Category Archives: The Friday Blog

4,700 Books, 100 Classrooms

This week, a message from Director of Service Initiatives Emily Reichman:

As Jews, we are “the people of the book.” During these High Holy Days, we pray to be written in the Book of Life. Books—education—are central to our identity, and as immigrants to this country, we experienced the power of reading in unlocking opportunities for generations in our new homeland.

New research confirms what we as Jews have always known instinctively, that “the best predictor of future education achievement and life success is reading ability.”* But here in Massachusetts, 43% of third-graders cannot read at grade level.** One big obstacle is access to books.

In families where making ends meet is a challenge, buying books can be an unattainable luxury. In addition, many Boston Public School libraries have closed due to a lack of resources to staff and maintain them.

This summer, we at JCRC’s Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) approached Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with an idea to address this problem. We were grateful that they had donated 850 books to us in the past, but we wondered if they might consider a more substantive donation, one that would enable our young friends to start their own home libraries. They responded enthusiastically, increasing their donation this year to 4,700 books, at a value of over $85,000. These books will be delivered into the hands of thousands of excited students, teachers, and volunteers all over Greater Boston.

As two FedEx delivery drivers unloaded boxes upon boxes holding these 4,700 books into GBJCL volunteer Alison Wintman's home, they asked her where the seven pallets of books were headed. On hearing her answer, the drivers responded: “That makes it all worth it; this is awesome, just awesome.”

We are distributing these books to 25 of our partner schools and nearly 100 different classrooms in an intergenerational community undertaking. Alison, who is a dedicated volunteer at the Bates Elementary School in Roslindale, served as the distribution center for the books. Aviva Bernstein, a bat mitzvah student from Temple Beth Shalom in Needham worked with her family to label the books. GBJCL interns oversaw the distribution, recruiting their college friends to sort the books and schlep them to the schools.

As excited as our volunteers were to help their students build their home libraries, the main focus of their work is the tutoring they lovingly provide, every week through the course of the school year. And for some volunteers, one school year has turned into twenty! One such volunteer is Nancy Krieger, from the Temple Beth Shalom team.

“Over these 20 years, the one constant is: We are all energized and inspired by our ‘relationships,’“ she said. “The love and caring the children express when they see us never ceases to endear me. To the students, I am known as ‘Dancy Nancy,‘ and it is incredibly gratifying to have the students greet me with a smile, a hug, and a deep breath as they set off on their next task. Their levels of academic achievement increase every month. Having the opportunity to work with these children is a privilege and a delight.”

Florence Scott-Hiser, a teacher at the Ohrenberger school where the Temple Emanuel team volunteers, notes: “I have seen the impact [GBJCL volunteers] have made, not only in my classroom but throughout the building. There is nothing more joyful than a child connecting with an adult and enjoying learning. Parents here are often working two jobs, so reading with their children is just an impossibility. As a parent and an educator, I know reading with your child is one of the most important ways a child grows."

We are continuing the work we began in response to President Clinton’s call in 1997 for a million volunteers to address literacy on a national level. We created GBJCL as the pilot program for a new National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, founded by the legendary social justice hero Leonard Fein, z”l. By connecting Jewish volunteers to high-needs public schools, their expertise is leveraged to support both students and teachers. Now, over 20 years later, GBJCL volunteers have tutored over 10,000 students.

Our volunteers are currently gearing up to return to their partner schools throughout Greater Boston, to share their love of reading with another generation of new friends. Join this effort by getting involved in GBJCL tutoring services or library projects by emailing Rebecca Shimshak, Director of GBJCL, or visiting the GBJCL webpage to learn more.

Shabbat Shalom,

Emily

*Source: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/jerry-diakiw/reading-and-life-success_b_16404148.html

**Source: https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/2017/03/28/statistics-show-third-grade-reading-levels-often-not-where-they-should-be/

An Insider’s Guide to Israel’s Second Round of Elections

From JCRC Director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell:

With local and national campaigns ramping up at home, one could be forgiven for losing sight of Israel’s second election in 2019. Next Tuesday, the 17th, millions of Israelis will cast their ballots and select a new parliament. You may recall that Israelis also went to the polls in April, and this second election is taking place because that Knesset voted to dissolve itself when Prime Minister Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition.

We celebrate the resilience of Israeli democracy—the sacred expression of the will of the citizenry, and all the messiness that the democratic process entails. With that in mind, here are some of the storylines we will be following as we look at next week’s election and its aftermath. We are also happy to continue to provide insight and analysis at our post-election briefing with the Israel Policy Forum on September 23rd. As a reminder, JCRC will not be making a statement about the election results until a coalition is formed.

First, a too-brief introduction to the mechanics of Israeli elections. On Tuesday, all Israeli citizens will vote for a party, not an individual. Every party that receives at least 3.25% of the vote will be represented in the Knesset. Each of these parties will then recommend one person, who the President will task with forming a government—likely the leader of the largest party. They will have four to six weeks to form a majority coalition of 61 or more Members of Knesset. Election Day is a national holiday in Israel, and there is no absentee voting. Only members of the diplomatic corps and other governmental agencies may vote from outside the country.

The main story we are following has to do with voter turnout. No one knows how Israelis will respond to this unprecedented second election. Are they excited? Engaged? Apathetic? Turnout in Israel’s past six national elections has averaged 67%. Those living outside of Israel who can vote did so last Friday, with 69% of eligible voters casting ballots. This is a relatively low number for this population—a 7% drop from April—which could presage low turnout next week as well.

A second layer of this story centers on Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel has four primarily Arab parties, running together on a Joint List. These parties also ran on a Joint List in 2015, which resulted in 64% turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens and 13 seats in the Knesset. In this April’s election, the parties ran on two separate lists and combined for only 10 seats, as Arab turnout dropped to under 50%. We will be watching to see if turnout rebounds under the Joint List, which may even propel party leader Ayman Odeh to an unprecedented role as the leader of the Knesset’s opposition.

We will also be tracking various parties to see if any of them soften their demands in order to form a coalition. Following April’s election, many party leaders dug in their heels and refused to budge on either their policy or ministerial demands. This was one factor preventing Prime Minister Netanyahu from forming a coalition following the April election. Something similar may recur this time around, and we will be watching to see if party leaders maintain a hard line in negotiations even if it means potentially forcing a third election. 

Finally, we cannot ignore the specter of the legal battles that were significant factors in April. Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing indictment in multiple cases. His last chance to convince the Attorney General not to indict him is on October 2-3, smack in the middle of the coalition process. While this was an issue in the April election, the hearing date means that legal concerns are a more significant complicating factor this time around. We also do not know if negotiations will be held up due to the ongoing tensions between the Knesset and Israel’s Supreme Court, which was a primary factor in April’s coalition negotiation.

While we do not know what will happen next week, we are encouraged by the resilience of the Israeli people in navigating this unique moment in their history, and we respect the will of the Israeli public in determining their own path for the future. Regardless of the results, we at JCRC remain committed to Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, and democratic state, and we stand firm in our conviction that this must be achieved through the two-state solution. And for those of you who already have election fatigue, remember that November 3, 2020 is only 416 days away.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli

Reaching Out in a New City

This week, a message from Israel Engagement Program Manager Rachel Goldberg, who is an active volunteer with JCRC’s ReachOut! Program:

When I settled in Boston after college, I was suddenly hit with a dilemma: The convenience of my campus Hillel and my regular Friday college volunteer group was no longer available. I found myself in a new city, searching for opportunities to volunteer, and hoping to find friends who shared this passion.

Service is foundational to my Jewish identity and practice. The constant news of injustice and suffering in our world often overwhelms me, and I feel an obligation to do my small part to help alleviate hardships for those in the community around me.

So I was thrilled to discover ReachOut!, a program that connected me with a community-based non-profit organization where I could volunteer after work with other Jewish young adults. Over the past three years, ReachOut! has provided me with fulfilling ways to give back to the Greater Boston community while enabling me to form deep bonds with a diverse group of incredible volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.

I volunteer at the Tuesday Meals program at the First Church in Cambridge, where ReachOut! volunteers have been helping out for over ten years. The church is only a short walk from my house, and I serve my neighbors a warm meal each Tuesday, some of whom are homeless and others who are experiencing food insecurity. After serving each guest their three-course meal, the volunteers often grab a plate and join them for dinner. I often sit with the Israel enthusiast from Kenya who talks politics with me every week. I complain about the MBTA with Patrick, and sometimes I get singled out by Peter if I look like I’m having a bad day. The best part about serving my community is seeing the guests outside of the meal. I feel more connected with my neighbors, and they are always happy to see a friendly face, whether outside the Cambridge library, near South Station, or on my own street.

Getting to know the guests has also exposed me to the challenges they, and so many in Greater Boston, face, such as the rising cost of living, lack of access to shelters, or drug dependency. Some people are seeking a hearty balanced dinner, and some are looking for a warm place to spend time with friendly people on a cold Boston night. Tuesday Meals provides a welcoming environment for them all, and the team of dedicated volunteers and professionals strives to make our meal a known resource in the community.

The volunteers at each meal are another piece of my community. Whenever I describe them, I refer to them as my “Tuesday Meals family.” ReachOut! introduced me to an amazing group of young adult peers and volunteers outside the Jewish community, many of whom have also been volunteering with the program for years, and who I might not have gotten to know otherwise. Patience, a member of the church who is over 70 years old, has been volunteering at Tuesday Meals for 25 years, and always gives me a hug when I walk in the door. Mike is the warmest meal coordinator you will ever meet and works at Tuesday Meals part time as he finishes Divinity School. Pam was the cook for the first two years of my time volunteering and I considered her a mentor. Originally from Dorchester, she always took interest in our group of Jewish volunteers and asked us about holidays and traditions. I used to work in the kitchen sometimes just to spend time with her and we would add funny videos to her Instagram stories. I was unsure and insecure as a newly-graduated young adult and Pam always told me that I should believe in myself— that I was amazing, and I could accomplish anything. I still miss Pam, her wise words have stayed with me.

By volunteering together each week, I’ve also formed lasting relationships with my ReachOut! cohort and have successfully built a community of Jewish peers who share my values. Not only have our friendships grown while serving food together, but our group often goes out to drinks or dinner after each meal, which always gives us time to swap stories and struggles of the past week. We get together for Shabbat meals as part of the program, which gives us a unique opportunity to celebrate our Judaism and bond outside of a volunteer setting.

Meeting people in the community from all backgrounds, fields, and walks of life has forever changed my perspective on what it means to live a meaningful life. ReachOut! site options range from tutoring in the South End, to volunteering with the elderly in Brookline, to helping people feel more food secure in Dorchester, and many more. Time commitments vary: you can volunteer for a whole volunteer cycle or sign up as a drop-in volunteer and create your own volunteer schedule. Registration is now open and I can’t recommend it enough. ReachOut! has anchored my home in Boston. It has given me the ability to interact with amazing people who I would have never been able to meet otherwise. I hope you’ll consider joining me to volunteer in the fall!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rachel

The SS Zeeland and the State Budget

This Friday, a message from Director of Government Affairs Aaron Agulnek. 

I recently received an old government document with notations written in cursive that I could not quite decipher, along with a yellowed photograph depicting a ship, reminiscent of the Titanic, but nowhere near as grand. Entitled, “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States,” the document included the names of passengers sailing from Antwerp and arriving in New York City on December 6th, 1911. On line 21 was an entry I made out to be “Zunke Goldberg,” age three, who apparently traveled with a four-year-old sibling and her mother. Zunke, or Celia as I knew her, was my late grandmother, and the photo was the ship that brought her and her family to America: the SS Zeeland.

I remember asking her as a little kid to share the experience with me. She seemed like a superhero to me, but I could not really comprehend the details: she fled her homeland; traveled in steerage; met a “stranger” who took her away on the crowded hectic docks (her father who she hadn’t seen in a year and could not remember); and began life in a new land. She talked about the struggles of poverty, antisemitism, and nationalism; some of the very same challenges facing today’s freedom-seekers from different lands.

But it was not just the challenges that she shared. She also spoke about the role of community, about the social service networks who supported her and her family: the community activists from all walks of life, the politicians and public servants who cared deeply for her family and their neighbors while they struggled to get a toehold. It was those stories that brought me to JCRC, where I could play a role to develop a robust social service network that buoys the immigrant, the unemployed, the senior, and the impoverished.  

A few weeks ago, Governor Charlie Baker signed the Massachusetts State Budget, with JCRC’s imprint and values firmly affixed. This was a historic budget for our community, one that increased the public investment in our priorities to $8 million, while recognizing the value of partnership, community, and shared humanity.

Here are some of the quick highlights:

Job Training & Education

  • $1,250,000 for the Employment Service Program for Immigrants and Refugees, which provides English-based job training and placement services for recent immigrants and refugees.
  • $250,000 for Transitions to Work, an innovative job training model for young adults with disabilities.
  • $500,000 for Bridges to College, which provides college prep to individuals seeking careers with opportunities for advancement. The budget also included a $250,000 earmark for Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) to expand its innovative programming.
  • Continuity funding for the MA Pathways to Economic Advancement Initiative, which will increase employment opportunities for limited English speakers and help them progress up the economic ladder by providing workforce development services.

Seniors

  • $856,000 for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), to bring wellness programs and socialization services directly to seniors, allowing them to remain in their homes and communities.

Combatting Hatred

  • $500,000 for the Non-Profit Security Grants, a pilot which provides vital security enhancements to Jewish communal infrastructure at increased risk of threat.

Anti-Poverty

  • $2,000,000 for the Secure Jobs Initiative, for homeless families to increase their level of economic self-sufficiency.

These programs and initiatives are, in part, the manifestations of our traditions and values operating in a pluralistic society. We never forget that we were once strangers in a strange land, and we know that we all thrive when today’s strangers are provided the same opportunities that helped us integrate and succeed in this country. It is vitally important for us to remember our past, while pushing for a better future for all.

Seeing the photo of the very ship which carried my grandmother to safety in America provided me with a newfound perspective about why people sacrifice everything they know for freedom. My family crossed a vast ocean, with their most precious cargo, their 3-year-old daughter, packed into the overcrowded, dark, and damp steerage, to escape to a foreign land. They took this unfathomable risk, believing in their family’s future in their adopted land—a dream now realized through me and my own children. We will honor their sacrifice, and those who are like them today, by fighting for justice and opportunity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron

 

“The people you meet will be among the strongest you will ever meet in your life.”

“The people you meet will be among the strongest you will ever meet in your life.”

August 9, 2019

NAHMA NADICH

A message from Acting Executive Director Nahma Nadich:

“The people you meet will be among the strongest you will ever meet in your life.” I heard these prescient words from Lucia Panichella of Jewish Family Service Metrowest in an orientation session for a CJP Women’s Philanthropy Mission to San Diego. The mission’s purpose was to learn about and volunteer in local Jewish community efforts to support newly arrived immigrants. During the orientation, my fellow travelers and I were advised on what to expect and how best to serve these traumatized and presumably compromised people. After spending this past weekend with them, we now appreciate the truth of Lucia’s words.

Standing with immigrants at risk is not new for us. In January 2017, in response to what we regarded at the time as draconian Executive Orders targeting immigrants and refugees, we issued a communal joint statement signed by many Boston-area synagogues and Jewish organizations. We urged the administration to “open the gates of compassion to those seeking safety, regardless of their faith or country of origin.” And we publicly committed ourselves to the “work of protecting and advancing the dignity of all human beings and to preventing suffering...” JCRC and CJP have taken our 2017 commitments seriously, devoting time, resources, and energy to develop a range of responses to the emerging crisis (see box on right).

But you know how this story unfolded. The gates of compassion have remained shut tight, and suffering has been inflicted on our foreign-born neighbors in ways we never could have anticipated. Family separations. Children in cages. Detention centers with reprehensible conditions. Hate speech that strips people of their basic humanity, and this week, the largest massacre aimed at the Latino community, reportedly motivated by that rhetoric. And just yesterday — the largest immigration raid in over a decade, with 680 low-wage workers taken from food processing plants, leaving their crying children waiting to be picked up from school.

So, we headed to the border town of San Diego to learn and to act. This mighty group of 25 women — volunteers and staff from CJP, JCRC, and Jewish Family Service Metrowest — first met with legal and social service experts in the field. What we learned from the experts confirmed recent news reports; the ever-growing numbers of children separated from their families now younger and more frequently female, the devastating impact of the so called “Migrant Protection Program,” requiring immigrants fleeing the danger of their home countries to remain in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings. The lawyer who spoke with our group characterized this as a violation of international treaties that the US has signed, since there is no longer any viable way to apply for asylum from certain countries. The vise is tightening on immigrants seeking a pathway to safety and freedom.

Yet with all the invaluable information we learned from professionals in the field, our most profound learning came from encounters with the immigrants themselves at the Jewish Family Service Shelter of San Diego.

Since 2017…

JCRC harnessed the passion of our community to create an interfaith coalition, engaging people to provide support to undocumented immigrants seeking Sanctuary in churches, accompany immigrants to court hearings, provide legal services, raise funds to bond people out of detention and most recently, to house individuals and families post-detention.

CJP established a Legal Aid Fund for Immigrants in partnership with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, enabling the agency to double the size of their legal team for refugees and immigrants who have a legal path to citizenship. And in response to the crisis of family separation, CJP collaborated with the The Young Center and the Interfaith Welcome Coalition to launch a Fund for Detained Children, with the mission of providing advocacy and legal support for children in detention.

This Jewish community responded to the border crisis with breathtaking generosity, joining with others to open a shelter for immigrants newly released from detention and on their way to reunions with family throughout the country. Now in its sixth location (an old court house slated for demolition), the shelter has served 15,000 individuals since 2018. Staffed by a highly competent and deeply compassionate staff, this is a facility that operates in an astonishingly nimble way, never knowing how many people they will house (anywhere from 50-200), what languages they’ll speak, or what unique challenges they’ll present. All who enter are greeted with love, fed hot food, given medical attention, supported in contacting their relatives, and prepared for travel. The institutional setting is camouflaged by an array of colorful artwork and decorations.

We did our part — sorting donated clothes, painting walls, sanitizing toys, and serving food. And in three short days, we gained a deeper understanding about who these travelers were, the challenges they face, and the unimaginable resilience they exhibit throughout.

During our orientation at the shelter we asked the staff, “What happens when someone departing here misses a connection and doesn’t make it to their destination?” The staff member paused to think before responding, “It hasn’t happened yet.” We realized that these people, with their seemingly infinite wells of courage and resourcefulness, had already endured grueling hardship and navigated their way to this shelter to provide safety for their families. Traveling hours and sometimes days, on multiple buses, in a country where they don’t speak the language, would not stop them now.

Observing these guests (how they are known at the shelter) inspired endless admiration. The ubiquitous ankle monitors on the adults were cruel reminders that our country has criminalized these people for doing what any parent would do: preserve their children’s lives. In acts of fierce and quiet resistance, they retained their dignity in the face of attempts to dehumanize them and their families.

One mother cradled her 15-day-old infant in her arms as she tended lovingly to her four older children, each expertly coiffed and groomed. Her children —as so many others we met — were sweet, friendly, joyful, and exuberant. At their parents’ gentle prodding, they came up to us after every meal and smilingly thanked us (in English!) for the food.

Despite their insurmountable hardships, these determined parents were acting with agency whenever and wherever they could, not just ensuring their children’s safety, but raising them with values passed down through generations. As a result, their children, against all odds, were playful and trusting—by the end, sitting on our laps, playing games and reading books, and transcending any language barrier among us.

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Lucia was so right. We left in amazement at the strength of the people we met. We were reminded that kindness and compassion do in fact exist, and that they are powerful antidotes to cruelty and abuse. We were filled with pride seeing a Jewish community do the impossible; taking a leap of faith to address a crisis of epic proportions, with no road map and no real plan. We saw this community change people’s lives and were privileged to be part of the story—as we are now inspired to take further action here in Boston.

There are immigrants right here in Boston fighting to stay with their families who have reached out for support. Volunteer to accompany them to court. Be part of a housing network to welcome them when they are released from detention. Advocate for passage of the Work and Family Mobility Act, allowing access to drivers licenses regardless of immigration status and the Safe Communities Act, supporting the civil liberties of all people in the Commonwealth.

Click here to receive action alerts on these opportunities.

Heed the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. hanging on the walls of the shelter:

Si ayudo a una sola persona a tener esperanza, no habré vido en vano.

If I help only one person to have hope, I won’t have lived in vain.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma