Category Archives: The Friday Blog

Wisdom from our partners in Israel

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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

Enhancing the New England Holocaust Memorial at a Critical Time

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L-R Governor Baker, Mayor Janey, Addison Dion (grandaughter of NEHM founder Steve Ross), Survivor Janet Singer Applefield, Jeremy Burton

In 1995, Holocaust survivor Steve Ross (z”l) had a dream: to honor his family and every other victim of the Holocaust with a memorial in downtown Boston that would serve as a lesson to future generations. He brought together his Jewish and Christian neighbors and fellow survivors, and with the help of his friends, including Mayors Raymond Flynn and then Thomas Menino, he founded the New England Holocaust Memorial.

The Memorial (NEHM), six luminous glass towers, was dedicated in a public ceremony on the steps of City Hall in October 1995, with Elie Wiesel and many community and civic leaders in attendance. It was intentionally placed in the heart of Boston, along the Freedom Trail, so that its lessons would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

Yesterday, JCRC, along with our partners at CJP and Facing History and Ourselves, officially unveiled a new website and interactive mobile tour, which will greatly enhance the experience of visitors. The tour features testimonials from local Holocaust survivors, a short history of the Holocaust, the symbolism of the Memorial and resources for educators, all accessible through QR codes. Additionally, we have transformed the Memorial’s website, which now includes a walk-through feature that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. These components will open up the New England Holocaust Memorial as an educational experience for a broader audience and generations to come, ensuring that even more people have the opportunity to learn.

These updates were planned over two years ago, but the timing of this event could not be more appropriate. We are all aware of the alarming increase in violent antisemitism and hate speech and violence, as well as the astonishing, growing ignorance about the historic realities of the Holocaust. Just here in Massachusetts, one only needs to mention events of this year in Duxbury and Lowell, or even these past weeks in Winthrop and Brighton. Now is exactly when we need to publicly reaffirm the value of genocide education, and the Memorial in particular, as part of a broad commitment to teaching about hatred and the consequences of unchecked bigotry.

And so, we were grateful to our public and interfaith officials for joining us yesterday to recommit to Holocaust awareness and fighting antisemitism, as their amplified public voices are more crucial now than ever before; friends like Reverend Lorraine Thornhill, Pastor of Kingdom Empowerment Center, President of the Cambridge Black Pastors Alliance and Chaplain Cambridge Police Department who spoke powerfully of our shared work in combatting bigotry and antisemitism; and, Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Family Philanthropies, whose ‘Final Whistle on Hate’ initiative made this digital project possible.

It was my privilege to introduce Governor Charlie Baker, who has stood with us often, one might say ‘too often’ in this space, responding to rising white supremacy, violent attacks on Jewish communities, and desecrations of this sacred site. Even more special, for me, was the honor to welcome Mayor Kim Janey. The Memorial has a long and meaningful connection with the office of the Mayor of Boston, beginning with the essential role of Mayor Ray Flynn in the selection of this site, sitting just below the windows of his City Hall office.

As our survivor community grows older, we are obligated to retell their firsthand accounts and to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust lives on. The memorial’s new in-person and virtual touring capabilities capture their stories and enable present day and future visitors to bear witness.

As I introduced Mayor Janey in her first official event at this site as Mayor, as she recognized the presence of Mayor Flynn’s son, City Councilor Ed Flynn, and as we heard from survivor Janet Singer Applefield, and Stephen Ross’ granddaughter, Addison Dion, one could sense the spirit of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. A torch was being passed to a new generation of Boston leaders and the descendants of survivors, and to all of us in the community who will continue to bear witness in perpetuity.

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Survivor Janet Singer Applefield

Together, we remain committed to a high level of Holocaust programming, to the importance of education, and to sustaining and expanding the legacy of the survivors in the Greater Boston community. We do so through our work at the NEHM, and, for JCRC, by continuing to advocate with our partners for a genocide education mandate for all youth in Massachusetts.

Visit nehm.org to join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The Prosperity of Our City

Boston has a long and vibrant Jewish history. And while the greater Boston Jewish community is now spread across the towns and cities that make up our region, the city itself has some 30,000 Jewish residents, some 4% of the population – double the national average.

They are also an incredibly diverse community, spread across different neighborhoods: A 2Life senior living community and a vibrant Orthodox community in Brighton; Reconstructionist Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, home to multi-racial and interfaith families and queer Jews, the historic Reform Temple Israel in Longview that so often serves as an anchor and gathering place for Boston’s interfaith community in times of hope and of crisis; empty-nesters downtown, and young professional families in the South End. These, and others, are the mosaic of our community in this city.

Across this diversity, among the commonalities for this community - an important and sizable constituency – is an understanding about the importance of engaging in civic life and being in relationship with municipal leadership. The Jewish communities of Boston understand how decisions made at City Hall impact them, every Bostonian, and – candidly – the entire region.

And this is a moment of historic transition in Boston’s leadership, one that invites great interest and anticipation. We have our first Black and female mayor. This fall the city will most certainly elect, for the first time, a mayor who is not a white man. The decisions the next mayor will make, in public safety, education, transportation, climate, development, and equity, will impact every citizen of Boston and, in fact of the entire region, which for all intents and purposes, shares a single economy and eco-system.

So, it was an important evening this past Monday night, when, the Anti-Defamation League of New England in partnership with JCRC, along with fifteen co-sponsoring organizations from across this community, hosted a forum with the candidates for Mayor. Some 200 members of our community came online to hear five candidates (all were invited) address a broad range of issues and concerns.

(And here I will note that ADL and JCRC are non-partisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. We do not endorse or oppose individual candidates nor support a specific party. We do not take sides in electoral politics).

Questions came from a wide range of community members. They asked about how City Hall can help in the fight against antisemitism and expressed concern about the police’s treatment of Black and Brown people, including Jews of Color. They wanted to know what, as Mayor, the candidates, would commit to doing to close the racial wealth gap, and also whether the candidates would commit to opposing a municipal BDS effort such as we just saw in Cambridge (all five did commit). They were asked about their support for the reforms in the Boston Public Schools exam schools, and about the pilot ethnic studies program. They raised concerns about affordable housing, support for immigrant communities and transgender youth. They asked the candidates to support genocide education as a requirement in all schools (they all did).

As I listened to the candidates - John Barros, Councilor Andrea Campbell, Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George, Representative Jon Santiago and Councilor Michelle Wu – I heard different nuances, complexities, areas of focus and thoughts that they added (in addition to the “yes and no” of particular topics). It was an illuminating and enlightening evening and if you are a Boston resident, I encourage you to check out the forum here.

Between now and the preliminary election on September 14th I hope and expect that the candidates will continue to engage with our community. Five have already committed to single-candidate forums hosted by the Agudath Israel of New England, focusing on concerns in the Orthodox community; some are already making visits to 2Life senior living community in Brighton. And I know that our community will continue to engage with the candidates, not only in these spaces but as part of the broader civic fabric that we are a part of.

And for those of you who don’t live in Boston, remember; there are importance municipal elections happening across the region. As a Cambridge voter, I will be very focused on getting to know who the city council candidates are and what they stand for. I encourage you to do your own deep dive into the position of your local candidates on the issues that matter most to you.

Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper. – Jeremiah 29:7

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Changing the Politics of What Is Possible

In the days following Sunday’s installation of the new Israeli government, I’ve been struck by the negativity of some of the ‘hot-takes’ I’ve seen and heard: “Bennett is just another right-winger.” “This coalition won’t last more than 3-months.” “This government won’t make big moves on the issue I’m passionate about.”

Granted, a lot of that negativity is coming from people who are habitually negative about Israel. But it also strikes me as missing the mark at a fundamental level about what this new government is, what it represents, and why this new coalition is a cause for hope and inspiration; for those who believe that we can still find leaders who are willing to put aside their personal differences for the common good.

It is true that one can look at the new prime minister and say, “he’s a former director of the council of Jewish communities beyond the Green Line, and he’s said some pretty problematic things over the years.”  And, it is true that one can look at this coalition and see instability:

Eight parties with none, other than Yesh Atid, the party of coalition architect Yair Lapid, having double-digit seats. The thinnest possible majority in parliament, representing wildly diffuse parts of Israeli society, from hard-left Tel Avivniks to Modern Orthodox Jews living beyond the Green Line; hawkish secular Russian emigres alongside an Islamist party – the first Arab sector party to sign a coalition agreement.

But looking through our own particular lens means we’re missing what is happening here. Leaders and factions who have every excuse not to work with each other have instead decided to say: “We need to change how we do politics in this country, and it starts with taking huge risks to sit across our differences, to compromise in ways previously unimaginable and forge a new path forward – even if we don’t quite know yet what that way will be.”

If one thing binds this coalition, it’s the desire for a change from the politics of the personal, and from the politics of division, that have defined so much of the Israeli political sphere in recent years (as it has in so many countries). It’s a willingness to sit at a table, as one government, across profound disagreements, and say: “we will work on what we agree on, and we will work through those things about which we do not; debating them as people with a shared interest in the future of our coalition and our country.” It is also, not least, a government of leaders who, despite their differences, understand that corrosive partisanship hasn’t been good for their own country’s politics, nor for how they relate to their partners, including the United States.

It is also a statement that no one person will define the government, and no one person is essential to the security and the future of the nation. We Americans tend to disproportionately view the head of the government as the only person holding meaningful power.  It’s a political instinct that we are far too habituated to; focusing, for example, on electing a President and not turning out for mid-term elections for everything from school committees to the Senate. And it is also a growing trend in Israeli political dynamics, with an increasingly American-style premiership, which leads to diminished visibility of and leadership from other members of the cabinet.

This new government has chosen to break that mold, to elevate its own dramatic diversity, to hold shared power across divides, and to speak with a shared voice. Bennett is the premier, but every party is essential, all will be visible, and all will have influence.

It’s also an invitation to Israelis to imagine a future that isn’t defined by the centrality of any one person as prime minister. Young adults, and certainly those coming of age now, who are finishing high school and entering military service, have little memory of a nation before Netanyahu, and a politics not dominated by his personality and style. Change, even if modest – and this is hardly modest – can begin to expand young people’s imaginations about the politics of what is possible.

As has been noted by others, each of these parties has taken extraordinary political risks to form this coalition. It may be a majority-of-one, but it is a majority in which every single member has a vested interest in its success. And, by its own terms, its success – while we do not yet know how that will manifest on every issue, and even if it is limited in scope in certain important cases – could profoundly affect how Israelis do politics. Success, now, would be an adaptive change, and successful adaptation makes more adaptation possible in the future. That’s something that Israelis, their region, and our world need more of right now.

I look at this government and see genuine leaders, who are placing their sense of citizenship and collective responsibility above personal factions and any absolutism on issues. Given what we continue to see in the fractured politics of our own country, this gives me hope for what is possible. And so, I’m ready to reject the negativity out there about this government and to bet hard on the hope that it represents, and I’m eager to learn from their example.

When Antisemitism gets a pass

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

There was a joke I sometimes liked to tell when I was a therapist. A man goes to see a psychiatrist and is asked what seems to be the problem. His answer? “Doctor, I’m dead”. The psychiatrist heaves a sigh of relief, thinking, that this will be a simple delusion to correct. “Tell me”, he says to the patient, “do dead people bleed?” “No” says the man. The psychiatrist asks the man to extend his finger, which he proceeds to prick with a needle, producing a trickle of blood. The psychiatrist smiles smugly and asks the man, “Now what do you think?” “I was wrong Doc!” the patient says. “Dead people do bleed!”

I employed that joke to gently poke at to my clients’ confirmation bias, the universal human tendency to absorb new information only when it conforms with previously held views and beliefs. Clients with low self-esteem or catastrophic world views would perceive events around them through those lenses, and their perceptions would then reinforce their beliefs, in an endless loop, preventing them from changing or growing.

Though I left the clinical world over two decades ago, I see confirmation bias playing out in increasingly alarming ways, in our public and political discourse. The sources of information we expose ourselves to are now neatly divided by political leaning. The news outlets we choose, and the social media content we curate, articulate positions we hold dear. We feel affirmed in being correct and are sometimes even righteous about our rightness but are seldom challenged to expand our thinking or consider new ideas. And even more rarely do we recognize what can be problematic rhetoric or action when it comes from the ideological camp with which we identify.

The latest example? Antisemitism arising from the left, and the troubling silence about it from progressives. In recent years, there has been a justified focus on Jew-hatred emanating from the right, with the US government naming white supremacy at the top of the list of current domestic terror threats. But as Jews we are all too aware that this murderous hatred can emerge from opposing and even contradictory political beliefs. Our enemies have portrayed us alternately as evil Socialists and Capitalists, the common thread being that in our “otherness” we represent a collective threat to a cherished world order and way of life.

The peril posed by violent white supremacist extremists is enduring and unmistakable. But if those who identify as progressive insist on only seeing the danger to Jews that originates from that one toxic ideology, they are succumbing to a dangerous confirmation bias, and disregarding blatant warning signs.

In recent weeks, we’ve all seen the horrifying spectacle of Jews being physically assaulted in cities around the country, often scapegoated and targeted by those demonstrating against Israel during the Gaza crisis.

Here in Boston, the signs have been more subtle, but no less insidious. Two cases in point:

When the Cambridge City Council scheduled a last-minute hearing on a troubling BDS resolution, they did so on the first day of Shavuot. We at JCRC along with the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Israeli-American Council, alerted the City Council about this date conflict, which prevented some Jewish residents of Cambridge wanting to offer comments from doing so. We explicitly requested an accommodation – through a one week delay – so that all interested Cambridge residents could participate in the discussion. Councilor Quinton Zondervan, the lead sponsor of the resolution, publicly responded, “I appreciate that it is the Shavuot holiday, but last week it was Eid. That didn’t seem to prevent the Israeli government from bombing and evicting and terrorizing Palestinian people.” As shocking as it was to have a city official blatantly defend disenfranchising local citizens as punishment for the actions of a foreign government, even more disheartening was the silence with which it was met, even when the offense was publicized.

The second incident was more subtle but no less concerning. A member of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation spoke out about the spate of antisemitic attacks, but in tweeting about them, felt the need to call out in one message both antisemitism and Islamophobia, condemning “all forms of bigotry and hate”. Yes of course, Islamophobia must be condemned and eradicated, but why the need to dilute the condemnation of antisemitic violence erupting at this moment across the country, by also mentioning that particular form of bigotry (which thankfully had not seen a recent spike)? Several months ago, when speaking about the egregious wave of assaults against Asian-Americans, there was no similar need to mention another targeted group in the same breath. And when brutal attacks on mosques were rightfully denounced, there was no need to simultaneously condemn antisemitism along with anti-Muslim hate. Why can’t hateful speech and acts directed at Jews be called out as such, and why doesn’t our community demand that moral clarity from our leaders?

This week, I reached out to some close interfaith partners, to tell them about the crisis we are facing. I expressed my frustration at the resistance of some political leaders to unambiguously denounce antisemitism on its own. The response I received from one cherished friend, underscored not only her caring and concern, but also her profound understanding of our community’s experience. “As a Black person, I did not want to hear All Lives Matter when we were the target. All lives didn’t matter when Black Lives were disregarded and I would imagine the Jewish Community would feel the same way.”

We Jews are proud heirs to a legacy of justice and compassion, one which compels us to cry out at the suffering of our neighbors, to fight their oppression and to join forces with them in building a more equitable society. But as my wise friend understood, compassion, empathy and a call for justice must start with a recognition of our own pain and vulnerability, and an insistence on our own safety. In this moment, it must also include acknowledgement of a pernicious antisemitism that is getting a pass in some political circles that many of us are inclined to view as tolerant and open-minded. We must move beyond our own confirmation bias.

Our current political climate and the plethora of issues we face reflect more complexity than our polarized discourse would have us believe. I for one, think we’re up to the challenge.  As beings capable of having complex thoughts and appreciating multiple realities and perspectives, we can resist one- dimensional views that oversimplify, and which present false binaries. We can reject the notion that being engaged citizens acting on our Jewish values has to mean either overlooking our own victimization or being inured to the suffering of others. We can be for ourselves – and for others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma

On the other side of the wall

This past week I sat down, separately, with two of our partners in Israel, Mohammad Darawshe and Raz Shmilovich. We had asked each of them to join us to share their experiences, as an Arab and a Jew, and as Israelis, during these recent, difficult weeks. How, we wondered, do they and their neighbors think about the tensions of recent events?

Mohammad Darawshe is the Director of Equality and Shared Society at Givat Haviva. We’ve met with him often over the years, both in Israel and here in Boston, to talk about his work, building a shared society for all of Israel’s citizens. In recent weeks he and his family have experienced harassment and danger, even to the point of Mohammad having to hide his Arab  identity from Jewish extremists in Afulah, and his children facing racist comments at school and work.

Raz Shmilovich lives in Moshav Netiv Ha’Asara. A farming community, this is the closest Israeli village to the Gaza strip, where we visit regularly to talk with him and his neighbors. Even during relative calm, their lives can be unimaginable to us. Bomb shelters are everywhere, but even during the best circumstances, residents only have 5 seconds to reach a shelter once a mortar is fired. We’ve seen where terrorists dug a tunnel under the wall and came out amidst their greenhouses, along with the ongoing efforts to protect the residents by building an anti-tunnel barrier outside their homes.

My conversations with them reminded me of a much-commented upon event in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach. This portion tells the story of the spies, sent from the wilderness to scout the land of Canaan. Famously, when they return to the Israelite camp, they make a report:

“The people who inhabit the land are powerful, and the cities are fortified… more over we saw Anakites (giants) there.”  Numbers 13:28

Their report evokes fear in the Israelite camp. And yet, some forty years later, in the time of Joshua, in a story we also read this shabbat, we learn that the Canaanites of this story were afraid of the Israelites as well. In Jericho, a Canaanite woman, Rahab, tells a new generation of Israelite spies that “dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking.” (Joshua 2:9)

The medieval scholar Rashi, in his commentary on our Torah portion, looks at these two moments and explains that “the higher the walls, the more fearful the people.”

I asked Raz what he is telling his children right now. He said he tells them about the need for Palestinians and Israelis to actually live together “two or three generations living one by each other, next to the other, we would learn not to fear.” He grew up with open fields and roads, riding his bike in Gaza to markets and playing basketball with Palestinian friends, a human experience his children have never been able to share. Raz appreciates the full humanity of the parents on the other side of the wall. But this is not an experience his children have ever known. “When my kids come to me… happy for someone being killed, that’s a wake-up call for me. I don’t want anyone to die. But for them, Gaza is like an entity.” He tells them about a kid, Ahmed, on the other side of the wall, in Gaza, who goes to bed afraid. “He doesn’t have a bomb shelter to go to. He doesn’t have a school to go to.” And Raz hopes that Ahmed’s father is telling him the same story about Raz’s children, who also live in fear.

I asked Mohammad about the fear that he and his family have experienced and what he, as a long-time co-existence advocate, says to his own grown children right now. He tells them that people are living in the heat and anger of the moment, and trying to exercise power – even if they don’t have it – to cause damage. He tells his children to reach out to their friends, including their Jewish friends, just to say hello. He’s initiated 100 calls in the past week with Jewish friends to say that “just because there’s a meltdown out there, we don’t have to be part of it. It doesn’t mean we have to disconnect from our hope for partnership… The duty to get out of the problem, is for each individual to pick up the phone and say… lets have coffee, let’s sit and talk.”

Now, there are times when security needs require protective walls. Security barriers have successfully reduced violence, here and elsewhere. But the wisdom in Raz and Mohammad’s words, and their implicit response to Rashi’s message, is that when we build walls - literal and metaphorical – even for all the right reasons, they can also close off the social interactions that can reduce fears. Walls limit our ability to see and hear other people as human beings, with full lives, dreams and hopes, and fears.

What Raz, Mohammad, and so many of our friends on the ground are doing is refusing to be defined by their own fears and fears that others may have of them. They are teaching their children first-hand how to reach out and to connect. They may (or may not) see some walls as necessary at some times, but they also believe there must always be a door to the other side.

There are people on the ground who are doing the necessary work of peace, of creating and opening these doors, like so many of the organizations we support through our Boston Partners for Peace initiative. This week we have an opportunity to support their critical work. Please join me in signing this letter from the Alliance for Middle East Peace to the Biden Administration, encouraging them to support the International Fund for Peace at the upcoming G7. This funding will ensure that peacebuilding organizations such as Givat Haviva and the others featured on our Boston Partners for Peace platform will have the resources they need to transform their communities.

I look forward to seeing you at further conversations with our partner organizations, and I encourage you to read about them on the Boston Partners for Peace website.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“Boston is different”

One of the more meaningful moments of my career in community relations, before I moved to Boston and in my early time here, was how often I was told that when it comes to Jewish communal life, “Boston is different.” As a newbie, I took that mantra and acknowledged it. I can’t say I always believed it.

I can tell you now about one way in which Boston is most certainly different in 2021: the way that we collaborate and network within our Jewish community.

A lot of attention has been given in recent months to divisions within our organized Jewish community, both nationally – in Pew findings that show increasing polarization and fracturing – and at the JCRC table, where we’ve debated, and will no doubt continue to debate, who gets to be here, and what is out of bounds. And it has been noted that in this, Boston is different, because of our uniquely ‘big table’ approach to a JCRC, which sometimes invites messy debates.

But when a city councilor in Cambridge chose to put an order on the agenda to single out and demonize Israel, I was privileged to be a part of a relational and collaborative community; in a way that I know does not always happen in other local Jewish communities.

During a meeting held on Shavuot – a sacred holiday that for many but not all of us precluded participation in the debate –  the lead sponsoring city councilor rejected the request, on behalf of Cambridge’s observant Jews, for a religious accommodation to participate in the debate at a later date. He asserted that the actions of a foreign state, Israel, absolved Cambridge of any obligation to accommodate its own citizens (a vile notion, to be clear). But another councilor, Patricia Nolan, invoked her right to table the action until after the holiday, specifically to accommodate that request for our community. We are all grateful to her, and to other councilors who would have also invoked that right, for continuing to respect and welcome the participation of observant Jews, and Jewish organizations, in Cambridge civic life.

During the week in between the first and second council meetings, Jewish communal organizations and activists came together for genuine collaboration – not only those mentioned in the various public statements this week, but grassroots communities and congregations in the city. Just one example: a powerful joint testimony by 250 residents that explicitly respected the council’s time by not adding another five hours to a seven-hour hearing. This would not have happened without collaboration from many different groups including Hillel students and Cambridge synagogues.

And after that second hearing, when the voices of hundreds of members of our community, along with our friends and partners, were heard – both in written and spoken testimony, we finally watched the Council debate. Councilor Nolan spoke passionately about her own connection to our community as a past board member of the Workers Circle – a member in good standing, to this day, of JCRC – as she, along with two former mayors, Marc McGovern, and Denise Simmons - presented the substitute order that was ultimately adopted.

I thought of all this when, at one gathering of tired and sleepless advocates this week (it has been a challenging few weeks for everyone) several of my colleagues spoke with passion about the collaboration here in Boston: “This is unique.” “This doesn’t happen everywhere.”

That’s true. I hear it from colleagues around the country all the time: disparate Jewish communal voices competing for credit, breaks of trust between the local offices of various agencies, criticizing one another to their shared donors, or separate coordinating coalitions trying to achieve the same local objective.

We here in Boston are in fact different. After all, our JCRC Council is literally the ONLY room in the country – either nationally and locally - where J Street, the Israeli-American Council, the ADL, AJC, New Israel Fund, the federation, and AIPAC, and so many others, all sit in one room together to hash out shared communal views.

And we are better for it. Yes, sometimes it gets messy. But it also invites a sense of shared community, and purpose, across our differences. What our community, and our country, need right now, are more people and more communities willing to work through the hard stuff together.

This week’s Torah reading has a passage in which God instructs Moses to make trumpets of silver to summon the congregation (edah) and cause the camps (mahanot) to journey. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z’l, has a wonderful essay on this passage – I encourage you to read it in full, it merits hours of conversation and study on its own – in which he discusses the concept of the edah, a community formed through shared projects and a vision for the common good.  “It comes into existence” he writes, “by internal decision. (A camp) is reactive, (an edah) is proactive.”

“Judaism in the past two centuries has fissured and fractured into different edot: Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, and the many subdivisions that continue to atomise Jewish life into non-communicating sects and subcultures. Yet in times of crisis we are still capable of heeding the call of collective responsibility, knowing as we do that Jewish fate tends to be indivisible. No Jew, to paraphrase John Donne, is an island, entire of him- or herself. We are joined by the gossamer strands of collective memory, and these can sometimes lead us back to a sense of shared destiny.”

May the struggles of crisis this past month, and the example of our community here in Boston that still strives to be more than individual camps, one edah, be a source of inspiration and a catalyst to go forward and do the proactive work of “the continued renaissance of the Jewish people as a force for good in the world.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Despair and Hope in Israel

Today, at a time when we’re desperately seeking glimmers of hope, and the possibility of a peaceful future, we’re bringing you on a virtual visit with a few special Israeli and Palestinian friends, part of the Boston Partners for Peace community in this blogpost by Eli Cohn-Postell, JCRC Director of Israel Engagement:

This was an excruciating week. We at JCRC have been heartbroken watching events in Israel, and we mourn the loss of innocent life. We stand by the people of Israel as they are terrorized by rockets launched by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Many of us have not been able to travel to Israel during the pandemic, and we long to be closer to our friends and family during frightening times. While we cannot be there in person, it is all the more critical to take our cues from those most affected during times of crisis. We spent this week listening to our Israeli and Palestinian partners, re-engaging with their stories and our memories of being together.

Whenever rockets are fired from Gaza I immediately think of Netiv Ha’asarah. Netiv Ha’asarah is a Moshav just to the north of Gaza, even closer to the Strip than Ashkelon or Sderot. They were in the news this week, as Hamas rockets target the area and, tragically, because an IDF soldier was killed there on Wednesday. We visit Netiv Ha’asarah with our JCRC Study Tour groups, and we often meet with residents in a bomb shelter located underneath a playground. There, we usually speak with Raz or his mother, Smadar, who show us what is left of a Qassam rocket and a piece of an Iron Dome missile that landed in the village. They proudly share the history of the community, along with the sense of vulnerability they feel on a regular basis.

But the residents of Netiv Ha’asarah also recognize the vulnerability of the Palestinians living nearby. Many of the Jews living there had relationships with the Palestinians in Gaza before Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and Hamas’ subsequent violent takeover. Some have even started a collective art project, using walls meant to defend against sniper fire as a canvas for a tile mosaic that sends a message of peace to the people in Gaza.

This week I am also thinking of our tour guides and their families. One of our guides, Yishay, posts a photograph every day on social media. Earlier this week he posted about preparing the bomb shelter in his Jerusalem home so that he and his family would be safe from the rockets. I am thinking of our guide Mike, who always brings complexity and helps me to see the gray areas. When I reached out to him, he told me a story about going to get an X-ray recently with a Muslim religious X-ray technician. He wished her a Ramadan Kareem, and he learned that she commutes to Modi’in from her home in Umm-al-Fahm, where she is also studying (via Zoom) at the American University in Ramallah. The reality is so much more complex than we can see from here.

And, of course, we are looking to the peacebuilding community and our Boston Partners for Peace partners. Unsurprisingly, they have been quick to call for an end to the violence and are mobilizing where possible. I was particularly inspired by Roots, a group of Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. They held a joint fast and moment of prayer, and these communities and organizations continue to do the critical work of bringing people together, even during this fraught moment, despite their differences. Just yesterday, thousands of Jewish and Arabs citizens came together in cities all over the country to call for a cease fire and an end to violence.

There is no doubt that the current violence is a stress on the grassroots peacebuilding community. Violence perpetrated in the streets of mixed Arab-Jewish cities has been deplorable, and has been rightly condemned by both Arab and Jewish politicians. Some have wondered whether the fighting could have long-term impacts on co-existence efforts. But I know that the peacebuilders will remain steadfast. There has never been a question about whether this movement will be extinguished, the challenge has always been for these organizations to grow and spread their message of hope to more people. I am confident that they will continue to work for peace, and we will continue to support their efforts.

During such a challenging time, it is crucial for us to also share our hopes. I am hoping for a swift end to the violence in Israel. I am hoping that we can return soon to see our friends. I am hoping that people can feel safe in their homes. I am hoping that this can be a transformative moment, and a moment of growth for movements working toward mutual recognition and dignity for all people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli

Eli Cohn-Postell
Director of Israel Engagement

Our Jewish Communal Table

As most of you are aware, our Council met on Tuesday night. In a four-hour long meeting, they debated and addressed a number of questions regarding who sits at our table, and the boundaries of our “big tent.”

I suspect that this meeting, and the eight-months-long process that led to it, will continue to be discussed and studied in the months and years ahead. And I expect that this study will place our debate within a larger, national, Jewish conversation about whether there is or can be one communal table anymore in the twenty-first century. It is not lost on me that it was during and following World War II that most of our collective networks were established, to provide a voice to all parts of our community, and to speak as powerful entities, united by common purpose.

JCRCs. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The Conference of Presidents.

All of these bodies and others, we created in the shadow of the Holocaust, and in the dawn light of the State of Israel; The darkest and the brightest points in 2,000 years of a Jewish diasporic story, in rapid succession.

This ability to sit together across differences at one table in this country was informed by many dynamics; a sense of despair and hope; of powerlessness by American Jews to prevent the Shoah and a newfound sense of obligation as the largest, most influential Jewish community in the world, emerging from its rubble; of aspiration, as Jews and Americans, to defeat antisemitism here at home and to care for our refugees – both from Europe and then from the Middle East, as our Mizrachi cousins were driven out of country after country after 1948.

In recent years, we’ve had debates here in Boston about the presence of two different JCRC founding member organizations, and their continued place, at our table. In each case, vast gaps in analysis of what threatens American and Global Jewry’s future were a central aspect of the conversation, vast differences in perception over what is antisemitism, and which antisemitism matters most, were subtext, if not text.

The very notion that these two organizations and so many others at our table could come together, as they did in 1944 to combat antisemitism in the streets of Boston, seems implausible, if not impossible in 2021. In other words: If we didn’t already have the JCRCs and the Conference of Presidents, would we be able to create them today?

I, for one, am confident that there are still compelling reasons for us to work together across our differences, that there are shared interests to advocate for. Some of them are practical and local. For example:

Just last week Massachusetts released the latest round of non-profit security grants, 53 grants totaling $950,000, of which 31 grants, totaling $525,000 went to Jewish institutions.

This would not have happened without a network like JCRC leading the work and advancing our interests on Beacon Hill, building a bipartisan coalition, bringing together Jewish institutions across the Commonwealth, and building partnerships with other vulnerable and targeted communities, on a matter that we’ve prioritized.

On a broader level, I believe that a community that is but 2% of the American people, and a small fraction of the global population, needs to work at building a renewed sense of common purpose and cause, a reason for holding together in fractured times. I also recognize that the younger people coming of age in today’s Jewish world, some of whom are already leading and others of whom will hopefully lead our community in the decades ahead, will, if we are successful in offering continued vision and purpose for our institutional structures, be leading organizations that were established fully a century before their time.

I’ve long felt that Avraham Infeld (a giant of Jewish communal leadership including at Hillel and at Birthright Israel) said it well when he articulated the notion that our mission ought to be - as individuals, as Jewish organizations and as communities - “to advance the continued renaissance of the Jewish people as a force for good in the world.”

Creating an inspiring and shared vision for our community and our institutions, for a century after that renaissance began, is no easy task. It will require a lot of hard work, difficult conversations, and a willingness to engage with far more respect for each other and our differences than has been evident in recent years. I don’t pretend to have the answers for how we do that work, but I know it is worth doing, and I hope that you’d be willing to do that hard work with us.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy