Category Archives: Letter from the Director

It’s Time To Say: #NoHateInTheBayState

This Tuesday, July 18th, the Massachusetts legislature will conduct a public hearing on a bipartisan bill S.1689/H.1685: An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts. Filed by Senator Cynthia Creem, Representatives Paul McMurtry and Steven Howitt this bill is being sponsored by over one-third of the members of the legislature. We at JCRC are proud to be leading a broad coalition in support of this bill.

Some on the far-left who work to demonize Israel and who seek to boycott everything and everyone connected with her are mobilizing a vociferous opposition to this legislation. They claim that this bill, if adopted, would restrict their right to freedom of expression, including boycotting Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here is what the bill would actually do. S.1689/H.1685 requires anyone seeking to do business with the Commonwealth to affirm that they are in compliance with the state’s anti-discrimination laws. In other words, that they do not refuse to employ, serve, or rent to people based on their immutable characteristics – including nationality. It also requires that these contractors affirm that they will not categorically refuse to do business with someone based on those same characteristics – including nationality.

Basically if your business boycotts the government of China because of human rights abuses in its prisons, you can still do business with the Commonwealth. What you cannot do is refuse to do business with someone because they are a Chinese national – and still do business with the government of our Commonwealth.

Nothing in this legislation denies or restricts an individual’s right to boycott a foreign government or to participate in a political or social movement. What it does is say that when participation in a political boycott crosses the line and starts targeting individuals based on who they are and what they cannot change, our Commonwealth will utilize its procurement power to make its own view known: Discrimination, by any name and in all its many forms and window dressings, is abhorrent and antithetical to the policy of our state and will not be subsidized with taxpayer funds.  That opponents of this bill are so vociferous in their opposition tells you something. They aren’t defending their right to protest the Occupation. They aren’t even defending their right to engage in economic warfare against Israel and to deny Israel’s right to exist.

No. This time they are fighting for the right to discriminate against Israelis.

Massachusetts’ civic leaders, and JCRC’s network alongside them, have boldly led the nation in rejecting bias and bigotry in so many areas in recent years – standing up for the transgender community, for women, for the disabled, and for immigrants. Now they have a responsibility to reject this kind of discrimination as well.

Because I have the privilege of taking legislators, including nearly one-third of the current members, on study tours to Israel – a privilege that is not available to lobbyists – I will not be testifying on Tuesday in support of this bill. But JCRC has endorsed S.1689/H.1685 and members of our leadership will be testifying in support. And I will be there for the hearing as leaders from across our network, along with our allies within and beyond the Jewish community, come together and urge the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight to favorably report this bill to the full Legislature.

In October 2015 our Legislature strongly demonstrated their commitment to the Massachusetts-Israel relationship and rejected the movement to isolate and demonize Israel when they unanimously approved a resolution, sponsored by Senator Michael Moore and Representative Jeff Roy, to underscore the depth of connection between the Commonwealth and Israel.  Now, we are asking them to demonstrate their commitment to preventing discrimination against Israelis who seek to do business with our Commonwealth, and who ought to be valued and supported as part of the fabric of our civil society.

We hope that you will join us in this effort by attending the hearing this coming Tuesday and filling out the action alert urging the Committee to favorably report the bill out of committee.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Shattered but Not Broken

Early Wednesday morning a carefully planned day was disrupted by an event whose urgency would necessitate JCRC’s immediate attention and action: as Holocaust survivors and their children across our community awoke, they would learn about the desecration of a sacred space – the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM) – on the morning news.

By now you are no doubt aware that a pane of glass – etched with numbers the Nazis carved into the arms of their victims – had been shattered in an act of vandalism during the night. For JCRC – charged with the responsibility of convening our community together at this site and ensuring its centrality as a conduit for education and the transmission of memory –  several critical questions arose. How best to support our community in the face of this trauma? How to begin the process of healing? How to be assured that justice would be done, enabling us to move forward as a stronger and more united community?

The answer was one that defines community relations: reach out to our network, rely on the strengths of each of our member organizations, look to the relationships we and they have built over years, and speak with one voice as one community in the public square.

By the time most Bostonians woke up, our team was working with many of our members, in particular CJP, ADL, and the American Association of Holocaust Survivors, along with many individual leaders, and particularly those who led in the building of the Memorial over two decades ago. As a collective, we had more information, more resources, and more contacts with public leaders than any of us individually could possibly have. Together, we had a plan.

By the time most Bostonians arrived at work, we knew where the replacement glass panes were stored. We knew how the Boston Police Department and Commissioner Evans were handling the investigation. We knew that Mayor Walsh was personally involved and that District Attorney Conley was preparing to arraign a suspect in custody.

And we knew that in concert with our various organizations and leaders, we needed to demonstrate our strength and resiliency, to stand with our public officials in sharing this information with our community, and most significantly, to assert that while glass had been shattered, we were not broken.

By 9:30 am we released an advisory, contacted and briefed more of our members, and encouraged them and our partners to get the word out. By 11:00 am we were gathered, some 200 of us, together with Mayor Walsh, the DA, many members of the City Council, interfaith partners, and most importantly, leaders from the Holocaust survivor community.

We stood before the shattered glass in front of a bank of cameras – virtually the entire Boston media and many from afar – to support each other and to stand as one. We heard from Izzy Arbeiter, community leader and survivor of multiple concentration camps, who bore numbers on his arm like those on the shattered memorial. Izzy told us of being woken by his sobbing wife, whose inability to speak alarmed him into thinking that perhaps something tragic happened to a family member. We heard a resounding and unwavering message of support from Mayor Walsh and a message on behalf of Governor Baker who was unable to be in Boston this morning. We had a briefing from DA Conley, with his assurance that justice would be done. Thanks to the witnesses who fulfilled their civic responsibility by reaching out to law enforcement, and thanks to CJP’s 24-hour video monitoring, the case was already moving swiftly. And thanks to the foresight of the community leaders who established the NEHM, replacement glass would be on its way, to be installed in a rededication ceremony in the very near future. Speaker after speaker confirmed the most important message of all; that we were stronger than the person who broke the glass, that the sanctity of the Memorial would be restored, and the values of our community reaffirmed.

As the news broke, we were flooded with messages of concern and support from our interfaith partners. As the day went on we heard from concerned citizens, Memorial neighbors, and our own community members, with offers to help with the repairs.

None of this would have been possible without the strength of our network. None of this would have come together so quickly, and smoothly, without the relationships cultivated by our network of member organizations over the years. None of this would have happened if we didn’t have an organized Jewish community, committed to acting together and speaking with one voice on matters of gravest concern to us all.

I invite you to join me in making a gift to support the NEHM’s repairs (click the banner above). I invite you to join me at the rededication effort in the coming weeks (details to follow). And I invite you to draw – as I do – strength and resiliency from the reminder this week that we are stronger together and more powerful than the sum of our parts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

When Our Community Comes Together

With the start of summer this week, I find myself looking back at what we’ve achieved together in the past six months.

I’m particularly proud of one aspect of our work, specifically at JCRC and across many institutions of Boston’s organized Jewish community as a whole. Work that has engaged a broad swath of our community, people whose commitment has only deepened as time goes on.

In the cold days of January, following the first round of Presidential orders regarding immigrants and refugees, we were the first local Jewish community in the country to speak forcefully with one voice. JCRC reached out to our community’s religious, philanthropic, civic and human service organizations – more than 40 Boston Jewish organizations – to say as one that these actions were unjust, and would inevitably cause anxiety, pain and anguish throughout immigrant communities and our nation. We stood together on the side of empathy and religious tolerance and we urged compassion for those seeking safety, regardless of their faith or country of origin.

Of course, the commitment to this work didn’t start in January. This statement amplified years of powerful work, rooted in the Jewish experience and our values. Jewish Vocational Service was already serving some five hundred refugee clients in Boston. Jewish Family Service of Metrowest was already leading a collaboration with many of our area synagogues to resettle refugee families. Several of our member agencies are active in the Mass Immigrants and Refugees Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition. We at JCRC were proud to draft a resolution, together with HIAS, on welcoming refugees that was adopted as national policy for the Jewish community relations field in 2015.

This spring, 98 years and one day after my own – then four- year-old -- grandfather, Jose Casillas Sandoval, immigrated by crossing the Rio Grande River with his parents, I was honored to stand in front of the State House with our partners at MIRA and hundreds of Jewish community members to rally in support of the Safe Communities Act; legislation to protect the civil rights, safety and well-being of all Massachusetts residents by drawing a clear line between immigration enforcement and public safety. I was proud to tell my grandfather’s story, and also to talk about CJP’s partnership with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston which established the CJP Legal Aid Fund for Immigrants, to address the urgent needs of local immigrants, including some who have lived in our area for decades.

The bill continues to attract significant support, particularly from much of the Jewish community – including our members and partners at the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, Jewish Vocational Service and the Workmen’s Circle – who packed a hearing on June 9th amidst stiff political opposition (you can read my testimony here).

In addition to our continued advocacy for passage of the Safe Communities Act, we’ve immersed ourselves in organizing a network of our Jewish communities – synagogues and young adult groups – to stand with families at risk of deportation. In partnership with organizations like the MA Communities Action Network (MCAN), JCRC has been organizing multi-faith clusters of congregations around Eastern Massachusetts to respond to the urgent needs of these families – families desperate to stay safe from threat, families in our local congregations, families connected to leaders inside our congregations, families searching wherever they can for a lifeline.

Together we have established five geographic clusters, each with a minimum of six congregations. More than a dozen synagogue communities with over 250 trained volunteers have committed to offering a variety of forms of support – including in some cases supporting sanctuary churches responding rapidly to a diverse set of needs of immigrant families and participating in broader state-wide legislative advocacy. We have had the privilege to create new partnerships and work with people like Gaby Chavez and Nestor Pimienta – two phenomenal organizers and recent graduates of Harvard Divinity School, who you can read about in a Boston Globe article this week.

All of this work is a reflection of the very best of our community: Acting together on long and deeply held values; each of our institutions bringing our unique capacities and institutional roles; working in authentic partnerships beyond the Jewish community; and being willing to act boldly in the face of a uniquely challenging moment.

As we begin our summer at JCRC and our planning for the coming years, I know that there are many challenges ahead. But I draw strength and resiliency by looking back and knowing what we are capable of when we are at our best. And I am grateful to be part of this organization and this community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Building Possibility Through Teen Service

The story below about Mr. Clark is just one example of why I am so pleased to tell you about the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation, as they are matching 100% of every dollar donated to TELEM before June 30th, 2017 (up to $30,000). We hope to reach this goal with your help!

 

At 94 years of age, Mr. Branson Clark is as vigorous and engaging as they come. When TELEM teen service program staff visited Mr. Clark in his Jamaica Plain home last winter, he showed them how he ‘jogs’ up and down his hallway to stay limber in the cold and snowy weather. His jog isn’t merely a slow run; it is a rapid, high, knee-pumping activity, with the intensity of an NFL running back in training. It was a remarkable display of fitness and strength.

But notwithstanding his admirable fitness, Mr. Clark was unable to maintain the upkeep of his home on his own. Without the resources to hire contractors to repair unsafe conditions, his ability to live independently was in jeopardy. Enter a new partnership between the JCRC’s TELEM and Rebuilding Together Boston (RTB). RTB harnesses the skill and muscle-power of volunteers to help seniors and vulnerable persons live safely in their homes. TELEM teen participants – with their extensive experience repairing damaged homes in New Orleans, New Jersey, and New York – wanted to provide similar assistance to Boston residents. Mr. Clark’s house was the first of this type of rehab project in Boston, and the partnership with RTB made this vital work possible.

On an unseasonably chilly day in March, as part of the South Area’s CHAI Mitzvah Day, 34 volunteers from synagogues in Sharon, Randolph, Brockton, Canton, and Easton lent their skills and brawn to a wide variety of projects to make Mr. Clark’s home a more safe and livable place. Adult and teen volunteers – including a crew of 12 from Temple Sinai Sharon’s youth group – built railings, repaired walls and doors, painted trim, installed wallboard, and cleaned lots of yard debris. The youngest volunteer, about to become a b’nai mitzvah, donated $70 of his winter snow-shoveling earnings towards the purchase of materials for Mr. Clark’s home. He and his dad – a professional contractor - worked side by side for four hours to rebuild a wall badly damaged by water leaks.
 

  

  

(L-R) Mitzvah Day Participants; Teens from the TELEM program; Mr. Branson Clarke with TELEM teen; Mr. Clark (center) with Volunteers from the Temple Israel, Sharon, Brotherhood

By the end of the day, many necessary projects had been completed, the dumpster was full, and Mr. Clark was only too grateful for what had been accomplished. The South Area volunteers, with TELEM in the lead, enabled Mr. Clark to continue to live as he desired; safely and independently in his own home.

As we complete TELEM’s 12th year, we’re proud to have engaged over 8,000 Jewish teens in similar projects; bettering the lives of our neighbors in Greater Boston, animating the values of chessed and tzedek, and learning what it means to be engaged citizens and Jews in service to others.

 

 

Through your gift and its match from the Jim Joseph Foundation, you will allow JCRC to sustain TELEM’s current model and expand service opportunities – both on-going and one-time programs – for Boston area teens. We hope you will make your donation today, and enable more stories like Mr. Clark’s come to fruition.
Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

P.S. - This is a time-sensitive match for TELEM through the Jim Joseph Foundation, so please consider making a contribution today. You can make your tax-deductible donation to JCRC:

  • Online by selecting TELEM under “Gift Designation”
  • By check payable to: JCRC, 126 High Street, Boston, MA 02110
    ATTN: Tasha Lipsky - please note TELEM on the check's memo line
  • With a CJP designation
  • Through a donor advised fund

Adapting to Action

The Jewish community relations field has been around for a long time. JCRCs across the nation were by and large founded in the mid 1940’s. The notion was that if the volunteer leaders and executives of a diverse network of organizations could unite and speak as one with high public officials, publishers, heads of churches, etc… then we as a Jewish communal enterprise could advance our shared public agenda. The good men of the town – and it was and still is, unfortunately, largely men – would act effectively, and usually quietly and behind the scenes, on our collective behalf.

Things have changed over the years and those JCRCs that have adapted with the times have thrived. Here in Boston one major shift, some 18 years ago, was our decision to invest in interfaith multi-issue, congregation-based community organizing. Our leadership at the time rightly saw this as an opportunity and a vehicle; to broaden Jewish action on a public agenda by mobilizing the power of the masses in synagogues, while strengthening community relations by forging deep connections among those congregations and other communities, clergy, and public officials. We saw those connections bear fruit as we stood side by side with our partners in the fights to secure healthcare and marriage rights for all in Massachusetts. Congregational organizing became and continues to be a key method and “technology” in our approach to community relations work and broader impact in Boston, our commonwealth, and our country.

Today we need to adapt once more – to identify and embrace new methods and technologies that respond powerfully to the changes in our communities and in our world. Most of us are no longer “members” of traditional “brick-and-mortar” Jewish institutions, including synagogues. Identifying and “doing” Jewish is still incredibly important to folks, but we need new models and tools for involving them in collective expressions of our shared voice. Further, we’re now in a time in which public action is proliferating in new ways, including online.

So once again, JCRC is adapting.

This March, we were privileged to receive a grant from the Boston Foundation as part of their response to the current political and social environment. They focused their support on organizations working to protect the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable communities. At that time, I said that this support “will have a direct and profound impact on the participation of the Jewish community in Greater Boston at this critical time.”

As a result of that grant, this week, we launched Alert2Action, our new, easy-to-use platform that allows you to get involved in the range of campaigns we’re working on by quickly sending e-mails, calling your legislators, and speaking out on social media; all right from your smart phone. We have already built a few Alert2Action campaigns related to key dimensions of our current work and reflecting the diverse interests of our community.

  • If you want to stand with our immigrant and Muslim neighbors, including taking action today in support of the Safe Communities Act which is having its legislative hearing as you receive this, click here or text IMMIGRANTS to 52886.
  • If you want to stand up to discrimination against Israelis and all people, and support state legislation that would prohibit discrimination in state contracts, click here or text STAND-UP to 52866
  • And if you want to advocate for smart criminal justice reform, including legislation that would reform our use of mandatory minimum sentencing, click here or text SMART REFORM to 52866

When you send a text, you will receive an immediate response with a link, allowing you to send individual emails to your elected officials. You’ll also be signed up to stay up-to-date on these campaigns and future ones, with more opportunities to take action in the weeks and months ahead.

This is a time that calls for innovation in our field. At JCRC of Greater Boston, we embrace the need for change. We have to stay nimble and responsive in a political environment that is making new and unexpected demands of all of us. And yet, some things remain constant, like advancing our collective values in the public square with one united and powerful voice. We remain committed to providing the technology that amplifies the individual voices of our community through collective action, enabling us to have more impact as we stand with our vulnerable neighbors under attack. Together, we will protect our precious democracy. All of us, together, can be a strong, connected, and empowered Jewish community. We can effectively meet the challenges of our times as we build on the foundation that the good men of Boston envisioned some 70 years ago.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Because All Children are Our Responsibility 

As we celebrate the twentieth year of the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy, we also celebrate the values that inspire our work. Values such as:

Tikvah – creating hope, including for youth and their future.

Tzelem Elohim – believing that all our children are created equally in the divine image, and;

Areyvut – our sense of mutual responsibility, including to all our neighbors’ children.

These values have inspired us to connect volunteer tutors to kids, and they inspire all the work that we at JCRC are proud to do every day.

They inform the three abiding imperatives that drive our commitment to the relationship building, partnerships and advocacy that define community relations work:

  1. We believe in the promise of America, in the hope and potential of our nation, despite our challenges, and in the idea that our nation is at its best when we are creating opportunity and equality for all who live here.
  2. We believe in the national hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people, in our collective future and the contributions we have made and will make to the world.  And those aspirations include a vibrant future for the state of the Jewish people, Israel.
  3. And we believe that, despite whatever differences we have within our own community, we have to work together; because we cannot achieve our hopes alone. And, we have to work in the public square of civil society to build support for our priorities and our shared values.

This is why JCRC, as a broad network including 42 organizations, partnering with synagogues, rabbis and community leaders, each leading in their own way reflecting their unique skills and passions – comes together as one community, working for the brightest possible future, including for our own children and the children of our neighbors.

   

Clockwise from top left: JCRC Celebrates Honoree Mark Friedman with Barry Shrage, CJP President; Mark’s tutee, Ohrenberger School 4th grader Adam, speaks at JCRC Celebrates; JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton; Event Chair and Co-Chair Stacey Bloom (left) and Debbie Isaacson

Because every child has the potential to contribute to the strength of our nation. That is why earlier this year we brought together seventeen of the most influential Jewish organizations in Boston to say that we must keep our doors open to immigrants and refugees, and that we will protect and support our neighbors regardless of their immigration status.

Because every child, every girl - and boys too - should know that if they study hard and work an honest day they’ll be treated fairly. That is why we worked to pass the Equal Pay Law last summer.

Because every child should be able to go to their synagogue, their mosque or to a JCC without fear. That is why we advocate that our government provide the resources necessary to ensure the safety and security of non-profit institutions.

Because every child should be able to follow their passions – sports, arts, whatever - and be able to go to public venues knowing that they will be welcome. That is why we fought to pass the Transgender Public Accommodation Law and we will defend it if challenged on the ballot next year.

And because the children of Israel should have a future of peace in a Jewish and democratic state. They should be able to live in co-existence with their neighbors, and with the security that all people deserve.

That is why we engage civic and religious leaders in support of Israel. Over the past five years we’ve taken over fifty Christian clergy and civic leaders and fully one-third of the Massachusetts legislature to Israel to deepen their appreciation of the Israel we love and the people we believe in.

That is why we work to prevent the demonization of Israel in Boston and around the world. And it is why we build support for Israelis and Palestinians who are coming together on the ground to create the conditions for a future of two-states living side by side in peace.

We do all this rooted in the same values that inspire us to reach out to young adults, to synagogues, to student groups and others, inviting them to do service – in soup kitchens and youth programs, with seniors and with kids needing tutoring.

Because every child deserves a quality education and the chance to acquire the skills needed for success. And we believe it is our responsibility to help those children realize their dreams. That is why, twenty years ago, with the leadership of so many of you, JCRC established the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy, and it is why we are so proud to celebrate this and all of our work.

Thank you to all of you for your partnership. You make this work possible.

And thank you for allowing JCRC to be an effective vehicle to offer an inspiring vision of our Jewish community’s values in the public square every single day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

p.s. I’ll be off next week. On behalf of everyone at JCRC I wish you a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend and Chag Shavuot Sameach.

p.s.s. See photos and more photos from JCRC Celebrates on Facebook!

Honoring 20 Years of the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy

This coming Wednesday, JCRC will celebrate the 20th anniversary of our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL). As we honor some very special leaders who helped us reach this momentous occasion, we also reflect on the thousands of community members who’ve made such a difference in children’s lives through this initiative.

The GBJCL team leaders are largely unsung heroes within our volunteer pool. These hardworking and dedicated volunteers are at the nexus of relationships between each synagogue and its partner school. They go above and beyond to cultivate the partnerships, laying the groundwork for fulfilling volunteer experiences for all of our tutors.

Two of their stories:

For seventeen years, Joan Beer of Temple Emanuel in Newton has been a volunteer and GBJCL team leader. In that capacity, Joan has worked closely with school liaison Joan Dill at the Beethoven-Ohrenberger School in Boston, to match over 30 tutors with young students. In addition to ensuring that each tutor is supported in providing ongoing individual attention to their students, “the Joans” launched the school’s first book club, spurring spirited conversations about each special book selection, and inspiring the love of reading.

“What brought me to tutoring was a basic love of children. I always wanted to be a teacher,” Joan Beer said. “Just knowing you can have an impact on one person by assisting them and taking an interest in them I think is very important.” Communications Joan receives from former students confirm the positive and enduring influence she has had on them. One former student recently wrote:

“I hope the year has been treating you well.  I am now in my sophomore year at Boston Latin Academy and when looking back, you are one of the people that has brought me to where I am now.”

Joan will be stepping down as team leader at the end of this year. Her dedication and commitment to the school, the students, and GBJCL has inspired a new generation of team leaders who not only feel compelled to give back to their community through service but have the energy and passion to inspire their peers to do the same.

One of these up and coming team leaders is Liza Hadley, who began tutoring while an intern at the law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish. Their team uses their lunch hour to volunteer one on one with students at the Condon School in South Boston. Liza was so impacted by the experience that she decided to work with us to bring the program to her community at Boston University Law School.

Liza has strong ties to Boston through her grandparents who immigrated here after surviving the Holocaust. Liza reflects that “a lot of things hit home” for her as she considered her involvement in the program. Her grandparents instilled in her a love of reading as well as a deep appreciation for education, since they themselves were denied that opportunity. Through GBJCL, Liza is able to ensure that their legacy lives on.

The next chapter of Liza’s involvement in GBJCL has just begun. Liza has engaged the Jewish Law Students Association, the Women's Law Association, and the Public Interest Project at Boston University to begin mobilizing volunteers. GBJCL has paired them up with the Curley School in Jamaica Plain and with second grade teacher Emily Beck. Liza and Emily will be working closely together over the next several months and aim to have a team of volunteers with Liza leading the way for next year.

GBJCL embodies a Jewish tradition of taking responsibility mi dor l’dor, from one generation to the next – volunteers passing on reading skills to students, and volunteers passing on leadership to volunteers - like links in a chain, becoming stronger as we move forward.  The expertise and commitment of those who have gone before have laid a strong foundation, one which will continue to flourish in the years ahead.

As we begin the next 20 years for GBJCL, we are grateful to the new generation of team leaders who are stepping up not only to ensure the continued vitality of our program, but also to collaborate with us to expand our model and extend this unique opportunity to more volunteers. To reach community members interested in volunteering who may not be able to commit to a full year of service, we are now partnering with universities, corporations and other non-profits to design new models of tutoring.

I hope you will join us on Wednesday, May 24th at JCRC Celebrates to learn more about our incredible volunteers and to honor one special volunteer, Mark Friedman, whose dedication and commitment knows no bounds. With your support, we can engage more leaders like Joan, Liza, and Mark to make an impact on our community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Out of Many One: Stories from Boston’s Muslim Community

In December, in the wake of the election, JCRC mobilized synagogues and Jewish organizations across greater Boston to participate in a gathering at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, as one united community across religious, racial, and socio-economic lines. Our community came together to reaffirm a commitment to our shared values and to each other. Organized by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), the event, Out of Many One, featured several speakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Marty Walsh, who offered words of support.

For many of the 2,600 participants, the highlight of the evening came in a quieter moment, when they were invited to turn to someone they did not know and share their stories. They learned about the dreams and hopes of their neighbors throughout Greater Boston. And they heard the fears and vulnerabilities experienced in this moment, most acutely from Muslim community members, anxious and uncertain about their future in America. These moments of human connection, when we bridge the differences that too often divide us, when we listen to each other’s experience with open hearts and minds – these are the building blocks of community relations.

That memorable evening was the catalyst for an ongoing GBIO Out Of Many One initiative; a series of interfaith encounters planned in collaboration with members of the Muslim community, to hear their stories of what they are experiencing in this moment and to learn how best to ally with them. The first of these gatherings was held a few weeks ago at First Church, Cambridge; a congregation whose pastor, the Rev. Dan Smith, is a close friend as well as a trusted partner of JCRC and the co-chair of our last clergy trip to Israel.  Among the stories shared that afternoon:

  • A Muslim family, citizens and long term residents of the United States, flew home to Logan Airport after a recent vacation. To their shock and horror, they were detained. They were interrogated about a wide variety of topics, including their religious practices and who they voted for in the recent presidential election. They were required to turn over their cell phones for the immigration agents to pore through their communications before they were finally released, hours later.
  • A fifteen-year-old of Somali origin described how her Boston public school had been welcoming. But on her walk to and from school every day, she was harassed, heckled, and even called a terrorist. After completing her freshman year, she chose to be home schooled out of concerns for her personal safety.

I encourage you to read this heartbreaking account of Dr. Nassrene Elmadhun, the wife of a friend and partner of ours who has been a leader in fostering Muslim-Jewish understanding.  The chief surgical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess, she shares her painful decision to stop wearing hijab after a man threatened her and her toddler:

For Elmadhun, wearing hijab for most of her life was “a positive and powerful message, allowing me to recognize that I am not just what I appear to be, but I’m a human being who should be valued for who I am and what I have to offer.”

And though she does feel relieved in many ways, and feels safer with her son outside, “I’m also sad that I was driven to this,” she says. “I’m sad about what it means about our religious freedoms in general in our country, I’m sad that I had to give it up. I was kind of forced into this. It wasn’t really a choice.”

For JCRC, our community relations mandate – and our history as Jews – calls on us to listen and to bear witness to these stories of others experiencing hatred and fear. In doing so, we are renewed in our determination to always work to protect and defend our constitutional freedoms under duress – including freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. And, we are reminded that the most effective way to do so is by standing in solidarity with other Americans in pursuit of a common cause.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

p.s. If you would like to learn about future Out of Many One programs and other efforts by JCRC and our partners to confront hatred and bigotry, sign up here to receive notifications.

Questions We Ask Ourselves in a Time of Disruption

On a recent Friday afternoon we received an urgent request; could we sign on to an interfaith coalition to defend the Johnson Amendment?

If you’re scratching your head right now, you’re not alone. The Johnson Amendment is not exactly a household term. Enacted in 1954, and named for its author, then Senator Lyndon Johnson, the amendment bans religious institutions and other tax exempt institutions from participating in political campaigns or supporting candidates for elected office. The amendment enjoyed bipartisan support in a Republican controlled Congress, and was signed into law by President Eisenhower.

Since that time, the firewall between religious institutions and electoral campaigns has been accepted as a norm. Until now. As part of the larger debate about the tax code, and in the aftermath of the President’s campaign pledge supporting repeal, the well-established law is now being challenged like never before.

Whether you oppose or support this change, make no mistake: Johnson repeal will have an important impact on the norms of our nation’s politics, on our institutions and our communities. Repeal would transform the role of faith institutions in partisan politics. It would fundamentally alter the experience people have at services. It would create profound new challenges for clergy and it would turn houses of worship into major political action committees

We were being asked to weigh in on something we hadn’t directly discussed in sixty years, but with resounding consequences for our community today. And, we needed to act by the close of business that day.

Now, we have a process for decisions like these. We consider who the ‘ask’ is coming from. We ask– to the extent possible and relevant – what our member organizations are thinking. We confer with the chair of our policy committee and our board leadership.

Normally, we also check in with our existing coalitions and see what they are prioritizing.

But with the Johnson Amendment, as with an increasing number of issues, there was no existing coalition. Unlike sustained partnerships that we’ve nurtured and invested in over time – on such critical and timely issues as immigration, gun violence prevention, or health care – some of the transformational policy issues we’re now confronting haven’t been on the front-burner in generations.

We haven’t, since the 1960’s, had a President who rejected the norm of disclosing tax returns or providing even a modicum of personal financial transparency. This has an impact on trust in government and leaders. We haven’t (since ever?) had a White House that openly considers a constitutional amendment to weaken free speech protections enshrined in our Bill of Rights. That impacts our political discourse.

Whatever your opinion on these matters – and I should add that we at JCRC have not yet formally weighed in on these last two examples - we are at a disruptive moment as a society. That requires us to engage in disruptive thinking about how and where we engage. And in this context, we’re asking new questions about many issues:

What are we called to do in response to a transformational moment in American life, as the boundaries of what is considered possible and up for debate are shifting every day?

How much should we be limiting ourselves to our established priorities? How much must we challenge ourselves to step beyond our existing coalitions? And how do we take on these new challenges while staying committed to our enduring priorities?

On that Friday afternoon in April, we decided to join our members at the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as our colleagues at the JCRC in Washington, DC and a total of ninety-nine faith institutions opposing repeal of the Johnson Amendment.  And, yesterday, the President signed an executive order that essentially directs the I.R.S. not to enforce this law.

As we weigh in on the myriad new issues popping up weekly if not daily, we’ll continue to chart new territory and we’ll continue to ask key questions.

Where do we want to see our Jewish community taking action in this moment? When do we think that a distinct Jewish voice is needed? Where do we think JCRC, as the representative of the Boston area organized Jewish community, can and should make an impact?

Simply put: What does JCRC’s core commitment - to protecting and strengthening our constitutional democracy and the freedoms that come with it - require of us in this moment?

We look forward to hearing from you as we continue these timely and important conversations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Celebrating Israel’s Independence with Hope

On Monday we will commemorate Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. On Tuesday we will celebrate Yom Ha’AtzMa’ut, the 69th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Over the coming months we will mark many important anniversaries in the story of the Jewish state: in June, the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War - that moment of existential threat to Israel’s survival, the unification of Jerusalem, with consequences and complications that continue to unfold; in August, the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress; in November, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 70th anniversary of the United Nations vote to partition the Palestine Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

Among the actions taken by the First Zionist Congress was the adoption of Hatikvah (The Hope) as the anthem of the Zionist movement. Fittingly, Hatikvah became the national anthem of the nascent state, the embodiment of the hopes and longings of so many generations of Jews. In 2017, in what do we root our hopes for Israel’s future? For me, two sources immediately come to mind. First, I draw hope from my awareness of how very brief Israel’s story as a state has been, along with the realization that true nation building is a slow and arduous process, with so much potential still to be realized:

In the grand scheme of things, sixty-nine years is barely a moment in the life of a nation. We tend to forget that; living in the United States as we approach 250 years of our own independence. And for the Jewish people it is barely a blip in the heart-beat of a nation that spans over three millennia. Israel is just beginning its story as a modern state.

When we as Americans consider the project of building a constitutional liberal democracy, we return to our foundational language: “in order to form a more perfect union.” More being the essential term. Never perfect, always striving, even sometimes taking one step forward and one (or more) steps back along that journey.

For Israel as a still young nation, as for any nation, we consider both the journey and the destination. Israel’s destination remains rooted in the inspiring vision of its own declaration of independence. The words written in 1949 sing across the years with a vision and an aspiration for a state with full equality for all its inhabitants, safeguarding the holy places of all faiths, open as a refuge to Jews around the world. It is an Israel that extends a hand of peace to its neighbors and is prepared to join in common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East. It is a nation that invites the Jewish people around the world to join in the project of realizing our age old dreams.

And, second, I draw hope from the citizens of Israel who are living and building that vision every day:

I celebrate the people of Israel that I have – in my travels - come to know and to place my faith in. People like Sara Weill and Rabbi Betzalel Cohen who are working to create and advance a vision of Jerusalem’s future as a community of all its residents: Haredi and secular, Jewish and Arab, straight and LGBT. People like Dr. Dalia Fadila, dean of al-Qasemi College, who is investing in Israeli-Arab girls’ educational preparedness to succeed in a shared society. I place my hope in women like Aliza Lavie and Rachel Azaria, both of whom came to prominence as social activists and visionaries of the future of the Orthodox community and who are rising to the national stage as members of the Knesset. And I place my hope in people like Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a settler who is working with his Palestinian neighbors to foster a movement that builds understanding and respect for the lived experiences of both peoples and pursues a vision of peace for all.

Every day, these and so many other people across Israel, of all faiths and all communities, are striving to achieve a more perfect realization of the aspirations expressed sixty-nine years ago next week. I celebrate their nation’s independence and the journey we are on together. I invite you to join me in doing so.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jeremy

P.S. In the coming months there will be many opportunities to celebrate and to reflect, to honor the importance of these anniversaries and to consider the meaning of these events for us today. I encourage and invite you to participate in these activities, including this coming Wednesday when the JCC of Greater Boston and CJP’s CommUNITY Dialogue (of which JCRC is a partner) are sponsoring a discussion on Israel: 50 Years after the 1967 War including a lineup of incredible and diverse speakers.

Note: This post also appears on Times of Israel.