“We are creating a Colorado where everyone can thrive, free of fear and intimidation. We know that diversity makes us stronger. We say this clearly: The JCRC and the state will not stand for hate in Colorado.”
With those words, Gov. Jared Polis set the tone for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Luncheon, “A Leadership Celebration,” on March 2, 2023, at the History Colorado Center
The keynote speaker, Ellen Germain, who serves as the U.S. Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, echoed the governor in her address. “We must understand the past to do better in the future,” she said. “We must respect the human rights and dignity of people who are different from us.”
Steven Demby, who was honored with the JCRC Community Leadership Award, continued the same theme in his remarks accepting the award. “The JCRC lives the highest ideals of our country and Jewish tradition,” he said. “They fight daily to defend the rights and freedom of our community.”
The luncheon drew more than 200 guests invited by the JCRC, a program of JEWISHcolorado, which serves as the primary community relations and public affairs agency for the Jewish community throughout Colorado. Among those in attendance were public officials including the Governor and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and many current and former political leaders, their staff members, and current candidates for public office.
JCRC: To pass groundbreaking laws
Host Committee Members Josh Demby and Brandon Rattiner opened the program by expressing gratitude that people could once again come together in person after years of pandemic cancellations. Eitan Kantor, Music Director at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, led the group in singing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikva.” Rabbi Caryn Aviv from Judaism Your Way led everyone in saying Ha Motzi.
In his remarks, Governor Polis acknowledged that these are “challenging times” because of a rise in antisemitic rhetoric and actions. He praised the JCRC and its 39 member organizations for their advocacy and coalition-building which led to the passage in 2020 of HB20-1336. This law calls for the Colorado Department of Education to adopt stronger standards for K-12 instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides. Polis reminded the audience that in 2022, he signed HB22-1077, the Colorado Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides safety and security funding to qualified nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack.
Polis also recognized Steve Demby saying he was “thrilled” to see he was being honored. “Steve has played an important role in the Jewish community and beyond,” he said. “He has devoted his heart and soul to improving the quality of life for Coloradans.
JCRC: To look into the future
JEWISHcolorado Interim President & CEO Renée Rockford took the podium to say that JEWISHcolorado is proud to be the home and sole funder for the JCRC.
“As a convener of leaders and communities, the Jewish Community Relations Council is a catalyst for change, advancing the priorities of the organized Jewish community with the community at large,” Rockford said. “We are a trusted resource for the diverse population in our state, a partner for our political and faith-based allies, and a mobilizer of advocacy on critical issues.”
JCRC Chair Matt Most followed Rockford with remarks that included a description of the JCRC Public Officials Mission trips. In the past 20 years, he said, the JCRC has taken nearly 100 Colorado public officials to Israel, with the next trip scheduled for December 2023.
“The power of this trip is hard to explain if you haven’t witnessed it,” Most said. “Together, we explore the beauty and complexity of Israel. We share a deeply personal and, for most visitors, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Most referred to the past year for examples of JCRC’s immediate responses to crises—supporting interfaith and community vigils in the aftermath of the Club Q shootings and organizing a very successful clothing drive after more than 5,000 migrants arrived in Denver during the coldest part of the winter without warm clothes.
Most also looked to JCRC’s future with a “To Do” list:
- Renew funding for Colorado’s Nonprofit Security Grant;
- Increase Medicare reimbursements to nursing homes to support an elder population;
- Ensure the renewal of the Colorado Child Care Contribution Tax Credit;
- And work with experts to determine what it will take to realize the vision of the Holocaust and genocide studies law.
“In challenging times, we need organizations that not only make their voices heard but also seek common ground,” Most said. “A minority voice that works with others can succeed in a democracy. To do that, we must be strong, organized, and committed—and that’s why we need the JCRC.”
JCRC: To make the world a better place
In his introduction of Ellen Germain, JCRC Director Dan Leshem, PhD, told the story of parallels between his family being forced into the massive Lvov ghetto in Ukraine during World War II and the family of Derek Okubo, Executive Director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships, whose family was sent to a Japanese internment camp at the same time. (Okubo says that when his family was released from the camp and arrived in Denver, it was the Jewish community that stepped up first to help them.)
“In the face of the similarities of these family traumas—their intergenerational nature and the fact that we have neither forgotten nor completely dealt with them in our contemporary society—I believe that we do not study or teach about the Holocaust primarily to better understand the past,” Leshem said. “We teach it because it still has so much to do with our present and with the world our children will inherit in the future.”
In her remarks, Germain discussed the first mission of her office—to seek a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and heirs. She was clear that her office does not handle individual claims for restitution but encourages countries to put in place laws and mechanisms that will make reparation claims possible. Some European countries have done a lot on this issue, she said, and some have done very little, so there are still outstanding restitution issues.
Her office also focuses on combatting Holocaust distortion and denial (which she calls “a form of antisemitism”) through education, historical facts, and critical thinking. As an example, she referred to Putin’s false claims of fascism and Nazism to justify invading Ukraine.
“The Russian government’s use of disinformation to further political ends is an insult to those murdered in the Holocaust and to those who fight against genuine antisemitism,” she said. “It distracts and detracts from worldwide efforts to combat antisemitism.”
Pointing out that only 22 out of 50 states require Holocaust education, she said she was “incredibly impressed” with the work that the JCRC has done to support accurate and factual education about the Holocaust in public schools.
“We have to learn so that nothing like this happens again,” she said. “We have to teach facts, tolerance, inclusivity so that people will be less inclined to discriminate.”
The luncheon concluded with JEWISHcolorado Board Chair Rob Kaufmann’s introduction of the day’s honoree, Steve Demby. Demby serves as a member of the Board of Directors for National Jewish Health and is a founding member of the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association. He is a national board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has been involved in pro-Israel activism and political engagement around the country for decades.
Demby left the crowd with a message rooted in his own life experience. “I have a strong sense as a Jew to practice tikkun olam—to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves,” he said. “Also, we need to support the JCRC. They are on the front line, every day, every year. Finally, engage yourself to make the world a better place every way you can.