Tag Archives: Jewish values

Appreciation

As you read this, I’ve already left for a two week vacation. Not everyone in this world is blessed to be able to take meaningful time away from work for respite and rejuvenation. Many people don’t have paid vacation where they work and many more can’t afford to go anyplace during the time that they do have. Then of course there are those whose companies encourage or demand a 24/7 culture of availability.
 
I am wrapping up my summer with a deep sense of gratitude that I am part of a team. We are partners in a shared effort year around to do amazing work that I love and from which I draw enormous energy. They also keep the work of JCRC moving forward whether I am here or not, allowing each of us to have these opportunities to step away for a bit.
 
So some brief appreciations this week as I head out the door:
 
To my partners in work and our Associate Directors Elana Margolis – who amongst other things is up to her neck in planning for our big event on September 17th because she’s determined to ensure that our volunteers and our extraordinary service team have the support and recognition they deserve; and, Nahma Nadich – who year-round and while I’m away continues to focus on deep partnerships in our own and across faith communities, allowing us to do transformational work like the upcoming community memorial and solidarity on September 9th
 
To my Executive Assistant and our Event Coordinator Lisa Kessel Freedman, who in many ways knows me better than I know myself, keeps me on task, and does a lot of work behind the scenes that enables me to do my work in public and with you.  She is also, an emerging young leader in her own right in our community. When not toiling at JCRC she is volunteering at JBBBS, for which she was honored by CJP this past winter as part of Chai in the Hub.
 
To our Communications Coordinator Sasha Fastovskiy, who - in addition to being familiar to many on my social media feed as my able “wing-man” on my last study tour to Israel, taking care of every need of our delegation so they could fully focus on their experience of Israel - is a talented video producer. She is going to get a whole lot of praise for our new service programs promotion video for which she’s putting a polish on in the next few weeks. I’m so excited to show it to you when I get back.
 
There are many other amazing people here at JCRC, and I’ll continue to mention more of them from time to time in the months ahead. The important thing is that we are a team, with a shared commitment to serving our Jewish community and ensuring its impact on Greater Boston’s civil society. Without them I couldn’t do my job, and we couldn’t partner with you to achieve our shared hopes.
 
I hope you’ll take a moment to thank these folks, and all the Jewish communal professionals you interact with, for their service and dedication.
 
And I invite you to ask yourself this question today: Who or what do you appreciate most in your life right now?

Shabbat Shalom and enjoy the rest of your summer,

Jeremy

 

Breaking Our Patterns

So here’s a frightening thought: This weekend brings the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul.  The end of summer is on the horizon and with it the end of vacations, a return to schools, legislatures going back into session, and for Boston – dare I say it – a start to preparing for the coming winter.

Elul also brings an opportunity for reflection. This month is our lead up to the High Holidays, a time to take stock of ourselves and to make the transition from the historical Jewish experience of destruction in the month of Av and toward our season of forgiveness come Tishrei.

Rabbi Simon Jacobson in “60 Days:  A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays” teaches that ELUL is an acronym for the verse Et levavcha ve’et levav, “Your heart and the heart (of your children)” (Deuteronomy 30:6). He writes that this connection hints that Elul is a time of regret, forgiveness and reconciliation; a time of return to pristine beginnings to rediscover our true selves and the divine spark at the core of our souls.

At JCRC, this is the time of year when – leading up to our new fall program and fiscal year – we take stock. This is when I engage in a personal reflection process with our board about my hopes and ambitions for continued personal growth and development as a leader and what I look to achieve in the coming years.  On an organizational level, the entire team at JCRC is evaluating our performance over the past year, asking ourselves where we fell short of – or exceeded – our goals, and where we want to go in the coming year.  Arching over all of this is a broader communal conversation that so many of us are having – in public and in private – about where we are as a Jewish community, and what is and isn’t working in how we connect with one another in service to our shared sense of purpose as a People.  In keeping with this season of reflection, we are faced with the most challenging question of all; where have we inadvertently caused pain to others and perhaps even damaged the fabric of our beloved community?

So allow me to invite you to join me and JCRC in this Elul practice, both in a personal and collective way.

On a personal level I encourage you to join me by pursuing your own practice of self-reflection over the coming month.

On an organizational level I ask you to share with us your feedback about what you think JCRC is doing well, and just as important, what we can do better in service to our community.

In consideration of our collective service to the community, I hope you will ponder this exercise, which Rabbi Jacobson offers as a starting point for the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul:

  • Identify and describe one damaging pattern that you want to break in the coming year.
  • List one thing you must do in order to break that pattern.

Together we can seize this moment to foster forgiveness and reconciliation, thus beginning a journey back to pristine beginnings and toward a shared future. 

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy

Generations of Service

One thing we often lose sight of as we grapple with and debate the dilemmas of the moment is the Jewish historical continuum; the links in a chain that go back thousands of years and that connect us to future eras.  The interconnectedness of generations to each other, the ways in which we hold a responsibility to past and future, and how we transmit our values across eons is one of my favorite frameworks of how we are with each other as a Jewish people. We articulate this concept in our commitment to being L’dor vador – from generation to generation.

This is a ubiquitous term in Judaism and I usually shy away from meaningful terms turned cliché, but not today. L’dor vador is the recognition that we each are taking responsibility to transmit timeless values and national memory, while grappling with the challenges of the moment. It is about us learning from our elders and then leading by example– for and with the next generation and beyond– and leaving a legacy.

Part of the legacy that we receive - going back to the ancient rabbis and now on to our children - is the deeply held value of acts of kindness and service to others.

In the Talmud (Sukkah) Rabbi Elazar said:

Greater is the performance of acts of kindness than charity... because charity is akin to sowing, with the potential to yield something later, while acts of kindness are like reaping when produce has already grown, and will surely lead to fulfillment. 

L’dor vador we have a responsibility to others, both to take it upon ourselves, and to create the opportunities for the next generation to learn and practice this as well. At JCRC, that means we have grown from a generation of leaders who have made helping elementary school children in Boston’s public schools discover the joy of reading and encouraged so many others to join them; to a young couple who invested their time, energy, and resources into creating an opportunity for other young adults to participate in ongoing volunteerism with their peers; to a family to whom service is so important, that their children have followed in their parents’ footsteps in providing service to the greater community in a Jewish context.

A few months ago I told you about the amazing privilege I have of working at an organization that deeply connects with my sense of purpose – part of that rootedness is that we believe engaging in service as Jews within the broader society not only acknowledges inequality and injustice, but also addresses unmet needs. JCRC’s community service programs engage hundreds of volunteers dedicated to creating and sustaining meaningful partnerships with community based organizations.  Collectively, we act on our shared commitment to social justice through volunteer service and by building strong connections with partners throughout Greater Boston.

On September 17th, JCRC will celebrate Generations of Service by honoring those who exemplify a commitment to service L’dor vador, passing along their values to make the world better for future generations. Please take a moment to learn more about these honorees – the Recks, the Goodmans, and the Bussgangs - and consider joining us to learn more about opportunities at JCRC to be part of a legacy of service.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

P.S. Don’t worry, I’m still posting about the Iran deal on Twitter  and on my Facebook page. And I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me again on this in the coming weeks.

 

Finding Comfort by Facing Our Fears

One of the challenges of a weekly deadline post is that I write something a day or two ahead, it gets vetted, edited, formatted, and then gets published on Friday. In between that writing moment – usually by Thursday morning – and that sending moment, things happen. Usually they don’t profoundly alter my state and balance, but sometimes…

The last thirty-six hours have brought an emotional earthquake: two traumas of national significance for Israel and for the Jewish people. First, the violent hate crime by a Jewish fundamentalist – who was only recently released after serving ten years in prison for an identical crime - at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Then the horror in Duma, the burning of a Palestinian family and the murder of 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsha, again, apparently at the hands of Jewish terrorists.

Originally I had intended to write to you about how this summer marks the ten year anniversary of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, and about how Americans engage with Israel and strive to perceive it, including our own Christian clergy study tour who are in Israel this week and happened to be less than 20 feet from the Pride Parade attack (you can see three of the ministers in a photo that AP circulated). I’ve posted those reflections on JewishBoston. I also wrote a more personal op-ed yesterday regarding the Pride Parade, which I hope you’ll take the time to read on Times of Israel.

Instead, I’d like to use today’s post to amplify a conversation that many of us are already having about the dilemma of some settlements and of violent Jewish extremism.  I’m not offering a statement (beyond todays from CJP and JCRC) or recommending a “new” public position for our community today – to do so in haste and a moment of trauma would be rash and unwise.  Additionally, a shift in our public voice on these matters can only be strengthened by careful deliberation and building the broad support of community leaders, like yourselves, to address this in a meaningful way.

But we have to have this conversation.

The toxic atmosphere that led to the murder of this toddler is not new. Rather, it is an extension of a small but not insignificant movement in Israel that is religious, fundamentalist, extremist, and violent. Some would even say that its’ ideology is supremacist in preferencing Jews and Judaism over other faiths and peoples. Much attention has been given in our community to how moderates in other faith communities need to lead the struggle against their own cancerous extremists. The same obligation falls to us as well. I take heart in the powerful condemnations by Israel’s political leaders today but we need to do more to root out this cancer on the Jewish soul, to face without fear the darkness within us.

And we do need to have a serious conversation about the settlements – connected to this latest moment because the so-called Price Tag “rationale” is used by some in that community when enacting violence on Palestinians. Again, I recognize that talking about settlements is complicated and not without dangers. Too many in the international community, including disgracefully in Washington, have been quick to conflate and condemn all construction over the 1967 Green Line, as if somehow housing in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo is the same “obstacle to peace” as unauthorized construction in a remote community.  But at the same time, there’s a problem that needs to be faced – one that exacerbates the rising strength of Israel’s enemies, strengthens extreme elements within, and tears at us as we engage with Israel.  As David Horovitz presciently wrote earlier this week, before the horror in Duma:

“The root of our conflict with the Palestinians lies in their refusal to internalize and acknowledge thousands of years of Jewish history in this part of the world, and thus stake out positions, however reluctantly, in favor of a viable compromise to enable our two peoples to live in something approaching tranquility. But the root of our growing international isolation — which is accelerating even as we stand on the West’s front line against Islamic extremism in all its brutal guises — is the apparently untrammeled settlement enterprise. By enabling our soaring ranks of detractors to depict Israel as bent on a relentless West Bank land grab, we are empowering those who wish us ill, and baffling those who want to support us.

We make it easy for Palestinian extremists to recruit, and harder for the dwindling proportion of moderates.

And we do our own people a disservice.

By failing to distinguish between those areas we would seek to retain under any permanent accord and those we would relinquish, and by therefore failing to follow a coherent policy, we mislead the Israelis who live in and move to the settlements, and whose attachment to Biblically and historically resonant land naturally deepens year by year. We waste resources. We exacerbate internal divides. And we entrench our presence in areas that can only complicate any future separation — a separation from millions of Palestinians that is vital if we are to ensure that Israel remain both a majority Jewish state and a democratic one.

The confrontation at Beit El could have been far worse, but the alarm bells should be ringing. Three days after Jews mourned the destruction, the hurban of the two temples on Tisha B’Av — our divine focal point smashed as a consequence of baseless intra-Jewish hatred — an Orthodox man with a microphone urged an intra-Jewish hurban for the sake of two apartment buildings that Israel’s judges had determined were built on a Palestinian’s land. And like-minded others spat venom at the Israeli troops who sought to ensure that the word of the court was done. And the Israel government rewarded them.”

As I ask you to have this conversation allow me to note that this weekend is Shabbat Nachamu, the traditional “Sabbath of Comforting” that follows the Fast of 9 Av.  Synagogues will read the words of the prophet Isaiah foreseeing the return to Jerusalem at the end of the first exile and the restoration of a Jewish people in their land:

Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated…

Ascend a loft mountain, O herald of joy to Zion; Raise your voice with power, O herald of joy to Jerusalem – Raise it, have no fear;

As we enter Shabbat at the end of this week of trauma, let us find comfort in the notion that the strengths we have found within the Jewish people have always enabled us to overcome and endure, to carry on and see a better day. But let us also consider these dilemmas, our responsibility to face them, and the value and merit of how we speak tenderly to Jerusalem and with joy to Zion as we confront our challenges without fear.

Creating Space

This Sunday we will observe the fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the lunar month of Av, on which we commemorate the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago.  I have no doubt, especially this year, that you will be inundated with various messages concerning this day, the tradition that “the Temple was destroyed because of Sin’at Chinam (gratuitous hatred among Jews),” and, with the Iran nuclear deal on the table, messages bemoaning the threat of destruction – once again – that our beloved Jewish State faces in these difficult times.
 
Allow me to take a slightly different approach.
 
An Orthodox friend of mine tells me that Tisha B’Av has become meaningless to him because crying for a destroyed Temple suggests that we are a powerless people when, in fact, it is the political choice of a powerful modern Jewish state not to rebuild the Temple. Many of us – me included – have no burning desire to restore the Temple or animal sacrifices, even as we say “Next year in Jerusalem” at our Passover Seders.
 
Tisha B’Av today has become but one more point of interpretive and ideological division amongst the Jewish people.
 
So rather than push upon you the tropes of Sin’at Chinam and an empowered Jewish commonwealth, let us seize this moment to confront the difficulty before us:
 
I find that legitimate divisions and debates over the Iran deal are too frequently being manipulated in a greater effort to advance agendas about who is, or is not, in our communal tent.  Rather than assess a significant international agreement for what it is, for its potential success and for its flaws, too many people are looking at it as a Rorschach for whether you meet some pre-defined notion of what it means to be “pro-Israel.”
 
I find that for too many of us, we came to this discussion with predetermined political positions, without curiosity about why others aren’t where we are – pro or con – what their concerns are, and what makes them so certain of their positions.
 
Whatever the outcome of the debate is in the coming weeks, I fear that we’re doing lasting damage to our sense of being a Jewish community. We’re exacerbating the difficulties amongst ourselves, and come September 18th or thereabouts we’ll be left to pick up the pieces or – even worse – no longer even trying to do so.
 
I don’t seek to stifle this important debate. I too come to it with some ideas about where I and JCRC stand (and where we are not yet standing). But I want to challenge myself and all of us to come to this debate with some burning overarching principles:

  • Can each of us, in every moment, practice an open-hearted curiosity toward each other; and seek to understand each others’ fears and hopes, our concerns and questions, resisting the impulse to persuade or convince but rather to just understand and perceive?
  • Can each of us challenge ourselves to debate “for the sake of heaven” taking care not to create unbridgeable rifts? Can we say “how can I share my point of view with this person without judging them, without conveying that their perspective is an imperfect Zionism, a lesser form of loyalty to the Jewish people?
  • As important as the outcome of this debate is, can we commit ourselves to be One People the day after it is concluded?

For me, the most inspiring vision of the Temple era comes from the Midrash, our own national “mythology.” It tells us that despite its physical limitations of space, the Temple Mount mystically expanded its space to accommodate all of the people of Israel who came from our disparate communities and tribes to celebrate the high festivals together.
 
If we can commit to these things together, if we can hold each other accountable to this intention, to truly engage this debate with open-hearted curiosity toward each other, then we can accomplish something together on this Tisha B’Av. We can yearn for and work to restore an idea of a Temple experience: To be an expansive people, creating space, wide open and welcoming for us all, wherever we are right now, in this moment, in this difficult time.
 
Our survival – as a people and as a nation– depends far more on how we treat each other than it does on any agreement, any deal, and the protection of any ally.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Meeting the Moment

My grandmother, Sarah Faust Burton, was a proud Southern Presbyterian woman who moved from North Carolina to Indiana to build a life with her Jewish husband. Years after her passing, my grandfather encouraged me to embrace a heritage including our family connection to groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. While at first I found his enthusiasm baffling, I came to understand that, in his own way, he thought it was important not to romanticize the past but to be aware of our journey as a family and a nation, and the pieces that make up and inform who we are becoming.

I thought of my grandparents this past week as we all grappled with the horrific act of racial terrorism at Emanuel AME Church.

It is remarkable and welcome that in the span of just a few days, the Confederate battle flag has gone from being a socially tolerated representation of “Southern pride” to being nearly fully rejected as the symbol that it is, of hate and of defiance to racial progress. This shift is long overdue and it came at too high a cost in sacred lives taken from us.

But if we only respond to the symbols and the immediate needs in Charleston, we will have failed to meet this moment.  This needs to be a turning point in our confrontation with the chasms of race, and the inequality of experiences, within our society. As my friend Yehuda Kurtzer noted, this week the “forces of stagnation managed to make the issue entirely about the confederate flag… and nearly not at all about the much greater brokenness of racism and guns and the adaptive work that is required to heal our society from its addiction to both.” 

Some examples of the broader response that is needed:

  • While South Carolina is moving quickly on the flag – and Governor Nikki Haley should be credited for her leadership this week – they are one of but five states that still have no hate crimes law on the books (and, as the ADL has noted, many who do have limited statutes). Addressing symbols without changing laws is not enough.
  • While 37 states, including Massachusetts, have tightened gun laws in the past two years, in 40 states buyers can still easily sidestep federal background checks as the Charleston killer did, through a “private sale.” This needs to change, along with so many other laws that facilitate our culture of gun violence. 
  • In the 20th Century, the Confederate flag gained new traction as part of resistance to the Civil Rights movement. Two years ago, the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, unleashing a horde of voter access restrictions across the nation that particularly impact minority and low-income citizens. Congress has yet to act. It is past time to restore the VRA and the accomplishments so hard won in that era.

There has been an outpouring of support from around the nation to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to help pay for the nine funerals this week. But the crisis that poor families face when unexpectedly faced with the cost of burying a murdered loved one – and having to quickly come up with thousands of dollars they don’t have - is larger than what occurred this week.  The need to support vulnerable populations and youth projects that Reverend Clementa Pinckney was so passionate about go beyond Charleston, and are vital to creating hope, opportunity and promise for all of our children.

It is in this spirit that I am so proud this week, that in addition to supporting the Hope Fund, CJP has made donations to two of JCRC’s partners here in Boston that directly address these challenges in our own city:

The Roxbury Presbyterian Social Impact Center is the non-profit arm of Roxbury Presbyterian Church led by Rev. Liz Walker. Their mission is to create educational and economic development programs to strengthen the Roxbury community. Their key programs include the Cory Johnson Trauma Education Project, pioneering a new, community-based approach to addressing the epidemic of PTSD in our urban neighborhoods and CommonUnity: Nights for Youth Peace, created by and for teens as a safe space for youth to be creative, connect, eat great food and just hang out.
 
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was founded by Tina Cherry, following the murder of her young son Louis, 20 years ago. JCRC works with Tina and her Institute as part of our organizing work to prevent gun violence. Their mission is to serve as a center of healing, teaching and learning for families and communities dealing with murder, trauma, grief and loss. Committed to restorative justice, the Peace Institute provides programs, services & trainings that are thorough and relevant with a multi-cultural lens.
 
Yes, we need to confront the White nationalism, the hatred, the bigotries that continue to be a cancer on our society; and we need to consign the Confederate flag to the history museums.
 
We also need to see this not just as a challenge in South Carolina or “the South.” We need to be honest about our own roles in perpetuating systemic inequality.  We need to commit to being in partnership with Black churches here in Boston to building something better for all of our children; we need to work together in our own communities to confront the intractable racism in all corners of our nation.
 
If we do all this, we will honor those who died in Charleston last week, not by romanticizing or forgetting the past, but by understanding its place in our present, and leaving it aside as we become what we aspire to.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Daring to Dream

I'm writing this week’s message from Dnepropetrovsk as I prepare to make my way back to Boston, after spending a week representing the Boston Jewish community on an important Jewish Federations of North America mission. I hope you've been following my posts throughout the trip on Facebook. I’ll admit, I've been struggling with what to take away from my third visit to this community I've come to love.

There is so much despair here. There are worries about escalation of the conflict with Russia and over Ukraine's ability to defeat corruption and overcome the economic crisis. There is despair in the families we've met on home visits— single mothers, often disabled themselves, caring for disabled teens, not at all clear what will happen to those kids after they are gone. There are internally displaced people who have no immediate hope of returning to their homes in Donetsk, but who are also not ready to let go of all they left behind to make Aliyah.

What to make of all this?

I want to tell you about two young people I met.

KatyaAt the Jewish Agency in Dnepropetrovsk we met a young woman, Katya, who spoke English remarkably well. She told us that she studied English at the Dnep Jewish day school, and that from 2008-2012 she participated in the English language camp run by Prozdor at Hebrew College through the Boston partnership, a program where teens from our community help kids in Dnepropetrovsk learn English in an immersive camp experience. Katya recently completed her university degree in public affairs and is now working for the Jewish Agency, helping prepare families in Ukraine to make Aliyah.

During my last visit a year ago, Yoni Leifer, director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Dnep, showed me their new but largely empty space in the Menorah Center where they would soon be moving the Solomonika JCC, a project supported by CJP's targeted funding for JDC programs in Dnep. This week, the two of us walked through a loving vibrant institution, filled with after school programs, arts courses, dance classes, and community members meeting to plan summer programs. In one room, the children of displaced families from the conflict zone were in a social program to help them heal from their trauma. Yarick, a teenager from Dnepropetrovsk, was working with these little children, helping them with their projects, guiding them through activities on the play rug. As I watched him, I began to cry with joy.

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Katya and Yarick are two of the many young people from the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community that we in Boston have helped over the years. Katya honed her American quality English in one of our programs. Now she is a young Jewish professional giving back to her community by helping others to connect to Israel. Yarick found a home at the JCC and he is giving back as well, helping other Jews who have come to his community through crisis and chaos.

Katya and Yarick are who I am thinking about as I leave Dnepropetrovsk. Over 23 years, in partnership with the Dnep Kehillah and with the JDC, we in Boston have helped build the foundations of a new generation of young Jews, committed to others and to the Jewish values and the community we sought to revitalize in the Former Soviet Union when we started this journey.

Katya and Yarick give me hope. They show me what is possible when we imagine a glorious future, when we dream and commit to building the institutions and programs we need in order to transmit our values to the next generation.

Thanks to Katya and Yarick, I end this visit with hope for what is possible for Dnepropetrovsk, for the Jewish people, for Ukraine... if only we dare dream it and then build it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Examining the Continuing Crisis in Ukraine

This Sunday, I will be flying to Ukraine to represent CJP and the Boston Jewish community on an important Jewish Federations of North America mission. 

We make this visit in the second year of an ongoing crisis that has not abated. The economy there is struggling, with inflation at about 40%. Tensions continue with Russia and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine continues to work toward building an open, responsive government that aspires to be more integrated into western European culture and markets.

All of this has created profound strain on the relatively large Jewish community in Ukraine. Many have left the conflict zone, some choosing to make Aliyah. Others have become a Jewish displaced people in Europe, the first since the end of World War II, part of a larger internally displaced Ukrainian people.

You can learn more about the crisis in this post from Alan Gill, CEO of the JDC, which is organizing this trip together with JFNA and the Jewish Agency.

Dnepropetrovsk, Boston’s sister Jewish community in the former Soviet Union and close to (but not in) the conflict zone, has become host to large numbers of refugees this past year and is where we’ll be staying during our visit. As many of you know, JCRC has been privileged to lead the Boston Jewish community’s partnership with Dnep (as we fondly refer to her) since 1992.  As part of a broader commitment to best serve the ongoing needs of our Kehillah partner and to support JCRC’s move to a strategic focus on our work in the public square in Boston, we announced this week that the management of this partnership will transition from JCRC to CJP at the end of this month. However, it remains a true honor to represent our community next week on my third visit to Dnep.

The struggle for Soviet Jewry was a cause that defined JCRC and many American Jews in my youth. It was a movement I personally was proud to be raised within – quite literally – and it defined my own identity as a Jewish activist committed to global Jewish peoplehood. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Dnepropetrovsk Kehillah Project has been part of a defining idea of Boston’s Jewish community; that we are connected to and responsible for the welfare of Jewish communities around the world. It is remarkable to see first-hand what has been achieved. It is profound to know that institutions we helped build are now serving as centers for refugees – Jewish and Christian – from the conflict zone. I look forward to sharing Boston’s unique partnership success with Jewish leaders from around the nation next week.

This relationship is just one among many that make Boston’s Jewish community unique. Even though the team at JCRC will no longer be managing this work, it is part of what makes me proud to be part of our special community. Of course, JCRC will continue to do government affairs advocacy in support of Ukraine, and we will be proud to be part of a community that cares so deeply about global Jewry.

I look forward to sharing with you my impressions of the situation in Ukraine and the work of so many of our friends and partner agencies.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Answering the Call to Honor Eyal, Gilad and Naftali

This coming Wednesday, June 3, will mark the one year anniversary of the terrorist kidnapping and brutal murders of Eyal Ifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. It is painful to look back at that day, to recall the hope we had for their safe return, and our profound grief at their loss. How innocent we may now think we were to not have foreseen all the challenges of the year since – the violence last summer as Israel responded to attacks from Hamas in Gaza, the anti-Semitic targeting of Jewish communities across Europe, and yes, the moments of Jewish extremism that horrified us as well.
 
I look back with pride at how our community in Boston rallied to meet these challenges, coming together repeatedly – to pray, to mourn, to stand in solidarity with Israel and other Jewish communities and in celebration of our hopes for peace. We gathered in the heat of summer and throughout this winter after one of our own was viciously murdered in a Har Nof synagogue and again when French Jewry came under attack. We showed how we could define our own unity in times of crisis.
 
It is in this spirit that the mothers of those three martyred boys have called for this anniversary to be honored as a global Day of Jewish Unity to “consider the value of unity and how to work even harder to bridge the obvious divides that exist” among us. 
 
Bridging those divides is no small challenge, not least because some among us work so deliberately to exacerbate them. I’ve commented before about our propensity to challenge other Jewish voices with language that goes well beyond curiosity about disagreements and veers into hostility and denial of others’ legitimacy. I’ve come to fear that some in our community would prefer a more ideologically cohesive, but also a smaller and frankly weaker Jewish collective. I’m also troubled by those who challenge our need for a strong collective voice, who argue that it is better to have a thousand diverse Judaisms without any unifying effort to offer some semblance of a powerful, coherent message.
 
Recently, a friend posed the question about how the Jewish people can address several common challenges that were of particular concern to him. I worry that too many of us no longer believe that we are, in fact, facing common challenges.
 
I'm of the mind that in many ways, Jewish communities both historically and today pattern themselves upon - or reflect - the surrounding cultures of which they are a part. American Jews today are American in ways that 15th century Spanish Jews were deeply Spanish in their culture and norms.
 
As American Jews, we live today in one of the most self-oriented individualistic cultures in history. Our politics, lifestyles and societies bend toward individualism. The notion of collectivism is becoming alien to us, and with it collective responsibility, including the idea that each of us, and each of our institutions, must set aside parts of our own agendas in service to a common good.

This, to my mind, is a tragic turn of events.

I once heard John Ruskay refer to Judaism’s gift to our society as our “radical counter-cultural argument for The Commons.” This idea, so deeply rooted in our tradition and culture, rejects the “me first” ethics so prevalent today and sees the world through the prism of shared responsibility for each other and for community. Yet while we draw on this concept to inform our vision for our nation, we seem to be forgetting how to apply it to our own Jewish community, to embrace a positive approach that says that we are bound to each other, have responsibilities to each other, and must work together.
 
We need to vigorously assert that at the heart of Judaism is a commitment to the collective.
 
To honor the memories of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, z”l, let us all challenge ourselves – as leaders and as stakeholders in our community – to do more in the coming year to reject the tide of corrosive discourse before we are irreparably torn apart. Together, let us confront those who would drive wedges amongst us. Let us commit ourselves to defining and driving a conversation that is rooted in a shared sense of The Commons that we all have a stake in and are a part of.
 
With a renewed sense of truly shared purpose that inspires and unifies all the members of our Jewish community, together we can successfully meet any challenges we face in the year ahead. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our First Fruits

Today as Americans, we head into a long holiday weekend as we mark Memorial Day and honor all those who gave their lives in defense of our nation and our national values. As Jews, we also will celebrate Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. As Passover tells the story of our delivery from slavery, Shavuot reveals the meaning of our redemption, as we truly become a people by entering into a covenantal relationship with the Divine and each other. It is the day on which our ancestors committed themselves to a social contract that defined a society that could build upon their personal liberation seven week earlier in the Exodus.

While Shavuot is best known for the experience at Sinai, it is also infused with the agricultural practices that gave ethical and spiritual meaning to the ancient nation of Israel in their homeland. A primary mitzvah of Shavuot in the Temple Era was for the people to bring up to Jerusalem their Bikkurim, an offering of first fruits, as a gift to the priests and an acknowledgement of the Divine generosity that provides the bounty we enjoy. And we are taught to act with the same generosity in ensuring that the bounty of our resources is shared with all. In both the Torah portion and the Book of Ruth, which we read this weekend, we discover that our agricultural practices also provide for the poor by requiring us to leave a portion of our harvest to them. Jewish farmers were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and to refrain from collecting fallen ears of grain. These mitzvot were not intended merely to feed the poor, but also to provide a Jewish ethical grounding to an agricultural society by establishing ongoing habits of empathy, kindness and generosity.

In a modern urban society like ours, what are our equivalent practices that develop habits of empathy and generosity? What actions can we take and commit to, that remind us of the need to share the abundance we enjoy? I believe that part of the answer lies in the practice of service with and to others, acts that address unmet needs with dignity and respect and teach us to acknowledge inequality and injustice. I’m proud that at JCRC we are committed to nurturing these habits by engaging participants in practices of service, through three programs, TELEM, the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL), and ReachOut!

I’m proud that we’ve nurtured the habits of teens like Devin Lightman, who will receive this year’s Fran Litner TELEM Service Award for his outstanding commitment to service. An active TELEM participant for the past five years, Devin will be entering college in the fall. His teachers recall that Devin was a rather challenging and rebellious young child who has matured into an active volunteer and mentor to the younger boys in the TELEM program. He has made lifelong bonds with the residents at the Simon C Fireman House, where he volunteered and has learned as much from the residents as they have from him. At the last TELEM session of the year, Devin asked, “When I come home from college, can I still volunteer with TELEM?”

I’m proud of the practices of GBJCL volunteers like Barry Sugarman, who is described by Sandy Mitchell-Woods, principal of the Nathan Hale School in Roxbury, as her “right hand.” Having begun as a tutor at the Hale over ten years ago, Barry is a cherished volunteer at the school – which has an ambitious vision but a small staff and limited resources. So Barry is on hand to help however he can; most recently by being the school photographer and starting the first ever school yearbook with students.

I’m proud of the commitment of our young adult ReachOut! volunteers who developed a new partnership this year with St. Stephens Youth Programs in Boston’s South End, which provides young people from some of Boston's most disadvantaged communities with year-round, out-of-school time academic enrichment. Curious about Jewish practice, many of the students recently surprised our volunteers by joining them for their Shabbat services and dinner, marking the end of the twelve week Spring Cycle. Two of the students, Esperanta and Myriam Iralien, reflected on the impact of their relationship with the ReachOut! volunteers. Having arrived from Haiti only two years ago and being the first in their family to attend college, their initial adjustment wasn’t easy. They explained that regular and reliable volunteer support was a key factor in their success in their first year at Bunker Hill Community College.

These are the Bikkurim, the first fruits we offer – the acts of service that help others access the bounty of our nation’s blessings. I look forward to working with you to expand our offerings in the years to come.

Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Jeremy