Building trust, friendships, and a stronger, more vibrant community.

From the desk of Jeremy Burton, JCRC Executive Director

When I tell people that the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is a social justice group, they assume this means that we run volunteerism and service programs, advocate on pressing human needs, or support congregations in organizing interfaith partnerships for social change…and all of these are true.

When I tell people that we are a pro-Israel organization, they assume we speak out on issues related to Israel, build relationships and understanding between Bostonians & Israelis, and stand with Israel and her people in challenging moments…and all of these are true.

But when I say that JCRC is a community relations group, I get a quizzical look and an inevitable “what does that mean?”

Two moments this summer point to the answer. The first tells a story of garnering support for our Jewish community in a moment of crisis; the second, about standing up for and with our faith partners in their time of need.

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Interfaith relationships

On July 18th a terrorist attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria provoked an outcry from Jewish communities around the world. Words and actions in support for Israel came from the U.S. & Bulgarian governments, but in Boston there was near radio silence. As we talked to people in our community, there was a feeling that by and large the horror was felt by us, the Jewish community, alone.  Had the world become too inured to terrorism? Had the pattern of attack/condemnation/return-to-daily-life become too normative in our civic culture?

Together our staff and leading rabbis reached out to our partners – Christian ministers who had been with us in Israel and with whom we fought for affordable health care here in MA, elected officials and candidates with whom we have built deep and trusting relationships. We didn’t tell them what to do. We shared our community’s sense of vulnerability and isolation with them, the noted absence of other outraged voices, the experience of being alone when Israel and Jews are attacked. We talked with them about the ways in which media and leaders can and do prioritize events and how this impacts people’s perceptions.

And in a matter of hours, our partners heard and responded to our concern.

Greater Boston Interfaith Organization sent a message to its leadership team across Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities asking them to speak of this outrage in their congregations the coming weekend. Clergy circulated and signed a letter of solidarity, public officials and candidates issued statements of support.

In a single day we, the Jewish community in Boston, knew that we were not alone in our grief and outrage. Those who we have worked and stood with through the years now stood with us because they understood our pain and shared our horror.

Then, less than three weeks later, on Aug 5th, we were confronted with another faith community being attacked when a white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara (temple) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. We and our faith partners asked ourselves: how can we support the Sikh community here, in a moment of crisis?

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Offering our support to the broader community

We learned from Sikh leaders of their desire to promote an understanding of their faith tradition and of their need for support in sharing the meaning of their prayer service.

And so we, with our faith partners, began planning “A Service Rooted in the Sikh Tradition: A Demonstration of Solidarity and Support.” We invited members of the greater Boston faith community to come together in unity, to share a meal and to reflect on recent events. The event was offered by the four gurdwaras in Massachusetts, and hosted by the Islamic Council of New England, JCRC and the Massachusetts Council of Churches, with participation from the Catholic archdiocese.

We hoped to reach a few hundred people. Many of our member agencies, synagogues, leaders and others shared the event invitation and the Facebook event page, as did many in other communities. Ambitiously we ordered 600 program books. And on Thursday, August 23rd, as I sat in the apse of Trinity Church in Boston with the other speakers, we watched in amazement as first the central section, then the sides, then the balcony of this grand landmark of Boston’s traditional faith community filled up. By the time we were done some 1400 people were with us.

That night we experienced a beautiful service. The Sikh ethos of serving humanity was presented. Messages of support from each faith were heard. I had the privilege of reading from President Washington’s message to the Jews of Newport and talk about our commitment to freedom of faith without fear in America. You can read my full remarks & see photos here.

For the Sikh community of Massachusetts, this was a night to feel that they were not alone. We had responded to their yearning to be appreciated and embraced by more established faith communities as part of our society. And for the rest of us, this was a night to remember what binds us together across lines of tradition and faith.

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What We Mean By Community Relations

These were two great moments, but community relations isn’t about any one moment. It’s about all of us—our staff, volunteers, rabbis and leaders of our 40 member organizations—doing the hard work over the long life of our community to stand together in moments of crisis and moments of hope. Community relations is about building trust and friendships that enable us to be open and honest with each other, to support and, yes, sometimes even to challenge, each other to build a stronger and more vibrant community.

In these moments I appreciate all the work done over decades by so many of you to make JCRC a strong community relations center. As we look to the year ahead I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can work together to continue to be an effective and united community in these moments.

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With your support, JCRC will be able to ensure we continue to build a strong, involved, and welcoming community for everyone in Greater Boston. Donate to our 2013 campaign on the JCRC website.

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