Tag Archives: coronavirus

On Holding Loss and Finding Hope

“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” by Francesco Hayez (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The past few weeks have been difficult here at JCRC, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished colleagues who were laid off as we suspended various programs because of economic pressures. As we gathered together as a smaller group for the first time this week, many of us were navigating new responsibilities and feeling the absence of coworkers while still holding great passion for our work and our hope for the future of our organization.

As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption, both close to home and as a society, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Yesterday many of us observed the fast of the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a trajectory that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem, and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked - along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the second temple by the Romans (and with it the beginning of our long diaspora) and the expulsion from Spain in 1492 - by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon, and the funereal music by which they are sung at our tables, are embedded in my heart. They express the profound mourning of our people’s loss, expressed in a moment of transition:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither…

Still, as we read the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of sorrow, that there are messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Moed, a festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts, our tradition, hold a triptych of emotions that feel so right for this current moment in our world: We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit in the anxieties and fears of a time of transition, and still we find a way to express our hope for the future. Sorrow, anxiety and hope are three disparate emotions; but we do not compartmentalize them to experience them on separate occasions.  Instead, we will sit with them all at once, because each is a piece of our current reality.

We need to grieve (and I am so grateful to Hebrew College and the other partners who organized a meaningful communal grieving ritual yesterday for those who we have lost to this pandemic). We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with transition, and; we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all of these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to build a future for our community and our collective world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

JCRC Applauds MA Legislature for Adopting New Law Regarding Election Safety

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 
Contact: Shira Burns
July 8, 2020

(Boston, MA) - The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston applauds Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Karen Spilka, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, Elections Committee Chairs Senator Barry Finegold and John Lawn, and the Massachusetts legislature for standing together and adopting a sweeping new Elections law, ensuring safe and accessible elections for voters in 2020 across Massachusetts.

JCRC is committed to upholding a robust democratic process and ensuring elections in the Commonwealth reflect the diversity of voices in our community.  Together with Common Cause, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Election Modernization Coalition and 80+ organizations, JCRC advocated for legislation to address the challenges facing the electoral process during the COVID-19 pandemic and this new law is the culmination of a several months long advocacy campaign.

“We congratulate Governor Baker, Senate President Spilka, Speaker DeLeo and our partners in government and the advocacy community for coming together to quickly address the threat and fallout that COVID-19 has on our electoral process,” said Jeremy Burton, Executive Director for the Jewish Community Relations Council. “No one should fear for their health and safety while exercising their right to vote, and this law is an important step in that direction. We urge swift implementation.”

About the Jewish Community Relations Council
JCRC defines and advances the values, interests, and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. Visit us at www.jcrcboston.org.

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Glimmers of hope in dark times


This Friday, a message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich.

This week has been painful for us at JCRC. Due to the COVID-related economic crisis, we made the excruciating decision to suspend programs we value, and to lay off staff we cherish. Afterward, we gathered together as a team to reflect and to mourn. One of the staff members who will be leaving us asked if he could speak briefly to his peers. What he said astonished us.

He cited a teaching from the Jewish ethical practice of Mussar about the trait of hakarat hatov—recognition of and gratitude for what is good in the world. Our beloved colleague went on to express his profound appreciation for his years at JCRC; the opportunity to put his Jewish values into practice and to be part of an organization whose mission was so central to his identity. We listened to our open-hearted friend and were moved to tears.

I’ve been thinking about that astonishing moment ever since. What would it mean if each of us were able to summon that kind of gratitude, even in the darkest moments we face? And what might we find to be thankful for at a moment like this one—in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, an economic recession, and a country erupting over centuries of injustice and brutality?

We might look around us and marvel at the ways in which people are rising to the moment, exhibiting courage and creativity that buoy us and expand our imagination. Synagogues and other houses of worship have expanded beyond the four walls of their currently empty buildings, meeting the needs of their newly expanded community, and welcoming the participation of double and triple the number of people they once engaged.

Against all odds, this is a time when many of us have not only resisted isolation but managed to deepen our connection to friends and family – sometimes on screens, sometimes outdoors, yelling across distances to be heard. We’ve discovered new ways to envision family get-togethers and holiday celebrations. Some of us have become reacquainted with the adults our children have become, as we find ourselves living in close quarters after years of separation, discussing and debating the pressing issues of the day.

On our daily walks, we may be more attuned to the miracles of nature unfolding around us; sights that perhaps went unnoticed in our previously packed lives. On our infrequent trips to the grocery store, we may now be expressing our (shamefully) newfound appreciation for the workers who sustain us through their service, even at potential risk to their own health.

If we were to acknowledge the good as a collective, we would celebrate the impulse of our community members to serve others and reach out to those whose world has been most upended by this pandemic. We would be heartened by the myriad ways in which they have chosen to roll up their sleeves to deliver food, donate funds, and offer companionship, whether virtually or in person.

And we would be in awe of the sustained and determined action of so many across our country and across the globe, taking to the streets to insist that this country treat all its residents with the full humanity they deserve. We might even see glimmers of hope that change is coming, perhaps even setting this country on a path toward achieving its still unrealized ideals.

Acknowledging the good cannot diminish the very real suffering of this moment, and it must not minimize the profound brokenness of this country and this world. But being mired in the pain of this moment can crush us with despair—and obscure our vision from seeing the yetzer hatov, the universal human impulse for good, that can renew our spirit and our belief in the promise of a better future.

Thanks to a wise and gracious colleague, I’m ending a very sad week with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for blessings that too often go unnoticed. I invite us all to heed his sage words, and to take stock of all that is good and hopeful in a world we seek to repair.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

A Jewish approach to this moment

Next Friday, JCRC will be closed as Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot. We will retell and re-live the experience of Moses ascending Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments. The week leading up to Shavuot is the final week of the Omer, the intentional counting of the 49 individual days and the full seven weeks from the Passover Seder until this holy day.

This year, for nearly all of us, these seven weeks (and then some) have been spent sheltering at home. It seems almost impossible that we will now mark our second major Jewish holiday season without congregating in person for Torah reading, or for the recitation of our Yizkor memorial service. Counting the Omer has been very much on my mind this week as I’ve been immersed in the public discourse about physical distancing, government health directives, and personal sacrifices. Governors and mayors are easing restrictions. Here in Massachusetts, we now have guidance on safety protocols for re-opening Houses of Worship. While that guidance that has been criticized by some, we at JCRC recognize the multiple pressures facing our Governor and appreciate his efforts to provide guidelines for our safety.

Across the nation, even as a wide majority of Americans continue to support the difficult sacrifices of physically distancing, there is tension and debate regarding the balancing of constitutional rights, personal freedom, and collective safety. This plays out in ways both large and small as when some people refuse to practice basic measures like mask wearing in public spaces.

These debates about freedom and collective responsibility evoke the connection between our holidays. Passover celebrates our individual freedom, our liberty from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt. Shavuot marks the establishment of a collective law. This weekend, we celebrate the establishment of a social contract between the Divine and the People, but also – and more importantly – among the people. And these holidays are connected because the gift of freedom is incomplete without the gift of law.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, explains it thus:

“If freedom means only that I can do what I want, then my freedom will inevitably conflict with yours. If I am free to steal, you are not free to own...That is why Judaism sees the exodus as the beginning, not the end, of the journey to freedom. The culmination came in the giving of the Law. The biblical vision is of a society in which no one will be at the mercy of others. Its rules and institutions aim at creating a social order of independent human beings linked by bonds of kinship and compassion...The freedom to do what we want creates individuals. It does not create a free society.”

In the connection between Passover and Shavuot, we see values and ideas upheld and articulated, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. These values – freedom and social order –each can be of greater import to us at any given moment. But neither is fully realized without its relationship to the other.

It is within this notion that we have an opportunity to offer a deeply Jewish approach to engaging the complexity of this moment. We must insist on having a society that prizes freedoms – enshrined in our constitution - including of assembly and worship. At the same time, with those freedoms come the responsibility of building a collective social well-being, both through laws and through our individual responsibility.

We can choose, as every Jewish denomination and nearly every synagogue in America has, to see state and local directives as a baseline, not a ceiling, for the precautions we take in gathering and protecting all of us, especially the most vulnerable among us.

We can choose to embrace masks, not just because of local civil directives, but as a way of saying to our neighbors that we are ultimately interconnected, responsible to each other and for each other’s health and well-being.

We can choose to take these steps and others, not as a way of winning a fight between left and right but rather as an articulation that we are, still, one society. We can affirm that citizenship in that society means valuing and living within the dynamic tension between personal freedom and collective social order and responsibility.

The journey in the wilderness formed the Jewish people. So too will we be transformed as a nation, as we journey from what we were before this pandemic to what we will be when it is over. Our Jewish tradition, and the days and weeks we’ve been counting off while sheltering at home, have something to teach us about the kind of society we are striving to shape.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Defending democracy during a pandemic

Most people don’t remember that 9/11/2001 was a major primary day in New York City. I cast my vote for a nominee for mayor just minutes before the first tower was struck. After the second tower was hit, the governor rightly suspended the voting for two weeks. The notion of postponing the general election briefly became an issue, when the term-limited incumbent floated the idea of extending his tenure for a few months. But in the end, there was no delay, and the general election was held on its regularly scheduled first Tuesday in November, a celebration, of sorts, of the city’s resiliency, less than two months after the worst day our city had ever endured.

That memory resurfaced for me a few weeks ago when Wisconsin residents were forced to make an impossible choice between protecting their personal health and safety in the face of a deadly pandemic, or as “the People,” protecting their collective right to vote. The long lines in Milwaukee that election day were both an outrage and an inspiration, a profound act of civic duty and an insistent defense of democracy amidst this pandemic.

In times of crisis and in times of calm, there is no more sacred task than voting. It is, quite simply, the most direct tool we have to hold government accountable to those who are the governed. For JCRC, the health of our democracy is so essential to our self-interest as Jews and as Americans, that our mission states that we “promote an American society which is democratic, pluralistic, and just.”

For JCRC, those aren’t just words. They are guiding and enduring values that have informed our policy work and our advocacy for over 75 years. In the spring of 2019, before our current crisis, our Council – through its deliberative process of study and debate – adopted principles for defending democracy. At the time, our Council stated that:

Judaism’s view of human society includes many values that are key to a democracy. In accord with these Jewish values, the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy is the primacy of “We, the People”: an engaged electorate, with robust participation, and elected officials truly representative of home communities, from whom power flows. However, both history and current events are replete with policies and practices that water down the principle of “We, the People” by empowering the elite over the general populace.

This week, our Council met for our first regularly scheduled meeting since the onset of sheltering in Massachusetts. We began by taking the time to check in with and extend care to each other as a community. But we also spent time hearing from partners about the challenges ahead in conducting a free, fair, and safe election this fall in the midst of these daunting challenges.

Yesterday, building on our mission and our principles, we recommitted to comprehensive voting rights and affirmed our support for specific actions, including:

  • Expanding absentee voting including no-excuse absentee voting, permanent absentee voting, and other increased vote by mail options;
  • Preserving in-person voting, carefully balancing the safety of poll workers and voters, and minimizing suppressive tactics.
  • Expanding early voting options.
  • Advocating for immediate federal action and funding to support state and local elections, implementation of these reforms, and the United States Postal Service’s capacity and solvency to meet the increased demands from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with urgent priorities in human services, secure institutions, and caring for our neighbors, we’ll be working on these issues in the coming months. When this pandemic is over, we’ll continue to work on reforming and protecting our democracy, as we have for over 75 years now, because, as the Supreme Court held, over a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins: the right to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.”

The strength of our community and the resiliency of our society is protected when we act on our enduring values and principles, even – and especially – in a crisis. Once again, we are called to take affirmative action to defend our rights and the rights of all Americans. Please join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

 

JCRC Statement on Voting and Elections in a Pandemic

Embedded in JCRC’s mission is the obligation to promote an American society which is democratic, pluralistic and just. In 2019 JCRC of Greater Boston adopted principles to defend democracy, including the support of policies that (1) Identify and remove barriers to and increase voter registration and voter turnout and (2) Ensure the security and sustainability of our election system infrastructure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the inadequacies of the American voting system and exacerbated long-standing suppressive tactics in jurisdictions across the country to ensure this fundamental right. Earlier this month, Wisconsin voters and poll workers were forced to choose between their health and their fundamental right to vote. Over a century ago, the United States Supreme Court held in Yick Wo v. Hopkins that the right to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.”

Time is running out for our federal, state and local governments to act now to ensure that the rights and health of voters and pollworkers are protected in the upcoming elections and that the necessary robust infrastructure is supported and funded to increase participation. The Covid-19 pandemic demands a response to meet those needs.

JCRC supports federal, state and local policies that:

  • Expand absentee voting including no-excuse absentee voting, permanent absentee voting and other increased vote by mail options;
  • Preserve in-person voting, carefully balancing the safety of poll workers and voters, and minimizing suppressive tactics.
  • Expand early voting options.

In addition, JCRC calls for immediate federal action and funding for needed support of state and local elections, implementation of these reforms, and the United States Postal Service’s capacity and solvency to meet the increased demands from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our community is taking action

I hope that this finds you managing as best as one can in this challenging time. It is difficult to absorb and process all that is happening in our world, and all that has ceased to happen – at least for now.

We at JCRC, as always, are rooting our response in our understanding of our core purpose. We are advocating to uphold the social safety net and to secure a just society for the most vulnerable populations. The urgency of and need for this work is, as always, heightened in times of crisis. More and more members of our Greater Boston community are struggling to meet their needs on the most basic level.

JCRC’s advocacy and organizing teams are working hard from our homes to advocate for our neighbors, pivoting in our work to secure needed resources for those who need it the most during this time. Our recent advocacy work includes:

  • Leading the charge with our colleagues across the country and our partners at Jewish Federations of North America to urge Congress to expand the Paycheck Protection Loan (PPL) program for vital nonprofits. After our collective initial success in making sure that nonprofits were included in the first round of Small Business Administration (SBA) PPL loans, we are now working to ensure that the next phase of the legislation that calls for an additional $250 billion for the SBA loans is accessible to larger nonprofits. We’re monitoring the process closely and will be advocating for additional funds to further address community needs in subsequent legislative packages.
  • Submitting written testimony to the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities for an online hearing this Monday on H.4622—An Act to Provide Short-term Relief for Families in Deep Poverty.
  • Facilitating final certification and permits from the City of Boston for a kosher food pantry in the city so that the community was able to move quickly to meet new and urgent needs in this time.
  • Leading with our partners in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) to draft a letter to the Governor, in which we pledged the support of the faith community in fighting COVID-19 and addressing the crisis, while also inviting his partnership on access to health care, rent, and mortgage accommodations, and responding to the perilous situation of those who are incarcerated. The letter now has over 70 signatories from across faith communities, including many area rabbis. A delegation of clergy met with the Governor (virtually) this week.
  • Continuing to bond out those in immigrant detention - including people detained across the country, since many other ICE offices have been closed. As conditions worsen inside jails, and in this season of Passover and freedom, JCRC and our partners have bonded out 62 people over the past month.

Our community is stronger when we speak together in one voice. I hope that you will continue to join us in these efforts, by calling your legislators and engaging in the weekly action items that we are sharing with the community.

As I find myself, like all of us, physically distanced from community, I am also finding strength in the willingness of our community to build social connections by taking action on our moral responsibility to each other and our neighbors in this challenging and uncertain time. Thank you for joining us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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Taking Action, Staying Connected

My, how rapidly the world has changed this week. Yet I am hopeful. We’ll get through this. And I believe we’ll be stronger for it. As Garrett Graff wrote this week, what we are doing now to #FlattenTheCurve is a “collective act of almost unprecedented community spirit, a fundamental statement of how we stand together as a species.”

I was watching a comedy on Netflix last night in which two fellows meeting up at a café embraced each other in a big “long time no see” kind of hug as they arrived at the table. It felt surreal, and reminded me of what it was like, 18 years ago, to watch 1990’s movies where families saw their loved ones off at the gate for departing flights – a world in the very recent past that is now so very different.

So yes, we’re resilient, and yet we’ll be changed by all this. We’ll return to work, to our congregations and schools, maybe even to sporting venues, but the world will be changed; even if we don’t know exactly how yet.

But one thing that need not change are our core values, our commitment to community, our belief that we are bound together with each and that our resiliency in challenging times comes from our commitment to the collective good.

So, for JCRC, even as we are profoundly changed in what we can do this week – with our volunteers not serving as reading buddies in public schools, our Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers unable to do face-to-face people-to-people work, our inability to show up on Beacon Hill to testify and rally in support of our immigrant neighbors – what hasn’t changed is the purpose of our work, why we do community relations.

That, “why,” our belief in the building of bridges and strengthening of bonds that tie us to each other and to the civic public space, remains more urgent than ever. These are the ties that give us the fortitude to flatten the curve, to help those who are most struggling right now, to be good neighbors in hard times.

That’s why I’m proud of the work our team has been doing this week, to keep us all focused on the “why,” even as the “how” has changed – for now.

We’ve launched a campaign to take action and stay connected, building bridges during this period.

Some opportunities to take action:

  • Join us for our Pathways to Peace Learning Series: a six-part webinar series featuring Israelis and Palestinians telling their stories of identity, friendship, and cohesion even during a time of social distancing. On Tuesday, March 24th we will have a virtual, facilitated conversation between Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A'Wad at 12pm. As members of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian societies living side-by-side in the West Bank, they will share their powerful story of coming together to learn each other's stories. Then on Thursday, we will hear from certified tour guide Mike Hollander for a talk titled "Jerusalem - Borders, Barriers, and Beliefs."
  • Help distribute valuable information on COVID-19 this Saturday, during a citywide distribution of important information to every home and in multiple languages. (For those whose Shabbat practice would permit participation.)
  • Create a “Soup In A Jar” kit for our partner shelters and food pantries. These soup mixes can be used immediately or at a later date. For more information, contact Grace Farnan, TELEM Coordinator

I hope that you’ll join us in this effort to help our partners, support our neighbors, and continue to be good citizens this week and in the weeks ahead.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Building connections while we’re separated

With the World Health Organization declaring a coronavirus “pandemic” this week, we are all entering a new and difficult phase of this challenge to normal life. Earlier this week, in response to Governor Baker declaring a public health emergency here in Massachusetts, JCRC began taking significant steps to limit in-person social interactions through our staff and programs. Today, Friday, we have moved to a remote workplace for an extended period in the near future.

Of course, we’re not alone in these steps. Institutions, congregations, and businesses across our community are also taking these steps. And because we’re listening to the experts, experienced professionals in public health, we understand that we all have a role and a responsibility to “flatten the curve” on the spread of this virus.

Without diminishing the urgency and importance of every step we can take to minimize transmission, it’s not easy. Not touching our faces is hard, even unnatural, for human beings. So is profound social distancing. Ours is a community and society of gatherers; baked into the DNA of Jewish community is the notion that we need to be together as ten adults to perform some of our most sacred rituals. Our nation’s foundational document protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” as part of our first constitutional freedoms.

As one pastor put it on a recent Zoom call with our Christian partners, separating ourselves from our neighbors goes against everything we believe in. At the same time, our tradition tells us that whoever saves one life (even at the expense of other good deeds), it is as if we had saved the world. And every health expert is telling us that physical distancing will save lives.

So here we are. I worry, not just for my own family and for our staff and friends, but for our society. In the midst of one of the most vicious electoral cycles in our modern history, the last thing we needed was large-scale isolation and dependence on social media for news and engagement. When I see pushes online of “things to do in quarantine,” like a booklist that pushes a specific worldview or narrative, I worry about us amplifying our self-confirming biases. And most of all, as someone with good health and a salaried income, with paid sick leave and health care, I worry about the more vulnerable who enter this challenge without the same resources and resiliency.

If you share these concerns, I invite you to join me in committing to building bridges and connections even as we separate ourselves physically. I’m committing myself in the coming weeks:

  • For each event that is postponed, I will reach out and FaceTime with someone with whom I don’t connect regularly.
  • I will read books that challenge my worldviews and expose me to new ideas, whether those be volumes making the case for perspectives I’m disinclined to share, or novels that take me into cultures other than my own.
  • Every day that I am working from home I will use my social media platform to lift up examples of people who are doing good deeds and practicing bridge-building in ways that are responsible for this moment.

Over the coming days, our team will  be rolling out a number of ways to stay connected to and supportive of our partners – from the Israeli/Palestinian coexistence groups who are canceling spring visits to the US to the kids in local under-resourced public schools who work with our literacy tutors. We’ll be mobilizing in support of vulnerable immigrants, many of whom don’t have healthcare and depend on hourly wages, and for policies providing relief to the hardest hit, including some of our vendors in the hospitality industries.

And, I want us to stay connected with you. Tell us how you are taking steps to maintain and build connections in the weeks ahead. What books are you reading? How are you helping our neighbors? How are you touching the lives of others even as we cut down on physical engagement?

Inspire me. And help us inspire others to be the good neighbors we all need to be right now.

I’m looking forward to connecting with you.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy