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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Crowdfunding the Jewish Future

This article was originally published on April 10, 2014, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I am spending today walking around downtown Jacksonville, Florida to see what all the buzz is about. Over this five day period (from April 9th – April 13th) Jacksonville is hosting One SparkOne Spark is a crowdfunding festival for social innovation. Throughout the festival, more than 150,000  visitors will tour the twenty-square block gallery of ideas downtown to see new and creative ideas from social entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, and inventors and decide which ideas deserve an investment. These projects can be at any stage of development. It can be a not-for-profit that has been doing work for years or an idea written out on a piece of scrap paper waiting to become reality. All a creator needs is an idea. The creator then convinces visitors about the importance of his or her innovation. If a visitor likes an idea, then he or she can vote for it.

onesparkAccording to the One Spark website, there are four ways to acquire funding:

  1. Wow attendees and collect their votes to score a piece of the $200,000 crowdfund. Whatever percentage of the vote a Project receives, that’s how much of the crowdfund they earn. The top voted Creator Project in each category will get their hands on a $10,000 bonus prize!
  2. Attendees can contribute directly to Projects in any dollar amount. From $5 to $5,000, every little bit adds up to getting you that much closer to launching your idea.
  3. Along with the popularly distributed funds, industry experts will jury an additional $10,000 prize to the innovative Project of their choice in each category.
  4. Connect with millions of dollars in potential capital from hungry investors out to discover the next big thing!

One gets the opportunity to pitch his or her ideas with literally thousands of individuals and get funded as a result.

With the instant connection and communication of the Internet, crowdfunding has taken off in recent years, with websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo offering platforms for artists and inventors to beg their friends – their actual friends and those of the social network variety – to invest in their ideas. Hollywood is even using crowdfunding to make movies. To make the Veronica Mars movie, and finish telling the story of his cancelled television show, director Rob Thomas took to Kickstarter and raised over $5,700,000 from over 90,000 supporters. He made a movie through crowdfunding. Hollywood is doing it. The entire city of Jacksonville is doing it. The Jewish community should be doing it as well.

It seems that after week I read article after article about the financial challenges in the established Jewish community. Following the publication of last year’s Pew Study, Jewish communal leaders, clergy, educators, and philanthropists are regularly struggling with wear to invest funds to ensure a vibrant Jewish future in America. These conversations are going on as synagogues, Jewish day schools, camps, youth groups, and non-profits are all struggling to balance their budgets.

That does not mean there is not demand for new ideas. Hundreds of “Jewish Start-Ups” and social innovations have been launched recently. Incubators such as the Joshua Venture GroupBikkurimUpStartJumpStart, and PresenTense have helped these social entrepreneurs in the Jewish community flesh out their ideas, create successful business models, work on strategic plans, and develop their “brand.” These incubators have helped entrepreneurs stand on their own two feet, but now, these start-ups are struggling with the same challenges the rest of the organized Jewish world face: financial stability.

Everyone knows the big names in Jewish philanthropy. These names are familiar because of the impact they have had on innovation by investing in groundbreaking ideas like increased Israel engagement among college students (Birthright Israel) and an increase in Jewish children’s books (PJ Library). They are also familiar to us though because there are truly only a handful of these big name Jewish philanthropists. Many of us may be willing to shell out millions on the next big idea to engage millenials, prioritize early childhood education, or keep baby boomers involved. We just aren’t blessed with such deep pockets. Crowdfunding has made me realize that we don’t need to be. We can turn to crowdfunding websites for help with innovation in the Jewish community.

More exciting though, and I believe more revolutionary, is the impact that a festival like One Spark could have on the Jewish community. Imagine all these new and revolutionary ideas, these Jewish social entrepreneurs coming together annually at the JFNA’s General Assembly, or at movement gatherings like the USCJ conference or the URJ biennial, to share such innovation. This would not be a Jewish version of ABC’s Shark Tank where social entrepreneurs make pitches to a select few Jewish philanthropists. Rather, it would be an opportunity for any Jew with an impactful idea for the Jewish future to pitch that idea to the entire Jewish community. We each then would have the opportunity to invest in the ideas we like and disregard those ideas that don’t speak to us as individuals. More importantly though, such a festival would allow more exposure to such ideas and in turn, more financial investment, to ensure a vibrant, thriving Jewish community in the future. I look forward to the excitement of One Spark spreading to the American Jewish community.

After all, it only takes is one spark…

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

I finally saw the blockbuster film Divergent last week, based on the young adult dystopian novel by Veronica Roth. The film, takes place in futuristic Chicago, following war. In order to keep the peace, society is divided up into five factions, those who are all knowing (Erudite), those who are honest (Candor), those who are brave (dauntless), those who are strive to keep the peace (Amity), and those who are selfless (adnegation). The film begins with the main protagonist and narrator the film, Beatrice Prior, played by Shailene Woodley, and her family affiliated with abnegation.

MirrorThere is a telling scene at the very beginning of the film, in which the supposedly selfless Beatrice attempts to look in the mirror. Her parents slam the door shut and lock it, keeping the mirror in a vault behind lock and key. The message is clear: you cannot truly be selfless if you are worried about how you look and how others perceive you. We look in mirrors because we are concerned about our outer appearances. We are concerned with how we look, and thus how we are received.

For this reason, we cover up mirrors in the shiva house because we should not be concerned with vanity during a period of mourning. After all, the first words of the book of Ecclesiates speak volumes: “Hevel Hevelim, Vanity of Vanities,” offering the pessimistic view point that all of life is vanity. All that we do revolves around our appearance. All that we care about is how we look and how we are viewed.

This past Shabbat, we read the Torah portion, Parashat Metzora. While this year we read it on its own, it is often read as a double portion, with Parashat Tzaria.  We rarely focus on this part of the narrative. When we do focus on it, we suggest, as many rabbinic commentators do, that tzaraat, a skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy, is punishment for lashon hara, speaking ill will, gossip, slander, and spreading rumors. We link it to lashon hara because we don’t know what else to do with it. We focus on the cause, rather than the issue at hand, the skin ailment. However, if we ignore the significance of the punishment at hand, then we ignore the true message of tzaraat.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Eliot Malomet, points out that this type of punishment is reflective of what is wrong with us in society. Throughout the Torah, God punishes in a variety of ways: the complete destruction of cities like Sodom and Gemorrah, a flood that wipes at all life except for those aboard Noah’s ark, the earth swallowing Korach and his followers who rebel against Moses. So, why in this case does God punish with a skin disease?

We live in a world of vanity. We live in a society where we care about appearance and too often judge someone solely on appearance. We want to present the best version of ourselves. We incorrectly assume that this means we must focus on appearance. Before a job interview we shave and shine our shoes, we get a manicure or a haircut. We put on our nicest suit, or our most professionally looking blouse. And in anything we do, we hide our blemishes. We put on make up to hide our pimples. We cover up scars or birthmarks. We are so worried about physical appearance.

Society doesn’t help, with half naked airbrushed models on billboards and in magazines. Thanks to media, advertisements, television shows and movies, including the movie that I mentioned above, we live in a hyper-sexualized world, a world where we are pressured to look young, and be thin and beautiful.

Maybe tzaraat isn’t a punishment for lashon hara, as the rabbis suggest. Rather, it is liberation from society. Even dating back to the Torah, society was over-sexualized. Biblical society focused on lust over love, and treated human beings as objects that others could take ownership of. Tzaraat wasn’t a punishment as much as it was an eye-opening experience, a reminder, like the protagonist in Divergent, to not worry about looking in the mirror, to not focus on our outward appearances, and instead focus on who we are on the inside.

Mesekhet Sanhedrin 98a drives home this point:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was visited by Elijah the Prophet. Knowing that Elijah’s return would announce the coming of the Messiah, Rabbi Yehoshua got anxious. “When will the Messiah come,” he asked him. “Why don’t you go ask him yourself,” Elijah replied. Yehoshua is flustered, looking around expected to see the Messiah. Is the Messiah a religious figure? A political leader? A wealthy individual? Who is the Messiah? Where can the Messiah be? Elijah informed him: “he is sitting at the gates of the city, among the poor, the sick, and abandoned, changing the binding of his wounds.”

The message: messianic redemption comes when we stop focusing on vanity, when we stop worrying so much how we look and focus more on how we act. I believe that tzaraat was a brutal reminder that we focused too much on outer beauty and ignored inner beauty. The punishment of this parasha was not illness as it is otherwise defined in the Torah; it is not death; it is not loss of life. The punishment was that people weren’t pretty. The punishment was a blessing, reminder to all, and a message to all, that skin disease or not, we are all beautiful, as long as we emphasize inner beauty and stop caring so much about our outward appearances. Let’s stop looking in the mirror so much. Instead, let’s look at each other, and see the divine beauty, the divine spark, in each of us.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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With a New Baseball Season comes a Chance to Start Afresh – On and Off the Field

This article was originally published on March 30, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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As Jews, celebrating MLB Opening Day together with the Hebrew month of Nissan means embracing a clean slate.

 

Tonight, Sunday March 30, 2014, baseball fans America-wide will celebrate the eve of a pseudo-national holiday: Opening Day. Some of us will play hooky from work to stay at home and watch the first game of the Major Baseball League season on television, or travel to the ballpark to watch the action in person. Some will even join the movementencouraging President Obama to officially declare this day a national holiday.

OriolesKevinGausmanHaaretzWe are celebrating the beginning of a new season and with it the opportunity to make a fresh start. As a lifelong fan of the Baltimore Orioles, I have spent many seasons suffering from heartache and disappointment as my underachieving team is systematically eliminated from playoff contention early on in the season. Yet by the time a new year rolls round and Opening Day is upon me yet again, I find myself decked out in regalia and apparel, ready to cheer for my favorite team. Every year, like all hopeful baseball fans, I believe that this season the Orioles will become World Series Champions; I am convinced that “this year is our year.”

Maybe that hope stems from the smell of fresh cut grass and the rays of sunshine that herald the arrival of spring. Maybe it comes from the crack of the bat. Or maybe it is a result of the constant reminders that beer, soda, peanuts and Cracker Jacks are for sale. Whatever the reason, by the time Opening Day rolls around, I am ready for a new start.

As I prepare for this new beginning as a baseball-obsessed American, I also prepare for a new beginning as a Jew. This week, we enter the Hebrew month of Nissan. During this month, self-reflection is particularly important, for it is the first month in the Torah (Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, occurs on the first day of Tishrei, which is referred to in the Torah as “the seventh month”). It is also the month in which we celebrate Passover, rejoicing in our people’s freedom and the new beginnings and opportunities that stemmed from that freedom.

With Nissan, we begin our seasonal year, leaving winter behind and celebrating spring. Buds appear on previously barren tree branches and animals awake from hibernation. Nissan is about rebirth. It gives us the opportunity to seize the future with a fresh start. Winter becomes a distant memory as we luxuriate in spring. We may remember the past, but are optimistic about the future.

How blessed we are to be able to rid ourselves of the negativity of our pasts and have a clean slate, a fresh start and a new beginning. As a baseball fan, I can put the disappointments of past seasons behind me. Previous statistics no longer matter. Win-loss records can be thrown out. The new season allows for new opportunities to prove who we are and what we can do.

The true beauty of Opening Day is that everyone starts at the same place. There are not yet winners and losers, there are not yet failed expectations or Cinderella stories. Instead, every team believes they can succeed.

Likewise, the new Hebrew month of Nissan and the ensuing celebration of freedom during Passover allow each individual to start afresh. Our failures of the past are a thing of the past. Our statistics, both positive and negative, do not matter. Instead, we begin anew. With springtime, we too come out of hibernation. With springtime, we too are reborn. With springtime, we too have the opportunity to seize the future, as long as we see ourselves as champions.

Believing in ourselves and what the future holds, we can “root, root, root for the home team.”

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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L’Chaim – Celebrating Judaism, Not Celebrating Drinking

Purim is one of the most, if not the most, joyous and fun Jewish holidays. While it may not pack the house like the High Holy Days, it is a celebration full of laughter, humor, and tomfoolery. We play games at carnivals, dress in costumes and pretend to be someone else, scream at the top of our lungs drowning out the name of evil and hate, and eat hamantaschen, triangle shaped poppy seed- and fruit-filled cookies. Unfortunately though, for many Purim has become an excuse to drink alcohol.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Megillah 7b) we learn:

Rava said: It is one’s duty to drink on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’

The initial read of the Talmud suggests that one should get so drunk that he should not be able to tell the difference between good and bad. With this rabbinic mandate in mind, many Purim celebrations include glasses of wine, bottles of beer, and shots of vodka. For many in our community, alcohol will be present at our Purim celebrations.

absolut-purim-chabadI am not opposed to the presence of alcohol on Purim. In fact, using alcohol as a way to celebrate is a key part of many of our holiday celebrations and rituals. We make kiddush over a glass of wine (or grape juice). We have four cups of wine at the Passover seder. Wine is often the agent for sanctification during many lifecycle events, including a brit milah ceremony and a Jewish wedding. The sweetness of the fruit of the vine allows us to appreciate the sweetness of the sacred moment. I have no problem with that.

What I take issue with is when one misinterprets rabbinic literature and uses it as an excuse for drunken debauchery. Purim is not an excuse to drink excessively. Drinking to the point of not knowing the difference between Mordecai and Haman, between good and evil, and thus, drinking to the point of making bad decisions and poor choices, is not a way to celebrate God’s sanctity. Rather, it is a desecration of God’s majesty. Judaism cannot and should not be an excuse to “party hard.” There is nothing holy about that!

Additionally, we must look inward at ourselves as a community to see how our actions reflect our mission. One of the missions of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, spearheaded by the Keruv Task Force, is to be an inclusive community for all those who walk through our doors. Our goal is to be a spiritual center where all those in our community can find support. When it comes to alcoholism and addiction in the Jewish community, too many are in disbelief and denial. However, addiction is just as big of a concern in the Jewish community as it is throughout the country. If our goal is to embrace all members of our community as they are, then we cannot put up barriers to entry. Making alcohol a central part of our ritual and suggesting that the act of drinking is a religious act is a barrier to entry for all those in our community who suffer from addiction.

How do we as a community embrace the holiday celebration without overemphasizing the celebration? It begins with emphasizing the truly sacred moments of the holiday: coming together as community to appreciate the miracles in our lives. On Purim, we thank God for the miracles that happened in Shushan, as well as the everyday miracles in our lives today. We celebrate God’s presence in this world and how we act as God’s messengers. While God’s name is not mentioned a single time in the Book of Esther, Esther acts as God’s messenger, standing up for her own rights as well as the rights of those around her. This is what we celebrate on Purim. If one drinks too much, then one may not appreciate those miracles all around us. To appreciate those miracles around us is to appreciate life. That way, next time we say L’Chaim, we can really mean it.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

This blog post was originally printed in the March 2014 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Quarterly Magazine, Center Pieces. The entire publication can be viewed here.

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Shoot Down ‘Stand Your Ground’

This article was originally published on February 26, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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The Michael Dunn case shows that the world will only become a better place when we learn to embrace the other and stop being quick to pull the trigger.

On November 23, 2012, while parked at a Gate Gas Station in Jacksonville, Florida, Michael Dunn shot into the Red Durango SUV parked next to him, murdering 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Dunn claimed that after asking the four African-American teenagers inside the car to turn down the blaring music, he was threatened by one of them, Davis. He testified that he believed that his life was in danger and that he thought Davis had a shotgun, so he began firing. As the SUV backed up and sped away, Dunn continued to fire and then fled the scene. He claimed self-defense, but never called the police never found a weapon or firearm in the Durango. All they found was Davis’ slain, lifeless, teenage body.

Michael Dunn was convicted last week of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for firing at the three teenagers who were in the car with Davis, but, controversially, the jury was hung when it came to a first-degree murder conviction for shooting and killing Davis. Dunn will be going to prison for a long time, but many feel that with a mistrial, there is no justice for the unarmed teenager’s parents.

StandYourGroundProtesterThis trial received national attention because of Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” Law, which allows an individual to shoot first if he feels his life is in danger. Stand Your Ground represents a disturbing mindset: if one fears for his life, he can start shooting.

This is particularly worrying when considering that fearing for one’s life can arise from an unwarranted fear of those who are different from us. I do not believe that Dunn’s life was actually threatened. I believe he saw a teenager talk back to him – which is standard practice for teenagers – and he felt threatened. I believe he felt threatened because Davis looked different than him and listened to different music than him – music that he associated with threatening people. The Dunn case shows us that when the law allows a person to respond to his subjective feeling of fear with an action that can take the life of another person, tragedies occur.

Jewish law teaches that when threatened, we must defend ourselves. However, Maimonides clearly teaches in Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Rotzeach 1:13 that one must not use excessive force when doing so. If he does, then he should be judged as a murderer. When it comes to Stand Your Ground, how can we define “excessive?” Must the force match that posed by the threatening opponent? Must it overcome the other’s force, so as to quell the threat, and, if so, how do we measure having gone to far? Stand Your Ground provides no definitive answer.

Perhaps the answer is not in how far we must go to defend ourselves in order to quell the threat, but rather how to avoid being unwarrantedly threatened in the first place. The Torah teaches us to respect all individuals and to embrace them. The commandment to welcome the stranger – to embrace those who are different from us – appears more times in the Torah than any other commandment. We are taught that each of us is made in God’s image and, thus, we must recognize the Divine spark in each individual; we must care about every life. Perhaps if we were more focused on embracing the other, we would be less likely to fear them.

These teachings do not stop at the level of the self. Hillel, in Pirkei Avot 2:4, teaches that we must not separate ourselves from the community. When one child dies by the bullet – regardless of the color of his skin, the music he listens to, or where he lives – we all must take a stand. We cannot sit and watch the media report about this tragedy and refuse to do all that is in our power to limit future casualties of gun violence. We cannot study Torah and ignore the Torah’s call for justice. We have an obligation, as God’s partners in creation, to save lives. As we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), if we save a life, we save an entire world. But if we let even a single life be destroyed, we destroy an entire world. Stand Your Ground is ending too many innocent lives; it is destroying this world. It’s time for us all to stand up to Stand Your Ground.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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The Holiness of Brokenness

There are conversations that have been going on in our community, our city, and our country for too long, but until now, these conversations have been kept to a mumbled whisper. These are conversations in which we want to share our brokenness with the world, but instead we keep it hidden. We keep it hidden because we think we are alone. But we are not. Mental illness impacts your family. Mental illness impacts my family. It affects us all.

And when we don’t discuss it, when we don’t talk about it, when we don’t offer help and support, especially in a sacred community, then the unthinkable happens, then mental illness leads to loss. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, of Florida’s 18.3 million residents, over 660,000 adults and 181,000 children live with serious mental illness. In the state of Florida alone last year there were over 3,000 deaths by suicide, which is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated serious mental illness. That is more than 8 a day in the state. As a result of the lack of mental health awareness, care, and treatment, Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in our country, and rising quickly.

We don’t talk a lot about mental illness in my family, even though I have loved ones who have suffered and do suffer from such an illness. Part of it is because of the stigma attached to such illness. I’m sure such a stigma has led many of us to not discuss the mental illness that we or our own loved ones suffer from. That stigma remains. That stigma remains because of ignorance. That stigma remains because of fear.

MentalIllnessBut it also remains because we don’t talk about it. And when we don’t talk about it, it goes untreated. We do not hesitate to discuss the physical ailments family members suffer from, the surgeries we are recovering from, or the cancer we are fighting. Those are acceptable to talk about. For some reason, mental health and mental illness is not.

For that reason, two organizations in our city that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is a part of have taken it upon themselves to increase mental health awareness and mental health services in this city.

Florida’s public mental health system provides services to only 26% of adults who live with serious mental illness and the statistics of just a couple of years ago suggest that Florida spent just $38 per capital on mental health agency services. In fact, Florida is ranked 49th out of all 50 states in the federal funding it receives for mental health services and Duval County receives the least amount of funding among all counties in the state.

JCCI, Jacksonville Community Council, in which our congregation participates, focuses on Engaging People for Community Change. Their latest inquiry, entitled “Unlocking the Pieces: Community Mental Health in Jacksonville” will examine the prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders as well as mental illness in Northeast Florida and develop community-wide recommendations for system change. ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment, the social justice organization that our congregation is also a part of, has a similar mission this year. At the Community Problems Assembly a couple of months ago, representatives from our congregation were present with dozens of other congregations to decide what the most pressing needs of our city were and overwhelmingly chose mental health and mental illness as the issue we must address.

We must remove the stigma. We must embrace the brokenness of ourselves and of our loved ones. We must be okay with carrying that brokenness with us. For that brokenness is a part of us and a part of who we as a community are. For that brokenness is holy.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects every race, ethnicity, gender, language, and religion. According to the US Center for Mental Health Services, at any given moment more than 48 million Americans are suffering from “diagnosable” mental illness. Many more are suffering and go undiagnosed. It is our job as a sacred community to rid our community, and our country, of this stigma. For each of us, even with the brokenness that we sometimes carry, are made in God’s image and are worthy in the eyes of God. Removing the stigma can allow us to open our doors, our arms, and our hearts and be supportive, allowing our loved ones to get the treatment that they need.

This past week, we read the Torah portion Parashat Ki Tissa. In it, we learn that the Israelites built the Egel Zahav, the Golden Calf. They got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. When Moses finally came near the people’s encampment with tablets in hand and saw the calf and the dancing, he shattered the tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Most assume that Moses hurled these tablets out of anger. I want to suggest a different explanation.The tablets were heavy, too heavy to carry. Moses didn’t carry the heavy stone tablets alone. Rather, because he carried them in his heart, they lifted him up and carried him. He was willing to take the burden of God’s word on his shoulders because he believed that this was a burden that the entire community was carrying. They broke when he saw the Israelites dancing around the idol because he felt alone. When he realized he was alone, that this was a burden he was holding on to all by himself, they shattered. It was too much to bear without the support of community.

We all have our burdens, our challenges, to carry. When we carry them alone and feel we cannot share them with community, when we are embarrassed to share them because of ignorance and fear, when we worry about not being embraced or accepted, then those burdens, like the tablets of the covenant, turn to brokenness.

But that brokenness is just as much a part of who we are as our whole selves. For we read at the end of the Torah portion, in Exodus 34:4, that

Vayifsol shenei luchot avanim karishonim.

That Moses carved two new tablets of stone, just like the first. He ascended Mount Sinai again with stone tablets in hand and inscribed God’s word on to them.

Yet, we learn that when the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was eventually completed, the two sets of tablets both rested in the Holy Ark. The brokenness displayed alongside that which was whole, for both are holy and both are worthy in the eyes of God. The darker, more challenging parts of our identities and who we are and the pleasant and joyful demeanors are both holy.

We cannot hide the brokenness. We cannot brush it under the rug, we cannot pretend it isn’t happening. We cannot pretend that mental illness does not exist. Rather, we understand that those who suffer from mental illness are still sacred and holy. We care for them and we reach out, in the same way we do for any other illness.

Moses didn’t throw the shattered pebbles of sacred text away. Rather, he understood the holiness of brokenness. And while we cannot hide the brokenness, we also must do our best, as community, to prevent such shattering. Moses shattered the tablets because he felt alone. There was no place for him. There was no outlet. There was no help. There was no support. We must be that support. When those among us – our family, friends, members of our community – fear that life is broken, we must be that outlet.

As a synagogue, when we pray for healing in the Mi Sheberach prayer, we must understand that we are not only praying for recovery of bodily harm and physical ailments, but also for strength and stability from mental illness. We must continue to use our communication to inform the community about the work of JCCI, ICARE, and other community endeavors that strive to make mental health care more accessible. We must open up our synagogue building to offer support groups for those suffering from serious mental illness as well as for family members and caregivers of those who suffer from mental illness.

Finally, and most importantly, we must teach, preach, and recognize that no matter what illness – physical or mental – that we suffer from, we each still have the Divine spark within us. There is a place for each of us, at times when we are feel broken and times when we feel whole, in our holy ark, in our sacred community. May it always be so.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Teen Girls Laying Tefillin: Brave Enough to be Different

This article was originally published on January 29, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Egalitarianism is more than simply allowing women equal opportunity to engage in Jewish rituals; it’s about encouraging them to do so.

 I remember the first time I worked with a bat mitzvah student. We had been studying for over a year, learning her Torah portion together, working on a Dvar Torah to deliver to the congregation, and planning a mitzvah project to reinforce her newfound responsibility toward all of humanity. We learned about tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) and she was excited about the possibility of wearing these ritual objects.

She soon realized that she was in the minority. No other adolescent girl was wearing tefillin that morning, and very few chose to wear tallitot. Although the community was egalitarian and women had the same opportunities for participation in Jewish ritual as men, most of the teenage girls declined to engage in the rituals of laying tefillin and wearing tallitot. So too, this bat mitzvah girl folded up her tallit, zipped up her tefillin bag, and has yet to put them on again. Why? Because she does not want to stand alone. She wants to be “normal.”

Jewish newspapers and social media were abuzz this past week over the brave decision of two teenage girls to be the anomaly. They decided to take on the ritual of laying tefillin daily, even if this was foreign to those around them. Ronit Morris and Yael Marans, students at the SAR Modern Orthodox High School in Riverdale, N.Y., will now wear tefillin daily, according to The Forward. Debra Nussbaum Cohen recently explainedin a Haaretz article that this is nothing new; SAR Academy had apparently permitted girls to wear tefillin two decades ago. Still, at this point in time, such an institutional decision is significant, so much so that it led to another well-known Modern Orthodox Jewish High School in New York, the Ramaz School,  to also announce that it too were open to girls in their school wearing tallit and tefillin if they wish.

The decisions made by these institutions recognizes the diverse spectrum of religious expression, halakhic interpretation, and commitment to Jewish ritual, even within a specific movement or denomination.

As a Conservative rabbi and Jew, and a staunch supporter of egalitarianism, I am a part of a movement in which the overwhelming majority of affiliated congregations are egalitarian. While the Conservative Movement has been egalitarian for over a generation, I worry that it has never truly embraced nor encouraged women’s participation in Jewish rituals.

Under the movement’s understanding of halakha (Jewish law) women have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of Jewish rituals if they wish. It was thanks to this understanding that the Modern Orthodox institutions SAR Academy and the Ramaz School came to this conclusion. However, if the Conservative Movement truly stands for egalitarianism, it must do more than simply permit women to participate in rituals.

GirlWearingTefillinIt must, via us – the clergy, educators, professionals, and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement – encourage it. When Conservative leaders do not take a true stand for egalitarianism – saying it is a priority of our movement and our affiliated institutions – it makes it hard to prove to the women of the movement, and young girls like the bat mitzvah student who’s tefillin remains tucked away in a drawer, that egalitarianism is a priority.

Making egalitarianism a priority is about more than giving women a choice; it must encourage and expect participation. True egalitarianism is men and women being viewed as – and feeling – equally obligated. We need institutions that encourage our b’not mitzvah to take on ritual. We need more female role models that wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin to show our young girls that this is a possibility. We need more men who understand, appreciate, preach, and teach the importance of egalitarianism in our communities. We need more leaders who don’t simply permit participation, involvement, and equality, but instead encourage it. We need more male leaders who promote gender equality in the same way our female leaders do.

I am standing up, asking, promoting, and encouraging true egalitarianism. Who is with me?

 - Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Make Me a Sanctuary

I spent many summers prior to entering Rabbinical School and becoming a rabbi on the road, traveling with fifty teenagers on a cross-country bus tour for six and a half weeks as part of the USY on Wheels summer program. Joshua Ull recently wrote a wonderful article for CJ Voices about the powerful experience of USY on Wheels. To me, as a staff member and educator, the beauty of USY on Wheels was that it was a travelling community. No matter where we went, we prayed together, learned together, socialized together, and grew together as a family. Even though I haven’t staff USY on Wheels in many years, a true highlight for me as rabbi at the Jacksonville Jewish Center is our annual visit for the USY on Wheels East bus. We love hosting participants at our congregation when they travel to Florida’s First Coast.

USYonWheelsOn such a summer program, we offered the teenagers a plethora of unique and different prayer experiences and prayer environments. When the USYers would be hosted for home hospitality visits, they would pray with the synagogue community and were introduced to different congregations across North America. Shabbat was spent at hotels where each bus would create its own prayer space, turning a conference meeting room into a makom kodesh, a sacred space and sanctuary. We davened Shacharit, the morning service, at the Grand Canyon during sunrise and davenned Mincha, the afternoon service, while overlooking the majestic beauty of creation at Niagara Falls. Still, of all my summers staffing and leading USY on Wheels busses, the most powerful davening experience took place at a truck stop.

Yes, a truck stop. While taking a break from an early morning long drive (in which we departed when it was still pitch black outside) to refill the tank, reload on snacks, eat breakfast, and use the restrooms, we found a space in the parking lot and began draping ourselves in tallitot and wrapping tefillin. The initial concerns of some USYers about praying in such a public domain that they had expressed earlier in the summer had quickly faded. They took turns leading services, davening loudly, full of ruach. In a weird way, that parking lot had become more of a makom kodesh than any other place where we had prayed that summer. There was no sanctuary, no ark, and no pews to help us identify it as sacred space. There was no crater, waterfall, lake, sunrise, or sunset to help us appreciate God’s creations. There were only busses and eighteen-wheelers, gas pumps, a convenience store, and bathrooms. And community. And God. Our community of fifty USYers and five staff members turned that parking lot and that truck stop into our sanctuary.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Terumah in which the Israelites are given the initial instructions regarding how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness. The Israelites were commanded to bring gifts, if their hearts desired, of gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, linen, ram and dolphin skins, and acacia wood. God’s command found in Exodus 25:8 is a simple and powerful one:

V’asu Li Mikdash, v’shachanti B’tocham.

Make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among you.

The beauty of the Mishkan compared to the Beit Mikdash, the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, is that the Tabernacle was temporary. The Mishkan moved with the Israelites. While the Torah portion may focus on the gifts and materials needed to make such a sanctuary, the most important aspect of that sanctuary was the people – the community. Wherever they traveled and wandered in the desert, they built their sanctuary.

As we celebrate the beauty of our sanctuaries this Shabbat, let us remember the most important part of those sanctuaries: us. More so than buildings, more so than nature, it is the people within that space who turn that space into a sacred space, who help all recognize that God is present, and was always present. So let us truly celebrate community, for it is community that turns our spaces into sacred spaces. It is coming together as community that allows God to fulfill God’s promise of “shachanti b’tocham”, that God will dwell among us. This allows us to find God in our synagogue buildings, in nature, and yes, even at truck stops.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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