Category Archives: The Friday Blog

JCRC Criminal Justice Reform Principles

  • With just 4.4% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners--over 2.2 million individuals. We house 30% of the world's population of incarcerated women.  
  • 1 in 15 black men and 1 in 36 Latino men is incarcerated, compared with 1 in 106 white men.  
  • Over 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison.  
  • Nearly half of all state prisoners are nonviolent offenders and 16% are drug offenders.  
  • Despite similar levels of usage, 2/3 of drug offenders are black and Latino—that’s roughly 10X the rate of white users.  
  • In Massachusetts, our recidivism rate is close to 40%. 

It is imperative for our society to build a criminal justice infrastructure that balances the needs of public safety, the rights of victims, and also establishes a meaningful rehabilitative system to ensure that people have the opportunity to succeed after incarceration.  The inequities faced by people of color in the justice system constitute one of the most pressing civil rights crises of our time. Racial disparities are a pernicious and, ultimately, unacceptable reality of our criminal justice system. In particular, progressive approaches to nonviolent offenders are an essential means towards reducing the devastating impact that incarceration and its aftermath has on our communities.  America can and must do better, and the organized Jewish community can play an indispensable role, consonant with our tradition, in moving this agenda forward. Widespread, transformative change will require a groundswell of energy at the state and local levels, the kind of work to which local community relations organizations are ideally suited.  

WHY NOW? 

The Jewish community has a distinguished track record dating back to the early 1930s in fighting for racial equality and civil rights throughout the United States. Such fights included advancing racial equity in education, ending segregation, and, in more recent years, ensuring enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The civil rights movement of the 1960s transformed America and advanced the principle of equality for all under the law.  

We recognize that our community’s presence in these fights has not been as felt in the following decades. There remains much work to be done, which calls for the involvement of the community at large. Beginning in the 1970s the U.S. prison population grew dramatically and, along with the rate of incarceration, this phenomenon is referred to as mass incarceration. Studies have shown that mass incarceration is a significant contributing factor to poverty, income inequality, and family instability. Mass incarceration compounded with the erosion of the Voting Rights Act, and prevalence of institutional bias perpetuate structural inequality that keeps low-income and communities of color at a disadvantage. 

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston Supports: 

  • Policies that reduce the rates of incarceration and recidivism.  
  • Policies that address and confront the racial disparities in our criminal justice system; 
  • The reform of mandatory minimum sentences to reduce injustice in its effects and application; 
  • Policies that challenge our state’s unconscionably high recidivism rate, including but not limited to increasing access to pre-incarceration diversionary paths, re-entry programs, mental health and substance abuse services, and job-training and stabilization supports for individuals upon release; 
  • Work that addresses the communal impacts of high incarceration rates, particularly on family members of those incarcerated; 
  • Efforts that reform our juvenile justice system to reduce the school to prison pipeline. 
  • Actions to address the economic impact of fines and fees associated with all aspects of the criminal justice system, from pre-trail bail reform to fees associated with probation and parole; 
  • Outreach to local groups for support and wisdom, coalition building, particularly with those most directly affected by the criminal justice system. 

Popping our bubbles in these “interesting times”

By Executive Director Jeremy Burton

Heading into Rosh Hashana, and whatever the year ahead may bring, there are three recent moments that I haven’t been able to let go of.

First moment: The New York Times had a piece this past weekend about how Jewish communities will be observing the High Holidays during COVID. As others quickly noted, amidst their explorations of Zoom services and such, they did not talk to a single Orthodox rabbi or congregation, or to any of the nearly 1/3 of American Jews who are, through our understanding of Jewish practice, not using technology to pray together on sabbath.

As large parts of the Jewish community are preparing to have in-person services next week, with great struggle in figuring out how to pull that off, this was, as Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt tweeted, “a glaring erasure.” In a year when American Jewry will be experiencing a more profound internal chasm than ever before in how we will observe the practices of our High Holidays, this omission was a consequential one.

Second moment: Not for the first time, a particular debate of interest to JCRC members exploded onto Twitter last week for a few days. In this case it was regarding a process we’ll be navigating this Fall between different camps in our own community; stakeholders in JCRC who will be debating a specific decision but are really arguing about larger ideas concerning the values and direction of the Jewish community.

What was striking though, was a conversation I had with a member of our staff, whose perception was that only one camp was particularly engaged in this social media noise. What struck me as we unpacked that observation was that while Camp A had tagged JCRC in their comments and was therefore prevalent in our feed, Camp B – for whatever reason – had tagged my Twitter feed but not JCRC’s official one. Thus, we were experiencing completely different and highly imbalanced discussions of the same issue of interest to JCRC and our members.

Third moment: Last month I watched almost all of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. I could talk for hours about my impressions of each. But a moment I haven’t been able to stop thinking about came in the very first minutes of the first night of the Democrats’ broadcast: A video of images from our nation’s recent turmoils, covered by Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

Now, there’s a whole other post in me about that incredibly powerful song also being one of his most Christian in its imagery and lyrics, and what it feels like for me as a Jew to recognize that our “unifying” national culture is fundamentally one with which I don’t identify. But what struck me that night were the images. Swap out the music for another artist, and a large chunk of that video would have easily resonated if shown to the Republican convention audience as well. Images such as that of President Trump waving a bible in front of a church earlier this summer resonate with our two political camps in very different ways, and each views that image as an argument for its own case. It is not exactly a profound insight to observe that in this election cycle, we have two tribes having completely separate conversations about the very idea of American greatness.

My point is this, as I share my final blog post of this Jewish year: At every level –  organizational, communal, national – we are at a point of deep fracture. Our bubbles and pods and tribes lead us to interpret the world and events around us in profoundly different ways – and to understand all that we see and hear in ways that reinforce our preconceived notions. (Note: This is not suggest that all arguments and factions are equally rooted in “facts”). Our attachments to our self-isolating camps keep us from exercising our ability to have conversations about our disagreements, or to even have a shared understanding about the nature of those disagreements.

In these times of turmoil and fracture I’m reminded of a speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave in 1965 at the University of Capetown. He said:

“There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged - will ultimately judge himself - on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort."

My prayer, and my determined commitment this Rosh Hashana, is that this coming year be one in which we face the uncertainty of our times with expanded imagination and creativity. I pray that we embrace an open-heartedness that enables us to listen to voices that challenge us and to the perspectives of those with whom we disagree profoundly. I want to be judged not by whether we achieve agreement and uniformity in all things, but by whether we enhance understanding and, at the very least, create a shared language that will pave the way for spirited conversations and a better society for the next generation.

Shabbat Shalom, and an early Shanah Tovah,

Jeremy

 

One Clear Winner in Tuesday’s Primary

Over the past months, I’ve used this space to focus quite a bit on the primary to succeed Rep. Joe Kennedy in the House. As I write this on Thursday afternoon, ballots are still being counted. And while it may take a little longer to have a declared Democratic nominee in this race, there’s one clear winner that emerged even before they started counting the ballots Tuesday night: Ranked Choice Voting.

Whatever the outcome in the 4th (and this isn’t a comment about the qualities of either of the frontrunners – both of whom I respect), the nominee will be the choice of less than one quarter of the voters, and the top two candidates will have, combined, received less than half the votes in a nine way race. That’s not representative democracy.

In Massachusetts, where we have no runoff mechanism, this isn’t even that unusual. In the past decade, in all three races for open U.S. House seats, candidates won their 1st nomination in a crowded field with only a plurality of the vote; Rep. Katherine Clark with 32%, Rep. Lori Trahan with 22%, and now here. These numbers don’t reflect the choice of the majority of voters. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) provides a mechanism to fix that and ensure an accurate reflection of the will of the people.

RCV also allows us to avoid something we certainly saw in the 4th – “strategic voting.” In the final weeks we had perfectly good and talented candidates dropping out to consolidate around leading candidates – based on polling. I read multiple pieces where folks were trying to figure out who the “likely winner” could be to make sure their votes “mattered.” With RCV, we could all vote our preferred candidate AND then rank our preferences so as to not “waste” a vote on a 5th place finisher.

Further, RCV is shown to disincentivize both targeted and negative campaigning – something we certainly saw in this race. Without RCV, in a crowded field a candidate is incentivized to target their message and strategy to a small subset of the voters, knowing that while their message does not represent the majority of the district, they might still win with a fraction of the vote. With RCV in place, a candidate must find a way to speak to the majority of the voters, not only in their agenda, but also through positive appeals to the supporters of the other candidates. If candidate A wants to be the second or third choice for candidate B & E’s supporters, then they want to speak to those voters during the race and not just target a niche that gets them to 22%.

There are several other reasons to support Ranked Choice Voting but at the end of the day, we at JCRC believe that RCV improves the quality of our democracy. That’s why our Council, which has made “defending democracy” a central component of our agenda in recent years, has endorsed the “Yes on 2” referendum here in Massachusetts this November 3rd.

Over the coming two months we’ll be working with the RCV coalition to educate our community about how this voting system works, and about all the benefits of adopting ranked choice voting. We at JCRC hope that you will take the time to learn about RCV, work with us to educate your neighbors, and be a part of improving our democracy this year.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Jeremy

Back to School: This Fall’s Quandary

It’s hard to imagine a time when the phrase “Back-to-School” elicited as much angst and debate as it has this summer. Schools are still in the process of finalizing their plans for the start of the school year, with major uncertainty ahead. Families, daycares, and schools throughout Massachusetts are balancing the physical safety of students, teachers, and staff with the social, emotional, and learning needs of our community’s children, all in the context of dire budget constraints.

Given JCRC’s role connecting the organized Jewish community with public leadership and resources, we’ve found ourselves on the receiving end of urgent questions from many members of our community: “Is there government funding for PPE and other COVID safety measures?” “What resources are available to camps, daycares, preschools and schools to deal with the safety costs associated with COVID?”

From the early days of  the pandemic, we have brought Jewish leadership to the table where critical decisions are being made, and we’ve been in constant communication with our elected officials about myriad COVID-related issues. This is a moment in which we’ve doubled-down on our organizational purpose; to discern our community’s values, interests and priorities, and to work together – along with our civic and interfaith partners – to address our collective needs.

So, we reached out to our legislative partners to ensure that students across the Greater Boston community have access to a safe learning environment, and that schools have the support they need during this unprecedented moment. We advocated to Governor Baker and his administration to allocate the necessary funds to all public and private schools and daycares, enabling them to access resources they will need to comply with the required safety measures. And we are meeting our responsibility to provide updated information to individual schools and communities, overwhelmed by the urgent need to locate and access these resources. Click here for our page of information on COVID safety and funding from the state.

We are also supporting the public schools of Greater Boston to meet the unique requirements of remote learning. Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) is mobilizing and growing our cohort of volunteers to offer individualized attention to students,  an especially rare commodity this year. Many of our volunteers have already been tutoring students remotely throughout the spring and summer, taking advantage of the flexibility that tutoring via Zoom provides. Our volunteers have risen to this moment, providing crucial support to students and partnering with teachers to be a resource in the classroom.  And to their delight, they are finding that not only have they adapted to the strange new reality of connecting through screens, but that the connections with their students have actually flourished. In the words of Andy Koppel, a GBJCL tutor at the Winship School in Brighton:

 “The collaborative reading experience is remarkably effective. The students attend the sessions faithfully, and love the dedicated reading time...This has been an eye-opening and exciting experience, especially enhanced by the students’ positive attitudes and flexibility in dealing with this unprecedented and unanticipated immersion in remote learning.   

We are staying in close communication with all of the school districts in which we work, to learn about their evolving needs - and look forward to deploying our tutors who are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to reconnect with their young friends.

JCRC is committed to ensuring that all students in the Commonwealth have the resources to learn safely and effectively during this incredibly difficult time, and that the schools in our community have the funding they need to do so. We will continue to be a resource for the community to access information about COVID from our legislative partners. We invite you to join our tutoring community this fall.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Why the UAE Agreement Matters

Last week brought the welcome news of the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.  

I’m taken aback and frankly disappointed that this development has not been fully celebrated in all quarters here in the U.S. That may be, in some part, due to how we overwhelmed we are by domestic concerns right now, or maybe because of our fractured political times and the key role that our current administration played in facilitating this agreement.  It would be regrettable if we chose to ignore this historic moment only because President Trump was the one who announced the agreement from the White House.  

As Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) said this week: “Not everything needs to be partisan, and especially Israel.”  

So I’d like to take this moment to expand on our statement this week welcoming the announcement and to explain why we did so. 

First, anything that serves to normalize Israel's presence in the region is a good thing. Israel continues to be the only country that is not only challenged in the international arena for its actions, but also regularly questioned  for its legitimacy altogether. This step by the U.A.E. – and others that may soon follow – advances the just and still necessary cause of normalizing the very existence of the world’s only Jewish state.

Second, this new, important step strengthens the cause of peace. When the international community treats Israel like any other country, one which fully belongs among the nations, good things happen – such as the Egyptian peace, the Oslo Accords. Israel being treated like a pariah only amplifies the Israeli people’s legitimate sense of isolation and vulnerability as a country in a largely hostile region. Their understandable and reasonable reaction is to focus on self-defense as the primary driver of national discourse. This week’s events demonstrate to Israelis first and foremost that the benefits, for them, of peacemaking, are in fact possible and tangible; namely recognition and normalcy in the region. 

Third, “suspending” talk of plans for annexation gives everyone – including us in this county – an opportunity to step back from the heated rhetoric and emotional fractures of earlier this summer. From our synagogue Zoom rooms to the halls of Congress, we were tearing each other apart by debating and publicly criticizing something that never came to pass. At this point de jure annexation is farther from a realistic possibility than it has been for some time, a reality that, still this week, some in this country refuse to acknowledge. This past week’s events reinforce an Israeli political center that wants normalcy and engagement with its neighbors. The stakes of what could be lost for Israel’s center should talks of annexation rise again, have been heightened by bringing more Arab nations to the table of recognition, with all the commensurate benefits.  

To put it another way, as Ambassador David Friedman (someone who we at JCRC have been deeply critical of in the past) said: "We prioritized peace in the region over West Bank annexation...you can't have peace and annexation at the same time." That’s a shift. It’s a good thing. Let’s embrace and build upon it. 

Lastly, for us and for the Israelis we’ve come to know and believe in, peace with the Palestinians remains the ultimate goal. We know this can only be accomplished through building societies that recognize the dignity and humanity of the other. We believe that building and deepening public exchanges with a range of Arab countries advances a regional culture of such recognition. This development can help that process, and that is another reason that it should be viewed as a step toward progress.  

Of course, it’s only one step in a long line of many that must still be taken to build more ties between Israelis and Palestinians, so that they recognize each other’s dignity. We can hope that this past week’s developments will serve as a launchpad for further progress toward peace for Israel, the surrounding Arab States, and the Palestinians. And we urge Congress and the American people to invest the necessary capital for peacebuilding between Israel and its neighbors, to achieve progress toward peaceful coexistence in the region and encourage similar diplomatic actions in the future. 

On July 24th, the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA) was passed with bipartisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation would provide $250 million over five years to radically scale up peace and reconciliation programming. And now the legislation moves to the Senate. 

To learn more about the work of investing in peacebuilding and the role the U.S. Congress has to serve, JCRC of Greater Boston is partnering with the JCRC of Greater Washington and others to invite you to a program on August 27 at 2pm EDT to learn about our advocacy together with the Alliance for Middle East Peace in support of this legislation, "The Partnership Fund For Peace."It is an opportunity to learn about the legislation and the impact the fund would have on grassroots peace-building and economic development efforts in the region - directly from those doing the work, and also to learn what you can do to help champion this vital piece of legislation.  

We invite you to be a partner to the people of Israel, to the Palestinians, and to the kinds of forward-thinking responsible actors in the region who made these recent developments possible. 

Shabbat Shalom,  

Jeremy

Make a Plan of Who to Vote For

With the Massachusetts primary just over two weeks away and with voting already started, I am asked every day by friends and colleagues: “Who are you voting for, and why?”

It’s a fair question. Given my work, I have the privilege of meeting and engaging with almost every leading candidate in each cycle, in our region’s congressional and state races. But this is not a question I will answer. As the leader of a 501c3, my public comments are almost always viewed as an official pronouncement on behalf of our network of member organizations (except, maybe, when it comes to my praise of various comic books). Therefore, I should not and do not endorse candidates.

But what I can share is my process for answering that internal and personal “why.” It’s how I make a plan, before I fill out my ballot, to know who I am voting for. It’s really simple:

  • First, I ask myself: What do I care about in the leaders serving in this particular role? Of course, we at JCRC hold certain values and principles that we work for – on foreign and domestic concerns. I have some personal clarity as a voter that “I would never vote for someone who…” or “the most important thing I’m looking for in a dog-catcher is…”
  • Then, where there is an incumbent running for re-election, I can examine that person’s record: How did they vote, or if an executive office, how did they navigate the big challenges they faced in office? Where did they show up? When were they present or absent?
  • Mostly though, I want to research two things:

    1. What are the positions the candidate espouses? What have they said in their statements and position papers that tell me how they will govern and how they think about the issues that are of concern to me – in their own words. Fortunately, this is so much easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, thanks to search engines and to candidates’ websites. Their websites also tell me something about their priorities, i.e. the issues they choose to address and feature, vs. other concerns – some of which are very important to me – that they may deliberately make no mention of. In those cases, I ask myself what that absence says about them and my evaluation of them.

    2. Who has endorsed them? Again, in this era, almost every candidate features an endorsements page on their website. This tells me a lot about a candidate. It gives me a sense of what caucuses they might sit in if elected. Who will likely have initial access to them? Who are they likely to be most responsive to on the issues I care about? I can see which advocates of a specific cause or position are putting their own reputations out there to say, “this candidate is the best choice in this race to advance my cause.” That says a lot about a candidate, for me.

It’s not that hard to make a plan for how I will cast my vote. In some races it takes a little more time. For example, in the current congressional race in the MA 4th, researching eight (as of yesterday) democratic and two republican candidates takes a little time – and while I don’t live in this district, since so many members of our community do, I’ll help you all out by including links to all eleven of their websites below.

It is time well spent. As I wrote last week, we know that our vote is our most sacred task to hold government accountable in a democracy. I for one would never vote for someone without doing my due diligence. A couple of hours of effort to inform our role in the myriad tasks and challenges ahead over two, four, or even six years terms is certainly time well spent.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

As an example, the MA 4th primary candidates. These links are to their issue pages, but almost all have endorsement pages on their website banners as well, so check those out while you do your research:

Democrats:

Jake Auchincloss: https://www.jakeforma.com/priorities 

Becky Grossman: https://beckygrossman.com/issues

Alan Khazei:  https://alankhazei.com/vision/

Ilssane Leckey: https://ihssane.org/issues

Natalia Linos: https://www.nataliaforcongress.com/priorities

Jesse Mermell: https://jessemermell.com/issues/

Ben Sigel: https://bensigelforcongress.com/whyimrunning/ 

Chris Zannetos: https://www.chriszforma.com/priorities

Republicans:

Julie Hall: http://hallforcongress.com/

David Rosa: https://www.davidrosaforcongress.com/

The most powerful non-violent tool

I often say that good policy comes from good process. When it comes to the effective functioning of a healthy democracy, good process starts with an engaged electorate that votes.

I’ll keep this one brief because I know you don’t need to be persuaded: In times of crisis and in times of calm, there is no more sacred task than voting. It is, quite simply, the most direct tool we have to hold government accountable to those who are the governed.

This year, like no other, the process of voting involves a few more hurdles; the clearest and most dangerous being the COVID pandemic. Here in Massachusetts, our primary date is unusually early, September 1st, before Labor Day, incurring the risk of many folks “missing” the primary. This year’s primary features several important elections that will likely determine the victors in November as well. The stakes are as high this year as they have ever been.

So, it is very important that we get out the vote ahead of and on September 1st.

“Ahead of,” because due to mobilization by JCRC and our partner advocates, Massachusetts has a new law regarding election safety during the 2020 primary and general elections. This important legislation gives all eligible voters the opportunity to vote early in the primary and general elections, allowing us to vote by mail, and expanding access to absentee ballots. 

“On” September 1st, because time is running out to vote by mail.  Even if you don’t vote early, your vote is vital. There are several races of great interest to our community in Greater Boston, including the state-wide primary for the U.S. Senate, and congressional primaries in several districts with large Jewish populations, covering large parts of Greater Boston, from Sharon, Needham, Newton and Brookline, to parts of the city of Boston, and most of the North Shore.

Our community has values, interests and priorities that will be impacted by the outcomes of these elections. And because this year’s elections amidst COVID are more complicated, JCRC has prepared a comprehensive guide to the voting process in the MA primary, including important dates and instructions for how to vote by mail or vote early. If you want to vote by mail, you need to send in your application, which you should have received in the mail, ASAP.

Of course, while JCRC is a 501(c)(3) and does not endorse candidates or political parties, I encourage you to take the time before you vote, to learn about the candidates and their views on issues of concern to you and our community. For example, in the MA 4th Congressional District (currently held by Rep. Kennedy) you might check out the video of this recent primary debate hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, or this helpful candidate survey compiled by AJC New England. There are other resources as well and I urge you to research the candidates, their positions, and their endorsements before you vote.

As the late Congressman John Lewis, of blessed memory, said:

"I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy."

So please, make a plan to vote, not only in the general election, but in the primary. Tell your friends to vote and share this information widely so that they know how. Ask your congregations and organizations to help get the word out.

There is nothing more urgent right now than our participation in the democratic process, so that we can ensure that our voices will be heard.

What we’re reading – and listening to – this summer

We're turning this week's blog over to our staff—we asked them to create a Summer Reading List full of books and podcasts they love. Here are their recommendations:

Nahma Nadich
Nahma Nadich
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Bakari Seller's new memoir chronicles his life growing up "country" in Denmark South Carolina, where he made history by defeating an incumbent State Representative to become the youngest member of the state legislature and the youngest African American elected official in the country. The book's most moving sections feature Bakari's insights on his relationship with his father, and the impact of his father's life experience on his own formation. Bakari's father Cleveland ("Cleve") a key Civil Rights Leader, survived the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, an under-reported tragedy in which three Black students were killed by state troopers (two years prior to the more widely covered shooting at Kent State). Cleve Sellers was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for involvement in the killings, and carried the burden of having a criminal record, until receiving a full pardon 25 years later. Bakari reflects on what it was like to live up to his father's courageous leadership in the fight for equality, and shares how he continues to deal with his rage at the harm done to his father by a white supremacist justice system.

Aaron Agulnek
Aaron Agulnek
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History that doesn't suck is a bi-weekly podcast, delivering a legit, seriously researched, hard-hitting survey of American history through entertaining stories. Think of this as covering the basics of what an American should but possibly doesn't know (or has forgotten) about history.

Shira Burns
Shira Burns
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The Vanishing Half is a page-turner that spans nearly half a century, from the 1940s to the 1990s, following twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who were raised in a small town conceived of by their great-great-great grandfather — after being freed — as an exclusive place for light-skinned Black people like him. The twins run away from the town at age sixteen. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. This is a book that I couldn't put down - it features so many interesting, rich, and varied characters.

Eli Cohn-Postell
Eli Cohn-Postell
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Based on real events, The Nickel Boys tells the story of a Florida reform school in the 1960s through the eyes of its Black residents. It provides a small but powerful window on race and racism in the Jim Crow south, and the emotional legacy of the abuse that the boys carry with them into adulthood. Whitehead won his second Nobel Prize for Nickel Boys, cementing his place as one of our greatest writers.

Shoshana Edelson
Shoshana Edelson
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Girl at War begins in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1991. Ana Jurić is a carefree ten-year-old, living with her family in a small apartment in Croatia’s capital. But that year, civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, splintering Ana’s idyllic childhood. Daily life is altered by food rations and air raid drills, and soccer matches are replaced by sniper fire. When the war arrives at her doorstep, Ana must find her way in a dangerous world. In 2001, Ana is now a college student in Manhattan. Though she’s tried to move on from her past, she can’t escape her memories of war—secrets she keeps even from those closest to her. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, Ana returns to Croatia after a decade away, hoping to make peace with the place she once called home. As she faces her ghosts, she must come to terms with her country’s difficult history and the events that interrupted her childhood years before. Moving back and forth through time, Girl at War is an honest, generous, brilliantly written novel that illuminates how history shapes the individual. Sara Nović fearlessly shows the impact of war on one young girl—and its legacy on all of us. It’s a debut by a writer who has stared into recent history to find a story that continues to resonate today.

Lisa Kessel Freedman
Lisa Kessel Freedman
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Guy Raz dives into the stories behind some of the world's best known companies. How I Built This weaves a narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists—and the movements they built. Especially fun when it’s a brand or company that we are patrons of!

Rachie Lewis
Rachie Lewis
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Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is one of the most informative and moving books I’ve read about the real human impact of climate change and rising sea levels. Rush’s writing is poetic and incredibly informative all at once, delving into the policies and moral and amoral underpinnings that have already led to destruction of communities that can be too easy to ignore.

Emily Reichman
Emily Reichman
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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous really drives home the importance of sharing one’s own story and understanding the far reaching impact of family history. This beautifully written book, at its core, is about the complicated relationship between a mother and son who are refugees to this country from post-war Vietnam, living in Hartford, CT. It is an in-depth exploration of race, class, sexuality, addiction, and trauma through the experiences of a young man now in his 20's, reflecting on his own life and the lives of his mother and family. Through intricate storytelling, he shines a light on some of the most complex and important issues of our day, providing a prospective we do not often take the time to listen to and understand.

Rebecca Shimshak
Rebecca Shimshak
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In the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy community, we are sharing book lists that cover topics of anti-racism for children. The Children's Literacy initiative shares lists for pre-schoolers and school aged children. Another great resource is the application Caribu that offers picture book reading remotely. Caribu's section on anti-racism includes a wonderful book called Flowers Only (no weeds allowed) by Mimi Mazzarella, illustrated by Barry Goldberg. The book is about "Iris" who is excited to go to the Flower Festival for the first time. When she invites "Dan DeLion" to join her, they are told he is not welcome. The book articulates the triumphs that can be achieved when we stand up for what we believe in to influence the negative perception of others.

Lessons from the Legacy of John Lewis

My autographed copy of John Lewis' memoir

 

Nahma Nadich

This week, a message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

Though I knew that Congressman John Lewis was suffering from pancreatic cancer, I still reacted to the news of his death with surprised tears. Given all that he had endured through his blessedly long life and the countless times he subjected himself to state sanctioned violence in pursuit of equality for his people, I thought of him as invincible and perhaps, even, superhuman. As one of the few Civil Rights leaders granted the gift of longevity, his legacy was that much richer, filled with decades of insights and lessons about public leadership, not only as a young activist, but also as a member of Congress for over three decades. The moving and beautiful tributes we’ve watched and read this week have provided many invaluable lessons from the Congressman’s life about strategic and effective organizing for systemic change.

But the question that’s been confounding me this week is: how did this young firebrand, impatient to see change that was unconscionably overdue, mature into a public leader with such unflagging energy and determination? How did Lewis, who experienced not only the joy of seeing the first Black president elected, but also the horrifying backlash that followed, sustain his will to keep fighting and making “good trouble”? How was he able to witness the pernicious endurance of white supremacy and the continued dehumanization of Black people and the violence threatening their bodies, without losing his faith in the promise of America one day being realized?

As I’ve listened to Lewis’ wisdom in clips of interviews shared this week, I’m struck by the profound power of his commitment to nonviolence as a life-giving force and a source of moral clarity. His understanding of nonviolence wasn’t only as a strategic approach to movement building, but also as a guiding philosophy in relating to all human beings, including his opponents and even his enemies. This man, whose skull was fractured by state agents of white supremacy (none of whom has ever been held accountable for their brutality), cautioned us never to demean our enemies.

“To reconcile ourselves with one another, we must release our judgments and make peace with the fact that we are one. This country was founded on the ideal that we are all created equal. If we truly believe in the equality of all humankind, how can we put down and belittle one another? How can we disrespect and prejudge one another? How can we come to the point where we malign and hate one another?”

John Lewis, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America

The words of this American hero ring so very true as I think about the degradation of our public discourse, and the speed with which we condemn those with whom we disagree. Rather than debate ideas and arguments on their merit, our default is to impugn motives and assassinate the character of those promoting the ideas. Throughout his life, Lewis was intent on building a “beloved community” (one that would not be “unkind”, “polarized” or “adversarial”), a core concept in the philosophy of nonviolence. What a profound vision to guide us at JCRC, as we seek to represent the organized Jewish community, a community with deeply shared values and commitments, co-existing with passionately held and often loudly diverse views across the ideological spectrum.

But the young activist, whose planned address at the March on Washington was toned down to avoid inflaming political leaders, also had a fire burning within him that was never extinguished. He understood that there was a time and place for battle. He advised, “Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don't be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice” in his book Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America.

One such time for him was at the 1995 Million Man March, which he chose not to join, eliciting much criticism at the time. In his own words,

“I did not march because I could not overlook the presence and central role of Louis Farrakhan, and so I refused to participate. I believe in freedom of speech but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic or hateful…The means by which we struggle must be consistent with the end we seek, and that includes the words we use to pursue those ends”.

John Lewis, Walking With the Wind

Among the many lessons this moral giant left us was this one; to refrain from gratuitous attacks against your opponents, but to discern those times when you must stand firm against clear expressions of hatred and bigotry, and that which must never be tolerated. And when you go to battle, do so with moral clarity and integrity.

The notion of relating charitably to our fellow human beings echoes the lesson we learn in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to “…appoint yourself a teacher, and acquire yourself a companion, and judge all people with the scale weighted in their favor”. As we remember the remarkable legacy of John Lewis, the “Conscience of the Congress”, we give thanks for the gift of this teacher, heed his sage advice to treat each other kindly, and draw inspiration to build our own Beloved Community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma

How and When Does JCRC Make a Statement?

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months discussing rapidly unfolding events in meetings with JCRC partners as well as with other local and national networks and coalitions JCRC is a part of.  In many such meetings there often comes a point where the issue is raised of whether JCRC will make a statement - either as a representative of the organized Jewish community, or as a part of other local and national networks and coalitions we sit in. This discussion has occurred for issues as varied as the efforts in Washington to restrict immigration; Jewish solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and of course, the anticipation of actions that Israel’s government may (or may not) take in the coming weeks.

In these moments I always ask myself: Who is our statement attempting to reach?
It is an important question because it informs not just what we say, but how we say it and where.

For JCRC, the answer to this question, almost always, will be that our statement is communicating to Greater Boston’s civic leadership in the public square. This answer means that JCRC’s statements will almost always be very different from what some other organizations might say in the same moment. Our statements are certainly different from organizations that have different missions—such as those who seek to influence the Israeli conversation and their government’s decision making, or of those who strive to help members of our Jewish community make sense of events or find personal meaning in challenging times.  

At JCRC we’re not striving (principally) to help the Jewish community make sense of current events - although this is often a byproduct of our work when community members read our statements. JCRC is also not in the business of telling the Israeli government, for example, what we think about Israel’s policies - although we certainly advise their representatives about conversations and concerns in our community.

JCRC’s mission is to communicate the interests and values of the local organized Jewish community to civic leaders in greater Boston and make sure that these concerns are part of the broader public discourse. This mission drives our statements which come from one of three starting points:

  • We have deeply held values and priorities as a community that we want our civic partners to hear, understand and be responsive to.
  • Our allies are asking us to make our voices heard in solidarity and partnership with them.
  • Civic leaders are asking us how our community understands certain issues and concerns that are being debated and discussed in the broader public square.

While our responses always reflect the internal work we do with our Council and network of agencies to define our values, the first example often leads to decisions where we want to be heard collectively; often resulting in JCRC speaking on these issues with a clear and resonant voice – like our support for our immigrant neighbors.  When we are responsive to our partners seeking our solidarity, we also speak with a strong voice as we either stand with them or we don’t – and we strive to demonstrate our commitment to this solidarity. It is in the third category – when JCRC is asked how the Jewish community understands an issue - that JCRC may lift up disagreements and a diversity of views of the Jewish community, despite our community’s shared values. That diversity of views and disagreements is never more present than in our discussions of Israel.

A blog post couldn’t possibly begin to discuss all of the complexity about why Israel engenders such diversity of opinions, but if you review JCRC’s statements made during the debate over the “Iran Deal” or when President Trump moved the embassy and compare them to our communal statement in solidarity with our immigrant neighbors in 2017, or the statement we signed last month with Jewish institutions across New England (organized by ADL) in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, you will see how the different criteria that we consider result in very different statements.

As events unfold nationally and internationally in the weeks and months ahead, JCRC will make statements about various developments. As you read them, I hope that you will appreciate  who JCRC is speaking to and why, and how these statements were crafted. (by the way, these Friday posts are not first and foremost for that civic audience – they are intended as a way to share our work and our approach with our stakeholders).

Also know that JCRC’s statements are a framing device for how we understand a moment or topic and that our programmatic work is the true action we take in alignment with these values and partnerships. Actions like the legislative agenda we’ve endorsed and mobilized on in recent weeks regarding racial justice and criminal justice reform; the 70 of our immigrant neighbors released from detention during this pandemic because of our efforts raising $100K in bail money; and our continued work through Boston Partners for Peace to support Israelis and Palestinians who are working together to honor and recognize one another’s dignity and narratives as a step toward building a better future for both peoples.

Words matter, and we have an obligation to you to explain how and when we use words. But actions matter as much, if not more. With your continued support and partnership, JCRC will continue to speak for and advance the organized Jewish community’s interests and values in Boston’s civic space, for whatever new issues or conversations that may arise.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy