Category Archives: The Friday Blog

When “Holocaust” was trending on social media this week

Our work includes priorities that we work on for months and even years at a time. We don’t let go of these concerns and we never lose our focus on them, even as we work on several things at any one time. Then there are days when something in the news reminds us why we cannot and do not lose our focus. And sometimes, there are days when serendipity causes the head to spin, as such news unfolds side by side with progress on our efforts.

Yesterday was one of those days.

In the afternoon, the alerts started popping about a story broken by NBC, that a top administrator with a Southlake, Texas school district “advised teachers last week that if they have a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should also offer students access to a book from an ‘opposing’ perspective.”

You read that right. This official was positing that there is an “opposing” view to the fact of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against our people. Justified outrage and calls for retractions and apologies were being voiced. It was a vivid reminder of a problem  my colleagues and I have discussed repeatedly: in this space rising antisemitism along with a failure to know and understand the history of the Holocaust and other genocides and the lessons of that history. The result of that problem is that we have an American generation being raised with chasmic moral blind spots as we here in Massachusetts were reminded so vividly this spring in Duxbury.

(Reports this morning indicate that the situation in Texas may be more complex than originally reported and that the administrator wasn’t trying to “both-sides” Holocaust education, but rather is struggling to comply with a new state law barring certain educational methodologies)

And, yesterday, nearly simultaneously to the news out of Texas, came news that the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways and Means had reported out S.2557, An Act concerning genocide education, that we support. As we and ADL said together last night (you can read our full statement here):

This strong bill achieves key objectives in providing schools across the Commonwealth with access to resources to implement genocide education programs. Through lessons about the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other instances of genocide, such programs will serve to ensure that students learn to recognize and fight hate in their communities.

Genocide education is key to combating hate by helping students understand how seemingly benign stereotypes and prejudice can turn into atrocity. Over the last several years, we have seen a significant rise in hateful incidents in our communities, paired with a dangerous downturn in knowledge about the Holocaust and other genocides. We appreciate the support of the House and Senate Chairs of the Joint Committee on Education in moving this legislation forward early in session and hope to see it make its way to Governor Baker’s desk as swiftly as possible.

And so, this morning, and every day, we at JCRC, along with our partners, are fired up to keep working on this specific effort. And we’re reminded anew of the urgency and importance of ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust does not fade, and that every possible effort is being made to confront and combat rising antisemitism.

I’m grateful to you all for your partnership in this urgent and important work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton 

Holding Complex Relationships

Earlier this week I was doing my morning meditation, following a prompt to reflect on the reality that when someone causes harm to someone else, more likely than not, the person causing the harm moves on quickly. Meanwhile the person who was harmed continues to carry it, in the form of anger. That anger prevents us from being able to be curious about why the harm was done, and by extension, to understand the motive behind the harm done. 

I’m paraphrasing that – because one doesn’t stop to take notes during meditation. It was also a bit disruptive to my session because it really got my mind going in that moment; thinking about some of the civic relationships that our community has been navigating of late. 

Over the summer I’ve been privileged to sit in on a series of meetings organized by the Agudas Yisroel for the Orthodox community in Brighton to engage with all of Boston’s mayoral candidates. I admire how these congregations have come together to talk about their specific concerns that are impacted by municipal government, along with their resilience in the wake of a violent antisemitic attack on the community this summer.  

And, this week I attended a meet-and-greet organized by the new ‘Cambridge Jewish Civics Club’ with most of the candidates for our city council. I observed my neighbors engaging with a range of candidates on many issues. Not all those conversations were easy; several people, rightly, challenged one incumbent who had made – what many of us interpret as antisemitic remarks at a Council meeting last May, for which he has yet to publicly apologize.  

I’ve been feeling hopeful as both of these parts of our community are mobilizing and registering voters ahead of the consequential elections next month. 

Heads Up: The last day to register for the MA municipal elections this year is next Wednesday, October 13th. You can still register here. 

And, of course, there’s the relationship that I discussed with the Jewish Insider last week; a relationship with our community, that has, at times, been very warm but has also become fraught and that, to judge by the responses I’ve received from our leaders and activists, draws a wide range of strongly held feelings.  

In other words, it is fair to say that in community relations work, it is not uncommon for someone – whether in civic space, or within our own community – to say or do something that causes genuine harm; to us, to the causes we are passionate about, to people who matter to us. And, we are all, including myself, sometimes angry and always passionate about harms done to us.  

Still and all, we’re in the business of relations, which is a bit more complex and nuanced than simply being advocates. We’re not only mobilizing our supporters and those who agree with us; we’re building bridges of understanding across disagreements. I, and we, can and need to be “angry and tired” at times, but I also get energized by the relationships we nurture, in all their complexity. And, I am energized by observing and supporting grassroots efforts – like the ones described above, but also many others – that build our community’s civic engagement and relationships.  

So, for now, I’m carrying our anger where I need to, and my curiosity, always. And I’m hopeful that the efforts of our community, in its diffuse parts, are helping to forge understanding and change as well as accountability where needed.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton 

p.s. While October 13th may be the deadline to register to vote this year, JCRC is working in coalition with Common Cause MA and others to eliminate the gap between election day and the voter registration deadline. This week, the Massachusetts Senate passed the Votes Act, which would, among other reforms, establish same-day registration, already available in 20 states. Props, especially, to Senate President Spilka, Senator Creem, Senator Finegold, Senator Rausch and Senator Rodrigues for their leadership on this issue. But this bill is not a law yet and there is more work to be done. If you want to join us in working to enact this law, consider registering to join us at the VOTES Act coalition lobby day next Wednesday, October 13.    

Reflecting on my decade at JCRC

Dear Friends,

Ten years ago this very morning, I entered (what is now) the Kraft Family Building for the very first time as the new director of JCRC. 

On that first morning, when I turned the corner onto High Street, waiting for me outside the building was our board chair, Bill Gabovitch, who ceremoniously held the door open for me and took me through security and then to a welcome breakfast. An hour later, I was called up to CJP to a meeting in Barry Shrage’s office with several members of his team. There was some problem to be sorted out; something to do with some issue at City Hall. Barry looked at me in a mischievous way that I would come to recognize and appreciate, and in front of everyone, he asked: “So, how does our JCRC director advise us?!?” 

Looking back on that morning, I don’t even recall what the particular problem was. What I do recall was the next step, something akin to: “Well, let’s take an hour to make some calls to some of our leaders who’ve been invested in these relationships, and see what they are thinking before we decide.” 

At least once a year – every October 1st – I’ve thought of Bill waiting to welcome me to Boston. And there have been, over the past decade, quite literally thousands of times when a version of that exchange about making some calls has occurred. In my mind, these two meaningful moments from my first morning on this job have cemented for me the essence of what our work here has been about; passionate leaders who care deeply about JCRC and our community, and a wide network – our board and staff, our member agencies’ leaders, and all the others in our community – who have invested in relationships with a wide range of civic leaders, and who are willing to work together and with us to tackle challenges and seize opportunities for our community.

For those of you who joined us last night for JCRC’s Celebration, thank you. If you were unable to join, please take a moment to watch the event here.

And if you have not yet had a chance to join me in supporting JCRC's work, please consider doing so today.

I am honored that our Board decided to recognize me as I begin my second decade in this position. But I’m more honored by the investment every one of you makes in being part of this network – not just on celebratory nights, but every day of the year. It is all of you who have made every challenge we’ve faced these past ten years a collective one to overcome, and every success we’ve had a collective win for all of us.

I am looking forward to our next decade – to all of the calls (and the texts, and the WhatsApps, and all the different ways we exchange thoughts) from you and to you as we figure out the next steps, and the path ahead, on all the challenges and opportunities we will face. I am excited to continue to learn from and with you as, together, we advance our community’s values, interests and priorities for many years to come. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Remembering 9/11

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a time to commemorate, as people will in places around the Commonwealth tomorrow.

Over these two decades, more often than not – at least for me - the conversation this time of year has been one of sharing experience. Where were you? When did we know? Did you lose anyone? And so on.

But twenty years clarifies that as time has passed, this sharing of our own experiences begins to shift to conveying an experience to those who have none of their own from that horrific day; who did not live through the change in our nation and the world in the days and years that followed.  Tragically, we’ve been reminded, in recent weeks, that there are soldiers serving and dying for our nation who were not yet born on that day. There are students in college, young adults in the workforce, who are of the generation after. They have no experience of 9/11 or the world before that day. They only learn about that day from others and experience their world, the world that came after.

For them, and for more and more people in the years ahead, 9/11 is history. Recent, vital, history, but still. Something that is learned about as a fact, at a distance.

In Biblical Hebrew and the Jewish tradition, we do not have a word for “history.” We of course have history; our ancestors wrote chronologies (divrei hayamim), and we have a deep record of events, but the word we use to understand that narrative and its meaning to us, the descendants of those who experienced events, is the word zakhor, or memory.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’tl, writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy that “there is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is ‘his story,’ an account of events that occurred sometime else to someone else. Memory is ‘my story.’ It is the past internalized and made part of my identity. History is an answer to the question, ‘What happened?’ Memory is an answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’

Rabbi Sacks further observes, that “as with an individual suffering from dementia, so with a culture as whole: the loss of memory is experienced as a loss of identity.”

9/11 is part of our collective identity. It should never be limited to the transmission of history. It is formative to who we became as a nation on that day and since then, an experience to be transmitted from generation to generation as part of our memory.

As Rabbi Sacks writes: “you can delegate history to computers, looking it up when you need it. But you cannot delegate memory. Memory is inescapably personal. It is what makes us who we are. If you seek to sustain identity, you have to renew memory regularly and teach it to the next generation.”

For every one of us who lived that day, 9/11 is part of our experience. But how I, and you, and we, convey that experience to the next generation is how we make sense of it as part of our shared identity, a memory to be transmitted.

And so, I continue to remember that beautiful, near perfect late-summer day in Manhattan going to vote, before the sky came down and the air stank for weeks. I remember the experience of learning about specific individual losses, about the hopes of neighbors then shattered. I remember the emotions, the anxieties, the fears and vulnerabilities that have been so present these past twenty years, and I remember that they were not always as so, so very present in our national identity. I remember what was lost that day, and I commit to helping future generations to remember as well.

This date of memory also comes amidst, for us, a season of remembering; as we gather in synagogues to pray the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur and Sukkot for our loved ones who have passed. It is also a season when many Jews visit the graves of our ancestors.

For many survivors of the Shoah, there are no graves to visit of those taken from us in the Holocaust. Here in Boston, we have a developed a tradition of holding a “Yizkor service” at the Statue of Job on the Brandeis University campus on the Sunday before Yom Kippur. Organized by JCRC in partnership with the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston and Brandeis Hillel, the event will, as it was for the first-time last year in this continuing period of COVID, be available online this year. I invite you to join us this Sunday at 11:00 am in this service of memory.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Standing in the valley

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

Though each season in New England has its unique pleasures (Colorful leaves! Snowshoeing! Flowers in bloom!) I must admit to loving summer most of all. Yes, I’m an unapologetic beach bum, but I also just appreciate the generally slower pace, the opportunity to get away, to read more novels and to socialize.

Summer 2021 was one that began with real promise. The miraculously quick delivery of the COVID vaccine meant that it was finally safe to venture out of our homes, shed our Zoom fatigue and see one another in person, beginning with overdue hugs. When we checked in with friends and family, we even went so far as to use terms like “during the Pandemic” to describe the past. We congratulated ourselves for having gotten through such a tough time.

But as we approach the fall, it’s clear that *this* is far from over. We’re not done worrying about the safety of our loved ones, the word “unprecedented” is still part of our daily vocabulary and we continue to rely on screens to connect with one another. Synagogues are beginning yet another Jewish year, in a scramble to provide meaningful and safe ways for their communities to gather for prayer - indoors outdoors, virtually - and astonishingly, for many, all three. And throughout the broader community, all are navigating uncertainty about returning safely and responsibly to school, and to our places of work.

There is a scene in this week’s Torah portion that keeps replaying in my mind. Once the Children of Israel have crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land, Moses charges them to engage in a strange ceremony. Half of the Twelve Tribes are to stand on one mountain (Har Gerizim) to hear a set of blessings that will be bestowed on those who follow the divine commandments, and the other half are to assemble on the neighboring mountain (Har Ebal) to hear the curses befalling all those who do not.

Setting aside the complex theological debates inspired by this passage, I’m struck by the very human drama of standing in the valley between these two mountains, between blessings and curses. This is the valley we now find ourselves in, between the suffering we experienced, witnessed and are still vulnerable to in this continuing pandemic, and the joy we felt, all too briefly, at the promise of returning to our lives and reconnecting with one another.

Though the individual circumstances of our lives may differ, we are all summoning the strength and finding the perspective and patience to wait a bit longer to return to whatever “normal” is ahead. I know that our community’s wise rabbis will have words of inspiration to offer as we gather – in all the ways we will – in the coming weeks. And that our friends who are leaders of other faiths, will do all that they can to spiritually sustain their flocks in navigating this moment.

As someone whose personal and professional life is centered on my relationships with others (my work home for the last 22 years has “Relations” in its name!), I am sustained and buoyed by every conversation that brings me closer to family, friends, colleagues and partners. In the last couple of months, I’ve celebrated each opportunity to connect with people I care about, face to face. But the Delta variant (and the stubborn resistance of far too many to a safe and effective vaccine) have stalled our road to recovery. So, for the time being, I’ll be connecting in any way I can – in person when safe, outdoors as the weather allows, and once again on screen, remembering to be grateful for the human ingenuity which produced the technology that binds us together. And when we finally emerge from this valley, I hope that my appreciation for the blessing of human connection and proximity never wanes.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

Our community’s commitment to those seeking refuge

This was a week that challenged our capacity to absorb the horrors of the world. Like so many of you, I wanted to avert my eyes watching some of the videos coming out of Kabul. While we may have a diversity of strongly held views regarding the 20 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, I am reminded, once again, how deeply and broadly our Jewish community’s commitment is to those seeking refuge and asylum in our country. 

Over the last decade our community has come together, time and again, to take action: Our Jewish Family Service of Metrowest led a synagogue effort to host Syrian refugees. Jewish Vocational Service has done extraordinary work with refugee clients. Combined Jewish Philanthropies has partnered with Catholic Charities to help asylum seekers. We at JCRC have supported all these efforts and others, including leading our own efforts with our network and other partners to raise $1.3 million in bond funding, free 280 people from detention, organizing 50 Jewish households to house asylum seekers, and provide legal support for hundreds of asylum seekers. 

Together we have demonstrated through our actions that we are committed to actualizing our shared core values: that we stand together on the side of empathy and religious tolerance, that we believe that America must open the gates of compassion to those seeking safety, and that the United States must provide responsible leadership for the protection and resettlement of refugee families.  

As Congressman Jake Auchincloss, who served as a platoon commander in Afghanistan, said this week when discussing the need to evacuate local U.S. partners: “It’s an especially resonant point for the Jewish people who know so intimately the story of the refugee.” 

When Governor Baker stated that “Massachusetts is ready to assist Afghan refugees seeking safety and peace in America” we at JCRC responded in affirmation, making the commitment that “the Jewish community, our congregations, and our human service agencies, stand ready to work with (him) to assist Afghan Refugees seeking safety and peace in our Commonwealth.” 

We don’t yet know exactly what we will be called to do here in Massachusetts in the days and weeks ahead. We are in the early stages of developing a new partnership to engage Jewish communities in the work of resettling refugee families, including, most likely, Afghani refugees in the wake of these latest developments. We are connecting with our partners and are ready to mobilize as needed. Right now you can take action with our partners at HIAS: 

Tell the White House: The U.S. Must Evacuate At-Risk Afghans This is the top priority – to demonstrate unwavering public support for at-risk Afghans. Evacuating the refugees is the first step in supporting them. 

Learn more about the crisis and our role in the response. Attend the HIAS Briefing Call on Monday, 8/23 at 4:00 p.m. EDT. 

To learn more about ways for your community to be involved in supporting refugee families here in Greater Boston, please contact our Director of Synagogue Organizing, Rachie Lewis, and let us know how you stand ready to help as soon as refugees begin arriving.  

Together we can reaffirm our commitment to being a welcoming nation that does not close its doors, with the awareness that those who are desperate to leave Afghanistan this week, share the same desires as every generation of American immigrant and refugee families: safety, security and the opportunity to pursue the promise of the American Dream for themselves and their children. We believe that the United States has the moral responsibility and the capacity to welcome refugees. And we know from the experience of earlier generations that welcoming them to participate fully in our society will only enhance our community.  We will continue to act on these beliefs, with your partnership. 

I’d be remiss if I did not note the other crisis this week: the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing 2,200 people, including 10,000 injured. Boston has a strong and vibrant Haitian community that we at JCRC have been in partnership with over many years. They have formed the MA Haiti Relief Task Force to coordinate a Haitian-American led response to assess needs on the ground, and ensure that all funds and goods collected reach those in need promptly and safely. Please join me in donating. 

National Jewish agencies are also taking action to assist in this crisis. The JDC is mobilizing to provide emergency medical equipment and other assistance to those wounded, and American Jewish World Service is delivering critical, emergency aid to communities affected by this earthquake, as well as supporting activists facing the ongoing spread of COVID-19. 

These are times that test our bandwidth for empathy and action. Together, let’s meet this test as we have so many times before. 

Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

When Community Memorials Fall on Shabbat

One of the most traumatic experiences of the past decade here in Boston was the Marathon Bombing, on April 15th, 2013. I think back to the many meaningful moments of interfaith collaboration in the weeks that followed: Working with Governor Patrick’s team on the interfaith healing service with President Obama; then the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization pivoting (not the word we used in those days) so that our U.S. Senate special-election candidate forum with then Representative Markey and Representative Lynch – Sunday night following the lockdown – became a community gathering of prayer and support. It was a period that both challenged and strengthened interfaith partnerships and I was proud of the work we did at JCRC. 

In recent days I’ve been thinking of the events of the first anniversary, in 2014. That year, April 15th fell during the sacred first days of Passover, and Patriots Day, along with the marathon itself, was during the final days of Passover. This coincidence of the calendar created a dilemma for many Jews and our institutions. At the time, I told the Times of Israel that “One way or another, like so many in our Jewish community, I will be navigating this space of being Jewish and being part of One-Boston in the same breath this week.”  

When then Vice President Biden came to Boston for a city-wide memorial on the 15th, the service did not include official representation or participation by the Jewish community. And that was okay. Others on the program, our interfaith partners, acknowledged our absence on one of our sacred days; and folks were fine with it. Because April 15th was, is, and always will be the anniversary of the attack, and it should be marked on that day. 

And when the marathon was held a week later, many individuals in our community ran, or volunteered at the event – to honor the victims and to celebrate Boston’s resiliency. And some, like myself, whose holiday observance precluded volunteering, walked over to the race after morning services to cheer on our friends and neighbors and to be part of this unified celebration of our city.  

These memories come to mind now because, in a few weeks, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on our nation.  And, this year, September 11th will fall on Saturday, our shabbat

We all share the trauma and impact of that day. For so many of us, especially here in Boston, in New York (where I was living and working in Manhattan that morning) and in DC, the memories remain vivid, sometimes painful.  

Still. 9/11 was, is, and always will be on September 11th. And the national and community memorials should and must go forward on that day, not the day before or the day after. 

So, in recent weeks I find myself reminding and assuring our community and our partners that it will be okay, this important anniversary year, that there will not be official Jewish representation or participation at memorials on that day. And it is most assuredly okay that there will be events on that day – including faith-based days of service and volunteerism, for example – that will not be “interfaith”.  

I imagine that many rabbis and synagogues will find ways to mark the day during our sabbath services. Personally, I’ll probably walk over to whatever memorials are happening in Cambridge (where I live). I’ll be there in my personal capacity, as a member of my community and as a citizen of our society. I’ll be there to take a moment to reflect on the memory of those who I knew who died on that day, and to pray for those who I know who live with their losses to this day. But I won’t be there on behalf of JCRC or the organized Jewish community. 

And that’s the way it should be, this year. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Can the Olympics really be universal?

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

I may be revealing my age when I share a vivid childhood memory of visiting my grandmother, of blessed memory. After a hearty meal of her delicious kasha (it was almost always kasha – her culinary repertoire was not vast) we’d settle down to watch her favorite TV program: the Lawrence Welk show.

She loved the kitschy bandleader and his wholesome music, but what she really loved were the credits that followed. She’d scan the scrolling text, reading aloud in her thick Russian accent, each name of someone she assumed to be a Jew, kvelling anew with each discovery. This pride in the accomplishments of our people was not limited to the geniuses behind Welk’s “art”. The same proud proclamations accompanied the announcement of achievements of all kinds – the arts, sciences and every other field of human endeavor.

I felt just like my grandmother this week, when I reacted to a sporting event, in a way that mirrored her brand of TV watching. Lydia Jacoby, the extraordinary teen aged swimmer from Alaska stunned the world by beating Olympic champion Lilly King to win the gold in the 100m breaststroke. Mid cheer, I was seized with a desperate desire to know the most essential fact about the new gold medalist. IS SHE A JEW?

Naturally, I reached out to Twitter (or more precisely “Jwitter”), where I discovered that I was not alone in wondering.  My curiosity was noticed by the JTA, which immediately investigated, and much to the disappointment of Jewish fans everywhere, concluded that we could not count Jacoby as a Member of the Tribe.

What is it with our obsession in claiming notables and taking credit in their accomplishments? As amused as I was by my grandmother’s careful record keeping, it also made me a bit uneasy, since as a young person, I aspired to a more universalist worldview, one in which we were all members of a common family. But as I get older, I understand her better. It’s only natural to get an extra thrill when someone close to you – from your family or from your people – is recognized for their achievements. I’ve been relieved to witness the same phenomenon from other minority groups, particularly ones also accustomed to seeing their members too often denigrated and maligned. I remember hearing my colleagues at an LGBTQ health center excitedly debating whether certain prominent figures were a part of their community, and I’ve seen the joy experienced by Black friends when accomplishments of Black leaders are recognized and celebrated.  

Maybe it’s only natural to watch the Olympics with a special focus on “our people” whoever they are, just as our eyes are never averted from watching our own children perform in a class play. And maybe even shouting “USA!” from our sofas, is to be expected from time to time.

But thankfully, the Olympic experience doesn’t demand that we abandon all universalist impulses, even when as we revel in our particularistic victories. The global athletic community also has the power to transcend national boundaries, as I was reminded during another thrilling moment in women’s swimming. American swimmer Katie Ledecky, the most decorated female swimmer of all time, and the holder of the world record in the 400 freestyle, was beat in that event by Australia’s Ariane Titmus. The women immediately embraced, celebrating each other’s  astonishing performances, and in an act of true sportsmanship, Titmus credited Ledecky for spurring her on, saying “I wouldn’t be here without her”. The women may be on different teams, representing countries across the Globe from each other, but what they share -a love of the sport, superhuman discipline and a relentless desire to be the best – is much greater than all that divides them.

Olympics notwithstanding, I’m not much of a sports fan, and as a Bostonian, I don’t always get what all the fuss is about. But it turns out, there are some profound life lessons to be learned from sports, even ones that are relevant in my line of work. Whether it comes to international athletic competitions or community relations, there is definitely a time and place for a laser focus on our own, a time to recognize, and take pride in our people’s achievements – and a time to embrace the human family, to marvel at the diverse tapestry of humanity and  to celebrate all that binds us together.

But I’m still not entirely convinced that Lydia isn’t Jewish.

Shabbat shalom

Wisdom from our partners in Israel

Capture

With my friend and teacher Mohammad Darawshe, of the Givat Haviva Center for Equality and Shared Society.

Yesterday I returned from 10 days of travel in Israel, made possible thanks to a CJP solidarity mission last week. I was privileged to participate and grateful that I could extend my time – when so few are fortunate enough to be able to travel – visiting with many of our partners; the groups we work with through Boston Partners for Peace and our connection to the Alliance for Middle East Peace, our on-the-ground partners who we work with on Study Tours, and the many thinkers and doers who educate and inspire us.  

I came with a desire to support our friends and partners, and also to search for inspiration and wisdom to inform our own commitment to the challenging work of bridging differences and supporting the hard conversations and initiatives that build shared society and cross-border connections. I wanted to hear how they have navigated COVID, how they make sense of the events in May, what their perceptions are of Israel’s new coalition government, and perhaps most important, what they are thinking about the road ahead.  

Amidst numerous rich and informative conversations, some topics and themes came up repeatedly. Folks were eager to talk about the recent Jewish Electorate Institute poll indicating increasingly harsh criticism of Israel by growing numbers of Jewish Americans. The people I met with weren’t terribly interested in talking about regional issues, both positive (normalization with various states) or threats (e.g. Iran). What was most on their minds seemed to be the challenges to the social fabric of society here, whether that was – depending on the meeting – between Jewish Israelis, all Israeli citizens, or all the people living in Israel and the Palestinian Areas. 

I heard a degree of optimism about the new government from people we’ve been working with. For Hamutal Gouri – a leader in Women Wage Peace - there is inherent opportunity in the fact that folks who had not been in decision-making rooms until now, are newly "in the room where it happens” (to paraphrase her), including many of Gouri’s allies in the feminist movement. At the same time, leaders are grappling with the brokenness of political and civil discourse; Rachel Azaria – a former Member of Knesset and Jerusalem deputy mayor who has, for now, left electoral politics – is working to develop a new language of civic and political discourse; the rhetoric she experienced in her time in the Knesset (where half the country calls the other traitor, and, the other half call their opponents, fascist) wasn’t helping solve problems and is actually dangerous. I also met with leaders who are doing the hard work of being in conversation and relationship with religious extremists, including radical nationalists in the Jewish and Muslim communities, because it is, to their mind, the extremists who need to be reached in service to progress, not the liberals who already embrace openness and dialogue. 

Two voices are staying with me. The first is my friend and teacher Mohammad Darawshe, of the Givat Haviva Center for Equality and Shared Society, who met with the CJP group. He’s done a lot of thinking over the years about building a common society for all of Israel’s citizens, and about the role of diaspora Jews as a third stakeholder with Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the future of the country. One point he underscores repeatedly, is that productive intergroup dialogue and shared identity work is possible only when one first comes in with a strong sense of personal and group identity. In his work, Jews and Palestinians are encouraged to develop and strengthen their own narratives and identities in order to facilitate the work of hearing the stories of others, without being threatened by them. 

The second voice is Shivi Froman, a new relationship for me. The son of Rabbi Menachem Froman (of blessed memory), he lives in Tekoa, a Jewish community beyond the Green Line. As I sat with him in his living room, he told me about his work with Roots/Shorashim/Judur and with Syrian refugees (that led to him addressing the UN in New York a few years ago), but mostly about his ethos on extremists and moderates in his communities.  

Shivi tells me about a teaching his father liked to share, an idea from the kabbalistic tradition that asks why we need two ears, two eyes, and two arms. The teaching goes that the left side is to hold the personal space – he puts out a stiff-arm with a palm out like a stop sign – the space of protection and defense of self. The right side – and here he hugs himself with one arm – is to draw close, to see and hear the other and to embrace them fully as they are. Shivi embraces his father’s wisdom that one needs both sides in balance. He compares this to a bird flying with only one wing or someone paddling a boat only on one side.  The bird and the sailor would perceive themselves as moving forward when in fact they would be moving in circles and not making any progress. One has to do both – protect the self and embrace the other – in equal measures, or one isn’t achieving anything lasting. 

There is wisdom here from Mohammad, from Shivi, and from all the others I’ve been meeting with, about how to have courageous conversations and to challenge oneself to be in difficult relationships across differences. There is also wisdom here regarding the challenges we face as a Jewish community in America, in our own identities, in our conversations with each other, and in our work with others – including those who are extremists in their own ways. In order to do effective relationship work, we must first fully develop our own identities and narratives, and we also must ensure that we are balancing both our defense and willingness to be open.  

I come away, as always, from my time in this place I love, inspired and challenged by the people I meet and care about, committed even more so to their work, to our work supporting them, and to what we can learn from their leadership. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Vaccines and a Glimpse of the Divide

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

This week, testifying on behalf of JCRC at a hearing for a bill called the “Community Immunity Act,” I got a glimpse of the deeply troubling rhetoric and toxic divide plaguing our country and threatening our health as a nation.

In 2019, when JCRC was first approached to support this act, the term “herd immunity” was new to us. Frankly, we scratched our heads. We already had an ambitious list of priorities; Civil Rights, Immigration, Combating Antisemitism and Hatred, Defending Democracy and Economic Justice. The issue of vaccines didn’t seem to fit into any of these buckets and we had no reason to think that it was of particular concern for our community members.

As the central advocacy arm of the organized Jewish community, we are regularly asked to sign on to a range of worthy and important issues. But to be effective and true to our mission, we must keep a laser focus on the areas of most concern to our community, and where our voice will matter most.

But then, we started hearing from Jewish community members – worried pre-school teachers and directors, anxious parents – about being in a bind that left them uneasy about their students’ and childrens’ well-being. Though local Jewish schools required vaccines, MA law allowed for religious exemptions that were easy for anyone objecting to vaccines to obtain, and that were processed not by public health officials but by the schools themselves. Equally concerning were the restrictions barring educators from informing parents when their children had classmates whose parents chose not to have them vaccinated.  Because support for vaccines was robust throughout our community and across denominations, JCRC was asked for our help in enacting public policy to protect Jewish institutions.

We learned that the proposed Community Immunity Act sponsored by Senator Becca Rausch and Representative Paul Donato addressed problems we had no idea that Massachusetts was facing, i.e. that over 2,000 schools and preschools failed to report any immunization data, that a significant number of kindergarten programs that did report data were below herd immunity rates for measles and pertussis, and as is so often the case, that the health of impoverished populations and communities of color were disproportionately hit by these diseases. Our Council enthusiastically endorsed a set of principles to standardize immunization requirements, overhaul the system of collecting and reporting data, educate the public and encourage efforts to boost vaccination rates.

When the pandemic hit, we painfully and (too) slowly, came to appreciate how inextricably tied our fates are to those of our neighbors, and we realized that decisions we make about our daily lives – ones we used to think of as affecting only us – literally have life and death consequences to those around us. We could not anticipate that a year later, we’d suffer unimaginable losses and watch out society grind to a halt – only to be delivered from that darkness by the miracle of lifesaving vaccines.

So, I was eager to testify on behalf of JCRC at the hearing scheduled for the Community Immunity bill. For over 15 sometimes raucous hours, the MA Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health heard testimony from hundreds of individuals. As I listened throughout the day, I was appalled to hear person after person refute basic science and spread dangerous disinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. I heard them misrepresent and distort the contents of the bill, claiming that it interferes with free speech (it does not) and alleging that it would make our private medical information available to the public (it would not). And I heard appeals to our collective responsibility to public health and safety described as fascist attempts to deprive American citizens of their liberty.

My time to testify finally came at 6PM, and I opened by describing the Jewish principle of Pikuach Nefesh the idea that the preservation of life always takes priority. As I proceeded to characterize vaccines as among the most significant achievements in public health, I was suddenly muted. The Chair waited for me to unmute myself and asked me to continue. But a moment later, I found myself mysteriously ejected from the hearing altogether. When I quickly rejoined, I heard the Chair inform the hundreds of people assembled, that no one on their staff had removed me, prompting someone to shout about their being denied a fair hearing. Though I was aware of the vociferous opposition to the bill, I was shocked by what appeared to be intentional undermining of a democratic process to hear multiple perspectives.

Even more disturbing were the grotesque references to the Holocaust, an odious trope employed by some vaccine opponents who bizarrely compare lifesaving vaccines to the death and destruction of the darkest chapter in modern Jewish history (which I referenced in my testimony). These images continue to be invoked in emails I’ve received since the hearing; including one I received yesterday, cautioning about the results of Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experimentation.

As it turns out, that request for support on an issue seemingly disconnected to our mission, was in fact, central to it. The experience of the pandemic has underscored the urgent need to reaffirm the supreme value of human life, to protect the safety of our community and to embrace our collective responsibility for the well-being of all.

We need your help. Click here to contact members of the Public Health Committee in support of the Community Immunity Act. It is critical that we do everything we can to balance the volume of disinformation and anti-vax propaganda from opponents by submitting comments supportive of the legislation to submit to members of the Committee. These vaccine refusal emails continue to flood the inboxes of Committee members. Their numbers and engagement have skewed some press coverage in such a way as to lend legitimacy to the anti-vax movement and its repeated propaganda. Please help us to send a wave of voices of science and reason to the Committee.

And to learn more about the effort to pass this critical bill, join us for an intimate conversation with the bill’s  co-sponsor , Senator Becca Rausch, on Monday, August 2nd at 12pm. .

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma