Representation matters

This week's Friday message is from Aaron Agulnek, JCRC Director of Government Affairs

Seventy-five years ago this month, JCRC was founded by a group of Jews demanding a seat at the table in civil society. They were living through the worst of times for the worldwide Jewish community, where inaction led to destruction and death at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. With no unified voice to compel collective action, and with limited representation in government, all the pressure fell on a few prominent Jews.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr, his only Jewish Cabinet member, was an easy target for anti-Semites. Morgenthau shied away from any perception that he favored Jewish causes for fear of embarrassing the President and providing more fodder for the scurrilous claim of dual loyalties levied against Jews. However, by January 1944, Morgenthau and his colleagues at Treasury could no longer remain silent. They prepared a report with an initial title: “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which led FDR to issue Executive Order 0417 and establish the War Refugee Board.

Though still novel in the 1940s, Jewish representation in the upper reaches of Government was not unprecedented. Only 25 years earlier, Justice Louis Brandeis was nominated to the Supreme Court. He was met with virulent antisemitism from fellow Justice James McReynolds. According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “McReynolds was an out-and-out anti-Semite, and he treated this brilliant man with utter disdain. When Brandeis would speak at conference, he would stand up and leave the room… Brandeis ignored it. 'Dignity' is the right word to describe his response to that bigotry."

Rather than shy away from his background and values, Brandeis led with them, proving to the nation that being Jewish and American were not incongruous. He inspired a young, mostly-immigrant American Jewish community, seeking a future in a country in which it was still finding its collective footing. Brandeis’ legacy to the Jewish community goes much deeper than his judicial chops and world-altering decisions. He cemented a sense of belonging to a wandering people.

Today, there are Jews serving at all levels in government, proudly representing their constituents. Where necessary, many have directly asserted their Jewishness in public spaces. There was no clearer example than the public debate following the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Chabad centers here in Massachusetts.

JCRC led and championed an advocacy campaign enlisting rabbis, synagogues, day schools, and other communal institutions for the expansion of a grant program to provide security enhancements to houses of worship, community centers and other vulnerable institutions across the Commonwealth. In late May, the Massachusetts State Senate debated an amendment to the State budget to increase its funding.

When the amendment was called, lead sponsor Senator Eric Lesser (Longmeadow) like any effective senator, framed his remarks in the context of public safety and the proper role of government. He spoke about the rise in antisemitism, attacks against mosques, the targeting of LQBTQ community, and the burning of a black church in Springfield the night of President Obama’s election in 2008. But when Lesser began sharing his experience as a Jew, a deep silence fell over the Senate chamber. He expressed the deep sadness and despair he felt when he learned of the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, just as he and his young family were at Shabbat services.

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (Newton) described how her temple has balanced security with inclusiveness; Senator Cindy Friedman (Arlington) spoke about the recent incidents at Chabad in Arlington; Senator Barry Finegold (Andover) shared a story about the security conversations he had with his rabbi for his daughter’s bat mitzvah; Senator Becca Rausch (Needham) spoke of her children and her concern for their safety at a Jewish day care; Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (Worcester) spoke about the impact that violence is having on our communities; all under the watchful eye of our Jewish Senate President, Karen Spilka (Ashland).

Seven Jewish senators, from every corner of the Commonwealth, each sharing their vulnerability and trauma; each speaking from their own lived experience to advocate powerfully for their – our – community, sharing their pain and bringing their petition directly to the floor of the Senate for redress. Representation matters.

But for many in our society, representation is still a distant dream. There are currently zero African-American and zero Muslim senators in the State Senate. There is a single Latina senator and two LGBTQ senators. Representation is not just about numbers, but also about the power of personal testimony, in compelling justice for marginalized communities. Only when we represent our own interests in the halls of power can we effectively protect and defend our community’s interests. We need to demand no less for other minorities. Shirley Chisholm said it best, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” When debate ended and the roll call was taken on Senator Lesser’s amendment (which passed 40-0), the impact of the debate had a lingering resonance in the chamber. Twenty minutes later, when offering up his amendment to codify the Hate Crimes Task Force, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr opened with these remarks:

…I have been a member of this body a fairly long time and I have never been prouder …. What makes this so extraordinary are the types of remarks we heard around the chamber where members were willing to come into this chamber and share their thoughts about fear and anxiety and concern for themselves, and for all of us. That takes character, it takes commitment and it takes dedication. What just happened in this chamber is so extraordinary in some ways because … hate lives in darkness. It thrives on concealment. And it preys on fear. Do you know what happened here? People brought the reality of the threat we are faced with right into the daylight and said here is it and we are going to stand up to it.”

With the inspiration of Brandeis and Morgenthau at our back, the Jewish community is better represented today than it has ever been in history of the United States. May their memory inspire us to stand up for ourselves and others, and may it grant us the wisdom to make space for the yearnings of other peoples in their dreams.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Agulnek