My Response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

I’ve officially been nominated three times – by my brother Rabbi Avi Olitzky, by my colleague Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein, and my friend Adam Shapiro – to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Many more have asked wondered where my video is, wanting to know why they haven’t yet seen me embarrass myself on YouTube by pouring ice water on my head. It’s not that I’m against pouring a bucket of ice over my head. 

ice-bucketThis challenge, to raise money to cure ALS and to raise awareness for what ALS - Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – is, has taken social media by storm. In just a couple of weeks, it has raised well over $42 million for the ALS Association. Athletes, former Presidents, even Oprah has poured a bucket of water on their head to raise awareness. Incredible. 

Yet, I question the need of so many to get a thrill out of this challenge, to make it about pouring a bucket of ice on your head instead of about ALS. When kids take turn challenging each other, without learning what ALS is or what they can do to raise awareness, I wonder if we have lost sight of the point of this challenge. It is true that it shouldn’t matter what people are doing to raise money and raise awareness. With only roughy 12,000 people in the United States affected by ALS, raising awareness is just as important as raising money. 

I know many fighting ALS. I also know others fighting some not-so-well-known degenerative neurological disorders such as PLS (Primary Lateral Sclerosis) and Huntington’s Disease, which hits particularly close to home as my father-in-law passed away over six years ago as a result of HD. I know firsthand the importance of educating and raising awareness, for awareness leads to action. Action cannot be just dumping a bucket of water on your head. If you want to dump water on your head, then do it. But this challenge cannot be and either-or scenario. You cannot either dump water on your head or donate. You must dump water on your head and donate. 

We are commanded to donate. We are command to help someone when they are in need. We should not ignore their pain and suffering. After all, we read only weeks ago in Deuteronomy 15:7:

If there is a someone in need among you, do not harden your heart and shut out the person. Open your hand and lend him whatever he needs

This viral sensation has done exactly that by raising millions to help those in need. Yet, we cannot ignore the charge found only verses before in Deuteronomy 15:4:

There shall be no needy among you

We must strive to rid this world of such devastating diseases and illnesses as well. So, while $40+ million is remarkable, that won’t do it. Such fundraising is only a drop in the bucket – pun intended.

According to NBC News, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives out roughly $30 billion in medical research. Not only has Congress failed to increase the NIH budget to keep up with inflation, it has also slashed its budget by over 20%, over $6 billion, over the past decade. As a result, the NIH has cut in half the number of research funding grant it now approves, making it even more difficult to provide cutting edge medical treatment for these devastating diseases and making it more of a challenge to work towards a cure for these illnesses. 

So despite our best efforts, despite our viral campaigns and use of social media, despite our willingness to dump ice water on our heads, despite our attempt to truly follow the command of Deuteronomy 15:7 — to help those in need — we have a long way to go to fulfill our commitment to make Deuteronomy 15:4 a reality. We cannot forget about our charge to end illness, to end disease, to find a cure.

I donated money to ALS research, as well as Huntington’s Disease research, but I have another challenge for all of you. Dump a bucket of ice on your head if you really want to, but donate as well. However, that is not the challenge. I challenge you to also write your congressional representatives. Call them. Vote. Ask them to increase the budget of the NIH. If they refuse, ask them to explain to you why they won’t. Ask them to explain where money going towards medical research, money towards finding a cure, would be better spent. To make real change, we can’t just donate. To make real change, congress needs to recommit to supporting the National Institutes of Health. 

Let us live in a world where we aren’t just committed to giving tzedakah, but committed to curing pain, suffering, and illness. Let us live in a world where there shall be no needy. I’ll certainly pour a bucket of ice on my head for that! 

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Prepare For The New Year With The Pop Elul Project

pop apple 2

Interested in finding a way to connect the themes of the High Holy Days with all that is trendy? With the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, comes the return of the Pop Elul Project. Check out the Pop Elul Project for conversations about the latest hit songs, movies, and television shows and find out how they have something to teach us about our faith and ourselves.

 

 

 

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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Love the Stranger, Stand Up for the Stranger

Like so many, I am troubled and saddened by the news this past week coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown, an African-American teenager living in Ferguson, a St. Louis neighborhood, was gunned down in the middle of the street by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. The officer, according to multiple eyewitnesses, shot the unarmed teenagerv multiple times – including several shots to the head — because he challenged the policeman’s order to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street.  

don't shootThis event — the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street — set off a violent and scary chain of events. The community protested, demanding justice, wanting the name of the officer to be released (it finally was several days ago). The police responded with armored vehicles and riot gear. In turn, an angry few participated in looting, the breaking of windows, and setting storefronts on fire. A curfew was instituted (which has since been lifted, at least temporarily) and the National Guard has been sent in, turning Ferguson into a military state. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, taking advantage of their constitutional right to peacefully assemble. The media have been documenting these events, taking advantage of their constitutional right as well. Yet, many news correspondents and peaceful protesters were arrested, including a Getty Images photographer and a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor.

The media spent the weekend explaining that Michael Brown was a suspect in an attempted robbery at a QuikTrip convenience store, allegedly taking several cigars from the counter of a local convenience store without paying for them, accused of threatening the store’s worker as he left. Some have actually said that this justifies the shooting. Nothing –NOTHING –justifies the shooting of an unarmed individual by police. Plus, the Ferguson Police Chief has clearly stated that the attempted robbery had nothing to do with the police officer’s initial contact with Michael Brown. In the words of Michael Skolnik, Editor-in-Chief of GlobalGrind, “An alleged robbery doesn’t matter when you have your hands up and are yelling don’t shoot.”

Two hands in the air is the classic gesture of surrender to authority. Protestors in Ferguson have taken to this act and incorporated it into their protest, as they have urged us all to take a stand against bigotry, against hate, against one group taking authority over another. There is nothing — not race, ethinicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation — that justifies the shooting of an unarmed person, whether it be by an individual or a police officer. The message is clear: I may be a stranger, but I am not strange. I may be different, but truthfully, we are all the same.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Eikev. In the Torah portion, Moses goes on a tangent regarding how we treat each other. While focusing on how we must adhere to God’s laws and only worship one God, we are also reminded that we must see God in everyone and strive to act as God does towards everyone.

We read, beginning in Deuteronomy 10:17:

…for God Almighty shows no favor among people. God ensures justice for the neglected and forgotten, loves the stranger, providing sustenance and clothing. You too must love the stranger, because you too were strangers in Egypt.

This is a powerful statement by the leader of the supposed ‘chosen’ people, that God does not favor one people over another. We are all God’s people. We are all made in God’s image. Furthermore, our charge is that we cannot, we must not, only look out for ourselves. We are equally obligated to stand up to the injustices of all humanity. We must love the stranger. We must look out for the stranger. Because we too are strangers and we are all God’s people.

The media has been so focused on the protests and riots of Ferguson, the tear gas and rubber bullets of riot police, that a week and a half later, we are completely ignoring what we need to be protesting: an unarmed black teenager was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer.

While I shared my thoughts about the injustice that is exemplified in Ferguson, Missouri, this past Shabbat, I am deeply troubled by the lack of statements regarding the shooting of Michael Brown by the Jewish community. Where are the statements by movements and movement leaders? Where are the press releases by institutions, organizations, and seminary presidents? Where are the calls for justice from the Jewish community?

I was comforted to see my colleague and friend Rabbi Ari Kaiman of St. Louis participate in a peaceful protest and national moment of silence at the St. Louis arch last week. The message of the protest was simple: life – all life – is precious, is priceless, is Divine. All life matters. We must love all life, care about all life, and as God commands, Va’ahavtem et HaGer, love the stranger as much as we love each other. For love more than anything else is what will defeat injustice in this world.   

What happened to the Jewish community’s march for justice? The Jewish Daily Forward had an article this week entitled, When We Marched Together in Selma, focusing on the Jewish community’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Jewish community used to be heavily involved in the call for social justice, with rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. King and local rabbinic leader, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, of blessed memory, speaking at the March on Washington. Yet, a black unarmed teenager is shot in cold blood by a police officer and the greater Jewish community is silent. Is it that gun violence has become too common place? Is it that we already showed our anger when Trayvon Martin was murdered by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, or when Jordan Davis was shot because his music was too loud? Are our voices hoarse? Maybe the Jewish community has understandably been focused on Israel and the war in Gaza this summer. Whatever the reason for lack of statements and action, the silence of the Jewish community is deafening.

We cannot say that this is not our problem. We cannot say that this is not our issue. This is not Iraq. This is not Syria. This is not Egypt. This is not Russia. This is not Gaza. This is America. This is home. And we must stand up, as Moses asserts that God does in the Torah, for all humanity, ensuring justice for the neglected, loving those that are different than us, embracing the stranger as our friend, understanding that that we are inextricably bound.

The call for justice still beckons. As Dr. King famously said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Thus, we must stop being silent and speak out for justice. We must stand up for justice for all.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Searching for Comfort on Shabbat Nachamu

It is customary that throughout the summer at Congregation Beth El we have summer darshanim, different congregants who teach, share, and offer words of Torah about the Torah portion. Last Shabbat, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, David Suskauer, share his thoughts about Shabbat Nachamu and how it relates to what is currently going on in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested in sharing their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah over the summer, please contact me directly. 

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

D’var Torah for Shabbat Nachamu

By David Suskauer

David Suskauer

David Suskauer

Since I returned from the World ORT Solidarity Mission to Israel, I have been asked what I learned while I was in Israel.  We were driving in the south around 10:30 AM Israel time, when the siren sounded and we had to get out of our van and into a bomb shelter.  Soon after World ORT posted on Facebook that we were evading missiles before I had the chance to tell anyone what took place.  This meant that World ORT told Mara what happened and not me.  Not good.  Lesson learned.  Don’t fear Hamas, fear the Wifey.

I want to put into context the missile threat that Israel has faced since the fighting began.  Israel is comparable in size to New Jersey.  Imagine that for the last number of years, Philadelphia had been launching rockets at Cherry Hill and Trenton.  Occasionally they could reach Atlantic City.  Now suddenly the missiles are targeted at Newark, New York City and on a good day Paramus.  The danger is real.

The news has been so difficult to read and watch.  At security briefings in Israel, we learned that Hamas’ weakness is its greatest strength.  Hamas knows that it cannot defeat Israel militarily.  They understand that the world cannot stand to watch footage of Israeli responses to their rockets and the Palestinian casualties and physical destruction that follow.  They also know that they can inflict suffering on Israeli society through imprecise rockets aimed at civilian targets.  I heard numerous times that the worst night of Hamas attacks was when they announced that rockets would be launched, Mozei Shabbat at 9:00 PM.  The resulting anticipation and fear meant that although the rockets were intercepted, they did achieve partial success.

While Israelis have been unusually supportive of the government and the war, they are uncertain as to whether Israel has won or is winning.  What we should not question is Israel’s right to self-defense.  What we can question are Israel’s methods.  Herein lies the trap.  Hamas wanted to lure Israel into a ground war; it helps to accomplish their goals.  When the fighting stops, Israel is going to be faced with difficult questions.

  1. After the 3 Israeli teens were kidnapped, when did Israel know their fate?
  2. Did Israel take actions that led to the Hamas escalation?
  3. Israeli intelligence is going to have to answer for not realizing the extent and the capability of the Hamas tunnels.

Also bear this in mind- Israel has said that it has uncovered a horrific plot regarding the tunnels.  There was a plan for a Rosh Hashanah massacre- terrorists would come through the tunnels and head straight for the southern communities.  While we must hold Israel accountable for its actions, we must acknowledge the threat and the danger posed by the enemy.  With all of the available evidence of what Hamas has done both to Israel and its own people, why is the world so quick to judge?  Only part of this can be explained by the difference in their military capabilities.  It is good that we question Israel, but we must remember that Israel has a responsibility to its citizens.

After a week or two of fighting, I found that I could no longer read what some colleagues and friends were writing, comparing Israel and Hamas.  Perhaps in the beginning it was necessary to tell the world of how Hamas put its own citizens at risk, uses them as human shields and has a different moral compass.  We agree.  We can also agree about our support for the IDF and commend its conduct during the fighting.  I am an IDF veteran and am for the most part proud of how Israel has conducted itself.  But I get nervous when I read about our “holy soldiers” because in Jewish history, ‘holy soldiers’ brings to mind death and destruction as the Crusaders marched across Europe.  We will read some of this during the Martyrology on Yom Kippur.  We must not mix Israel’s right to defend itself with a holy war.  Our tradition teaches us differently.

Earlier in the week I had the idea that I should take a look at this week’s Haftorah.  The link seemed obvious- it is the first Haftorah of Consolation after Tisha B’Av and I was hoping that the 72 hour truce would extend into Shabbat.  Shabbat would provide an ideal consolation- a time of rest and reflection with hopefully more quiet to follow.  We all know how that worked out.  More than 70 rockets were fired at Israel yesterday and they were followed by Israeli reprisals.

My thought process took me to a whole new and different place.  The Haftorah begins with, “Nachmu, nachmu ami…” which Etz Haim translates as, “Comfort, oh Comfort My People.”  We are told that Jerusalem and her people have suffered their punishment and are ready to be redeemed.  Isaiah goes on to write that people come and go, but G-d remains constant.  Chapter 40, line 9 states, “Ascend a lofty mountain O herald of joy to Zion; Raise your voice with power, O herald of joy to Jerusalem- Raise it have no fear.”  This week I find that line to be particularly moving.  Regardless of your position on what has taken place between Israel and Hamas, it has been hard to miss not just the criticism of Israel, but the anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. I think that we must be careful not to confuse legitimate criticism with anti-Semitism.  “Raise your voice with power” resonates with me not as power as force, but the power that comes from having a state, the return to Zion and the ability that Israel has to defend itself.  Israel is the regional military superpower but also the economic and democratic power of the region.

I find Chapter 40, Verse 18 very powerful:

“To whom, then can you liken G-d,

What form compare to Him?

The idol?  A woodworker shaped it,

And a smith overlaid it with gold,

Forging links of silver. 

As a gift, he chooses the mulberry-

A wood that does not rot-

Thou seeks a skillful woodworker to make a firm idol,

That will not topple”

My problem is that it is easy to quote Isaiah, and while I believe in G-d’s enduring promise of our homeland, my identification with Zionism demands that it was not enough to wait for our return, we needed to make it happen.  I believe that Zionism was necessary because a new Jew had to be made, one capable of defending him or herself who could take destiny into their own hands.  (As an aside, I was tempted to quote from Bialik’s City of Slaughter, comparing Jews of 1903 with today, but decided it was too heavy handed.) We demand more of Israel than we do of other countries.  Israel is held to a higher standard people complain.  But I think that this can be a good thing.  It also acknowledges our biblical connection to the land.  We must remember our origins, how and why we were sent into Exile and the modern sacrifices required to build the state of Israel.  My family was sent to exile from Spain in 1492 and kept the key to the family home in Cordoba, originally hoping to return, but also serving as a reminder.  The key presumably is still in the house in Poland, a house that we know still exists, now in Ukraine, where generations lived until those who were unable to get out met their fate at the hands of the Nazis.  We speak of lessons learned and Jewish morality that must be applied to each other and our neighbors.  Only then can we truly fulfill the promise laid out in this week’s Haftorah.  When the fighting ends, there are going to be new opportunities for a negotiated comprehensive settlement.  We have chosen to return to our homeland and fulfill G-d’s promise.  Now we must face the difficult choices that will enable us to live with our neighbors in peace. 

Shabbat Shalom

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The Power of Words

This past Shabbat, we began reading the book of Deuteronomy, Sefer Devarim. Parashat Devarim, the first Torah portion of the final book of the Torah, begins with the following statement:

Eleh Devarim Asher Diber Moshe El Kol Yisrael

These are the Words that Moses spoke to all of Israel.

This Torah portion begins Moses’ final speech to the people of Israel. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness and Moses’ role and relationship during that journey. However, we must still ask ourselves, how is it possible that Moses shared these words with all of Israel? The text does not say with the Children of Israel or the People of Israel. It specifically notes that Moses’ spoke these words to every single individual associated with the people of Israel.

This would be an unattainable task by any individual, speaking to hundreds of thousands, but considering Moses’ old age and frail state, as well as his speech impediment and fear of public speaking, the possibility of him sharing his words with all of Israel is rather far-fetched. So then, how is it possible that Moses’ words reached all of the People of Israel? The answer to that question lies in the power of words.

mouthspeakingWe often think that when we speak to someone, our words only impact that individual, but our words have a far greater ripple effect. When we speak, and share our words with the world, they are ultimately felt by the entire world. Our words are passed on, from conversation to conversation, from individual to individual. Like a game of telephone, our words have an impact. Moses may have only been speaking to a select few, but they shared his words with others who in turn, shared his words as well. Moses spoke these words to all of Israel because ultimately, his words impacted all of Israel.

The same can be said about our words. Do we ever stop to think about the power of our own words? Do we realize how many people are impacted by our words? When we speak, are we speaking words of love or words of hate? Are our words promoting a world of peace where we embrace the other or a world that further divides us? When we share our words, we do not realize the impact of those words. We do not realize how many will hear our words.

As we conclude the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, let us take into account the lessons of this fast day. Rabbinic tradition (Bab. Tal. Mes. Yoma 9b) teaches that sinat chinam, that senseless hatred, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and subsequently, the holy city as well. Senseless hatred is speaking ill will about another. Senseless hatred is preaching words of hatred and bigotry, words of misogyny, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Senseless hatred is forget that Divine spark within each individual, refusing to recognize that we are each made in God’s image. Senseless hatred is using our words to curse this world instead of blessing this world.

Our words have great power. Let us keep in mind the power of our words and use our words to teach love. Let us ensure that our words are not catalysts for senseless hatred. Instead, let our words create sparks of unconditional love.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mercy and Refuge

I am proud of the morals and ethics the Israel Defense Forces strives to uphold. While Israel, and the Israeli Army, is determined to destroy the Hamas terrorist regime whose sole purpose is the destruction of the State of Israel, it goes out of its way to prevent collateral damage, to prevent the death of innocent civilians. Even with that being the case though, this is impossible in Gaza. It is impossible when there are 1.8 million in such a small radius. It is impossible when Hamas isn’t interested in building an infrastructure. It is impossible when Hamas is more interested in building tunnels to sneak into Israel and enact terror than they are in building bomb shelters to protect their own people. It is impossible when Hamas stores rockets in mosques, hospitals, and schools. This past Friday, the IDF stated that terrorists opened fire, firing mortars and anti-tank missiles from within a United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) School. It resulted in the death of Staff Sgt. Guy Levy. Staff Sgt. Levy was hesitant to shoot into the school for fear of harming innocent civilians.

This came a day after news broke that a UN School what served as a refuge and safe house for some 1,500 men, women, children, and elderly, was hit. Media was quick to judge that it was hit by the IDF.  Israel would not confirm this. Israel suggests that this was actually a result of Hamas misfiring one of their rockets, an errant missile hitting the school. It is unclear at this point who or what caused the strike. What is clear is that 16 people are dead, another 200 wounded. None of them soldiers. None of them terrorists. None of them intended targets. All of them a tragedy.

Last past Shabbat, we finished reading Book of Numbers, reading the final Torah portion in Bamidbar, Parashat Mas’ei. The Torah portion recounts the journey of the Israelites in the desert, as they stand on the banks of the river Jordan, preparing to enter the land of Canaan, preparing to enter the Promised Land. Once the Israelites enter the land, one of their first orders of business is to set up Iray Miklat, Cities of Refuge. Miklat is the modern Hebrew word for bomb shelter, where Israelis have spent way too much of their time over the last few weeks.  When I lived in Jerusalem several years ago, we used our Miklat was a storage closet. I never could’ve imagined needing to use it to stay safe. Now it is refuge for millions.

We are instructed to set up Cities of Refuge in the Torah because our tradition clearly distinguishes between intentional murder and accidental death. It makes the distinction between intentionally striking another with stone, iron, or wood and accidently hurting someone without malice.

Hamas targets civilians. Israel does all it can to avoid civilians. It warns individuals to leave the area; the IDF gives them a head’s up that there are terrorists in the area and urges civilians to evacuate. That is just. Yet, there are few places to evacuate to. The best efforts by the IDF to be ethical in their pursuits doesn’t change the fact though that there are dead children, that there are innocent lives lost. Some say that is the reality of war. Our Torah reminds us that unintentional loss is simply reality of life.

Yet, knowing the realities of war, and the realities of life, we must do all we can to limit the need for such metaphorical Cities of Refuge. We must do all we can to limit such unintentional loss, because the reality is that loss is loss. Families grieve. Bloodied bodies are buried.

During the mournful three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av on the Jewish calendar, we acknowledge the violence that God witnesses in the Promised Land. In Lamentations, read on the 9th of Av, God reacts to the destruction, to the death, to the violence, that occurs in the Holy Land:

“My eyes fail with tears, my innards burn. . .because the young children and the sucklings swoon in the broad places of the city.” (Lamentations 2:11)

God mourns such loss, be it intentional or unintentional. God cries. And we cry too. Our eyes fill with tears as we hear of lives lost, brave young men and women of the Israel Defense Forces defending our homeland, and innocent Palestinian men, women, and children who are trapped by Hamas’ terrorist regime. We seek symbolic Cities of Refuge as we acknowledge and atone for innocent lives lost in Israel’s fight against terror. And we pray. We pray for an end to the violence. We pray for an end to loss of life. We pray for mercy.

Our blood is the same color – and too much of it has been spilled. May we work to no longer have a need to build symbolic Cities of Refuge. May we build towards a day when there will no longer be such loss of life.

During this three week period of fighting,the lives of an entire generation of Israeli and Palestinian children have been forever changed. Their views of the future are tainted. Their hope in the future is lost. Mine is not. May we teach these children to live. May we teach these children to live together. May we teach these children the importance of peace. And may we never stop working to make that peace a reality.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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.

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#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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