Category Archives: Letter from the Director

This Anti-Semitism. And This Anti-Semitism. And Us.

The next two statements will each annoy, at various levels, some part of the organized Jewish community that is represented within JCRC:

  1. Rising anti-Semitism and its increasing mainstream toleration on the left in the United States and around the world is a serious concern that we need to name and address as a community.
  2. Rising anti-Semitism and its increasing mainstream toleration on the right in the United States and around the world is a serious concern that we need to name and address as a community.

Barely a day goes by that someone within our community isn’t raising one of these concerns to me. I share them both.

Rarely does that same person raise the other concern. More often than not, that person tends to identify themselves with a world-view sitting in partisan opposition to where they articulate the problem coming from. Simply put, we are a community divided; not in our concern about rising anti-Semitism but in our lack of shared understanding about which forms of it are of consequence and concern for us.

And too often, rather than agreeing on the multiple threats facing us and collectively heeding the call to address them, we allow ourselves to be splintered as we argue amongst ourselves about which anti-Semitism is worse.

Like many of us who sit at the center of our communal politics and debates, I tend to come down on the side of Elu, v’Elu, This and This (to poorly re-purpose the rabbis of the Talmud). Cannot both be true? Cannot both forms of rising anti-Semitism be a threat at the same time?

It ought not to be a partisan nor controversial statement within our Jewish community to say that we face an existential threat if left-wing denial of our national identity as a Jewish people is normalized.  Or that dismissing the fact of our people’s historical origins in and enduring connection to our homeland is inherently anti-Semitic. And yes, that this ideology and the conclusions it draws threaten the safety and the future of the world’s largest Jewish community.

It ought not to be a partisan nor controversial statement within our Jewish community to say that there is an existential threat if right-wing denial of the equality of individuals and ours as Jews is normalized. Or that the advance of a politics of white supremacy and racial nationalism, of “blood and soil,” that places blame on the international and cosmopolitan Jew, puts at risk everything we’ve achieved through enlightened liberal democracy. And yes, that we’ve seen this before.

We, who strive to reflect the broad center of our community, must commit ourselves to confronting the existential threat from both extremes of the political spectrum. We can and should debate strategies for confronting them, and even weigh the best use of our finite resources in doing so, but we dare not diminish either as a real and significant threat.

The need to bridge our differences and uphold our responsibility for confronting both these threats is all the more urgent precisely because our fractured communal conversation results in our being less effective than we need to be in combating both. My own sense is that the most effective members of our community to confront the left-wing threat would be those who themselves authentically sit within the progressive world. And, conversely, the most effective voices against the right-wing threat are those of us who sit comfortably in conservative spaces. I tend to think that those speaking out against anti-Semitism from across a political aisle aren’t terribly effective speaking to an audience that they don’t particularly respect or understand on other matters. But those who’ve acted courageously in holding their own ideological peers accountable – and often enduring inordinate online abuse as a result – have inspired awe and admiration.

At times like this I think of that Nazi propaganda poster displaying “the Jew as centipede” crawling over the globe. One eye of this caricatured “international Jew” has a dollar sign; the Jew as capitalist. The other eye has a hammer and sickle; the Jew as communist. If the worst of the worst could paint us, in one fell swoop, as a threat from the left and the right, then surely we can name the threat to us today from both the left and the right.

This and this. Both must be fought. And we must all be in this together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Putting Justice in the Criminal Justice System

In our inception, we at JCRC have known from our own history in Boston that the criminal justice system is not always just.

Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon’s “The Death of an American Jewish Community” chronicles the period in the 1940s when Jewish teens experienced regular assaults by Irish gangs, often fueled by the anti-Semitic radio diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin. But following the street violence, Jewish youth were victimized once again by the police and justice system, who too often turned a blind eye to the assaults.

The ADL kept scrupulous records of the confrontations, documenting the lackadaisical response of the police to the frequent attacks on these Jewish teens. But in the infrequent cases when the Jewish youth prevailed over their assailants, the Jews were vigorously prosecuted.  The targeting of powerless Jews both on the street and in the courts served as a wakeup call to the Jewish community to mobilize and organize – leading to the founding of the Jewish Community Council (as we were then named).

Our collective experience of a failing justice system, along with the development of our commitment to civil rights for all who live in this nation, have developed within us an enduring commitment to advocating for a fair and equitable justice system. And we have turned our attention to a current crisis of epic proportions; the rampant criminalization of people of color.

It is hard to overstate the devastating toll this has had on communities of color, in perpetuating intergenerational poverty, income inequality, and family instability. When over 27 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison, then our entire society is at risk. In Massachusetts, where Latinos are 4.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites – the highest disparity rate in the nation – and Blacks are 7.5 times more likely, we are called upon on to act (Sentencing Project).

Over a year ago, JCRC set about to address with renewed vigor this civil rights issue of our day, one aptly characterized as “The New Jim Crow.” Our Council invited policy experts to provide guidance and identify strategic levers for change. Last winter the Council discussed and endorsed a set of policy recommendations to:

  • reduce the rates of incarceration and recidivism,
  • reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system,
  • reform the use of mandatory minimums to provide for more judicial discretion,
  • reform our juvenile justice system to reduce the school to prison pipelines, and
  • address the impact of fines and fees associated with all aspects of the criminal justice system.

Guided by this set of priorities, we have been hard at work alongside our partner, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), to advocate for meaningful criminal justice reform. Together, we are mobilizing the Jewish community along with other faith communities to press our legislators to act.  Leaders from five synagogues have brought hundreds of people through their doors to engage with their state senators and representatives, and fifty Reform rabbis from across the Commonwealth signed on to a letter urging serious reform.

Our efforts, and those of other criminal justice advocates, have borne fruit. By a vote of 27 to 10, our State Senate passed a bill reflecting all of our priorities in varying degrees. Now we need the Massachusetts House to be equally bold and seize this historic opportunity to pass comprehensive reform.

Join me and over 150 faith leaders, elected officials, and advocates this Monday at 1pm at the State House, at the Grand Staircase to demonstrate our support and solidarity.

If you can’t make it to the State House, you can still take action by using JCRC’s Phone2Action platform. Simply text “CJR” to the number 52886. You will receive a phone script and be instantly connected to your legislator to demonstrate your support for this work. You can also sign up online here.

This is, once again, an urgent moment. And as we have many times in the past, it is one where we have an opportunity: To speak with a powerful voice and to take meaningful action to advance our community’s commitment to justice. I hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Taking Action for a Two-State Solution

The achievement of the two-state solution has, for a long time, been a question of when and not if. We have raised a generation of the Jewish people on the idea that the two-state solution is the only resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures justice and security for all peoples. For our community here in Boston, the two-state solution continues to be our aspiration and the focus of our dreams about Israel’s future. And yet right now, the reality of the two-state solution seems both daunting and distant. Some have even argued that we are past the point of no return; the two-state solution is already in the rear view mirror. This is a grave mistake. We are under no illusion that achieving a two-state agreement is an easy task, or one likely to be achieved in the short-term. However, we have no doubt that there are actions that we can take to advance our vision and hopes of a peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Every observer has their own arguments and rationale for why a lasting peace appears to be distant. We have argued that the only path to a lasting peace is through direct negotiation, and we are wary of unilateral moves that seek to define the end conditions of negotiations. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have done this in at one point or another, and in the current situation direct negotiations appear unlikely in the near future.

We follow, with interest and anticipation, the efforts by the current US administration to lead a breakthrough for Israeli and Palestinian peace, one that will create a better outlook for Israelis and Palestinians. Certainly, if such a breakthrough comes we will celebrate it and support the government’s efforts. But we cannot place our hopes in the efforts of the American government. Rather, we find our hope elsewhere, in the changes happening at the grassroots level between Israelis and Palestinians. We at JCRC seek to support Israelis and Palestinians who are organizing and creating opportunities for mutual recognition, economic cooperation, and civic engagement. We are supporting the emergence of a new generation of leaders, one that can challenge the existing paradigms and move Israelis and Palestinians into a brighter, more interdependent, and peaceful future.

We are launching two new initiatives to support these grassroots efforts. The Israel Collaborative convenes groups of young leaders to develop and implement innovate projects to support peacemaking NGOs. We ran a successful pilot this summer, and will be launching a second round of the program over the next two weeks. We are also developing a new initiative in partnership with CJP called Boston Partners for Peace. This program will highlight the work of impactful NGOs in this field and provide the Boston community with concrete ways to support their efforts. The program is currently being tested with focus groups, with a launch scheduled for later this winter.

John F. Kennedy, when facing the seemingly impossible task, famously said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” For many of us today, helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peaceful end to their conflict feels as impossible as going to the moon did to President Kennedy. We accept this challenge because it is hard, and because it will take the best of us to make our vision a reality. Will you join us in this work?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The American Tradition of Defending Our Democracy’s Norms

In 1796, President George Washington voluntarily set the precedent for a two-term limit on the Presidency, stepping aside and giving up power on his own. Historians tell us that his decision was informed both by his desire “to pass through the vale of life in retirement” and to honor his early promise not to seek unfair power as a government official. The two-term custom he established stood for 150 years until President Franklin Roosevelt, as the Nazis already were taking over Europe, stood for a third term in 1940, and then a fourth in 1944.

The American people chose to re-elect Roosevelt those two additional times. However, when the war was over, they worried that the convention of a two-term presidency would not be easily restored. In 1947 Congress passed, and in 1951 the states ratified, the 23rd Amendment, codifying the two-term presidency.

In 1960, President Kennedy defied convention and appointed his brother Robert as Attorney General. The Senate ratified his choice (and Bobby Kennedy would become one of the great liberal visionaries of his era), but the choice continued to raise concerns about dynasties in the White House. In 1967, President Johnson signed an anti-nepotism law, limiting the appointment of relatives to federal offices, thus restoring a pre-existing norm.

Time and again in our nation’s history, when the norms and customs of our democracy have been trespassed – ones that foster transparency between the governed and those that govern, that limit the ability of those in power to use office for personal and family gain, or that hold leaders accountable to the people – we have had the conversation and when necessary taken action, through law, to restore those norms.

It is in this spirit that I take pride in JCRC’s announcement this week that we would support legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns before appearing on the ballot in Massachusetts. These times are “not normal,” as Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) so eloquently stated this week while announcing his retirement:

“We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country.”

In these times we are all called to defend the norms of our democracy; the institutions and customs that ensure accountability, transparency, and a healthy, vigorous, and respectful public debate about the issues our nation faces. We at JCRC believe that we must do our part here in Massachusetts with our federal delegation and in our Commonwealth, to protect those norms through the establishment of new laws that preserve the fundamentals which make our nation great.

We do not accept the sundering of our country. I invite you to join us in the work of restoring the norms of our democracy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Iran and Our Fractured Politics

Last Friday, President Trump announced that he would not certify to Congress that Iran was in compliance with, nor that it was in the United States’ national interest to abide by, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan on Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran Deal. It is no secret that the American Jewish community was and remains deeply divided over the agreement; we were nearly evenly split between those who supported and opposed this two years ago, with significant and enduring discord over its implementation.

In 2015, while JCRC did not take a position for or against the deal, we advocated that Congress address what we identified as flaws in the agreement, including the quality of the inspection regime and the so-called sunset clause. We were also concerned that  the original agreement was not more expansive, addressing not only Iran’s nuclear program but also their role as a state sponsor of terror and a destabilizing actor in the region. But the deal didn’t address those issues, and by most accounts, the Iranians are abiding by the agreement to which we committed.

I, for one, am hard-pressed to see how unilaterally walking away from the JCPOA now is the best way to bring the other international partners back to the table to deal with the flaws. I suspect that a different, more prudent, president would have certified the deal and begun to lay the groundwork for other nations to come to the table on the non-nuclear issues, and to begin to plan for the future.

But here we are. The President has made his decision and we’re going to need Congress to figure some of this out over the next two months, in accordance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that we vigorously supported in 2015.  And while – narrowly speaking – we’re still discussing the issues from 2015 about the quality of the agreement and a strategy for ensuring that Iran never has the capability to threaten Israel with nuclear annihilation, we also need to discuss a larger and more urgent national challenge: The reality that American credibility on the world stage is suffering.

This phenomenon didn’t start with the election of President Trump. Our nation has exhibited a seesaw-like vacillation with key foreign policy issues on the world stage over the past few administrations. To name just a few examples:

  • In 2001 President Bush walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, a climate treaty signed by President Clinton.
  • President Obama didn’t keep our commitment to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, a promise made by Clinton in 1994, when that nation gave up its status as the third largest nuclear power on earth.
  • And President Clinton might have made more headway with Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Camp David in 2000 if the parties could have been confident that our next administration would honor his commitments.

The list goes on and on. Suffice to say that our current president – by walking away from the Paris Accord, being dragged kicking and screaming to uphold commitments to NATO’s mutual defense compact – is exacerbating, in the extreme, a problem that is deeper than just him. We are challenged to persuade the world to trust us when we make a 180-degree turn every four to eight years. In the global arena, with regard to the United States, “our word is our bond” is becoming a joke. Our national credibility will take a long time to repair.

This problem starts at home, in our politics on the left and the right, where everything, including foreign policy, has become a place to score points and to advocate – as vociferously as possible – the “opposite” view from those on the other side of the aisle.

We need Congress to come together and value our long-term role as a stabilizing force on the global stage. Our commitments should be our commitments. Our allies should know what broadly-held principles of ours endure. They should be secure in the knowledge that we won’t be breaking our word every time the White House changes hands.

We need a foreign policy that is grounded in a bipartisan center that can and will hold together against challenges from those on both extremes of our politics. We may even need to reduce the power of the presidency to make commitments on the world stage that lack broad congressional support. It is not healthy for democracy when so much power rests in the actions and opinions of the Executive. It is not healthy that – and there’s plenty of blame to go around here – less and less of the big stuff happens without a treaty or codified bipartisan majority support from Congress.

So yes, we need to get serious about the Iranian role in the region and about the particular flaws of the JCPOA. But we also need to get serious about the damage that our domestic fractures have caused for our place on the world stage. Starting right now, our leaders need to come together and put forth a strategy, emerging from and supported by a bipartisan cohort in Congress. We need a way forward on Iran that is rooted in a commitment to steadfast American leadership over time.

We need some new thinking to break through the impasse that has come to define our foreign policy. And the next two months, as Congress deals with the Iran Deal, would be a good place to start.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Listening & Learning: Preparing for Yom Kippur

This past Tuesday, JCRC was privileged to host the Connie S. Birnbaum Memorial Lecture, with over 350 people in attendance. There were two notes that evening that I find myself reflecting on as we head into Yom Kippur.

In introducing the lecture, Herbie, Connie’s husband who founded this lecture 14 years ago, talked about her commitment to K’lal Yisrael. He pondered a discussion he’d had with a friend about the meaning of this term (literally: the “Whole,” or “Unity,” of the people of Israel). Is it about a shared faith, culture, nationality, an ethnicity? Herbie, in this conversation, arrived at the conclusion that what we are is a family.


Lecture founder Dr. Herbert Birnbaum

And then we had the privilege of an extraordinary lecture from Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. It is hard to do justice in describing his talk about preparing for Yom Kippur and Rembrandt’s depiction of Jacob blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. Soloveichik covered a wide range of material. He grappled with Talmudic sources and Christian theology, cited the Simpsons and baseball, and read from an exchange of letters between a rabbi and a Catholic priest in Boston in the 1950’s. Suffice to say that he imparted a powerful meditation on repentance, about that which belongs to the Divine, and on our relationships with our children (Sadly, you had to be there as we are not able to share this amazing talk online. I hope that you will join us next year! You can view more photos of our evening on Facebook.).


Featured speaker Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik

As the lecture ended, an additional thought came to mind:

Rembrandt’s art was deeply informed and enriched by his relationships with his neighbor, a rabbi. Four hundred years later, our understanding of the most ancient of Jewish practices and holidays is deepened through understanding the work of this Dutch master.

Today our Jewish family struggles in our relationship with each other. We have strongly held opinions and deep disagreements. We have divides that often seem unbridgeable, differences that some choose to exacerbate, which drive us even further apart.

If Rembrandt could learn from a rabbi to enrich his own understanding, and if we can learn from Rembrandt across the ages to enrich our own, then surely we can learn to hear and appreciate each other across our differences; not to create a false unity of agreement, but to foster the understanding and respectful relationships that define a family committed to its shared future.

Let this be a central piece of our work, as a family and a community, in the coming year.

Wishing those who are doing so a meaningful fast this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

New Year Brings New Lessons from Malden High Students

As we welcome the new year, we close the door on a summer that has shaken many of us. We were saddened and horrified when, in the space of six weeks, two glass panels from the New England Holocaust Memorial were destroyed by acts of vandalism. The second glass panel was shattered just days after white supremacists and self-proclaimed neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville. Though we did not know the motivation of the vandals, the incidents at the Memorial were deeply painful for many in our community, particularly given the proximity to these frightening displays of hatred.

We do know that the young man who allegedly destroyed the second panel came from Malden, one of the most diverse towns in the Commonwealth. At a community gathering at the Memorial the morning after the incident, Malden Mayor Gary Christiansen told the crowd he was “completely disheartened” to learn that the person responsible for the vandalism was from his city.

Janet Stein Calm, President of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston, publicly invited the mayor of Malden to bring students back to the Memorial to learn about the sacredness of the space directly from Holocaust survivors and their children. Last week, Mayor Christiansen, 30 Malden students, school administrators, and teachers took Janet up on her invitation and joined local survivors and Jewish community members at the Memorial. The Malden visitors came determined to begin the healing process both for their town and for the survivors, committed to learning and hearing from them firsthand.

It turns out the mayor wasn’t the only one who was pained by the vandalism. When students returned from summer vacation and learned of the incident, they were appalled and disbelieving that a peer of theirs could do something like this. They felt compelled to take action and say, “We will not stand for this in our community, to let this one person represent and define us.”

  
All images courtesy of the City of Malden. Click to enlarge. Left: Survivor Anna Ornstein. Right: Surivivor Izzy Arbeiter.

“We have seen the damage hate and intolerance can cause. We have experienced it ourselves,” said one student, speaking about her personal experience as a young Muslim woman. She continued with a written declaration from the student group:

“We are here to come together to try and reverse hate. We will not stand for hate. We will come together with love, peace, and dignity; to celebrate our differences, because that is what truly brings us together. In order to start the healing of the damage caused by hate, we have come here tonight to honor victims of the Holocaust.” Students went on to read the bios and obituaries for the family members of the survivors in attendance.

  
Left: Mayor Marty Walsh with Malden High Students. Right: Surivivor Izzy Arbeiter and Mayor of Malden Gary Christenson.

The survivors present were profoundly moved, not only by the students’ outrage, but by their commitment to understand, share, and preserve the legacy of their new friends, whose sacred site was desecrated.

“To see you all here, to talk to you, to get to know you, to see the diversity of the students, gives me such hope for the future,” said Izzy Arbeiter, a Holocaust survivor and one of the founders of the New England Holocaust Memorial.

“You are not that young man who destroyed the panel,” he told them.

 
Malden High School students.

Sadly, we know that acts of anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry are on the rise and we can’t stop them all. But we can take a lesson from the students of Malden High School, who took collective responsibility for an act committed by one of their own. Over the coming Days of Awe, we will recite the traditional litany of confessions as part of our liturgy. We will reflect not as an assemblage of individuals but rather as a collective, with our sins articulated in the plural Ashamnu – we have sinned. As these remarkable young people from Malden demonstrated, teshuvah the work of atonement begins with the painful acknowledgement of grievous errors and sins on the part of those in our circle. And it is completed with a resolution to do better, to hold ourselves accountable to be a more just and compassionate community. As we enter 5778, we deepen our own resolve to show up when it counts, and to stand with those in need of our support and solidarity within our own community and beyond.

Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The Legacy of Connie S. Birnbaum 

I never had the privilege of meeting Connie Spear Birnbaum, who died in 2003 at age 48 of breast cancer. But as I’ve come to learn about her much too short life, it’s clear that she left behind a powerful legacy; a call for Jewish unity in our community.

Connie moved to Boston to pursue her Masters in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University. It was here that she met and married an amazing fellow, Dr. Herbert Birnbaum, and together, they raised a family. She pursued a vision for Jewish community that is even more urgent today than when she served as the Unity Associate for the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. That awesome job title – by definition, working for community unity despite our differences – defined what she was all about.

In a 1989 interview, Connie replied to a question about whether there could be unity in the Jewish community, “There are, to be sure, many skeptics among us, but I am not one of them. Philosophically, I believe in the value and necessity of K’lal Yisrael (the Jewish People).”

To hear her husband, Herb, tell it, “Her work bridged congregations and denominations, helping those from all affiliations to build an understanding that no one group of Jews has all the answers to the exclusion of others. As in the post-Impressionist artistic style of pointillism, she saw beyond the individual dots of color on the canvas to appreciate the brilliance of the big picture.”

This is why the Jewish Community Relations Council is honored that, after 13 years of stewardship by the Synagogue Council, Connie’s family – Herb, and their children Benjamin, Ilanna, and Ariella – has entrusted us with the annual Connie Spear Birnbaum Memorial Lecture, to continue advancing it as a force for good and a signature event of Boston’s Jewish community.

This year’s lecture will be delivered on Tuesday, September 26th at Congregation Beth El-Atereth Israel in Newton. Our keynote speaker, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, founded in 1654 as the first Jewish congregation in North America. Through this lecture we also mark a return of the storied Soloveichik rabbinic line – merging tradition with modernity, science with Torah – back to Boston where his great uncle, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, lived and taught. Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik, whose topic is entitled, “Rembrandt and the Rabbis: What the Artist Teaches Us About Preparing for Yom Kippur,” will enlighten us about the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and his perspective on Jewish customs in preparing for Yom Kippur. The lecture is free and open to the public, though we invite you to register in advance here.

In these times when our community, and our society at large, are increasingly fractured in our civic discourse – unable  to bridge our differences, struggling to find common ground – Connie’s attentiveness to all Jewish voices and  interests from across our diverse community  continues to inspire.  Her legacy challenges us at JCRC to be the best we can be at convening the disparate parts of the Jewish community and weaving them into a powerful and united network. Her message - that none of us has a monopoly on the right answers, and that all of us benefit from the inclusion of each other in shared community - endures.

Connie’s memory is for a blessing. I invite you to join us in experiencing that blessing and legacy on September 26th.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

When To Speak Up; When To Speak Out

Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Is JCRC making a statement on x today?” And hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear a critique of our choices. Some ask, “Why are you speaking on that?” From others we hear, “How could you possibly stay silent in the face of such an urgent issue?" Allow me to share just a few considerations we’ve weighed in recent months when deciding to make statements.

First, we try to be clear about who we are speaking for, and to who. We strive to represent the consensus voice of our network, acting as an umbrella on behalf of the organized Jewish community. And our primary purpose is to speak beyond the Jewish community, in Boston’s public square, to reflect our community’s consensus – where there is one – and to help the broader civil society gain an understanding of that collective perspective.

Some statements are made as an organizing tool to lift up a consensus and catalyze action by our network. When the executive orders on immigration and refugees were issued earlier this year, we consulted many of our members and released a joint statement that enabled forty-one Jewish organizations to speak as one. Though we didn’t say anything that JCRC hadn’t said before, we defined a broad communal consensus – including organizations not generally in the practice of weighing in on public policy issues – that has animated powerful action ever since.

At times we speak because our Jewish voice is being sought, often on previously unaddressed issues, and often in response to requests from our civic partners – and we step into new territory. When we do that well, we take the time for consultation with many of our members, we get feedback that sharpens and clarifies what we are able to say, and we establish “buy in” from our stakeholders. Last winter, when David Friedman was named ambassador to Israel, the process, from first draft to statement, took several days. The result was a better statement that raised questions and provoked interesting conversations with members of Congress.

Expressing consensus or addressing a new question about what we think isn’t always our goal. Some statements are intended to name that something is front and center, and of urgent concern in that moment. This summer, each time the New England Holocaust Memorial was desecrated, I doubt that anyone was wondering whether the Jewish community was dismayed. But as the steward of the Memorial’s education mission, JCRC was charged with sounding the alarm and ensuring that the media and the community were aware of these assaults on our sacred site.

We don’t always get it right. There’ve been times over the years where we moved too fast, and didn’t adequately consult our network. As a result, we shut down discussion and strained relationships, when we would have been better served by inviting conversations and striving to bridge differences. We’ve worked to hear and accept the feedback when we did so, and I’d like to believe that we’ve grown from those mistakes.

At the end of the day, statements are only one aspect of our work. What matters more than any announcement is what we do to act on our values and to stand with and for our partners every day.

I’m looking back at this crazy summer and what I’m most proud of wasn’t something we published, but something we helped organize – an interfaith gathering at Temple Israel ahead of the massive protest weekend in Boston last month. And while I’m proud of our statement on immigrants and refugees, I’m even prouder of what has happened since then: broad Jewish support for the MA Safe Communities Act, synagogues across the region engaging in rapid response and sanctuary work, and a new partnership between CJP and Catholic Charities to meet the legal services needs of immigrants in these urgent times.

I’ll close by adding that if JCRC is “speaking from” the Jewish community, then we do our best work when we are also hearing from the Jewish community. We value your input, your advice, and your feedback about the considerations we weigh, about the issues where you think our voice is needed, and when you think we get it right (or don’t).

I invite your thoughts. These conversations enrich the work we do every day, and I thank you for them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Legacy and Future

The other day, after moving to our brand-new renovated offices a few weeks ago (come visit!), we re-installed our wall of photos showcasing all the past JCRC presidents and executive directors, going back to our founding in 1944. I shared an image of the wall with our living past presidents and directors. The responses have been delightful, and prompted me to think about what it means to lead a legacy Jewish organization in a time of disruption and anxiety.


click to enlarge

I look at that wall and think about all the changes along the way that have brought us to where we are today. I’m reminded of an essay that Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University delivered in 1994. “A Great Awakening” explored the American Jewish experience, our ongoing renaissance, and in particular, our own revival in the late 19th century. Informed by forces external and internal, this revival was driven by new leaders from a younger generation.

Sarna concluded that for the American Jewish community of our own time, “continuity may depend on discontinuity,” that it was the young and those on the periphery of Jewish life who were most often the drivers of creativity and innovation, and that “over and over again” we’ve “confounded doom and gloom,” often emerging even stronger from the challenges.

I look at that wall and am reminded that JCRC was created as a response to the challenges of an earlier time, as are so many of the legacy organizations of our community. Jewish federations, advocacy groups, human service partners - even some of our congregational denominations - would not exist but for the need to innovate and respond.

I look at that wall and think about the nearly 75 years of work that informs who we are at JCRC today, and the responsibility to look to the next 75.

One of my teachers told me long ago that the Jewish idea of self is one in which we act in the present, but always existing in deep conversation with our past and our future. “And you shall tell your children that we do this, for we were once slaves in Egypt.”

We carry memory of the past across thousands of years into the present. It informs our understanding of our world and our work in it. We also carry in the present our obligation to envision a hopeful future, with directives to ensure that ours is not the last generation. This is the most important mandate we carry through the ages.

At a recent JCRC Officers’ retreat I was asked about my priorities - the things I “lie awake at night” thinking about for JCRC. I told them that what I think about every day is how to make sure we have the tools we need to effectively advance our community’s priorities and values right now in Boston’s public square and civic debate, and equally important, how to ensure that we will be even stronger and continuously relevant for our next generation in 20 years and beyond.

I’m looking at that wall this week and looking ahead to the coming year while thinking about the sheer volume of leadership change that our Boston Jewish community is undergoing, with new directors starting this summer at some of our finest institutions. Several of our most respected and inspiring professionals have announced plans to leave their current roles and some of our most dedicated volunteer leaders are now conducting important searches for their successors.

I am excited by what’s coming next for our community as so many of our institutions individually, and our community collectively, will be building on our legacy while stepping forward to innovate and respond to the challenges ahead. I am looking back with pride for what the Boston Jewish community has become, and ahead with hope for where we will go, and I am honored that we at JCRC are a part of that journey.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jeremy