The Inevitability, Yet Impurity, of War

War is never easy. It is easier to ignore what is going on when we can go about our lives on the other side of the world, but when we are in the west and hearts are in the east, war is impossible to ignore. Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s current operation against Hamas in Gaza, began a ground invasion only days ago, following aerial attacks of Hamas terrorists and rocket launching sites for an extended period of time.

War is not the ideal. Peace is what we always strive for, no matter what. We aren’t just told to love peace. We must pursue it, like the disciples of Aaron, to Ohev Shalom v’Rodef Shalom. Yet, war, even when it causes our stomachs to turn is sometimes necessary and often inevitable. That is the situation that we find ourselves in. A Palestinian people in Gaza, truly being held hostage by Hamas and its terrorist regime that is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

The Israeli government has stressed “Israel uses missiles to protect its civilians and Hamas is using civilians to protect its missiles.” That is true. Still, it is clear is that there have been an abundance of civilian casualties. They are inevitable when Hamas shoots rockets out of apartment buildings, school playgrounds, and hospitals. That doesn’t mean that we don’t mourn. That doesn’t mean that our hearts also do not break for the innocent Palestinians that are also caught in the crosshairs of this war with Hamas.

We know that war is inevitable at times. We know that war is sometimes the reality. We find war in last Shabbat’s Torah reading. In Parashat Mattot, the Israelites go to war with the Midyanim, the Midianites, for revenge and retribution. In one of the more challenging parts of our Torah, we find examples of revenge, of civilian casualty, of slaying of children. We are reminded that war changes us. We are reminded that even when war is necessary, we can easily get consumed by the darkness of war. We get consumed by the impurity of war. Fascinatingly, in Numbers 31:19, we read:

Everyone among you and among those who are captive who has slain a person shall purify himself.

This doesn’t just have to do with becoming impure by touching a corpse, makes a clear distinction between touching a corpse and slaying another human being. What the Torah is telling us is that killing another, even in a time of war, is impure. Even when it is necessary, it causes us to be impure. Sometimes, it causes the worse to come out of us. It causes radicals to burn a Palestinian boy alive because terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teens. It causes children in Sderot, who for years have had recess in their bomb shelter-converted playgrounds, to cheer as they see missiles landing in Gaza from the IDF in the distance.

Eleazar the Priest instructs, like with any spiritual impurity found in the Torah, that those who have slain an individual need to remove themselves from the encampment. We do this to start over. We do this to repurify. Regardless of ethics, morals, values, justice, when we kill another, even when it is justified, we must repurify ourselves.

Maimonides taught that “Great is Peace. The whole Torah was given in order to promote peace.” How do we promote peace when we are consumed by war? We ignite the darkness of war by promoting peace. We stand with Israel, and as Israel continues to defend herself from Hamas, and terrorism, may she do all in her power to defend and protect all innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, whose lives are threatened as a result of the cowardly actions of Hamas. And we strive to purify ourselves. We find light in the darkness of war, in the darkness of reality. At a time of darkness, we search for light. And where there is no light, we create that light. We become that light. Just as we are commanded to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations, we strive to be that light.  We light that light.


Earlier in the week, I came across the “Prayer of the Mothers,” written by Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, two female faith leaders in Israel, one Muslim, one Jewish, both mothers. They encourage on Friday, a holy day for both faiths, an extra candle to be lit for peace.These women, in bringing light to these dark moments offered the following prayer:

CandleLet us Light Candles for Peace
Two mothers, one plea:
Now, more than ever, during these days of so much crying, on the day that is sacred to both our religions, Friday, Sabbath Eve
Let us light a candle in every home – for peace:
A candle to illuminate our future, face to face,
A candle across borders, beyond fear.
From our family homes and houses of worship
Let us light each other up,
Let these candles be a lighthouse to our spirit
Until we all arrive at the sanctuary of peace.

Let the light purify us from the darkness of war. Let such light shine upon us, to renew ourselves as well. Let the light allow us to see the possibility of peace in the distance, even when it seems impossible. And let the light protect all innocent civilians, Israelis and Palestinians, from the terrorism of Hamas, from the darkness, until that peace is achieved. Amen.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fasting for Peace

I began my first day at Congregation Beth El with a beautiful minyan. Today was a rare Tuesday morning when the Torah was read since today is also a fast day, the 17th of Tammuz. This minor fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem which eventually culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. Today’s fast day thus also begins the three week mourning period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, the day in which we mourn the destruction of the Temple.

Today was also unique because it was the one day on the calendar in which Jews around the world and Muslims around the world were fasting at the same time. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz fell during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, which includes sunrise-to-sunset fasts daily throughout the month.

While the fast of Sheva-Assar b’Tammuz and the fasting that takes place on Ramadan are for unique reasons, it is clear that fasting has been a common practice in Judaism and Islam for centuries. Jewish law codes list fasting as a common expression and ritual that shows proper intention before the Divine, in hopes that God will answer one’s requests and petitions. Fasting brings together community. Muslims feel this during Ramadan. Jews feel this on Yom Kippur.

I came across an interesting hashtag on Twitter today, #FastForPeace. At a time when there is too much violence in Israel, when hundreds of rockets rain down on Israel from the Gaza Strip on a daily basis, when there are too many civilians dying in Gaza as Israel attempts to cripple the terrorist efforts of Hamas, we pray for peace. The cease-fire that was proposed by Egypt was accepted by Israel but rejected by Hamas. This has led to more rockets from Hamas and in turn, Netanyahu vows to exert ‘great force’ in Gaza. As the violence continues and our thoughts, minds, and hearts turn east, we fast for peace. We pray for peace.

We pray for a time when we can embrace each other as neighbors, as brothers and sisters, and fulfill the vision of the Psalmist:

How pleasing it will be when we can all sit in unity as brothers (Psalm 133).

FastforPeaceAs I explored this hashtag more, I realized that this was a cause of Jewish and Muslim friends, determined to be defined by that which unites us, not that which divides us. This is a noble effort by peers who believe that the voice of love and peace must be louder than the voice of hate and war.

As the fast enters its last hours and my stomach grumbles, I have found this fast day to be quite meaningful. Truthfully, this fast has not been meaningful for me because I reflected on the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. Rather, it has been meaningful, because it reminded me that even when it seems impossible, we must not give up on peace. We must unite in the belief that peace is possible and in the words of Pirkei Avot, we must not only love peace, we must pursue it.

Let this fast day bring together our communities as one community. As we fast, let us fast for peace. Let our intentions be expressed and our petitions for peace be heard. As our stomachs turn from hunger and our throats remain parched, let us be satiated by a shared vision of peace and harmony. May there be peace in Israel, and in the world, and may we witness it soon.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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How Lovely Are Your Tents

A couple of weeks ago, we read Parashat Balak on Shabbat morning. In doing so, we read the story of the magician Balaam, being sent by the evil king Balak to curse the Israelites. However, as he explained, God ultimately controlled the words that came out of his mouth. On multiple times, Balaam blessed the people of Israel. His most well-known blessing was the following:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How Lovely are Your Tents People of Jacob, Your Sanctuaries People of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

According to Rashi, Balaam said these words because he was impressed by the modesty of the people of Israel. No tent entrance in the encampment faced another tent entrance. What made these tents so lovely was that each individual was respecting each other’s privacy. I prefer another explanation. I believe that Balaam blessed the Israelites’ encampment, not because the entrances to the tents were closed, but rather because they were all open. The doors to each home were wide open and all guests were welcomed into each dwelling space. The community was a warm and welcoming one, a true sign that God dwelled among the people.

These words are traditionally said upon entering a sanctuary before prayer, entering a place of worship. We find them at the very beginning of our siddur, our prayer book. What is unique about this is that we do not always say these words when we enter a sanctuary and we do not always need a sanctuary to pray. We can pray anywhere, for we create community anywhere. We say these words regardless of how beautiful our sanctuaries are, regardless of how large the space is, or how exquisite the stain glass windows are. We say these words because we appreciate God’s Divine presence among us. We say these words because we acknowledge how lovely community is – warm and welcoming, vibrant and diverse.

bethel-logoI am excited to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, beginning on July 15th. As I enter this community, this place for prayer and learning, this space for socializing, for building community, for wrestling with the Divine, and wrestling with ourselves, I proudly declare: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are these tents. How beautiful is this sanctuary. I look forward to building on Beth El’s already warm and welcoming culture and working together to build an even more vibrant community. May we all always feel comfortable walking through the wide open doors of this community and may all of our experiences with community cause us to count our blessings.

Mah Tovu!

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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The Importance of Hashtag Activism

The following article was originally published on June 30, 2014, by Haaretz. It was written before the devastating news that our brothers Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali had been found murdered. It was written before the equally troubling news of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Still, I believe that the #BringBackOurBoys campaign achieved something: it united us as a people, a people that regularly disagrees with each other. Let us be assured that they did not die in vain. Let us remain united as a community to end terrorism, hatred, violence, and bigotry. Let us remain united so that young boys and girls, regardless of faith or ethnicity, do not feel scared to go for a walk. Let us remain united in our commitment for peace. May the memories of Eyal, Naftali, Gilad, and Mohammed, be for a blessing and unite us and inspire us to do more and work harder to bring peace to this world.

 The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

#BringBackOurBoys matters not because it can solve anything, but because it raises awareness and ultimately unites us as a people. 

I vividly remember as a child, tying yellow ribbons around the tree on my family’s front yard. During the Gulf War of the early 1900s, as a sign of pride and patriotism, Americans were encouraged to tie yellow ribbons to trees to “support our troops.” Ten years ago, the yellow ribbon appeared again, as American troops invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, to “bring our troops home.” At that time, the yellow ribbon image was appearing on bumper stickers and car magnets instead of trees. The ribbon was never about action. The ribbon did not cause political leaders to withdraw troops and bring an end to the military action. What ribbons did, though, was unite a nation and a people. Yellow ribbons raised awareness. For similar reasons, we wear ribbons on our labels to raise awareness for a cause or fight to end an illness or disease.

Yet, we live in a virtual world. We live in a world centered on Internet connectivity over personal relationships. Facebook is more central to our relationships than face-to-face interactions. We communicate through texting and posting; we share news via tweets. Case in point: you are currently reading this Haaretz article on your computer screen, tablet or smartphone, instead of in print. In the world of social media and social networks, hashtags have taken the place of yellow ribbons. The hashtag unites us. The hashtag raises awareness. The hashtag identifies us with a particular issue or cause.

BringBackOurBoysAs World Jewry is by now well aware, Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped on June 12 by Hamas operatives while returning home from the Gush Etzion Yeshiva where they study. Following the viral success of #BringBackOurGirls that was launched two months ago when over 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists, the #BringBackOurBoys campaign was launched to raise awareness of the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. The Israel Defense Forces Twitter feed helped spread the hashtag and political leaders in Israel, the United States, and throughout the world have joined in, tweeting the hashtag. The analytics website hashtags.org has confirmed that #BringBackOurBoys has gone viral.

Some in the Jewish community are concerned that such a hashtag is meaningless. Others have been bashed for using it to push their own agendas. I, however, see the hashtag as unifying. As a look at my Twitter feed, I see a diverse spectrum of members of the Jewish community acknowledging on social media that their thoughts and prayers are that Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel will return home safely – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist; religious and secular; progressive liberals and right-wing traditionalists; supporters of AIPAC, supporters of J-Street and those who support neither. Regardless of one’s views on peace, on settlement construction, on Israel giving up land, on Abbas’ or Netanyahu’s true willingness and desire to work toward peace, the Jewish community is unified in hashtag activism. The Jewish community is unified in its commitment to #BringBackOurBoys.

It is true that, like yellow ribbons, hashtags do not solve anything. Hashtags do not lead to military operations. Hashtags do not lead to world leaders putting pressure on Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority for that matter. Hashtags do not lead to saving our boys. Hashtags do not lead to action. However, as a more important first step, hashtags raise awareness and ultimately unite us as a people. #BringBackOurBoys reminds us that despite our disagreements and differences, our hopes and prayers are the same. We are ultimately still “am echad im lev echad,” one people with one heart.

Let us embrace our disagreements because disagreement is a part of rabbinic tradition. More importantly though, that us unite and raise awareness. Let us remember that regardless of one’s observance or political beliefs, we each deserve to live our lives without fear. We each deserve to live in safety. May we continue to raise awareness, and may awareness lead to action.

 - Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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War & Peace

Like many of you, I enjoyed my Memorial Day weekend. I appreciated the long weekend to spend with family and friends. I spent Memorial Day weekend, like many of you on the beach and at the pool, lounging in the sun, and grilling burgers and hot dogs. Yet, this was a completely different experience from how Israelis observe Memorial Day.

I remember how I spent my first Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, while living in Israel. Walking down the street, I stopped in silence, as did all other pedestrians, just as those in their cars pulled over and got out. A siren blared throughout the nation, acknowledging those who have fallen, protecting their land and their people. Here too, on Memorial Day we honor those who have done the same, yet as Americans, Memorial Day has turned into the unofficial start of summer, an excuse to jump in the pool and have a barbeque. Let us not forget the reason for this day though, honoring those who have served.

soldier FlagSo too, that is the job of Department of Veterans Affairs: to honor those who have served. The VA serves those who served in World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who spent the past decade fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout the world. The role of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is to honor veterans and take care of them. They have failed.

On Friday afternoon, Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinseki, met with President Obama at the White House and handed in his resignation. Shinseki said he did so because he didn’t want to be a distraction. He did so following Democratic and Republican congressional leaders calling for such an action. It was reported in November that there have been military veterans dying needlessly at VA hospitals because of long waits and delayed care. The truth is problems with the VA and long waits date back decades, but this issue was brought back under the microscope last month when it was reported that a Phoenix VA facility used secret waiting lists, to cover up the significant problem. The latest report about the VA suggested a link between employee bonuses and covering up wait times at VA hospitals. It is clear that Shinseki needed to resign. What such a resignation doesn’t do though is fix a system, and fix a culture, in which we neglect those who have risked their lives, or in the case of Memorial Day, fallen, protecting our freedom.

Last week, we began reading the book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, and in the very beginning of the book, we have a census taken to prepare for an army. Moses is counting soldiers. The Torah portion Bamidbar also lists where each tribe should stand, a mention of military formations.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, which concludes with the most well-known blessing of our text. We read in Birkat Kohanim the blessing of all blessings.

I want to focus on the last words of the blessing:

 V’yasem Lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. 

We begin with blessings of of praise and protection, of happiness and grace. But we conclude with a blessing, with a prayer, for peace. That is what he hope for. That is what we strive for. So how is it possible that the book of Bamidbar begins with assembling the Israelites’ military preparing for battle, and yet, only one Torah portion leader, only a few chapters later, we pray for peace. How can we focus on the military, preparing for battle, and immediately after, pray for peace?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, emphasized that we live in a world of polarities: the fixed and the spontaneous, the joy and the sorrow, the celebrations and the periods of mourning. So too, we cannot experience peace, appreciate peace, and truly pray for peace, without knowing the reality of violence, of battle, of war. We do not pray for war. We do not run into battle. We fight when we must. As Golda Meir once said: We do not rejoice in military victories.

We praise God for survival, but we do not revel in the reality of war, be that as Jews, as Americans, as humanity. Rather, even at times of war, even as soldiers throughout the world work to protect us, we strive to fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic vision: that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We pray for the time when we will have no need for weapons, we will leave in harmony.

Yet until that day is achieved, as long as we as a nation and as a people count the heads of young men and women, to prepare for battle, as long as we set up military formations, as long as we send our young men and women to the four corners of this earth, we must protect them when they return.

The blessing of “May God bless you and Keep you,” is not just when one is sent off into battle, but rather when veterans return home. May we protect them. May we give them the services that they need. May we ensure their safety, security, and health, just as they have fought for ours. And may the sirens in our hearts and souls blare, as we remember the lives lost. As we go about living our lives as our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, continue to strive to keep us safe, stationed here and abroad, may we always remember that it is our job to fulfill God’s blessings, it is our task to make such prayers a reality. It is our job to bring peace to this world. May we always mourn those fallen and properly take care of veterans when they return home, but may we also fulfill God’s promise:  V’yasem lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. May God grant all of us peace. And let us say: Amen.

 

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah

I occasionally share on my blog the speeches, reflections, and divrei Torah that B’nai Mitzvah share with our congregation. I wanted to share the speech and words of Torah that a recent Bar Mitzvah shared with our congregation and community.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah 

By Noah

Shabbat Shalom. As I stand up here celebrating becoming a bar mitzvah, I reflect on what exactly that means to me. To become a Bar Mitzvah, a son of God’s commandments, is to start acting like a Jewish adult, accepting responsibility, and serving as one of God’s messengers in this world. It means giving food to the poor, visiting the sick, standing up for all people, and fighting for civil rights and human rights.

It’s not right to just let someone bully another person so we must stand up for someone being treated unfairly. As a Bar Mitzvah, I will march in civil rights and justice marches and give money to organizations that fight for civil rights for all because I’ve experienced this struggle. My moms are gay and they shouldn’t be treated any different from any other person because of that. I just turned 13 years old and yet, it was only a few months ago that my moms were finally able to get married. We traveled to New York for their wedding because they couldn’t even get married in our home state, because IT’S NOT LEGAL IN FLORIDA.

I think it’s unfair that my moms are treated differently. If we truly take responsibility for all and stand up for them, then we need to be able to celebrate that we are all the same, made in God’s image, instead of being divided by how we are different.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, we find a number of things. It begins with the requirements to take a census of select groups and clans of the people of Israel. It also mentions the Nazirites vow. But chapter 6 of the book of numbers concludes with what is likely the most famous of all blessings mentioned in the Torah:

May the lord bless you and keep you. May the lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace.

This blessing, which is really three blessings rolled into one, is Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. This blessing is a blessing that Moses tells Aaron to bless the people of Israel with. In fact the Kohanim chant this blessing to the entire congregation while standing on the bimah on the high holidays. It’s also known as the parental blessing because parents say this blessing to their children every Friday night on Shabbat.

This blessing is a blessing in which we pray for God to keep us safe. We pray for God to be kind to us and for us, as God’s messengers, to be kind to others. And finally, we pray for peace because knowing that we look out for the safety of others just as God looks out to us, and knowing that we must be kind to others just as we pray God is kind to us, we can bring peace to this world and peace in our lives. A blessing of peace, security, and grace is a blessing in which we stand up for everybody.

Judaism — and faith in general — is not just about offering blessings. It’s about making the promise of blessing a reality. We don’t just sit around and wait for God to act. We act.

It is our job to be the voice to those who are silent to stand up for the rights of all to ensure the protection God promises. That’s why I believe everybody should have equal rights. That’s why we must fight for the rights of all and specifically I fight for the rights of my two mothers. It is my obligation as a bar mitzvah — and our obligation as the Jewish community. We pray for peace but we work for peace: for peace in our lives, peace in this community, and peace in this world.

As a Bar Mitzvah, son of commandments which takes responsibility for my actions and the actions of others, it is my job, it is all of our jobs, to make this blessing a reality. So as Jews and as B’nai Mitzvah, children of God’s commandments, let’s not only ask for God’s blessings, but let’s recognize the blessings in our own lives and make this blessing, the priestly benediction, a reality.

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After Sterling’s racist remarks, Jewish community can’t accept his money

This article was originally published on May 5, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

The owner of the LA Clippers have given tens of thousands of dollars annually to local Jewish causes. Taking a stand against his racism means refusing his charity.

Every Jewish institution, organization and synagogue that I’ve ever been a part of has been dependent on donations. Especially in the economic climate of the past several years, nonprofit organizations have been hoping for specific individuals to give major gifts to bridge the deficit gap. We depend on gifts of tzedakah – charity. The Los Angeles Jewish community has relied on one individual to help them meet their fund-raising goals over the past several years, and now they are left to ask themselves: “What do we do with these funds?”

DonaldSterlingDonald Sterling, the now infamous owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, has given tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to local Jewish causes, including major gifts to the Los Angeles Jewish Federationand, somewhat ironically, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

Now, even non-sports fans know Sterling’s name, as we learned last week of secret recordings in which he made racist comments, bluntly informing his mistress that he did not want to see her taking pictures with African-Americans or inviting them to Clippers games. In fact, he even stated it would be better if no African-American fans attended in general.

The NBA responded sternly and appropriately to these comments, with a lifetime ban, a fine of $2.5 million, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saying he would encourage the NBA’s Board of Governors to vote and force Sterling to sell the team.

Some have suggested he should be forced to give more money and donations to organizations that combat racism, bigotry and hate. However, is accepting his money not a tacit acceptance of his thoughts, opinions and viewpoints? Does accepting his donations not condone his prejudice?

Furthermore, to continue to accept donations from him suggests that his comments, at least in private where he made them, are acceptable and commonplace.

The Jewish community as a whole must be more careful in considering whose charitable gifts we accept. Otherwise, we run the risk of being defined by the unethical and prejudiced viewpoints of some of those who give. We must always look a gift horse in the mouth. Donald Sterling’s recent racist comments are just a reminder of that.

Diane Tobin, founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization which focuses on ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community, explains that the sentiment behind Donald Sterling’s comments are more troublesome than the comments themselves.

She explains: “The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end, as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades – a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents – it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.”

Mr. Sterling’s comments suggest a white superiority that the Jewish community cannot hold. His comments became public last week only days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we mourn and memorialize the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, and the 11 million people murdered because of religion, race, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. He made bigoted comments as a Jew only days before world Jewry mourned the scariest result of such bigotry: mass murder and genocide.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is now commonly referred to as Yom Hashoa u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. This is because we do not only mourn the six million Jews murdered simply because of their faith; we also honor and celebrate the brave men and women, Jew and non-Jew, who were willing to take a stand in the face of bigotry and hate.

We must be willing to stand up to bigotry as well.

We, as a Jewish community, must publicly take a stand and declare that Sterling’s views are not our views, that he does not define us, and that we refuse to benefit from his money. If we truly believe in the promise of ‘Never Again,’ then we must stamp out all forms of bigotry in our midst.

Tzedakah is about more than just writing a five, six or seven figure check. The root of the Hebrew word tzedakah is tzedek, meaning justice. Let us ensure justice for all by ensuring that each individual is treated with the dignity and respect he or she deserves, and not be bullied into beliefs, opinions or bigotry by those who have the means to influence such beliefs. Let us embrace each other. As we hang our heads in shame at Sterling’s comments, let us proudly say that they do not represent us, for we see God in each individual. This, after all, is the real meaning of tzedakah.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yizkor: Carrying Our Loved Ones With Us

At my son’s brit milah six months ago, there were few things that I was concerned about. Some insist on having family heirlooms at lifecycle events: Bubbe’s candlesticks, uncle’s tallit from his Bar Mitzvah, etc. I was not worried about that. We were simply concerned with celebrating with community. However, there was one thing I was looking for, one thing I wanted to have at the bris. I remembered as a child, my paternal grandparents using these small green chalices as Kiddush cups. Since my grandmother passed away a number of years ago, we had been unable to find it. We tore three houses apart (my parents’ home and my father’s two brothers’ homes) looking to storage to find these Kiddush cups. They were small, made of green stained glass and pealing gold paint. It aren’t expensive. They aren’t even that pretty. But they were my grandparents.

Our son Noah Abraham, was named for my paternal grandfather, Abraham Nathan. The Jewish custom of naming after a loved one, after a family member, is a meaningful one. The Ashkenazic custom of naming after someone who has passed ensures that we fulfill the hope and promise of tehi nishmato tzerura btzur hachayim, that our loved ones’ souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. We name after our loved ones, we use their ritual objects, including their worn out green stained glass chalices. We tell their jokes, even when they aren’t funny. We use their idioms and cook their recipes. We teach our children the ethics and values that they taught us, to know that they are here, that they are with us.

yizkorWe say the words of Yizkor – and we remember. We never stop to think why we say them when we say them. It is not like we need a service to help us remember; we think about our loved ones who have passed every day, multiple times a day. But we recite Yizkor on these holidays because these holidays, and really all holidays, are about celebrating with family. Holiday celebrations are about celebrating with community and celebrating with family. So, maybe we say Yizkor on these holidays because it is at holiday times more so than any other time that we think of family, that we remember our loved ones, and that we miss them considerably.

I think Passover in particular teaches us an important message about holding on to family and carrying them with us.  For Moses carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. In the middle of the exodus narrative, as the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, we read in Exodus 13:19:

And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones away with you.’

By carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, Moses was fulfilling a promise made 400 years prior at the conclusion of the book of Genesis.

Moses was carrying his ancestry with him. He knew that no matter what, he had to hold unto family. Wherever he went and whatever he did, whether it was as a child in Pharaoh’s palace, as a shepherd in Midian, or as a leader of the Israelites taking his people out of Egypt, he knew that it was his family, and his roots that defined him. He carried those roots wherever he went. So too, we carry those roots with us. We carry our loved ones with us, for as long as we live, they too shall live.

The midrash in Mechilta teaches that Moses stood at the front of the Nile and declared, “Joseph, Joseph, the time has come to redeem the oath that you exacted from your brothers.” Immediately, Joseph’s coffin floated to the surface.

The Hebrew word for coffin in this case, and commonly used, is aron, the word we usually reserve for the Aron Kodesh, that which holds our Sifrei Torah, our Torah scrolls, and that which held the Tablets of the Covenant as the Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years. This is a reminder that the memory of our loved ones is as holy as Torah, a reminder that the lessons they have taught us are as important as the lessons of Torah, a reminder that we carry them with us just as we carry the Torah with us, and a reminder that, like Torah, our loved ones are also an Etz Chayim Hee. Even if they aren’t living, they too are a tree of life as long as a cling to our memories of them.

So let us carry our loved ones, let us hold unto them, and ensure that no matter where we are, they come with us. Even as we change, as we grow, as we move, as we go on our own exodus journeys, we are sure to bring them with us. For as long as we live they to shall live, for they are our Torah. That is why we turned three houses upside down looking for used small green stained glass Kiddush cups. That is why we continue to use those chalices in my home weekly at our Shabbos table, and why we will carry them with us wherever we may go. May we carry our loved ones – in our hearts, in our souls, and in our minds – with us, always.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Red tomatoes: Freedom from slavery includes fair food

This article was originally published on April 14, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Slavert is a modern concern in the Southwest Florida tomato fields. As we celebrate our freedom this Passover, may we join the struggle against exploitative labor. 

 

Several weeks ago, students at our Martin J. Gottlieb Day School at theJacksonville Jewish Center welcomed over 70 migrant farm workers for breakfast. While the middle school students participate in weekly mitzvah projects and regularly volunteer in soup kitchens and food banks, this was not an instance of feeding the hungry. Instead, this was an example of welcoming in the oppressed.

These migrant workers were a part of the Coalition of Immakolee Workers (CIW) based roughly four hours from Jacksonville, Florida. I heard from, saw and expressed the struggles of these workers firsthand last year when I traveled with a rabbinic delegation to Immakolee, sponsored by Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. The Department of Justice refers to Southwest Florida as “ground zero for modern slavery.” In fact, according to U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy, anyone who has eaten a winter tomato has eaten a fruit picked by a slave.

RedTomatoesWhile I did not witness slavery in the tomato fields upon my visit, I did hear story after story of exploitation. In the most extreme cases, there was modern-day slavery, the last case tried as recently as 2008. If slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices, the CIW fears that without serious changes, modern day slavery will continue. Some migrant workers had been enslaved to growers and crew leaders through coercion, force, fraud and debt. Most though are exploited through cheap labor: being paid by the amount of pieces picked, 50 cents for a 32-pound bushel of tomatoes. This bushel will cost the consumer roughly $81 in the supermarket, yet the migrant workers have been paid this wage since 1978.

Refusing to be exploited, refusing to deal with the day-to-day threat of modern-day slavery, the CIW, founded over 20 years ago by Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian farmworkers, launched the Fair Food Program. This campaign encourages corporations, restaurant chains, and supermarkets to sign on and agree to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes in order to improve wages for workers, but, most importantly, to improve working conditions. Such a change doesn’t just guarantee that workers will finally be paid a minimum wage, but it does guarantee the protection in the field from safety concerns, threat, assault and sexual abuse.

These migrant workers visited our students as they passed through Jacksonville as part of their “Now is the Time” tour, traveling throughout the southeast and mid-west of the United States to urge national companies, especially fast food chain Wendy’s and supermarket chainPublix, to join the Fair Food Program. These workers spoke to our students like a modern-day Moses, standing up to the Pharaohs of the food industry and fighting against slavery and exploitation in the fields, demanding companies that thrive on cheap labor to “let my people go.”

They were touched when we explained to them that we would be placing tomatoes on our seder plates this year during the Passover holiday in recognition of their efforts and as a reminder of the work still to be done. Ironically, we read in the Haggadah during the Passover seder, “this year we are slaves. Next year, may we be free people.” The holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt still acknowledges the exploitation and enslavement of so many in the world around us. It is our responsibility and task to not just praise God for our freedom, but also to act as God’s messengers and fight for freedom for all. The tomato on the seder plate acknowledges the continuity of our narrative. Our fight for freedom did not end when we crossed the split Sea of Reeds. Our fight for freedom continues.

There is a new day in the tomato fields of southwest Florida, with many large corporations joining the Fair Food Program, most recently Walmart, the United States’ largest supermarket chain. The CIW – and our Middle School students who join in their fight for equality and freedom - believe now is the time for change. We celebrate freedom and continue to fight for freedom for all. We fight for Wendy’s and Publix and all restaurants and supermarkets to join the Fair Food Program. We see the tomato on our seder plates and remember the work we still have to do, so that we can one day truly celebrate at our seders that we are all free people.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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Lighting a Spark for Human Rights and Inclusion

onesparkIf you live in the Jacksonville area and haven’t yet checked out the One Spark Festival, the world’s largest crowdfunding festival, then I encourage you to check it out. I spent time there on Thursday and Friday and it was a great experience. I went not only to check out the creators and amazing innovators and ideas. I went because of my work with the We are Straight Allies campaign, an ad campaign that brings together clergy, city business leaders, political leaders, community leaders, philanthropists, and “faces” of Jacksonville to encourage the city council to pass the Human Rights’ Ordinance, ensuring that it would no longer be legal for landlords to evict tenants or employers to fire employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The city council disgracefully failed to do so in June 2012! Some suggest that this ad campaign is just stirring the pot, that it is making something out of nothing, just trying to create controversy. Some believe that there is no discrimination in our city and this campaign is just trying to make something out of nothing. Unfortunately, recent events have suggested otherwise.

There was an article in Friday’s edition of the Florida Times-Union explaining that some were unhappy with the We Are Straight Allies campaign being a part of One Spark, and specifically being housed in the Wells Fargo building, alongside other vendors committed to “Building a Better City.” Housed in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Building, the building’s management company, Parkway Properties, informed the We Are Straight Allies campaign that some of the “key stakeholders” of the building were uncomfortable with the pro-LGBT agenda of the campaign. They were concerned that they – and I – were pushing our agenda on others. While this was in the Wells Fargo building, this was not a complaint from Wells Fargo, for they are an ally and big supporter of LGBT rights and equality. However, other unidentified companies in the building were uncomfortable with the signage and window displays, even wanting to know if the musical performances associated with this creator were going to be “controversial.” The whole point of the campaign – pushing the city council to pass the HRO – is about inclusion, not controversy. The actions of these so-called key stakeholders only reinforced the need to pass the HRO. If this is how companies treat such an organization that focuses on inclusion and human rights, I can’t even imagine how they treat their LGBTQ employees.

we are straight allies

I share this not just because it happened only days ago, but also, because this past Shabbat’s Torah reading, Parashat Acharei Mot, is arguably the root cause of such hate, homophobia, and exclusion. In Leviticus chapter 18, we find the beginning of the so-called “holiness code,” a text in which focuses on a lot of “Thou Shalt Not’s.” In that list we find the infamous verse, Lev. 18:22:

V’et zahar lo tishkav mishk’vei isha – to’eivah hi.

Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.

As Conservative Jews, we are part of a movement and a community that does not believe that Torah is set in stone, is min hashamayim, directly from God, without human influence. We also recognize that our own interpretation of Torah evolves through time as society continues to evolve.

When Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in this country, was a scholar-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center this past winter, he explained how he reinterpreted the verse. This is an interpretation that I have heard before by many of my own teachers, that suggests that if we truly look at the Hebrew, the text isn’t focusing on homosexual relations, but rather forced sexual relations. Thus, according to the Torah a man can force himself unto a woman, but because the text is a patriarchal scripture, you couldn’t do that do another man. So to clarify, according to this understanding, a man can have sexual relations with another man, but it must be consensual. Yet, according to the Torah, a man can rape another woman, can force himself on her. We may not like this interpretation because it is just as problematic, idenitifying the misogyny of scripture.

In all honesty, I am not concerned with how we translate the Hebrew. This is a problematic verse. I am not saying we just get rid of the verse, erase it from Torah, because it is problematic to us. As Conservative Jews, we struggle with text, even when we are uncomfortable with it. But also as Conservative Jews, we cannot accept it as Divine truth because, in 2014, this sole verse has been used to condemn, criticize, delegitimize, and even criminalize same-sex relationships.

We can look at problematic verses in the Torah and see them for what they are – simply a human interpretation from thousands of years ago of the Divine word, be it by Moses or another author. It is then possible for us, in 2014, based on religion’s influence on society and society’s influence on religion, to also interpret the Divine word. And when we interpret the Divine word, at least when I interpret the Divine word, I choose to focus on the holiness of loving my neighbor as myself, of remembering that we are all made in God’s image, and I refuse to believe in a God or accept as Divine word a single verse that delegitimizes a human being.

This past Friday, April 11th, 2014, was the National Day of Silence, an initiative started in 1996 by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which is now the largest student-run action towards creating safer school environments. Gay-Straight Alliances, common in Middle School and High Schools vowed to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. It is clear that if we do not put an end to such bullying in our schools, then it only continues as adults, no example greater than these key stakeholders trying to bully the We Are Straight Allies campaign out of One Spark, trying to bully human rights and inclusion.

If that bullying is a result of this verse, if the discrimination, bigotry, and hate, is a result of Leviticus 18:22, then we in the Jewish community as a wholerainbow-flag2-thumb-300x170-4984 have a moral obligation and imperative to say that this verse does not define us, does not speak for us, and is not how we understand, interpret, or translate God’s Divine word.

I prefer to focus on the begin words of the next Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim, often linked and read as a double portion with Acharei Mot.If we look at these begin words, we truly understand how to act. For it begins with:

Kedoshim Ti’h’yu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai.

Be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, Am Holy.

There is nothing holy about bullying, hate, bigotry, homophobia, discrimination, or exclusion. In fact, it is the opposite of holiness: an abomination. Let us then focus on that which is truly holy: each and every one of us, made in God’s image, and let us work to ensure that the holiness and sanctity of each individual is recognized and embraced.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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