Category Archives: Letter from the Director

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

Protecting our community while protecting our values

This week we marked the shloshim for those murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by white supremacist gunman Robert Bowers; the 30 days following burial in which mourners refrain from some everyday practices and communities engage in performance of mitzvot to honor the dead.

This past Friday night the Jewish community experienced another attack on a congregation, this time in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mohamed Abdi attempted to run down two visibly Orthodox men leaving Friday night services while yelling anti-Semitic epithets. Thankfully no one was injured.

These and many other incidents of rising acts of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes have our communities wrestling with new challenges. Wherever I traveled this past month, leaders in institutions – synagogues, JCCs, and others – are grappling with the unenviable task of navigating the balance among competing core values and priorities of Jewish communal spaces: between being safe and being inclusive and welcoming. How much security is necessary? What are the best practices? What measures are “too much,” either because cost outweighs the benefit, or because they exacerbate the problematic experiences for Jews of Color, or otherwise limit the ways in which we aspire to welcome people into Abraham’s four-fold open space?

This is, to say the least, an evolving conversation. And it is one we’ve been having with our own leaders and member agencies here at JCRC. I don’t presume to have “the” answer for every congregation or community, beyond encouraging each of them to have these conversations, to explore their own values, and to ask how they will hold multiple values in a dynamic tension that feels appropriate for them.

Our responsibility at JCRC is to do everything we can to ensure that our governments, at all levels, are doing everything in their capacity to ensure the security of our community and its institutions.

Last year we worked with the New England ADL and the Mass. Association of Jewish Federations (MAJF, which is run by JCRC) to seek Governor Baker’s commitment to reconstitute the state’s Hate Crime Task Force, which he readily did. We’ve been appreciative of the Governor’s support after Pittsburgh and have been pleased in recent days to see him leading on working with the Task Force to encourage all law enforcement agencies to fully report hate crimes and to take other measures to ensure that there is a “zero tolerance” for hate in Massachusetts. Our joint commitment to the vitality of this task force remains strong.

MAJF and JCRC also worked last year with our partners in the state legislature to establish a $75,000 pilot for non-profit security grant funding, complementing the federal grants which we advocate for in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America. This year, the state doubled the funding to $150,000 and we will be working with the governor and the legislature to increase the pool and streamline the application process to expand eligibility.

And the Jewish Emergency Management System (JEMS), a partnership of CJP, JCRC, ADL, and the Synagogue Council, is helping our network of agencies access a series of trainings and briefings on the issues they are grappling with in this time.

We’re also continuing to work on the range of public policy matters that were important to our community before Pittsburgh, which have taken on increased urgency in its aftermath. We are more committed than ever to ensuring that the United States remains a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees from around the world, including supporting our noble legacy institutions like HIAS, supporting our network of synagogues here in Massachusetts working in concert with interfaith partners to pass gun-violence prevention laws, and challenging those at the very highest levels of public life who are validating and amplifying the kinds of bigotry and hatred that lead to these attacks.

A month after Pittsburgh, the Jewish community has been changed. We don’t know yet fully how. But we do know that we all have a role to play in facing that change responsibly, while also remaining constant in our purpose and our values about who we are in the world.

We have a choice: To react passively to unfolding events, or act with agency, to protect both our community and its most deeply held values. I, for one, choose the latter option.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our City’s Collective Responsibility


This week: a message from JCRC's Emily Reichman, Director of Service Initiatives (R), and Shira Burns, JCRC Communications Staff.

On Monday, in an auditorium full of high school students visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust survivor Esther Starobin asked: “Is there anything specific you’re hoping to see here today?” Sherley Maximin’s hand shot up.

Sherley is this year’s first place winner of JCRC’s annual Israel Arbiter Essay Contest for high school students, and one of over 200 who submitted essays on themes related to the Holocaust. This Monday, she and three other student winners from schools across Greater Boston joined JCRC to spend the day at the museum in Washington, D.C.

In her essay, Sherley, who moved to Boston from Haiti two years ago, reflected on the life-changing encounter she had with local Holocaust survivors during a visit to the New England Holocaust Memorial last summer after it was vandalized by a student from her school. The students came together to let the Jewish community of Boston know that this student from their school did not represent them:

“That experience went beyond all the things that I could ever read in textbooks. I had such a meaningful conversation with Dr. Ornstein, a survivor. Nothing is comparable to listening to a survivor share their experience. I realized that there is much more to pay attention to. Way too often, we forget the causes of historical events like the Holocaust and I think we must commit to point to the signs when they arise. The lessons that one can learn from the history of the Holocaust are endless. This experience definitely strengthened my desire to learn more.”

Sherely (L) and a fellow Malden High School student at the NEHM.

This past week, days before Sherley’s visit to Washington, we marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. “The Night of Broken Glass” ushered in a time of unparalleled hatred and devastation that led to the loss of six million Jewish lives.

In 1938, we were isolated and alone. Today, the strength of our community is demonstrated through our relationships and our alliances, and through our neighbors’ determined refusal to remain silent in the face of hatred and bigotry.

And in Boston this Tuesday, under a heavy downpour, we gathered at the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM) to acknowledge a significant gift made to the Memorial by the Glaziers Union, part of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35. The Glaziers have been involved in the Memorial from the beginning, building and installing the original Memorial in 1995, made up of six iconic glass towers with 132 glass panels.

After the Memorial was vandalized last year, the union felt compelled to stand with the Jewish community and to uphold the integrity of this space that is sacred to so many. “It is our moral obligation to stand up and to speak up,” said Wayne Murphy, Director of Government and Public Affairs for the union. In his remarks, Murphy also noted that his union responded to last year’s vandalism by stepping in to repair the damage, offering to perform the work pro bono.

We were also joined by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has been steadfast in his commitment to the Jewish community, showing up at event after event as we find ourselves under assault. He reflected on the “acts of anti-Semitism happening all over our country,” including the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of October 27, in which 11 Jewish worshippers were murdered.

At JCRC we don’t take those relationships and alliances, nor the lessons of the Holocaust, for granted. That is why we provide education and engagement, connected with the Memorial, in Boston’s broader civic space beyond the Jewish community.

Displayed on the wall of the United States Holocaust Museum is a quote from Elie Wiesel’s remarks at the Dedication Ceremonies for the Museum on April 22, 1993: “This museum is not an answer. It is a question.” The museum, and the Holocaust itself, is not finite, but rather a living, breathing history that informs our collective responsibility. An enduring communal memory of the Holocaust is crucial.

And what was Sherley Maximin’s answer to that question on Monday about her hopes for the day?

“I’m hoping to see aspects of the exhibit that inspire me to recommit to resilience and hope.”

We hope that we met Sherley’s hopes this week. And her hopes were met for us as well – when we saw Sherley and her high school community, and the Glaziers Union, stand up in the face of acts of hatred this past year. Their actions, and the actions of so many others, remind us of what is good in our city. They inspire us to recommit, with resilience and hope, to ensuring that future generations of Bostonians will do so for years to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Emily & Shira

Our Concerns for 2020

With election 2018 (not quite) behind us, and election 2020 squarely in the headlights, we’re sitting in the brief moment between cycles of hyperbolic conversations about how non-profits engage on the great challenges facing our nation.

In the most simple sense, there is long standing legal guidance that allows 501(c)(3)s (the IRS designation for federal tax exempt nonprofit organizations) to address public issues – as we do in our advocacy for legislation and public policies – provided that we do so without expressing a preference for a party or candidate in an election, endorsing a candidate, or releasing a voter guide that is implicitly single issue or preferences one party.

More can be said on this (don’t consider the above paragraph as legal counsel to your organization!) but candidly, that’s a technical answer about what the law allows and what magic words one can or cannot say.

Of more interest to us is – what do we care about? What matters to us in the arena of government and policy? And how do we galvanize our attention on these matters?

It bears repeating that we at JCRC – a network of Jewish organizations coming together in shared purpose around the collective agenda of the Jewish community in the public arena – see ourselves as fundamentally invested in two core principles (as stated in our mission): advocacy for a safe, secure, democratic state of Israel; and promoting an American society which is democratic, pluralistic, and just.

To those ends, we intend to educate 2020 candidates about our views on the policy issues that stem from those principles, such as our support for the U.S. as an engaged leader on the international stage, including support for our ally Israel and efforts to achieve a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. It means informing candidates about the Jewish community’s commitment to civil rights for all Americans, the importance of addressing anti-Semitism and bigotry, fair and just immigration policies, and a strong social safety net. And we’ll also be listening to candidates, hearing their views, and sharing with our community about how they think about these policy concerns.

But frankly, there are concerns in 2020 that are both broader and potentially more urgent than these longstanding communal priorities.

It would have been naïve to think that this week’s election would resolve a much larger existential challenge facing our nation – our fractured and tribal culture, the fraying of our democratic norms and the institutions of our civic space, and the breakdown of our ability to work with each other across specific policy disagreements in service to a common notion of the American idea. Naïve because these challenges didn’t start in the past few years, though they’ve been greatly exacerbated; these challenges have been growing, albeit ignored by many, long before 2016.

A challenge that’s been festering over the past two decades isn’t going away tomorrow or in 2020. It’s going to take leadership over the next decades – and not just from those seeking high national office, but from all of us in positions of influence over the civic space and our public discourse.

So yes, heading into 2020, and 2022, and 2024, we’ll need to be educating candidates and ourselves about the policy issues we hold dear. We’ll also need to be asking them what their vision and strategy is for healing the divides that are fracturing our nation, challenging them to show leadership to that end – regardless of what others in public life might do – and challenging ourselves as leaders to model a better future for what ails our nation.

I invite your thoughts and insights on the specific things we can do to influence this conversation and model it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Poking Holes in the Darkness

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This has been among the darkest weeks we’ve endured as a community. The Jewish community of Pittsburgh buried 11 loved ones, murdered in the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history. We are all reeling.

With the unleashing of this violent hatred on our community came reverberations of too many moments throughout our history when we’ve been targeted; when we’ve had to withstand the onslaught on our own, isolated and marginalized. But on Shabbat, just moments after we all learned of the massacre in the Tree of Life Synagogues, messages of consolation, of solidarity, and of support came pouring out from elected officials and interfaith leadership with whom we at JCRC have nurtured and cultivated relationships over the years. We knew we were not alone.

In the last week, I’ve been thanked by many of you who attended the vigil we planned within 24 hours of the news. You’ve told me that the moving display of support from so many allies was a powerful reassurance that we are part of a collective, one that understands and shares our grief in this moment and that will be with us for the long haul.

I’ve been asked over and over; how did you manage to turn out that impressive array of dignitaries so quickly? The reality is that, although the vigil may have taken place within hours, there was nothing quick or simple about our work that day. Because our allies were already with us. Through our painstaking work day in and day out, we have built deep, enduring relationships with friends and partners in public life — elected officials, clergy, and civic leaders. We have rolled up our sleeves to tackle the thorniest challenges facing Greater Boston together; we’ve developed the trust to engage in difficult conversations and to leverage our collective power to achieve goals more ambitious than any of us could ever accomplish on our own. And we’ve stood together in times of need, forming an immediate circle of love and support for those in pain. On a weekend when an unthinkable act of terror hit the heart of our community, we knew who would be with us — the partners we’ve come to rely on through the years.

The urgent work of community relations has never been more essential; building bonds so deep and trusting, that the support you need in your darkest moment is there without your ever having to ask; uniting us at a time of rancor and division, and celebrating all that binds us together.

Join our efforts. Invest in building and deepening the relationships we need now more than ever.

With deep appreciation,

Jeremy Burton
Executive Director

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,

Jeremy

Freedom on the Ballot

 

Nahma Nadich

This week: a message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich

Throughout my nineteen years at JCRC, I’ve had many proud moments when we’ve galvanized our community to act on our shared values of equality, justice, and freedom. We’ve participated in efforts to effect change and transform lives. Some of our campaigns have focused on improving the lives of members of our own community; others have been about standing with our brothers and sisters throughout Greater Boston and responding to their needs. One of my proudest moments was when we delivered profound benefits to members of our own community and beyond; when we were part of a successful campaign to secure one of our most fundamental rights – the freedom to marry.

In 2003, we were the first community relations council in the country to advocate for marriage equality, working closely with other Jewish organizations to leverage the influence of our community. Four years earlier, I had joined the staff of JCRC after years of practicing clinical social work in the LGBT community. The challenges my clients faced transcended their own psychological issues; they were up against a society (sometimes including their own families) that all too often denied their basic humanity.  Witnessing the courage and strength they summoned to embrace their identities, build vibrant chosen families and communities, and claim the joy that was rightfully theirs, filled me with awe. And now, I had the rare honor of organizing our community to right historic wrongs and effect systemic change, putting into motion a chain of events that would eventually result in a nationwide freedom to marry.

Successful  movements to effect social change – like the therapeutic work of personal change – begins with stories. We are moved to action, not by facts and figures but by accounts of lived experiences, from people we care about. In 2003, we at JCRC heard such stories, from those among us blocked from public recognition of their loving, committed relationships, and from parents concerned that their children’s dreams would never be realized.  We shared those stories to change hearts and minds, and ultimately, to change the law. And we did so with the broad consensus of the Jewish community and the full support of our Council.

Years later, we heard stories of discrimination, marginalization and assaults, from transgender members of our community and the friends and family who love them. Though the experiences of the trans community is distinct and different, with appallingly high rates of violent victimization, poverty and homelessness, we understood this issue to be resonant with JCRC’s overall commitment to LGBT rights. So once again, with the full endorsement of our Council, we sprang into action. In 2011, collaborating with partners in the Jewish and broader community, we advocated for a state law to add “gender identity” to the state’s non-discrimination laws in housing, employment, and education. And we won. But we knew that more was needed. In 2016 the transgender anti-discrimination bill was signed into law, extending protections for gender identity to any place of public accommodation.

Now those hard-won freedoms are in jeopardy. In just two weeks, we in Massachusetts will be voting on a ballot initiative to protect those freedoms, the first of its kind in the nation. The stakes are high. If the campaign to stoke fears and incite bigotry succeeds, an ominous precedent will be set, likely to unleash similar measures across the country. Putting the rights of a marginalized minority to a popular vote is a dangerous path, one that will inevitably result in a tyranny of the majority.

So we are listening carefully to today’s stories, like this one from a mother fearful for her transgender son’s safety. But change is in the air and thankfully, today’s stories are not only about fear and danger. As our society evolves, we are also starting to see the possibility of a different reality for some of our younger transgender loved ones. In my own congregation, we’re learning together about becoming a truly affirming community, where we welcome our gender non-conforming children and their families and support their joyful participation in the fullness of Jewish life. Protecting the freedoms enshrined into our Commonwealth’s laws is a powerful statement to transgender people and those who love them; ensuring the vibrancy of their futures matters to us all.

How can we ensure that we protect not only our loved ones, but our most cherished values of freedom and dignity? First – vote YES on three. Even before the election, you can join voters across the Commonwealth who are pledging their vote by sending a text message with the phrase “YesOn3” to the phone number 52886, and following the link on your screen (or click here).

Second – tell all your friends to do the same. If the campaign of disinformation opposing this ballot measure gives them pause, ask them to educate themselves on the facts. And join Keshet and Freedom for All Massachusetts for Jewish Community Canvass Day for Trans Rights on Sunday November 4. You’ll be glad that you did.

A final note: Ballot question three is the only one that we at JCRC have endorsed. So we urge you to do your own research on all the others on the ballot.  At a time when our democracy is fraying and voting rights are being challenged, there is no more powerful action we can take as citizens than to exercise our right to be fully informed voters.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

Not shutting up in the face of complexity

Two sets of interactions over the past week have been on my mind.

This past Tuesday night our JCRC network member Israeli-American Council hosted a community meeting regarding ongoing concerns about curriculum standards in Newton Public Schools with regard to Middle East education. In the days leading up to the event I received numerous calls and emails from members of our community urging me to not participate on the panel (which was limited to myself and representatives of three of our member organizations). The argument against my participation, in sum and as these folks put it: That the discussion about this matter over the past six years had been made irreparably toxic through the actions of other, irresponsible people; thus any legitimization of the topic as a matter of interest and concern by us would only serve to advance and amplify the efforts of those extreme actors.

As posted on Twitter from the IAC-hosted community meeting in the “green” room
As posted on Twitter from the IAC-hosted community meeting in the “green” room

On a separate and unrelated matter, I’ve received a volume of communication amplifying a series of editorial columns circulating in recent weeks. The crux of the argument as these folks put it: given that no President of the United States has ever been as completely supportive of the priorities of a sitting Israeli government as the current administration, it behooves Jewish communal leaders - and specifically in their minds, JCRCs - to focus our efforts on thanking the President for his support. We as leaders are being urged to stop criticizing our government on other matters, even those where we have a broad consensus, such as on matters of immigration and refugee policy.

So what is the common thread in these two exchanges, with folks holding wildly different political and world views on totally separate topics? In both, we are being urged to reject complexity and just shut up. In this moment of polarization and oversimplification, we at JCRC are leaning into core principles to guide our work:

Much of our civic debate presents each and every issue as having two opposing and predictable positions, with increasing segmentation of society into two wholly opposed and yet internally fully aligned camps.

We at JCRC choose to examine each issue with the assumption of it having complexity and nuance. We see more than “two sides.” We know that when we allow the public debate to be defined only by those with the most polarized postures yelling the loudest at each other, we do a disservice to ourselves and our community. So, we embrace the complexity. We refuse to walk away from an issue that matters to us just because others behaved badly. And we seek to hold the broad middle, the place where consensuses can exist, and where, in the absence of consensus, at least some bridging of understanding can be built.

We decline to fall prey to the tribal and partisan traps, even as we offer a voice in admittedly politicized debates. We sit on the side of the values and priorities we’ve chosen to advance in the public space.

We call each issue as we see it, and we address  each of them in relationship with those whom with we disagree. If someone - an elected official or anyone else - is taking a position on a policy where we have a consensus in support, we’ll express that support. And when the same actor takes action where we have a consensus in opposition, we won’t be deterred from expressing that opposition. Sometimes that positions us in different places from our friends, and sometimes places us in alignment with those with whom we have deep differences on other issues. But in the end, the voice we bring will be the authentic reflection of our process and our consensus on that specific issue.

More and more we see folks fully align with “our” tribe on all matters and see the “other” tribe as not only wholly wrong but something to be disparaged and demonized. These trends are playing out within our Jewish community as well.

We are called to resist these trends and to side with the tribe of those who are bound by common values, seek to build bridges of understanding, and are willing to embrace complexity. I hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Beyond Books: Partnerships in Literacy and Learning

The route between High Street and Beacon Hill is a familiar and well-worn one for us at JCRC, as so much of our advocacy on this community’s priorities is realized through our close and enduring relationships with our legislative partners. But Boston City Hall is a much less frequent destination, since our dealings with the City of Boston are more limited. So, we were particularly proud to have our contribution to the City recognized last Wednesday when the Boston City Council honored our longtime volunteers from our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition (GBJCL) for Literacy program for their dedication to the schoolchildren of Boston.

The event was a proud display of the strong partnership that our program has enjoyed with the City of Boston for 22 years: connecting Jewish volunteers deeply committed to the success of young students, to Boston Public Schools, where their expertise can be leveraged to support both students and teachers.

The six volunteers representing GBJCL (with a total combined 100 years of dedicated service!) spoke of the profound bonds that they had formed with their students and about the impact of these relationships on their own lives. Florence Coslow, a volunteer with GBJCL throughout the program’s 22 years, proudly pulled out a stack of thank you cards she has received from her students over her decades of service.

GBJCL Volunteer Florence Coslow (center), with her sister (R) and Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George (L)

I was struck by one remarkable story, shared by GBJCL volunteer Kim Meyers. A member of Temple Beth Zion (TBZ) in Brookline, Kim volunteers with her congregation’s tutoring team at The Winship School in Brighton. For 19 of their 20 years, she has been TBZ’s team leader, organizing volunteer schedules with the school and acting as the liaison between the team of volunteers and school administration.

When GBJCL first initiated the partnership between Winship and TBZ, a small collection of books in a basement room at Winship served as the school's library. These books disappeared when the school was renovated, and the Winship school was left without any library at all.

When a new principal came to the school a couple of years later, Kim met with her to tell her about GBJCL and the one-to-one tutoring that volunteers were providing. She seized on this meeting as an opportunity to present the principal with a challenge:

"What this school needs is a library. How can you promote literacy without a library? If you get a librarian, we will build a library for you."  

The principal took Kim up on her offer. Within the year, she had secured the funding to hire a new librarian. Volunteers at TBZ started a book drive and collected a thousand gently-used books. When the books were delivered to the school, Kim had the chance to meet with the newly hired librarian, who presented her with a wish list of books that she had strategically selected for the new library. Kim brought this list back to the synagogue with a new challenge. Could TBZ provide the school with even more new books?

A bar mitzvah student asked for donations of new books from this list, collecting hundreds of brand new books as well as bookshelves. Rabbis at TBZ organized a mitzvah day and over 20 people showed up at the Winship School on a Sunday to build the bookshelves and then, proceeded to cover, label, catalog, and shelve the books.

GBJCL volunteers and the TBZ synagogue community built a brand-new library.

Years later, the library is still thriving and the partnership is still going strong. The TBZ team has continued to donate books to this library. Several bar/bat mitzvah students have collected books for the library as their service projects. In relaying this story, Kim said, “We feel it is important to foster literacy in all the students, not just the ones we tutor.” 

As with so many of our GBJCL tutoring teams, the deep bond formed from one-on-one tutoring blossomed into an entire Jewish community pursuing a shared dream with a neighboring community. We see this again and again as our GBJCL volunteers cultivate relationships throughout Boston, which evolve from supporting individual students to identifying a variety of creative ways to build rich learning environments.

You can be part of creating and strengthening these relationships by getting involved in GBJCL tutoring services or library projects. Please email Rebecca Shimshak, Director of GBJCL, to find out more information.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy