Category Archives: Letter from the Director

The Interconnectedness of Our Communities

This Friday, a message from Acting Executive Director Nahma Nadich.

Late one night last summer, on a Jerusalem hotel rooftop, I had a jarring conversation with a Black Baptist minister, a participant in our JCRC Israel Study Tour for Christian Clergy. He was sharing his reaction to to Yad Vashem, which we had visited earlier that day. The iconic Holocaust museum always inspires deep emotion among our participants; grief, horror, and for some, anguish at the role of the church in these unthinkable crimes against the Jewish people. But this minister confessed feeling something I had not heard before – envy. He hesitated in sharing his reflection with me, knowing how insensitive it might sound. But he acknowledged feeling envious of Jews for knowing, and being able to document our history (albeit largely due to the fanatic documentation of our Nazi killers). He told me that as a black man, he didn’t know – and would probably never be able to discover – the history of his family and people. When your ancestors are kidnapped and stolen, when their identities are forever erased, you can’t know who or where you come from. You can’t share your story, and you can’t experience the compassionate support of others bearing witness to your trauma, as I do each time Christian friends accompany me to Yad Vashem. I was pained by this realization.

As Jews, we know that facing and sharing our history is a sacred obligation, no more so than in these times, when so many seek to deny our historical experience as a people. But my friend’s painful admission reminded me of my woefully inadequate knowledge of HIS people’s history, and of our failure as Americans to embed the ugly and uncomfortable truths of this nation’s history into our education system. So I resolved to organize my own “study tour”, to honor his story, as he had honored mine. And I learned several critical lessons along the way, beginning with the one my friend taught me that night; about the redemptive and healing power of facing one’s past.

So my husband and I headed south, first to Louisiana, then to Alabama. For the past few years, I had been following the work of Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard trained lawyer who has dedicated his life to compelling justice for black, brown, and impoverished people condemned by a racist criminal justice system. Stevenson’s achievements are legendary; winning the exoneration of wrongly convicted defendants, and even Supreme Court arguments, including one that has ended the practice of mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles. Stevenson’s latest project is perhaps his most audacious, in founding the Equal Justice Initiative Museum and Memorial, where the untold truths of our nation’s past of racial oppression, violence and terror are meticulously documented and exposed. Stevenson and his team conducted massive research into the hidden history of terror lynching, documenting as many instances as they could, and bringing earth from the sites of these public murders, for display in jars at the Memorial.

Jars of soil from lynching sites

The words of poet Maya Angelou, adorning the outer walls of the Museum, serve as its raison d’etre: “History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, But if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. Located in a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, visitors first descend into a dark area with barred cells, where hologram-like projections describe their experience - quoting from diaries of people once locked up in this space – crying out for the children who have been ripped from their arms.

But lest you think that you are learning about a chapter of history neatly tucked into our past, the museum tells a compelling narrative; that slavery never ended, it just evolved, through the chapters of terror lynchings and Jim Crow, to the current phenomenon of mass incarceration. In the words of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man, who with Stevenson’s help, was exonerated after serving 28 years on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, “The executions moved indoors, they took off white robes and put on black ones”. Lesson two: the past is not really past; it extends fully into our present.

With the assistance of expert local guides, we made our way through the streets of New Orleans and Montgomery, shocked to see the still standing tributes to the Confederacy, among them statues of Jefferson Davis and Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” whose scientific advances were the results of his tortuous treatment of enslaved women, on whom he operated without anesthesia. But we were equally shocked by the more implicit reminders of the South’s refusal to face its past; in more recently erected “historical” markers, referring to the trading of “commodities” leaving unsaid that it was human beings who were being bought and sold.

But just as our sense of Northern righteousness peaked, we visited the Southern Poverty Law Center, with its display of the iconic picture of Ted Landsmark being assaulted in Boston by a bussing opponent wielding an American flag as a giant spear. And we were reminded of Boston’s own shameful history of racial violence, and its enduring racial divisions and persistent racial disparities. Lesson three: Racial oppression and violence has never been limited to the South. It is everywhere in this country.

The last lesson we learned was an affirmation of a truth that has become an urgent one in these times; that my friend’s history is inextricably linked with mine, as are our fates. Our NOLA tour began with our reading from the Louisiana Code Noir, or slave code, introduced in 1724 and remaining in force until 1803. The first item in the code? “Decrees the expulsion of Jews from the colony”. And in the Montgomery Museum hangs a chilling sign from the Jim Crow South, “No (n-words) No Jews, No Dogs”.  At a time when so many are working so hard to sow divisions among us, these historical markers served as stark reminders that just as the Jewish and Black community are targeted by the same toxic ideology (with Jews of Color at the apex of this onslaught), our liberation can only be achieved by our collective effort.

Birmingham Jail

In the words of Dr. King, posted outside his jail cell on display in Birmingham,

 “…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

My minister friend taught me to cherish the gift of knowing one’s history, and thanks to the trip his words inspired, I learned essential lessons about his people’s story, and the history we share as Americans. Shedding light on our most shameful chapters, understanding their enduring legacy in all parts of this country, and working together for peace and justice is the only way to truly ensure that we do not live this history again.

As I approach my twentieth anniversary at JCRC, the work ahead has never felt so urgent. Addressing the crisis of mass incarceration by advocating for criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth, joining with our interfaith partners to confront Boston’s enduring racial divide and nurturing relationships across the community that enable us to pursue our collective vision - that is the work of community relations. I can think of no more powerful vehicle than the field of community relations in acknowledging and honoring Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality”, nor any greater privilege than engaging our community in this effort.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

Time to Reflect and Refresh: My Sabbatical

Ours is a challenging and often messy world. Doing effective community relations and civic engagement in this environment can be trying. It’s also incredibly rewarding.
 
People often ask me whether I’d rather be doing something else than leading a JCRC in these fraught times, or what I imagine doing after JCRC. My answer to that is that I can’t imagine, for myself, doing anything else than this work. I consider myself incredibly blessed that in a world where so many ask “what can we do?” I go to work every day with an amazing team – our professionals, our volunteers, our network or agencies and the leaders across our community – who together say: “This is what we need to do and are going to do.”
 
As we head into the dog days of summer, I’m immensely proud of all that we’ve achieved this year as a coalition representing Boston’s organized Jewish community in civic space. Just this week, the Massachusetts legislature passed a budget appropriating over $8 million to support priorities of our community’s social safety net – benefiting the entire Commonwealth. And, our Congressional House delegation unanimously supported H. Res. 246, rejecting the delegitimization of Israel by the BDS movement and strongly supporting a two-state approach to resolving the conflict. Successes like these don’t happen without a long-term approach of building relationships with civic leaders, partnering over time on many issues, and having a strong network of Jewish institutions working together.
 
I couldn’t imagine anything more rewarding. Candidly, it can also be consuming. The building of long-term relations and networks always competes with the daily reality of events that drive the news. Ours is a work premised on always seeing the horizon while living in the moment.
 
And with that in mind, I’m incredibly honored and privileged that, as I come to the end of my eighth year as Executive Director of JCRC, I am taking a three-month sabbatical.
 
Our board and management team began planning for my sabbatical over two years ago. It’s been an opportunity for all of us to think about organizational resiliency, our core values and strategies, and to intentionally deepen relationships across our network and with our partners that go beyond any one person.
 
During my sabbatical, Nahma Nadich, JCRC’s Deputy Director, will serve as the Acting Executive Director. I have known Nahma for two decades and we have worked hand-in-hand, side-by-side for eight years. I can say with absolute confidence that JCRC is in very good hands. Our incredible professional team has been preparing for this period without me and I’m already seeing them grow as leaders in advance of this experience.
 
I’m incredibly grateful to our board for offering me this special (and rare) opportunity, and to our professional team who shoulder the responsibility (and additional work) that allows me to step away.
 
Over the coming months I’ll be making a radical shift in my daily habits; Rather than absorb and react to global and local developments every day, I hope to - by and large - ignore them entirely. Rather than read twenty hot takes and ten different daily papers, I hope to read more books. And rather than offer a public Jewish voice that helps our community and the civic space understand how “we,” the organized Jewish community, understands the complexity of the events of the day, I’ll be spending some time traveling and having new experiences for my own personal growth and edification.
 
In June our board approved our new three-year strategic plan that will direct JCRC as we build on our strengths, adapt to the latest needs, and pursue a long-term vision as we celebrate our 75th year. I look forward to returning this fall refreshed in my sense of the purpose that drives me in service to our community, and with new energy to lead JCRC as we continue to add value to Boston’s civic space in the decades ahead.
 
In my absence I invite you to enjoy the voices of Nahma and other members of our team each Friday in this space and to follow them on social media. My last day in the office will be this coming Tuesday, July 30th. I look forward to returning at the beginning of November. Until then–
 
Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Israel in the Middle

JCRC Study Tour for Labor Leaders with Roots/Shorashim/Judur

This week's message is from Director of Israel Engagement Eli Cohn-Postell.

Last Friday, I watched in admiration as Shaul Judelman and Noor Awad unwrapped a new sign as though it were a birthday present. The sign was for Roots/Shorashim/Judur, the grassroots group of Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank who come together to foster understanding, nonviolence, and transformation among their societies. Shaul and Noor looked like they could have been two kids in a candy store, and the scene was only strange because these two were never supposed to meet in the first place. Both live in the West Bank. Shaul is an American-Israeli living in Tekoa and Noor is a third-generation Palestinian refugee living in nearby Bethlehem.

We get to see friendships like Noor and Shaul’s develop because we visit with them consistently on our JCRC Study Tours. During this week’s Study Tour to Israel for Labor leaders, we got an up-close look at some of the changes taking place in Israel. I heard many times this week that Israel is experiencing a transition moment, and this week we met speakers who shared their perspectives on the current trends shaping Israeli society and its future. As with any country, Israel is too complex and multi-faceted to know exactly in what direction the country is headed. Nonetheless, I was encouraged this week by the example set by Shaul, Noor, and others, which make me believe that some things are changing for the better.

In many ways, Israel is at a crossroads. Most obviously, Israel is in the middle of its second election campaign this year, which no one expected. This raises the obvious question of who Israelis will choose to lead them, with potential implications for the religious status quo, the Israel-Diaspora relationship, and many other issues.

Israel’s Labor movement is also in a transition moment. As in many places around the world, union membership dropped significantly in Israel beginning in the 1980s. However, Israel has seen that number rebound slightly in recent years, and many of the people we spoke with expressed guarded optimism about the future of Labor in Israel.

On a sadder note, many people feel that they are in a quiet moment in between wars. We visited Rambam hospital in Haifa, where we toured an underground parking lot that can be turned into a functioning, bomb-proof hospital in 72 hours. Over and over, the nurse who led our tour told us how the underground hospital would be used when, not if, the next war came. We heard similar language in the south near the Gaza Strip, where people talked about preparing for the next, seemingly inevitable round of violence back and forth between Israel and Hamas.

Finally, Israeli and Palestinians speakers told us about the generational shift that their societies are undergoing. Many speakers referenced the iconic image of Bill Clinton looking on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House Lawn in 1993. The number of people who do not remember that moment is growing, they are reaching adulthood, and their entire attitude toward peacebuilding and the “other” is different from previous generations. We do not know exactly how this new attitude will crystalize, but we should be hopeful about the rise of a generation that can re-imagine the possibilities of peace and human-to-human connection.

I was encouraged that so many of our speakers were working to make sure that this moment of transition is being leveraged to create positive change for Israelis and Palestinians. For example, many people are working to improve the conditions of the Labor force in Israel. This includes growing unions and a rejuvenated Histadrut (Israeli Labor federation). We learned about governmental programs and NGOs providing services and protections for all of Israel’s workers, including non-Israeli citizens.

We met with Hamutal Gouri, who is working to close the opportunity and pay gaps between men and women in Israel, and to advance the role of women in peacemaking. Hamutal is one of the founders of Women Wage Peace, a remarkable successful social movement that has grown to over 40,000 members in a few short years.

And, of course, we spent time with Noor and Shaul at Roots. I have met with activists at Roots many times now, and you can see how the trust and friendship between the participants has grown over time. This is enabling others in their communities to get involved, and to share in the belief that developing relationships with each other will create a better experience for everyone.

On these trips, we hear from people all over the political and ideological spectrum. I assure you that not everything in Israel is rosy. But this week, the message we heard with the most clarity was this one: there is hope to be found in the voices and experiences of those seeking justice and a better future for Israel and Palestinians. I am optimistic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli

The JCRC Summer Reading List

While Jeremy is in Israel on our July Study Tour, we are turning this week’s Friday message over to our staff—we asked them to create a Summer Reading List full of recommendations for books they love and use in their work. Here is a selection of JCRC staff recommendations:

Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas—recommended by Aaron Agulnek, Director of Government Affairs

Common Ground is about the history of race relations in the City of Boston, through the lens of busing and rising tensions in the 1960s and 70s. This book focuses on three families, one Black, one Irish, and one Yankee, and how their backgrounds and history impacted their perspective on busing. The stories and characters feel contemporary, because their stories are the stories of modern Boston. We still live in the shadow of those turbulent times and continue to confront the ongoing impacts of racism and discrimination.

Catch-67 by Micah Goodman—recommended by Eli Cohn-Postell, Director of Israel Engagement:
Catch-67 was a bestseller in Israel for months following its release in 2017. It was translated to English last fall and is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Israeli perspective on making peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank. In this pleasantly accessible book, Goodman breaks down the historic arguments of Israel’s right and left as they relate to Israel’s presence in the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. He concludes that most Israelis believe that withdrawing from the West Bank is essential to preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. However, most Israelis also believe that withdrawing from the West Bank would be the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Israel cannot remain in the West Bank, but it also cannot leave, and thus Catch-67. What are the next steps that can extricate Israel from this dilemma? Goodman has insightful and original proposals to answer that question.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann—recommended by Barry Glass, Director of TELEM

Killers of the Flower Moon is a book about the murders of Osage Native People in Oklahoma at the beginning of the 1900s, to steal their land that had valuable oil fields. I read it in anticipation of my trip to the Grand/Bryce/Zion Canyon in April, a trip where I met a Navaho man at a craft market. I was surprised to learn that he had visited the New England Holocaust Memorial several years ago and said that it was his most enduring memory of his three summers as a teen in the Boston area.

The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan—recommended by Rachel Goldberg, Israel Engagement Program Manager

JCRC’s Pages for Peace book club uses literature as a tool to grapple with the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This year, from January to June, we read The Lemon Tree, which is “the true story of one house, two families, and a common history emanating from walls of Jerusalem stone on the coastal plain east of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.” Together, we wrestled with our preconceived notions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the fates of Israelis and Palestinians are, as Mr. Tolan put it, both separate and intertwined.

Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change by Rabbi David Jaffe—recommended by Rachie Lewis, Director of Synagogue Organizing

This book, written by JCRC staff alum Rabbi David Jaffe, has provided me with the spiritual nourishment in my justice work that the time we are living in requires. We have valuable tools in our Jewish tradition, and specifically in the practices of Mussar (moral instruction), that help us remain strong, connected, and clear for the long haul. Rabbi Jaffe is a key person in showing us how to use them.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson—recommended by Nahma Nadich, Deputy Director

Through Stevenson’s mesmerizing storytelling, he illustrates how slavery has evolved over the years through Jim Crow to its present form; the mass incarceration of black and brown people in this country. He tells of his lifelong efforts to compel justice for the poor and disenfranchised; people on death row, prisoners serving life sentences, and an astonishing number of people behind bars for no reason other than their own poverty. Miraculously, he manages to inject a note of hope, as he lays out his prescription for how we can come to terms with our shameful past and unleash new possibilities for our future as Americans.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah—recommended by Emily Reichman, Director of Service Initiatives

As we begin marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust, which began this month in 1944, I’ve been thinking more about the stories we are told from that time, along with the stories we don’t hear. The Nightingale is the fictionalized account of two women who participated in the French resistance movement during the war, one who smuggled downed British airmen across the Pyrenees into Spain, and the other who hid Jewish children in a local convent. The Nightingale highlights the important role women played in the French resistance that is often overlooked by history.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore—recommended by Rebecca Shimshak, Director of the Greater Boston Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL)

We showcased these two books at our annual workshops for our literacy tutors. The Hate U Give, about a police shooting, involved a discussion on JCRC’s efforts to prevent gun violence. The Other Wes Moore documents the lives of two men raised in Baltimore named Wes Moore, one who was convicted for murder and given a life-sentence, and one grew up to be a Rhodes scholar—we discussed education equity and literacy advocacy in Massachusetts with organizers from Stand for Children. Both books speak to the disparity in educational and social experiences of many of the tutees, so they resonated with many of our tutors.

Do you have any books that are must-reads? Please share them with us!

Shabbat shalom,

Your friends at JCRC

Invoking the Holocaust in Contemporary Debates

The New England Holocaust Memorial

In the coming year, we’ll be marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Shoah. Here in Boston, we’ll also mark the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM). NEHM was specifically placed in the center of our city, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, because its founders wanted the memorialization of the Holocaust to be a continued source of learning and relevance for generations to come.

As we prepare to mark these milestones, I am reminded of the privilege I had, a few years ago, to spend Shabbat with the Munich Jewish community and to pray at the Ohel Jakob synagogue. Ohel Jakob re-opened in 2006 almost 70 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. I write “1938” and many students of the Holocaust will assume this means that the synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” November 9th and 10th. In fact, Munich’s main synagogue was burned five months earlier, in June. This was a test of sorts, a test that the world failed. When nations remained silent, the Nazis read their silence as license to expand the persecution nationwide.  

I thought of that visit in recent weeks as debates over the appropriation of Holocaust terminology were back in the American political discourse.

Last month, Alabama adopted a law banning abortion that explicitly compared this medical procedure to the Holocaust and other genocides. And last week, the controversy over the horrific conditions under which migrant children are being held by our government veered into a Holocaust appropriation debate when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instragrammed, calling these detention centers “concentration camps.” 

So as others, seemingly increasingly, are invoking the Holocaust in contemporary political context, I have a few thoughts to share:

The Holocaust has both universal and particular legacies.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish community has felt an affirmative personal duty to work toward the global relevance of lessons derived from the Holocaust. As early as in 1951, it was an Israeli representative at the UN, Jacob Robinson, who helped draft the International Convention on Refugees. And today, that legacy informs our efforts to mobilize the Greater Boston Jewish community around our immigrant justice work and our commitment to the notion that the United States must continue to open our doors to refugees and asylum seekers.

Still and the same, every event is unique and to make direct comparisons does not serve us. We have a duty to preserve the specific nature of the Holocaust as a unique event in history. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, in “To Mend The World,” examines four specific and unique distinctions about the Holocaust: 1) It was a final solution of total extermination. 2) The “crime” was the Jews’ mere existence. 3) The genocide was an end in and of itself without other political or economic purpose—an end for which resources would be diverted. 4) It was committed, by and large, by otherwise ordinary citizens.

Fackenheim notes that while other genocides and atrocities contain some of these characteristics, none, other than the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany, contains all four.

Political actors must understand that to invoke the Holocaust as an applicable metaphor to contemporary events is to co-opt something that was incomparable, and in a way that is painful for many in our community.  That many who were silent regarding Alabama are condemning Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, and vice versa, is noted. The result is that a sacred Jewish vulnerability – including the profound trauma and lived experience of survivors who are still with us – is being weaponized for partisan purposes.

That’s unacceptable.

Further, to limit our outrage to “only” those things that accurately and adequately compare to the Holocaust is to fail to meet the moral necessity of calling out horrors for what they are. As Dr. Deborah Lipstadt rightly noted this week: “Conflating…two periods diminishes the specific, unique horror of each particular crime, and impedes our ability to understand them on their own terms.”

So we need to do better, as a society and especially as public leaders. Let us condemn the horrors being perpetrated in our name by our government for what they are. And let us do more to educate ourselves and our next generation about genocides, including the Holocaust. Ways to do this can include advocating for legislation like Massachusetts’ “An Act Relative to Genocide Education” (H.566 & S.327), sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, and supported by a coalition led by the ADL, JCRC, and the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts.

Because amidst a rising tide of hatred and bigotry, and as memories of prior atrocities are fading, one lesson from my visit to Munich and the reality of the lead-up to Kristallnacht remains all too relevant: If we fail to protest the first violations of people’s rights, then those in power who seek to do harm will themselves take our silence as a license to do even worse. It is our obligation to stand against this through action and education. I hope you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Penny & Anna: 8 Years of Reading Together

A GBJCL volunteer & her tutee

During this 75th year of JCRC, we're taking time to mark important milestones. The end of the school year is a very special moment that happens annually, when students and teachers reflect on all the learning that has taken place over the year and take pride in their accomplishments. Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) marks this moment together with our 29 school partners through end-of-year celebrations where students have an opportunity to say goodbye to their tutors. This year, GBJCL was able to present over 800 books with accompanying newly created literacy kits to students at their school celebrations, so that they can feel empowered and motivated to continue reading and learning in fun ways over the summer.

Every tutor-student relationship is unique. There are some students who are quiet and reserved and can take weeks or months of one-on-one attention to come out of their shells. Some students open up right away. Sometimes these bonds are so strong by the end of the year that the tutor becomes a core part of the student’s growth, and the student now has another adult role model who provides undivided attention and strengthens their self-esteem. And sometimes, that volunteer will be able to work with the same student as they move on in school. In the special case of one volunteer, Penny Schwartz, she was able to work with her student Anna for eight consecutive years.  

Penny has dedicated the past decade to one student, Anna, at the Healey School in Somerville that partners with Temple B'nai Brith of the same town. Penny was smitten right away with this social first grader. Anna was a joy, with an eagerness to learn and a desire to become a better reader.

When the end of the year came, the pair wanted to continue. Penny recalled, “Through the amazing cooperation of Anna's teachers—and the ok from Anna's family—we were able to continue our nearly weekly get-togethers through Anna's eighth grade graduation.” Throughout the eight years together, Anna’s teachers recognized the importance of the relationship. They could see how Anna continued to grow and learn with Penny’s support, and always made sure the two had time for one another.

Penny describes seeing Anna grow up through elementary and middle school. Penny recalled in 7th grade, when Anna beamed with pride when she received the school’s coveted Student of the Quarter award. And later that year, she was able to travel on the class trip to Washington, D.C. and exuberantly showed Penny photos of their visit to the National Museum of African American History and described in detail a painting she fell in love with.

The work continues as the relationship grows annually. Before Anna started high school, Penny encouraged two teens from Temple B’nai Brith (TBB) to meet with Anna and share “insider tips” for a freshman. Penny says, “But what really stands out for me is a mirror of what stands out for Anna: weekly, Anna has given up time to meet with me—a middle-aged white woman from another background— to share her thoughts and what she's up to in school, her ups and downs, to accept guidance—giving up rare chances to hang out with her friends. No question, I am still smitten.”

Penny feels she has been changed by the experience: “My life is made richer by getting to know Anna and her family—seeing her accomplishments, admiring her aspirations, and learning about the issues of the day in my own community—and a window into what it means to grow up today in an immigrant family. This extended relationship between GBJCL and TBB has been a constant reminder of the extraordinary devotion of school faculty and staff to support their students in and out of the classroom.”

As Penny prepares to say goodbye for the summer, however, it is a different form of goodbye, one that we are very accustomed to in Jewish tradition–a l’hitraot or “see you next time.” The pair plans to reconnect after the summer. And in the meantime, the relationship between Penny and Anna continues to grow and evolve. Penny hopes to be able to tutor Anna’s younger brother, staying connected to the family. And as Anna enters this next chapter of life, she knows she has many people who will be cheering her on as she pursues her goals.

I hope you will join us as we look to the next 75 years of JCRC, where we continue to mobilize over 200 volunteers annually to help elementary school children in underserved communities discover the joy of reading. To learn more about how you can get involved as a volunteer or support this work, visit the GBJCL website. It doesn’t require an eight year commitment. But we do need you to take the first step.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

75 years of civic engagement

Seventy-five years ago today, on June 14, 1944, leaders of sixteen local Jewish organizations gathered in Boston. These groups formed what has since come to be thought of as the “organized Jewish community,” by founding an umbrella institution “for the purpose of acting in unity in matters relating to civic protection” for the community — the Jewish Community Council, now known as JCRC.

This act of unity emerged from a climate of fear and urgency. Fear — of rising antisemitism and attacks on Jews in the streets of Boston. Urgency — in the face of the coming wave of refugees expected after World War II (this occurring just a week after D-Day), the overwhelming needs of a broken sister community in Europe after the Shoah, and very soon thereafter, a Jewish community in the Palestine Mandate on their journey to statehood in need of support.

This organized community, this JCRC, quickly came to understand that “civic protection” required civic engagement. That the strongest defense against antisemitism included standing up for civil rights, against hatreds and bigotries of all forms, for a democratic and pluralistic American society.

I suspect that, when we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary in 1994 – shortly after the end of the Cold War, amidst the hopes after Oslo, and with rapidly increasing Jewish leadership at the highest levels of government – few imagined that in 25 years we’d be struggling anew with rising antisemitism in America, with increasing demonization of Israel, and with existential concern over the future of American liberal democracy and our leadership in the world.

Over the last nine months, as part of a strategic planning process, JCRC conducted interviews, focus groups and surveys with 91 people from across the community.

When we asked our stakeholders to describe a single moment affirming the unique value of our Council, they had no difficulty naming it; it was our communal response after the horror of Pittsburgh last fall. That powerful day, when we gathered at the Boston Common bandstand to mourn the unthinkable loss to our People, tells a paradoxical story of the enduring truths that connect us to our moment of founding, and acknowledging how far we’ve come since then.

Back in 1944, the still-unorganized Jewish community leaders were scrambling in the face of impunity for violent attackers of Jewish kids in our streets, and the reality of a community too weak to compel action. They didn’t have the relationships – with local government, media, and other faith communities – to demand and secure action.  Compare this with the scene on the Common last fall, when we were surrounded by federal, state, and local officials, law enforcement, and the leadership of virtually every major Christian and Muslim institution, all there to demonstrate their solidarity and support.

What we heard from our stakeholders is that what we do is just as vital now as it was 75 years ago – organizing Jewish leadership, building deep interfaith connections to protect and defend our community’s interests. Much has changed in these years, including the fact that now these relationships enable us to work toward a more ambitious agenda, on a broader scale throughout Greater Boston; recognizing that the health and vibrancy of the broader community serves our interests as well. Through our network of agencies and organizations, today we are a community with the capacity and commitment to embody the teaching of Hillel:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Community relations and engagement in the public square are as powerful in meeting the challenges of 2019 as they were in 1944.  The times call on us to ensure our ability to represent the organized Jewish community in all its breadth, and to develop and support the deep bench of leaders across our network who are our best resources as a community for engaging in the work of public affairs. When so many in our community and nation are promoting ideological divides and pushing institutions and leaders toward fringe positions, JCRC is here to honor and amplify the vast and broad center of our community and our civic space. When our civic norms are being so profoundly challenged, we heed the call to lead boldly, to build upon our proud history, and to pursue new, ever more audacious goals.

Last night, representatives from our 42 current members and from the community at-large gathered for our annual meeting to elect JCRC’s leadership for the coming year. And our board unanimously approved a strategic plan that articulates a vision for our work and our value to the community in the years ahead.

Today, JCRC envisions a Jewish community that is a regional and national model – in civic engagement, building bridges, and initiating partnerships – in service to Jewish concerns and the collective good.

I hope that you will join us in celebrating this milestone year and partner with us in this work in the months and years ahead.

Shabbat Shalom.

Representation matters

This week's Friday message is from Aaron Agulnek, JCRC Director of Government Affairs

Seventy-five years ago this month, JCRC was founded by a group of Jews demanding a seat at the table in civil society. They were living through the worst of times for the worldwide Jewish community, where inaction led to destruction and death at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. With no unified voice to compel collective action, and with limited representation in government, all the pressure fell on a few prominent Jews.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr, his only Jewish Cabinet member, was an easy target for anti-Semites. Morgenthau shied away from any perception that he favored Jewish causes for fear of embarrassing the President and providing more fodder for the scurrilous claim of dual loyalties levied against Jews. However, by January 1944, Morgenthau and his colleagues at Treasury could no longer remain silent. They prepared a report with an initial title: “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which led FDR to issue Executive Order 0417 and establish the War Refugee Board.

Though still novel in the 1940s, Jewish representation in the upper reaches of Government was not unprecedented. Only 25 years earlier, Justice Louis Brandeis was nominated to the Supreme Court. He was met with virulent antisemitism from fellow Justice James McReynolds. According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “McReynolds was an out-and-out anti-Semite, and he treated this brilliant man with utter disdain. When Brandeis would speak at conference, he would stand up and leave the room… Brandeis ignored it. 'Dignity' is the right word to describe his response to that bigotry."

Rather than shy away from his background and values, Brandeis led with them, proving to the nation that being Jewish and American were not incongruous. He inspired a young, mostly-immigrant American Jewish community, seeking a future in a country in which it was still finding its collective footing. Brandeis’ legacy to the Jewish community goes much deeper than his judicial chops and world-altering decisions. He cemented a sense of belonging to a wandering people.

Today, there are Jews serving at all levels in government, proudly representing their constituents. Where necessary, many have directly asserted their Jewishness in public spaces. There was no clearer example than the public debate following the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Chabad centers here in Massachusetts.

JCRC led and championed an advocacy campaign enlisting rabbis, synagogues, day schools, and other communal institutions for the expansion of a grant program to provide security enhancements to houses of worship, community centers and other vulnerable institutions across the Commonwealth. In late May, the Massachusetts State Senate debated an amendment to the State budget to increase its funding.

When the amendment was called, lead sponsor Senator Eric Lesser (Longmeadow) like any effective senator, framed his remarks in the context of public safety and the proper role of government. He spoke about the rise in antisemitism, attacks against mosques, the targeting of LQBTQ community, and the burning of a black church in Springfield the night of President Obama’s election in 2008. But when Lesser began sharing his experience as a Jew, a deep silence fell over the Senate chamber. He expressed the deep sadness and despair he felt when he learned of the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, just as he and his young family were at Shabbat services.

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (Newton) described how her temple has balanced security with inclusiveness; Senator Cindy Friedman (Arlington) spoke about the recent incidents at Chabad in Arlington; Senator Barry Finegold (Andover) shared a story about the security conversations he had with his rabbi for his daughter’s bat mitzvah; Senator Becca Rausch (Needham) spoke of her children and her concern for their safety at a Jewish day care; Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (Worcester) spoke about the impact that violence is having on our communities; all under the watchful eye of our Jewish Senate President, Karen Spilka (Ashland).

Seven Jewish senators, from every corner of the Commonwealth, each sharing their vulnerability and trauma; each speaking from their own lived experience to advocate powerfully for their – our – community, sharing their pain and bringing their petition directly to the floor of the Senate for redress. Representation matters.

But for many in our society, representation is still a distant dream. There are currently zero African-American and zero Muslim senators in the State Senate. There is a single Latina senator and two LGBTQ senators. Representation is not just about numbers, but also about the power of personal testimony, in compelling justice for marginalized communities. Only when we represent our own interests in the halls of power can we effectively protect and defend our community’s interests. We need to demand no less for other minorities. Shirley Chisholm said it best, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” When debate ended and the roll call was taken on Senator Lesser’s amendment (which passed 40-0), the impact of the debate had a lingering resonance in the chamber. Twenty minutes later, when offering up his amendment to codify the Hate Crimes Task Force, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr opened with these remarks:

…I have been a member of this body a fairly long time and I have never been prouder …. What makes this so extraordinary are the types of remarks we heard around the chamber where members were willing to come into this chamber and share their thoughts about fear and anxiety and concern for themselves, and for all of us. That takes character, it takes commitment and it takes dedication. What just happened in this chamber is so extraordinary in some ways because … hate lives in darkness. It thrives on concealment. And it preys on fear. Do you know what happened here? People brought the reality of the threat we are faced with right into the daylight and said here is it and we are going to stand up to it.”

With the inspiration of Brandeis and Morgenthau at our back, the Jewish community is better represented today than it has ever been in history of the United States. May their memory inspire us to stand up for ourselves and others, and may it grant us the wisdom to make space for the yearnings of other peoples in their dreams.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Agulnek

Building a Shared Future in Israel

Givat Haviva International School in brings together Arab and Jewish students.

This week, we had the pleasure of hosting Mohammad Darawshe, Director of the Center for Equality and Shared Society of the Givat Haviva institute (a Boston Partners for Peace organization), here in Boston.

Mohammad’s story is not a particularly unusual one amongst Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, but the actions that come from his story need to become far more common. His family has lived in his village in the Galilee for 28 generations. He is an acute observer of the Palestinian Israeli experience. He usually begins his talk by describing the challenges that Arab citizens face in integrating into Israeli society. One key factor is the relationship between the Israeli government and its citizens; in this case the relationship between Israel as a Jewish state and its 20% non-Jewish minority. Mohammad’s contention is that Israel’s self-definition as a state for Jews – codified in last summer’s nation-state law – rather than a state of all its citizens, results in discrimination against him and his community.

The other piece of the puzzle has to do with relations between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. This is where Givat Haviva is laser-focused, running a variety of programs that aim to create equality and a shared future for Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We visit there regularly with our JCRC Israel Study Tours.

In one session this week, Mohammad was asked how social progress can really be made given the political obstacles to peace. He answered that while there is a certain aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he will never be able to control, he is convinced that his work at Givat Haviva constitutes 90% of the solution.

This got us thinking: what if we spent more of our time learning about and emphasizing solutions, rather than fixating on problems beyond our control?

Mohammad tells us about a program that places Jewish teachers in Arab schools and vice versa. This program is designed to reduce racism among Israeli youth, and the results have been dramatic. Israeli researchers have found that roughly 60% of Jewish and Arab youth in Israel hold at least some racist tendencies toward the other. After only two years with a teacher from a different background, that rate drops to 10%. This program is currently running in about 1,200 of Israel’s 7,000 schools. This is what Mohammad would call an “island of success,” undeniable progress, but with much more work to be done.

“There is a pill against racism and that pill is the presence of ‘the Other’ in your life,” Mohammad tells us.

Givat Haviva is breaking down the separations that prevent productive conversations from taking place. Their team is working on creating better relationships between Jews and Palestinians as citizens of one country, while also working on achieving full equality for Palestinians at the same time.

Simply put, Mohammad is working for an Israel that fulfills the promise and aspiration of its own declaration of statehood, to be a “country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Thinking about solutions 90% of the time is hard, but if we never hear about solutions, then we are only left with the seemingly insurmountable challenges.  And if, by focusing on a solutions-oriented approach toward solving the 90% of challenges, groups like Givat Haviva create the conditions on the ground that expand the possibility to address the other 10% (the political challenges), all the better.

At JCRC, and through Boston Partners for Peace, we are committed to changing the current dynamic by emphasizing grassroots peacebuilding work. There are aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we cannot solve, nor is it our place to solve them. Instead, we make the choice to turn to and be inspired by Mohammad and the thousands like him working every day for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

We hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli & Jeremy

Eli Cohn-Postell

Eli Cohn-Postell
Director of Israel Engagement

Jeremy Burton

Jeremy Burton
Executive Director

Antisemitism that defies partisanship

Last week, I wrote about the importance of relying on mainstream institutions and leaders of our community to determine what is antisemitism. I identified three that I, as one individual, look to: the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Predictably – I got flak over my choices.

I heard from some on the left of our community who objected to these voices. They offered alternatives; progressive organizations with a solid track-record of calling out antisemitism on the right. Others, on the right of our community, had their own objections. And they suggested their own trusted sources; conservative groups with a solid track-record of calling out antisemitism on the left.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repetition because we’ve got a problem here. Antisemitism is on the rise in this country.

Right here in Massachusetts, over the last fortnight we’ve had incidents in at least seven school districts: Brookline, Melrose, Newton, Sharon, Watertown, Weston, and Westwood. We’ve had three arson attempts in Arlington and Needham. We’ve had vandalism at Brandeis University and seen a disgusting Holocaust-related cartoon at Harvard University.

Despite the protestations of ideological purists, the ways in which antisemitism is rising in the United States do not conform to some neat partisan confirmation. 

While we don’t know the perpetrators and motives for all of the above incidents, we do know that the man who killed eleven of us in Pittsburgh invoked the ideologies and conspiracies of white supremacy (and saw President Trump as too beholden to Jewish advisors). And the man who killed one of us in Poway published a manifesto deeply rooted in white Christian nationalist ideologies. And, as New York City, my hometown, experiences an unprecedented wave of violent attacks on visibly presenting (i.e. kippah-wearing) Jews, the evidence – in camera footage and comments by the attackers – makes clear that not one of those attackers yet identified could be classified as a white supremacist.

To further complicate matters, when it comes to public rhetoric by political officials, there have been Democrats (including in Congress) who have invoked antisemitic tropes when talking about Jews, including the charge of dual loyalty to another country. And, we have a sitting President who has invoked that same trope of dual loyalty to “your country” when talking to Jews. We have political actors on the left who normalize Louis Farrakhan even as he dehumanizes Jews with his antisemitic ravings, such as calling us termites. And, we have a President who refused to marginalize people who chant “Jews will not replace us” and has never walked back his “good people on both sides” comment about their rally.

I could go on for pages.

My point is simply this:

  • We cannot fight antisemitism in this country without confronting white supremacy in its most blatant form and in its more subtle presence in mainstream culture, and;
  • If we only fight the forms of antisemitism that present as white supremacy, then we are ignoring the circumstances in which the world’s oldest hatred also shows up in ways that have nothing to do with the far right.

An analysis of antisemitism that only critiques the other side of the ideological spectrum, no matter how thoughtful that op-ed is, is one that I personally view as unhelpful and even counterproductive for framing this crisis. Telling a progressive to look only at antisemitism on the right is dangerous for our community. Telling a conservative to look only at antisemitism on the left is equally dangerous for our community. There is no denying the fact that antisemitism motivated by a white supremacist ideology is more lethal in our country right now. We have been stricken with grief and horror in witnessing the murder of Jews celebrating shabbat in two different synagogues within six months. Yet, as an Orthodox Jew, I cannot deny the real concern and trepidation that I experienced while wearing my kippah in the streets of Brooklyn on my most recent visit.  All forms of antisemitism threaten our community and they need to be confronted.

One final point worth making this week, when ugly racism here in Boston is once again on the front page:

If we only fight antisemitism and don’t stand up to the other forms of bigotry that are rising in our society (and that are distressingly present in our own community) then we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and our country. We’ll end up alone and abandoned by many people we need as allies in this work, and we’ll end up with a country that isn’t a very good place to live for us and for a whole lot of other people.

I hope you’ll join us in this urgent struggle.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy