Tag Archives: Community Relations

Standing Together During a Really Bad Week

It’s a bit of a “bad joke” amongst certain political and interfaith partners of ours that if we are gathered more than twice in one week it has been a bad week. This past week has been a really bad week.

Like all of you, I was shattered last Shabbat by the news out of Pittsburgh.

And, on Saturday night, I was struck by the immediate outpouring of love and support from partners and allies outside the Jewish community. The director of a mosque already reaching out to several rabbis before noon on Shabbat offering support “in any way.” The African Methodist Episcopal minister who, before we had even made Havdalah, emailed to tell us how our community’s solidarity with his following the church massacre in Charleston three years ago was seared in his memory; that what helped was to know that they “were not alone” and that “we will come at any time and in any way to support you.”

And there were texts and calls from public officials – some to me, many more to others who described them to me – the governor, the mayors, police commissioners, legislators, their aides; all offering help, all wanting to make sure we knew that they were ready with whatever our community needed in this moment.

Hearing these messages brought clarity; we needed to make sure that the experience of being held in love and support by the broader community would not be limited to a small circle of Jewish communal leaders. We needed to make sure that all of our community could be held by these folks; because our grief is not the private reality of rabbis and CEOs but of all of us, every single member of a community reeling in the aftermath of this unthinkable slaughter.

So we tapped into our network of member agencies, each with key relationships and unique competencies. Within hours, we had announced a vigil for Sunday afternoon on the Boston Common, and quickly had commitments from a broad array of the state’s leading public and faith figures. They stood wall to wall with us on Sunday. Their messages were heartfelt; understanding our pain, denouncing the hate motivating the attack and offering strength as we struggled to cope with the weight of events.

They invoked profound relationships: Cardinal O’Malley spoke of the partnership between our communities in supporting immigrants and refugees. They understood us and our fears: Shaykh Yasir Fahmy urged us to keep wearing our Judaism proudly and publicly, to “hold our yarmulkes tighter” just as he would tell his own youthful congregants to “hold their hijab closer” after an experience of Islamophobia. And with gentle and loving insistence, they challenged us to be with them as well, as Rev. Liz Walker did when she invited us to be in partnership with her community in Roxbury as it deals with ongoing and almost daily acts of violence.

Sunday was a beginning toward healing and also a reminder – we haven’t and won’t be facing violent anti-Semitism alone. And it was an invitation, made all the more resonant as we were reminded often this week – by the murder of a black couple in Kentucky last week, and then on Wednesday with the racist graffiti as Tynan School in South Boston – to be present in the struggles of our neighbors as well, as this country grapples with the toxin of hatreds targeting all of our communities.

The power of Sunday on the Common didn’t “just happen,” and it certainly didn’t happen in just a few hours on Saturday night. It was made possible through years of investment in relationships by the network of JCRC members. We have built deep and enduring ties with our interfaith partners on matters of common concern, while engaging in honest and challenging conversations about areas of tension and disagreement. We rolled up our sleeves to work with our friends in the state house over decades to advance our values and work together for the better good of the commonwealth. We heard “yes, of course I’ll be with you” from every partner we reached out to on Saturday night, because, for years, our community has invested in the urgent necessity of community relations.

And this morning I joined leaders from ADL New England and JALSA, along with many of those same faith and community leaders, at the Tynan School to show our support for our neighbors and to stand with them against hatred here in Boston. We stood together because we all need to be held and we all need to hold each other in these times if we are going to find a way forward as a nation.

L-R: Robert Trestan of ADL New England, Cindy Rowe of JALSA, and Jeremy Burton of JCRC

And as we enter this first Shabbat after Pittsburgh, we will again see many of those partners in shul this weekend. I am heading off to services tonight joined by so many of our friends who are joining Jews around the world to #ShowUpForShabbat.

The problem and the threat of violent anti-Semitism isn’t going to be solved overnight. And it is deeply intertwined with a larger challenge of violent and hateful extremism that threatens not only the Jewish community but all Americans – as members of threatened communities and as stakeholders in a nation being threatened by the normalization of hatreds.

So yes, seeing our partners so often means it has been a very bad week. But it has also been a week filled with hope – because they’ve shown up for us and we’ve shown up for them. Together we are finding the resiliency to move forward, stronger together and ready to do the work we do every day of holding community and communities in partnership.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

On Being Proximate and Not Being Paralyzed

The following is an excerpt from my remarks last Thursday at JCRC Celebrates…

At JCRC we like to speak of big, noble values like “our national purpose rebuilding the homeland of the Jewish people” or “defending the norms of Western democracy,” or “tikkun olam.” And right now, it can be too easy to become paralyzed by big ideas when facing the seemingly overwhelming nature of the challenges in our world and in our country.

But rather than do nothing, we look to Jewish tradition to provide us not only with a mandate for big noble ideas like the urgency of taking care of our own and of others, but also with practical wisdom about how to set about achieving this seemingly impossible task – and maybe more important – a strategy for warding off the paralysis of despair.

The Torah offers a concept (elaborated on by the Rabbis) of a circle of responsibility, where our greatest obligations are to those closest to us. This hierarchy reflects our most human impulses – to prioritize those with whom we are most proximate; our families and those whom we love. But the Torah also tells us that our obligations do not stop there. The circle of responsibility includes our neighbors, our cities and towns, and ultimately expands to encompass all of humanity.

If our circle begins with our own Jewish community, it expands to include all those who share our great Commonwealth. Through our relationships with those to whom we are proximate, those we draw near, we learn of action we can take right here and right now, that has impact on the lives of those we’ve grown close to.

So, rather than be paralyzed by the reality of 12,800 migrant children in federal detention right now, we at JCRC have organized 18 synagogues in 4 Sanctuary networks supporting a variety of families. With our Christian partners, we’ve mobilized 600 volunteers to support 160 people in detention, provided accompaniment at 170 court hearings, and – raised over $100,000 to bond out 32 people being held in federal detention who are awaiting hearings – all right here in Massachusetts.

Rather than be paralyzed by a sense of despair over the prospect of a two-state solution 25 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, we at JCRC have started Boston Partners for Peace. In partnership with CJP, we’re changing the conversation in Boston about coexistence. Through connection to Israeli and Palestinian success stories, we’re offering hope as an alternative to despair and inviting our community to work for the future in a proactive and positive way here in Boston.

Rather than by paralyzed by global hostility to Israel, we at JCRC mobilized a broad network of our member agencies, our allies, and our community in Cambridge this spring to defeat an effort to make the boycott Israel movement into city policy. We made visible the unseen community of support in that city. And then, in the state’s new Economic Development Bill, we worked with our friends on Beacon Hill to guarantee $250,000 for the facilitation and support of the Massachusetts-Israel Economic Connection to pursue economic collaboration between Israel and the Commonwealth.

Rather than be paralyzed by rising anti-Semitism and concerns about Jewish security, we worked with a network of Jewish agencies to advocate successfully for Governor Baker to reconstitute the state’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Then we worked with our partners in the legislature to establish a nonprofit security grant pilot last year, which was doubled to $150,000. Real money for institutions in our community and other communities at risk.

And we do work every day through Service – work that cultivates our proximity with others and nurtures the connections and shared community that reflect our Jewish values: mobilizing more than 1,200 volunteers each year in ongoing and one-day opportunities. Through 68 partners in the Jewish community and 134 service sites across the region, including 25 public schools, we’re doing the work of being proximate with our neighbors.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the “Rav” & founder of Brookline’s Maimonides School taught us:

During the Yom Kippur services, our prayerful concerns are almost exclusively with our own people…We are often accused of being parochially clannish. This may be true, for otherwise we would have succumbed long ago, considering our historical vulnerability. But this self-involvement is not hermetically exclusionary. The universal emphasis is prominent in all of our prayers, in Scripture, the Talmud and the Midrash;

It is (therefore) characteristic of the universal embrace of our faith that as the shadows of dusk descend on Yom Kippur day, after almost 24 hours of prayer for Israel, the Jew is alerted through the book of Jonah, prior to the closing of ‘the heavenly gates’ (Ne’ilah) that all humanity is God’s children. We need to restate the universal dimension of our faith.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Also on the Ballot…

The debates are finally over and Election Day is less than three weeks away (at last!). But with all the attention devoted, rightly, to the presidential race - to the nastiness of our national discourse, and to the existential question of whether we will be able to come together on November 9th to face our shared challenges as one nation – there are also plenty of other important items on the ballot next month.

In addition to down-ballot races, we in Massachusetts will be voting on four statewide questions, regarding slot casinos, charter schools, animal welfare, and access to marijuana. And while JCRC has not taken a position on any of these questions – as we sometimes do – the outcomes of all these votes are important and merit your investigation (and to learn more about all the candidates and questions in communities across the country, check out BallotReady.Org, co-founded by Aviva Rosman, daughter of JCRC council members Brian Rosman and Rabbi Barbara Penzner).

There is one ballot question this year that we at JCRC have invested in; by supporting and collaborating with synagogue leaders who organize side by side with Christian and Muslim neighbors to pass Boston’s Question 5, the Community Preservation Act (CPA).

As a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), JCRC has been working to address the affordable housing crisis in Boston. Our community organizers have heard stories from synagogue leaders whose grown children still live with them because they can’t afford rent in Boston. We’ve heard stories from our neighbors in Boston churches who have lived here for decades, contributing to their local employers, churches and neighborhoods who can’t afford a mortgage and worry constantly about being evicted from their homes when they can longer afford skyrocketing rents.

CPA is a progressive surcharge on property tax that would cost the average Boston homeowner just $24 per year, but would generate approximately $20 million each year for affordable housing, parks and recreation, and preserving historic sites.  160 cities and towns across MA have already adopted CPA as a flexible funding source. Newton, Lexington, Somerville and many others have been beneficiaries of CPA for years, restoring neglected parks, preserving historical community centers and building new affordable rental and homeownership units. In Cambridge, CPA money has been used to subsidize down payments for first time homebuyers. It is an empowering extra source of income for municipalities to do things they might not otherwise be able to.

Nine area synagogues have developed teams of leaders doing get-out-the-vote work, reaching out to Boston voters through their social networks. To date, they have secured over 600 Yes votes for CPA. And that number is growing.

With rare exception, JCRC does not endorse or oppose municipal referendums, and we are not formally endorsing Question 5. We do, however, invest in leaders in our community working in partnership with their neighbors for the betterment of their communities. This model of synagogue organizing is one of our approaches to advocacy that effects policy change. It is also a critical component of how we do community relations, premised in the belief that we have one shared future, as Americans and as residents of our Commonwealth.

We all benefit from healthy, vibrant communities that are accessible and affordable for long-term residents and newcomers. For JCRC and GBIO, the campaign for affordable housing is a key aspect of building our shared society. For our members in Boston, CPA is but one step on a path of actualizing our commitment to being better together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Unity in Diversity | A Message from Our Associate Director

Last year, I visited the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa for the first time. As my family gazed down the seemingly endless staircase and around us at the Galilee Hills and the Mediterranean Sea, we were astounded by the beauty and comforted by the serenity of this majestic place. We stood amongst tourists from many lands and many backgrounds, and felt unity in our diversity. This concept stuck with me throughout our time in Haifa, a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians raise families; where many languages are spoken and many cultures intertwine; and, a place that gives hope to a reality of coexistence.

With a mantra in my head of unity in diversity, I took to my favorite source of information to research the concept. After Googling it, I learned that this concept has many ancient roots and many modern day applications; and, I learned that it is the backbone of the Baha’i faith. Aha! It was all coming together for me.

Fast forward one year, and we are in the midst of an historic Presidential campaign, watching members of our community tear each other down because of their differing views. We are certainly experiencing the extremes of political diversity, but we are far from finding unity within our debates.

With this on my mind as we worked to plan JCRC Celebrates, scheduled for two months before the general election, I set out to find a way to bring our community together. I began to explore whether this concept has a place in Jewish learning, and all roads led me to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As a religion, Rabbi Sacks professes, “Judaism is the only [one] I know, all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments: arguments between G-d and humans, humans and G-d, humans and one another.” “So,” he continues, “difference, argument, clashes of style and substance, are signs not of unhealthy division but of health.” We are essentially taught from a young age to develop an opinion and share it. But, we are also taught that regardless of that opinion, we are one Jewish community, with a shared history fighting to remain an “indivisible people.”

Just as we began to think about who in our Greater Boston community could best speak about this at JCRC Celebrates, an op-ed appeared in my inbox: The strength of a diverse community by Josh Kraft, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. In it, Josh said, “…during a time when we should be focused on our unity as a people, we tend instead to fixate on our differences, oversimplifying them into narrow, reductive labels.” He reminded us that “differing opinions and disagreement can be constructive; when we do not allow them to cloud issues and segregate us completely, they can lead to positive change.”

So, we will gather in unity on September 15th, in a room full of diverse and strong political views, as one people. We will celebrate the strength of our community, we will hear words of inspiration from our friend Josh Kraft, and we will share the many things that bring us together, rather than tear us apart. And, we will have fun doing it! Please don’t miss the opportunity to support this event and be there to celebrate with us; after all, hinei ma tov u mah-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad – it is beautiful when people come together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana H. Margolis
Associate Director

Issue by Issue

Seventeen years ago, I took part in an organizing campaign that is still a point of pride for me, and I believe that the experience yields some valuable lessons for our work here at JCRC.

It was the late 1990s, and I was a volunteer organizer with JFREJ in New York City, during a time when - in the wake of the slaying of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by police while sitting on the front steps of his Bronx apartment – conversations about the use of excessive force by police dominated the headlines. There were several months of public action and civil disobedience, with members of the Jewish community deeply involved as a result of our organizing. And then, Gidone Busch, an Orthodox Jew with severe mental illness, was fatally shot near his Brooklyn home.

As two communities, African-Americans and Hasidic Jews, each came to the urgency of this issue from different paths, we also came to work with leaders who were highly problematic to us and to each other.

So when we convened a press event at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan to demand action against excessive force and for enhanced civilian oversight it was quite a remarkable moment, headlined by two men: Reverend Al Sharpton, who had led anti-Semitic boycotts and incited riots against the Jewish community; and, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who had taken anti-LGBT positions and participated in controversial racially biased activities. These two men, who had gone toe-to-toe with each other on many other matters stood side-by-side in a queer-affirming synagogue to unite on the issue at hand.

In our unity, we built more power for our movement, leading to changes in NYPD operations. None of us was less committed to pursuing our full agendas, nor had we forgiven our grievances for each other. Rather, in that moment, we all recognized that to be effective in achieving change, we needed to work in coalition; and, working in coalition is profoundly limited when we choose to partner only with those with whom we are fully aligned on every issue.

Last week I talked about the severe ideological sorting and social separations that are becoming pervasive in our society. Our success as an organization and as a community comes only when we resist this urge and partner on an issue-by-issue basis. This is true whether it is JCRC working in partnerships with religious institutions with which we differ on LGBTQ equality, so that together we can address the scourge of gun violence. This is true when AIPAC brings together evangelicals and progressives in support of the U.S.-Israel relationship; and, this is true when we sit at our own table of JCRC as a diverse coalition of forty-two organizations who don’t agree among ourselves on many things. And, no, this does not mean that we don’t have boundaries about who we’d work with (but that’s a post for another week).

So yes, we’ll continue to participate in, and even embrace, the sometimes uncomfortable alliances – with other faith communities and with other issue groups with whom we don’t agree on many things – in order to get things done. And maybe, sometimes, by working together on one issue or many, we will foster the relationships that allow us to debate our differences in a healthier and more productive way.

I’ve appreciated the opportunity and ability to have hard conversations with partners - including this week when our trusting relationships have enabled us to talk with each other about the causes and consequences of the Orlando massacre. By starting to appreciate the value of our disparate allies on some matters we can start to recognize our interdependence with each other to tackle all matters in healthier ways than our current civil discourse allows.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Reading and Relationships

Kids may be counting down the days until school’s out for summer, but at JCRC, we’re still reveling in the successes of our students, volunteers, and partner schools that participated in our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) this year. We’re retelling the story of the first graders who excitedly shared pizza with their seventh grade Solomon Schechter Day School reading buddies and sent them off with joyful high-fives; we’re recounting the legal professionals who hosted their young friends in their the law library to show them how reading can translate into a career and can start to imagine futures full of exciting possibilities; and, we’re dreaming up ways to make the program even more robust and special next year as we mobilize the Jewish community to help elementary school children discover the joy of reading for the 20th year!

We’ve already come a long way – when GBJCL was launched, our tutoring teams were drawn primarily from synagogues, with day schools joining shortly thereafter. But after witnessing the profound impact of our volunteers on young emerging readers, we committed to expanding the program. As we often do, we turned to one of JCRC’s volunteer leaders, then-JCRC Board member Phil Rosenblatt. We asked Phil to make a shidduch (match) between GBJCL and his law firm Nutter, McClellan and Fish. Phil eagerly accepted our request and a partnership was born, creating opportunities for people in all departments of the firm to volunteer on a regular basis.

To this day, a dozen Nutter volunteers join with students in Grades K-3
from the Mason School in Roxbury for an estimated 200 hours a year, sharing books, tackling challenging school work, and building lasting bonds. A pilot school in the heart of the New Market Industrial Area, Mason is an intimate community, with a leadership that nutterreflects the diversity of its student body. Over three quarters of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, over 30% receive Special Education services and about 25% are English Language Learners. The Mason partnership with Nutter is cherished by students and faculty alike. Our liaison from Boston Public Schools tells us, “This is unlike anything else we have to offer students. The relationships the students develop with the volunteers are so significant; through them they have access to a set of models they don’t otherwise encounter. There is so much more work to be done but we couldn’t do any of it without partners like you!”

Alicia Lenci (photo below), an accounting specialist at Nutter, eagerly joined GBJCL as a volunteer five years ago. She is constantly crafting her own materials for her students, taking a special interest in learning about their unique backgrounds and learning needs. Though most volunteers serve bi-weekly (in alternating pairs so that each student has a consistent weekly session) Alicia volunteers weekly, going above and beyond her commitment to her students.

aliciaAsked to describe her experience Alicia said, The hard working and dedicated teachers at the Mason School are inspiring!  Pure joy is the best description. What fun it is to share my love of reading with beginner readers. As the school year moves along I love helping the student discover what really interests them.”

Through GBJCL and JCRC’s other service programs, we inspire our community to act on our core values, bridge differences, and build meaningful connections across communities. Animating our programs is an extraordinary cadre of volunteers who share a commitment and passion for building a stronger and more equitable community, one that affords access and opportunity for all. They delight in getting to know young children and helping them realize their potential as they discover the joy of reading. And the benefits clearly go both ways, as the children find a special place in the heart of our volunteers. If you have any doubt, just check out the expression on the faces of hard working professionals at Nutter, as they get a chance to step away from their desks and enter the lives of eager young learners!

So, as GBJCL concludes its 19th year, we’re as excited as the kids are for summer because that’s when we’ll be planning for our 20th anniversary year, when we further expand our pool of volunteers, and provide reading support to many more students in the many schools requesting our services. Maybe you, your business, your school or your synagogue are our next partners? I promise that if you are, you’ll have sweet memories of your impact on children’s lives too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

With Gratitude

I’ve just returned from Cleveland and the national meeting of the network of JCRCs from around the country. Representing our Boston Jewish community in this space, I was mindful of how fortunate and grateful I am to be part of a vibrant community filled with volunteers and professionals alike, working side-by-side to make our Commonwealth and our world a better place. The yin and yang of a true volunteer and professional partnership is such that in each there is a bit of the other, creating a duality that is most effective in a joint relationship in pursuit of an audacious vision. At JCRC, we are inspired every day by our purpose-driven professionals and those at our partner Jewish agencies. We stand in awe of the time, energy, wisdom, and resources our volunteer leaders lend to supporting the missions of these agencies and our community.

It feels right and timely that I return home to celebrate two of these outstanding leaders – both a volunteer and a professional - at our annual With Gratitude event this coming Monday night, May 23rd.

The Warren B. Kohn Award for Excellence in Jewish Communal Service is awarded to a professional, and is named in honor of one of JCRC’s distinguished past board Presidents. It will be presented this year, for the first time, to a congregational rabbi – our longtime JCRC Council member, Rabbi Barbara Penzner.

Rabbi Penzner has had a profound impact in Boston and beyond. Her dynamic rabbinic leadership has enhanced every aspect of congregational life at Hillel Bnai Torah in West Roxbury where she has served since 1995. But her influence extends way beyond the walls of her own shul. A passionate advocate for worker rights, Rabbi Penzner serves as co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, where she draws on our history and tradition to engage Jews in the fight for equality and justice. Her leadership role in the successful campaign on behalf of the Hyatt 98 (workers fired and replaced with cheap outsourced labor) earned her public recognition by the Boston Globe Editorial Board and the Human Rights Hero Award from Rabbi for Human Rights North America. She has played an essential role in connecting the labor movement and Jewish communities in Boston in solidarity on a range of shared concerns and has inspired labor leaders to stand with us as allies in support of Israel.

The Nancy K. Kaufman Award for Excellence in Volunteer Leadership, established in 2013, is presented in honor of JCRC’s immediate past Executive Director. Recipients are community members whose leadership exemplifies the values of the Jewish community, and who lead by example – which is a perfect description of JCRC’s Past-President Stuart Rossman.

Stuart’s commitment to JCRC and the greater community has never faltered. He has served as our President, and has also led the Massachusetts Association of Jewish Federations (housed at JCRC), the Bureau of Jewish Education, and the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet. In his ‘spare’ time, he served on the Executive Committee and Board of CJP. A passionate and tireless advocate for Israel, he has chaired the Boston-Haifa Connection, led solidarity missions, and participated in the Ethiopian airlift to Israel. It was there, in Tel Aviv, that Stuart represented our Jewish community in welcoming 14,000 Jews arriving from Ethiopia in the early 1990s. At that time – reflecting on the ability of our community to mobilize and take action - he said: “You have a community that was…in a great deal of danger on Friday, and by Sunday we were able to bring them home. No one stopped to say, ‘Can we afford to do this?’ And now it’s our responsibility.”
 
Throughout Stuart’s tenure at JCRC, he has worked in partnership with professionals, allowing us to learn from his grace under pressure, his deep commitment to excellence, and his unstoppable can-do nature. When not being volunteer extraordinaire, Stuart is one of our nation’s foremost experts on consumer law, Stuart is Director of Litigation at the National Consumer Law Center, where he dedicates himself to protecting the rights of low income and elderly consumers.
 
We are thrilled to highlight the accomplishments of these two heroes in our community and we are extraordinarily grateful for their contribution not only to JCRC and Boston’s Jewish community, but nationally, as they’ve championed the work of justice and human rights. If you would like to join us in expressing your gratitude to Stuart and Rabbi Penzner on Monday evening, you may register here. To make a gift in honor of their tireless work and exemplary service, please do so here.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

National Volunteer Week… and Beyond

Every week at JCRC is busy and this one is no exception, but even amidst all the public events, the press rumbles – all part of the ‘normal’ life of a CRC, what really keeps our team busy is the steady work of realizing the values of Boston’s Jewish community in the civic sphere.

Across the nation this week, (April 10-16) people are marking National Volunteer Week.  President Barak Obama, as he has done each year, issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring this week as a time to recognize the incredible work of volunteers in service. In Boston, today is One Boston Day, a time to honor those impacted by the Marathon bombings by giving back to the community and sharing acts of kindness.

JCRC marked this week with special projects, photo ops, and some well-deserved volunteer appreciation.  As a service organization, we’re dedicating time to highlight the work of our over 1000 volunteers participating in JCRC initiatives this year.

  • We started Sunday with a new collaborative service project between ReachOut! and Northeastern Hillel, engaging 70 students in a day of volunteering.
  • Sunday was also a mitzvah day in the South Area of Greater Boston. About a dozen seniors at the Simon C. Firemen Community and teen participants from TELEM worked together to make over 100 sandwiches to donate to the Evelyn House in Stoughton, both local ongoing TELEM sites.
  • Our young adults launched “Bring a friend to ReachOut!” this week to recruit and engage new young adults in the program.
  • The Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) will be delivering over $2000 in brand new books to each of their partner schools in honor of the hundreds of volunteers who generously give of their time each week to support a thousand students. This special gift was made possible by our friends at First Book and Simmons College.

A small confession – much of this incredible work would have been done regardless of National Volunteer Week. The activities this week are, in fact, just another facet of our ongoing partnerships with the community organizations with which we work. Our volunteers serve every day, investing an incredible amount of time, energy, and passion to build relationships with people and with organizations to create lasting change.  It is what allows us at JCRC, to be able to experiment with new programming, to try different ways of engaging with our partners and volunteers and to work collaboratively to develop the best ways to serve our community. 

So why was this week different than all other weeks (other than that I’m obviously pre-gaming for Passover)? 

This week, we connected young people and seniors, as always, but this time, it was to join together in service and provide for the needs of another organization. ReachOut! leaders, in thoughtful collaboration with our service partners, created the opportunity for young adults to get a taste of the program by bringing a friend to volunteer. We celebrated the work of our literacy volunteers – and expanded on their work– by providing access to great literature in schools, something that isn’t always available.

In the President‘s  proclamation he calls “upon all Americans to observe this week by volunteering in service projects across our country and pledging to make service a part of their daily lives.”  

Let us use this week – and specifically today in Boston – to launch a new commitment to service, but let’s not let it stop after the week has passed. Let’s integrate service into our everyday lives through the relationships we build.  It takes more than a week to create lasting change.  Our volunteers do incredible work every week.  We should honor their commitment this week knowing that next week they will still be tutoring students who are not yet reading at grade level; next week, there will still be a group of young adults who will be serving meals to those in need in Cambridge; and, next week, there will still be teens who spend time with an isolated senior after a full day of school.  It is the ongoing work we honor today, this week and always.

 

With Thunderous Applause

I was reminded this week of a scene in one of the classic science-fiction Star Wars movies:

A craven politician has sown revolts and terror, and has encouraged fear in the populace. At the opportune moment, he comes before the senate and announces that in order to ensure continued security, the republic will be reorganized as a galactic empire. Amidst the applause, the camera pans to our heroine, Senator Amidala who, watching the vast crowd, says:

“So This Is How Liberty Dies, With Thunderous Applause.”

This week we also saw fear. Fear in the aftermath of the Brussels bombing on Tuesday; a fear that sadly and quickly - though no longer surprisingly – was exploited by an outrageous statement from a Presidential candidate calling for an expansion of powers for law enforcement officers to patrol “Muslim neighborhoods” in the U.S.

In trying to make sense of the various events this week another scene from Star Wars came to mind. Master Yoda, meeting the young Anakin Skywalker for the first time, offers him some Jedi wisdom: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering."

This insight rings particularly true in this moment when in the wake of terrorism, opportunistic politicians offer rhetoric that plays on our deepest fears. We heard a call to hatred that would violate the bedrock freedoms of our nation, create suffering for the innocent, and that would, in all probability be counterproductive as our nation deals with the struggle against radical Islamist violence.

Too much of our political discourse in this election has been driven by fear - fear for our future and for our safety, for the quality of life our children will experience, and for the ability of our nation to face challenges in a changing world. Some candidates have manipulated these fears, played to them, capitalized on them to divide us and turn us against each other for political gain.

Fear and anger have already led to hate and suffering, including the beating in Boston of a Latino man by the supporters of one candidate last year.

In the Jewish community, we are all too familiar with fear, not only as a historical reality, but also as an organizing principle within our current politics. We fear for the future of Israel as a Jewish, secure, and democratic nation.  But rather than uniting us, our fear has deeply divided our community in recent years. Some of us fear more intensely for Israel’s democratic character while others prioritize Israel’s security issues. The alarming result has been that Jews passionately committed to Israel have turned against fellow Jews over the slightest nuance (from a global perspective) of what it means to be pro-Israel.

At this week’s AIPAC policy conference, a large and diverse community came together, united by our love for Israel and by our fear for her survival and security. Much of the content over three days spoke to our hope and aspirations for Israel. But as has happened so often in this political season, a candidate pandered directly to the fear in the room. We heard coarse and angry sentiments that, though taboo in our discourse, resonated with many listeners. We were invited to ignore any considerations beyond our own fears – including the fears carried by others outside that room - and to join in a raucous and dangerous movement.

Many American political leaders bear responsibility for cultivating the culture of fear that has ripened into this moment. So too, many of us – Jewish leaders and leaders of Israel – share the responsibility for this moment. In rallying support for Israel, we’ve too often called our community to action from Pachad (fear), rather than from Tikvah (hope).

So as leaders this is our time for soul searching as we determine what action to take for the sake of our nation. And for me, candidly, that action is still in part coming from fear; because experiencing that moment at AIPAC was terrifying. I didn’t fully appreciate how the political phenomenon of appealing to our basest instincts to salve our fears has taken root until now. I thought this election was a fantastical fiction. Now I see it is all too real.

And still I believe that we can renew our hope, and that by doing so we can overcome our current reality. This is the task before us.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Note: This post also appears on Times of Israel

Humility and Unity

If the upcoming Presidential election is about any one thing, it is about our anxieties for the future: in a changing and dynamic world that we struggle to understand, are our families and children safe? Will our children have the quality of life that we have known? Is our nation capable of facing the potential challenges of this changing world? To add to these anxieties, we are grappling with them in a profoundly individualistic and atomized society where our collective identity has been greatly diminished, where we struggle to see ourselves as sharing one national purpose - a sense of unity in the face of our challenges.
 
This experience of anxiety can easily escalate into deep-seated fears, not least of which is expressed in our search for someone or something that is responsible for our troubles. This yearning for answers can all too easily transform into a hatred of those we perceive as “other.” 
 
In his insightful new book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that “anyone who wants to unite a nation, especially one that has been deeply fractured, must demonize an adversary or, if necessary, invent an enemy.” In doing so, he goes on, a culture becomes “susceptible to a pure and powerful dualism,” one that focuses on and sometimes invents external enemies. But, he warns, the real victims are the members of this society itself, because “no free society was ever built on hate.”
 
On Wednesday, January 20th, JCRC, along with our partners in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), will come together and invite congregants from all of our faith traditions to a series of four conversations at diverse houses of worship. Together we will develop relationships, learn about each other’s traditions and affirm our shared values and common humanity. The day will begin with a fast – for those who choose to participate in this way - and continue as a day of humility and unity.  We will conclude this day with a break-fast and the first of our four conversations.
 
The idea of fasting and humility in search of renewed unity and shared purpose is not new. In 1863, while our nation was even more profoundly divided, President Lincoln proclaimed such a day. He urged that this fast be done “in sincerity and truth…that the united cry of the Nation be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.
 
Rabbi Sacks writes that in this century, Christians, Muslims, and Jews are “summoned” to: 

“…take seriously not only our own perspective but also that of others. The world has changed. Relationships  have gone global. Our destinies are interlinked….For the first time in history we can relate to one another as dignified equals. Now therefore is a time to listen, in the attentive silence of the troubled soul, to hear in the word of God for all time, the word of God for our time.” 

I invite you to join us and our partners in recommitting ourselves to our common humanity, to listen to each other and in doing so, engage in the restoration of a shared civic purpose that soundly rejects the politics that would divide us.

To RSVP for the January 20th break-fast and first conversation which will take place at ISBCC, and to find out more about the schedule of conversations, please visit our website.