Category Archives: The Friday Blog

What’s on my nightstand

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

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AFRICAN-AMERICAN POETRY; 250 YEARS OF STRUGGLE & SONG

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

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

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

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

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

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AVENGERS; THE CHILDRENS CRUSADE

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

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

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AMERICAN DEMOCRACY; 21 HISTORIC ANSWERS TO 5 URGENT QUESTIONS

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

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

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THE RABBI WHO PRAYED WITH FIRE; A RABBI VIVIAN MYSTERY

Rachel Sharona Lewis, author

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton

Connecting with Boston’s Students Goes Beyond Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our responsibility to a global Jewish people

The Stolperstein initiative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I welcome your reflections as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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

“Unity.”

That’s it. That’s the message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Amanda Gorman

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The darkest night brings the greatest visions

By JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton

As a Jew, it is not hard to appreciate how Black Americans have drawn inspiration and motivation from the Exodus story over the course of their 400-year struggle for liberation in this country. The examples are plentiful, from Harriet Tubman being the Moses of her people, to Taylor Branch’s titling his seminal work on the civil rights era Parting the Waters, to the words and imagery so central to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King throughout his career, including, chillingly, his “I Have Seen the Promised Land” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated. The stories we tell ourselves every year as Jews as an integral part of our identity – at Passover and in our Torah reading every Shabbat – are also an integral part of the African-American identity, sustaining the hope of redemption in a community still working toward liberation in our country.

As an American, marking MLK Day this year, it is challenging to transcend the despair and outrage elicited by the events of the last year and the last week. As we honor the moral leadership and challenge of Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent action against grave injustice, it has only been a week since we witnessed a violent insurrection by white supremacists – carrying Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia – incited by the President. Of course, this comes after a year in which we have struggled, not always well, to reckon once again with the incomplete task of realizing the promises of Reconstruction and of the Civil Rights Movement for which Dr. King died, each of which was also set back by violent resistance to dismantling our nation’s caste systems.

As a patriot, it is essential to look forward to next week with hope, about our new President, Joe Biden, and our historic new Vice President, Kamala Harris. She will be our first woman and Indian-American elected to national office, and our first African-American VP. I am struck by the fact that the very marriage of her parents would have been illegal under laws struck down only recently in the long arc of our history. Vice President Harris’ very existence, let alone her historic accomplishment, is a direct carry-over from Dr. King’s generation and the civil rights they fought for.

Acknowledging this historic moment, both as a patriot and a Jew, I am filled with resolve; the resolve that comes from knowing that change is always possible even when it takes generations, or even centuries to achieve. Despite backlashes and setbacks, despite violent attempts to obstruct it and to reject the promise of liberty and equity for all Americans, change has and will continue to happen.

As a Jew who reads the Torah portion every week, as an American patriot grappling with the events of last week, on this MLK weekend I draw from this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, in the Book of Exodus. It is the beginning of the drama of Moses, embracing his role as interlocuter between God and Pharaoh, as our collective story of miracles and the promise of liberation unfolds. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his commentary on this week’s reading:

It is in the darkest night that Israel has its greatest visions. Hope is born at the very edge of the abyss of despair. No logic can give rise to hope; no law of history charts a path from slavery to redemption, exile to return.

Now is a time of both despair and hope. Let us honor the path envisioned by Dr. King by committing ourselves to make this weekend, and the weeks ahead, the beginning of a path to redemption for our nation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy 

Jeremy Burton
JCRC Executive Director

Our Wounded Democracy

The sadness and the anger we feel right now can be overwhelming. This political moment is supposed to be a time to celebrate the strength of our democracy, a time when the world should look on with admiration – as it first did over two hundred years ago when President Adams left office – when we mark the peaceful transition of power between political opponents. Instead, the world and our nation watched in horror as violence erupted in Washington.

What we saw was a violent uprising, incited by the President of the United States and his enablers. A seditious mob, many wearing explicitly Nazi and antisemitic garb, many carrying the confederate flag – the ultimate symbol of white supremacist violent insurrection in this country – attacked police, breached the Capitol and briefly took control of the hallowed chambers of our Congress. The President who had incited them for months told them later that afternoon “I love you,” an echo of his “very fine people on both sides” response four years ago after Charlottesville.

In two weeks, Joe Biden will be our President and Kamala Harris will be our Vice-President. But even if our current President honors his statement (delivered through aides early Thursday morning) that there will be an “orderly transition,” it will have already been marred by this violence.

Still, I go into this weekend with undiminished optimism. Because the struggle for the American idea that I cherish is not won or lost in a single day or even in a single election. It is the work of generations.

I was reminded of this recently while watching American Creed on PBS. This film follows former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, historian David Kennedy and a diverse group of Americans as they explore whether a unifying set of beliefs can prove more powerful than the issues that divide us.

There are many inspiring and thought provoking moments in this film, but one theme in particular has been giving me strength this week. The Boston based Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz talks about how “people at the margins can bear witness to the reality of our nation and what our future needs to be.” It is an idea picked up by Kennedy throughout the film, and in particular, when he speaks about his own father’s experience during the Great Depression, namely, that the American Creed, the idea of this nation, is a promise. But it is not always a promise fulfilled. There is a gap between the idea and the reality. The challenge for us as Americans is to not allow that gap to provoke us into giving up on the idea.

Our work is to see the gap, to name it, to talk about it, and to re-affirm our commitment to the work of making progress to achieve the promise of America.

The promise of America, and the promise of our democracy, has been wounded this week. But it always was, and still remains an idea, an aspiration, something that can and must be worked for.

I’m very grateful to my friends, our member agency the JCC of the North Shore, and to our partner Facing History, for bringing this film to my attention. They invited JCRC, the Israeli-American Council and others to partner in hosting a program about the film next Thursday night, January 14th. I’m looking forward to joining a panel discussion where we will address themes from the film in an effort to engage our community in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about Jewish and American ideals across the deepening divides.

I encourage you to watch American Creed and then to join us this week, and in the years ahead, not only to discuss its themes, but to do the work of bridging the gap between the realities of America and the promise of our nation that inspires us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Hope for the year ahead

This being the final working Friday of 2020, I’ve been feeling a certain pressure to write something expansive and thoughtful; reacting to one last big topic we’re wrestling with, or reflecting on one more dynamic that informs how we as Jews navigate our internal debates, participate in American civic life, and understand the great issues of our day.

While I hate to disappoint you, this – my final blog post of 2020 – is not that.

What this is, though, is a simple and brief expression of gratitude.

2020 has been hard. For all of us. Granted it’s been hard in different ways, depending on the nature of your pod, the status of your work, the needs you are being asked to meet for those who are proximate to you, and so many other factors. And while some have thrived and some have struggled more than others, it won’t be a year that many of us look back on with fondness.

Even as we watch the inspiring scenes of truckloads of vaccines beginning to arrive at our hospitals (@2ShotsInTheArm has been a source of joy, inspiration and hope to me every day this week), I’m under no illusion that the challenges of 2020 will magically fade away in the coming year. We’ve got extraordinary repair work to do, and as a community and a society, we don’t even have a shared diagnosis of the problem. 

Nevertheless, I’m profoundly optimistic about what come next, largely because of you.

Despite the fact that we’ve spent most of 2020 apart, isolated to various degrees, I have never felt alone in all this. At every step of the way, when there have been struggles, whether they be personal or collective, I’ve seen individuals, institutions, and communities step in and hold people, help people, and extend a hand of support and solidarity. 

Even as we’ve all been dealing with our challenges in 2020, you’ve never not been there for me, for us, and for larger work of building civic space and shared society. I hope that I, in turn, have been present for others as well.

That strength, that support, that active expression of connection to each other even now, gives me hope for the year ahead. 

So, thank you. Thank you for being generous with me and with JCRC this year. Thank you for giving me hope by being generous with each other.

You inspire me, and will continue to do so.

Shabbat Shalom, and wishing you a Happy New Year.

Jeremy

How to spell Chanukah and other arguments

Tis’ the season of the Hanukkah wars. We can’t even agree how to spell it in English. Thankfully, this year, Twitter is being inclusive on this point.

Jokes aside, for two thousand years Jews have been ascribing differing meanings and symbolisms to this holiday. Is it a celebration of liberation from an encroaching Greek foreign power, or is it a celebration of religious rejection of creeping cultural secularism? Is the miracle a military victory, or the extension of a small quantity of sacred oil for multiple days?

Yes. To all of these answers and more. Because Hanukah, a post-biblical holiday without a Temple rite of its own or a commanded observance from the time of Moses, a holiday that doesn’t even get its own book in the Talmud, is more pliable for the rabbis and the cultural interpreters of our people through the centuries. So each of us draws our own meaning from this holiday.

If you’re on Jewish twitter you know that the New York Times recently published a column – written by someone who was raised in the church and who does not self-identify as Jewish – rejecting the celebration of this tradition because it didn’t feel “authentic” to celebrate a Jewish “religious” event. The backlash on #Jwitter was voluminous and warranted.  I’m fairly certain that my Christian friends would be rightly offended if I wrote a piece about how Easter lacks authenticity for me, and a major newspaper justified the publication because some of my cousins are Catholic and I’ve occasionally attended a mass out of curiosity or friendship.

One response that I appreciated was from AJC, which invited people to share #WhatHanukkahMeanstoMe. As I consider that question, I am reminded of one aspect of this holiday, about which there is  broad consensus in Jewish circles: It is just not that big a deal for us.

Now, I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Chanukka. I enjoy this holiday tremendously. But as suggested above, it just does not rise to the category of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the trio of festivals that mark our calendar and our understanding of our experience in the Sinai. It is not the high holy days or Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. It isn’t even Purim, which gets its own book in the Torah.

Some Jewish communities, like that of Ethiopian heritage - having already lived apart from most Jewish centers of population prior to the creation of this relatively new (barely 2,200 year-old) Jewish tradition - don’t even celebrate Chanuqa.

The simple truth is that Chanukkah has been elevated far beyond its place in the Jewish cycle only recently - largely in North America and other places where we Jews have predominantly achieved full acceptance within nations that are defined by our Western, and Christian, Civilization. It is a credit to our status of belonging as Americans, and to our yearning not to be excluded, that in the midst of a season that is deeply significant to Christian civilization, we – and American consumer culture – have elevated this minor holiday. It’s a statement of belonging that we can gather as families, exchange gifts (not a historical tradition of this holiday), have our own (quite delightful – thank you Daveed Diggs!) Disney Holiday seasonal songs, and broadly be in the seasonal spirit, without being forced to convert (as was true in the past) or to celebrate the birth of another faith community’s messiah.  I think it’s great that, even as our nation’s culture is defined by its heritage within Christian civilization (with December 25th as a national holiday), we as Jews get to be part of this national culture without abdicating our own civilization’s heritage and traditions.

So, this Hannukah, like every other year, I get to revel in two aspects of my identity and heritage simultaneously. I get to celebrate a piece of Jewish tradition that has meaning because it has been passed down by our ancestors for two thousand years, and I get to enjoy the holiday season and wish my cousins and friends a Merry Christmas without being made to feel excluded from our shared American heritage.  

This week I’ll light my menorah, spin my dreidels, wear my holiday socks, eat some latkes and Bimuelos, and be grateful to be both Jewish and American.

I’d love to hear what Chanukka means to you.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukah!

Jeremy

More than a Moment

After months of drafts, redrafts and negotiations, we were heartened when earlier this week, the MA legislature approved a bill focusing on a JCRC priority: police reform. The “Act relative to justice, equity and law enforcement in the Commonwealth” now awaits the governor’s signature. We join with our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in thanking Governor Baker for his early leadership in support of several key components contained in this comprehensive legislation, and we will stand with him when he signs it into law. At the same time, we know that this bill does not include all that its advocates hoped for, and is in fact, just a starting point. As Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and one of the six conference committee members who negotiated the final version said “…one bill is not going to address every issue… there is a lot more work to be done”.

In many ways, this week here in Massachusetts encapsulates the moment we’re in as we approach the end of 2020. While much has happened in the months since this summer when millions of Americans took to the streets in support of racial justice, many of the commitments that came from those weeks of action are still being negotiated, and much remains unresolved. It is for this reason that now is a time to be explicit in recognizing and articulating the unfinished nature of the work of 2020. We do so at a moment where conversations are taking place at every level of society, from what has to happen next in Massachusetts, to the fierce debates and jockeying over priorities on the agenda for the Biden administration and the next Congress.

As was true in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd, we at JCRC are holding ourselves accountable to our partners. We are committed to listening to them and honoring their priorities and, where we can, making their priorities our own. We see ourselves, the organized Jewish community in Boston, as bearing the responsibility of citizenship,  working hand in hand with others toward a collective vision for the improvement of our society, and the realization of a commonwealth that benefits us all.  

To that end, we invite you, leaders and activists within our Jewish community, to join us on Tuesday, December 15th, 12pm, for the next installment of our Speaker Series. We’re thrilled to be joined by the Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, and best-selling author and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers. We’ve invited these two partners of JCRC and of the Jewish community to talk with us about the work ahead in pursuit of racial justice in our country. We’ll hear from them about how they understand this moment, and their guidance for their Jewish partners about what we are called to do in meeting it.

The weeks and months after George Floyd’s murder were a profound moment in our nation’s reckoning with our legacy of racism. But moments can be fleeting and windows too often close. It is our responsibility, all of us who stood up for racial justice in June, to make sure that 2020 is remembered as more than a moment. Of course, we, as Jews, understand that work worth doing is also ongoing. As Rabbi Tarfon taught:

It is not our duty to complete the work, nor are we free to desist from it.

                                                                        (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

We hope that you’ll join us on December 15th and that you’ll be a part of the work ahead, with JCRC, toward an American society that is more just.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

The Most Jewish and American of Holidays

This week, I’ve noticed two themes emerging, as we anticipate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday during the pandemic. The first, largely amplified by public health officials and responsible civic leaders, is a plea to the American people that we stay home and not risk the further spread of COVID by getting together with those outside of our immediate bubbles. I wholeheartedly endorse this plea.

The second thread contains suggestions that we postpone our celebrations entirely, during this challenging time. Some argue that now - when a thousand people are dying every day, when so many are in economic despair, when our nation is still so riven by divisions - is not a time to celebrate.

It is hardly a revelation to note that Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the most Jewish of American holidays; in its format - extended family gathered for a bountiful meal - and in its message of gratitude. So much of Jewish ritual, of our way of being in the world over thousands of years of persecution, has focused on gathering together in appreciation for what we have, despite conditions in the world around us. In our tradition, from the moment we arise and say the Modeh Ani prayer, to the time we say the Sh’ma and go to sleep, we are giving thanks - not because all is right in the world but rather because we are still walking in it. This attitude of gratitude is, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes (without apologies for my citing him two weeks in a row here), even in our name as a people:

Giving thanks is beneficial to the body and the soul. It contributes to both happiness and health. It is also a self-fulfilling attitude: the more we celebrate the good, the more good we discover that is worthy of celebration.

This is neither easy nor natural. We are genetically predisposed to pay more attention to the bad than the good. For sound biological reasons, we are hyper-alert to potential threats and dangers. It takes focused attention to become aware of how much we have to be grateful for. That, in different ways, is the logic of prayer, of making blessings, of Shabbat, and many other elements of Jewish life.

It is also embedded in our collective name. The word Modeh, “I give thanks,” comes from the same root as Yehudi, meaning “Jew.” We acquired this name from Jacob’s fourth son, named by his mother Leah who, at his birth said, “This time I will thank God” (Gen. 29:35). Jewishness is thankfulness: not the most obvious definition of Jewish identity, but by far the most life-enhancing.

And in the American context, a day devoted to national Thanksgiving was actually an innovation by President Lincoln, during the darkest days of a nation at war with itself. Prior to 1863, the holiday was celebrated at separate times in different localities, mainly in New England. But one of our greatest presidents would, at the behest of Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, come to see it as an opportunity to reaffirm our national unity.

On 3 October 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation:

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People…

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It is in this spirit, one both deeply Jewish and deeply American, that I look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week. I will mark the day both as a day of contemplation and mourning for those who we have lost to COVID, and a day of gratitude for those who are still with us in this world. I hope we can hold it as a day to appreciate the gifts we have, and by doing so, discover a path to more good that we may celebrate. For me, it will be a smaller gathering (one of just myself) than is normal or desired, but it will be a day of Thanksgiving, and for that I am grateful.

Wishing you all a holiday of gratitude, and a Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy