It Begins with a Single Can of Food

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, in which we are commanded to help those among us that are most vulnerable. We see the ultimate goal of a society that we strive to create in Deuteronomy 15:4:

There Shall be No Needy Among You.

However, we also know that this isn’t the reality of the world that we live in. We continue to work towards the day when there will be no one who is in need, but until we get to that point, we must then follow what the Torah portion says only a few verses later in Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

If, however, there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

We have a responsibility to help those who are in need and yet, even when we give tzedakah, we too often ignore those who are most vulnerable in our own backyards. How can we help those on the other side of the world who are in need and ignore the needy among us? What does our responsibility to help those “among us” really mean?

Is this referring to those who are in our families? Members of our synagogues? Those living in our neighborhoods and on our blocks? Essex County is unique in the close proximity of the small villages and larger cities that make up this county. South Orange and Maplewood in particular are surrounded by so many that are in need. We cannot simply ignore those around us because they have a different zip code. They are still our neighbors, and in many cases, live only a short walk away.

According to city-data.com the poverty rate in New Jersey in 2013 was 8.5%. That is the percentage of residents in the state who live below the poverty line. In South Orange, that number is significantly less, only 5.3%. In Maplewood, that number is reduced further, to 4.4%. In Millburn, only 1.5% of residents live below the poverty line. Yet, when we look among us, we only need to look down the road. Only a couple of miles away in Irvington, the poverty rate is 17.4%. In Orange, that number is 18.8%. In East Orange, it increases to 19.2%. And in Newark, which begins just down the road from our synagogue (less than a mile away!) that number is 28.4%. All of these communities are among us. All those in need among us are our responsibility.

Two of the ways you can take action and fulfill our obligation found in Deuteronomy 15:7-8 is by volunteering for the Interfaith Hospitality Network and by volunteering for the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. The IHN helps homeless families in our county who are in need of shelter. We partner with other local houses of worship to provide them with a place to stay and three meals. Their children continue to be in a safe space and they are recognized as sacred and holy, even as they deal with such a challenge. Congregation Beth El is one of three synagogues to join other houses of worship in supporting, volunteering at, and running the IFPO. The Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, housed at the Church of the Epiphany in Orange, provides supplemental and emergency food to low-income residents of Orange and East Orange every Wednesday, except the first Wednesday of the month.

IFPOAt each entrance to our synagogue building, we have collection bins to collect non-perishable food items for the IFPO. While we give out hundreds of bags of food a month, I know that there have been weeks when our bins have been overflowing with donations and weeks when they have been nearly empty. Yet, hunger does not stop. In fact, during the summer months, without breakfast and lunch programs in schools, many more children go hungry. A simple can of food can make a huge difference. Think about how many times you regularly enter our synagogue building. We come for services and for meetings, we come to drop off our children and we come to socialize. We come to learn and we come to teach. Next time you come into the building, bring a can of food with you. In fact, I invite you to bring a can of food with you every time you come in the building. Doing so is a small step to help ensure that we open our hands – and our hearts – to all those in need among us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Return of the Pop Elul Project

As the Hebrew month of Elul begins, look out for the return of the Pop Elul Project. Throughout the month, blog posts on thPopElule Pop Elul Project help us find meaning in the themes of the High Holy Days.

Each daily Blog Post focuses on a piece of Pop Culture (Movies, Television, Music, Books, etc.) and connects that which is “trendy” to the themes of the Days of Awe and the High Holy Day season.

The Pop Elul Project is an open forum for discussion and debate about God, Renewal, and Repentance with help from the music we love to listen to and the shows and movies we love to watch!

You can visit the blog at popelul.com and check it out for new and archived blog posts.

Wishing you a meaningful High Holy Day season!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Acting on our Obligation to “Love the Stranger”

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, for Parashat Eikev, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, MIke Finesilver, share his thoughts about the recent events in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested to share their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah in the future, please contact me directly. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev

By Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

In this week’s Parasha, Eikev, Moshe continues to address the Jewish people.  These parashiot are his final words before he leaves them; his farewell TED talk if you will.

Last week, Moshe recounted in detail the journey from slavery to freedom.  A reminder that we need to learn from our past, to analyze our missteps in order to be able to move forward and to change.  It also contained the six verses which make up the first parasha of the Sh’ma (our central prayer).

This week’s parasha contains nine verses which make up the second parasha of the Sh’ma.

Both of them command us to Love Adonai “Bechol L’vavecha oo’vchol nafshecha.  With all your heart and all your soul.  Last week addressed this to the individual and this week to the community.

Moshe, knows that he will not be around to go into the promise land and therefore it is important that he leaves behind a clear and concise directive.  He stresses to the people that if they/we follow the commandments, they/we will be rewarded and if not, then not.  I include “we”, because when we read the Torah, Moshe is also addressing us.

If we take care to follow the commandments, God will take care of the rest.

We are told that even though odds are not always in our favor, we will prevail over all diversity and go forth to prosper with land, with children and with wealth.  However, we are warned not to be led astray by our rewards (not to feel we have earned them), lest we be corrupted by them.

We are also reminded of our missteps in order that we do not repeat or forget them and we are also commanded to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” So my heart has been heavy from recent events in Israel and I need to ask the question “For people who say that they follow the Torah (word for word and letter for letter), how does the command to “love the stranger” translate to some of the atrocities that took place in and around Jerusalem, perpetrated by a few extremist Jews only a week ago?

I know that Rabbi Olitzky addressed this last week, but as a Jew and a Gay Man I cannot explain the pain I experienced over the attack on the people peacefully marching in the Gay Pride rally in Jerusalem by an ultra-orthodox man wielding a knife, resulting in five marchers being seriously wounded and the death this week of a 16 year old girl, Shira Banki.  The attacker was just released from prison three weeks before for doing the same thing in 2005.  I marched in the Jerusalem Pride rally in 2007 for world pride and there were bomb threats and demonstrations that stopped the parade.  Just to be clear, this is not a loud, brightly colored, saucy parade like in Tel Aviv or New York. The Jerusalem march is a respectful rally for LGBTQ people of all ethnicities and religions who live in Jerusalem.

As if that wasn’t enough, the day after we learned of the fire bomb attack on the Palestinian settlement in the West Bank by extremist Jewish settlers, resulting in the death of 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabsha and serious injury to his four year old brother and parents.

And it makes me ask, Did we as a people not go through the holocaust where hate resulted in the destruction of six million Jews and countless LGTB people?  “Love the Stranger”

It could be very easy for us to say these are the actions of a few extremists and dismiss these acts of terrorism as not being our responsibility.  We are commanded this week to love the stranger, but the people who committed these acts were grown out of communities of hate for the stranger/the other.

Last Saturday night there was a Rally in Jerusalem with Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau.  Lau, is the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one). He addressed thousands of people who turned out to condemn these attacks.

He said “It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

“All the worshippers in all the synagogues in Israel,” Lau continued, “all of them heard today, this very day, heard for themselves the Ten Commandments [in the weekly Torah portion]. And in them, at the top, they stood and heard, ‘Do not murder.’”

“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”

In this week’s haftarah from Isaiah we are reminded that the persecutors will be punished.

It says “Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from my hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.”Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie downBehold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  I also say Love the hated, for we were hated.

This parasha talks about the gift of a land that is perfect, in return for doing the work every day to follow G-d’s ordinances.  The message is clear “Do the work and reap the benefits.”  It is not about taking the law into one’s own hands to control the outcome.  This week addresses the community obligation to work every day to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.

We also enter the month of Elul, which begins next Shabbat and these parashiot remind us to reflect on our past actions and to make amends.  We are commanded to strive each day to surround ourselves with good deeds and mindful speech.  As a community it is important what we say, what we teach our children.   Are we teaching them to do the right thing?  Are we mindful of how we talk about others?

I feel truly blessed to have a community like ours, to see young parents bringing their children to Shacharit services.  To feel the true acceptance in this community and be surrounded by truly selfless giving and love.

May we continue to Love the Stranger and to expand a community that is built on inclusion and mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom!

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It’s Time for Less Prayer and More Action

I was disappointed with myself last week. It took me several hours to even reflect and realize my own apathy. Flipping through channels last Thursday, I saw the news report of the latest mass shooting in our country, when gunman John Russel Houser opened fire last week at The Grand Movie Theater in Lafayette, during a screening of Trainwreck. Two victims were murdered. An additional nine victims were injured, and the gunman eventually took his own life. I watched reports of this terrible tragedy for a few moments and then changed the channel to see what else was on. Hours later I was so angry with myself — and with what society has become — that mass shootings have become so commonplace, have become the norm, that such an event is a nightly headline. I was so disappointed with myself that instead of this massacre leading to action, I just flipped the channel to watch something funny, lighthearted, and fiction instead.

The reality is that mass shootings are all too common in this country. It was less than two weeks ago that Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on a military base in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S. Marines and himself. It was barely a month ago that Dylann Roof shot up Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the racist intentions of murdering African-American parishioners. He murdered nine people, included the church’s senior pastor. And of course, these are only the mass shootings that we hear about, that are covered on television, in newspapers, and on blogs. According to Business Insider, Mass Shootings are so common in America that we don’t even hear about most of them.

Lafayette shootingI was angry at my own apathy because we cannot let apathy become our reality. We cannot let our minds, hearts, and souls become numb to our country’s gun violence epidemic. Gun violence in America is much worse than in other developed countries. We need to start doing a lot more, and simply praying is not the answer. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for prayers following an ‘awful night in Louisiana,’ referring to last week’s movie theater shooting in Lafayette. As a rabbi who prays three times daily, I strongly encourage prayer. I believe pray helps us connect to something greater than ourselves and balances us when life feels chaotic and we feel helpless. But prayer alone cannot be the answer.

Last Shabbat, the Shabbat prior to the mournful day of Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar, was referred to as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named for the prophetic warnings found in the special Haftarah reading. While Tisha B’av is a day on the Jewish calendar that allows us to mourn the societal tragedies of history caused by humanity’s hateful actions, the Sabbath prior is meant to warn us of the tragedy on the horizon if we do not change our ways. In this Haftarah, taken from chapter one of the book of Isaiah, the prophet urges the Israelites to change their ways and finally, speaking for God, essentially says, “enough with the worship. It is time to act!”

We read in Isaiah 1:11-12 —

‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnet offerings of rams,

And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me –Who asked that of you?’

God is saying that there is no point in worship if people will not change their ways, if society is unwilling to change. Such sacrificial ritual, and such modern-day prayer, is almost offensive if the prayerful words are meaningless, if the promise to change is a false promise. God goes as far as to say in Isaiah 1:15 —

And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen.

Instead God wants us to seek justice and change our ways as a people and as society. Isaiah continues in 1:15-17 –

Your hands are stained with crime – Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.

It’s time for less prayer and more action. We must take Isaiah’s words – God’s words – to heart. I am sorry Governor Jindal, but I disagree with you. We cannot simply pray. We need to act. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I am tired of a country that cannot pass any true gun control legislation because the gun lobby has more control over our elected officials than we, the voters, residents, and citizens of this country, do. I am tired of a country where a true conversation about level-headed gun control gets shut down automatically and becomes partisan debate. I am tired of a country which understands every other part of the U.S. constitution to be up for interpretation except for our reading of the Second Amendment. And I am tired of a country that permits me to become apathetic, even for a moment, when hearing about bloodshed caused by a bullet.

Those who disagree with me challenge how I can guarantee that guns will be kept out of the hands of criminals. I cannot. Legislative changes cannot. However, I do know this: I know that it is easier to legally buy a gun than it is to register to vote. Furthermore, the restrictions on driving and receiving a driver’s license because of mental illness, medical conditions, or previous illegal driving activity make it far more difficult to legally drive a car than to legally buy a gun. I also know this: Muhammed Abdulazeez had a history of drug abuse and depression and was able to legally buy the gun that he used to murder four U.S. Marines. Dylann Roof had pending felony charge. Federal law prohibits people with pending felony charges from obtaining firearms. Yet, a legal loophole allowed Roof to obtain a gun, because South Carolina is one of many states that does not require background checks for private gun transactions. John Houser was mentally unstable and told by judges on two separate occasions that his cognitive well-being needed to be evaluated by a specialist. But because he was never involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he was still able to legally buy a gun, which he did from a pawn shop in Alabama, before using it to shoot up a movie theater in Louisiana.

I know that we as a nation can do better. We must do better. We must pass commonsense gun control reform to prevent those who shouldn’t be able to, from legally obtaining a firearm. We will not be able to fully solve the gun violence epidemic in our country. However, doing nothing only allows it to continue, and as long as we do nothing, we are just as responsible for the bloodshed of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our loved ones. How many people need to be murdered by a firearm in a movie theater or house of worship, on a military base or in a hospital, in a shopping mall or school, before we finally come to our senses and pass commonsense gun control?

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God requires that we devote ourselves to justice. To fail to act and to allow our elected officials to not act is an injustice! We need to stop our calls for prayer and begin our calls for action. God requires that of us, and the fragility of life requires that of us as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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…And this is the Law

Zot Chukat HaTorah. This is the law of the Torah. These insignificant words mean little in the continuing narrative of our Torah. In fact, these initial words from last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, introduce the ritual laws of the red heifer, laws that we struggle to understand, laws that we certainly no longer practice.

Yet, as we reflect on the historic events of this past week, we also come to understand the power and significance that the words Zot Chukat HaTorah, this is the law of the Torah, have. We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Ben Bag-Bag taught that every time we read from the Torah, it offers insight into our lives, and the monumental moments in history shed light on our understanding of Torah. In witnessing this historic decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, a decision that legally guarantees marriage equality in all fifty states, we witnessed the power of law as well as the power of the evolution of law and legal interpretation. We should be blessed that we live at a time and in a society in which the highest court in the land interprets our constitution to understand that all of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to marry. I am proud to be rabbi of a community in which we can also celebrate such a decision, in which we can declare that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that such a decision is also the law of the Torah. We celebrate the kedusha, the sacred nature of this ruling.

SCOTUS Marriage EqualityAs we celebrate such a historic decision, we cannot forget the many steps that led to such a historic decision. Beginning with the initial Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969 that launched the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in this country, continuing to the SCOTUS decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 which ensured that same-sex sexual activity was not an illegal act, to the groundbreaking passage of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2004, to the rapid pace of state after state allowing marriage equality in recent years and the SCOTUS decision defeating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, each step led to this historic decision.

Every action causes a reaction. Every event causes another resulting event. We read in Parashat Chukat about Moses’ actions which led to him not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Yet, we ignore the steps that took place that ultimately led to this turning point in our narrative. The Israelites are thirsty. Moses strikes a rock to give them water. Miriam provides a well for them. Miriam dies. The well dries up. The people are thirsty again and complain to Moses. Moses again strikes a rock, but ignores God’s command to speak to the rock instead. As a result, the Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron will not enter the land of Israel. This wasn’t just about the striking of a rock. This was about every step along the way, every moment in the Israelites’ journey, that led to this turning point.

So too, as we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday June 26th, we must also pause to celebrate, honor, and remember, the many steps that were taken, the many events in our history, and the many leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality, that led to this moment. We also know that we have a long way to go for true equality. We know that even though marriage equality is legal in all fifty states, in many states individuals can still be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fight for true equality is far from over.

Still, we need to pause and celebrate the many steps that have led to this moment, that allow us to celebrate marriage equality and say that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that this legal decision which emphasizes that each individual is equal, and made in God’s image, is also the law of our Torah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing up in Solidarity

On September 15, 1963, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite right outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was always busy, serving as a local meeting place for civil rights leaders. On Sunday morning, due to worship services and the many activities it hosted, it was particularly packed. At 10:22 AM that morning, the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls, and injuring an additional 22 people. This was domestic terrorism, clearly a racist hate crime.

Over fifty years later, we are left asking what has changed? Last week, a man entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man joined congregants for bible study and stayed for over an hour, before opening fire on the African-American men and women present, killing nine, ranging in age from 16-87, including the church’s pastors. In custody, Dylan Roof admitted that he was hoping to start a race war.

We celebrate the advances in society towards equality and yet, we ignore that racism is alive and well in this country. The confederate flag flies high at statehouses in this country and is sold in stores. Highways are named after Southern generals who laid down their lives fighting for slavery. Since this tragic murder, many including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, have called for the confederate flag — a flag that is a symbol of racism, slavery, and the greatest blemish on this country’s history — to be removed from the statehouse. Wal-mart and Amazon are among the companies that have declared that they will stop selling the confederate flag. While this is progress, albeit too late — after the murder of nine innocent victims, there is much that  our religious leaders and political leaders still must do.

I am proud to be a part of the local South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Association. Last Friday, before Shabbat, we organized a last minute vigil at the South Orange NJ Transit train station to mourn, pray, and hope together. Although the vigil was scheduled at the last minute, well over a hundred members of the community attended to cry together and pray together. This was a power experience of unity. Yet, we must do more than pray. We must challenge our leaders.

StandAgainstRacismOrganizations representing the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism announced this week that they have joined together to declare that this Shabbat will be a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American community against racism. I appreciate the sentiment and always stand with my black brothers and sisters against racism. I don’t think you will find anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t agree that what happened at the Emanuel AME Church was a heinous, racist attack. The murderer said so himself! But we cannot only take a stand against racism when such terrible murders happen in this country and ignore the systemic racism that exists in society and that too many deal with on a daily basis. Where was the solidarity Shabbat following the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray? Where was the solidarity Shabbat when Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie or young black teens were tackled by police for swimming in McKinney, Texas? The Jewish community — and society as a whole — has been too quiet in standing up to the systemic racism in this country. We all must stand up against racism, but I must ask, what has taken us so long to take a stand?

As we stand in solidarity, the tragedy of Charleston must be a spark that forces us to stand up more. We cannot wait for our leaders to act. We must stand up to our leaders and demand that they act. Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Korach. In this Torah portion Korach challenges Moses’ leadership and attempts to start a rebellion. He embarrasses Moses publicly, fails in his attempt to overthrow the leadership, and ends up being swallowed up by the earth. The Torah commentator Rashi suggests that Korach failed because he was only interested in his own power. Yet, maybe he wasn’t wrong in his efforts, just in his execution. There are times when we must stand up to leadership. There are times when we must stand up to apathy and stand up for what we believe in. We must take what Korach attempted to do and channel it for the right cause — to change society and make a difference in the world. Fifty years later we need to stop standing up a lot more.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride Is…

Last week, my congregation participated in the annual North Jersey Pride week, hosting a “Progress in the Pulpit” conversation on Monday night, speaking about Pride and equality on Shabbat from the bimah, celebrating with a Pride ice cream social on Shabbat afternoon, and being present at last Sunday’s Pride Festival. Pride week, and Pride month, is observed in June because of the Stonewall riots that took place in late June of 1969, which was arguably the turning point event leading up to the modern fight for LGBT rights.

PrideFest1Last Shabbat, during Pride week, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, and read the narrative of the twelve scouts being sent to the Promised Land to scout the land and the nations that inhabit the land. This narrative though is about more than scouting the land. This story is really a story of how we see ourselves and not a story about how we are seen by others.

In Numbers 13:33, ten scouts report back:

We saw Giants there and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

More than anything else, this is a statement about self-esteem and self-confidence. Who we are as a people and who we are as a community is determined by how we make people feel. We fail if there are those in our community that have low self-esteem, doubt who they are, who they love, and how they identify because of statements we make.

PrideFest2According to the Trevor Project, while suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Yet, as Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, explains, if they are shown that they are loved and excepted by their teachers, families, and faith communities, then the statistics even out.

So Pride is to be like Joshua and Caleb. We do not just condone; we celebrate each individual. We must teach each
individual to be like Joshua and Caleb, to believe that they are good enough, brave enough, and strong enough, to be themselves. Anything else is unacceptable.  That is what Pride is.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Seven Ways to Make Jewish Institutions LGBTQ-Friendly

This article was originally published on June 8, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzPride Month is the perfect time to celebrate the sexual orientations and gender identities of all our community members.

prideparadeThe commencement of Pride Month is a fitting time to acknowledge the progress the United States has made toward LGBTQ inclusion. Same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia; television shows increasingly include gay, lesbian and transgender characters; and, just last week, Caitlyn Jenner introduced her new – post-gender transition – self on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Yet, with all this progress in secular America, the Jewish community here has a way to go until it can be considered truly inclusive.

Being inclusive is about more than just whether or not Judaism recognizes same-sex marriages, or “condones” LGBTQ individuals. It is about celebrating the divine nature of each person, keeping in mind that each of us was created in God’s divine image.

This month, the American Jewish community has an opportunity to stand against the discrimination, hatred and homophobia that too many religion- and faith-based institutions nurture. Here are seven ways we can make our institutions more inclusive:

  1. Values matter

Jewish institutions should have a values statement. This is different from a mission statement. The values statement focuses on what the institution stands for. If an institution is welcoming to the LGBTQ community, then this should be put in writing. My synagogue’s values statement, which hangs on the wall at the entrance to our synagogue states that we welcome all individuals, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.

  1. Language is critical

Truly inclusive institutions should not assume that each family unit is made up of a mother and a father (or that it comprises two-parents, for that matter.) We need to celebrate the diverse range of Jewish homes – whether they have two moms, two dads, one parent or multiple. The language on membership forms should reflect that the institution does not make heteronormative assumptions about the sexual orientation of its members. Furthermore, the language that institutional leaders and representatives speak should acknowledge this fact: When the rabbi talks about family units, does he or she say “mom and dad,” or use a more general term like “parents?”

  1. Teach inclusivity

Inclusivity begins with institutions’ youngest members. We need to recognize and respect that some children may already be questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others may have gay parents. Institutions must ensure these children feel equally included in the community. Some preschools celebrate Shabbat every Friday by having a Shabbat Ima (mother) and Shabbat Abba (father), but this reinforces a heteronormative culture. At my congregation’s Thelma K. Reisman preschool, we have Shabbat boys and girls; sometimes with two boys, and sometimes with two girls. Schools can also ensure teaching materials are LGBTQ inclusive. Preschool teachers should read children storybooks with LGBTQ characters, and high schools should have Gay-Straight Alliances.

  1. Provide inclusive facilities

Most communal institutions have public restrooms that revert back to a gender-binary system: a men’s room and a women’s room. While having multiple stalls and urinals in each room serves to accommodate more people at a time, making the choice of which restroom to enter can be unwelcoming for members that are transgender or gender nonconforming. Providing gender-neutral bathrooms is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.

  1. Build LGBTQ leadership

As the Jewish community builds inclusive congregations, they also want to make sure that there are role models for all congregants. While one should never be selected for a leadership position or hired for a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, an inclusive institution makes it clear that the LGBTQ community is warmly invited to be a part of its leadership team.

  1. Participate in pride programs

Participating in Pride Month and hosting pride events emphasizes and exhibits an institution’s commitment to inclusivity. Ways to mark the month can include hosting pride parties for the institution’s LGBTQ members and allies, holding educational programs, adding unique rituals and blessings to Shabbat prayer services, or joining the city-wide festivals and parades.

  1. Prohibit hate

Ultimately, being an inclusive congregation means not tolerating hate, discrimination and bigotry. Enforcing this can include formally stipulating that such views are not welcome, and, by contrast, reinforcing what is welcome, by hanging up signs throughout the institution – including on the doors of the rabbis’ offices – stating that this is an LGBTQ safe zone.

I am proud to be a congressional rabbi of an LGBTQ-inclusive community. My experience as a leader of such an institution has taught me that welcoming everyone requires welcoming change. In order to be inclusive, communities must first and foremost be committed to shifting the way they operate.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We Must Be Prophets

On Tuesday June 2nd of this past week, I intentionally wore orange. While orange is my favorite color, I donned such a hue with a specific purpose. I wore orange as part of the first annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Such a day of awareness was brought to the national level with the help of Everytown for Gun Safety, but it was not the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT or at the Movie Theater in Aurora, CO that sparked this day of awareness. It was not the systemic racist shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown that launched such a day of awareness.

wear-orange-gun-violence-awareness-dayRather, the day was started by the friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was mistakenly shot by gang members in a Chicago Park in 2013. An honors student who only days earlier had performed in Washington DC at President Obama’s second inauguration, Pendleton and her friends were taking cover in a Chicago park during a rain storm when two men thought the group gathering together was a rival gang and began shooting. Her friends launched Project Orange Tree, asking people to wear orange on Tuesday because it would’ve been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. Everytown for Gun Safety brought such a day of awareness to the national level and elected officials and legislators, actors and actresses, athletes, and so many others, tweeted out just as I did, that they were wearing orange to raise awareness.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen pointed out, I’d rather than elected officials symbolically wearing orange, we need them to pass legislation to truly make this world a safer place. And so, a day after I attempted to raise awareness through pictures, tweets, and hashtags, I woke up and got dressed, this time putting on a white dress shirt instead of orange. That day, I followed the news closely as Maplewood Middle School was on a Code Red lockdown because a seventh grader brought a loaded 9mm Glock handgun to school at lunchtime.

A day later, I again got dressed, but instead of orange, I put on a blue dress shirt and followed the news closely that Columbia High School was on a Code Yellow lockdown because a student brought an air soft gun to school.

Thank God, no one was hurt. And yet, as the scare of gun violence and the realities of the world that we live in hit much closer to home, we must realize that raising awareness, wearing orange, only does so much and only takes us so far.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat B’haalotecha. In the Torah portion, we are introduced to Eldad and Medad, who remain in the camp and as God’s spirit rests upon them — v’tanach alehem heRuach — they acted as prophets. Yet, when Joshua hears of this, he is outraged. Next in line to take over as leader and serve as the mouthpiece for God, Joshua complains to Moses, but Moses responds in Numbers 11:29:

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put God’s Spirit on them!”

Moses’ hope is my hope: we must all see ourselves as God’s prophets, and thus, walk in God’s ways, striving to create a safer and more peaceful world, reflective of the world that God set out to create. As prophets, we all have a responsibility to build a safe community, to speak out and stand up, and assure that our children are safe. Just as v’tanach alehem haRuach, as God’s spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, I pray that v’tanach aleinu haRuach, that God’s spirit will rest upon us as well. We must be prophets so that our children will not have to live in a world where they need to walk through metal detectors in order to take a math test or carry their books home from school in a bulletproof backpack. We must be prophets so that firearms and bullets aren’t sold at the same store that sells food, clothing, and video games.

Some of us may disagree on the solution, but we can all agree on the problem: more than 30,000 people killed every year in United States because of Gun Violence. May we join together, advocate together, and pray together, to ultimately force change together. May God’s spirit rest upon everyone. And may we one day see a day when we are all safe.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Blessing to Lead by Example

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, the Torah portion of Naso. Within that Torah reading, we find the well-known priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26:

Yevarechecha Adonai V’Yishmereicha, Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka, Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha v’Yasem lecha Shalom.

May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

priestly benediction handsThis blessing is a part of so many different rituals. These words are a part of the repetition of the Amidah. Parents use these words to bless their children on Friday night during Shabbat dinner. These words are often recited by parents at a brit milah or simchat bat. I bless couples with these words underneath a chuppah at a wedding and I recite these words when I offer a blessing to a bar or bat mitzvah. These words of blessing are integral to who we are as a people. Yet, this blessing is actually three separate blessings, three separate verse.

The first verse, a blessing for protection, is more than that. The protection we seek is not from the outside world, but rather from ourselves. We pray that God will protect us from the worst versions of ourselves. We pray that God protects us from our evil inclinations, from our mistakes, and from our bad decisions.

The imagery of the last two verses of this blessing though is quite revealing and explains the deeper meaning of the blessing. Most translations ignore the imagery and I believe as a result, misunderstand the blessing. For example, while the literal translation is “May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace,” the Jewish Publication Society translates these verses as “The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.” The translation ignores the imagery of God entirely. Yet, the idea of God revealing God’s face to us is a beautiful one.

We read in Deauteronomy 34:10 at the conclusion of the Torah, upon hearing of Moses’ death:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like MOses — whom God singled out, face to face.

Moses had a unique relationship with God. Moses’ saw God’s true face. Metaphorically speaking, we also strive to see God face to face. The blessing is a blessing in which we strive to have a relationship with God just like Moses did. Furthemore, this is a blessing in which we strive to lead just as Moses did. Moses led by example, even when he was not popular, even when he had doubters. Moses led even when he held the minority opinion. This blessing that we offer each other is ultimately a blessing about our actions. This blessing is a blessing about leadership.

May we have a relationship with God just like Moses and may God protect us from ourselves, from our own action and inaction, so that we can lead by example. Doing so will make this world a better place. Doing so will fulfill the last part of this blessing. For if we all lead by example, then we will truly bring peace to this world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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