When To Speak Up; When To Speak Out

Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Is JCRC making a statement on x today?” And hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear a critique of our choices. Some ask, “Why are you speaking on that?” From others we hear, “How could you possibly stay silent in the face of such an urgent issue?" Allow me to share just a few considerations we’ve weighed in recent months when deciding to make statements.

First, we try to be clear about who we are speaking for, and to who. We strive to represent the consensus voice of our network, acting as an umbrella on behalf of the organized Jewish community. And our primary purpose is to speak beyond the Jewish community, in Boston’s public square, to reflect our community’s consensus – where there is one – and to help the broader civil society gain an understanding of that collective perspective.

Some statements are made as an organizing tool to lift up a consensus and catalyze action by our network. When the executive orders on immigration and refugees were issued earlier this year, we consulted many of our members and released a joint statement that enabled forty-one Jewish organizations to speak as one. Though we didn’t say anything that JCRC hadn’t said before, we defined a broad communal consensus – including organizations not generally in the practice of weighing in on public policy issues – that has animated powerful action ever since.

At times we speak because our Jewish voice is being sought, often on previously unaddressed issues, and often in response to requests from our civic partners – and we step into new territory. When we do that well, we take the time for consultation with many of our members, we get feedback that sharpens and clarifies what we are able to say, and we establish “buy in” from our stakeholders. Last winter, when David Friedman was named ambassador to Israel, the process, from first draft to statement, took several days. The result was a better statement that raised questions and provoked interesting conversations with members of Congress.

Expressing consensus or addressing a new question about what we think isn’t always our goal. Some statements are intended to name that something is front and center, and of urgent concern in that moment. This summer, each time the New England Holocaust Memorial was desecrated, I doubt that anyone was wondering whether the Jewish community was dismayed. But as the steward of the Memorial’s education mission, JCRC was charged with sounding the alarm and ensuring that the media and the community were aware of these assaults on our sacred site.

We don’t always get it right. There’ve been times over the years where we moved too fast, and didn’t adequately consult our network. As a result, we shut down discussion and strained relationships, when we would have been better served by inviting conversations and striving to bridge differences. We’ve worked to hear and accept the feedback when we did so, and I’d like to believe that we’ve grown from those mistakes.

At the end of the day, statements are only one aspect of our work. What matters more than any announcement is what we do to act on our values and to stand with and for our partners every day.

I’m looking back at this crazy summer and what I’m most proud of wasn’t something we published, but something we helped organize – an interfaith gathering at Temple Israel ahead of the massive protest weekend in Boston last month. And while I’m proud of our statement on immigrants and refugees, I’m even prouder of what has happened since then: broad Jewish support for the MA Safe Communities Act, synagogues across the region engaging in rapid response and sanctuary work, and a new partnership between CJP and Catholic Charities to meet the legal services needs of immigrants in these urgent times.

I’ll close by adding that if JCRC is “speaking from” the Jewish community, then we do our best work when we are also hearing from the Jewish community. We value your input, your advice, and your feedback about the considerations we weigh, about the issues where you think our voice is needed, and when you think we get it right (or don’t).

I invite your thoughts. These conversations enrich the work we do every day, and I thank you for them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy