Category Archives: Letter from the Director

Honoring 20 Years of the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy

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

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

Two of their stories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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

Questions We Ask Ourselves in a Time of Disruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Celebrating Israel’s Independence with Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom.

Jeremy

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

Note: This post also appears on Times of Israel.

Preserving the Legacy: Join us this Sunday for Yom HaShoah

This Sunday, April 23rd, at 10:30am at Faneuil Hall, we will again come together as one community to commemorate the Holocaust. Each year, as part of this Yom HaShoah program, we recognize the winners of the Israel Arbeiter Essay Contest. Mr. Arbeiter, a Holocaust survivor and a leader in our community, is a passionate advocate for Holocaust education. His story of survival in the face of horror has inspired thousands of students across Greater Boston.

Zachary Sclar, an 11th grader from Bromfield, MA does not have a Holocaust education program in his school. He is part of the JF&CS Legacies program that matches high school students with Holocaust survivors. Coming from a family of Holocaust survivors himself, he is passionate about learning all he can.

His eloquent, thoughtful, and heartfelt essay is the first place winner of our 2017 essay contest and I’d like to share several excerpts from it with you ahead of this Sunday’s Boston Community Yom HaShoah program.

Compassion and the Holocaust

By Zachary Sclar

“In the final analysis, I believe in man in spite of men.” Elie Wiesel uttered these words while giving his Holocaust Remembrance speech on April 23, 2009. In that same speech, he stated that even under the worst of circumstances, with cruelty and darkness abounding, many survivors of the concentration camps treated each other with compassion. Whether it was sharing a piece of bread with someone hungrier, or shielding a child from harm, somehow survivors found it within themselves to treat each other kindly despite their plight. Wiesel believed that compassion was not just a human right, but it was part of one’s identity and makeup as a human being. Additionally, he felt that every human rights campaign must begin with compassion if it were to be successful.

…I believe that compassion is more than a human right; it is deep inside each of us, and part of our wiring. Compassion is not an agenda item of the political left, nor is it exclusively the doctrine of religion. Compassion is our instinct and duty as human beings to abide by basic human principles that bind us together as members of the same human family. “When some deny our human capacity for compassion by denying human rights to others, they are not just attacking our universal human rights; they are also denying their identities as human beings” (Inn 2010).

Studying the Holocaust the past four years has had a profound impact on my life and has underscored the critical need for compassion today more than ever. One need only look at the Syrian refugee plight for proof of this. The few countries that have stepped up to help are making a huge difference in people’s lives. Whether suffering is in plain sight or around the world, it is everyone’s concern.

I remind myself daily that compassion starts with the smallest of good deeds. In my own experience, the smallest act of kindness goes a long way and can make a huge difference to someone. I am conscious of my privilege as a white middle class male, and I know that others often do not receive the same treatment that I do. I strive to listen to and respect everyone and believe everyone has a story to tell that is interesting and valuable. My responsibility to all, I believe, is simply to listen and remember. If we don’t honor the lives of those who suffered and learn from past mistakes, as the last remaining survivor population dwindles, their stories will die with them. Remarkably, none of the Holocaust survivors whose testimonies I have heard want revenge, and they don’t exhibit any hate or contempt. The unifying theme of all of their testimonies is a wish for a future that is more kind and humane, and that histories’ lessons don’t go ignored. When we bear witness, we become a witness. The onus is on my generation to create a world that is more compassionate. We are the bridge to a better tomorrow. We all need to be aware and do our part in this world. Kindness and compassion are the tools essential for building a future that is more humane.

I hope you will join us on Sunday, 10:30 am at Faneuil Hall as we recognize Zachary’s work and that of five other student winners. Together we will honor our local survivors, pay tribute to those who perished, transmit memory and ensure an enduring commitment to preserving this critical legacy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Beyond Books and Borders

On the eve of Passover, when we share our national story and reenact our journey, I share with you the story of one of our literacy volunteers and the deep connections she has fostered with her students through their shared life journeys.

In May of 1960, Marion Bank was 13 and living in Chile when she experienced the largest recorded seismic event to date. What became known as the Great Chilean Earthquake had devastating effects all over Chile, and continued to have ripple effects from Japan and the Philippines to Alaska. This experience left a lasting impact on Marion - one she would share over 55 years later with a group of fourth graders at the Stapleton Elementary School in Framingham, where – as part of a team from Temple Beth Sholom, Framingham - she tutors with the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL).

Marion currently works in the fourth grade science class on Wednesday mornings. On this particular day, the students were learning about earthquakes and Marion was able to make the concept come alive with her story of trauma and survival from her childhood. The room lit up. The students asked questions: “What did you do?” “Were you scared?” “Did you have nightmares after that?” The lesson became much more than a routine science class and the students were able to understand the very real impact of earthquakes in a new way.

Marion, like many of our GBJCL students, immigrated to America when she was young. Her parents fled Nazi Germany in 1939. They got on a ship -not knowing where it was headed - and ended up in Chile. Almost a quarter century later, having survived the Nazi era, Marion’s family decided to move to America.

Marion’s connection to the immigrant experiences of others is a deeply personal one. As a tutor at Stapleton, she is able to connect with students who are new to this county and who are adjusting to a new life in a new place. One young boy joined the Stapleton class shortly after he and his family emigrated from Brazil. He was very shy about using English and did not feel confident writing when asked. Marion worked closely with him, engaging him in conversation about what he wanted to learn. She would then write down his answers and share it with the teacher.

That experience gave this student more assurance and, by the end of the year, he was a full participant in the class. Marion’s own experience of being a stranger in a new land allowed her to lend the support needed to build her young friend’s confidence as a capable student and an English speaker.
After learning Marion’s story about her family’s journey to Chile and then America, Lianne Manzella, the 4th grade science teacher, decided to design her immigration unit around Marion’s experience later this spring. Once again, the students will have the opportunity to learn from Marion’s first-hand experience. They’ll have the opportunity to understand her unique perspective as an immigrant and just maybe, to share their own immigration stories.

As we continue our GBJCL20 celebration, we are sharing stories that celebrate the impact the program has had on students and volunteer tutors. Our tutors are as diverse as the students we work with, coming from different backgrounds and bringing a variety of experiences with them to the program. Join us in celebrating the 20th anniversary of our literacy volunteer program as JCRC Celebrates on May 24th.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Passover,

Jeremy

Four Questions, Four Actions

Click here to download our Seder Supplement for 2017/5777, featuring action items and Boston-specific stories about immigrants and refugees.

 

With Passover just over a week away, and many of us already deep into preparations, I ask you to pause with me for just a moment, as we acknowledge some remarkable community-wide efforts addressing issues deeply resonant of themes of the Festival of Freedom.

As you may have read in today’s Boston Globe, CJP - Combined Jewish Philanthropies is teaming up with Catholic Charities of Boston to fund legal services for immigrants in a powerful display of interfaith cooperation in this challenging time. I’m particularly proud that JCRC Board President Adam Suttin is taking the lead amongst donors to the fund. As Adam says in this Boston Globe piece today: "He sees aiding today’s newcomers as a matter of “basic human rights, civil rights, and Jewish values.”

“We were once strangers in this land,” he said. “We have to remember that and provide opportunities for others to enjoy the benefits of this country.”

This new fund is the latest action step in a multi-pronged collective agenda in which our local Jewish community is standing in solidarity with immigrants and refugees. I’m delighted to share more about our actions – those we’ve taken so far, and those we invite you to join us on in the future – which are featured in JCRC’s Seder Supplement for 2017/5777: Standing with Immigrants and Refugees (PDF).

We are very proud to be distributing this in partnership with ADL New England, JALSA, Jewish Family Service and JVS.

But how is this Seder Supplement different from all others, you may ask?

This one is specifically about – and for – Boston’s Jewish community.

  • You will read stories that should be roundly and proudly shared, of the actions that Jewish organizations and synagogues members are taking to support and act in solidarity with our foreign born neighbors.
  • You will also read about the profound way in which these issues resonate with our own experience and history as Jews, including the seldom told story of how many of our people found safety in this country, even without legal access or documentation.
  • Finally, and most important, you will learn how you can take critical action now, to breathe new life into our age old commitment to freedom for all people.

Wishing you a joyous and meaningful Passover!

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Building Bridges with Muslim Leaders

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend retreat of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) of the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI). MLI was launched in 2013 under the co-leadership of Imam Abdullah Antepli, director of Muslim affairs at Duke University, and SHI senior fellow Yossi Klein Halevi. Over four years, four cohorts and some seventy participants, MLI has nourished a community of American Muslim leaders committed to understanding the complex religious and political issues we grapple with within the Jewish community.

Over the course of the weekend, I had opportunities to spend time with many of these leaders, engaging in honest conversations laden with both curiosity and tension. As we spoke, in quiet corners and over meals, I experienced their deep desire to understand my community, and an equal willingness to open themselves up to any questions I had about theirs. We talked politics, faith, culture; about hopes, dreams, and fears.

But most important, I found myself responding - to their deep and authentic desire to understand and connect - with my own authenticity, allowing myself to be vulnerable and honest.

At a retreat focused on coalition building, one theme from a teaching session by SHI’s Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer prompted my own reflections: a need to be clear, with ourselves and with our partners, about the imperatives that drive our work and our institutions. At JCRC, some of these would include our commitment to the national project of Jewish peoplehood including a Jewish state, and our will to speak and act with one voice as one community.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular imperative that has long guided much of our work: the belief that the American Jewish community is best served – as we’ve been over many decades – when our nation is dedicated to equality of opportunity for all people. We all benefit, and as Jews we have thrived individually and as a community, in a free society dedicated to constitutional liberal democracy where freedoms – of press, of speech, of privacy – are cherished, and where the dignity of all people is protected. We are guided by the belief that only in a society with no tolerance for discrimination of any kind, and no obstacles standing in the way of opportunity for every one of us is one, can we all truly thrive. We know too well that a culture that demonizes and marginalizes others threatens us as well.

It is this belief that has compelled JCRC to work on civil rights issues, on criminal justice reform, and – long before I came to Boston – on women’s and LGBTQ equality.

At this moment, when such a vision of our nation seems challenged in so many ways, this strategic imperative to defend the American idea of a democracy has risen, for us, to a place of necessity and urgency. And engaging in these honest conversations with Muslim leaders, I could not help but think of the urgent necessity for the mainstreams of our two communities – the two largest faith minorities in this country - to stand together to meet this challenge.

I’ve experienced firsthand those in each of our communities who want to keep us apart, who focus on the extremes and the challenges that divide us. But this week, not for the first time, I am reminded that there are many who seek to build bridges between us.

In this moment of challenge for our nation, surely the bridge builders - those who seek to hold the centers of our two communities and to bind them to each other where we can in a shared interest – can, if they choose, be stronger than those who work to keep us apart. This is not simple or straightforward work, and I don’t say this naively. But when I see the work being done by this group at MLI, the relationships, the commitment, the honesty, I know that more is possible and that we have a role to play in supporting this work. And if we have a role to play, surely we have a responsibility to do what we can to meet this urgent moment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

P.S., for another feature on the solidarity between Boston's Jewish and Muslim communities, read the piece in Friday's Boston Globe.

Layers and Narratives of Complexity

Last month I had the opportunity to spend four days traveling in Palestinian Authority controlled areas of the West Bank, and in Jerusalem neighborhoods with Palestinian majorities. This opportunity was provided by Encounter, which invites American Jewish leaders to engage with Palestinian experiences and perspectives.

I found some familiar experiences: meeting co-existence activists in Bethlehem (including one we meet with on our JCRC trips); touring Ramallah and hearing from a member of the Palestinian negotiation team. I also had new experiences: visiting a refugee community near Bethlehem that I have often viewed from afar; walking through a security checkpoint that six weeks earlier I had viewed from the Jerusalem side during a security barrier tour; visiting Battir – a Palestinian village with ancient Jewish significance - abutting the Green Line that divided the area for nineteen years, but where the Green Line remained open so that villagers could continue working their farms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about two particular encounters:

A small group of us had tea in Bethlehem with a Christian woman. She was animated, her emotions heightened as she relates her experience. She is adamant that she knows no one who has engaged in violent resistance, she rejects it, even abhors it. But she asks us why she must pay the price for the violence committed by others, and suffer the consequence of Israel’s response; why she must live with a security barrier limiting her passage to the Jerusalem she knew fondly, and complicating travel to other areas of the West Bank beyond the Bethlehem area.

During our conversation it becomes apparent that - despite having met with many American Jewish groups over the years - this woman’s perception of our identity is wildly inaccurate. She does not understand the distinction between “Jewish” and “Israeli” or seem to know that we visitors don’t have a vote in Israel, or that most of us never plan to move here. She is shocked by our articulation of this nuance. Then she is eager to move on rather than explore this new information. She has an urgent need to resume her narrative and have us hear more about her experience.

My second experience was a walking tour with a resident of Sheik Jarrah. The neighborhood is just north of Jerusalem’s Old City, over the Green Line and inside the present municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Our host was an academic and a mother of four. She was born in the home she lives in today - when the area was under Jordanian control. Her parents were refugees from what became Israel and, after 1948, Jordan resettled them in this neighborhood.

As a resident of the neighborhood, she and her children carry blue identity cards. Blue cards are for non-Israeli citizen Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Her husband carries the green card of a West Bank Palestinian. She is indignant that he is not permitted to live with her in Jerusalem, that she is forced to visit him at his home in Ramallah. She is passionately angry about the Jewish presence in the neighborhood and about the Jews that, she tells us, have “stolen” Palestinian homes. She is frustrated with the quality of her municipal services.

There is more to the story of this neighborhood that she does not tell us, and that she may not even know: before 1948 Sheik Jarrah was a mixed Arab and Jewish neighborhood with a second, Jewish, name: Shim'on HaTsadik. In 1948 the Jewish residents were forced to become refugees themselves and move to the western part of the city; many of the homes Jordan provided to the new Palestinian residents were on Jewish properties.

This omission from the narrative doesn’t diminish the importance of her experience. Why, we ask, does she stay here rather than live with her husband? “This is where I was born. This is my home.” Why doesn’t she exercise her right to vote in municipal elections and use the power she has? “Because not voting is part of our non-violent resistance.”

I’m comfortable with the intentionally unbalanced nature of these experiences. For me - steeped in Israel education, with years of living in Israel and traveling here– this is another slice, another aspect of a place I care so much about. And sometimes we need to do a little quieting of our own narrative so we can really hear the narrative of another. Too few of us get to travel here and converse with these people. This may be in part because we lack opportunities to do so, but often, we’re simply not interested in the whole picture.

This is a familiar challenge and frustration. So many of us are insistent on sharing our narratives, but we have little interest in hearing those of others. We become enamored of those facts that affirm our biases, and we claim them as our narratives, while ignoring that which challenges our world views or forces us to look beyond our own stories. Even during this encounter I wondered what our conversations with Palestinians would be like if they included participation by Israelis I know, with their own experience of suffering and helplessness in the face of the second Intifada’s attacks; violence that the security barrier almost completely halted. I wonder if those two narratives, side by side, could find some common narrative that could bridge the divide between them.

Encountering Palestinians doesn’t undermine my core commitment to achieving peace through a negotiated two-state agreement. Rather, it affirms it. This experience deepens my understanding of the complex challenges in achieving peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. And, it widens my appreciation for those innocents, both Israeli and Palestinian, who live daily with realities that come from the absence of peace; and who express an experience of having no personal agency in solving this.

A month later I am continuing to sit with the challenge and the frustration, but also with a hope: that by investing in coexistence and peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians, in time it may be possible to build at least one shared narrative in this place; of two people sharing peace.

And I am grateful to have had this opportunity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Embracing Optimism: Peres’ Message of Constructive Engagement

This blog was originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

At last week’s kickoff event for the CommUNITY Israel Dialogue, we honored the life and legacy of Shimon Peres. Israel’s former Consul General to New England Nadav Tamir began by sharing one of Peres’ guiding principles: unfettered optimism.

Peres chose to be an optimist despite facing various levels of opposition during his decades of public service in Israel. Peres, Nadav recalled, figured that since optimists and pessimists “all die the same way,” he would take the “glass half full” approach.

In these unpredictable and difficult times, we are embarking on a year-long effort to plot a course toward healthier conversations with each other about the ways in which we all connect with Israel. As we set forward on this path, one intention we can set for ourselves is to hear Shimon Peres’ wisdom in embracing constructive optimism.

Nadav articulated a few of the things that he learned from Peres that help him maintain an optimistic outlook for Israel and world Jewry.

First, he spoke about looking for win-win scenarios; seeking opportunities to learn and converse about significant issues together, particularly when we find ourselves in situations that appear to be adversarial in nature.

Second, he listened. Peres achieved his greatest successes when he was listening empathically, not when he was delivering a monologue based on scripted talking points.

Third, he didn’t dwell on past failures. Perhaps the ultimate key to Peres’ success was his ability to put the past aside to secure the future he hoped to create. He was not deterred by setbacks and failed negotiations. He insisted on pushing forward, armed with the belief that change would come, and that he could be a key instrument in bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

Regardless of our personal politics, I believe we can wholeheartedly embrace this principle of constructive optimism.

If we are to create a more productive community engagement with each other about Israel, we will need to put aside external factors and past experiences that lead us to feel pessimistic, apathetic, and despairing when we talk to one another about Israel. We have the ability to move forward as a community with productive conversations about the Jewish state and its central role in the Jewish future.

This is a difficult task, one which involves individuals letting go of pre-conceived notions that are often deeply rooted in historical narrative and personal experience, stopping to truly hear each other’s perspectives when we would rather not, and shutting out the voices that say having a conversation about Israel is so difficult it isn’t worth our time.

For us to succeed, we will need to acknowledge that the significance of this challenge attests to the importance of the task at hand. We can help provide answers for those who are stuck wondering how to move forward. We can be models of civic discourse, unity, and optimism in a time when these qualities are in too short supply. We need only to take responsibility for our community here in Boston.

After hearing Nadav, I was left with the following thought: we cannot afford to wait for “things to get better” before we become optimists. The burden is on us to bring optimism into the world and that starts within our own community.

It is important to understand that Peres saw this as a choice that we make — between optimism and pessimism.

Some people today are experiencing that same choice, while others are more personally attuned to the tension between optimism and apathy, or between optimism and despair. Sitting in the audience I found myself inspired by the emphasis on optimism. If we as a community embrace the principles Shimon Peres espoused and that Nadav Tamir shared with us last week, then we have reason to be optimistic about our communal conversations about Israel.

Watch Nadav’s keynote here.

Watch CJP executive director Gil Preuss introduce the CommUNITY Israel Dialogue here.

Read more about the CommUNITY Israel Dialogue, including a list of our 60 partner organizations and upcoming events.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy