Category Archives: The Friday Blog

Childhood Books that Shaped Me

Moments of serendipity have been all too rare this year – yet I had one this week when I connected with a dear and trusted colleague, a faith leader in the Christian clergy, after a meeting. Our discussion led to an exchange about representations of God in science fiction. That’s an essay for another day. But, it did get me thinking about some of the books I read growing up (I’ve always been a huge Sci-Fi fan). Having recently shared what is currently on my night table, I thought I would take you on a journey back in time to some of the literature that shaped my youth and continues to influence me today.

Mild spoilers (of forty-plus year-old novels) ahead:

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To this day, I carry a vivid memory of a flight I took across the country to visit my grandparents in the late 1970’s, during which I first read Sylvia Engdahl’s This Star Shall Abide. The main character, Noren, comes of age in an agrarian medieval society – with a twist. In this civilization, there is a sacred technology, restricted to the use of a priestly class of “scholars” and “technicians”. The book’s faith system places all sorts of restrictions on day-to-day life. For example, citizens are forbidden from drinking water that hasn’t been properly blessed by technicians, and there are warnings of dire consequences for even the smallest sin against these mandates.

Noren becomes a heretic, on the run and hunted by the scholars. During his journey, he learns about the origins of his faith, its texts, and the rituals. I won’t give away the ending, but behind the sacred memories that have been transmitted through generations, Noren finds that while the faith as taught may not be entirely literal, there is purpose within the texts, a purpose that provides meaning and relevance, even for a heretic like him.

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I first read another book, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, while in high school (and it was most certainly not on my yeshiva syllabus). It is the story of a not-too-distant future America where the Nineteenth Amendment has been repealed and women have no civil rights. It has similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in this world, some women, from very select families, are allowed to work as translators in human-alien commerce and diplomacy.

Nazareth, the protagonist, is a talented translator who understands that the language we use shapes how we perceive the world around us (think, for example, of how we assign gender to objects and how an object’s gender changes depending on the language we use). In Nazareth’s world, a language created by women has the potential to be a vehicle of their liberation by revolutionizing the perceptions of a future generation of native speakers.

These novels have stayed with me, and I revisit them every few years. There are ideas here that have shaped me, and have found their way into my work and writing over the years:

  1. Faith can transmit deep truths without having to be literal. When we engage with both facts and stories, we find deeper meaning in each of them. We can interrogate truths without rejecting them. The boundaries between questioning and heresy, and between faithfulness and rejection, are neither simple nor fixed.
  2. Perceptions are informed by the languages we use and the metaphors we place in them. To translate something is to change our perception of it, and by extension our understanding of the world it connects to (for example I’ve written about what gets lost when we translate the Jewish understanding of the Ger to the Christian concept of the “convert”).
  3. To be open to the perceptions and stories of others, is to be able to see versions of the world that are no less true than our own. To apply meaning to someone else’s words, without first comprehending their understanding of those words, is to miss the truth of what they are saying.

These are just two of the hundreds of books I read in my youth that I continue to think about and that inform who I am. As I let my mind wander back to these memories, I am struck by the value and importance of children’s literacy. By teaching a child to read, one contributes powerfully to their future. I wouldn’t be who I am if my parents and teachers hadn’t nourished this skill and passion in me.

It is why we at JCRC are so committed to bolstering literacy in Boston area public schools and why, even during COVID, even with a loss of serendipity, the volunteers of the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy have continued to tutor across the region, supporting the next generation of students who will look back on the books of their youth and tell those stories. It is work that I am proud of, and I was reminded of that pride this week.

P.S. Please share with me your stories and memories of the books you read in your youth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

What Duxbury Needs to Teach Us

Like so many of my generation of Jewish-Americans, I grew up with Holocaust survivors as a part of the fabric of my daily life. Both of my step-parents were hidden children. I had classmates whose parents had survived as teen slave-laborers in death camps. The twin sister of a leader in our synagogue endured horrific medical experiments at the hands of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor.

All these people have been on my mind in recent weeks, as the light of day has shined on long-ignored antisemitism in Massachusetts schools. In February, a Lowell school committee member called the school’s former finance director a ‘kike’ on live TV. He followed up with “I hate to say it but that’s what people used to say behind his back.”

Then, last month came the news that the Duxbury high school football team used antisemitic and Holocaust references as audible play calls in a game. It was further revealed that they’ve been using this language in practice for years.

The school committee member and the coach have since resigned, but let us pause to underscore that “people” heard this language being used for “years.” Colleagues in Lowell? The players, staff, or coaches in Duxbury?

People knew. And they said nothing.

This past Monday in New York City, a 65-year-old Asian woman was kicked repeatedly in the head and body as she lay helpless on the sidewalk. A 38-year old convicted murderer has been charged with the hate crime.

The video is horrifying in its brutality, but I was even more alarmed by the reaction of  the bystanders. A delivery man simply watches from a few feet away. A security guard (since suspended) literally steps forward to close the building’s glass door, while the woman lies bleeding on the sidewalk right in front of him.

We have a problem. It is a failure to know and understand the history of genocide and the lessons of that history. It’s a generation being raised with chasmic moral blind spots; it is the dangerous implications of raising bystanders instead of upstanders.

There are many steps we need to take as a society to deal with these issues. One key action is mandating genocide education in our schools.

A 2018 study found that Holocaust memory is fading. Forty-five percent of Americans cannot name a single concentration camp. Sixty-six percent of youth 18 to 34 didn’t recognize  the word “Auschwitz.”

Here in Massachusetts, there are many great resources for educating about the Holocaust and Genocide, including curricula and programs from our partners such as Facing History and Ourselves. But these are electives, not requirements. This is why JCRC, along with ADL New England and the Armenian Assembly of America, are championing An Act to Mandate Genocide Education (HD.1167/SD.1592).

This effort is led by Rep. Jeff Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who have been working tirelessly for years with a broad bipartisan coalition of supporters to bring this legislation to a vote and enactment. This week they received a vigorous endorsement from both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. ADL is urging Massachusetts residents to contact their representatives in support of this effort.

Yom HaShoah is next Thursday. We will commemorate this day on Sunday, April 11th at 2pm, with our annual communitywide ceremony: Preserving our Collective Memory, featuring reflections from survivors in our community.

The youngest child survivors, the parents of my friends, are now in their late seventies. Those teen slave laborers still able to tell their stories are now in their nineties. We’ve been blessed over the years to become witnesses to their experiences. We are now in the final years that a new generation of Americans are able to receive that witness first-hand.

The most important things we can do right now to ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on are: commit to transmitting this personal witness by attending survivor testimony events and inviting others to join us so long as these events are possible, and; advocate for a mandated genocide education curriculum that will ensure that their memories will endure as a lesson for future generations.

The time to act is now. We owe this to those survivors we have been blessed to know, who survived, against all odds, and to those who were taken from us during the Shoah.

Please join us in this sacred and necessary work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Greater Boston Tabernacle

A couple of years ago, one of my closest thought-partners in the Boston interfaith space, Kathleen Patrón, lead organizer of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), asked me for my thoughts on an idea they were considering, a ‘refounding’ for GBIO. This interfaith network of some 40 congregations and faith institutions was considering pausing much of its action work to focus on growth – building relationships with and bringing in new members – to ensure that the organization could more authentically represent the diversity of Greater Boston.

JCRC’s commitment to GBIO goes back decades, before my time, when several great leaders in our community had the wisdom and vision to recognize that it was in the Boston Jewish community’s interest to be in partnership across faith lines, and to invest in the region’s civic life together. They worked to bring JCRC and many synagogues into this interfaith network – where Jewish institutions have comprised a significant portion of the membership over the last two decades.

Together, with our Christian and Muslim partners in GBIO, we’ve had a powerful direct impact on healthcare reform, affordable housing and racial justice work over the years, to name only a few issues. We’ve also built deep relationships with clergy and congregational leaders of other faiths, that have been essential during critical moments in recent years. We have stood together time and again when our communities have been challenged by increasingly violent attacks rooted in bigotry, racism, and antisemitism, as we were called to do yet again this week, following the brutal murder of eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian American women. We invite you to join us in expressing our solidarity with Asian American neighbors in this town hall next week.

In recent years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we forge common bonds across communities to have a common civic purpose. 

In recent years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we forge common bonds across communities to have a common civic purpose. These challenges aren’t just across faith and ethnic communities, but within them as well; as we see in the struggles that many Jewish communities have when managing our own internal disagreements. What’s clear, at least to me, is that what gives us the resiliency to navigate differences, is our sense of shared vision and common purpose, a project or projects that move us to work through our differences. I’ve been inspired and enriched by the work I’ve been part of with GBIO colleagues over the last decade, and these experiences have informed my own efforts to stay in relationship with so many people across so many differences, and to seek ways to build bridges of partnership.

All of this went through my mind in that conversation with Kathleen, and my response was an enthusiastic “yes”. I knew that it was clearly in the self-interest of JCRC and of the Jewish members of GBIO to renew this network and expand the collective to reflect the diversity of Greater Boston. We understand the power of partnership in shared civic space, and the relationships that can be fostered through shared campaigns.

This week, GBIO celebrated the success of this effort with a Refounding Assembly, welcoming 19 (!) new members, including Temple Emunah of Lexington. Over 1,000 people gathered in a Zoom meeting, with many more on Facebook, to hear stories of individual and institutional commitment, to stand together, and to plan for the work ahead. I was asked to tell a brief story rooted in Jewish tradition and practice, and my mind went to the readings we just finished last weekend at the end of the book of Shemot (Exodus). I said:

“In my tradition, we root ourselves in the stories we read each week from the Torah, our Bible. Right now, we’re retelling the story that comes after the exodus from Egypt, of twelve disparate tribes journeying through the desert, trying to become one people. We’re telling the story about these tribes uniting to build a tabernacle, a gathering place, a shared sacred space. Every member of every tribe had a role in building this tabernacle, each contributing their own unique skills, and by doing so, through the collective building, becoming one people, one community, together.

For me, GBIO is my gathering place, where I come as part of one tribe and offer what I have of myself, joining with everyone here in becoming one community, in building something more powerful than any of us alone could do. This, here, is my sacred gathering, my tabernacle in and for Greater Boston.”

If you are part of a GBIO member institution, I encourage you to participate in GBIO events with your team. If you’d like to learn more about GBIO and organizing, you can attend a training here. And I invite all of you to become our partner at JCRC in the building of tabernacles and spaces of shared purpose in service to our communities.

Thank you and Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

Celebrating “On” Beacon Hill

We have a spring ritual at JCRC, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Passover cleaning. Rather, every March we find ourselves rushing to put the finishing touches on the JCRC and MA Association of Jewish Federation (MAJF)’s annual Legislative Reception, the advocacy event of the organized Jewish community on Beacon Hill.

We know that nothing can replace personal relationships, forged over a hearty handshake and the clinking of glasses, but our world has been remade this past year, and as we have all adapted, so has the reception. Though we will miss the schmoozing over hors d’oeuvres, we are joining with our legislative partners to bring the reception to your home. The open bar will be replaced by the contents of your fridge.

This year, we will be honoring Chief Justice Ralph Gants z”l of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court with a special remembrance tribute. In 2016, Chief Justice Gants visited with the JCRC Council to share his wisdom as we grappled with criminal justice reform, an area to which he devoted his life. He and Rahsaan Hall, Director of the Racial Justice Program at ACLU, discussed their perspectives on the moral imperative for criminal justice reform and the principles necessary to bring more justice and humanity to a flawed system. The rich conversation informed JCRC Council discussions for years to come and directly influenced our advocacy in support of comprehensive criminal justice reform. We brought Justice Gants’ passion for equity with us to Beacon Hill to advocate in support of the monumental legislation later signed into law.

Even virtually, this reception remains a key opportunity for us to honor the legislative partners who have worked with us to advance the values and priorities of the organized Jewish Community. We are especially grateful to our 2021 Legislative Award Recipients:

  • Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who has visited all 351 communities in the Commonwealth, connecting with MA residents where they live and work, to inform her work on behalf of local communities. As co-chair of the Reopening Advisory Board, Lt. Governor Polito was instrumental in advising the administration on strategies to reopen the economy in phases based on health and safety metrics. In this capacity, Lt. Governor Polito was a vital sounding board as JCRC advocated for the summer camp industry, early and secondary education providers, and the equitable allocation of PPE and testing supplies to all schools.
  • Senator Will Brownsberger, who played a key role in the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform and the 2020 Police Reform legislation, utilizing his thorough understanding of policy and the legislative process. Senator Brownsberger deeply believes that an informed electorate is essential to a proper functioning democracy. He is accessible, consistent, and a tireless advocate for justice, and also happens to be a competitive triathlete.
  • Representative Garlick, a registered nurse who has led from the start on issues supporting mental health, substance abuse and health equity. As Chair of the Committee on Elder Affairs, she has worked with JCRC to support programs like Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCS) which keep seniors independent and living in their own homes. Representative Garlick has been a key leader as our state has navigated through the pandemic.
  • Representative Chynah Tyler, who began her career as a Case Manager for Federal Inmates, assisting those nearing release with securing employment, housing, and community support. In 2016, at just 26 years old, Representative Tyler ran a successful campaign to succeed the long-time incumbent. From that experience, she grew to understand the importance of state government in delivering valuable resources to the most vulnerable populations. She serves as Chair of the Black and Latino Caucus, and her work has always had an equity focus, whether on criminal justice reform, homelessness prevention, or education.
  • Jeremy Spittle, Legislative and Policy Director for Senator Rodrigues, whose passion for public service was instilled in him at a young age during a middle school field trip to the Massachusetts State House. Over the last 13-plus years, Jeremy has gained invaluable hands-on experience working on Beacon Hill, where he provides government affairs expertise and support to Senator Michael Rodrigues. JCRC has worked closely with Jeremy on genocide education and the state budget, and he has always been both accessible and accountable.

These public servants have answered the call for leadership in a time of great challenge, and together, we have worked to improve quality of life and access to opportunity for all Massachusetts residents. I hope you will join us at this year’s Legislative Reception on March 18th at 5pm to recognize them. No one person or group can do this alone: partnerships between the Jewish community and the public sector have flourished and led to innovative solutions to a wide variety of complex problems. On March 18, we will stand together in our shared commitment to protect the most vulnerable, support the programs that preserve our communities, and to promote a more just and equitable society.

I hope to see you there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

It is March. Again.

It is March. Again.

That’s it. That’s all one needs to say this week. You know what I mean. Just thinking about it evokes a certain reaction; a realization that it has been a full year since we began living the way we live now. Even with hope coming – loved ones getting their shots, the promise that if we do this just a little longer, we can see the end of the tunnel - I can see and feel it hitting many of us with a new wave of thoughts and feelings. We are realizing that ‘before’ is now quite some time ago, and that ‘after’ is something that we thought, when this started, we’d be at by now.

I wish I could sit with each and every one of you individually to acknowledge what you are struggling with – because I know that almost every one of us is struggling in some way, whether we are sharing it with each other or not. What I don’t want to do is to try and tell you how you should make sense of all this, how to feel and think in this moment; because while this is a shared trauma, we are each experiencing and struggling with it in our own ways.

What I do want to do is to share three thoughts I am holding close to my core as we mark this point in the calendar:

  1. The very fact that I am currently writing this, and that you are reading it, means we are here, unlike some 520,000 Americans and 2.5 million people around the world. That’s a staggering loss, too many to name. As we mark this moment, we need to remember them. I’m so proud of my friend and JCRC board member, Alex Goldstein, who in the very earliest days of the pandemic started the twitter account Faces of Covid to share their stories. It’s been a spiritual practice of sorts to scroll through the many faces every day. In memory, mourning and loss, I’ve also noticed my own gratitude – for being alive, and for having what I have, when there’s been so much suffering. Grief and gratitude, together in tension. I also recommend his new account, Two Shots in the Arm, which shares photos of people across the nation receiving their vaccines.
  2. More than almost anything this year, I’ve missed the small interactions: the unscheduled hallway conversations; the five minutes in a corner at a reception; the lingering after a meeting. Not for the first time, earlier this week a group of our Jewish communal leaders met with a public official, this time with Rep. Jake Auchincloss. There was no hanging around eating cookies for 15 minutes before he arrived, no chatting afterwards as folks took selfies. Later that evening, he and I debriefed. He described that absence as a loss of space for building social capital. I think that’s right, and to a significant extent we’re all leaning into the social capital we built ‘before.’ We’re going to have a lot of rebuilding to do, including weaving new bonds and connections.
  3. With Passover around the corner, I’ve been thinking about what our Jewish tradition can offer in this moment. There are many lessons, but one that feels relevant to me is the longitudinal nature of how we deal with suffering, time, and memory. We were slaves in Egypt for a couple of hundred years over 3,000 years ago; that memory is still baked into everything about who we are and how we see ourselves as a people. It took forty years in the wilderness, a generation, to forge a new post-slavery nation raised with the story and experience of freedom.  A year is a long time; and if we had been explicit last March that it would be a year, or more, we might not have been ready to handle that information. But in the scheme of thousands of years of carrying stories, memory, suffering and challenges, a year will – in time – be a moment; a hard and memorable moment, but still. It’s what we do with those moments, how we shape the memory of them, how we tell the story of this time to inform who we become and what we build next, that will matter as much, if not more.

I feel grief, and gratitude, as we mark this turning of the calendar. I am here to hold space with all of you for that marking. I look forward to deepening the connections between us that have been strained by physical distance. I hope we are soon at the point where we are sharing our stories about this time, and learning from those stories so that together, we can shape our next ‘normal’ from the memory of this time, one which should never have become normal.

That’s where I am right now. Where are you at in this moment?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The Science of Collaboration

This week, a message from
Director of Israel Engagement
Eli Cohn-Postell:

I always enjoyed school growing up, but science was never one of my strong subjects. I never had a handle on how science actually worked. When doing experiments in school, for example, I always had the impression that I was supposed to come up with a pre-determined answer rather than to test a new idea. I knew that a hypothesis was an informed guess about what might happen, but I could never find creativity in the scientific method. Only later did I realize that forming and testing a hypothesis are the fundamental steps to creation and innovation, with opportunities to experiment all around us.

We have been testing a simple hypothesis in recent weeks: that shared problems, even complex issues facing communities separated by thousands of miles, benefit from collaborative solutions. The initial results are positive. Over the past month, we have held two programs that brought together civic leaders in Boston, Israel, and San Francisco to discuss equity during the pandemic. It turns out we have a lot to learn from each other. Even through different circumstances, we face similar questions such as how to address education gaps during remote learning, how to overcome mistrust regarding vaccine distribution, and how to advance equitable solutions to address disparities in our communities

Before we could start this experiment we needed to find people who could address these issues directly. We first turned to City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Justin Hurst of Boston and Springfield, respectively. In addition to having traveled to Israel on our Study Tours, Councilors Campbell and Hurst are longstanding partners of ours, with years of experience building more equitable communities both inside and outside of politics. We partnered with our friends at the Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab issues—a key resource for many of our Boston Partners for Peace organizations—and the San Francisco JCRC to identify the right leaders to engage in solution-centered conversations.

Our first program featured Councilor Campbell alongside Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj’Yahya, Director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, discussing the impact of the pandemic on existing equity gaps in education. (You can watch the recording here). Councilor Campbell and Dr. Hadad Haj’Yahya talked about their experiences as female members of minority communities, sharing personal examples of how access to education and other resources shaped their own families and impacted their professional journeys. Then, earlier this week, we spoke to Councilor Hurst alongside Haifa District Commissioner Fayez Hanna and San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar (recording here). Together, they discussed how COVID has exacerbated equity gaps in their communities but has also created new opportunities for trust-building between the government and minority populations.

The pandemic has provided us with both obstacles and opportunities to deepen our personal connections and advance our work. Before the pandemic, we might have held these meetings face to face, bringing leadership from Boston to Israel and vice versa. Instead, we are now embracing new opportunities to hold these critical conversations not only across the country and around the world, but with technology that enables hundreds of other people to participate and benefit as well.

Towards the end of our first session, someone asked if we really can learn from each other or if the contexts in Boston and Israel are simply too different for shared solutions. I appreciated Councilor Campbell’s response: despite the starkly different landscapes, she affirmed the value of learning best practices from one another and being in partnership across different settings. Her words rang true, reinforcing the importance of bringing our partners together for these conversations and shared learnings that help to build a more equitable world.

Another thing about science that I used to misunderstand is that you never prove a hypothesis. An experiment can give you evidence to either confirm or refute your guesses, but you never have proof. This month, we didn’t prove that political thinkers in Boston, Israel, and San Francisco can come together to solve the great problems of our day. Yet we did create something: the seed of a new community, dedicated to collaboration and with the potential for further growth and partnership.

If you would like to learn more about our upcoming programing, please click here.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli

Eli Cohn-Postell
Director of Israel Engagement

What’s on my nightstand

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When I’m looking for a respite from the noise of the day, I withdraw into the comfort of reading. I try to finish at least two books every week, and often have as many as five or eight open at any one time. This week, I thought that I’d share with you what’s currently on my bedside table:

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AFRICAN-AMERICAN POETRY; 250 YEARS OF STRUGGLE & SONG

Edited by Kevin Young, Director of the Schomburg Center in New York.

I’m a huge fan of poetry. The best poetry draws us in, immerses us in its  visual and lyrical structure, and invites us to feel and to think. This anthology has been hailed as one of the best works of 2020 and is part of the Library of America’s continued collection of our literary heritage (full disclosure, I am a patron of this organization).  It’s a collection of hundreds of published works by Black poets in chronological order by era, from Phillis Wheatley in the 1770’s, right up to Clint Smith and Aja Monet in the last decade. It includes an introductory essay from Young, brief biographies of hundreds of our nations’ finest poets, and historical notes on the text. I’ve been working my way through it over the past few months (it’s over 1,000 pages long) and it has been taking my breath away every single day.

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THE NEW JEWISH CANON; IDEAS & DEBATES – 1980-2015

Edited by Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and Claire Sufrin, Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University.

This reader collects selections from some 80 previously published works on the great debates over Jewish politics, memory, and identity. I approached it with some hesitation, having read many if not most of these pieces when they were originally produced. What makes this work a ‘must’ for anyone interested in our communal conversation are the new essays that follow each piece. These commentaries – from some of the leading educators and academics of our time – offer context, reflections, and insights that enhance the original works and will generate discussions for decades to come.

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AVENGERS; THE CHILDRENS CRUSADE

Allan Heinberg, writer, with a team of artists from Marvel Comics.

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you already know that one of my COVID hobbies has been a deep dive into documenting the representation of Jewish superheroes in American mainstream comics. I’ve been tracing this path from the metaphorical (Superman in 1938, Captain America in 1941), to the first explicit representation (DC’s Colossal Boy celebrating Chanukah in 1979) to the centralized identity (the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde, introduced in 1980, and Batwoman, introduced in 2006). This week, I came to this Avengers mini-series, which I first read when it ran in 2010. In it, three generations of Magneto’s family grapple with their family trauma; and, when his grandson Wiccan describes himself, in canon, as a “Gay Jewish fanboy”, well, suffice to say I felt personally represented.

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AMERICAN DEMOCRACY; 21 HISTORIC ANSWERS TO 5 URGENT QUESTIONS

Edited by Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus of the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Yes, another anthology, again from the Library of America. If you’re reading this,  you might have read some of my other blogs, or attended some of our recent programs, such as the panel discussion hosted by the JCC of the North Shore on the film American Creed. In that case, you’re aware of my interest in the intricate debates over the values and ideas that lie at the heart of our nation. This collection contains a range of historic pieces, from George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, to selections from Hannah Arendt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Andrew Jackson. Reading them together is to grapple with questions such as “Who are ‘We the People’?” and “What is the Government For?” These were urgent questions when these authors addressed them, and they remain urgent for all of us in 2021.

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THE RABBI WHO PRAYED WITH FIRE; A RABBI VIVIAN MYSTERY

Rachel Sharona Lewis, author

This one is on almost every nightstand at team JCRC this week. It’s the just-released first novel by someone familiar to many of you, our own director of synagogue organizing, Rachie Lewis! By her telling, she was inspired by the 1960’s Rabbi Small series and decided to try her hand at an updated take that speaks to our contemporary communities. The result is the first of what we hope will be many great stories about a young, queer, female, rabbi who attempts to serve her congregation and engage meaningfully in the life of her city. It is a novel of our time, and we’re so proud of Rachie for this gift to the new canon of our community’s literature.

I’m loving all of these books and I highly recommend each of them. If you’ve read them, I’d love to know what you think. Please respond and tell me what is on your nightstand these days!

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton

Connecting with Boston’s Students Goes Beyond Books

This week, JCRC hosted a conversation between Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj’Yahya, Director of Arab-Jewish Relations at the Israel Democracy Institute, on the barriers to equity in education in their own communities: Campbell here in Boston, and Dr. Haj’Yahya as an Arab Israeli.

Both women shared their personal struggles, as they attested to the power of education to transform their lives and enable their success. But they were also painfully aware of how unusual their stories were, and how badly inadequate education systems failed others, including their own siblings.

The current pandemic has exacerbated existing barriers to educational equity in each of their communities, they told us, with the lack of universal access to technology for learning (also known as the “Digital Divide”) being a central factor.

We at JCRC are acutely aware of the potentially dire consequences of the pandemic for young school children, particularly in the high needs schools we partner with through our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) program. So, we are especially heartened to see our tutors maintaining their connections with their young friends virtually, as 60 of them are now tutoring online. The strength of these relationships has transcended the barrier of physical distance, and the pairs continue to share the joy of reading, through their screens.

GBJCL serves students who sometimes fall through the cracks — especially during the pandemic, when students are so isolated and disconnected from their learning communities. This year, GBJCL went beyond academics to focus on the value at the core of our work: our relationships with students.

Like so many other GBJCL volunteers, Nancy Krieger, a two-decades-long GBJCL veteran from Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, connected with her students virtually, even tutoring one student who returned home to the Dominican Republic to be close to family during the pandemic. Despite being separated by thousands of miles, Nancy and her student were determined to continue their work from the previous school year and keep learning together. Nancy is passionately committed to her mission to maintain the joy of learning for this student. Nancy also leverages her professional expertise as a Dance-Movement therapist to offer movement breaks to her students virtually – something we can all benefit from after all these months of sitting at home!

Another volunteer, Judy Elder of Temple Emanuel in Newton, has continued to work online with a child she has tutored for multiple years, knowing from the start that it would take flexibility and innovation not only to maintain her student’s attention online, but also to create a fun experience. Judy and her second grade friend enjoyed reading “Pete the Cat” together, on an online book sharing platform GBJCL introduced her to, and Judy used the same platform to teach her fifth grader’s about Jewish traditions, through “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”

Virtual tutoring has resulted in an unexpected benefit – a new opportunity to connect with parents. Judy and her student’s mother teamed up to support the at-home learning; with the mother printing out pages so student and tutor could read from the same text and supplying her iPhone for her daughter to use when the Internet failed.

As teachers and students face tremendous obstacles, and are stretched to their limits, GBJCL volunteers provide crucial support. In some cases, they also work closely with school administrations to identify teachers and students in need of support, then pairing these students with volunteers. This enables teachers to concentrate on virtual learning, knowing that their students are receiving the one-on-one attention they need.

The online community that GBJCL tutors have built not only improves the tutoring experience but also enriches their own lives. As a population of individuals mostly over age 65, many face isolation in their homes due to the pandemic. As they serve their students, GBJCL provides added value and purpose to their lives.

It is hard not to feel lonely and adrift as we enter our second year of being at home. There is no more powerful antidote than the joy that comes with helping a young child to discover the joy of reading

You can join us in championing a young reader by signing up to become a tutor.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our responsibility to a global Jewish people

The Stolperstein initiative

This week, as we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m mulling over an encounter I had with one of the European Jewish communities at the center of the Shoah.

As some of you know, I’m keenly interested in the Stolperstein initiative. These “stumbling stones,” small bronze blocks engraved with details about the individual lives of Europe’s Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, are embedded in the streets outside their last known homes across the continent. In my travels I have sought these stones out and posted pictures of them on Instagram. I share my reflections in the moment; about their prevalence in certain central neighborhoods of Prague and the care they are given in areas of formerly eastern Berlin; about the places in Vienna where some current residents seek to hide them behind potted plants and bike racks so as to not be reminded of the history and legacy of the space they are in, and about the way in which this project has inspired another memorial - to Spain’s pre-Inquisition Jewish community - on the streets of Cordoba and Toledo.

In 2015, as part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders, I had the opportunity to visit Munich. At our first meeting, we were told by non-Jewish social activists that in this city, where the Nazis first rose to power, there were only two stolperstein, each on private property; the city refused the project permission to install them on public sidewalks as they have been positioned elsewhere. Surprisingly, the opposition came from the local Jewish leadership. 

The next day, our group met with the chair of the Jewish Council, herself a survivor and a prominent voice of German Jewry. We had been asked by these social activists to press her on this matter, to share with her the power of these memorials and to encourage her reconsideration. We discussed this request amongst ourselves and came to understand that our role as outsiders was not to presume that we knew what was best for another Jewish community, but rather, that we would seek a deeper understanding of their perspective. We agreed that we would ask her to help us understand her opposition. She shared her concerns not only about the lack of an endowment for the long-term upkeep of the stones, but more pointedly, about the potential pain she would experience as a survivor, at witnessing people stepping on the names of her family in the streets of the city she came back to after the Shoah.

The lesson from this exchange was that, despite whatever power I found in these memorials elsewhere, here, in the heart of Bavaria, the Jewish leadership’s primary concern was the experience of local survivors, who could be retraumatized by these stones. For now, there would be no such memorial – though some of the Jewish leaders we met acknowledged that a day may come when it would be a welcome and important addition to their community. This exchange reaffirmed an essential lesson: that as a Jewish leader from elsewhere, my responsibility was to honor the needs and the will of the local community.

I share this memory by way of illuminating a thought process that comes up often in my work: How do we understand our responsibility to other local Jewish communities when speaking publicly on events occurring in their cities that directly impact them?

Often the answers are easy, such as when we choose to lift up and be guided by the leadership of a community under attack, standing with the French Jewish federation after the Hyper Cacher attack, or asking my colleagues in Pittsburgh what they needed in the days and weeks after that unthinkably tragic shabbat. Sometimes it can be a little more complicated, for example when we take great offense at the comments or actions of a member of Congress from outside Massachusetts. In these instances, I find myself weighing our own rightful outrage about a member of our own government alongside the interests and relationships that another Jewish community has with its own representative.

Of course, not everything local stays local. The murder of George Floyd, for example, required a national conversation about a national crisis. Still, we consulted with and recognized the leadership of colleagues on the ground in Minneapolis who were in relationship with their local partners. Considering that JCRC’s public voice often has both local and national implications,  we carry a responsibility to a global Jewish people. We strive to maintain a level of humility for the effect that our voice will have on those members of our family who are most closely impacted by the issue at hand. 

There are dozens of factors and considerations that are weighed every time we speak out, and numerous voices and partners – within and beyond the Jewish community – who inform our thinking. But for now, this week of Holocaust Remembrance, I wanted to share this particular story of an interaction with a survivor that has stayed with me and enriched my understanding of what Jewish leadership requires of me, and of us.

I welcome your reflections as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“Unity.” That’s it. That’s the message.

“Unity.”

That’s it. That’s the message.

This week, President Biden delivered what is, to my mind, the best and most important inaugural speech we’ve heard in generations. It didn’t have the poetry of a Reagan or Obama speech, but it had, at its core, an urgent faithfulness to the “American Idea,” and a deep sensitivity to the fragility of our national project. It was a call to action for every patriotic American to commit ourselves to the work of achieving one central goal: “Unity.”

It only took hours for some to question whether our new President was committed to this work, to challenge the notion that it is even possible, and to, of course, knock one another around on social media.

On Wednesday the President said: “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

This week, as we prepare to mark International Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I’m reminded of the work of survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl. He taught us that even in the darkest times we can survive; that no matter what challenges we face, we have a freedom, via our choice of how to respond to the most daunting circumstances. We can persevere by nurturing a hope for the future within ourselves.

It bears repeating that comparisons of present-day circumstances to the Holocaust, a uniquely horrific chapter of history, are never wise or warranted. But what wisdom can we draw from Frankl, who survived the unimaginable with a sense of hope and purpose?

It struck me while listening on Wednesday, that this week we will continue to read the Exodus story in synagogue. In the Torah it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. In America in 2021, our President – a man of deep personal faith – is reminding us that our future and our hopes for our nation obligate each individual American to choose not to harden our own hearts.

We all need to make a choice now. Are we each, as individuals, on the side of renewal and commitment to the very idea of a shared national project as Americans, or are we not?

For me, the answer is a most enthusiastic “yes!”

At the same time, I reject the misguided notion that unity demands conformity. I am well aware of the danger inherent in that premise.

Unity has, in the past, been to the detriment of freedom and diversity. We know this as Jews who have experienced, far too often, a demand for national unity that included “one church”, a so called “unity” that excludes us. I can also recall this exclusion as someone who understands the history of my LGBTQ ancestors who were forced into the closet for the sake of conformity. Today, it can be rightly observed that there is, at times, an unhealthy and unproductive demand within some communities and movements that require conformity in all matters.

The goal of our unity is not to suppress debate and differences. It is, as the President put it so clearly, to bring to an “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.” It is vigorous debate over policy, but with civility built on “tolerance and humility.”

Unity requires the hard work of a shared national idea, a story we tell about who we are and a project to which we dedicate ourselves, as one. That’s no easy task, in no small part because within our shared national story, we need to make space for experiences that differ from how we personally perceive the world.

On a panel last week, I talked about “the American Creed,” which in some ways can be summed up as a promise: “In this country, if I work hard and follow the rules, I can give my children a better life than the one I know.”

The challenge of that promise is that for more and more Americans in these times of expanding economic gaps, it is not the reality they experience. At the same time, for many Americans - in particular those experiencing our nation through the fractures of caste or racism - it is a promise that they have never known.

Unity requires that we listen to those stories and attempt to understand the differing experiences of our shared national narrative. We need to have the humility to know that ours is not the only interpretation of this great nation, and commit to debate policies, with civility, that can renew the promise of America, for every American.

This shabbat, as we read the words to “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt” I’m remembering the call to action we heard from our President this week, and renewing my commitment to my personal responsibility as an American, to the freedom and unity of all Americans.

For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it

-Amanda Gorman

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy