Category Archives: Letter from the Director

Why we won’t be making a statement this Wednesday

This coming Tuesday, April 9th, the citizens of Israel will go to the polls to elect their parliament. By late afternoon EDT, we’ll have a sense of the outcome – which, of some 40 parties on the ballot, will be represented in the 21st Knesset and, within a seat or two, how many seats in the 120-member body each party will hold.

As in the past, we can expect to wake up on Wednesday to at least some media declarations about who won the elections. But seasoned observers of Israel’s electoral process know that, barring a blowout not forecast in any of the polls, congratulating a winner next week would be a foolish mistake.

We recall 2009, when Tzipi Livni led Kadima to a 28-seat plurality, but Benjamin Netanyahu eventually formed a government led by the 27-seat holding Likud, beginning his current decade-long run in office. And of course, there was 1984, when Shimon Peres (Labor, 44 seats) and Yitzhak Shamir (Likud, 41 seats) fought a hard campaign, and when both failed to bring smaller parties to a coalition, formed a national unity government with a rotating premiership.

For Israel, a multi-party parliamentary system, election day is but one step in a process of choosing a new leader. Following the election, President Rivlin will invite each party to recommend any Knesset member for prime minister. He must then decide which individual has the highest likelihood of successfully forming a 61-seat majority. Once that person is invited to form a coalition, they will have up to 36 days to do so.

The next Knesset, like the current one, will also have parties within the parties; factions that run as a joint-list for the ballot but have different priorities once seated in parliament. And each party will have very different demands about what it “must have” to be in a coalition, whether that is investment in women’s issues or legalizing marijuana, economic reforms, and, predictably, specific policies on security and peace issues. Someone will find a way to get to 61 and have a coalition agreement that paradoxically both reflects and alters the platforms of the parties involved.

So, as in past election years, do not look for a congratulatory statement from JCRC on Wednesday. Instead, we’ll be getting out the proverbial popcorn and observing negotiations that will likely run into mid-May. We will be educating ourselves and our community about the election results and their significance. We’ll invite you – on our social platforms and in our programs, including our monthly Israel Engagement briefing on April 17th – to pay attention to how the smaller parties did and what they are prioritizing. We’ll wonder about different coalition possibilities and what they will prioritize. We’ll pay attention to a diverse group of Israelis with expertise as they make sense of the results.

Later this month we’ll sit down with our Council, our own diverse community of 44 organizations covering the gamut of Jewish communal views about Israel – everyone from AIPAC to Hadassah, ZOA and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, AJC, ADL, J Street, and the Israeli-American Council, along with representatives from the community at-large. Together we’ll try to make sense of how we as a collective understand the results.

And then, when a new government is formed, we’ll make a statement. We will articulate once again how we, as one organized Jewish community, perceive the new Israeli government. And we will do so rooted in our commitment to support our Israeli partners in the pursuit of a secure, Jewish, and democratic state of Israel, living side-by-side with a viable Palestinian state in peace, security, and mutual recognition.

For now, Shabbat Shalom.

Jeremy

p.s. A tidbit: In Israel, election day is a national holiday. People go to the polls and then to the parks. And voter turnout is quite high, 72% in the last election (compared to 56% in the U.S. in 2016). Something for us all to think about.

Stories we still cannot tell

Almost every family in America has an immigration story, a place we came from; often fleeing persecution, war, famine or poverty. This coming Tuesday, April 2, will mark the 100th anniversary of my own grandfather, Jose Sandoval, arriving in this country as a child refugee from Mexico. Growing up, he told me stories of what it was like to flee the turmoil of a revolution with his parents and older siblings to start over and build a life as a proud American.

I’ve previously described the work of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN – pronounced ‘beyond’). We helped create BIJAN to support T and other immigrants detained in MA who are reaching out to us for support. This multi-faith coalition accompanies our immigrant neighbors to their court hearings, connects them to legal support, bonds them out of detention and remains connected post release. Over the past 14 months we have helped bond 64 people out of detention; immigrants fleeing danger from all over the world. Once they are released, they travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, to reunite with families they were seeking to find, when they started out on their perilous journeys.

Some of that support happens in quiet moments of simple, empathic human contact. JCRC staff member Solon Arguello is part of a cohort of volunteers who make sure that immigrants who we succeed in bonding out make it safely back to their families.  Several weeks ago, he went to South Station to meet T, originally from Guatemala, who was driven there by volunteers following his release. T felt comfortable telling Solon about his life before detention, what motivated him to come to this country and how he ended up detained. He shared his dreams: working and providing the funds necessary for his daughter to have a better life than he has had, and living in safety, away from the volatility of his town in Guatemala.

T is far from alone in enduring unbearable hardship as he seeks safety for himself and his family. Each year, hundreds of immigrants seeking refuge are detained here in Massachusetts city jails that rent beds to ICE. Many have lived here for decades.

Our Jewish community has responded to their calls for support with astonishing generosity and compassion. Hundreds of community members, from 20 synagogues and beyond, have stretched themselves beyond what we – and they – would have anticipated at the outset of this work, by opening their hearts and homes, donating funds, providing transportation and more. They run the gamut from college students to people in their 90s. All of them have stepped up to accompany our neighbors as they navigate the chaos and cruelty of immigration enforcement and detention. Individuals and families host people released from detention with no place else to go, sometimes for months at a time.

The border is right here in Boston, with a port of entry at Logan Airport. And, just as we did on a CJP mission to the southern border and San Antonio last summer, young students at Temple Shalom in Newton, moved by what they learned about the plight of immigrants, stuffed backpacks with socks, snacks, t-shirts, toothbrushes and toothpaste and loose change to accompany newly released immigrants for the long, lonely bus rides back to family. Sitting atop each pile of bare necessities inside each pack was a card lovingly penned by a Hebrew school student: “Buena suerte,” one said. “… know that we want you here!” reads another.

Beginning almost two years ago, with the formation of Sanctuary networks supporting churches in several communities hosting undocumented immigrants (necessitating 24-7 coverage of volunteer companions) there seems to be no task too onerous, no request too audacious for our extraordinary companions and volunteers.

At JCRC, we continue to be both gravely concerned by the impossible odds facing immigrants – and profoundly inspired by the commitment of our community to take action. We invite you to be a part of our efforts. Advocate with us for the passage of H.3102/S.2601 The Work and Family Mobility Act, filed by Representative Farley-Bouvier and Senator Crighton, to keep hard working people like T from being targeted for deportation while driving to work and H.3573/S.1401 The Safe Communities Act, filed by Representative Balser and Senator Eldridge, to ensure that the Civil Rights of all people are protected.

This week and every week I honor my memories of Grandpa Joe by continuing the work of ensuring that the promise of America remains available to those who are fleeing the persecutions and turmoils of our world. If you have family who came here at some point to get away from somewhere else and to participate in the American Dream, I hope that you will join us in ensuring that this country does not close our doors to those who renew our society in every generation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Prepping for AIPAC

As the AIPAC Policy Conference begins this weekend in DC, I am thinking about a survey that’s creating a buzz in our world.

Last October, the Mellman Group reported that an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters – 92% - identify as “generally pro-Israel” while only a marginal 3% consider themselves “generally not pro-Israel.”

This has come up in recent months as we witness groups identifying as both Jewish and anti-Zionist providing cover for those employing anti-Semitic tropes that go beyond fair criticism of Israel’s government and polices. And when we see and hear some  political and interfaith leaders cite those groups as validators (e.g. “but I’ve met with my Jewish partners and they say…”) we can factually point out that: when some on the left say that they are engaging with and listening to the American Jewish community, but they are only talking to fringe anti-Zionist groups, then they aren't really interested in what American Jews think, feel, and experience.

There’s another data-point in this report, of even greater interest to me, regarding the 92%:

“fewer than a third (32%) say that they are also supportive of the current Israeli government’s policies. A majority (59%) say that they are “pro-Israel,” but critical of at least some Israeli government policies, with 24% critical of many of the government’s policies.”

In other words, American Jews have an overwhelming consensus on our commitment to the future of a Jewish state, but we are divided into three fairly significant camps over the direction of the Israeli leadership.

There is however, another layer, one not covered in survey questions; how do we understand our unique role as American Jews in giving voice to our criticisms?

Historically, our community has been organized around the understanding, most memorably articulated in the “Blaustein-Ben-Gurion” agreement of 1950, that “the State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens” and that “the allegiance of American Jews is to America alone, and should put an end to any idea or allegation that there is such a thing as ‘dual loyalty’…” We built a network of institutions, including AIPAC, that acted with an understanding that whatever our diversity of views and our differences with Israel’s leadership, we would mostly – and in particular on matters of security – express those views privately.

For the past 25 years, these norms and understandings have been fraying; both Jewish communities have been increasingly open about challenging each other. When Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, each had public tension with some portions of American Jews who didn’t rally behind their governments. Over the past decade, American Jews have formed institutions – both on the progressive and conservative side, and very much within our 92% consensus of support for a Jewish state – that have openly challenged Israeli security policies with which they disagree. More recently, many of us have been openly frustrated when Israel’s political leaders speak on behalf of all Jews, including us Americans, in ways that effectively absolve our own elected leaders of their role in amplifying antisemitism in our country.

In an era when any fool with a twitter handle can amplify any extreme idea, the norms of a relationship between two Jewish communities built on public comity and solidarity has become increasingly challenged. Legacy institutions, whether it be AIPAC, a JCRC, and others, are navigating these changing norms.

I perceive AIPAC as a coalition across at least some of those differences; a coalition that comes together to support the enduring bonds of the US-Israel relationship. AIPAC works because it relies on the notion that while we may individually be supportive or have critiques of any particular Israeli government, our agency with regard to criticism of Israel is best, and mostly, to be shared privately and always in loving and respectful ways. And while that notion of agency is changing - and others at the JCRC table come down resolutely on the side of public critique - this particular branch, representing large portions of the Jewish community, works because it bridges its internal divides over that critique.

So on Sunday I will arrive, as I do every year, in DC for the AIPAC conference; the single largest annual gathering in DC to advocate for any policy agenda, reflecting the depth and breadth of support for our nation’s connection to Israel.

There will be evangelical Christians, LGBTQ, African-American, Feminist, Latino and Labor leaders all together in one room. But mostly, there will be American Jews, and we Jews will be a diverse bunch. Many will be from among the 32% of us who generally support the policies of Israel’s government, and many of us will be amongst the 59% who are not.  But there will be some established understanding amongst those present that, at least in this space, our critiques or lack thereof do not unite us.

Next week we will hear conflicting voices including Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the Israeli opposition leaders - patriots each of them as well. And we’ll be there even in our disagreements about our role in publicly criticizing Israeli policies – including some millennial Zionist leaders who wrote a public letter to the Prime Minister this week.

I believe that Jewish community is best served when we remind ourselves that at the end of the day we’re a small people. We are bonded to each other by our history, our values and what unites us - including the vast consensus we hold as American Jews: to support and work for a Jewish, secure and democratic state of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Anti-Semitic tropes and the conversations that follow

I imagine that by using the term “anti-Semitic tropes” in this lead, you will expect to read a piece about events swirling around Capitol Hill. But I’d like to take a moment to share some insights from a different incident closer to home.

Last Saturday night, minutes after coming back online post-Shabbat, I became aware of a piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section declaring that “a shocking number of Jews have become willing collaborators in white supremacy.” And much as I try to read everything with an open mind, I was immediately triggered when, five sentences in, the author proclaimed Jared Kushner along with several others to be “kapos.”

That Shoah-related term refers to, per the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “a concentration camp prisoner selected to oversee other prisoners on labor details. It is often used generically for any concentration camp prisoner to whom the SS gave authority over other prisoners.” I hate when I see this term used by some to refer to others in the contemporary Jewish community for political purposes.

Recognizing that I was triggered, I made a point of checking my judgment before reacting. I reached out to several people – folks whose wisdom I value – for a gut check: Was my reaction to the overall piece just mine, or was it as awful as I thought? Did it merit a response? And how quickly?

Within 90 minutes on Saturday night the answer was clear: Yes, it was as offensive as I thought. In fact, some of our member agencies were already drafting letters to the editor. But the piece was gaining traction on social media, with some highly complimentary reviews. Within hours, this was going to be on people’s doormats. We needed to act quickly and nimbly, to share our concerns and shape readers’ understanding of the problematic assertions in this essay.

With input from trusted colleagues, I tweeted a thread and shared this Facebook post naming some of the worst problems with the essay. I knew that my posting would preclude publication of a letter from me with the same points; an editor would perceive this as previously published content. But I also knew that my colleagues at ADL New England and AJC New England would be making their own articulate cases to the Globe, which devoted their entire letters to the editor section to negative reactions to the piece on Wednesday.

My post went viral, with over 100,000 impressions in 24 hours, driving the kind of discussion we had hoped for. We used that post in response to inquiries from civic and faith leaders with openhearted curiosity about our take on the essay, and with those who had praised it online. These honest exchanges yielded rich lessons for us.

In speaking to that other anti-Semitism conversation this week, Rabia Chaudry and Wajahat Ali – two Muslim activists and journalists from whom I am learning, and who are eagerly seeking out the Jewish community to help them in their own learning – wrote: “Different communities hear words differently and we all need to listen, engage, and communicate with one another to understand why.”

Their insight resonates as we’ve been reminded once again that the words that wound us so deeply can be in a language more private than we realize. We’ve been struck by how many well-educated and informed people outside of the Jewish community were unfamiliar with the term “kapo” – a word that sends chills down our spines. We’ve had many a conversation over the years explaining the history of “blood libels,” “dual loyalty,” and other anti-Semitic tropes with otherwise knowledgeable friends who are appalled once they learn the toxicity of these terms. We leave the conversations with reassurances, not needed but nonetheless given, that not only will they never use those terms in the future, but they’ll be sure to challenge those who do.

The trust that allows for these open exchanges with friends also creates the space where they help us to understand the all-too-frequent assaults on their dignity and humanity. They teach us the language of their hurts; to decipher dog whistles containing tropes offensive to their communities, which enhance our understanding of their experience and strengthen our ability to stand with them when they need us.

The very thin silver lining from that despicable Boston Globe piece is that it exposed anti-Semitic tropes to the light of day and opened up the space to have conversations that differentiate between the actions of individual Jews and the collective accusation of our people. We’re grateful for the heartfelt conversations this has led to – ones in which we can ask our partners how they experience unfolding events and learn something new from what we hear.

And those are the conversations that enrich us all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Deeply Troubling Essay in The Boston Globe

I am deeply troubled and disappointed that The Boston Globe would publish the essay, “A shocking number of Jews have become willing collaborators in white supremacy.” This piece misappropriates Holocaust imagery in a reductive way and amplifies an anti-semitic trope without making the case for the author’s underlying thesis. To apply the term “kapo” to any Jew, and in general to use terminology related to the Holocaust in any context other than specifically talking about actual Nazis and the Holocaust is reductive and hurtful to Jews and victims of the Shoah. We at Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston have called out conservative Jews (inc. specifically Amb. David Friedman) for using the term “kapo” with regard to progressive Jews. It’s wrong when they do it and it is wrong when Jews on the left use it in political discourse regarding Jews on the right.

Further: It’s fine to go after Michael Cohen for his crimes and his actions. It’s fine to go after him as the son of a Survivor for his willful blindness to hatred & antisemitism that he had a part in elevating (he put that issue on the table himself). But to go from Michael Cohen to a larger thesis of “a shocking number of Jews” being “willing collaborators” to white supremacy elevates and perpetuates the anti-semitic trope of the nefarious Jew behind the curtain, aiding & abetting. In this case, specifically, the author makes the case that this is “a more extreme version of the same deal so many light-skinned Jews make with white supremacy” amplifying the hateful notion of the selfish Jews, putting ourselves and our interests above all else.

That the author does all this without ever making the case or offering data that Jewish individuals are overly represented amongst Trump abetters relative to our percentage of the population (or to exclusion of all the other trump abetters) is itself deeply problematic. Not to mention that the author makes no effort to take note that the vast majority of American Jews have rejected Trumpism (82% voted Dem in 2018) and many are leading the charge against him in a variety of forms.

In addition: This author uses language and framing that specifically and explicitly places Jews, as a whole, in the “whiteness” bucket in a way that minimizes Jewish experience and invisibilizes Jews of Color & Jews of sephardic/Mizrahi origin.

In sum: S. I. Rosenbaum is wrong to use term “kapo” in application to contemporary Jews, is wrong to lift up tropes that amplify anti-Semitic perceptions of Jews, and is wrong to oversimplify Jewish racial identity. And the Boston Globe was wrong to publish this piece.

Looking to the past, embracing a bold new future

Newspaper clipping, 1944

On June 14, 1944, one week after D-Day, 16 Jewish organizations in Boston came together to establish the Jewish Community Council “for the purpose of acting in unity in matters relating to civic protection and fund-raising.” Under the leadership of President Casper Grosberg and an “administrative committee” of 11 members, this coalition understood that there were collective challenges facing our community 75 years ago that required a collective response. Challenges such as anti-Semitic violence in the streets of Boston, preparation for the refugee challenges that would come with the end of the Holocaust, and, within a few years, to mobilize community support for the emerging Jewish state.

I thought of those “good men of the town” (and yes, they were all men) this week as our board convened to work on our next strategic plan. Under the leadership of our current President, Stacey Bloom, we dove into questions about our vision for Boston’s Jewish community and all the people of our region, the challenges of the current moment in Diaspora-Israel ties, and the opportunities that lie ahead as we map out our vision for the next several years of our work.

We, as a people, have always held our history and experience deeply, inviting tradition to inform our hopes for the future. And so, today, as we launch a months-long celebration of JCRC’s 75th anniversary, we are honoring the Jewish way of looking to the past as we embrace a bold new future.

The early rabbis, in the years after the Roman destruction of the Jewish commonwealth nearly 2,000 years ago, looked to the past – a Temple service no longer available to them, with its traditions practiced by Jews assembled in a capital of our own that was now ablaze – to imagine and inform the future. In a moment laden with deep despair, they marshalled their hope, and established new forms of assembly through synagogue ritual in the diaspora as we waited for renewal and return. Our rituals and practices would remind us of the Temple service – an eternal light above an ark, a central reading table where once we had an altar, an order of prayer modeling the sacrifice schedule – and have endured to shape the ways we congregate to this day.

When we gather each year at our Passover seder, we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we were present at the formative moment of national identity some 3,500 years ago. And we teach our children well so that they may look to the future with hope, with a passion for the values of Judaism and a commitment to the lessons of Passover for future generations. The story isn’t just a history lesson. It is a charge for future work.

Past and future in dynamic conversation, each deeply resonant and meaningful. Each informs our understanding of the other, guiding us as we look forward even in times of crisis and challenge. Because even in the times of the lowest despair – the burning of Jerusalem, the destruction of Europe – our leaders rose to face the challenge and look to the future with hope.

Today we launch our 75th anniversary celebration, chaired by Justin Wyner, our past President (1971-73) and Samantha Joseph, a rising leader on our board. And with thanks to the archives at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center, we’re honoring our past to inform our future. In the coming months, we’ll be filling in this JCRC timeline and telling the stories of pivotal moments and the impact we’ve had. Each month we’ll be highlighting historical moments from different areas of our work, starting with Government Affairs in honor of our Legislative Reception this coming week. I’m already excited by stories I did not know, like how we organized a coalition to change restrictive immigration laws in 1952 and worked in Washington to pass a bill against employment discrimination in 1954.

I’m looking forward to hearing these stories from our past, and reflecting on the valuable lessons they can teach us about our charge in the years ahead. I invite you to join me in this celebration and this journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

An Urgent Agenda

It has been over twenty years since the American Psychiatric Association deemed so-called conversion therapy (attempts to “repair” a person’s sexual orientation) to be harmful. Still, shockingly, 698,000 LGBTQ adults, including about 350,000 people who received treatment as adolescents, have been subjected to this traumatic practice in the U.S. alone.  Last month, after years of effort, the practice was banned for minors in New York, making it the 15th state to do so.

You may be surprised to learn that Massachusetts is not among the states that have banned this practice for minors. JCRC wants that to change.

Boston JCRC has a long and proud record of openly advocating for LGBTQ rights. Many years before I arrived here, Boston was the first Jewish community relations council in the country to fight for marriage equality. JCRC has supported legislation against conversion therapy in the past. And just a few weeks ago our Council’s Public Policy Committee unanimously affirmed that House Bill 2848, a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors in MA, should be one of JCRC’s priorities for this legislative session. I’m proud that we will be working to ensure that teenagers are no longer subjected to this sadistic practice masquerading as “treatment.”

Our advocacy on this bill, along with all our government affairs priorities this legislative season, once again reflects our commitment to defending civil rights and safeguarding long fought gains against discrimination, hatred, and bigotry. We are committed to working with our partners in government to enshrine policies that protect people across the Commonwealth—along with the lives of members of our community.

In 2017, the ADL tracked an 86% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools right here in Massachusetts—with many of these incidents involving Holocaust-related imagery and language. We need to act decisively to stem this disturbing tide. So, we are working with ADL to advocate for passage of An Act Concerning Genocide Education, to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in social studies classes in Massachusetts, enabling students to understand how unchecked prejudice and hatred can escalate to atrocity.

These are just two of seven bills that JCRC supports in our current Legislative Agenda, which includes a bill to protect immigrants being targeted for deportation, and others to help individuals and families overcome obstacles to opportunity and inclusion. Our legislative collaboration includes parties in the private and public sectors: philanthropists, social service agencies, our network of member organizations, and community leaders.

Each year at this time, we take the opportunity to recognize our partners on Beacon Hill who have joined with us to build a more just Commonwealth and a more vibrant democracy. JCRC’s annual Legislative Reception celebrates the importance of building powerful coalitions to improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for all in the Commonwealth. We lift up the work of the organized Jewish community to unite with others and act together for an urgent agenda; from civil rights to human services, economic opportunity to safety and security, supporting the vibrant MA-Israel partnership, and the protection of democratic values.

On March 5th, JCRC will honor four remarkable public servants who exercise their leadership to promote the common good. We will present awards to Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Joan Lovely, Representative Ron Mariano, and Springfield Council President Justin Hurst. These four public servants have answered the call for leadership in a time of great challenge, to address the urgent issues before us.

A well-functioning society and a responsive government would not be possible without outstanding, public servants like these four individuals, who honor their duty to the people of the Commonwealth. We look forward to coming together as a network to celebrate these four leaders and to recognize the work of JCRC and our partners. I invite you to join us.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

All Community Relations is Local

JCPA Opening Plenary: "Community Relations: The Past & Future of an American Jewish Success Story"
L-R: ED Jeremy Burton, AT&T’s Marissa Shorenstein, Rep. Jeremy Raskin (D-Md.), and David Brown

In recent weeks, a Jewish Federations of North America/Jewish Council for Public Affairs task force (of which I was a member), and the Reut Institute each released reports and recommendations on the future of the Jewish community relations field. Each calls for a reinvigoration of the network of JCRCs as an indispensable vehicle for the Jewish community – combining advocacy and relationship building efforts addressing both particularistic and universalistic issues – to navigate today’s polarized landscape and to advance core priorities and interests of our community. This past Sunday I was invited to respond to these reports as part of the JCPA Conference’s opening plenary.  What follows is drawn from my remarks:

Allow me to offer two metaphors to frame what the Jewish community relations (CRC) field needs.

Being from New England, the first metaphor is from football. When we look at the national field, some of our national agencies operate between the forty-yard lines, others work in the red-zone, but together the broad range of agencies – both JCPA members and other Jewish organizations – largely cover the field. There is virtually no issue, coalition, or partnership on the national stage where there is not some Jewish participation. There is virtually no leader of consequence with whom someone from across our network isn’t in relationship.

But there’s a second field, the field of the whole country across fifty states, and this one is not fully covered. And here, I offer a second metaphor. Since I live in Cambridge, MA, I’ll paraphrase our former congressman Speaker Tip O’Neill: All community relations is local.

Let me give you a glimpse of what my colleagues, CRC professionals around the country and I – do every day.

Each one of us is called upon (often multiple times daily) to hold the center of our local Jewish communities, listening and giving voice to a broad array of Jewish perspectives, and speaking to the values and interests of some 80-90% of American Jews. We know what those views are because we are the most over-studied and over-polled minority in American history. And we need to set and articulate boundaries – both to the left and to the right – to ensure that we are authentically representing the beliefs, opinions, and values that are the consensus of the vast majority of American Jews.

We are challenged – in an increasingly fractured time – to hold the center in broader civic space, finding ways to be in authentic and meaningful partnerships with evangelicals and LGBTQ activists, the Catholic Diocese and feminist leaders. We engage with all of them while also setting boundaries of hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism, both on the left and the right; that small percentage of folks to whom we will give no quarter.

In civic spaces we are expected to act as interpreters, representatives, and advocates; Interpreters of the diversity of Jewish perspectives and representatives of the organized Jewish community’s concerns. And advocates for the priorities of our communities.

CRC professionals are looked to provide vision, design, strategy and execution. We are expected to build programs, partnerships, and relationships in service to a collective agenda. We are on the front lines of the hardest conversations and the moments of crisis that impact us all.

Which is to say that if we are serious about the findings of these reports (i.e. that community relations is a valuable and strategic resource that requires a serious investment) then our response needs to be a major investment in local JCRCs, in my colleagues around the country, and especially in those communities where there is currently little or no JCRC work being done right now.

We need to develop the professionals and volunteers who are committed to and trained in the practice of community relations. We need to support them in the challenging local work even when other forces try to nationalize every squabble and social media amplifies every fracture. We need to invest in local capacity to experiment and pilot in doing this work. And we need to measure and replicate those experiments in other local communities.

The organized Jewish community, through the community relations network, needs to cover the field. We need a fifty-state strategy of local community relations practitioners. These practitioners must have the benefit of a vibrant national peer network from whom they can learn and adapt to meet unique local relational needs.

Together with funders, national agencies, and other partners, we can strengthen this local work across the country. Now is the moment to look forward and to build the capacity and the tools to tackle our collective public affairs goals in a profoundly disruptive time.

The Chorus of Remembrance

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was seven years old when, in 1946, she boarded a ship to America with her two sisters. Four years earlier, in a French internment camp, they had been torn away from their parents. While they were hidden for a time in France and then smuggled into Switzerland, their parents were each sent by cattle car to the death camp at Auschwitz and gassed upon their arrival. (pictured above: Sylvia (center), with her two sisters, Switzerland, 1945)

The voyage to America was difficult. The ship was filled with desperate refugees and reeked from the rotting vegetables that were their sustenance. Like many passengers, Sylvia became sick, soiling her dress multiple times. When she and her sisters arrived in New York, they were met by their aunt and uncle, who took in the traumatized girls and helped them start a new life.

Newly enrolled in school and struggling to learn a new language, Sylvia chose a special item for “show and tell”; one that that would help her share her story. She brought in the dress she wore on the ship. She told her classmates about her journey on the smelly ship, and about the murder of her parents. Her teacher, Mrs. Lynch, immediately grabbed Sylvia’s arm, hissing, “You little liar! Be quiet and sit down!” Many years would pass before Sylvia would share her experience again.

That cruel incident took place at a time before the world had fully faced and come to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, as we would in the decades to follow. And yet, seventy years later – we find ourselves with new challenges of knowledge and memory.

A 2018 survey of United States residents showed that forty-one percent of millennials believe that only two million Jews or fewer were killed in the Holocaust. Sixty-six percent of them could not identify what Auschwitz was. In Europe, a third of those polled knew "just a little or nothing at all" about the Holocaust. These numbers are obviously deeply concerning, especially as the very youngest of the survivors who can give first hand witness to the Holocaust are advancing into their eighties.

Through programming connected to the New England Holocaust Memorial, JCRC’s Holocaust education work is centered around survivor testimony. We are committed to providing opportunities for survivors to transmit their experiences for as long as they are able. The Memorial was intentionally placed in the heart of the Boston, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, so that this memory would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

In this spirit, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day this past Sunday, we invited Sylvia to share her story (documented in her extraordinary memoir) of unimaginable loss and remarkable resilience with an audience of some fifty people at the Brookline Booksmith. And on Monday, we brought survivor Jack Trompetter to Lynn Classical High School. This was the first and perhaps only time that the 400 students assembled will hear a firsthand account from a Holocaust survivor.

JCRC also worked with our partners these past weeks to promote Holocaust remembrance with a Boston City Council commemoration and as part of the “We Remember” social media campaign organized by the World Jewish Congress. Elected officials from across the Commonwealth took part to lend their voices to the chorus of remembrance.

DxoQH-6WoAAS_4H

The Boston City Council for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

But faced with the alarming figures about the lack of knowledge, we need to double down to ensure that the Shoah is remembered, through meaningful education of the next generation.

Senator Rodrigues

To protect the transmission of history, Holocaust education cannot be relegated to special occasions like the ones this week, but must be fully embedded into the curriculum of all our schools. That is why JCRC has joined with the ADL and others to support legislation mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Social Studies classes across Massachusetts. The bill, filed by Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Jeff Roy would ensure a curriculum designed to lift up the very stories and experiences shared by Sylvia, Jack, and the survivor community.

As a community, we understand our sacred obligation to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. We remember the warning signs ignored and the indifference of those who knew what was being done at that time; an indifference that provided the necessary cover for this horror. We hear and tell the stories of our survivors – so that we may bear witness to their experiences and carry their memories forward.  Our work of memory is entwined with our hope for the future; it informs and inspires our efforts to build a future where anti-Semitism, all bigotries, and the indifference that enables them, will someday find no quarter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“A Day On”

I will admit that I was slow moving getting out of the house on Monday morning. It was a federal holiday after a challenging work week. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in having difficulty getting to sleep on Sunday after the adrenaline rush of that amazing Patriots overtime. And my driveway needed to be shoveled.

But while some of us here were deeply focused on our Council meeting last week, much of our staff had been hard at work planning our fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, and I wasn’t going to miss that. So at 9am, I happily joined a team of volunteers – mostly parents with teens – at the Haitian Church of the Nazarene in Waltham to help refurbish and revitalize their space. 43 volunteers painted and helped with other much-needed repairs to several areas of the church, which is preparing for its Annual Celebration ‪on January 27th. And then I went to Temple Beth Am in Framingham, where 120 teens and adults had gathered to bake lasagnas and banana bread for soup kitchens in the MetroWest area that are supported by our partners at Jewish Family Service (JFS).

Before these teens – many of whom do service on other service initiatives through Jewish Teen Initiative and JCRC’s TELEM program – began their work, they gathered around for an overview of poverty and food insecurity issues, and to frame the day through the prism of Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, or Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue – the familiar (to many of us) words from the Torah that call and inspire us to action.

Over the course of a bitterly cold day, over 300 volunteers joined JCRC at 10 project sites around greater Boston. Families sorted through donations of clothing and toys in the Cradles to Crayons Giving Factory— enough to help 210 low-income and homeless children. Volunteers and Hebrew Senior Life residents wrote 24 letters to Congress in an effort to keep the Temporary Protected Status program alive (TPS is a designation for people who could not return safely to their countries). We did refurbishment work at a public school in the South End and, in partnership with Rebuilding Together Boston, helped make repairs to homes in Mattapan and Dorchester that will make it easier for senior citizens to age in place in the communities where they’ve lived for many decades.

One important part of JCRC’s work is responding to Rabbi Hillel’s charge: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But Monday, and every day of our program year, JCRC places service at the center of our work in response to Hillel’s second question: “If I am only for myself, who am I?”

And if our enduring commitment to service is our way of connecting Boston’s Jewish community to the broader civic space as partners, then Monday was also a day for embracing the teaching of the Rev. Dr. King, who, in part echoing the words of Hillel, challenged us: “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'” 

When I came home Monday evening, I was re-energized from our “day on.” Renewed in my enthusiasm for a JCRC that responds to all aspects of the teachings of Hillel, including his third question, a charge to urgency: “If not now, when?”

Those are the words that get me going this – and every – morning, in service to our values and the common good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy