Silence is not Sacred – Kol Nidre 5782

The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Congregation Beth El during Kol Nidre services 5782/2021. The text of the sermon can be read below the video.

Content Warning: I’m going to be talking about sexual abuse this evening.

“It’s out there and it’s going to get you. You have no control over it. It will take over your life. And you will love every second of it. That which I am talking about is United Synagogue Youth. USY.”

This was the first line of a speech I gave over two decades ago when I ran for USY President. I meant every word of it. I still do. The Jewish youth group of the Conservative Movement was my entire high school experience.  In a pre-social media world where Zoom, FaceTime, and video conferencing was reserved for Sci-Fi futuristic adventures, I lived from convention to convention, from Shabbaton to Shabbaton. I waited months to see some of my closest friends who lived hours away. I waited months for 72 hours of a weekend utopia, where we all felt safe, coming as we were, accessing that sacred community – a community that we created together.

Some came from small Jewish communities in different pockets of the state, but in USY, we were no longer the “token” Jews; we didn’t have to be afraid to express our Judaism proudly. USY was the place where no matter one’s popularity in High School, no matter how they fit in with the “in” crowd, they felt at home. USY was where I traveled across the country, and davened Shacharit at sunrise at the Grand Canyon. USY was where I led Kabbalat Shabbat services for the first time, ironically overlooking a Virgin Mary statue in Butte, Montana. It is with USY that I traveled to Israel and hiked up Masada. It is with USY that I chanted the words of Eicha while touching the cold Jerusalem stone of the Kotel. And it is because of USY that I became a rabbi. And I know that USY – and many other Jewish youth groups – had an important impact on so many of our members – in fact, many of you I’ve known since USY!

It is because of that impact of USY, and our growing teen community, that we have hired our first full-time Teen Program Coordinator, Talia Feldman, to work exclusively with adolescent congregants, to build meaningful relationships with them. Because we believe in the power of teen programming. We believe in the power of youth groups. We understand that it is often a teenager’s Jewish experiences that they have, rather than those in preschool or elementary school, that shape them. It’s those experiences one has when they are a teenager and begin making decisions for themselves that make or break them. It’s those very experiences that made me. And yet, reflecting on the news about USY over the past month, I am broken.

Last month, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jordan Soffer, was quoted in an article that subsequently made the rounds in Jewish and non-Jewish media publications, an article that went viral on social media. He mentioned how much he loved USY and still does. Like me, he mentioned how in high school it was his life, how he wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt the organization. He talked about how he contacted the organization for years to make complaints, but when they went unanswered and were swept under the rug, he finally spoke out as a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a longtime USY staff member.  

Rabbi Soffer is one of dozens who have come forward in recent weeks to acknowledge that they too are survivors of sexual abuse, victims of the same predator who staffed USY functions for decades. I know many who have since reached out to me and let me know that they are survivors of such sexual abuse, some victims of the same predator. And I weep.

I weep for the victims, for their fear and sense of betrayal, and for their hesitation of coming forward over the past decades. I weep for those who did come forward and had such accounts of abuse swept under the rug, not acknowledged, or tried to quote-unquote be handled behind the scenes. I weep that at times, USY turned a blind eye to the predatory acts of some, and at other times, actively dismissed and denied the wrongdoings of others.

In a post #MeToo world, where so many brave souls have stood up and spoken out about their experiences with sexual abuse and assault, I can’t help but wonder how USY and United Synagogue, how our sacred institutions, continued to allow for such predators to be hired time and time again. And I wonder, as an eighteen year old youth leader, was I complicit, refusing to believe the rumors concerning certain staff members?

I remember when I was elected USY International President. A rabbi pulled me aside and told me some of the most important advice that has stayed with me in my rabbinate: remember to teach Torah, he said. More than membership numbers, or cool programming ideas, it is the Torah that you teach that stays with people. So here goes:

In Parashat Vayishlach, right in the middle of the story of Jacob’s sons, we read about his daughter mentioned in the Torah, Dinah. And in the Torah, we learn that Shechem, son of Hamor, sees Dinah and sexually assaults her; he rapes her.

Vayishkav otah vay’a’neha. And he lied with her, oppressively, afflicting pain on her and weakening her. Three verses later, Jacob returns and is informed of the abuse and assault that his daughter was victim to:

V’Yaakov Shama ki Ti’meh et-Dinah vito u’vanav hayi et-Miknehu ba’sadah, v’he’cherish Yaakov (Gen. 34:5). Jacob heard that his daughter was assaulted, but his sons were in the field with cattle, and Jacob remained silent.

Jacob’s silence is deafening and disturbing. He is opting to ignore the sexual abuse and assault of his daughter because it doesn’t fit his narrative, but it deeply defines Jacob and defines us as well. Dr. Ellen Frankel acknowledges that Dinah is silent in the entire Torah, never speaking a single word, and she equates her silence to her father’s. When no one believed her, stood up for her, or spoke up for her, she gave up on trying to speak up for herself. The same way Jacob refuses to speak up and stand with his daughter, a victim of abuse, we too, the organization Jewish community have failed to do so. After all, we are B’nai Yisrael, Jacob’s descendants, guilty of the same silence.  

We too have refused to stand with victims, choosing to prop up predators because of their influence or name recognition. Rabbi Soffer acknowledged that he was not participating in a lawsuit, for monetary damages was not his goal. He was looking for a public reckoning for USY. He wanted to understand how an organization could continue to employ an alleged abuser and allow them to have access to its adolescent members and then after explicitly being notified of these allegations four years ago, have that individual continue to work at a United Synagogue-affiliated congregation. He wanted to understand why – and how – an institution could remain silent like Jacob.

Jacob is cowardly. This is the same biblical character that, when he thought his brother brought an army to him to seek revenge, sent his concubines and their children – essentially those family members he loved least – to the front lines. He was silent when he daughter was raped. Later, in Genesis 35:22, he finds that one of his many wives Bilha had been sexually assaulted and raped. The Torah tells us that he hears what happened, but nothing else. There is no immediate reaction.

This silence is not unique to USY. And it is also not unique to Jewish institutions. It has plagued other faith groups, including and especially the Vatican itself, and other youth organizations like Boy Scouts. We must confront how our institutions have been far too silent. It may be out of fear of turning away those who put their trust in our institutions. But silence does not comfort us. We cannot put trust in that silence. It only ends up doing further damage – to the victims of such abusive behavior and to the institutions as a whole. Al Chet Sh’chatanu lefanecha. We have sinned against you in our silence.

On this holiest of days, we acknowledge our mistakes. So let us say it here, we as an organized Jewish community have failed to keep our children, adolescents, and adult members safe. And we – the collective way – have all too often chosen the path of silent complacency.

It should not be up to the bravery and courage of survivors to come forward. It should be up to us to protect them.

In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we say U’v’shofar Gadol Titaka, v’kol demama daka, the great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard. While this is initially meant to be a theological statement, that we must look for God in the silence, I believe it to be an ethical statement as well. We must speak up and stand up so that we don’t have to depend on victims to do so. And when they are brave enough to do so, we believe them.

Teshuvah is hard work. We are taught that during these days of awe that, prior to doing Teshuvah, we must first do Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul that does not merely promise to be better in the future but acknowledges the transgressions of the past and asks for forgiveness.  We must do this Teshuvah not just as individuals, but as community. May that introspection call on all of us, including and especially the organizations and institutions we depend on to shape our souls and guide us on our Jewish journeys, to do Teshuvah. I want to believe in these institutions. They shaped me. And shaped so many of us. I want them to shape our children as well. But in order to do that, they – and we the Jewish community – must do Teshuvah. We ask forgiveness for our unknowing silence and commit to elevate the voices of the oppressed.

Prior to recited the words of the Kol Nidre, we chanted these words – three times in fact to ensure their authority and prominence – By the authority of the heavenly court on high and the earthly court below, with consent of the Holy One, God, and consent of the community. We acknowledge that power and authority that we have as community to make a difference. We begin Yom Kippur by not just turning to God and asking God for forgiveness. We turn to each other. And we understand and acknowledge that we have the power to make change, to right wrongs, and to hold those who have done wrong accountable. Even when we pour our hearts out to God, we do not expect God to be the One to make the necessary changes to build a safe community. We must do that. The Yeshivah shel Mata, as our liturgy says. The court of public opinion must do that. We must be the voices to ensure that our youth groups, camps, schools, synagogues, and institutions are safe. Only then, can they truly be sacred. May we do the necessary work this year, the Yeshiva shel mala and yeshiva shel mata, us along with God, to build a Kehillah Kedosha, a sacred and safe space, for everyone. Gmar Chatima Tova.

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Grief 20 Years Later

Rabbi Olitzky delivered the following sermon on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on the 20th anniversary of the September 11th Terrorist Attacks

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A Different World – Rosh Hashanah 5782

The following is the sermon Rabbi Olitzky delivered at Congregation Beth El on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5782/2021. The text of the sermon follows the video.

I’m so grateful for Jewish summer camps. Camp is one of the many ways and places that helped me fall in love with Judaism. For my daughter, Cayla, who spent her first summer at overnight camp this year, it became a safe space, and almost normal. Special thanks to Camp Ramah in the Poconos for taking care of her, and to all the summer camps out there for taking care of all of our children, for giving them a quote-unquote normal summer. And it was intense to even get her to camp: we had to show proof of a negative COVID test in order to drive unto the camp grounds, and then slowly car-by-car, pulled up as one child – and no adults – got out of the car one at a time for additional COVID testing. And camp began in pods, which grew larger and larger with each camp-wide negative COVID test. The thinking was, well, if the NBA could have a bubble, then so could Jewish summer camp.  

Rabbi Norman Cohen shares a story about when the bus to camp would meet in his community’s parking lot. He’d gather to send off his youngest congregants as they loaded their luggage in the undercarriages before ascending the few steps of the coach bus prior to a couple hour ride towards their summer utopia. He reflected on the first time he saw a mother crying saying goodbye to her daughter who was going to sleepaway camp for the first time. Trying to comfort her, he responded, “don’t worry. She’ll be back.” But the mother kept crying and responded through tears, “no she won’t. She’s never coming back. Not this child. My daughter will be a different person when I see her in four weeks.”

I thought of that story as I put on my sunglasses on a cloudy and rainy day to mask my tears during drop-off. I knew that my daughter would come back a different person, for the better, but different nonetheless. And I’ve been reflecting on that same story over the past year and a half. I frequently would say, “this is how it is until things return to normal”; “we are on Zoom until we’re back to normal”; “we wear masks until things are normal again.”

But there is no real “back to normal.” There is life as a community and society prior to this pandemic, and there is life now, still during this pandemic, and after. But after the pandemic will not be like before. Many may be returning to our sacred space for the first time in a long time, and while this is the same sanctuary that we gathered in for Purim a year and a half ago, prior to temporarily shuttering our doors, it is also different. We have returned home, different than before.

God tells Abram, Avram, “Lech Lecha m’Artzecha, M’moladatecha, u’mi’beit Avicha el Haaretz asher areka,” “Surely Go for your own sake. Leave behind all that you know. Leave your land, where you were born, your family’s home, to a land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

And Abram, accompanied by his wife Sarai, do just that. Parashat Lech Lecha ends a handful of chapters later with Abram and Sarai entering into a covenant with God. Abram becomes Abraham, Avraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah. The changing of a name is meant to signify more than just one’s place in this covenantal relationship with the Divine. Changing one’s name signifies a major transformation. And this transformation was not a sign of the covenant; it was an impact of the journey. Abraham and Sarah, after leaving all that they knew and all that was safe and comfortable to them, after going on this Lech Lecha journey, could not return back to normal. After life’s experiences, they could not be Avram and Sarai. They understood that they were different. We must understand that too. This pandemic has changed us. It has changed us as individuals and changed us as community. We cannot go back to ‘normal,’ to how things were before because that was striving to meet the needs of different people. We are not the same and what is ‘normal’ is not the same either.

Tomorrow, as part of our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, we read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, narrative. In this very complicated text, we read about the complicated nature of Abraham following a command to sacrifice his son as a sign of blind faith. In this reading, Abraham brings Isaac on a journey, climbs a mountain top, binds him up, sharpens his knife and raises it in his hand in preparation for slaughter. Only then does an angel of God interfere. “Abraham! Abraham!” So distracted, the angel must call his name twice to get his attention. And the angel says “atah yadati ki yereh Elohim,”now I know that you are a person of faith and believe in God.” Now.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the famous Polish Hasidic leader of the 19th century asked why does the angel say now is proof that Abraham is a person of faith? Why not when you took his son on the journey or up the mountaintop? Why not when you bound him up or took knife in hand? Because now, he untied his son. Aside from the family drama, and likely expensive therapy bills that came from this experience, Abraham had an idea of how life would be. It was difficult for him, but it was a path that he ultimately excepted, and now, with the angel saving his son, preventing him from such a sacrifice, Abraham’s perceived journey became altered. What he thought life would be like changed. As Rabbi Norman Lamm described, “it is human nature to not retreat from whatever path one is on in life, to mold the future along the doctrines of the past. We do not want to change, we cannot change,” he said, “because doing so potentially deems our past invalid or inauthentic.” What the angel is suggesting here is not that Abraham is a person of faith because he was willing to sacrifice his son. By the angel declaring that “now” Abraham is a person of faith, the celestial being is declaring that Abraham is a person of faith because he has changed. He was willing to change. He didn’t dig his feet in the sand, stuck in his ways. He understood that people change. The reality of the world around him and his relationships with those around him forced him to change.

And so, we stand here, some of us seated together in sacred space, some of us on our couches, attempting to create sacred space together at home, wanting things to be back to normal, but they’re not; hopeful that maybe by 2022 they will be, but they won’t. Because society is forever changed. We as a community are forever changed. And we as individuals are forever changed. And as the angel declared to Abraham “atah yadati ki yerei Elohim,” that now, as we embrace such changes, we can do so knowing that such changes are part of our process to connect and reconnect to the divine and to become holier versions of ourselves.

When we blow the shofar, we do so with four separate notes: Tekiyah, Shevarim, Teruah, and Tekiyah Gedolah. Tekiyah: we are whole. Shevarim: we are broken and different than before. Teruah: we have shattered our ideas of the past. But then even when we expect to return to Tekiyah, to return to how it was before, we ultimately conclude with Tekiyah Gedolah, with one final elongated blast, longer and louder than before. It is a sign that we change constantly, and even when we think and hope that we will return to a previous state, in reality we are changing to a different, fuller, more authentic state. We are ultimately becoming a Tekiyah Gedolah. For there have been things that have been extremely difficult about the changes to our realities over the past 18 months, aside from the health concerns that were the catalyst for all these changes in the first place. But I believe, there were also necessary changes that each of us made to become a Tekiyah Gedolah. Once we realized there was no going back, once we realized our realities would never again be Tekiyah, we embraced such changes and became more whole and more holy as a result. So how have you changed?

Some of us have learned to not sweat the small stuff and not let the small things annoy us. We try to be reminded of the bigger picture, of the continued blessings in our lives. Others are angry all the time. At the government. At the world. At those who see the world differently than us. At family members or colleagues who are less concerned about health, safety, and each other’s well-being than we are. Some of us have eaten with family every single meal, a sliver of light. Others, have eaten alone, our loneliness only exacerbated by this pandemic. Some of us love Zoom, and the comfort of staying connected to family members near and far, or taking a work meeting in the comfort of sweat pants. Others prefer to never look at a computer screen again and may opt out of any social, educational, cultural, or spiritual experience if it begins with the word “virtual.” Some yearn for a physical embrace. I am a hugger and I have a year and a half worth of hugs stored up and all I want is to hug people more. After spending so much time not embracing each other, any opportunity to do so is one to take advantage of. Others are hesitant to be close to others and for them, hugs and even handshakes may be a permanent fixture of a past life. Some of us have binge watched every single show that Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ or any other streaming service has to offer as a way to disconnect from the real world every once and a while. Others now only watch the news. Some have begun commuting back to work. Some will never take the train again, and opt for driving, fearful of being in a crowded place with people they don’t know. Others will never commute again, having permanently transitioned to working remotely, have changed careers, or reprioritized other aspects of their lives, putting work on the backburner. Some have a mask to match every outfit; it has become a clothing accessory. My children wear masks everywhere and often remember to grab them when I forget. In fact, they are so used to them, that they will come home from school and be on the couch for over an hour, having forgotten to take their masks off.

Some of us can’t wait until we can shed our face coverings, here or elsewhere, and see each other’s smiles again. Others may forever mask up when we are in a crowded public place.

In this moment, I feel like an angel is calling out to us repeatedly, and telling us atah Yadati Ki Yerei Elohim, now, you return to synagogue still masked, still socially distanced. Or you transform your couch into a pew, your television screen into a bimah. Now, you – now we – have committed to embracing this changed reality and our changed lives. We have embraced that things will never be normal, like they were before, for we have a new, different, definition of normal. The world has changed. And we have changed. During the month of Elul, these weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we are taught to do a Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. We are tasked with reflecting on the year that has passed, on what we did right, and what we did wrong, and how we hope to change for the better in the future.

The entire High Holiday season is about change – a personal change – and a promise to be the best versions of ourselves. We didn’t need ritual, or a holiday season, to remind us about the need for change this time around. We had reality swoop in and force us to change, force us to adapt. Do we still yearn for what was, knowing that is impossible, or do we embrace what is?

The book of Lamentations ends with a repetition, and thus emphasis, on the penultimate verse: Hashiveinu Adonai Elecha v’Nashuva, Chadesh Yameinu k’Kedem, Take us back to You, God, and Return us, Renew our Days so that they are like they once were. We ritually repeat these words, time and time again, not because we expect things to go back to how things were, but so that we can remember how things were – and not forget – even if we know and accept that life and reality is different now.

When we picked our daughter up from camp, there were many tears: tears of joy to see us, tears of sadness for leaving her new favorite place and newest best friends, and tears from her parents, accepting that with each thing that she said, and each expression that she made, she was different, a little bit older and more mature, shaped by camp and life. Our little girl didn’t return. Someone else did, changed by life’s experiences.

But like her, we all – changed by our experiences – become a Tekiyah Gelodah, a different, changed, renewed, versions of ourselves. Our names may not have changed, but we have. And certainly the metaphorical journeys we have been on as individuals, as community, and as society, are just as extensive as Abraham and Sarah’s. Gone is the world that we once knew. Now is a new reality, far from the land we dreamed that God would show us. But we embrace this change.

For, atah yadati ki yerei Elohim, now, as different people living in a very different world, may we connect with the divine, and the divine spark within ourselves in the year to come. Shana Tova.

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Praying for Peace, But Who Will Stand With Us?

Rabbi Olitzky reflects on the Priestly Benediction in the Torah Portion and the recent violent antisemitic events that have occurred in this country, asking our neighbors to stand with us in order to achieve peace.

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Remembering for Joy

Rabbi Olitzky introduces Yizkor for Shavuot by focusing on the juxtaposition between mourning and grief as we remember our loved ones and the commandment to be joyful on the holiday.

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When You Don’t Know What to Say

Rabbi Olitzky reflects on struggling to find the right words to say following the escalating violence in Israel and Gaza, between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, between Israelis and Palestinians, wrestling with a deep connection to the idea of Israel and a commitment to justice.

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Perfection Means Striving for Justice

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky delivers a sermon for Parashat Emor reflecting on Essex County ending its contract with ICE and Rambam’s teaching that to build a perfect society, we must build a just society.

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There was Nothing Normal about Life Before

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky delivers a sermon for Parashat Tazria-Metzora, reflecting on the death of Daunte Wright, the Mass Shooting at the FedEx facility in Indianapolis, and how when we say that we yearn it return to normal, it speaks volumes about our privilege.

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Mourning in Silence

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky delivers a sermon for Parashat Shemini, reflecting on the recent loss of his grandfather, and why Aaron was silent when he heard of the tragic death of his sons.

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Remembering and Re-experiencing

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky delivers a Yizkor sermon on the final day of Passover, reflecting on the command that “in every generation we should see ourselves as if we left Egypt” and what that means for a mourner.

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