Tag Archives: Holocaust Awareness

The Last Living Link

This is a week of remembrance. It started on Sunday with the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. As I write this on Thursday morning, we mark Yom Ha’Shoah v’laGevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). Established by Israel’s Knesset in 1951, it is a time for us to gather and remember the six million Jews who were killed in the Shoah (and is differentiated from International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January which honors, as well, all of the victims of the Nazis). 

Also this week, the ADL released its annual audit of antisemitic incidents. We sadly confirmed what we’ve been experiencing recently – a 48% increase in antisemitic incidents in Massachusetts in 2021, a rate even higher than the 34% rise nationally.   

However, we did receive some good news this week as well.  JCRC successfully advocated for an addition of $500,000 toward the Genocide Education Trust Fund, included in the MA House budget that was finalized on Wednesday. The Trust, a public-private partnership, supports the implementation of the Genocide Education mandate that we worked hard to enact in close partnership with ADL New England, the Armenian community, and others. While the budget continues through the legislative process, we are grateful to Speaker Mariano, House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz, and to Representative Jeff Roy for their continued leadership in championing this cause. We look forward to the Senate taking this up in their budget in May, where we have two great champions for genocide education, Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues.  

This coming Sunday at 2:00pm we will gather for the virtual community-wide commemoration of Yom HaShoah, hosted by JCRC.  We’ll be hearing from survivor Frieda Grayzel, Dachau liberator Colonel Cranston “Chan” Rogers and others, including Mayor Michelle Wu, who will be delivering her first Yom HaShoah remarks as mayor.  

Earlier on Sunday, at 10:00am, I’ll be joining Boston 3G and the Israeli-American Council for #6MillionSteps, a walk from the State House to the New England Holocaust Memorial to form a “last living link” around the memorial, to recognize that we are coming to the end of the era in which the survivors of the Holocaust continue to live amongst us.  

I was reminded, again, of the personal connection of JCRC to this work – confronting Nazis and fighting antisemitism – on Tuesday. We invited Father Charles Gallagher S.J., associate professor of history at Boston College, to sit down with me for a public conversation about his book, Nazis of Copley Square. Professor Gallagher’s research documents the Nazi spy ring in Boston in late 30’s and early 40’s and analyzes the role of the Catholic church and local leaders in this ‘Christian Front.’  

I was aware from the book’s footnotes that Professor Gallagher had relied, among other sources, on JCRC’s historical archives. Even so, I caught my breath when Professor Gallagher shared onscreen a memo written by my predecessor, Robert E. Segal, the founding director of JCRC, discussing the beating of Jewish boys in the streets of Boston and the antisemitism that led to JCRC’s foundation in 1944 (on the right below). 

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Eighty years later, as we again experience rising antisemitism in our region, and as the generation of those who experienced the Holocaust is diminishing in numbers, our origin and our purpose remain a central part of who we are and what we do. We at JCRC embrace the need to both challenge and encourage our neighbors to be upstanders in this work, as we also strive to be partners with them in the work of combating all hatred and bigotry. 

I hope you’ll join us on Sunday, in-person and online, and in the year ahead as we continue to do this work with both our members and our partners. 

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

p.s. This month is National Poetry Month, and today is also ‘Poem in Your Pocket Day.’ Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy volunteers are celebrating this week by inviting local poets to share their writing with students at our partner schools.  

Most of you already know my passion for poetry and my daily reading practice (and if you don’t, follow me on Instagram). This week I’m reading the new translation of ‘Flights and Metamorphosis’ by Nobel Literature Prize winner Nelly Sachs. Her work after the Shoah was deeply informed by her experience fleeing the Nazis.  I encourage you to check it out.  

 

 

Taking a Stand Against Holocaust Distortion

On Thursday we commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the global day set by the United Nations marking the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on January 27, 1945. 

I had the privilege a few years ago to visit Auschwitz. As anyone who has been there would tell you, the scale of the place is overwhelming. Despite everything I know and have learned about the Holocaust, I was completely unprepared for the size of this place. The sorting ramp – a railroad platform - where arriving Jews were separated and condemned to death or forced labor (or, horrifically, violent human experimentation) seems endless. As one walks from there on the path to the death machine, one only begins to absorb the scale of this space where 100,000 people were being kept at any given moment in slave conditions as they awaited the gas chambers.  

100,000. 

That’s a scale equivalent to the population of the city of Cambridge, where I live.  

I’ve been thinking about that experience a lot this week, as several disheartening events unfolded directly related to Holocaust memory and education: 

  • Last weekend Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said the opponents of COVID vaccinations in the U.S. had it worse than Anne Frank: "Even in Hitler Germany (sic), you could, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic, like Anne Frank did.” Recall that this teenager was killed by the Nazis at the Bergen-Belsen death camp, because she was a Jew. (He has since apologized, after being publicly condemned by his own wife, but we should note that this comes as part of a history of offensive Holocaust analogies.)  
  • On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tucker Carlson devoted an entire Fox News show to promoting and perpetuating the white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory – which centers Jews in a conspiracy to destroy Western, i.e. Christian and white, civilization. That’s the same conspiracy theory that was referenced by those “Jews will not replace us” chants in Charlottesville in 2017. ADL rightly called it out.
  • And, in Tennessee, the McMinn County school board unanimously removed from their curriculum Maus, the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel depicting the experience of the author’s father, a Holocaust survivor. As one board member said “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids.” As if the only way to teach history is to ignore or deny the bad parts 

Still, in the midst of all of this, there is cause for hope. With leadership from Germany and Israel, the United Nations overwhelmingly adopted a resolution taking a stand against Holocaust denial and distortion (Though there was one unsurprising holdout - the Iranian regime).  

And locally, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts returned a stolen painting to the family of a Hungarian survivor, in what their attorney described as “a model restitution process.” 

I can’t stop thinking about the scene yesterday in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, where the Speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Mickey Levy, said the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer to honor our dead. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s also a reminder of the potential of a people to face a terrible wrong in partnership with their victims, honestly, and forthrightly.  

And, I remind myself that, for the first time, we in Massachusetts marked this week’s anniversary with a new state law in place that we at JCRC were proud to advocate for, along with key partners, mandating Holocaust and Genocide education in our schools.  

Three years ago, after visiting Auschwitz, my primary observation in that moment was: one cannot ever fully understand the scale of the Shoah, the death camps, and complete devastation, but still, we must make the effort to do so. One cannot begin to truly comprehend Auschwitz without walking in this place, but we must make the effort to do so.  

Not everyone is blessed with the opportunity for that tactile experience, but we are all still able – even if only for a finite number of years– to bear witness first-hand to the memories of the survivors, and to become stewards and transmitters of those memories to future generations.  

Progress is indeed possible. But it takes work. A lot of work. Especially in these times when there are those who choose to minimize, distort, or deny.  

We’ll stay at it. And I hope that you will too. 

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy Burton

JCRC Executive Director

Enhancing the New England Holocaust Memorial at a Critical Time

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L-R Governor Baker, Mayor Janey, Addison Dion (grandaughter of NEHM founder Steve Ross), Survivor Janet Singer Applefield, Jeremy Burton

In 1995, Holocaust survivor Steve Ross (z”l) had a dream: to honor his family and every other victim of the Holocaust with a memorial in downtown Boston that would serve as a lesson to future generations. He brought together his Jewish and Christian neighbors and fellow survivors, and with the help of his friends, including Mayors Raymond Flynn and then Thomas Menino, he founded the New England Holocaust Memorial.

The Memorial (NEHM), six luminous glass towers, was dedicated in a public ceremony on the steps of City Hall in October 1995, with Elie Wiesel and many community and civic leaders in attendance. It was intentionally placed in the heart of Boston, along the Freedom Trail, so that its lessons would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

Yesterday, JCRC, along with our partners at CJP and Facing History and Ourselves, officially unveiled a new website and interactive mobile tour, which will greatly enhance the experience of visitors. The tour features testimonials from local Holocaust survivors, a short history of the Holocaust, the symbolism of the Memorial and resources for educators, all accessible through QR codes. Additionally, we have transformed the Memorial’s website, which now includes a walk-through feature that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. These components will open up the New England Holocaust Memorial as an educational experience for a broader audience and generations to come, ensuring that even more people have the opportunity to learn.

These updates were planned over two years ago, but the timing of this event could not be more appropriate. We are all aware of the alarming increase in violent antisemitism and hate speech and violence, as well as the astonishing, growing ignorance about the historic realities of the Holocaust. Just here in Massachusetts, one only needs to mention events of this year in Duxbury and Lowell, or even these past weeks in Winthrop and Brighton. Now is exactly when we need to publicly reaffirm the value of genocide education, and the Memorial in particular, as part of a broad commitment to teaching about hatred and the consequences of unchecked bigotry.

And so, we were grateful to our public and interfaith officials for joining us yesterday to recommit to Holocaust awareness and fighting antisemitism, as their amplified public voices are more crucial now than ever before; friends like Reverend Lorraine Thornhill, Pastor of Kingdom Empowerment Center, President of the Cambridge Black Pastors Alliance and Chaplain Cambridge Police Department who spoke powerfully of our shared work in combatting bigotry and antisemitism; and, Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Family Philanthropies, whose ‘Final Whistle on Hate’ initiative made this digital project possible.

It was my privilege to introduce Governor Charlie Baker, who has stood with us often, one might say ‘too often’ in this space, responding to rising white supremacy, violent attacks on Jewish communities, and desecrations of this sacred site. Even more special, for me, was the honor to welcome Mayor Kim Janey. The Memorial has a long and meaningful connection with the office of the Mayor of Boston, beginning with the essential role of Mayor Ray Flynn in the selection of this site, sitting just below the windows of his City Hall office.

As our survivor community grows older, we are obligated to retell their firsthand accounts and to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust lives on. The memorial’s new in-person and virtual touring capabilities capture their stories and enable present day and future visitors to bear witness.

As I introduced Mayor Janey in her first official event at this site as Mayor, as she recognized the presence of Mayor Flynn’s son, City Councilor Ed Flynn, and as we heard from survivor Janet Singer Applefield, and Stephen Ross’ granddaughter, Addison Dion, one could sense the spirit of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. A torch was being passed to a new generation of Boston leaders and the descendants of survivors, and to all of us in the community who will continue to bear witness in perpetuity.

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Survivor Janet Singer Applefield

Together, we remain committed to a high level of Holocaust programming, to the importance of education, and to sustaining and expanding the legacy of the survivors in the Greater Boston community. We do so through our work at the NEHM, and, for JCRC, by continuing to advocate with our partners for a genocide education mandate for all youth in Massachusetts.

Visit nehm.org to join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Taking White Supremacy to Court

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

This week, JCRC sponsored a program with Integrity First for America (IFA), a new organization that is literally taking white supremacy to court, by bringing a lawsuit against the masterminds of the violence in Charlottesville. With this week’s news of the foiled attempt to kidnap the Governor of Michigan by violent extremists, the topic was alarmingly relevant once again. Our featured speakers were IFA Executive Director Amy Spitalnick and lead attorney on the case, Michael Bloch. Moderating the panel was Pastor Jeremy Battle of Western Ave Baptist Church, who traveled with JCRC to Israel and has become a dear friend. A third-generation preacher, Pastor Battle grew up outside of Birmingham Alabama in the post-Civil Rights era, in the aftermath of the 16th Street Church bombing.

At one point, Pastor Battle interrupted the flow of details about legal strategy and posed this question of our speakers: What is your personal connection to this moment? Where does your conviction to this work come from?

The answer was not surprising, for Jewish advocates committed to pursuing justice; both speakers were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. For Amy, whose grandparents were the only ones in their families to survive, this was deeply personal, with their stories “seared into her brain”. Michael told us with pride about his grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany and then returned to fight for America in World War II, and about his parents, who used their law degrees to advance social justice – with his mother clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall.

This profound Jewish commitment to combating the hateful ideology of White Supremacy is one that resonates deeply for us at JCRC. The mission that guides all that we do includes the commitment to advance an “American society which is democratic, pluralistic and just”. Since our founding 76 years ago, we have understood that achieving this vision is not only about the common good – it is essential for our own Jewish community to thrive. There is no more powerful example than the threat that White Supremacy poses, both to us and to our equally vulnerable friends, who are targets of the same toxic hate.

“They hate all of us on this call”, Amy said of the 24 defendants that IFA is suing. Motivated by the “great replacement” theory, in which Jews are the puppet masters orchestrating the replacement of the white race, the mob they mobilized marched in the streets of Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us”. They surrounded a local synagogue mid shabbat prayer, forcing the members to flee out a back door, taking with them a Torah scroll that was rescued from Nazi Germany.

Observers of American – or Jewish – history know that this chilling spectacle is not a new one. But where Klansmen once felt the need to don robes and hide in the forest to engage in extremist violence, these contemporary haters are now emboldened to wage their war on democracy and justice in plain sight. Much to their delight, their rhetoric and tactics have become mainstream. Groups such as the Proud Boys called for a race war after they were name checked in a Presidential debate, and the Department of Justice is no longer prosecuting these cases; their investigation of them is down two-thirds in recent years. So, the haters continue, unabated in their efforts, masterfully leveraging social media platforms to spread their diabolical message. We have already seen the tragic results in such tragedies as the murders in Pittsburgh and Poway, Charlestown and El Paso. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security designated white supremacy as the “most persistent and lethal threat to the homeland”.

But if these frightening phenomena call to mind the darkest chapter in modern Jewish history, there are important, hope-generating distinctions. As Amy reminded us, unlike her grandparents’ experience, we now live in a society that is democratic and dedicated to the rule of law. Even when the federal government doesn’t take the requisite action to demand accountability, private citizens have options.

So, this small but mighty organization brought a civil suit, employing a creative legal strategy. Using the KKK Act of 1871, passed by Congress for victims of white supremacy to seek redress during Reconstruction, they are suing the 24 defendants for “conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence”. And their work has already reaped rewards. Throughout three years of discovery, the defendants blocked every request for information, and were then fined, had sanctions imposed, bench warrants for arrest issued, and in at least one instance, incarcerated. There has been financial, legal and operational impact on the defendants, and Richard Spencer – perhaps the best known among them – has complained that the suit has been “financially crippling.” A court date is now set for April 2021.

As I listened to these remarkable presenters (full video below) I was struck not only by their legal savvy, but also their unmitigated courage at stirring up this hornet’s nest of violence (security is the biggest line item in their budget). Not all of us are blessed with their fine legal minds or skill, and few of us would likely be willing to imperil ourselves as they have.

So what action can the rest of us take in the face of this dire threat to democracy and to the safety of our community? A few suggestions:

  1. Learn about the work of IFA. Sign up for case updates and share their video
  2. Don’t let this issue fall off your radar. Hold local, state and federal officials accountable. Sound alarm bells with social media platforms who take no action when misinformation is spread by this cabal of haters and amplify their message.
  3. Perhaps the most powerful way to prevent this toxic ideology from gaining traction is through comprehensive education about the lessons of history. A recent survey of Americans under 40 – indicating that 63% did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust - provides a sobering reminder of just how much work has yet to be done. That’s why we at JCRC, along with ADL, the Armenian National Committee of America, and 30 other community organizations, are championing An Act Concerning Genocide Education, which would promote Holocaust and genocide education in schools across the Commonwealth. The bill has already passed the State Senate and is awaiting action in the House of Representatives. Please reach out to your State Representative and ask them to support this crucial legislation.

Finally, let us all take inspiration from these brave litigators, who even when faced with the darkest human impulses and behavior, are unwavering in their belief that hatred and violence can be vanquished in America. Let us employ every tool we have – in the courts and in our schools - to work toward an America that guarantees liberty and justice for all.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

JCRC Applauds MA Senate for Unanimously Passing New Law Requiring Genocide Education, Bill Moves to House of Representatives

Earlier today, the Massachusetts State Senate voted unanimously to pass a Genocide Education Bill that if passed, will provide all students in Massachusetts public schools the opportunity to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout human history, as well as the factors which led to their being committed. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston recognizes lead sponsor Senator Michael Rodrigues, Senate President Karen Spilka, Senate Education Committee Chair Jason Lewis and their Senate colleagues for their leadership in passing this bill.

As stewards of the New England Holocaust Memorial, JCRC honors the sacred obligation to lift up the experiences of those who survived the Holocaust in our own Greater Boston community, using their stories as a lesson to future generations about the consequences of unchecked hatred and intolerance. Together with ADL New England, the Armenian National Committee, and over 60 coalition members, JCRC advocated for this legislation, filed by Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Jeff Roy, which will give students in the Commonwealth the tools to identify and stand up against hateful, oppressive acts and to speak up in the face of bigotry.

“We congratulate Senate President Spilka, Senate Ways and Means Chair Rodrigues, and our partners in government for coming together to ensure that students in our state will learn invaluable lessons about the consequences of hate and bigotry, from the most painful parts of our history.” said Aaron Agulnek, Director of Government Affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council. “We cannot simply say ‘Never Again’ if we do not also commit to educating the next generation by giving them the resources they need to recognize and stand up to injustice before it takes root."

"We appreciate the leadership of Senate President Spilka, Senate Ways and Means Chair Rodrigues, and their legislative colleagues for taking a critical step toward ensuring that Massachusetts public school students receive Holocaust and genocide education prior to high school graduation,” said Robert Trestan, ADL New England Regional Director. “The need for Holocaust and genocide education in K-12 schools could not be more urgent. Massachusetts now has an opportunity to use the power of education to address hate through this essential initiative for Holocaust and genocide education in the Commonwealth.”

“75 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, we, as a society, continue to grapple with the root causes of hatred and discrimination. With the passage of this bill today, we take a critically important step to ensuring our students are educated on the Holocaust, the grave mistakes of the past, and stand ready to root out the injustices of the future,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “As the forces of fake news, division, and ignorance continue to march on, I applaud Senate President Spilka and my colleagues in the Senate for standing up to say that we will never forget the lessons of the past, and I thank my constituent, Dr. Ron Weisberger, and the advocates for their urgent efforts to ensure we use the power of education to address hate, broaden public awareness, and shape our collective future.”

An Act Concerning Genocide Education now moves to the House of Representatives, where a bipartisan group of over 70 members cosponsors signed on in support of the legislation.

The next generation committed to telling our story

The Hebrew month of Tammuz began earlier this week. Later this month we will usher in an intense, three-week mourning period, when I will join many other Jews around the world in fasting and engaging ritual mourning to lament the many calamities in our history, from the destruction of the first Temple through the Holocaust. Commemorating and retelling our history is a sacred obligation, shared from generation to generation. This obligation is acutely necessary today, as we continue to confront the dark elements of history and determine our role in creating positive and lasting change. Educating ourselves and understanding how history can continue to cause harm and injustice are the first crucial steps in this work.

At JCRC, we are proponents of this educational work, from our guided docent tours through the New England Holocaust Memorial, to our advocacy for Genocide Education in Massachusetts schools.

And we promote education through the JCRC Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest, giving students from across the Commonwealth, most of whom are not Jewish, the opportunity to confront the unimaginable crimes of the Holocaust and consider their role in standing up to current injustices. The contest, established by Holocaust Survivor Israel (Izzy) Arbeiter, provides students with a platform to share the lessons they have learned and express their commitment to work towards a more equitable world. We challenge our youth not only to remember, but also to reflect on the power of individuals, groups, and nations to effect change.

This year’s winning essay (chosen from among 200 submissions) is written by Livia Goldschmitt, a ninth grader from the German International School of Boston. Livia writes about her role as a German citizen to not just stand up to hatred and bigotry, but to reconcile the devastating impact of a painful legacy, a crucial lesson for all of us today:

Germans were the ones who killed and I am German. But we have to confront our history to understand it ourselves and to be able to learn from it….I am not responsible for what they did. But we do all have the responsibility to not let the lessons of our history be forgotten. Click here to read the full essay.               

Sadly, we could not gather in person this year for our annual Yom HaShoah commemoration where we honor our essay contest winners. Instead, we invite you to please join Izzy in recognizing this year’s Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest Winners in this video tribute.

I hope you will join me in congratulating these bright young writers who are standing up against injustice and hate in our world.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

CJP, JCRC Mourn Passing of Stephan Ross, NE Holocaust Memorial Founder

Steve Ross (center) with his son Mike

It is with deep sadness we write to inform you about the loss of Steve Ross (z”l) who passed away last night. Steve’s enduring strength, humanity, and commitment to conveying the lessons of his experience in the Holocaust to all who would hear him, were a gift we will cherish always. His legacy will live on through the New England Holocaust Memorial and through the lives of all he touched. May his memory be for a blessing. The funeral will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, February 26th, at 1pm at Temple Emeth in Brookline.

Rick Mann, longtime chair of the Yom HaShoah Program and the New England Holocaust Memorial Committee, wrote this moving tribute for Steve:
 
It is with profound sadness that I write to inform you of the loss of our beloved Steve Ross.

Were it not for Steve, there were would be no NE Holocaust Memorial, pure and simple. The Memorial was Steve’s dream. His indelible, permanent message not just to New England, but to the world. It was his intent to create a sacred place of remembrance for the six million souls murdered by the Nazis, including his parents, brother and five sisters. A place to stand as a beacon of light in the darkness of the horror that was the Holocaust. A place for reflection and for learning.

He pursued his dream with a limitless passion that turned skeptics into believers and converted both secular and religious community leaders into staunch advocates.

Among those advocates was then Boston Mayor Ray Flynn who, with Steve at his side, saw to it that the Memorial would reside in one of Boston’s most visible locations, along the Freedom Trail across from Boston City Hall.

It is here that hundreds if not thousands pass every day through its six gleaming towers and, whether they know it or not, bear witness to the unfathomable perseverance of one man and his dream… Steve Ross. But what else would you expect from a man who, as an eight-year-old boy was imprisoned by the Nazis, endured five years of horror in ten different concentration camps, and survived to build a life of meaning, love and caring for others in his adopted country.

The world is diminished today with the loss of Steve Ross. But Steve’s memory and his legacy live on in his wonderful son and daughter and grandchild and in the Memorial that will serve as an everlasting symbol of remembrance for generations to come.

On a personal level, I will always cherish my years of friendship with this most unique human being. A survivor who built a life from the ashes of the Shoah, coming to this country with nothing, learning a new language, becoming a professional and devoting his career to helping  at-risk youth. But most of all, I will always recall the way he would greet me with the most effusive hug, plant a kiss on my cheek and say, "You’re a beautiful, loving man." Of course, it was Steve who was the beautiful, loving man.

May his memory be a blessing.

Marc Baker, CJP President and CEO
Jeremy Burton, JCRC Executive Director 

With Governor Baker at the rededication of the NE Holocaust Memorial

With Governor Baker at the rededication of the NE Holocaust Memorial

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With Holocaust survivors Anna and Israel Arbeiter

Invoking the Holocaust in Contemporary Debates

The New England Holocaust Memorial

In the coming year, we’ll be marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Shoah. Here in Boston, we’ll also mark the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM). NEHM was specifically placed in the center of our city, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, because its founders wanted the memorialization of the Holocaust to be a continued source of learning and relevance for generations to come.

As we prepare to mark these milestones, I am reminded of the privilege I had, a few years ago, to spend Shabbat with the Munich Jewish community and to pray at the Ohel Jakob synagogue. Ohel Jakob re-opened in 2006 almost 70 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. I write “1938” and many students of the Holocaust will assume this means that the synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” November 9th and 10th. In fact, Munich’s main synagogue was burned five months earlier, in June. This was a test of sorts, a test that the world failed. When nations remained silent, the Nazis read their silence as license to expand the persecution nationwide.  

I thought of that visit in recent weeks as debates over the appropriation of Holocaust terminology were back in the American political discourse.

Last month, Alabama adopted a law banning abortion that explicitly compared this medical procedure to the Holocaust and other genocides. And last week, the controversy over the horrific conditions under which migrant children are being held by our government veered into a Holocaust appropriation debate when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instragrammed, calling these detention centers “concentration camps.” 

So as others, seemingly increasingly, are invoking the Holocaust in contemporary political context, I have a few thoughts to share:

The Holocaust has both universal and particular legacies.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish community has felt an affirmative personal duty to work toward the global relevance of lessons derived from the Holocaust. As early as in 1951, it was an Israeli representative at the UN, Jacob Robinson, who helped draft the International Convention on Refugees. And today, that legacy informs our efforts to mobilize the Greater Boston Jewish community around our immigrant justice work and our commitment to the notion that the United States must continue to open our doors to refugees and asylum seekers.

Still and the same, every event is unique and to make direct comparisons does not serve us. We have a duty to preserve the specific nature of the Holocaust as a unique event in history. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, in “To Mend The World,” examines four specific and unique distinctions about the Holocaust: 1) It was a final solution of total extermination. 2) The “crime” was the Jews’ mere existence. 3) The genocide was an end in and of itself without other political or economic purpose—an end for which resources would be diverted. 4) It was committed, by and large, by otherwise ordinary citizens.

Fackenheim notes that while other genocides and atrocities contain some of these characteristics, none, other than the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany, contains all four.

Political actors must understand that to invoke the Holocaust as an applicable metaphor to contemporary events is to co-opt something that was incomparable, and in a way that is painful for many in our community.  That many who were silent regarding Alabama are condemning Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, and vice versa, is noted. The result is that a sacred Jewish vulnerability – including the profound trauma and lived experience of survivors who are still with us – is being weaponized for partisan purposes.

That’s unacceptable.

Further, to limit our outrage to “only” those things that accurately and adequately compare to the Holocaust is to fail to meet the moral necessity of calling out horrors for what they are. As Dr. Deborah Lipstadt rightly noted this week: “Conflating…two periods diminishes the specific, unique horror of each particular crime, and impedes our ability to understand them on their own terms.”

So we need to do better, as a society and especially as public leaders. Let us condemn the horrors being perpetrated in our name by our government for what they are. And let us do more to educate ourselves and our next generation about genocides, including the Holocaust. Ways to do this can include advocating for legislation like Massachusetts’ “An Act Relative to Genocide Education” (H.566 & S.327), sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, and supported by a coalition led by the ADL, JCRC, and the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts.

Because amidst a rising tide of hatred and bigotry, and as memories of prior atrocities are fading, one lesson from my visit to Munich and the reality of the lead-up to Kristallnacht remains all too relevant: If we fail to protest the first violations of people’s rights, then those in power who seek to do harm will themselves take our silence as a license to do even worse. It is our obligation to stand against this through action and education. I hope you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

An Urgent Agenda

It has been over twenty years since the American Psychiatric Association deemed so-called conversion therapy (attempts to “repair” a person’s sexual orientation) to be harmful. Still, shockingly, 698,000 LGBTQ adults, including about 350,000 people who received treatment as adolescents, have been subjected to this traumatic practice in the U.S. alone.  Last month, after years of effort, the practice was banned for minors in New York, making it the 15th state to do so.

You may be surprised to learn that Massachusetts is not among the states that have banned this practice for minors. JCRC wants that to change.

Boston JCRC has a long and proud record of openly advocating for LGBTQ rights. Many years before I arrived here, Boston was the first Jewish community relations council in the country to fight for marriage equality. JCRC has supported legislation against conversion therapy in the past. And just a few weeks ago our Council’s Public Policy Committee unanimously affirmed that House Bill 2848, a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors in MA, should be one of JCRC’s priorities for this legislative session. I’m proud that we will be working to ensure that teenagers are no longer subjected to this sadistic practice masquerading as “treatment.”

Our advocacy on this bill, along with all our government affairs priorities this legislative season, once again reflects our commitment to defending civil rights and safeguarding long fought gains against discrimination, hatred, and bigotry. We are committed to working with our partners in government to enshrine policies that protect people across the Commonwealth—along with the lives of members of our community.

In 2017, the ADL tracked an 86% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools right here in Massachusetts—with many of these incidents involving Holocaust-related imagery and language. We need to act decisively to stem this disturbing tide. So, we are working with ADL to advocate for passage of An Act Concerning Genocide Education, to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in social studies classes in Massachusetts, enabling students to understand how unchecked prejudice and hatred can escalate to atrocity.

These are just two of seven bills that JCRC supports in our current Legislative Agenda, which includes a bill to protect immigrants being targeted for deportation, and others to help individuals and families overcome obstacles to opportunity and inclusion. Our legislative collaboration includes parties in the private and public sectors: philanthropists, social service agencies, our network of member organizations, and community leaders.

Each year at this time, we take the opportunity to recognize our partners on Beacon Hill who have joined with us to build a more just Commonwealth and a more vibrant democracy. JCRC’s annual Legislative Reception celebrates the importance of building powerful coalitions to improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for all in the Commonwealth. We lift up the work of the organized Jewish community to unite with others and act together for an urgent agenda; from civil rights to human services, economic opportunity to safety and security, supporting the vibrant MA-Israel partnership, and the protection of democratic values.

On March 5th, JCRC will honor four remarkable public servants who exercise their leadership to promote the common good. We will present awards to Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Joan Lovely, Representative Ron Mariano, and Springfield Council President Justin Hurst. These four public servants have answered the call for leadership in a time of great challenge, to address the urgent issues before us.

A well-functioning society and a responsive government would not be possible without outstanding, public servants like these four individuals, who honor their duty to the people of the Commonwealth. We look forward to coming together as a network to celebrate these four leaders and to recognize the work of JCRC and our partners. I invite you to join us.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

The Chorus of Remembrance

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was seven years old when, in 1946, she boarded a ship to America with her two sisters. Four years earlier, in a French internment camp, they had been torn away from their parents. While they were hidden for a time in France and then smuggled into Switzerland, their parents were each sent by cattle car to the death camp at Auschwitz and gassed upon their arrival. (pictured above: Sylvia (center), with her two sisters, Switzerland, 1945)

The voyage to America was difficult. The ship was filled with desperate refugees and reeked from the rotting vegetables that were their sustenance. Like many passengers, Sylvia became sick, soiling her dress multiple times. When she and her sisters arrived in New York, they were met by their aunt and uncle, who took in the traumatized girls and helped them start a new life.

Newly enrolled in school and struggling to learn a new language, Sylvia chose a special item for “show and tell”; one that that would help her share her story. She brought in the dress she wore on the ship. She told her classmates about her journey on the smelly ship, and about the murder of her parents. Her teacher, Mrs. Lynch, immediately grabbed Sylvia’s arm, hissing, “You little liar! Be quiet and sit down!” Many years would pass before Sylvia would share her experience again.

That cruel incident took place at a time before the world had fully faced and come to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, as we would in the decades to follow. And yet, seventy years later – we find ourselves with new challenges of knowledge and memory.

A 2018 survey of United States residents showed that forty-one percent of millennials believe that only two million Jews or fewer were killed in the Holocaust. Sixty-six percent of them could not identify what Auschwitz was. In Europe, a third of those polled knew "just a little or nothing at all" about the Holocaust. These numbers are obviously deeply concerning, especially as the very youngest of the survivors who can give first hand witness to the Holocaust are advancing into their eighties.

Through programming connected to the New England Holocaust Memorial, JCRC’s Holocaust education work is centered around survivor testimony. We are committed to providing opportunities for survivors to transmit their experiences for as long as they are able. The Memorial was intentionally placed in the heart of the Boston, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, so that this memory would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

In this spirit, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day this past Sunday, we invited Sylvia to share her story (documented in her extraordinary memoir) of unimaginable loss and remarkable resilience with an audience of some fifty people at the Brookline Booksmith. And on Monday, we brought survivor Jack Trompetter to Lynn Classical High School. This was the first and perhaps only time that the 400 students assembled will hear a firsthand account from a Holocaust survivor.

JCRC also worked with our partners these past weeks to promote Holocaust remembrance with a Boston City Council commemoration and as part of the “We Remember” social media campaign organized by the World Jewish Congress. Elected officials from across the Commonwealth took part to lend their voices to the chorus of remembrance.

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The Boston City Council for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

But faced with the alarming figures about the lack of knowledge, we need to double down to ensure that the Shoah is remembered, through meaningful education of the next generation.

Senator Rodrigues

To protect the transmission of history, Holocaust education cannot be relegated to special occasions like the ones this week, but must be fully embedded into the curriculum of all our schools. That is why JCRC has joined with the ADL and others to support legislation mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Social Studies classes across Massachusetts. The bill, filed by Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Jeff Roy would ensure a curriculum designed to lift up the very stories and experiences shared by Sylvia, Jack, and the survivor community.

As a community, we understand our sacred obligation to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. We remember the warning signs ignored and the indifference of those who knew what was being done at that time; an indifference that provided the necessary cover for this horror. We hear and tell the stories of our survivors – so that we may bear witness to their experiences and carry their memories forward.  Our work of memory is entwined with our hope for the future; it informs and inspires our efforts to build a future where anti-Semitism, all bigotries, and the indifference that enables them, will someday find no quarter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy