Category Archives: The Friday Blog

For American Jews: A Time To Vote

With 2020 primary voting finally upon us in just a few weeks, and Israel’s unprecedented third round of elections coming up in six weeks, I want to draw your attention to another election that begins next week: the American Jewish vote for the 38th World Zionist Congress. Though this election, which begins on Tuesday, has generated noticeably less buzz, it represents an important opportunity for us to make our voices heard in shaping the future of Israel.

Every five years, as the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, we get to choose 152 of the 500 members of the World Zionist Congress, a body that sets priorities for important institutions in Israel, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund. All told, the World Zionist Congress oversees the allocation of nearly $1 billion in funding in support of Israel and global Jewry.

Much ado is made in our community about what our appropriate voice is in addressing the challenges that Israel faces: is it our obligation only to support the policies of Israel’s elected government? Should we encourage our own government to pursue policies that are or are not aligned with Israel? How should we express our disagreements over visions for Israel’s future?

Whatever your view of these and other debates, the Zionist Congress is one place where there is over 100 years of consensus that we — and other Jewish communities around the world — should have a voice in at least some of those debates over vision and priorities. And this year, with fourteen American slates running, the diversity of American Jewish thought is on full display. Whether you are inclined to support a Jabotinsky-esque vision or a Progressive one, an Israeli-American, Sephardic, or youth movement voice, or if your preference is to be represented by leaders from Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox movements, there are slates for you.

Voting is open to any Jewish resident in the United States, 18 years and up, who ascribes to the “Jerusalem Program,” a platform of unity for the Jewish people, with a bond to our homeland in the land of Israel and the centrality of the State of Israel as our national project. Despite the loud voices proclaiming otherwise, the fact is that all polling and studies of American Jewry suggest that well above 90% of us are aligned with this platform, in all our diversity.

All you need to do is go to azm.org/elections starting this Tuesday, January 21st, register, pay an administrative fee of $7.50, and you have a vote. The voting remains open until Wednesday, March 11th.

Personally, I haven’t decided yet who I’ll be voting for. I have friends and colleagues whom I respect who are running on at least half of the slates, including many friends from Boston.

What I do know is the outcome of these elections will give us a snapshot of how diverse our American Jewish community is and what we think, broadly, about how we want our voices to be heard in a global Jewish conversation. The more of us who participate, the clearer and more representative our voice will be.

And, as someone once said: If you don’t vote, you can’t complain. And who would we be as a community if we don’t have the right to complain?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

On being a force for good

"Stars of Hope" painted by teens on JCRC's MLK Day of Service

On Monday I had the honor of joining Governor Baker as he signed legislation releasing an additional $1 million in funding for non-profit security grants; a budget item that we at JCRC have prioritized. Afterward, a member of the press asked me if I was “happy” to be at the State House for this solemn occasion. “No,” I replied, “I’d much rather be here for other reasons, to advocate for the values and issues that we work on every day.”

I never imagined that confronting antisemitism would become a significant part of my daily reality in 2020. I came to this work over 20 years ago informed by a sense of my own purpose; to build Jewish communities that inspired engagement and activism for future generations, rooted in the same values, culture and traditions that enriched my own Jewish identity.

As violent Jew-hatred comes roaring back into our domestic American reality, I worry that as we fight against antisemitism, we’re going to lose our focus on the meaning and purpose of Jewish community. “Because, antisemitism” is not enough of a reason to evoke a commitment to living proudly and Jewishly in the world. “Because, they hate us” is not the foundation on which thousands of years of enriching Jewish culture is built.

Rather, I find meaning in the notion that our mission ought to be - as individuals, as Jewish organizations and as communities - in the words of Avraham Infeld: “to advance the continued renaissance of the Jewish people as a force for good in the world.”

So yes, I’m proud of the work that we at JCRC do every day, building relationships beyond the Jewish community, resulting in the support of allies who are with us as we confront this new reality. I’m proud and grateful that our Christian friends and partners, many of whom have played significant leadership roles in the work of JCRC, took it upon themselves to write a powerful statement on antisemitism last week, which has now garnered upward of 1,000 signatures. And I’m proud of the partnership we’ve forged with legislative leaders to fund non-profit security grants and anti-bias training in schools.

I’m also proud that we are a Jewish community in Boston that is committed to living our values in the broader civic space, affirming our interconnectedness and responsibility to our neighbors; a commitment we’ll be honoring in just over one week when we come together for JCRC’s fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

This year, JCRC is offering a record 13 partner sites with the capacity for 900 volunteers. Members of our community will be painting and making interior upgrades to the Catholic Charities/Haitian Multiservice Center in Dorchester. This facility serves a crucial role in the Dorchester community and is in desperate need of repairs that Catholic Charities cannot do on their own. This Center provides a multitude of services to local residents, including food and housing assistance, English language classes, teen enrichment, and afterschool programming.

We will also be at St. Stephen's Youth Programs at the Blackstone Elementary School, a longtime partner of our ReachOut! program. Volunteers of all ages will be working on beautification and revitalization projects throughout the elementary school. After volunteering, there will be a lunch and discussion about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and why this day has become a day of volunteering.

I’m looking forward to being back at the State House on January 24th for the Safe Communities Act legislative hearing. We, along with many of our member agencies, are deeply committed members of the coalition working to pass this bill to protect the rights of our immigrant neighbors and create standards for law enforcement interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And our team will be back at the State House to lobby on January 28th for Election Day Registration, a basic reform that would expand the franchise to more eligible voters, thus strengthening our democracy at a time when it is under assault.

I hope that you’ll join me for any or all of these activities. I also hope that the Governor’s actions this week will, as I said to him on Monday, help “give us the resiliency to continue to gather, to continue to meet, continue to celebrate our culture and our faith as a community.”

Because, as I concluded to that reporter at Monday’s bill signing, “these times are what they are.”

So yes, we’re grateful to our partners, including to the Governor for prioritizing our safety and including us in this week’s ceremony. And, I hope that because of our efforts to confront antisemitism and work for our community’s security, we will thereby strengthen our continued ability to be a force for good in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

How the Jewish community can respond to antisemitism – with agency

This Friday, a message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich.

During my first career as a psychotherapist, I worked with people recovering from trauma. Though the details varied from case to case, my focus was supporting each person to face the reality of what she or he had endured, to know in their hearts that they had not caused it, and to marshal the resources needed to reclaim their lives. Though I switched fields over twenty years ago, in recent weeks and months as our community is reeling from the ongoing and escalating trauma of antisemitic attacks, I am drawing once again on the skills I learned in my first career.

In his powerful message earlier this week, Jeremy underscored the reality that “antisemitism is not and has never been about anything we as Jews do.” This is an essential truth for us Jews to absorb, not only because of its historical accuracy, but also for our own psychological wellbeing. Blaming one’s self for being victimized can lead down a rabbit hole of despair and paralysis.

I remember another important lesson from my clinical days about what it takes to heal from trauma; a sense of agency. While it is never fair, accurate, or helpful for victims to bear the brunt of responsibility, it IS essential for them to be crystal clear on how they can act to increase their own sense of strength and power.

Here is the question: while we may recognize today’s antisemitism as an American problem that those in positions of power beyond our community must take ultimate responsibility to resolve, what can we as Jews do not only to protect and defend ourselves in this moment, but also to realize the promise of our future?

A few suggestions:

  1. Prioritize unity within our community

When families or groups experience trauma, a common response is for those victimized to turn on one another. We are no different. The recent acts of terror yielded disheartening accusations leveled across the ideological divide, about who doesn’t care enough or who is not vocal enough in expressing just the right kind of outrage or mourning. Even worse, there were dark insinuations about who among us may be exacerbating or even causing the problem. Resisting this toxic temptation is essential. We are a small minority. If we add to the onslaught by tearing each other apart, we will be lost.

  1. Invest deeply in relationships beyond our community

Our pain is made more bearable when we know we’re not alone. The horrific news of the Monsey attack was followed almost immediately by messages of heartfelt support from our interfaith friends – as it is every time we are targeted. Our Christian clergy friends were moved to release this powerful statement, which quickly gathered over 700 signatures. We’ve built these friendships over years, with people who share our deepest values and with whom we work every day to enhance and improve our community. These are people we trust, with whom we can have honest, and sometimes challenging, conversations. We can be vulnerable with them, as they are with us. We reach out to them when we are hurting, knowing they will show up for us as we do for them.

  1. Learn about the history and dynamics of antisemitism

Nothing can truly mitigate the shock and horror of learning about an attack on a Jewish house of worship or place of gathering. But knowing how antisemitism has manifested over time and how it operates can provide a broader context for understanding – and for teaching our partners about this oldest and most enduring form of hatred. Identifying antisemitic tropes in speech can help us understand and give language to our discomfort. Take advantage of the excellent resources available through ADL, which provide guidance on how to challenge what you hear. And read Deborah Lipstadt’s seminal Antisemitism: Here and Now for a comprehensive understanding, both historical and current.

  1. Deepen your connection to and embrace the fullness of Jewish life

Given our current state of chronic alarm about our safety, it is all too easy for fear to dominate our Jewish lives. Fear must never be allowed to define us. If we allow that to happen, then the damage to our Jewish souls, and the compromise of our collective future, will be as devastating as the physical harm done to our people in these violent attacks. If you notice that most of what you are reading and talking about is content-related to threats against us, make a conscious change in how you spend your time. Connect with the community and live your Judaism through the joy of Jewish observance, study of our rich texts and traditions, immersion in arts and culture, pursuing justice, or any of the infinite ways our people have animated Jewish values through the millennia. Just as prior generations were challenged in not having Holocaust survival define their Jewishness, so too must we center our Jewish experience on something other than surviving the current antisemitic attacks, virulent and frequent as they are.

I wish I could end this message on a note of hope – that we have reason to believe this terrifying chapter will soon be drawing to a close. History proves otherwise. Yet we’ve survived earlier such chapters by drawing on the profound wisdom of our sages. In debating the order in which the Chanukah candles should be lit, the prevailing view was that the order should be an ascending one, with an additional candle lit each night, culminating in a brilliant display of light. This year, just one day after reeling from a vicious attack on our brothers and sisters, we all lit full menorahs in each of our homes, following the command to display them proudly in our windows, as we affirmed the power of our collective light to drive away the darkness.

May we seize this moment to unite our community and deepen the bonds with our friends and neighbors. May the darkness continue to diminish, and the light of a vibrant future shine bright.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

 

The Middle Game

This month's JCRC Study Tour for Elected Officials at the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem

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

A game of chess is played in three phases. The opening moves set the stage for the drama to come. Most of the direct action comes in the middle game, where pieces are traded and sacrifices are made. By the end game, little remains. Only a few pieces are left as they try to outmaneuver each other and secure a victory. Successful chess players are able to coordinate their armies during all three phases of the game, creating harmony out of different pieces and their unique abilities.

In Israel’s current political moment, no one seems to have a clear vision for the end game. And, as a result, everyone is playing their own middle game. There is no strategic or tactical cohesion. People across political and social divides are worried that any move they make will only deepen existing fault lines. In this moment, I see only one way to move forward with coordination and cohesion: to focus on the moments that bring people together, regardless of their circumstances or their differences.

While in Israel last week, I saw how people were wearied by the inevitability of a third election in 12 months, taking place in March 2020. I mourned from a distance as more Jews were murdered in the third mass killing targeting our community since last October. And I watched with trepidation as Britain’s Jews were left without a political home, feeling both betrayed by antisemitism in the Labour party and anxious about being used as a scapegoat for both the election results and a variety of other issues. Many of our speakers last week presented us with an immediate next step, but no one was prepared to offer a comprehensive vision of the future.

At the same time, I was moved throughout the week by people in Israel who are creating new bonds despite their differences. I saw my friend Noor, who has blossomed from a skeptic into an activist. With his partners and friends at Roots, he is working every day to heal the divides between Israelis and Palestinians. Noor is waging an uphill battle, fighting against the voices among both his Jewish and Palestinian neighbors that call for complete separation from the other. In my visits with Noor over the past three years, I have seen how his ability to share his message has grown in effectiveness and complexity, and I am inspired.

I met Asmeret, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, at Kuchinate. Asmeret is a single mother raising three children while balancing the challenges that come from living in a foreign country with limited opportunities. Not only does she provide for herself and her family, she has become a manager at Kuchinate and now actively helps others improve their own circumstances. In speaking with us she shared a message of patience, love, and compassion.

We also saw our old friend Nadav Tamir, formerly Israel’s Consul General to New England. Now working at the Peres Center for Peace in Innovation, Nadav insists that peace must be made from the bottom-up as well as the top down. He is also certain that the things that make Israel great do not belong to Israel alone, and that the wonders of Israeli innovation must be shared with Israel’s neighbors equally and to the benefit of all.

There is much to be done. I learned recently that the Good Friday Accords were signed 12 years after the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) was established, and that the IFI and EU have invested roughly three billion Euros in peacebuilding projects in Ireland. This is more than 15 times what the EU and USAID have invested in Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding, severely limiting the opportunities for trust-building and reconciliation between the parties. Israelis, Palestinians, asylum seekers, and others have much that they can do on their own. But we also heard many times this week that American aid and leadership are necessary components of creating a shared future. We have to do it together.

Looking at the events of this week, I wonder when the fractures became so deep, and how we have arrived at this point without fully realizing what brought us here. Our end game must be one where these rifts are healed. To get there, we will need a middle strategy that emphasizes recognition in the face of division; an approach that will lead to an end game with as many options as possible. While we can never know the future with certainty, we pursue this approach with faith in people like Noor, Asmeret, Nadav, and the thousands like them building something together despite the obvious complications.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,

Eli

From Israel: Finding Inspiration in Dysfunctional Times.

A short while ago, I arrived at Ben Gurion airport. Together with JCRC’s Director of Israel Engagement, Eli Cohn-Postell, we’re starting out on our biannual civic leaders study tour, this time together with members of the Massachusetts Senate.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with an Israeli friend with both British and American citizenship. This person, only half-jokingly, commented that, at the moment, it was hard to tell which of these nations had more dysfunctional politics.

It is, to my mind, a tough question; especially when I focus on the negative aspects currently manifesting in each system. When I was last in Israel – in July – the Israeli people were in the midst of their second national election campaign this year. I never imagined the possibility that during this week’s trip they could embark on their third election cycle in less than a year. Since summer, Britain has blown through its latest Brexit deadline, with national elections pending next week (and a deeply worried Jewish community to wit). And, in the US, well, where shall we start?

But there’s another way of looking at this, which is to see the half-full glass, the moments, people, and institutions that inspire hope.

Observing developments in Israel, of course there’s much to be said about a nation whose prime minister is facing a trial over corruption charges. But there’s also something to be said about a country where the attorney general who brought those charges was himself appointed by that very same prime minister. And, whether one agrees or not with specific policies of the government, it’s notable that the institutions of justice are taking a stand, and how that action – to many of us – compares favorably with the role of our own attorney general in our current political process addressing our own President’s behavior.

And while three national elections within one year appears chaotic, it is also worth noting that a large chunk of Israel’s electorate is “holding the center.” Politicians and parties are, through their “constitutional” process (though Israel doesn’t have an actual constitution) reaching out from center-left to center-right and trying to form a consensus politics about the direction of the state and its character. Does this compare favorably to our own fractured politics in the US where a House divided has become the default, and the idea of common ground or shared understanding seems a distant memory? I think so.

And at a time when Americans, obsessing in our like-minded bubbles on social media, increasingly living and working in red and blue silos, and telling pollsters that the greatest tragedy would be for our children to marry across party lines, I’m inspired by my friends here. Because the divides between Israelis and Palestinians are surely even deeper than much of what divides us as Americans. And yet, as on every trip, we’ll be meeting with folks who are reaching out across these divides to build empathy and compassion. 

Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are working together on grassroots projects for mutual recognition, dignity, and peace. We, through Boston Partners for Peace, believe in their ability to change the narrative and shape the future. They inspire us and I look forward to reporting on their efforts again after our visits this week.

So, I’m not ready to say which of our countries is most dysfunctional right now, nor do I think this is a particularly useful exercise. But what I can say – without in any way being naïve about the extraordinary challenges that Israelis, Palestinians, and the people of this region face, and the importance of supporting their efforts to resolve these challenges – is that I also think we can learn from and be inspired by what we witness here; people who don’t give up in the face of adversity; people who keep reaching out to each other and remain committed to building a hopeful future; and people who are representing the institutions and systems of a functioning democracy.

And maybe, just maybe, instead of judging them too harshly for their very human flaws, we Americans – who live in a glass house of our own – can be a little quieter and do a little more listening as we seek to understand the people who live here. And, hopefully, as I do on every trip here, I can come away a little more inspired, a little more committed to not giving up on the people here, and even learning from what they can teach us about our own dysfunctional politics right now.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Can We Retire the Concept of “Conversion” To Judaism?

This blog post was originally published in the Times of Israel

My mother was raised Catholic. She became Jewish while in university, going through a process – guided by her rabbi and supervised by a rabbinical court in San Francisco – of wide-ranging study covering Jewish practice, history and culture. I was born Jewish a few years later. Growing up, at our shabbat table in New York, we regularly hosted men and women who were becoming – or had recently become – Jewish through our synagogue. These individuals, some of whom became part of our own extended family, came to us through our rabbi, who knew that they would need a mentor and guide with a shared experience of becoming Jewish – a responsibility that my mother readily embraced.

I tell you this so that you understand where I am coming from when I say that we need to stop using the term “conversion” – denoting a process specifically of changing one’s religious faith – when talking about the journey to becoming Jewish.

The very concept of Judaism as principally a religion is quite recent. Dr. Leora Batnitzky of Princeton University, in her excellent work How Judaism Became a Religion, writes that it is only “from the eighteenth century onward (that) modern Jewish thinkers have become concerned with the question of whether or not Judaism can fit into a modern, Protestant category of religion.” This came as a reaction to Enlightenment era Protestant thinkers in Germany who conceptualized the public sphere of citizenship in a nation-state, as separate and distinct from the private sphere of the religion which one practiced. If it was possible to fit Judaism into this concept of religion, then we too could become fully equal citizens of the European nation-state – or so we hoped. Prior to that time, Judaism was an all-encompassing idea of self and community, with laws governing all aspects of life and identity; it was, quite simply a civilization to which we belonged, albeit one with distinct concepts of the Divine, and rituals related to that concept.

While the denominational structure that emerged through thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn and Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th century Germany – and was then imported to America – formed around this concept of religion, there are within contemporary American Jewish life those who remain deeply commitment to our pre-Enlightenment concept of self. Examples include Hassidic communities that embrace a Judaism that encompasses all aspects of life, and the secular Yiddishists who built a deep Jewish community of culture without requiring a belief in God.

Throughout our history, to become Jewish was to join our civilization in all its facets.

The first journey we tell of someone becoming Jewish is, of course, the story of Ruth. At the side of the road she declares to her mother-in-law: “wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God…” For Ruth, and for everyone who followed her on this path, becoming Jewish is more than faith alone. It is where she will live and die, and who she will be as a citizen of our people and the mother of our kings.

To make this journey is termed in Hebrew as gerut. The one who makes this transition, a ger, begins the journey with the status of a stranger, the Other. It is a Hebrew root used in reference to those who are not Jewish, and also as well in our Bible for those who are excluded in other ways by our laws – whether that be the daughters of Zelophahad denied their inheritance in the land, or the funeral workers denied participation in the Passover meal for their ritual impurity.

In the Hebrew conceptualization, the path Ruth takes is a transition from a status of “Other” to a status of being “Of Us.”

For nearly two thousand years in diaspora, Jews have been unique amongst the nations of the world in that one could become a citizen of the Jewish people even without a state of our own. This process took place through rabbinical courts that historically had far more jurisdiction than on matters strictly of religion. In the self-governing shtetl, these courts oversaw both criminal and civil matters, in addition to adjudicating matters of a religious nature. Today, the State of Israel is unique amongst nation-states in that anywhere in the world, one can embark on this journey from Other to Jewish through a rabbinical court (or at least through one that is recognized by Israel’s government) and then become automatically eligible for citizenship in the State under “the right of return.”

So why is it so important that we retire the term “conversion” as our poor translation of the concept of gerut?

First, because the reformulation of Judaism as religion failed to achieve our liberation in Europe. One cannot know what Mendelssohn and Hirsch might think of the world that came after them. We do know that in the century that followed, Political Zionism emerged from the sober lessons of the Dreyfus Affair; that even an “enlightened” France that would continue to see the Jew as Other. And, the devastation of the Holocaust made clear that we would always be vulnerable unless we had a nation-state of our own.

And, this very formulation, of Judaism as a religion, has come to be weaponized by those who seek to deny our legitimacy as a nation with the right to a state of our own. It is ironic to hear the voices of the “enlightened” descendants of the very same antisemitic philosophers of Europe to whom we reacted in the eighteenth century, now arguing that a religion should not have a country and that, therefore, Israel as a state is not legitimate.

Finally, and foremost, we should lose the term “conversion” for our own sake and for our understanding of who we are as a people. The term, in English, reinforces an ahistorical self-perception. It continues to ascribe to an idea of Judaism that was formed in response to external forces. To move beyond the Jewish condition as a reaction to our experiences in Europe and to embrace our authentic identity as a People will require greater precision in our language.

It is time to retire the poorly translated term of “conversion.” Rather, I propose that, in English, we commit ourselves to language that more properly conveys the concept of this journey from Other to Judaism both precisely and expansively. As with those who choose to become citizens of a new nation, like the United States, through a process known as “naturalization,” so to, gerut can be better understood as the process of becoming a naturalized citizen of the Jewish people, with all the rights and responsibilities inherent therein.

Reading my way through Europe (and then some…)

This past summer, our professional staff used this space to post a delightful reading list of books they love and use in their work. During my sabbatical, I had the pleasure of finishing 36 books covering a range of subjects and projects in which I was interested. Many of my readings covered history, memoirs, Jewish and political philosophy and the current state of America. For now, I’d like to share with you just a few of the most enjoyable novels that, in reading and re-reading, enriched me.

As I traveled through Europe pursuing Jewish memory, several works of historical fiction enhanced my sense of presence with the experience. Chronologically (by the periods they cover):


A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua
As Europe approaches the year 1,000 CE, Franco-German Ashkenazi Jews are changing their practices in the context of the larger Christian culture, and a Jewish trader in Moorish Spain grapples with the growing cultural divide between two Jewish communities.

 


The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kaddish
Set primarily in 17th century London’s community of Jewish exiles from Spain, this is a delightful feminist fantasy by a local author about the great philosophical discussions of the time.

 


An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
A faithful fictionalized retelling of the documented events and central characters in the France’s most famous antisemitic show trial, the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the 19th century.

 


The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
While the author takes some license in portraying actual historical figures, this is a faithful story of how American activists rescued thousands of Jewish artists and intellectuals in Vichy France in the early years of World War II.

 

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgie Hunter
The author tells the remarkable, globe spanning true story of how her family survived the Holocaust after the invasion of their home in Poland by both the Nazis and Soviets in 1939.

As some of you know, I have a passion for great American literature. I am a collector and loyal patron of the Library of America. These are a few of the volumes from that collection (available in many other forms as well) that I dug into this summer:



My Antonia
by Willa Cather
Possibly “The” great prairie novel. A story of immigrants in 19th century Nebraska and the idea of American that they came here for.

 

 

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
A classic collection of interconnected short stories capturing the essence of the small-town American Midwest at the end of the 19th century.

 


Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Remarkable for its time, published in 1956, it holds up as a complex telling of a young American in France, torn between his female fiancé and the male bartender he desires.

 

The Hainish Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
While I’ve read many of these novels and short stories, published over the span of some 40 years, I’ve never sat down and read the entire series in chronological order. These stand-alone stories in a shared future galaxy, explore issues of race, class and gender and are in many ways still ahead of their times.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that, as a person who rereads The Handmaid’s Tale every five years or so, I devoured Margaret Atwood’s sequel (at last!) The Testaments, the day it was released. I was deeply satisfied.

I can’t possibly overstate my appreciation of this summer’s new release Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Fifty pages in you’ll be wondering why people are so excited about what reads like another Philip Roth novel (though I do love reading Roth). Trust me, you’ll be glad when you get to the twist in this feminist take on the genre.

Finally, allow me to recommend the graphic novel collection Locke & Key by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son). I read it when it first came out a decade ago and absolutely loved going back to read this magical horror story set in a fictionalized version of Nahant, MA.

Thank you to everyone who participated in my crowd-sourced recommendations process on Facebook last spring. I gained a lot by your sharing the books you were passionate about (in these subject areas). In posting this, I’m trying to pay some of that passion forward. And, I’d love to continue to hear from people about books you’ve recently read and why you enjoyed them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Should American Jews Stop Trying to Defeat Antisemitism?

This blog post was originally posted on Times of Israel.

Should we, American Jews, stop trying to defeat antisemitism?

It is a question I’ve been pondering as I recently spent a month traveling through Europe and experiencing Jewish memory. And it is a question I’d love to hear from others about: Should we, as an American Jewish community, stop carrying the fight to “end” antisemitism in our country?

Why do I ask this question?

Because antisemitism – prejudice and hatred targeting Jews – has been a reality of Western Civilization going back for the better part of 1,500 years. As James Carroll laid out in his monumental Constantine’s Sword some twenty years ago, antisemitism is an enduring and defining feature of Western Christian civilization. To experience Europe’s history is to be reminded that antisemitism is our civilization’s constant, ever-evolving vehicle for defining what it means to belong to the West by defining the “other” within, i.e. the Jew, as something else.

We Jews attempt to adapt and conform to evolving European projections of belonging within the larger collective, only to experience a consistent response in which the collective is redefined in order to ostracize and exclude Jews. The examples are endless: When we considered ourselves to be as authentically Spanish as the Catholic Monarchs themselves, they determined Catholicism to be a defining feature of Spanish identity. When Enlightenment Protestants defined the modern nation-state, and relegated religion to the personal and private sphere, we adjusted our public identity accordingly, categorizing Judaism as religion (an ahistorical primary definition of Jewish identity) so that we might belong to the nation. But then, in Germany and elsewhere, we experienced, with devastating results, the re-centering of a racial national identity, with the Jew as the outsider once again. And, when Jews unified around the political nation-state as the fulfillment of our national being, post-nationalist elites made Israel, “the Jew amongst the nations,” the singular target of their anti-nationalist fervor.

We as Jews in the Western diaspora have always experienced and lived with antisemitism. If we think we can defeat it, we are deluding ourselves. As American Jews, we’ve become complacent in recent decades, when we embraced the notion that antisemitism was behind us. We did so because for a very brief moment in this nearly 2,000 year old civilization – from sometime in the mid-1980s to the early part of this century – and in our one truly exceptional country, antisemitism ceased to be part of our lived daily experience; it was largely banished from social acceptability and from the laws of the land.

If the current moment feels abnormal for a generation of American Jews who came of age in the last quarter century, what we are experiencing is in fact a return to the normal we’ve known for over a millennium.

If this is an accurate assessment, then what is to be done?

First and foremost, we must continue to insist – as we must insist for any oppressed minority – that we are the only ones who get to define our oppression. Others have no right to tell us what is antisemitic, nor how we should feel in response to it.

We as Jews need to be honest with ourselves about the enduring nature of Western antisemitism (and yes, I’m fully conscious that there is also non-Western antisemitism, including that within Muslim civilization. But the taxonomy of that antisemitism differs from that of the West. Since I’m writing specifically in the context of our US domestic challenge, to the extent that it is socially and politically tolerated, it is done so within the context of the larger challenge of the West. So, I’d like to defer and unpack that challenge on its own another day).

But antisemitism ought not and need not define us as a Jewish people. What should define us is our work of advancing the continued renaissance of our people as a force for good in the world (to paraphrase Avraham Infeld).

Antisemitism is not our disease. It’s the disease of our larger society. It is not we who need to visit the doctor and take the antibiotics. It is the society in which we currently reside.

This is not to suggest that we should stand down. Nor should we shut down our defense organizations. Far be it. We have a particular role, as a Jewish community, in tracking incidents and identifying the problem; in providing education and support to those who seek to eliminate its expression in their schools, workplaces and other settings. And, we as a Jewish community need to be focused on the specific challenge of securing our institutions and spaces so that we may gather as Jews in safety; our partnerships with government and law enforcement must be leveraged to that end.

But it must be the work of faith and civic leaders beyond the Jewish community – our elected officials, our Christian neighbors, and others – to root out this virus. The emergency strategy meetings within our community about fighting antisemitism (of which I have attended many) need to be supplemented by the emergency meetings of the leaders of every Christian denomination, by special sessions of legislatures, by the urgent and sustained action of our society’s leaders.

Jewish tweets and statements of condemnation will not beat this hate (though there is value in our articulating to others what we are experiencing and why we feel the fears that we do). What is needed is the amplified public voice of others amidst this rash of violence and targeting of our people.

I am reminded of the words of French prime minister, Manuel Valls, in 2015, following the attack on the Hyper Cacher market. He said that: “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

If the US would be judged a failure for no longer being a place where Jews can live in safety and security, then who will be judged and who will be the failure? It is not us, the American Jewish community. It will be the failure of the nation as a whole, and of those who stood idly by as expressions of this ancient hatred flourished once again.

And so we Jews must go on doing what we’ve always been doing: Being a people of “joy and not oy” (as Dr. Deborah Lipstadt puts it), building communities of caring and meaning, teaching the Jewish ethical tradition to our children, and bringing its wisdom and power into our society.

We as a Jewish community should fight antisemitism in America because of what it means for this nation, of which we are a part, to which we pledge our allegiance, and that we love no less than any other Americans. We must, in the words of President Washington, “give to bigotry no sanction” because we are Americans and because it undermines the ideals of our nation.

But we need not be defined by antisemitism. And we should be taking note when the nation of which we are a part is failing to rise to its challenge.

I would welcome a conversation about this approach.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Journey Through 1,000 Years of Jewish Memory

Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors, where the Edicto de Granada was issued on March 31, 1492, ordering the expulsion of Spain’s Jews.

This week, I returned from sabbatical. I’m so grateful to our board for this privilege and for the ability to set aside three months for reflection and reconnection outside of the doing of our work.

It was an opportunity for quiet contemplation, hiking, reading, and getting in touch with friends far afield; for stepping away from our toxic and reactive public discourse and to think about our work. In addition, this was the opportunity for me to spend a month traveling across Europe on a deeply personal journey of connection with 1,000 years of my family and my people’s history and memory.

I had amply prepared myself for a trip that took me to Poland, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic; places where the most terrible horrors were visited upon our people and also where some of our greatest thinkers and communities thrived. Still, I was not prepared when, a day after an emotional visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, I had a visceral reaction when I saw antisemitic souvenirs being openly displayed and sold in Krakow’s Old Town.

Translated: "You must have a Jew at home! He will guard money."

A bust of Miklós Horthy in Budapest

In Budapest, where the national government is rehabilitating Nazi collaborators as persons of honor, I was shaken by the reaction of my host – a member of the local Jewish community – when we came upon a newly erected bust of one such figure. And, to walk the streets of Prague is to hold the tension of a city that publicly celebrates its connection to Jewish figures like Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal), Franz Kafka, and Albert Einstein, while also leaving in place medieval antisemitic symbols that are, today, signature tourist destinations.

After a short break stateside, I traveled through Spain, starting in Madrid and Toledo, working my way farther “back” through Jewish history to Andalucia – through Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada – to bear witness to the erasure of that nation’s crimes and the literal replacement of Jewish populations and spaces. It was deeply unsettling to stand in places where I could too easily imagine all that was and all that was obliterated when my own ancestors left here 500 years ago. I stood in the Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors and reconjured Jewish leadership in the public sphere, awed by the courage and pain of Don Isaac Abravanel, who in 1492 stood in this very same room and raged against the Catholic Monarchs who betrayed him and his people with the expulsion edict.

Inside Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors

I coupled this experience with some travel in the United States to consider, compare, and contrast how our nation holds our own uncomfortable and shameful history – the experiences of African and Native Americans – as well as how we as American Jews tell our own story in our country.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary on the Yom Kippur service, writes that:

“There is a difference between history and memory. History is what happened: memory is our attempt to discover meaning in what happened. History focuses on the uniqueness of events; memory on their repeated patterns, the structure visible through the details, the music beneath the noise.”

This was a journey of memory, to hear the music in the story of the Jewish people; continuously striving and evolving in response to a Western Civilization that has carried anti-Jewish persecution at its center for over 1,000 years. To sit with memory is also to hear the discordant notes of the American project as a unique and imperfect experiment within Western Civilization. It is to understand how precarious the threats to Liberal Democracy are today, and, why we are called – as Jews – to protect and expand a broader commitment to an American creed as the basis of our aspirational national ideal.

And, I am reminded that none of this – the opportunity to do this work, and the opportunity to truly step away for an extended period – would be possible without the amazing trust and support of partners. Most especially I thank our Deputy Director Nahma Nadich, my partner in thinking and action every day, who so ably led JCRC in my absence. I – and our community – are the beneficiaries of her leadership and her wisdom.

I return with too many memories and observations to adequately describe them all in one post. I hope to share more with you in the weeks and months ahead. But for now, I would add that to listen to memory is to be renewed in my own passion for the work we do and my sense of purpose in doing it. And, it is to be reminded of who I need to be in order to focus on the important and enduring challenges I want to help our community meet.

I look forward to hearing from you. Together it is our task to compose the next movement in our collective symphony, one in which we continue to thrive as we work together with our neighbors to meet the challenges of our time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy