Category Archives: The Friday Blog

From Israel: Finding Inspiration in Dysfunctional Times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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

This blog post was originally published in the Times of Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading my way through Europe (and then some…)

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

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


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 

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

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



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

 

 

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

 


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Should American Jews Stop Trying to Defeat Antisemitism?

This blog post was originally posted on Times of Israel.

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

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

Why do I ask this question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would welcome a conversation about this approach.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

My Journey Through 1,000 Years of Jewish Memory

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

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

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

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

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

A bust of Miklós Horthy in Budapest

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

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

Inside Alhambra’s Chamber of Ambassadors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

On Not Letting Fear Define Us

(L-R) Rabbi Avi Bukiet, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Rabbi Bill Hamilton, Rabbi Rachel Saphire, and Rabbi Marc Baker ⁩leading the Tree of Life Community Remembrance at ADL's "The Good Fight"

Nahma Nadich

This week, the last message from Acting Executive Director Nahma Nadich. Next Friday, look for a special message from Jeremy Burton, who will be back from sabbatical.

One year ago, eleven Jews woke up on Shabbat morning, went to shul, greeted their friends, put on their tallitot (prayer shawls), opened their siddurim (prayer books), and prepared to immerse themselves in prayer. But shockingly, they were brutally murdered by a killer, proclaiming his hatred for Jews and all that we stand for. That devastating tragedy broke our hearts, shattered our sense – perhaps only an illusion all along – of our safety in this country. It stunned and terrified us.

Last Sunday, I joined with 400 members of our community to mark the first yahrtzeit of this calamity. We at JCRC were among the dozens of organizations co-sponsoring The Good Fight, ADL’s forum on confronting antisemitism, today and tomorrow. We recited kaddish in memory of the victims, learned about the many faces of this ancient and modern hate, and together – high school students and adults alike – we resolved to stand tall as a community in the face of this threat.

Among the speakers was Deborah Lipstadt, who recently published a seminal book on antisemitism. I heard the noted Holocaust historian speak several years ago, but now she sounded different, more somber. Now we had all lived through the unthinkable; violence taking the lives of Jews worshipping at the Tree of Life, and six months later, at the Chabad of Poway. Antisemitism in America was no longer limited to nefarious underground networks of haters; it was now on full display in acts of violence in the streets of Brooklyn, arson in our own community, and lives lost in shuls. We are at the point that, as American Jews, we are no longer concerned only with the welfare of our people in foreign lands – we are now afraid for ourselves.

All of which makes the message I heard from Dr. Lipstadt even more surprising – and more urgent. She told us that the prescription for fighting antisemitism isn’t to focus on the threat, or to barricade ourselves against the danger, but rather to “show the haters that I am a Jew.” It is on us to know what we are "the bearers of" worrying about the stranger because we were strangers, letting the land lie fallow and be rejuvenated, repeating the word justice to remind ourselves to run after it, earning the reward of a long life for honoring our parents.

At JCRC, we have a deep appreciation for the wisdom of that message. We respond to antisemitism not only by preparing for crises and ensuring that Jewish institutions have the means to stay secure, but also by engaging our community in myriad opportunities to act on their Jewish values: welcoming the stranger by standing with immigrants, valuing human life by combating gun violence, pursuing justice by addressing social and economic disparities.

Dr. Lipstadt’s message resonated for me for another reason; it is one I’ve heard my whole life. My father Rabbi Judah Nadich, z”l, was a distinguished rabbi who served the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan for 30 years after first serving as rabbi here in Brookline at Kehillath Israel. But the defining position of his life was earlier in his career, when he was appointed Advisor on Jewish Affairs to General Eisenhower immediately following the liberation of the concentration camps. His responsibilities included visiting Jewish survivors in refugee camps, discerning their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs and doing everything in his power to make sure the American army addressed them. He spent his days with his fellow Jews, who against all odds had escaped the unimaginable and were now faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of going on with their lives, in a world that allowed their near destruction as a people.

For my father to emerge from this trauma consumed with fear about the dangers inherent in being a Jew, or with desperate worry about Jewish survival, would have been more than justified. But the deep love he felt for his people, the passionate joy he derived in living a Jewish life – and leading his community to do so – were only intensified by his witnessing the possibility of it all being eradicated.

For the rest of his blessedly long life, wherever and whenever he could, he bore witness to all that he had seen, and he preached this essential message (excerpted from a 1985 Yom Kippur sermon):

“… it is not enough only to be concerned with the survival of Jews. That must not be our emphasis or we shall lose the struggle. Our emphasis has to be on the survival of Judaism, then Jews will survive. The Holocaust is a searing pain in our hearts, but to brood over it is not the purpose for being a Jew; the anxiety to prevent another Holocaust is not the essential incentive to Jewish activity.  To feel the tragedy and to talk about it does not in itself make us good Jews, for then the Holocaust becomes a surrogate rather than a reminder; then the Holocaust becomes the entire content of Jewish life, and it cannot be if Jewish life is to be. 

 “We exist not in order to prevent our own destruction, but to advance our special assignment, embodying the ageless values that are our raison d’etrefor Jews,“Never Again” is a poor substitute for the purposeful Jewish living as a potent driving force to promote Jewish vitality.”

I shudder at the thought of what my father would make of the current state of affairs in his beloved country, at the scenes of bloodshed in American synagogues. But then I recall these words, and I remember his unshakable faith not only in God, but in the Jewish people. I’m buoyed by his conviction that living meaningful Jewish lives will ensure not only that we survive, but that we are heirs to a vibrant future, one that will animate our most cherished values.

This urgent message was echoed last Sunday in the words of one of our community’s rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion and JCRC Board Member. As a young woman, Rabbi Kreiman lost her beloved mother Susy Wolynski Kreiman, z”l, an esteemed Jewish educator, when she was murdered along with 84 other victims in the AMIA terror bombing in Argentina. This profound loss has informed Rabbi Kreiman’s life as a Jew and her leadership as a rabbi. And like my father, she is driven not by fear or trauma, but by the possibility of joy and redemption. The message she shared at the ADL event last Sunday was eerily familiar to me:

“Fear cannot be the driver of our life instead, we need to lead with hesed, love, generosity, compassion, resilience and hope. I invite us today, in honor of the victims and in honor of our own lives to ask ourselves, again and again, how not to let fear define us and how to summon love and hesed, how to summon hope to be our guiding beacon.”

May we heed the words of Dr. Lipstadt and of Rabbis Nadich and Kreiman in meeting this moment to choose hope over fear, to embrace the fullness of our Jewish lives, and to renew our commitment to build a world of love, justice and compassion.

Click here to receive action alerts and updates on JCRC's work to combat antisemitism and hatred.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

Ten Thousand and Counting

This week, a message from Barry Glass, Director of TELEM, JCRC's teen service volunteer program:

They didn’t get the email.

Had they received it, they would have learned that the TELEM inter-generational program at the Simon Fireman Senior Living Community in Randolph was cancelled that night because of the pending snowstorm.

Instead, the three intrepid high school seniors, who had been regularly driving themselves to their TELEM program, hopped into the car and drove from Sharon to Randolph to be with their senior friends. All three had been in the TELEM program at Fireman throughout their high school years, and the threat of snow storm would definitely not keep them away. They made it there (and back!) safely, and had the Fireman residents to themselves.  

For these high school seniors, Tuesday nights at Fireman were a staple of their lives.  Weekly visits helped create bonds and friendships that resonated with both sets of seniors. They laughed, learned, shared stories, grew older together and touched each other’s lives in memorable and meaningful ways. 

The TELEM program with the Fireman community had an indelible impact on this crew of three: so much so that in her first week upon enrollment in college, one of them set out to find a senior care facility at which to volunteer. 

This small but mighty crew is but a part of what is now a veritable army of volunteers: TELEM has reached the monumental milestone of engaging our 10,000th participant! That’s a lot of youth, a lot of hours of community service, and a lot of lives touched in so many ways throughout 14 years of programming.

If you’re unfamiliar with TELEM, it is JCRC’s service-learning volunteerism program for Jewish teens, with a separate structure (B’nai TELEM) for 6th and 7th graders. The program was created for teens to build the habit of lifelong volunteerism, embrace a commitment to hands-on social justice rooted in our Jewish tradition, and develop valuable interpersonal skills, such as resiliency and compassion. TELEM provides an informed and able volunteer corps that helps our service partners reach their goals and fulfill their missions. It also reflects JCRC’s community relations mission: the vast majority of service takes place in community based non-profits beyond the Jewish community.

So how did we get to that milestone of 10,000?

First, we built the structure: the service partnerships, the curricula, the training and support. Then, they – our Jewish youth volunteers, educators, and supporters – showed up. Over 10,000 have showed up and made a difference in people’s lives throughout Greater Boston and beyond.

They showed up by way of yellow school buses that took them from their high schools to local under-served after-school programs to read with elementary school children and help them build stronger literacy skills.

They showed up weekly by van or carpool to the Minuteman ARC in Concord to build meaningful relationships with adults in the group homes there.

They showed up by plane as they flew to New Orleans to help people rebuild their damaged homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

They showed up on MLK Day 2019, despite 9-degree weather and ice, to make 80 banana breads and 56 giant lasagnas to help feed those in homeless shelters in the Metrowest, at our project in collaboration with our Jewish Teen Initiative partners.

They showed up at 5:30am following a snowstorm that delayed the start of a service trip, so that they could get in two full days of work helping to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.

They showed up for South Area Mitzvah Day to help our service partner Rebuilding Together Boston make essential home repairs, enabling a 94-year-old gentleman to continue to live safely in his home.

And some showed up by themselves – as our three intrepid teens from Sharon did at the Fireman Community.

We built it and they came. And they are still coming.

The JCRC is honored to be the driver of this movement of youth volunteers – and to be working in a Jewish community that deeply values this commitment to service to the broader community, to social justice, and to activism.  We are offering our youth the opportunity to live the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l,: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith.”

And we look ahead to signing on our 15,000th and 20,000th teens in the future. If you would like to learn more about joining TELEM with your teen or synagogue, please visit our webpage or contact TELEM Coordinator ">Grace Farnan

Shabbat Shalom,

Barry

Complicated Friendships

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

I recently had the privilege of a brief but intimate conversation with Justice Salim Joubran as I transported him to the airport following a Boston Partners for Peace event. Justice Joubran is the first Palestinian to receive a permanent appointment to the Israeli Supreme Court and, in his retirement, he is giving back to Israeli society as the Chairperson of Kav Mashve.

As I was chatting with the Justice on our way to Logan, he told me something that touched me very deeply. He wanted to let me know how appreciative he is that American Jews have taken an interest in the well-being of Israel’s Arab citizens, referring to initiatives like Boston Partners for Peace. I was humbled; it is one thing for us to call ourselves the allies of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders, it is something else to be recognized by the communities we aim to support.

Kav Mashve promotes equal opportunities for Arab university graduates within the Israeli business sector. They have programs for Arab high school and university students that help them prepare for life after academia. They train Arab managers, host coding workshops, and help employers understand the value of workplace diversity and what an investment in the Arab work force can contribute to a company.

Justice Joubran (left) with past JCRC president Stuart Rossman at Boston Partners for Peace event hosted by Mintz's Boston office

Justice Joubran is acutely aware of the barriers that some Arab citizens in Israel face as they try to integrate into Israeli society. He grew up in Haifa, a mixed city, where I also lived for a brief time. We discussed how even in mixed cities such as Haifa, there are often separate Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. As a result, language, social, and economic barriers can stand in the way of success for Israel’s Arab citizens. Organizations like Kav Mashve are working to eliminate these barriers and create a more just, shared society in Israel.

We at JCRC share a peacebuilding philosophy with Justice Joubran. I am often asked about the prospects for a political peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. I learned my answer over the course of many visits with our peacebuilders: I don’t know when we will have peace, but I do feel very confident that this is the method that will get us there. While we acknowledge that a political breakthrough is both possible and necessary, we also know that we cannot sit idly by waiting for that day to arrive. It is incumbent on us to invest in the peacebuilding process. Boston Partners for Peace is committed to the individuals building new social trust and connection because we believe their methods are the ones that are needed right now to help bring peace.

In his talk, Justice Joubran described this as friendship. He said something simple yet profound, which is that friendship is made between individuals and not between governments. Friendship is created when people build their lives together—sometimes in simple ways, as when Jews shop in Arab cities on Shabbat, and sometimes in more complex and strategic ways, as does Kav Mashve.

Friendship is an appropriate word for the process we are invested in, for the work that our Boston Partners for Peace organizations are engaging in every day. Friendship is complicated and it requires trust, honesty, and empathy. These are the exact qualities we want to lift up and amplify. Yes, the lack of political progress can be frustrating, but our partners are invested in something more fundamental than political solutions.

At JCRC, we have spent years cultivating relationships with grassroots peacebuilders. We visit them on our Study Tours, we host them in Boston, and with Boston Partners for Peace, we have a growing infrastructure that enables our community to connect directly with Israeli and Palestinian activists. I have always believed in our work, and it was a hugely validating experience to know that Israelis and Palestinians on the ground believe in us just as we believe in them. Please join us for our next peacebuilder visit with Hand in Hand Schools, taking place at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton on November 14th(click here for event details). And sign up here to learn about upcoming visits from other peacebuilders.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,

Eli

4,700 Books, 100 Classrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Emily

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

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