Early one morning this week I received an email from a member of the Boston Jewish community whose counsel I value, though we often disagree on quite a few things. She questioned my decision to promote the voice of a virulently anti-Israel person and also challenged the agenda I was serving by doing so. I was genuinely surprised.
Clearly I needed some context here. So I looked into the matter.
As folks know, I share a lot of content on social media. We’re a diverse community and our collective conversation is informed by a multiplicity of voices. I disagree with many of the folks whose opinions I share, on a wide array of issues, but I’m also curious to hear reactions and takes on these matters – whether or not we at JCRC have a position on them. So I often just say that a piece is “worth reading” or “something to discuss.” In other cases, where we have a particular advocacy position we’re advancing, I’ll expand on a piece to underscore how it supports our view.
And sometimes, when an issue is driving conversation in the Jewish community, I share a lot of comments that can elevate the topic and inform the discussion even when JCRC hasn’t made a formal statement. For example, over the past weeks when our community was rightly outraged over revelations about notorious anti-Semitic minister Louis Farrakhan’s ties to various elected officials and public figures, I shared a lot of content about that.
And when CIA Director Mike Pompeo was nominated this week for Secretary of State, some folks in our community – and beyond – pointed out that he had a history of close affiliation with far-right groups. So, when an activist I respect shared someone else’s tweet specifically noting the ADL description of a group that honored Pompeo as “the largest anti-Muslim group in the US” and one that spreads “hateful propaganda,” I retweeted it with the comment that this was a “thing we need to talk about.”
Little did I know then – as I learned the next morning from that email – that the original tweet was by someone problematic. I was vaguely aware that this person was a commentator on a major cable news channel and had well over 100,000 Twitter followers. But until my own further research, I did not know about her close ties to a prominent anti-Semitic figure on the left and her own public statements.
I did not want to risk being seen as giving aid and comfort to someone I would never knowingly endorse. So, I thanked the person who reached out to me and told them that I didn’t know what I now do about this person. I continued on to say that I believe that the message that I shared is important and relevant for our community, i.e. a “thing we need to talk about.” That’s not an endorsement of this person or her views. It’s a statement on how some of the things that make us most uncomfortable are, in fact, the ones that most merit conversation.
I reaffirmed that if we are to appropriately lambast the left for trucking in bigotry, including anti-Semitism and including by some who are closely associated with figures in high public office, then we also have an obligation and responsibility to similarly talk about bigotry on the right that is being mainstreamed and normalized, including Islamophobia and white supremacy at and near the highest levels of our government.
And yet, I admitted it was important that the voice I chose to elevate was not one that would distract from something that we need to be able to discuss. So I deleted the retweet and found an alternative source so that I could share the findings by the ADL and others about Pompeo’s troubling affiliations.
Once again, let me restate how much I welcome feedback and relish the opportunity for community conversation. And I will reassert my commitment to make that conversation a wide-ranging one that hears and considers a multitude of perspectives. I will continue to amplify the voices of people from across the political spectrum with whom I may disagree on a range of topics, in the service of building a richer and more complex discourse.
But this week, I learned an important lesson: that to ensure diverse perspectives are truly heard, I must take greater care with the sources I look to. Failing to do so can not only distract from the message, but even worse, it can inadvertently validate those who purvey or condone hatred. I’m grateful to those of you who take the time to follow me on social media. I ask you to pay close attention to the totality of what I post and to join me in building a robust and wide-ranging discourse on the issues that matter to our community. And I will count on you to keep holding me accountable to sharing a myriad of perspectives, through sources worthy of our consideration.
What resonated most for me about this week’s AIPAC’s Policy Conference?
I could tell you about the energy I felt when I participated in lobbying meetings with a half-dozen members of Congress; engaging in rolling and elucidating conversations about the U.S.-Israel relationship and listening to their vigorous denunciation of BDS or Iranian efforts to export terror around the region. I could tell you about the more intimate conversations during an evening reception with the many candidates who took the time to fly in to meet and build relationships with activists and reaffirm the importance so many of us place on Israel’s security.
Meeting with Congressman Moulton (sixth from right), Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem (on left) and North Shore AIPAC leaders
But what’s stayed on my mind is a question I was asked several times by those present and those following from afar: Given our vigorous expressions of concern about the unique challenge that President Trump’s administration poses to our nation’s democratic norms and institutions, what it was like to be in a room where key members of the Trump administration were greeted with warmth and applause (by at least part of the audience)?
It might surprise you to know that I was inspired to be in a room with many Trump supporters, and I came away from the experience feeling more hopeful.
What I kept noting this week was the wild diversity of participants, speakers, and issues discussed. Yes, the audience skews politically conservative and toward the Orthodox, though I also had great conversations with delegations and rabbis from many of Boston’s most prominent Conservative and Reform congregations. But the progressive focused sessions are also drawing crowds, the LGBTQ party has become a significant event, and I now see an increasing number of non-Jewish liberal civic leaders showing up to lobby. For all that I and others in the room are repelled by Vice President Pence’s embrace of and praise for President Trump as well as his own views on a host of social issues, I was also energized by the voices of those like Senator Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) or our own former Governor Deval Patrick on the main-stage; in his case to introduce the inspiring Ohad Elhelo, founder of Our Generation Speaks, who spoke passionately about the work of young Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs coming together to work for a better future and an end to the conflict.
With (from left) Rabbi Jonah Pesner, former Governor Deval Patrick, and JCRC Board Member Alex Goldstein
In panel after panel I heard distinguished commentators rail against the worst characteristics of the Trump administration. Israelis talked openly about the need to end the relationship of Occupation with the Palestinians, criticizing the settlements, or grappling with other dilemmas that Israel faces. I’m sure that others were challenged by these voices, as I was by some of those I heard. If I had one criticism of the program – and I’ve shared this with AIPAC staff – it would be that I wish more sessions were open to the press. Then maybe the public would have a better sense of the varied conversations spread across the spectrum that actually go on throughout these days.
And in that diversity lies an essential point. AIPAC is the coming together of people who don’t sit together in other places, who have deep disagreements that are named openly in various rooms, but who share a core commitment around one issue even as they represent different approaches on so much else.
Coming together requires compromise: I accept that this won’t be the organization that will advocate for all aspects of our aspirations for Israel’s future. There was no main stage call to action to help Israel to address the dilemma of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers humanely. There are other Jewish spaces to do that work (including here at JCRC).
There was no shared analysis about how to support coexistence and peace building work between Israelis and Palestinians – though there was a resounding challenge from AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr that the absence of a peace process was “nothing to celebrate” and that, “We must all work toward that future: two states for two peoples. One Jewish with secure and defensible borders, and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future.”
What defines the AIPAC experience is powerful, and unique in Washington. It is an explicit and implicit willingness to say, “that which we disagree on will not divide us when we need our collective efforts to achieve what unites us: Israel’s security.” AIPAC, when at its best, embodies a commitment to civility, and even curiosity and learning. My proudly sporting a Wider Bridge rainbow-flag/Israeli-flag pin invited more conversations about LGBTQ inclusion and Jewish life from folks new to my perspective than I am ever going to encounter in a liberal synagogue here at home.
So, for me the question is not “can AIPAC survive in this fractured partisan political era?” The question is “how can we learn from AIPAC’s model to create more spaces in which thousands of people can come together despite our differences, work together on what we agree on, and learn from each other where we don’t?” Because if we figure out how to do that more often, which I believe we can, then I have even more hope for our future.
The JCRC family lost a dear friend and colleague this week. Our longtime Chief Operating Officer, Mike Selsman, passed away last weekend surrounded by his family.
Mike would want you to know that for the past six years he lived and struggled with breast cancer, the disease that finally took him from this world. He was first diagnosed at Stage IV, a consequence of the lack of education for men who are at risk, and the lack of early testing that might have given him a different prognosis. He talked openly about his cancer and seized every opportunity to spread the word about male breast cancer; embracing the notion that through his experience he might make a difference in the lives of others. In 2012 he was proud to stand at Governor Patrick’s side when, thanks to his advocacy, Massachusetts named the 3rd week of October “Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week.”
Mike, to the right of Governor Patrick, with his family at the designation of MBC Awareness Week
The passion that Mike brought to his advocacy is one that he brought to all aspects of his life. This week, as we shared memories around the office, what came up over and over was how fully he embraced life, the profound empathy he felt for those who needed an ally, and the absolute joy that he took in his family.
He loved so many things deeply and he loved to share them with those around him; whether it was the very loud and hard-edged music he blasted in his office, or the peculiar food passions that he tried so hard to get us to join him in. He was a champion for others who needed one, whether it be an underdog sports team, a rescue dog or a young staff member in need of a mentor…it didn’t really matter, if the world wasn’t on your side, you could count on him to be there.
Mike with Senator Elizabeth Warren
Mike believed in JCRC’s work, engaging as Jews beyond the Jewish community; and he practiced it. He served as a tutor for the past six years through our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy. Even when his treatments impacted his energy, he wouldn’t let his reading buddies at the Condon Elementary School down.
This year, he was matched by the site-captain with a boy who, it was felt, would benefit from a “cool male figure” and the two reveled in their shared passion for hockey. He cared about advocacy, and in addition to his efforts connected to his cancer, you could always count on him to show up for a rally or hearing at the State House on our agenda.
But more than anything, Mike loved his family – his wife Kara and his two boys, Jacob and Adam. Nothing fired him up more than talking about those boys and everyone who worked with him became familiar with the joys of their life journeys. We’d hear about track meets, driving lessons, school projects – Mike treasured every moment with them. I will always have fond memories of our regular check-in on the last day that he was able to come into the office, when with only the slightest of prompting he spoke at length about Adam’s graduate school plans and Jacob’s college search. It was a treasure to experience the sheer joy on his face knowing that they had bright futures ahead and that he had done all he could for them in the time he had; Mike was deeply proud of having done so.
Mike’s memory is for a blessing and we hope that his family will find some comfort in the legacy he leaves with all who knew him, and especially with those two boys.
As mentioned, Mike hoped that by sharing his experience he could help save others. His family invites you to help continue that work for him. Please join me in making a donation to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, P.O. Box 849168, Boston, MA 02284 or online at www.dana-farber.org/gift. Please specify that the donation is for Mike Selsman. Any donations in his name will go directly to support Male Breast Cancer research and patient care.
As we absorbed the news last week out of Parkland – yet another mass shooting in yet another school – like so many of you I found myself enraged. But as time passes, I’ve also been struck by a sense of both despair and hope when I reflect on our work and my own responsibility as a community leader.
Though I am far from the only person to note this, I am saddened by my own cynicism in thinking that a nation unable to come together to address the scourge of gun violence after the slaughters of Newtown or Las Vegas (to cite just two examples) is unlikely to do so now. And yet I find hope in these young survivors of Parkland, who are bringing renewed energy to a long struggle. The profound and authentic anger of this generation, coming of age in the nineteen years since Columbine, is palpable; as is their indictment of adults who have failed to keep them safe. And their relentlessness in taking on a mantle of responsibility for their own safety and that of our nation is truly inspiring.
For us at JCRC, the commitment to gun violence prevention runs deep. We take pride in our participation in the Mass Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and, most significantly, our investment in passing our state’s 2014 legislation – a measure that has resulted in Massachusetts having the lowest gun-related mortality rate in the nation.
I am also sobered by the realization that on this matter, as with so many of those we have taken on, the work is long-term. The thorniest and most critical issues we’ve tackled have known periods of great intensity, including big wins and painful losses; most often, they are enduring campaigns that span decades and are seemingly without end. Whether it be the fights for civil rights, building support for Israel against her demonizers, or the effort to expand the social safety net – these struggles play out over decades. Candidly, I am also at a stage of mid-life reflection, approaching fifty this year – increasingly aware that the odds of my being part of the culmination of successful efforts to achieve some of our most audacious and far-reaching goals during my career grow slimmer with each passing year. What keeps me from despair is the knowledge that if we nurture and support the next generation of leaders – eloquent and passionate young people like these riveting Parkland students commanding our attention right now – this sacred work will continue and ultimately bear fruit.
And so I think about ours and my own core imperative and responsibility to the generation that will follow; to affirm the continuing renaissance of the Jewish people and our dreams and aspirations, including as a force to make the world better for all people (to paraphrase the great teacher and Jewish leader Avraham Infeld). Part of that obligation is to ensure that the young people coming up now are skilled leaders, for the future and for right now.
It means making space for their leadership and lifting up their passions, their concerns, and their visions. It is in the willingness to bend to meet them where they are and be willing to follow them to places that may be discomforting or even jarring to us. We – and I – have a responsibility and opportunity to help them rise and hone their skills as leaders. We can offer our mentorship and impart lessons that were hard-earned for us, even as we remain open to lessons they will teach us. We can do everything possible to ensure that they have the skills and resources to lead their generation, and to take on the responsibility of continued renaissance for the one after them.
I am reminded of the teachings of the sacred Mishna, a text we often turn to for moral guidance in our work. In refusing to give into our cynicism and despair, in recommitting to supporting and developing the leadership of the next generation, we are acting upon the wisdom of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.”
Every year, we take the opportunity to recognize our community’s
partners in government who have allied with us to build a more just Commonwealth; one that embodies the most cherished values of our Jewish community through our Legislative Reception. This event celebrates not only our honorees, but also the power of civil discourse and debate across ideological lines, in the service of building strong and powerful coalitions, to improve the quality of life, and ensure access to opportunity for all in the Commonwealth.
On behalf of JCRC, the Mass Association of Jewish Federations, our member organizations, and our partner agencies, we are honored to be presenting awards to four remarkable public servants who recognize that during times of great challenge, we must unite in our commitment to act on an urgent agenda; from civil rights to human services, economic opportunity to safety and security, supporting the MA-Israel partnership, and inclusion and respect to public safety and democratic values.
For a “spoiler” sneak peek into this year’s award recipients, I encourage you to read below:
Prior to her legal career, Attorney General Maura Healey was a professional basketball player, a point guard known for her floor vision, ability to attack the rim, and above all, sportsmanship. She has carried these attributes into her role as Attorney General, running point on the fight for immigrants and refugees, combating racism and anti-Semitism, and working to ensure that all people have their rights secured.
Widely known in Jewish communal circles as the originator of the first White House Passover Seder while working for President Barack Obama, State Senator Eric Lesser has quickly developed the reputation as an innovative thought leader behind the Commonwealth’s economic development policy. Senator Lesser led last session’s bipartisan Millennial Engagement Initiative focused on creating policy and procedures that are responsive to the needs of young people.
Upon State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez’s recent nomination as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee he offered some insight into his philosophy: “I hope to use this post to protect those in most need of it.” When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Chairman Sanchez, amid concerns for his own family, quickly mounted a campaign to raise funds and ensure that the Commonwealth was ready to aid as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It’s not merely his sharp legal mind and grasp of policy that has made Chief Legal Counsel Lon Povich a trusted advisor to Governor Charlie Baker. Lon’s ability to leverage both humor and humility to wade through the partisan fog in his quest for truth, have cemented his reputation as the go-to mensch on Beacon Hill. His openness to be a sounding board and an ally for building consensus epitomizes the best of the hard working and dedicated staff members serving the Commonwealth on Beacon Hill.
A well-functioning society and a responsive government would not be possible without outstanding, public servants like these four individuals, along with hundreds of elected and appointed officials, staff, and civil servants who honor their duty to the people of the Commonwealth and the weighty responsibility to secure the rights and privileges to all who reside within her borders. Our legislative agenda is bound by this common theme of our shared humanity, whether it be immigrants and refugees seeking safety and security, people with disabilities and our seniors living independent lives of dignity, or are neighbors and friends seeking to rise up and provide a better future for their families.
To celebrate these four partners and meet other leaders, advocates, and policy makers in the Commonwealth, please come together with us on March 19, 2008 from 3-5pm at the Massachusetts State House.
A message from Jeremy Burton, Executive Director and Eli Cohn-Postell, Director of Israel Engagement
Two polls were released in recent weeks, each of which highlights a disheartening aspect of the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Pew Survey pointed to a sharply increasing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans when asked about their sympathy for Israel. Meanwhile, a semi-annual poll of Israelis and Palestinians indicated less than 50% support for the two-state solution among both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza (support for a two-state agreement remains much higher among Arabs with Israeli citizenship). Both of these polls are concerning for those of us who are committed to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and yet, they offer us glimmers of hope.
Interestingly, this data has not significantly impacted support for the two-state solution among American Jewish institutions. While we have disagreements about the obstacles to peace, the immediate next steps, and our own potential role in the process, it remains clear that most American Jews view the two-state solution as the only acceptable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We continue to have a broad consensus that the two-state solution is the only viable option for preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and we know that achievement of this goal requires Israelis and Palestinians to be committed to this solution.
How might we achieve the two-state solution given the increasing pessimism among Israelis and Palestinians and a growing partisan divide here in the United States? On the plus side, we know that at least some of the obstacles to the two-state solution are psychological and not political. For example, among both Israeli and Palestinians, there is a predominant feeling of distrust and fear toward the other. The recent poll of Israelis and Palestinians, mentioned above, reveals that 50% of Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian non-citizens believe that “nothing can be done that’s good for both sides.” Over 75% of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians believe that the other side cannot be trusted. It is important to note that this refers to a distrust of individual Palestinians and Jews, and not to the Palestinian Authority or Israeli government. Similarly, 35% of Palestinians feel fear toward Jews and 57% of Jews feel fear toward Palestinians. Certainly, we cannot expect a conducive environment for peace when such a lack of trust exists.
On their face, these statistics offer little encouragement. But these attitudes can be changed. This kind of distrust and fear is built by separation, both literal and metaphorical. As American Jews, we can invest in projects that not only support our vision of Israelis and Palestinians living in peace, security, and dignity, but also help to reduce fear and mistrust. This includes supporting Palestinians who are building their civil society in ways that foster confidence in their ability to uphold democratic principles and future peace agreements, as well as Israelis and Palestinians who are breaking traditional boundaries in the name of a brighter future. JCRC will be hosting two such individuals in Boston on March 15th – grassroots activists from Roots/Shorashim/Judur.
In recent weeks and months, we have seen significant speculation that the two-state window is closing. It is right to be concerned, because we know there is no alternative that supports our vision of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Many people believe that recent actions by government leaders in the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority have moved us further from a peace agreement. Even if this is true, engaging in this blame game does not serve the cause of peace. It is true that leaders’ actions have consequences, but so do the miraculous interactions between individuals that occur every day. We must continue to celebrate the Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to see the two-state window close even an inch. We must amplify the voices that continue to work for normalcy, legitimacy, recognition, and peace.
JCRC is deeply disappointed by the decision of the Massachusetts Legislature’s State Administration and Regulatory Oversight (SARO) Committee to refer S.1689/H.1685 “to study.” This bipartisan legislation, An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts, is intended to ensure that those seeking to do business with the state affirm that they are in compliance with all Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws and that they do not refuse to do business with others based on immutable characteristics such as race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
Much of the debate around this bill has taken place in the shadow of a national and state-by-state debate over so-called “anti-BDS” bills. Such bills are a vehicle for states to reject efforts to deny Israel’s right to exist. This noxious campaign uses economic, cultural, and academic warfare in an attempt to isolate Israelis and challenge the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. Even as JCRC supports efforts to reject the unjust assault on Israel’s legitimacy, we take note and emphasize again that the bill, as filed here in Massachusetts, does not shut down all boycott activity. Still, we understand from our allies that the national debate on this matter, along with a recent federal court ruling in Kansas, has had a chilling effect on the ability of people here in Massachusetts to consider this bill based on its face-value merits and impact.
S.1689/H.1685 merely allows the state to choose business partners who are in line with its own values. While opponents of the bill are entitled to their own views and are free to engage in boycotts based on national origin, race, or sexual orientation, the state, when acting as a market participant, does not have to subsidize those views. The Commonwealth is free to use its economic influence to send a message of its own disagreement. The so-called Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign, when applied to Israeli nationals based solely on their national origin, is illustrative of the danger that groups can cloak themselves in the guise of a political boycott to unfairly target others simply based on who they are.
We take note that only days ago New York Governor Cuomo announced an executive order, largely paralleling the language of the Massachusetts bill, to prevent New York state from doing business with companies that promote or tolerate discrimination based on immutable characteristics. That order was embraced by many of the same actors who have opposed the Massachusetts bill. It does not escape our attention that some of the same people who vigorously urge government action to protect individuals based on immutable characteristics when those individuals are transgender (a view that we affirmatively support) are so vigorously opposed to the same action when some of those - such as us - promoting it are expressly concerned about discrimination against Israeli-Americans. We are left, once again, to wonder why an incremental step to fight discrimination in all its forms should draw such vociferous opposition by some on the radical fringe here in our Commonwealth.
Over the past two years, legislatures around the country and the world have taken up a range of approaches for rejecting BDS and those who wish to engage in discriminatory economic warfare against Israelis and Israeli-Americans. JCRC again applauds the Massachusetts legislature for their unanimous expression, in October 2016, for the U.S.-Israel relationship and also for their rejection at that time of this campaign of delegitimization. That action, along with numerous others over the past several years, convey a clear message of support from our legislative leadership and reflects a deep bipartisan coalition in both houses. Our legislators have stated with one voice that effective engagement is the key to positive outcomes in the region.
At this time we want to particularly thank Senator Cynthia Creem and Representatives Paul McMurtry and Steven Howitt for their leadership in sponsoring S.1689/H.1685, as well as Senate Committee Chairman Walter Timilty, the many co-sponsors including nearly one-third of the legislature, and the members of the coalition in support of this bill. Despite the noise and the mischaracterizations, these individuals stood steadfast in support of the notion that the Commonwealth should reject discriminatory conduct in all its forms. To them, we are grateful.
When JCRC was founded in 1944, the overwhelming majority of American Jews affiliated with the major Jewish institutions who created us to represent their interests in the broader civil society. Today, according to the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, the numbers who affiliate with our “legacy” organizations is below 40%. For JCRC, this shift in affiliation toward other kinds of Jewish communities raises important questions about our work as an organization and as a community. If our legitimacy and authority as JCRC to speak on behalf of the organized Jewish community in the public square derives from our member organizations; how do we earn the authority to speak for those who are not joining our institutions? If we believe that there is still value and need for Jews to come together across our diversity to speak and act as one community, how do we continue to effectively speak with one communal voice in this era of changing engagement?
These questions were at the center of a retreat we held with our Board this week. We invited a panel of leaders from diverse parts of the “millennial” community. Our panelists were all deeply engaged in vibrant Jewish communities, though none was affiliated with legacy institutions of our “organized Jewish community.” They were eager to share their insights and perspectives in service to our shared goal of building a strong and enduring Jewish community, one that reflects and animates our most cherished values.
We heard sobering feedback about how we in legacy organizations are seen by many millennials. The options we offer them are often seen as limited and conditional; our institutions can feel too big and impersonal; they don’t foster the kinds of connections that these young people crave. Though our organizations aspire to be welcoming, from their perspective, they tell us that we’re not actively inviting and reaching out to the next generation in ways that matter to them. They tell us that we’re not as fluid and flexible as the smaller self-organized groups with which they identify, that we can’t pivot easily to respond to new and emerging interests and priorities.
The good news? All of our speakers affirmed the value of being part of a broader Jewish community. They articulated an understanding of their connection with other parts of the Jewish community, with our history, structure, and resources. And they had valuable guidance to offer about how to forge those connections in ways that would benefit us all.
Simply put, they are invested not only in their personal Jewish identity, and in their personal Jewish communities, but also in having an identity connected to broader Jewish community, albeit maybe on their own terms in ways that are uncomfortable to many of us who were listening.
They offered us a different mindset and urged us to operate in new ways that challenge old assumptions.
Above all, we were urged to figure out how Judaism fits into the world of millennials, rather than how they fit into our structures. Hearing about the meaning and joy created by the communities that our panelists helped to build underscored the seemingly infinite variety of Jewish experience we are now witnessing. I am filled with hope about our future as these, and other young leaders, take the helm. And I left committed to learn and listen more deeply about how we can work together to build the community and structures that will offer effective engagement and collective ability to act for 2044 and beyond. We don’t yet have the answer as to what that will look like and how to get there, but we’re learning to ask the right questions of the right people.
A recent article about negotiations over a potential resolution on transgender rights at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA, the national network of JCRCs) raises interesting issues about the challenges of reaching consensus in the community relations field.
I love the JCPA resolutions process, in which national agencies and local JCRCs come together to debate issues and adopt positions. It is remarkable that the organized Jewish community gathers across our wildly different institutions and communities to engage in a parliamentary process of agenda setting each year. It reflects our aspiration to at least try to act as one - to establish some shared vision of what we stand for as a community.
To convene those disparate institutions successfully, the bar has to be set higher than “majority rules.” Multiple accommodations are made to protect the integrity of this diverse group with their varied interests; including a super majority on resolutions and in limited circumstances, veto power that can be exercised by the religious denominations. These accommodations have enabled all members to stay at the table, and act together as one unified people.
In some ways, our process in Boston, through JCRC’s Council, echoes the national one. Though no one has a veto, each of our 42 member organizations has a vote alongside community representatives. They serve on policy committees that draft and debate our principles, and a super-majority then adopts those principles to inform our statements and actions on behalf of Boston’s organized Jewish community.
Sometimes these rules – super majorities, vetoes, and consensus – prevent us, as a JCRC or as JCPA, from speaking to certain issues in ways that many or even most of our stakeholders would want. However, when we are at our best in deliberating on policy, we are doing so with the legitimacy and authority that comes from fully representing the diversity of our community.
When it comes to LGBTQ civil rights, these dynamics have played out in ways that have made me proud to be part of the Boston Jewish community.
We were the first JCRC in the country to publicly support civil marriage equality, back in 2004. Equally noteworthy, we did so with the support of leaders who didn’t personally share this view, but who respected the will of our community so profoundly that they did not walk away from our communal table. Similarly, we’ve led in the fight for transgender public accommodations, and are participating in the coalition that will fight to defeat a ballot referendum to roll them back in Massachusetts this fall.
Nationally, JCPA has handled this same set of issues quite differently. When JCPA debated same-sex relationships in 2013, they didn’t come to a consensus despite the support of over 80% of American Jews for this position. They never even came to a vote. Nor did JCPA ever address many other issues of LGBTQ equality as a result of this logjam. Now it is unclear if they’ll be able to find a consensus this year that allows JCPA to act in support of transgender civil rights. The result has been that JCPA, an organization that self-identifies as a civil rights advocate, has been absent from some of the most profound civil rights issues of our time. And it is only fair to point out that JCPA has led on some trans rights issues, such as military service.
In 2013, I said that the primacy of maintaining a communal table on things we can agree on is a core principle for any CRC director. And we in Boston support the notion that only through consensus can we speak in our most powerful voice. JCPA’s challenges in taking on matters of LGBTQ equality effectively raises questions about their identity and role as a civil rights advocate. The absence of a shared national vision by the organized Jewish community on LGBTQ equality is both personally painful, and, frankly, problematic in a body that claims to represent all of our community’s members – a frustration I shared with the reporter who called me for comment on the story. My hope is that those inclined to oppose a resolution on transgender rights will find a way to work with the proponents, so that we can speak broadly and as powerfully as we can, in support of transgender rights.
Wrestling with diversity and reaching consensus can be slow, painstaking, and messy. But it is only through acknowledging divergent viewpoints and engaging in open debate and negotiation that we can truly honor the multiplicity of our community’s views. That is the work of democracy and that is the work of community relations.