Tag Archives: Jewish values

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

The Four Questions I’ll Be Asking Myself

Like most of you I have been to more than a few seders in my time, and each year I find myself asking:  How will this seder renew my connection to Jewish values and thereby inspire my actions in the coming year?

On Passover, we are collectively reminded of our connection to history and our shared experience as a people. And, every year we have an opportunity to tell our story and use it to inform our understanding of modern day afflictions. This is where renewed connections are made for me.

I am fortunate to have this platform to share my thoughts with you each week about how Jewish values and our shared experiences as a people inform communal actions in the public square. As we sit at our Passover seder tables, we all have a platform to share key lessons. I invite you to join me in using Passover as an opportunity to share your thoughts: What value or theme do I most identify with, right now, from the Haggadah?

For you it may be that freedom from oppression comes with responsibility to community, and thus we teach our children that volunteering is part of a Jewish practice. Or, you may choose to underscore our dreams and aspirations - carried through thousands of years of waiting - for a place again in the Jewish homeland, and how awesome and fragile our Jewish state is today. And, you may wish to share that because we as a people remember what it is like to be the excluded stranger we work for policies of inclusion and equity.

As you immerse yourself in the story, I hope you will embrace – and even lead – conversations about the parallels between the Exodus experience and today’s challenges; to note, after reciting the ten plagues, those modern day afflictions that plague our world - people who are not free, those who are wandering as refugees and who need our compassion. Or, to discuss how a deeply divided people would have been less likely to survive 40 years of wandering in the Sinai. Take time to wonder aloud about what have we learned after all these years and in all these generations, and ask:  How can I use these lessons to make a difference?

After all, the seder certainly teaches us that it is crucial to ask challenging questions – ones without easy or obvious answers.

Passover reminds us of the importance of not only sharing our stories and asking questions, but of taking action to bring about redemption and liberation in our own time.  As we break our matzah we are reminded that our ancestors did not wait for conditions to be ideal before taking action, and neither should we.

As you prepare for your seder, I hope you ask yourself: What do I need to do to make a difference today?  Please take a moment to make a commitment to our collective work – to supporting volunteerism in our Greater Boston community; to advancing inclusion, equality, and safety net services; and, to advocating for a secure and democratic Jewish state.

Your tax-deductible donation can be made to JCRC here, or by sending a check to JCRC at 126 High St, Boston MA 02110.

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.

 

Jeremy Burton’s Comments at Keshet’s OUTstanding! Gala

The following are comments as delivered by JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton at Keshet's Annual Awards Dinner.

THANK YOU DANA FOR THAT PRESENTATION.
AND THANK YOU KESHET, FOR HONORING JCRC TONIGHT.
PERSONALLY, KESHET IS MY COMMUNITY. MY LIFE HAS BEEN ENRICHED IN THE EIGHT YEARS I’VE BEEN PRIVILGED TO BE ON THIS BOARD WITH INCREDIBLE FRIENDS, INCLUDING DANA.

AND IT’S DEEPLY MEANINGFUL TO ME TO BE UP HERE TONIGHT FOLLOWING IDIT KLEIN, BARRY SHRAGE, AND NANCY KAUFMAN. BECAUSE OF KESHET ‘S WORK, AND CJP’S COMMITMENT TO A FULLY INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY, AND JCRC’S RELENTLESS PURSUIT OF A PUBLIC AGENDA OF EQUALITY – THESE THREE LEADERS HAVE ALL PAVED THE PATH THAT LED TO ME BEING ON THIS STAGE ON BEHALF OF JCRC.

TONIGHT HAS BEEN AN INCREDIBLE CELEBRATION–OF JCRC, AND OF THE KESHET COMMUNITY. BUT AS WE CELEBRATE, THERE’S A DARK CLOUD HANGING OVER OUR FESTIVITIES AND OVER OUR NATION:

A CLOUD OF HATE AND DISCRIMINATION.
PEOPLE ARE TELLING AMERICANS THAT TO DEAL WITH OUR CHALLENGES WE SHOULD TURN AGAINST EACH OTHER; THAT WE SHOULD BLAME MUSLIMS AND IMMIGRANTS. THAT WE SHOULD AVERT OUR EYES FROM THE CRISIS FACING –YOUNG MEN OF COLOR WHO ARE BEING CRIMINALIZED IN MASSIVE NUMBERS.

THAT WE SHOULD CIRCLE THE WAGONS AND FOCUS ONLY ON NARROWLY DEFINED SELF INTERESTS.

AND SOME IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY ARE SAYING THAT ADDRESSING ANY OF THIS SUFFERING WILL DIMINISH OUR ABILITY TO ADDRESS ANTI-SEMITISM. WE ARE BEING TOLD TO BUILD WALLS BETWEEN COMMUNITIES, RATHER THAN STAND TOGETHER.

AND YES, NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME, THAT WE SHOULD BLAME THE LGBTQ COMMUNITY.

I’VE BEEN ASKED - TOO OFTEN: WHY DOES THE JEWISH COMMUNITY SPEAK OUT WITH SUCH FORCE IN SUPPORT OF OUR MUSLIM NEIGHBORS? AND WHY – AS WE SEE RISING ANTI-SEMITISM IN THE WORLD - ARE WE AT JCRC PRIORITIZING THE ACHIEVEMENT OF FULL TRANSGENDER RIGHTS?

I TELL PEOPLE THAT JCRC’S PURPOSE IS TO ADVANCE THE VALUES, INTERESTS AND PRIORITIES OF BOSTON’S ORGANIZED JEWISH COMMUNITY WITHIN A LARGER CIVIC CONVERSATION. WE’RE BRINGING– TO INTERFAITH SPACES AND TO THE STATE HOUSE – OUR COLLECTIVE VOICE AND OUR DETERMINATION TO ENSURE A STRONGER AND MORE EQUITABLE CIVIL SOCIETY.

OUR COMMITMENT TO ADVOCACY ON BEHALF OF ALL PEOPLE’S DIGNITY RUNS DEEP, ALL THE WAY BACK TO GENESIS. AS WE STRIVE FOR INCLUSION AND ACCESS FOR ALL, WE ARE REMINDED THAT IN OUR CREATION STORY WE ARE TAUGHT THAT EVERY HUMAN BEING IS CREATED B’TZELEM ELOHIM - IN THE DIVINE IMAGE.

AND SO WE ARE COMMITTED TO THE FULL REALIZATION OF EVERY SINGLE HUMAN BEING IN THE IMAGE OF THAT DIVINE CONCEPT.

WE BELIEVE THAT WITHOUT FULL INCLUSION, OUR COMMUNITIES CANNOT BE WHOLE, AND OUR MEMBERS CANNOT BE FREE.

I ALSO TELL THEM THAT THE JEWISH COMMUNITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN BEST SERVED WHEN OUR NATION DELIVERS ON THE PROMISE OF EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL PEOPLE.

WE ALL BENEFIT FROM A FREE SOCIETY WHERE THERE IS NO TOLERANCE FOR DISCRIMINATION OF ANY KIND, WHERE WE REMOVE THE OBSTACLES THAT STAND IN THE WAY OF OPPORTUNITY FOR EVERY ONE OF US.

WE KNOW THAT A CULTURE THAT DEMONIZES AND MARGINALIZES OTHERS THREATENS US AS WELL.
WE KNOW THAT A NATION THAT VALUES THE DIGNITY OF ALL PEOPLE IS ONE IN WHICH WE ALL THRIVE.
MARRIAGE EQUALITY WAS A GREAT ACHIEVEMENT FOR ALL OF US.

BUT THE STRUGGLE FOR LGBTQ EQUALITY DIDN’T END ON JUNE 26, 2015. CONVERSION “THERAPY,” IS STILL LEGAL IN MASSACHUSETTS. IN TOO MANY STATES WE CAN GET MARRIED, BUT WE CAN ALSO BE FIRED AND LOSE OUR HOUSING FOR DOING SO.

JCRC WAS PROUD TO STAND WITH OUR ALLIES IN 2011 WHEN GOVERNOR PATRICK SIGNED AN ACT RELATIVE TO GENDER IDENTITY, PROHIBITING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST TRANSGENDER PEOPLE IN EMPLOYMENT, HOUSING, AND VARIOUS SERVICES.

TODAY WE ARE WORKING TO PASS AN ACT RELATIVE TO TRANSGENDER ANTI-DISCRIMINATION, TO PATCH THE HOLES IN PUBLIC ACCOMMODATION PROTECTIONS THAT THE PREVIOUS BILL LEFT OPEN.

SIMPLY PUT, OUR ANSWER TO THIS DARK POLITICAL MOMENT – WHEN WE ARE BEING CALLED TO TURN ON EACH OTHER - IS TO INSTEAD TURN TOWARD ONE ANOTHER.
WE STAND FOR MORE DIGNITY, FOR MORE EQUALITY, FOR A BETTER NATION. AND WE BELIEVE THAT MASSACHUSETTS NEEDS TO LEAD.

THAT IS WHY, AGAIN, TONIGHT, WE CALL UPON GOVERNOR BAKER TO TELL THE PUBLIC WHERE HE STANDS ON THE PUBLIC ACCOMODATIONS BILL. AND WE THANK SENATE PRESIDENT STAN ROSENBERG FOR HIS VOCAL SUPPORT OF SB 735. AND WE CALL, AGAIN, FOR SPEAKER DELEO TO BRING HB 1577 TO A VOTE SO THAT THE GOVERNOR MUST MAKES HIS VIEWS KNOWN.

SIMPLY PUT: IF STATES LIKE NORTH CAROLINA AND MISSISSIPPI CAN RUSH TO ENACT DISCRIMINATION AGAINST THE LGBTQ COMMUNITY IN THIS ELECTION YEAR, THEN SURELY MASSACHUSETTS CAN TAKE ACTION TO FINALLY CLOSE THE HOLES WE LEFT FIVE YEARS AGO.

FINALLY, AGAIN, IT IS AN HONOR TO BE UP HERE ON BEHALF OF THIS ORGANIZATION THAT I AM PRIVILEGED TO LEAD.
BUT THIS AWARD IS NOT JUST FOR THOSE WHO WERE INVITED TO THE STAGE. THIS HONOR IS FOR THE COMMITMENT OF ALL OUR LEADERS – ACROSS A NETWORK OF AGENCIES – INCLUDING ADL AND JALSA WHO ARE ALSO PART OF THIS COALITION FOR TRANSGENDER RIGHTS - SYNAGOGUES, OUR PROFESSIONALS, AND OUR INCREDIBLE COMMUNITY, INCLUDING KESHET – WHO HAVE WORKED TO MAKE THESE VALUES OURS.

SO THANK YOU KESHET FOR HONORING JCRC TONIGHT AND FOR INSPIRING US TO ACTION. THIS AWARD IS AS MUCH FOR YOU AS FOR US.

TOGETHER WE WILL CONTINUE TO WORK AS ONE JEWISH COMMUNITY FOR INCLUSION AND EQUALITY.
THANK YOU.

What Makes A Jewish Issue Our Issue?

Last week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) ranked the top 25 Jewish influencers on Twitter. Noting that the list included only three women, I wrote a column expressing concern about inclusion and gender in the Jewish community. On Tuesday, JTA’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Silow-Carroll, wrote an extended and thoughtful response. His conclusion:

“We agree with Burton’s overarching message. The Jewish community still has a lot to do in order to address a gender gap in positions of influence. It’s an issue that goes way beyond the confines of Twitter.”

I thank JTA for inviting an honest critique – and for joining an active public discussion about this important issue. I also thank five men on that list – Peter Beinart, William Daroff, Jeffrey Goldberg, Avi Mayer, and Arsen Ostrovsky – who used their prominence on the list to elevate the gender issue by sharing my column on social media.

Silow-Carroll’s column motivates me to explore an additional issue that is of particular importance to us at JCRC. In response to a critique that I and others noted about the list focusing exclusively on those who tweet about Israel, he writes:

“The question of what constitutes a ‘Jewish issue’ is an old and unresolved one. Jews contribute to uncountable fields and debates, but that doesn’t necessarily make those contributions ‘Jewish.’ Certainly there are issues that fall beyond the purview of even a community relations council because they exceed its ‘Jewish’ bandwidth.”

He’s right. This is an old question. But it is not one with which I struggle.

The Judaism I love and embrace – with its prophetic values and thousands of years of rabbinic wisdom – has something to say, often even competing things to say, about virtually every issue. This wisdom doesn’t always lead us to one defined conclusion or specific answer to a public policy debate, but there is a contribution that can be made to almost every issue from a distinct Jewish perspective.

Virtually all issues are Jewish issues. If you have any doubts about this, you need look no further than your own inbox, with its myriad of Haggadah supplements coming your way from just about every organization in our community.

The more precise question for us at JCRC is: What are our Jewish communal priorities? While our values and tradition can spur us to action on all issues, when should we feel compelled to mobilize our collective voice and take action, and to what end? We know we can’t do everything, so we have to be clear about how those values intersect with our most pressing priorities and interests for this community at any time.

Let me offer three guideposts we take into account when making judgments about our priorities for action on “Jewish issues.” The first is one of urgency. The hateful and divisive rhetoric of this political moment and its consequences is one in which we have felt pressed to act. In fact, there has been wall to wall Jewish communal condemnation of the demonization of Muslim-Americans and of immigrants. Some of us have come to this from the place of Tzelem Elohim (the dignity that comes from all of us being created in the divine image). Others apply our historic awareness that Jewish self-interest is served best when our larger society is committed to the protection and support minority communities. But regardless of what informs our position, we know that our absence as a community in this moment would speak volumes, so we have lifted our voices in response to an urgent public matter.

The second guidepost is consensus. As the voice of the organized Jewish community, we go to great lengths to ensure that our actions are in fact representing that community’s sensibilities. Last summer’s debate on the Iran deal, like all issues related to Israel’s security, was clearly a Jewish priority. However, despite the widespread sense of urgency, we found consensus to be lacking in our community; we were divided on the exact position we ought to take on a vote by Congress. So, with a consensus about the priority but not for a specific position, rather than advocate for or against the deal, JCRC publicly examined the elements within it – the particular and specifics. We sought to shine a light on the issues, understand and debate them, and ultimately, to urge members of Congress to address them.

Finally, we are guided by political opportunity - the opening of a window for effective action. The galvanizing of our community to take swift and decisive action following the horrific murders in Newtown provides a compelling example. The political will to prevent further gun violence offered an opportunity to advocate for stricter gun laws in the Commonwealth. We quickly joined and led within a Coalition to pass sweeping legislation, and we remain committed to this work. In this case, the issue was one on which we already had consensus and were thus able to leverage an opportune political moment.

So no, we haven’t yet found “the issues that fall beyond the purview of even a community relations council because they exceed its ‘Jewish’ bandwidth.” But yes, we constantly evaluate which issues we will act on as priorities within that bandwidth, making sure that we act on those urgent ones on which we have consensus and a path for effective political change. We also embrace the diversity within our community that helps us determine what those priorities should be.

That’s how a community relations council makes a unique contribution to the public discussion on issues of concern to our Jewish community – on Twitter and wherever the debate takes us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Dilemmas in a Dark Moment

In 2012, when Barney Frank decided to leave Congress, JCRC organized a candidates’ forum with the Democratic and Republican candidates running to succeed him. We heard from a few people in our community who objected to our engagement with one of the candidates who held strong views on a range of issues in opposition to stances taken by JCRC.
 
We took that opportunity to remind our Council that as a 501 (c)(3) organization, the IRS code allows us to advocate for our priorities but bars us from showing preference to a particular candidate. And we pointed out that although the likelihood of this particular candidate being elected was low, it was still a possibility, so we had an obligation to our community to find a way to be in a relationship with him should he win.
 
I’m reminded of this exchange as we and many of our member organizations are facing the far more significant dilemmas posed by this year’s presidential election.
 
This weekend I will be at the AIPAC Policy Conference, where most major candidates are confirmed to speak and all have been invited. The inclusion of the Republican front-runner has brought reactions, including the Reform Movement’s vow to “engage” him, while there, “in a way that affirms our nation's democracy and our most cherished Jewish values.” ADL’s national director this week published an op-ed calling the candidate’s ideas “bigoted, revolting and simply un-American,” and expressing the hope that it is this behavior that “all people regardless of their political affiliation call out at every instance.”
 
Regardless of how troubling many of us find the rhetoric and behavior of this candidate, by inviting him to its conference, AIPAC is simply doing its job.
Those who tell you today that there is no way that this candidate could become President are the same people who were saying six months ago that he could not possibly come as far as he already has. As a focused, single-issue organization, AIPAC has a responsibility to engage the next President of the United States and clarify that person’s view on the U.S.-Israel relationship without indicating any bias or preference. We need to fully hear his views on this matter in more than debate one-liners.
 
It is also true that this is a profoundly troubling moment in our history.  Never have we seen such a degradation of this nation’s political discourse. The qualities that have made this country great for Jews and in fact, for all Americans – robust liberal democracy, constitutional freedom, a commitment to civil liberties and the protection of minority rights – are under direct challenge. Our nation without these qualities would become a more dangerous place for all of us. Beyond our shores, America would become further diminished in the world (including, for what it is worth, as an effective advocate for Israel in international arenas). Let’s not kid ourselves — those who said we could afford to ignore a candidate’s comments six months ago are no longer laughing at them.
 
It is within this context that I have profound admiration for leaders who are speaking to this political moment. I deeply appreciate those in our community who are not limited by their responsibility to particular institutional roles and who are giving voice to a robust critique of some candidates. I honor the way in which the URJ is approaching a moral calling without diminishing the importance of AIPAC’s obligation to the pro-Israel community.
 
I don’t know what will happen during this coming week or over the course of the campaign. I do know that when I show up at AIPAC on Sunday, I will be there as the director of this institution. As such, I will honor the responsibility placed on me by our community to steward our public voice in all its breadth and diversity without partisan bias or preference for any candidate. I’ll also honor being entrusted to articulate our values and interests with as much clarity as circumstances allow.
 
Even in this dark moment – when I’m continually asked, “What should we do? What can we do?” - I take some heart in the respectful ways in which our various member organizations are navigating a difficult dilemma without demeaning and denigrating each other and in the seriousness of thought with which our community is confronting the moment.
 
I draw strength in the unity of purpose that I see emerging. We are renewing our shared commitment to an American idea that has served us so well and that, if we fight to ensure its survival, will continue to renew our nation in the years to come. In that, and in the knowledge that we as a nation have faced dark political moments before and are today stronger for them, I have hope for a better future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

It’s Complicated: An Invitation to Conversation

“It’s complicated.”

Those two words enter into virtually every conversation during our Israel Engagement study tours, often to the frustration - and eventually to the bemusement - of our program participants.  We refuse to simplify the layers of history, geography, religion, narrative and identity that inform every element of understanding Israelis and Palestinians. We ask participants to see these layers and to acknowledge that before we can offer solutions we need to understand the complexity.

I’ll admit that lately, I too have been frustrated. I’ve been trying to decide who I will vote for in our Presidential primary – just over a month away – and, while diligently watching as many of the debates as I can, I’ve candidly been disappointed at every turn (although admittedly also highly entertained by the often bizarre interactions).

So a recent column in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “The Search for Simple Answers to Complex Problems” caught my eye. Gerald Seib speaks to my frustration in articulating a “stark reality” of this election cycle, namely that “we are in a time of complicated questions in search of simple answers.”

To cite two examples of issues from recent debates – one from each party: How to regulate big banks in ways that work for middle class consumers? “Break them up.” How to deal with ISIS in a multi-lateral Middle East? “Carpet bomb” them.

In Seib’s analysis, this simplistic political discourse reflects a collapse of the center. He sees a propensity of the candidates in both parties to run toward their party’s “true believers” in the primaries – to the detriment of the more centrist candidates in each party, whose answers to the same questions he quotes with admiration. This may work as politics – at least right now - but it’s not very fulfilling.

It is also an articulation of a more pervasive problem in these challenging times— our failure to effect a meaningful political discourse amongst those who hold diverse beliefs. We’ve all gotten too comfortable with the echo chamber of the like-minded.  We are too quick to defriend on Facebook those who post challenging views; and to select media that reaffirms, rather than challenges, our held opinions. And given the nuanced and thoughtful contributions that are urgently needed in this complex world, our sound-bite culture – 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals, 140 character tweets, 7 second gifs – is woefully inadequate to the task.

Sure, “most voters,” Seib writes, “likely know, down deep, that the world actually isn’t simple. But they also know that attempts in Washington to find compromises in the center have mostly come up empty in recent years. The challenge for candidates in 2016 is to show they have sophisticated answers to complex problems—but also know how to implement them in a polarized world.” But there’s more to it than just this.

At a recent meeting of our Council’s Israel committee, one participant made an incisive observation:  At JCRC we’re not trying to diminish people’s frustrations, challenges, their love or loyalty to Israel. We’re not trying to question our participants’ values as they apply them to the world around us. Rather, “when we say that it’s complicated, we’re inviting people to have a conversation.”  We’re asking people to take the time to learn together, to reason, to listen, and to understand challenging and often opposing perspectives.

When I post an article on Facebook or Twitter (where I hope you follow me), I’m asking for a conversation. I’m looking to learn from you, and I’m inviting you to learn from and with me. I’m asking to think together to create an understanding that is deeper and more nuanced than what we started with.

And that’s also what I’m looking for in a President of the Unites States. In the coming weeks I want to know not just who can simply pursue action in a polarized world (though I may have to settle for that). I want to know who can listen, who can invite a conversation, who can say, with curiosity and a desire to understand others: “Come, let us have a conversation together.”

These complicated times need such a leader. And I invite you to have a conversation with me about who that may be, and to grapple honestly and thoughtfully with all of the issues that our nation faces.  

It is complicated. Let’s have the conversation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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.

Gratitude in Challenging Times

These have been a difficult few weeks. Our hearts have been heavy as we follow tragic events and learn of suffering in the world and at home. The terrorism that has impacted so many lives hit particularly close to home last week for the Boston Jewish community as we lost one of our own children, Ezra Schwartz, z'l.
 
This weekend, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us take a moment and a few days to appreciate the blessings in our lives: that we are fortunate for the community we have and the loved ones who enrich our days; that we are blessed to live in one of the most bountiful nations in the history of the world.
 
We are surrounded by opportunity and we have the ability to make the world better than it is today – for all the world’s children.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

#TDOR: The Cost of Being Other

 

As I write to you from Germany, I’m reflecting on one of the lessons we draw from our own experience; that we all benefit and thrive in a free society where all are protected, and that it is vital for us to  speak out against all forms of fear and discrimination.  I look forward to sharing my learnings and observations when I return, but for today, as we recognize Transgender Day of Remembrance, we must continue to fight for and with those who are persecuted. As Keshet’s Boston Regional Director, Joanna Ware, said, “As Jews, we know all too well the cost of being marked as other. We know the collective pain of injustice and loss, and we know the necessity of marking and remembering that pain and mourning, in order to move forward into the more just, whole world we are all partners in creating.”

At their Biennial earlier this month, The Union for Reform Judaism passed a sweeping resolution affirming the rights of transgender people, citing its “commitment to defend any individual from the discrimination that arises from ignorance, fear, insensitivity, or hatred.” The resolution went on to assert that “ Knowing that members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities are often singled out for discrimination and even violence, we are reminded of the Torah's injunction, "Do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds." 
 
One of those people is Alex, of Brookline, MA.
 
“Eventually, [my job] became unbearable because the senior staff were making my life miserable because I was open about being transgender. So even somebody like myself, with all these credentials and all this training and all this experience—still gets discriminated against. I can’t reach my full potential, because of other people’s discrimination against me. [Judaism] connects me throughout the generations, with people all over the world. …Being Jewish has helped me in dealing with being transgender.”
 
Last week, JCRC urged the Massachusetts House and Senate to extend non-discrimination protections in public places to transgender individuals. Of the many reasons I am proud to be a resident of this Commonwealth, is our proud history of leading the nation when it comes to extending civil rights protections, in particular for the LGBT community. It is troubling that four years ago a compromise was made that still left some freedoms unprotected, including accessing facilities based on one’s gender identity.  We are proud of the broad spectrum of advocacy organizations, business leaders, and the entire membership of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation who are standing up to ensure that happens – because, for each day without these protections, transgender people face discrimination and humiliation, and are at greater risk of being victims of transphobic violence.

It is clear that times are changing and that history is shifting direction, as we reflected in the Union of Reform Judaism recent resolution.  But, we are far from done in our work to ensure full inclusion. We still need more education and understanding. Together we must aspire to be a community that embraces people of all gender identities.

Even when all transgender people are truly free, we must never forget the pain and sacrifices of those who gave so much – including losing their lives, due to violence rooted in ignorance that continues even today in our country.  This is why, in addition to our advocacy, we honor beloved members of OUR transgender community this weekend and commit ourselves to pursuing justice in their honor. May their memory truly be a blessing upon the freedoms of those of us who walk in their path.
 
With that, I will offer some resources so that we may learn together:

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy