after an experience of Islamophobia. And with gentle and loving insistence, they challenged us to be with them as well, as Rev. Liz Walker did when she invited us to be in partnership with her community in Roxbury as it deals with ongoing and almost daily acts of violence.

Sunday was a beginning toward healing and also a reminder – we haven’t and won’t be facing violent anti-Semitism alone. And it was an invitation, made all the more resonant as we were reminded often this week – by the murder of a black couple in Kentucky last week, and then on Wednesday with the racist graffiti as Tynan School in South Boston – to be present in the struggles of our neighbors as well, as this country grapples with the toxin of hatreds targeting all of our communities.

The power of Sunday on the Common didn’t “just happen,” and it certainly didn’t happen in just a few hours on Saturday night. It was made possible through years of investment in relationships by the network of JCRC members. We have built deep and enduring ties with our interfaith partners on matters of common concern, while engaging in honest and challenging conversations about areas of tension and disagreement. We rolled up our sleeves to work with our friends in the state house over decades to advance our values and work together for the better good of the commonwealth. We heard “yes, of course I’ll be with you” from every partner we reached out to on Saturday night, because, for years, our community has invested in the urgent necessity of community relations.

And this morning I joined leaders from ADL New England and JALSA, along with many of those same faith and community leaders, at the Tynan School to show our support for our neighbors and to stand with them against hatred here in Boston. We stood together because we all need to be held and we all need to hold each other in these times if we are going to find a way forward as a nation.

L-R: Robert Trestan of ADL New England, Cindy Rowe of JALSA, and Jeremy Burton of JCRC

And as we enter this first Shabbat after Pittsburgh, we will again see many of those partners in shul this weekend. I am heading off to services tonight joined by so many of our friends who are joining Jews around the world to #ShowUpForShabbat.

The problem and the threat of violent anti-Semitism isn’t going to be solved overnight. And it is deeply intertwined with a larger challenge of violent and hateful extremism that threatens not only the Jewish community but all Americans – as members of threatened communities and as stakeholders in a nation being threatened by the normalization of hatreds.

So yes, seeing our partners so often means it has been a very bad week. But it has also been a week filled with hope – because they’ve shown up for us and we’ve shown up for them. Together we are finding the resiliency to move forward, stronger together and ready to do the work we do every day of holding community and communities in partnership.

Shabbat Shalom,


On Being Proximate and Not Being Paralyzed

The following is an excerpt from my remarks last Thursday at JCRC Celebrates…

At JCRC we like to speak of big, noble values like “our national purpose rebuilding the homeland of the Jewish people” or “defending the norms of Western democracy,” or “tikkun olam.” And right now, it can be too easy to become paralyzed by big ideas when facing the seemingly overwhelming nature of the challenges in our world and in our country.

But rather than do nothing, we look to Jewish tradition to provide us not only with a mandate for big noble ideas like the urgency of taking care of our own and of others, but also with practical wisdom about how to set about achieving this seemingly impossible task – and maybe more important – a strategy for warding off the paralysis of despair.

The Torah offers a concept (elaborated on by the Rabbis) of a circle of responsibility, where our greatest obligations are to those closest to us. This hierarchy reflects our most human impulses – to prioritize those with whom we are most proximate; our families and those whom we love. But the Torah also tells us that our obligations do not stop there. The circle of responsibility includes our neighbors, our cities and towns, and ultimately expands to encompass all of humanity.

If our circle begins with our own Jewish community, it expands to include all those who share our great Commonwealth. Through our relationships with those to whom we are proximate, those we draw near, we learn of action we can take right here and right now, that has impact on the lives of those we’ve grown close to.

So, rather than be paralyzed by the reality of 12,800 migrant children in federal detention right now, we at JCRC have organized 18 synagogues in 4 Sanctuary networks supporting a variety of families. With our Christian partners, we’ve mobilized 600 volunteers to support 160 people in detention, provided accompaniment at 170 court hearings, and – raised over $100,000 to bond out 32 people being held in federal detention who are awaiting hearings – all right here in Massachusetts.

Rather than be paralyzed by a sense of despair over the prospect of a two-state solution 25 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, we at JCRC have started Boston Partners for Peace. In partnership with CJP, we’re changing the conversation in Boston about coexistence. Through connection to Israeli and Palestinian success stories, we’re offering hope as an alternative to despair and inviting our community to work for the future in a proactive and positive way here in Boston.

Rather than by paralyzed by global hostility to Israel, we at JCRC mobilized a broad network of our member agencies, our allies, and our community in Cambridge this spring to defeat an effort to make the boycott Israel movement into city policy. We made visible the unseen community of support in that city. And then, in the state’s new Economic Development Bill, we worked with our friends on Beacon Hill to guarantee $250,000 for the facilitation and support of the Massachusetts-Israel Economic Connection to pursue economic collaboration between Israel and the Commonwealth.

Rather than be paralyzed by rising anti-Semitism and concerns about Jewish security, we worked with a network of Jewish agencies to advocate successfully for Governor Baker to reconstitute the state’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Then we worked with our partners in the legislature to establish a nonprofit security grant pilot last year, which was doubled to $150,000. Real money for institutions in our community and other communities at risk.

And we do work every day through Service – work that cultivates our proximity with others and nurtures the connections and shared community that reflect our Jewish values: mobilizing more than 1,200 volunteers each year in ongoing and one-day opportunities. Through 68 partners in the Jewish community and 134 service sites across the region, including 25 public schools, we’re doing the work of being proximate with our neighbors.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the “Rav” & founder of Brookline’s Maimonides School taught us:

During the Yom Kippur services, our prayerful concerns are almost exclusively with our own people…We are often accused of being parochially clannish. This may be true, for otherwise we would have succumbed long ago, considering our historical vulnerability. But this self-involvement is not hermetically exclusionary. The universal emphasis is prominent in all of our prayers, in Scripture, the Talmud and the Midrash;

It is (therefore) characteristic of the universal embrace of our faith that as the shadows of dusk descend on Yom Kippur day, after almost 24 hours of prayer for Israel, the Jew is alerted through the book of Jonah, prior to the closing of ‘the heavenly gates’ (Ne’ilah) that all humanity is God’s children. We need to restate the universal dimension of our faith.

Shabbat Shalom,


Resisting the temptation to walk away

This week: a message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich

Earlier this summer, in a sterile and overly air-conditioned Jerusalem hotel conference room, we gathered with our cohort of 13 Boston-area Christian ministers for an early morning meeting, on the final day of our Israel Study Tour. We met representatives of The Parents Circle Families Forum, a group which describes itself as “the only association in the world that does not wish to welcome any new members into its fold.” Founded and sustained by a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, their mission is to stop further acts of violence.

As is their practice, The Parents Circle was represented that morning by two presenters: one Palestinian and one Jewish Israeli. We heard from Bassam Aramin, whose ten-year-old daughter Abir, a bystander to a clash between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers, was killed by an Israeli soldier who hit her in the head with a rubber bullet. Robi Damelin’s 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while he was guarding a checkpoint in the West Bank during his army reserve service. We were struck by the deep and trusting relationship between these two bereaved parents as they supported each other in sharing their excruciating stories to yet one more audience, and as they teased each other lovingly throughout.

An anecdote that Robi shared took our breath away. She described visiting a classroom – one of many she frequents in Israeli and Palestinian schools – in which she spread her message of peace and non-violence. When she told this class of Palestinian students about losing David, one teen-aged girl stood up and shouted, “Your son deserved to die!” Robi paused, while contemplating her response. She said that giving in to her temptation to simply walk out would accomplish nothing. As a survivor, she recognized the deep pain behind the girl’s unthinkably cruel statement, as the mark of someone who was undoubtedly bereaved herself. So, she gently asked the girl about her family. As Robi suspected, the young student had in fact lost family members to violence. As the conversation unfolded, they shared their experience of loss. And the girl apologized for her brutal remark.

Robi posed this simple yet profound question to all of us: “How do you find a way of talking to someone and still leaving them with their dignity?” That question has reverberated for me ever since. How, in the face of deep divisions and emotionally fraught conflicts, do we relate to others not as enemies, but as human beings created in the image of God, whose dignity we cherish? How can we even begin to know how to do that, when we’re relating to people we don’t always understand, whose lives and experiences may be radically different from our own? How do we enact the teachings of our rabbis, in making the honor of others as dear to us as that of our own? And how do we ensure that this sacred principle informs all that we do?

This is a season of reflection not only for us as Jewish individuals, but also for us a Jewish organization, as we prepare for our annual dinner, when we tell the story of our work and invite the community to join us in our efforts in the coming year. There are many ways to describe the various, seemingly disparate avenues through which we involve our community; volunteer service, legislative advocacy, community organizing, and Israel engagement. But the uniting principle behind all of them is the affirmation of human dignity.

When we facilitate volunteers to help children discover the joy of reading, we affirm dignity. When we advocate for adults to attain skills and receive the support they need to obtain jobs with family sustaining wages, we affirm dignity. When we support Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers on the ground, we affirm dignity. When we mobilize our community to provide safe shelter, legal representation, and freedom from detention for our foreign-born neighbors under attack – we are saying that their honor is as dear to us as that of our own.

When we are at our best, cherishing the dignity of others doesn’t only inform what we do – but how we do it. In the complicated and sometimes thorny world of interfaith and community relations, we aspire to make the dignity of our partners paramount as well. When we are hurt by the words or actions of partners with whom we’ve built long term relationships, like Robi, we resist the temptation to vilify them and walk away. Rather, we draw nearer, and invite difficult conversations; ones leading to new understandings and deeper insights, encounters enabling us to appreciate each other’s humanity and reaffirm our shared values.

The ancient rabbis taught that Elul, this month of introspection leading into the High Holidays, is an acronym for the familiar phrase from the Song of Songs, Ani L’dodi Vedodi Lli – I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. The work of teshuva or repentance demands that we relate to others through loving eyes, and that we value the honor and dignity of all people, as we do our own. As we ready ourselves to enter 5779, let us resist the temptation to walk away, and instead challenge ourselves to affirm the dignity of all those we encounter.

Shabbat Shalom,


In 18 days, your vote has an impact on our criminal justice system

The Massachusetts legislative session just ended, with mixed results on issues dear to our community. We at JCRC were pleased with many aspects of the budget and the economic development bill, but we (and our partners in the immigration advocacy community) were sorely disappointed at the failure to adopt basic protections for immigrants being targeted in our community. And yet, on another issue of deep concern to our community, criminal justice reform, we celebrated the passage of the most significant and far-reaching state legislation in years. With our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) and the ACLU, we were greatly encouraged to see many of our own priorities (as determined by the JCRC Council – our representative body on behalf of our 43 member organizations) enshrined into law. And as with all other legislative victories, we knew that monitoring implementation of the new law would be critical in achieving justice that has been long delayed for so many in our community.

The ability of this new law to deliver a just criminal justice system hinges on a person whose influence is not universally understood: the District Attorney. And now, for the first time in recent memory, six of our eleven Massachusetts DA elections are contested and potentially decisive primary elections, scheduled for September 4th: only 18 days away.

So, those of us who have worked so hard for criminal justice reform are encouraging our community to become educated on this critical role, and to choose our candidates wisely.

Despite what we tend to believe about the determinative power of judges in our criminal legal system, a recent Boston Globe op-ed said that in fact:

“Prosecutors wield near absolute power. They determine which and how many criminal charges to file, with a grand jury typically rubber stamping the charges. Prosecutors then decide whether to offer a plea bargain and dictate its conditions. Given that more than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved through pleas rather than trials, these choices by prosecutors effectively determine the outcome of the vast of majority criminal cases, even if judges nominally oversee the entry of the plea."

That amount of power in any one person’s hand should draw our attention, especially because we live in the shadow of decades of “tough-on-crime” laws that have prioritized mass incarceration over rehabilitation. Now more than ever, we need our DAs to be our partners in ensuring that our criminal justice system is truly just.

Here are some steps you can take to be a fully informed voter on this vital issue:

  • Review the key issues for the candidates running in your county (and perhaps remind yourself what county you vote in – for example: Boston is Suffolk; Cambridge, Lexington, and Newton are Middlesex; Brookline is Norfolk – find your county here). Check out the ACLU voters guides for Suffolk County, Middlesex County, and the rest here. JCRC Councilmember Kathy Weinman has collected all of the candidates’ websites in a great blog post.
  • See the candidates in person. If you belong to a congregation that’s a member of GBIO, come to the Suffolk and Middlesex candidate forum that they’re hosting on August 23rd at the Boston Teachers' Union in Dorchester (reach out to our organizer Ben Poor for more information).
  • Learn more about what a DA does. You can attend the CourtWatch training on August 21st at Temple Israel in Boston, hosted by members of various congregations advocating for Criminal Justice Reform (anyone is welcome). ​​Court watching is a way to hold DAs accountable by attending court hearings and documenting what happens. You don't need any previous experience to come to the training, only a desire to hold judges and prosecutors accountable for fairness and equity.

As I head into the voting booth on September 4th, I’ll be thinking about the public servants who are charged with implementing the laws we work so hard to pass, and about the importance of having the fairest DAs – who will ensure public safety while also advancing a system that is equitable and just.

Shabbat Shalom,

My Grandpa Joe was 4 when he crossed the border

As I arrived in Texas this week with a CJP mission, my thoughts went back nearly a century. One hundred years ago next April, my grandfather arrived in El Paso, Texas as a refugee from Mexico.

Jose Casillas Sandoval was four years old when he crossed the Rio Grande with his parents and his older siblings, fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution. I imagine what he would have endured if he had been separated from his parents at the border, if they had been turned back - to violence and bloodshed - by a nation with a hardened heart.

The Texas my Grandpa Joe grew up in wasn’t always an easy place to be a Mexican-American; children like him attended separate, segregated, Mexican-only schools. But he became a citizen and a patriot. With the help of a union apprenticeship, he finished high school and learned the skills he needed to operate and repair heavy machinery in the California steel mills. He served in World War II and he built upon the knowledge of electronics that he acquired in the Navy. With a good job at a good wage, he had a ladder to the middle class. He would become a respected leader in his church and community.

We came to San Antonio this week to learn about and to volunteer with the groups supported by CJP’s Fund to Aid Children and End Separation (FACES). In the wake of the recent family separation crisis at our southern border, Boston’s Jewish community has once again responded by putting our values into action; to reunify families and support migrants during trying times.

We learned about the work of The Young Center, CJP’s largest grantee in this fund, which is trying to change our immigration system so that children are recognized as such and treated in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are working tirelessly around the nation to reunify families, including in some of the hardest cases where parents have already been deported.

We provided service at the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), an all-volunteer partnership that welcomes refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women and children. We packed backpacks with basic supplies to be distributed to migrant children.

We saw with our own eyes how some of these families are dumped at the bus station in San Antonio by ICE after being released from detention - they’ve been given a chance to wait for a review of their asylum petition that can take weeks or years, but are left to fend for themselves with little or no resources. Terrified, traumatized, they need and receive immediate intervention and accompaniment from IWC until they can reach the next step in their journey to safety.

Both these organizations existed and have been working in the trenches long before the crisis of recent months. The brokenness of our immigration system goes back decades. The fears and the horrors that immigrant families face are not confined to the border.

Parents have been ripped away from their children by ICE here in Massachusetts too. People fleeing persecution from their home countries, seeking asylum, arrive at our borders and are shipped to different detention centers around the country, including jails here, in our city.

JCRC is doing what we can to offer support as these families resiliently fight to stay together. We are part of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN, pronounced ‘beyond’), a growing effort amongst faith organizations and communities. We are finding pro bono attorneys to support people facing deportation who would not otherwise have legal representation, along with more than 60% of detained immigrants nationally. We are raising money to bond people out of detention, so they can be with their families while their cases proceed. We are organizing synagogues participating in three sanctuary networks - in Newton, Jamaica Plain, and Cambridge - to help families avoid separation during this crisis.

This moment calls on us to do our work differently. It calls on us to be proximate to one another in ways we may have never been before - we live together; we pick each other up after release from detention; we have meals together; we are in close contact with each other’s families. Through it all, we are building a deeper community founded upon dignity and doing more than we have before.

I keep a picture of my Grandpa Joe on my desk, sitting in that segregated classroom. It reminds me of his story. It keeps me proximate to this part of my family’s immigrant experience and to a story of our nation’s past. It is a picture of the opportunity and of some of the hurdles we have offered to those arriving here fleeing violence and persecution. It is a picture of where we’ve come from and who we might become again.

Synagogues and others in Boston’s Jewish community understand this journey and are determined to place the values of welcoming and compassion back at the center of our society. We are choosing to be proximate with our new neighbors. And on Wednesday, August 15th, I hope that you will join us at 7pm at Temple Emanuel in Newton to learn more about this work and how you can support people in our community right here in Massachusetts as they face the horrors of family separation and detention.

Shabbat Shalom,


Championing our community’s values in the 2019 MA Budget

A state budget is a financial document. But at its essence, it’s statement of values and an affirmation of what a government stands for. At JCRC, we’re keenly aware that for many in our Commonwealth, budget decisions are not abstractions, nor is the process a game of wins and losses. These debates have profound implications for the lives of real people. The determinations of lawmakers can make the difference between a stable job or economic despair, between staying in your home or being institutionalized, between living in safety or hiding in fear.

In partnership with our communal agencies, JCRC champions our community’s values by advocating for funding of three overarching priority areas: creating pathways to economic opportunity, supporting individuals and families in their homes, and ensuring safety for our most vulnerable.

Yesterday, Governor Baker signed the budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Below is a glimpse into our achievements, and the very tangible ways in which the services funded will improve lives.

Creating Pathways to Economic Opportunity
  • More than ever, a college degree is a foundational element to get a foothold in today’s evolving economy and for some, this pathway is simply unattainable. The Bridges to College budget line-item, modeled after the JVS program, helps students surmount obstacles and enter directly into credit bearing classes. This year, for the first time, we delivered additional dollars directly to JVS to meet the increased demand.
  • People in our community face multiple barriers to employment, and we’ve fought consistently for those who’ve been left behind.

We secured $150,000 for the Transitions to Work line-item, modeled after the innovative program developed by the Ruderman Foundation, JVS, and CJP to help adults with disabilities enter the workforce; $1,000,0000 to train immigrants and refugees who have come to Massachusetts to create their own futures;

and $1,000,000 to the Secure Jobs Initiative, (a $350,000 increase), envisioned by the Fireman Family to help individuals facing homelessness find stable jobs and supports to stay in their homes.

"I came to Boston from El Salvador speaking no English. I knew that I needed college to get a good job, but I did not even know where to begin. At JVS, I learned English, how to apply to college and financial aid, and as a result, I am the first person from my family to graduate college.” – Dimas, Jewish Vocational Services client

Supporting Individuals and Families in their Homes

“Having a baby as a single parent is hard enough as it is. Adding a layer of substance use is an added stress, something most other parents don’t have. The team at JF&CS have stood with me and my baby when it seemed like everyone else wanted to give up on us.” – Kelly, Jewish Family and Children's Services Client

  • At JF&CS, Fragile Beginnings and Project NESST were created to offer vital services to support the parents and caregivers of vulnerable infants who have had to stay in the NICU, including premature and substance-exposed babies. We helped secure $400,000 to provide services to these families as they transition home, and throughout their child’s developmental years.
  • We sustained funding of $642,000 for the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) line-item, a model which enables many seniors to stay in their homes and communities by bringing valuable programs and services to them. For the last decade, we have worked with JFS Metrowest, JF&CS, and JFS of Western Mass to expand this model of healthy aging in place.

“JFS works so hard to get outside speakers and entertainment to come to us and I am so thankful. They brought an exercise instructor to teach weekly aerobics classes and my doctors are so thrilled that I am getting weekly exercise at my apartment. The lunch group and trivia have been very helpful too. After my fall this winter, I feel that I have lost some of my memory and the trivia really makes me think."
Barbara, JFS Client

Ensuring Safety for our Most Vulnerable

  • In past years, this priority area focused exclusively on populations traditionally seen as vulnerable, including fragile seniors and those living on the economic margins. But with emerging threats to the Jewish community and other minorities, we’ve been called to respond to a new and disturbing vulnerability of our times.

"There's been a heightened sense of vulnerability and a documented increase in threats and hate crimes against Jewish community centers, African-American churches, and mosques, and it is very important that we provide these types of organizations, especially those on a shoestring budget, the means to put meaningful protections in place" – State Senator Eric Lesser

In response to these threats against JCCs and day schools, JCRC led efforts to create a pilot program to provide security support to communities excluded from a similar federal program. This year, the state doubled the grant to $150,000 and ensured that all regions of the Commonwealth have access to these vital grants.

While we took many steps forward as a Commonwealth during the FY19 budget process, we also experienced great disappointment. One of the most hotly discussed policy items considered during the budget debate was a compromise containing elements of the Safe Communities Act, to promote the safety and civil rights of our immigrant neighbors. These provisions, included in the Senate budget but absent in the final product, reflected long-standing constitutional protections, including an end to unlawful racial and ethnic profiling, the acknowledgment of the right to counsel in civil proceedings, and a ban on registries based on religion. The failure to act will result in continued persecution and danger for immigrants (and those perceived to be) and the trampling of constitutional rights which extend to all persons in the United States.

As the legislative session comes to an end on July 31st, we are grateful to our many partners in the House and Senate who worked with us to set these priorities, and we remain committed to work with our partners in advocacy and government to enshrine policies that reflect the best in our shared humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,


Israeli & Palestinian Women Leading the Charge for Peace

I spent last week in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah as a facilitator for Encounter, following my experience as a participant last year. This time, my role was to support other American Jewish leaders who were there to listen and learn from Palestinians about their lives and experiences. I also had the opportunity to spend a few days touring in Jerusalem, with the ground partners we work with on our civic leader study tours, exploring new (to us) ways to engage.

Three “moments” that I would not have imagined possible only a few years ago have stuck with me as I returned home. They feature extraordinary women representing vastly different communities, but pursuing common goals with relentless determination and unimaginable courage.

With JCRC’s ground partners on Mount Zion, just outside the Old City walls, at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, I learn about current efforts by Palestinian Jerusalemite women (the vast majority of whom are not citizens of Israel) to organize and agitate for basic municipal services. Since they refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty, this community has been engaging in a 50-year-long boycott of municipal elections. One result has been their lack of representation at City Hall, leading to, among other things, chronic problems with services like street-light repair and garbage pickup. For decades, these issues were taken up by the clan leaders, the men in their communities – to little effect. But in recent years, the women have taken matters into their own hands, organizing, and even building coalitions with Orthodox and secular women in Jewish communities of the city. Their efforts are bearing fruit, including increases in budgets for services that are improving the quality of life  in their communities. Women, we are told, are getting the job done.

In Geula, a Haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem – a place I knew well when I was a black-hat yeshiva student living in that city in the 1980’s – a Hasidic woman leads us on a professional walking tour. She tells us about her own journey from 18-year-old married mother to a later-in-life college degree and profession. She engages us in an open and profoundly candid conversation – one I would never have imagined having with a woman from this community even 10 years ago – about social change and social issues in her community; women’s health education including birth control, LGBT issues, debates over higher education, etc. My friend asks her if she will have any issues walking on the streets with obviously outsider men (let alone any man other than her husband). “Things are changing. My neighbors understand the importance of what I am doing. This corner is fine,” she replies.

Then in Bethlehem, now having joined the Encounter group, I meet a Muslim woman who is involved in Women Wage Peace – a group of Israeli and Palestinian women working through non-violent means to build grassroots pressure on the political leadership in support of peace. This woman (names are protected because not all the people I met were on the record) tells us about her own journey and her determined efforts to teach her neighbors and youth in her community to see The Other – the Israeli, the Jew – as fully human, and to appreciate the feelings they have, that are common to us all.

She has brought her teenage son with her to this meeting with American Jewish leaders. He sits quietly next to her. At one point, as she tells her story, she talks about the first intifada in the 1980’s, when she was in college and I was a post-high school yeshiva student just down the road in Jerusalem. She did what all her classmates did: threw stones at the Jews. Jews like me, a mile away, I think to myself. And, as she tells this story, she reaches out and gently places her left hand on her son’s knee; only for a moment, while talking about her own violent past. And she doesn’t touch him again for the hour we are together.

I feel the message in that moment and in this boy’s presence in the room: She’s telling this story as a mistake she prays he does not repeat. She’s brought him here to see that her choice, to pursue non-violence as a practice, is a better one, and one that opens up doors of access to her, that brings her voice and vision before us visitors. It is a choice that needs validation and support. And over our time in Palestinian areas, we hear other activists who practice non-violence tell us that they need “wins.” Victories to show their neighbors that their approach works, that violence is not the path to a better future.

I come away appreciating that change is possible and continuing to happen. But that change never happens on its own. It takes bold vision and profound courage. And it needs our support; to amplify the visibility of activists, to celebrate and give strength to those pursuing non-violent social change. I’m proud that Women Wage Peace is one of the initial participants in the Boston Partners for Peace, our effort to amplify and connect with changemakers on the ground who are bridging the Israeli and Palestinian communities and paving the way to a better future.

We can have an impact in supporting the future of this place that continues to evolve before our eyes – only if we take the time to listen, to learn, to be inspired. But we must also act now, for we know that this possibility can be fleeting, and nothing is guaranteed to last forever. The question I ask myself is: What will these neighborhoods and communities will look like in another ten years, and how can our community be a part of cementing their progress long into the future?

Shabbat Shalom,


A Shabbat To Protest

With the increasing frequency of Saturday rallies and gatherings responding to current events I’ve been thinking a bit of late about JCRC’s “Shabbat policy.” Though it’s rarely discussed, our practice is not to sponsor or participate as JCRC in programs – from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. While we recognize and affirm that Jews have a wide range of Shabbat observances (including none at all), as a broad umbrella of our community, we believe we have a responsibility not to hold programming that would exclude participation from any part of our community. So while many, if not most of us, might attend a certain rally on Shabbat, some would not, and we as an organization do not.

This same principle guides our practice of “strict” kashrut for all our events – we never want a member of our community to be excluded in our space because of their observance practice.

As a community relations organization, this comes up with some regularity in our interfaith work, with Saturday often being the most convenient day for our partners to do an event. We’re just candid about the fact that an event on our Shabbat would exclude parts of our community. At times, that means that we miss out on certain things. The first anniversary of the Marathon Bombing fell on a holy day of Passover; we had no expectation that the city would commemorate it on any day other than the actual day. We communicated our regret over Jewish communal absence, which was recognized and honored.

In many cases, when there is an urgent need to stand with other communities as one united collective, we find another way. One example was last summer, in the days after Charlottesville. We knew that a massive mobilization was planned for Boston the following Saturday, in response to an anticipated local far-right rally. It wasn’t going to be moved – that was the day these folks had a permit. But many, including Governor Baker, Mayor Walsh, and our closest partners in the Christian and Muslim communities, were asking for some way we could all stand together as faith communities. Our response – under the umbrella of The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization – was a Friday evening program at Temple Israel in Boston. It was deliberately held early enough so that those who didn’t drive on Shabbat could reasonably get home to nearby suburbs; and Muslims too could get to Friday evening prayer before sundown. This powerful public gathering was our way of providing an expression for our solidarity, while holding true to principles we all shared about inclusion.

But with all the rallies and protests this past 18 months, this “organize a new event” approach just isn’t feasible every single time that there is a new reason to mobilize. And so we look to another aspect of our Shabbat policy, our desire to honor and lift up the Shabbat practices of the diverse individual parts of our community.

While we never sponsor or endorse Saturday rallies, we want to lift up and honor the efforts of those of our members who do. And we want to make known that there are options for members of the Jewish community who want to participate in this public activity as Jews. Because another guiding principle of ours is that it isn’t all about JCRC. We’re a network – 43 organizations, a dozen community partners, some 130 synagogues. Showing up in public space is not about any single organization – including JCRC. It’s about our entire community, in all of our diversity, participating in our democracy in ways that each of us feels called to do, and in concert with our Jewish values and practice.

So this Saturday - when so many of us are outraged over family separation and travel bans and are horrified by our government’s  dehumanization of asylum seekers and refugees –as rallies are being organized across the country, JCRC is not sponsoring any event, including this one at Boston City Hall that is being co-hosted by our close and valued partner, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

But we want you to know that many of our members are. So, if you feel compelled to be there, if you feel that this is what this Shabbat requires of you, you’ll see some of our members, including the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Workmen’s Circle. You might also consider joining Temple Israel Boston for Shabbat service, Torah study and the rally, or Congregation Dorshei Tzedek for a brief Shabbat service at the Make Way for Ducklings Sculpture, on Boston Common, before walking to City Hall Plaza. And while my personal practice of Shabbat means I won’t be there, you will probably see some of the JCRC team on the Common.

Whatever your practice entails, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.

p.s. I’m headed to Israel next week and will be taking the next two weeks off from this blog. I look forward to sharing some reflections from my trip when I return.

Shabbat shalom,


Meet Stacey Bloom: JCRC’s New President

With all the change and transition going on in our community, I’m pleased to highlight an exciting change here at JCRC. Last week, the JCRC Council (the representative body of our 43-member organizations) elected our leadership for the coming year, including our new President, Stacey Bloom.

Stacey and I have been working together in one way or another for nearly seven years now, and I’m thrilled that JCRC and our community will have the opportunity to benefit from her leadership in this new role.

We sat down with Stacey and asked her to share a little bit about herself with all of us:


Tell us something personal about yourself.

I grew up just south of Boston, in Braintree, where I still live—just a few minutes from my parents and sister. I am lucky to have family nearby, since I work full time as an assistant general counsel for a busy state agency and I’m a full-time mom to an amazing five-year-old boy. Before I became a mom, I had more of an opportunity to indulge my love of travelling, a love I am imparting to my son. I am also an avid history buff, with a passion for World War II (I encourage everyone to take a visit to the WWII Museum in Natick – it’s a hidden gem) and Middle Eastern history.

What first drew you to JCRC?

I was active in CJP’s Young Leadership Division (YLD) and was the 2009 YLD campaign chair. During that time both Bill Gabovitch and Jill Goldenberg (who are now both past Presidents of JCRC) reached out to me to talk about JCRC. They spoke about JCRC’s mission and work—I found that this mission aligned with my core values, and that this was work that I wanted to be a part of, as it enabled me to continue down the same path I had been forged in the past. Specifically, I had worked in politics—both local and statewide—since high school. After law school I did a stint on a Scott Harshbarger’s gubernatorial campaign because I was inspired by his commitment to advocate for the weakest members of our society—those individuals who had no voice in the public arena. JCRC spoke to my belief in civic engagement, and to what we as a Jewish community could do to advocate for the elderly, the poor, and the disenfranchised.

I also came with a passion for Israel advocacyGrowing up, my parents always stressed the importance of Israel. They talked about Israel with great pride and instilled a love of Israel in my sister and me. My many visits to Israel not only solidified the lessons my parents taught me, but also made me even more committed to helping others understand Israel and its importance to the Jewish community and the Jewish people. My work with JCRC has allowed me to engage in issues that speak to my values in very different, but equally important ways.

What was the first moment when you knew this was the right fit?

I joined JCRC’s Council as a community representative in 2010 and the Board in 2011. At one of my first meetings, I floated an idea about how we could tackle some issueI don’t even remember what it was nowin a way that was different from the proposal on the agenda and what was currently under discussion. After mulling over whether I should weigh in as a very new JCRC Board member, I plunged in and offered my differing view point. Bill, then the President, listened to my rationale about a change in approach, and immediately responded, “Good ideawe’ll do it your way.” What resonated in that moment was that it didn’t matter how new you were to the organization, your voice and input were valued, and you were truly considered to be a full participant at the table. That moment was an important one to me. The idea that everyone around the table has something to contribute is one I hope to impart to all Board members, new and experienced alike.

So now you’re Bill, so to speaksetting the agenda, leading the Board. What’s important as you look ahead?

During the last year we began discussions with the Board and Council about JCRC’s need to respond to changing demographics of the Greater Boston Jewish community and the new challenges facing our community. During the last 70 years we have been “the table” where the organized community hashes out our views. As we move forward, we need to ensure that JCRC attracts and cultivates the next generation of leaders and engages them in tackling the issues our community and society will face in the future. 

In looking at JCRC’s future and the challenges and opportunities it presents, we don’t have to reinvent who we are; we need to renew who we are, without losing our sense of mission or our purpose. We will need to respond to new challenges in ways that underscore our organizational identity as a force for change and a resource for our community and greater society, and continue to represent our most cherished Jewish values.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share about JCRC?

As challenging as these times are, they’re also exciting. Our work has that much more importance and urgency, and presents an opportunity to bring people in; young people, people who haven’t been involved before. JCRC can be a part of helping them realize their vision for change. We live at a time when people really want to ACT and are rejecting apathy and disengagement. It’s up to us to help engage or reengage people who are hungry to make a difference. JCRC is uniquely positioned to meet the challenges ahead as we work with our community and our partner organizations to advocate for change and advocate for our Jewish values. The most challenging times also provide the most opportunity; and I’m grateful that the Council has entrusted me to lead JCRC in these times.

At the annual meeting, our Council also elected the following members to our leadership: Vice President Elise Busny, Vice President Sam Gechter, Secretary Ben Pearlman, Assistant Secretary Margie Ross Decter; our new Board members Josef Blumenfeld, Nicole Lieberman Gann, Rav Claudia Kreiman, Nathan Rothstein, and Debbie Isaacson; and our new Community Representatives to the Council: Elizabeth Bonney-Cohen, Lynda Bussgang, Abby Flam, Ilise (Lisie) Krieger, and Emily Levine. We welcome them all and thank them for taking on new roles in service to our community. And we look forward to working together in partnership with Stacey as our new president.

Shabbat Shalom,


My Rainbow Kippah

As a child in the Haredi Orthodox community in New York, I – along with all the other boys – wore a black cloth kippah, the “skullcap” whose origin goes at least as far back as the Book of Samuel when David ascended the Mount of Olives and covered his head. And while my relationship to this garment has its origins in the ancient rabbinic teachings about appreciation of the Divine presence, over the years I’ve developed a more multifaceted relationship with my kippah.

When I began my career, there were two models in my community of Orthodox men participating in public service; one was embodied by elected officials who were unapologetically in politics to represent the interest of the Orthodox Jewish community as they understood them, and the other was embodied by officials who wore their Orthodoxy openly and proudly, as a values system that informed their politics in service to a broader society. The first group wore their kippot (plural for kippah) on the floor of the state legislature, the latter were never seen with one while performing their public duties. I aspired to the second model of public service. I stopped wearing a kippah in public for over a decade.

As I turned thirty and committed to my second career, building Jewish community that was meaningful for myself and my peers, I put the kippah back on my head. I found meaning in explicitly claiming Jewish space and holding on to commitments to traditional practice while I was coming out of the closet. It became a part of my narrative of authenticity to my whole self, by not giving up one part of my identity – traditional Jewish practice – to live fully as another: as an Out person. That choice, to proudly affirm my full self, informed the work I was doing and the communities I was building, including serving as a leader of the first partnership minyan in the US. It was there, that years later, in my role as a gabbai (overseer of prayer service), I had the privilege of officiating, when – for the first time anywhere – Orthodox same-sex fathers were able to stand together and name their daughter at the bimah on Shabbat morning.

In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, I coordinated an investment by Jewish federations in recovery efforts beyond the Jewish community. On an early visit to New Orleans, a minister pulled me aside and said, in the most loving tone possible, “It is very courageous of you to wear that Jewish cap in these parts.” In that moment I was reminded of an exchange that Ruth Messinger, Former Manhattan Borough President and President of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), had shared with me: After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, AJWS quickly mobilized millions of dollars for relief and recovery. President George W. Bush invited her and other charitable leaders to the White House. She told him about how AJWS was providing fishing boats to villagers in Indonesia so that they could start rebuilding their livelihoods. The President praised AJWS’ efforts and added, “make sure that sides of the boats have painted on that this was made possible with support from American Jewish World Service.” He understood, and wanted to underscore the importance of visibility when Jews act on our Jewish values in service to the common good.

I kept that kippah on in meetings in Mississippi and Louisiana (though I did have the good sense to put a baseball cap on when I was out on the streets on my own). In the years since, and now at JCRC – where our work is to represent Jewish values and interests in the public square – I’ve become more conscious of my kippah, not only as an act of faith but as an expression of the visibility of the Jewish people. A garment can be not only about a relationship with the Divine, but also an expression of our culture and our presence when living and practicing our values. When I am at an interfaith rally or a hearing on public policy, I want to be seen as a member of the Jewish community, as part of a presence of our people in partnership with others. When I wear my Jewishness openly, I’m inviting conversations –opportunities to inform and educate – with those who approach me with questions and a desire for connection.

There are still those situations where I choose to be less visible. When I was in Germany, at the advice of local Jewish activists in Berlin, I kept my kippah off in public. It saddens and angers me to realize that there are places where it’s not safe to be Jewish. It is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.

This month, the kippah I’m wearing is a rainbow one – for Pride Month. Thirty years ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of wearing it, but now I do so as a visible expression of an identity that encompasses multiple parts. My rainbow kippah embodies how I’ve come to understand belonging, visibility, and the responsibility to show up proudly as our whole selves – in our community and in our work in the world.

Shabbat Shalom.