Being Held to a Higher Standard

When trying to understand what we look for in a leader, everyone has their own list of essential qualities. Forbes offers a list of leadership qualities for business success which include honesty, confidence, and commitment. CNN and Careerbuilder.com add passion and respect to the list of necessary qualities. Even rabbinic tradition offers its own definition of a leader. Midrash explains the qualities of the High Priest by suggesting that he must be handsome, of great strength, of great wealth, of great knowledge, and have many years of experience (Vaykira Rabba 26:9). While we may disagree on what those leadership qualities look like, it is clear that we each expect much from our leaders.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Emor. This section of our narrative begins with specific requirements of what the priests, the religious and ritual leaders of the Israelites, can and cannot do. In Parashat Kedoshim, we were taught that “you should be holy for I, the Lord, Your God, Am Holy.” Holiness is what we all seek. Holiness through our words and holiness through our actions. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we find a greater and more detailed list of expectations for the priests. 

The priests who offered biblical sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites are forbidden from coming into contact with the dead. Additionally, the priests are prohibited from shaving their heads or sideburns. They were forbidden from profaning God’s name. There were limits to whom the priest could marry, how a priest must physically look, to whom and what a priest can and cannot come in contact with.

Remarkably, these verses – unlike most found in the Torah – are specific and limited to the leaders of the community. Clearly, the Torah is suggesting that leaders are held to a different standard. A leader is supposed to be different – not perfect, for no one is. But the beginning of Parashat Emor teaches us that a leader is supposed to be held to a higher standard. A leader puts the interests of those that she or he represents before others. A leader cares about others more than himself or herself. A leader does not ignore the actions of followers. Instead, a leader calls them out when their behavior is inappropriate and defers from the leader’s vision.

If Torah teaches us that leaders are held to a higher standard, that leaders strive for a different level of holiness, then it is our responsibility to call out leaders when all that they do and all that they say are the complete opposite of that which is holy. When our leaders lead through bigotry, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny, we must call it out. Striving to be holy means seeing each individual as holy. And leading through hate is the opposite of holiness, it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

We expect more from our leaders because of the impact that they have on us. The Torah speaks of a great sense of kedushah of the priests, not just because they performed ritual sacrifices, but because of the opportunities they had to guide so many. We should expect our leaders to guide us. May their actions be holy so that they guide us to a life of holiness. May they also see the holiness in each individual. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Transgender Bathrooms are a Human Rights Struggle – and a Jewish Imperative

This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

As Jews our responsibility is to embrace the gender identity of each individual not only in our communities but in society at large. That means repealing transphobic legislation like North Carolina’s HB2.

North Carolina’s controversial “Bathroom Law”, which stipulates that in government buildings, individuals may only use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates, continues to make headlines. Proponents of the law, known officially as HB2 “The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” claim that it is about safety, preventing men from “claiming to be transgender” just so that they can enter a women’s bathroom and invade their privacy. But over 200 local, state, and national organizations that work with assault victims claim that there is nothing to support the fears of these lawmakers. And none of the 18 states that have nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender rights has seen an increase in public safety issues because of these laws.

HB2The fight over the law hit a tipping point when the Department of Justice determined that HB2 violates the Federal Civil Rights Act and gave North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory an ultimatum to ensure that the state would not comply with the law. North Carolina didn’t budge, and instead sued the government. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit of their own, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch describing the battle over this law as the civil rights struggle of this era.

But the fight over HB2 is more than a civil rights struggle; it’s a human rights struggle. And as Jews, we have a particular imperative to treat it as such.

As Jews, we have an obligation to see each individual as made in God’s image. Each individual is unique and created differently. We are not God, and therefore, it is not for us to put parameters on the divine nature or image of another person. Rather, we should honor each individual as divine, regardless of one’s gender identity. Even the rabbis of the Talmud understood that we do not live in a gender binary system. We find six different gender identities in the Talmud. This Talmudic precedent suggests that we should not only acknowledge one’s gender identity, but also celebrate it.

Some Jewish institutions are starting to implement policies in line with this thinking. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution that “affirms the right[s] of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals” and “urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression.” Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of voting on a resolution that affirms its commitment to fully welcoming, accepting and including people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society. These statements understand our commitment as Jews to honor each individual. Last June, I wrote that ensuring that all can use the bathroom in our institutions “is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.”

These statements reflect an understanding of the importance of making sure that our sacred communities and sacred spaces are welcoming of everyone. But our obligation as Jews to embrace the gender identity of each individual does not end with our institutional buildings and programs. We have an obligation as Jews to build a society that is just as inclusive and accepting as the communities we set out to create.

Judaism teaches that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, supersedes everything else in Jewish law. A study by the Williams Institute think tank shows that 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have attempted suicide. This number is substantially greater than the overall suicide rate of 4.6 percent in the United States. The way society has treated transgender individuals makes them feel as if there is no place for them in this world. Denying them the basic human right of going to the bathroom, as North Carolina has attempted to do, only reinforces this feeling.

But embracing all and creating inclusive communities can have the opposite effect. A recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and accepted by family, friends, teachers, clergy, and society as a whole are no more anxious or depressed than other children their age.

HB2 supporters claim the law will keep individuals safe from bathroom predators. But this law doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Instead, it puts lives in danger. It endangers the lives of people in the transgender community by further denying them basic human rights, by suggesting that they don’t really exist, and by closing them off from society. If our responsibility as Jews is to do what we can to save every life, then we have an obligation to repeal HB2 and similar harmful and discriminatory legislation in other states.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that whoever saves a life, saves an entire world, but also that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. We, as Jews, have an obligation to save lives and save worlds. May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. May we make a commitment every day to stopping all transphobic legislation that destroys far too many worlds.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Haaretz Rabbis' Round Table, Jewish Living, Uncategorized

Defining Holiness

Sitting in a packed room at The Woodland in Maplewood last week, I, along with hundreds of neighbors, listened to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak. The author of Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Tatum spoke at the first Conversations on Race almost twenty years ago when the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race was first established.

She reflected on the past twenty years since she last spoke to our community. She attempted to answer the question of whether or not our country was going through a rebirth as a more diverse, more inclusive, more integrated society.

She answered by explaining that in every period of great social change there is a backlash. Shifting change creates anxiety for those who fear such change – regardless of how unfounded or offensive such fears may be. She clarified that if we refer to this period in society as a rebirth, then such hate, this attempt to prevent positive and progressive change, can only be compared to birthing pains or contractions during birth.

But as she also reminded us, lest we take this lightly, the moment of birth can be a dangerous time, life threatening in fact, and we should take that danger seriously.

We just read in last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Kedoshim, a call to be holy.

You should be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:2).

We try to understand what holiness is. A variety of laws and instructions that follow, including the metaphors to not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, give us insight on how to be holy.

The essence though of what it means to be holy comes from the middle of chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. (Lev. 19:18).

imageThe Torah tells us to love each other, because this is what God expects us to do. And while the challenge to love may be difficult, loving our neighbors is quite simple. Dr. Tatum emphasized how even in integrated and diverse communities, we tend to sit with those that look like us, think like us, or worship like us. In our social lives, we tend to spend time with those who have shared values and beliefs. We don’t sit across the table with those that are different from us. So the idea to love your neighbor suggests that we love those that are easy for us to love. But we are commanded to do more than that.

The previous verse, we are commanded:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. (Lev. 19:17).

Do not hate another simply because of how they look, or where they are from, how they worship, or whom they love. Not only are we reminded to love. God emphasizes to not hate. Being holy is not just about action. It is about conscious inaction as well.
Dr. Tatum warned that silence helps create a climate of hate. Refusing to call out hate, prevents us from getting to a place of love. It is our job to work together to be holy, to see the holiness in all, to love, but also to not hate.

That is how we celebrate that rebirth that Dr. Tatum focuses on. That is how we protect ourselves from the dangers of such birthing pains. The priestly blessing concludes with a hope that God will grant us peace. War is not the opposite of peace. Hate is the opposite of peace. Fear is the opposite of peace. So we refuse to hate. We love. We Act. And we strive to be holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Jewish Living, Uncategorized

A Message from Rabbi Olitzky, Rabbi Cohen, & Rabbi Cooper

The following message is being shared with the members of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Dear Friends,

We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship and raise families. At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging. That has been the case over the last days. As many of you know, and as has been reported in a number of local media outlets, there have been a number of bias issues that have taken place at South Orange Middle School in recent weeks. These included hate images posted to social media, student-to-student bias comments in the halls, and lunchroom conversation that has no place in our community. This is, of course, unacceptable and requires response. Such response must, however, be serious in intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges AND the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place. It is in this context that we are taking the unprecedented step of writing to each of our congregations but doing so in a single document.

Upon hearing of this late last week the three of us immediately met to discuss how we, as the rabbis of the three South Orange synagogues, might best respond. As a result of that meeting, late yesterday afternoon we met with members of the administration of the school district, including Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent of Schools, Kevin Walson, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Lynn A. Irby, Principal of SOMS, as well as assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors. Present at the meeting as well were representatives from the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the local Community Coalition on Race. We appreciate Principal Irby’s swift response to organizing this meeting.

It was a good meeting and the first of what we expect will be a series of ongoing meetings and learning opportunities. We left the meeting confident of a number of things. First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong. Second, the school has, and will continue to, address the specific events and those involved in them. Equally important, however, is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large. We emerged confident that they will do just that. We also appreciated the administration’s offer to partner with us to aid in this effort.

We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “we are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” We appreciate the administration’s commitment to cultivating a community of “upstanders,” to initiating anti-bias training for staff, to building peer leadership training opportunities for our children, and to planning parent workshops and conversations on bias. We look forward to working together in teaching our children and ensuring that our community continues to be a blessing.

In friendship,

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Congregation Beth El
Rabbi Dan Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
Rabbi Mark Cooper, Oheb Shalom Congregation

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What it Means to be a Jew

There is a well-known story – or at least a well-known story among us as rabbis who tell stories about rabbis – about Rabbi Solomon Schechter and Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Schechter founded United Synagogue and served as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is referred to by many as the architect of Judaism’s Conservative Movement in North America. One day, while President of the rabbinical seminary, he went for a walk with a young rabbinical student, Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein would eventually become chancellor of JTS from 1940-1972. Schechter, the Romanian-born scholar, told Finkelstein that in order to be a successful rabbi in America, you need to know the game of baseball and you need to be able to play the game of baseball.

In the early twentieth century, Baseball was more than just a game. It was America’s pastime. It was ingrained as part of one’s American identity – like apple pie. To say that a rabbi must know baseball is to say that a rabbi must fully embrace American culture and society. Schechter, who was of Eastern European descent, was suggesting that to be a rabbi in America one must identify as American. One must know pop culture, but more so, one’s Jewish values must also be American values.

There are legends of Jewish immigrants coming over to America from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As they saw Ellis Island in the distance, they would toss tallitot and tefillin, Jewish ritual objects, overboard. While these stories may only be that of legend, the symbolism is clear: they were leaving Judaism behind. Judaism was what caused hate and harm. Coming to America meant that they had to fully embrace their American idealism and abandon their Jewish identities. But this is not what Judaism teaches, nor what Schechter was suggesting.

And then you find the opposite of these legends in the Torah. We read this past Shabbat in Parashat Acharei Mot, the following command from Leviticus 18:1-3:

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

A strict interpretation of what God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion – don’t associate yourselves at all with secular society – would suggest that we should not embrace society. We should put up barriers to society. But this interpretation of Torah couldn’t be further from the truth, and certainly is not what Solomon Schechter was teaching a century ago.

The pious rabbi still laid tefillin every morning. He was not suggested giving up Judaism in favor of the religion of America’s pastime. In fact, he was quite religious and observant. He understood the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and still the importance of being immersed in society. This was not assimilation. This is acculturation. For throughout our history – as Jews and as Americans – we see that religion influences society and society influences religion. We cannot truly live a life based on Jewish values if we are disconnected from society because it is exactly that society that we are supposed to impact with our values!

Wikipedia_blue_star_of_davidThe prophet Isaiah reminds us of our divine responsibility to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world. We believe Judaism and our values has something to teach the world, and guides us in this world. If that is the case, then we cannot be disconnected from this world. Judaism is a part of this world and the decisions we make in this world.

This also means that we cannot limit Judaism to the synagogue, to Shabbat meals, or to lifecycle events. As my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, teaches, Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Jewish ethics are a part of society. They have something to teach us. So we must live a Jewish life daily by ensuring that the ethics and values of our tradition guide us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservative Movement, Jewish Living, Uncategorized

Making Room for all Four Children

We read at our Seder tables that the Torah reflects upon four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. The Haggadah tells us that wise child asks about the rites and rituals. The wise child is concerned with how to follow the laws. The supposedly wicked child is in search of meaning, trying to find personal significance and understanding in ritual, asking “what does this mean to you?” The simple child simply asks “what is this?” wanting to know more and to learn more. The fourth child doesn’t ask anything at all.
For centuries, commentators have spent a great deal of time asking what role these four children play in the Haggadah and in the Passover narrative. If the goal of the Seder is to retell – and reenact and re-experience – the exodus from Egypt, then these four children seeFoursons2m out of place. However, the goal of the Seder is much more than that. The goal of Passover is to light a spark within each of us, to appreciate our past and our freedom, and to refuse to stand idly by while others suffer from similar oppression or wait to be free. Introducing the four children during the Passover Seder acknowledges our various relationships with Judaism, with the exodus narrative, and with freedom at different moments in our lives.

At times, we are each the “wise,” the so-called “wicked,” the “simple,” and the “silent.” At times we are interested in rites and rituals; other times we challenge the status quo. There are times when we simply want to learn more and there are times that we refuse to act and don’t do anything at all. We read about these four children because we acknowledge that we encompass them all. We should never just strive to be wise or simple. And it isn’t so bad at times to be defiant or silent. Our challenge is to know how to act and when.

As we celebrate Passover, may we all strive to find meaning in being each of these four children. May we learn about ritual and law, in hopes that these rituals are a meaningful vehicle to help us connect to the Divine. May we challenge authority to search for meaning and understanding, knowing that we cannot find true connection, unless we find true meaning. May we learn that the simplest and most basic of questions are often the most profound. And may we learn to talk less and listen more, taking in the lessons that the world around us has to teach. Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Holidays, Uncategorized

Still Waiting for Elijah

This past Shabbat, as we read Parashat Metzora, we came to understand that the odd spiritual impurity mentioned in Torah is not just about skin disease or emission or discharge. This impurity can spread to clothing, to walls, and to homes. This is a scriptural reminder that this isn’t really about a skin disease at all! Rather, this is about how we let societal spiritual impurities – how we let injustice – spread. How quickly we let the spiritual impurities all around us spread. The Torah portion doesn’t simply comment on these spiritual impurities. It gives us instructions as to the cleaning ritual that is to take place to rid ourselves, and society, of these impurities.

Coincidentally, at this time of year leading up to Passover, we are supposed to rid ourselves of Chametz. Similarly, we clean our homes and our offices; we even clean our cars! But this symbolic and ritual cleaning is about more than just ridding ourselves of leavened products. We rid ourselves of our ego. We rid ourselves of that which puffs us up. We rid ourselves of societal spiritual impurities. But if we only do so ritually, if we only do so symbolically, then we miss the point entirely.

We recite at the Passover seder table:

Kol Dichfin yeitei v’yeichol, kol ditzrich yeittei v’yifsach . Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in the New American Haggadah:

Precisely because it is the most fundamental form of charity, this invitation to the hungry seems empty and hypocritical. Why? Because it comes too late. By the time we read this passage, we are seated, our hands are washed, the wine is poured, the table is crowded with fine dishes.. And only now we invite the poor to join us?

If we acknowledge an issue, but don’t do anything about it, what’s the point? If we half-heartedly or hypocritically ritually offer to help those in need, are we then just letting the impurities of society, the injustices of society — those who are hungry, those who are homeless, those who are in dire straits – continue to spread? Are we welcoming those in need to our Passover seders, but not really? Are we making ourselves feel better as if we tried, when we really didn’t?

This past Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, we also read a special Haftarah reading. This reading, taken from chapter 3 of the book of Malachi, recalls Elijah the prophet. We even repeat the penultimate verse, making it the last statement of the reading, leaving us with the taste of Elijah’s coming, something that we again ritually and symbolically hope for at our seder tables.

KosEliyahuJudaism teaches that Elijah will announce the coming of the messianic era, and with it, true freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice, freedom from the shackles of poverty and food insecurity, freedom from the spiritual impurities of society. Recalling Elijah in the haftarah and again in just a few days at our seder tables is our symbolic gesture hoping for an end to the spiritual impurities of injustice that plague us. Using the imagery of Elijah, the Talmud teaches us an important lesson.

In Sanhedrin 98a, we learn of the encounter between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Elijah. Rabbi Yehoshua meets the prophet and asks when the messianic era of justice and equality will come. Elijah instructs him to ask the Messiah who is waiting at the gates of the city, among the lepers and the infirmed, among the homeless, poor, excluded, and forgotten. This messianic figure tells Rabbi Yehoshua that this messianic era will come today. Yet, when it does not, Rabbi Yehoshua returns to Elijah and asks for an explanation. Elijah the prophet explains by quoting a verse from Psalms:

Today – if only you will listen to God’s voice (Ps. 95:7).

Maybe the possibility of messianic redemption is always upon us, a time for freedom from the spiritual impurities of society, but all too often we do not truly listen – we speak and we recite, we ritually acknowledge that we care about those in need. But then we don’t do anything about it. We do not listen to God’s voice, to the cries of those in need as God’s cries. Rabbi Yehoshua went to the infirm, the poor, and the suffering at the city gates and ignored them to only speak to whom Elijah called the messiah. We say let all who are hungry come and eat at our seders and then expect this symbolic Elijah to swoop in when we really haven’t done our parts to help those in need.

Before we ritually invite Elijah into our homes and our seder tables, we need to do a lot more than simply ritually opening up our homes and our hearts to those in need. Just as we clean our spaces to rid our homes of spiritual impurity, we need to rid society of the injustice and inequality that plague us as well. May this be a Passover in which we strive to free all from the injustices of our society.

Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Standing Up on Purim

Purim is a holiday that promotes silliness. With costumes to groggers, loud noises and disguises, it’s easy to ignore the true message of Purim: it is the celebration of a miracle. In fact, we recite the words of Al HaNisim in our liturgy on the festival day — a variation of the same prayer that we say on Chanukah — praising the Divine for the miracle of saving the Jewish people. We celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the miracle of our continued existence.

 

However, I believe the miracle is also about something greater: it is about Esther’s transformation.

 

Apricot-Hamantaschen1At the very beginning of chapter two of Megillat Esther, Esther is referred to a single time as Hadassah, her Jewish name. The name Esther acculturated her, helping her to become Ahashverosh’s new queen. And as queen, she had it made. The text says that she “obtained grace and favor” in the sight of the king; she received unlimited gifts and dined at countless feasts. She was living the good life. When her cousin Mordechai shared with her Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she didn’t have to do anything. Although she was born Jewish, she had no fear for her personal safety; nothing was going to happen to Ahashverosh’s most beloved queen.

 

Esther was initially hesitant about standing up to the King. She didn’t feel the impact of Haman’s threat. But then she saw Mordecai tear his clothes and heard that the Jews of Shushan fasted for three days. She witnessed their pain and fear. While she knew that Haman’s plan might not impact her directly, she decided to use her privilege as queen to take a stand for the Jewish community.

 

Esther’s actions reflect those of Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus. He, too, was a Jew-by-birth, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of wealth, freedom, and prosperity. Pharaoh’s actions towards the Israelite slaves didn’t directly affect Moses. He didn’t have to do anything. Yet, seeing the suffering of the Israelites as they were being beaten by taskmasters, he took a stand. He didn’t have to for his own sake: he had to for the sake of others. Esther and Moses risked their own safety and gave up their comfort in order to save those who were suffering around them.

 

The miracle that we celebrate on Purim isn’t just that the Jews of Shushan were saved. The miracle is also that Esther took a stand to help others. We must live the lessons of Purim. We cannot only step out of our comfort zone to be silly. We must step out of our comfort zone to fight for the well being of others. We cannot only blot out Haman’s name. We must also blot out injustice. And as we celebrate miracles that will then take place, may we celebrate our willingness – and obligation – to take a stand for one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Holidays, Uncategorized

Stand Up to Trump: Not for AIPAC, Not for the Jews, but for Something Much Greater

This article was originally published on March 18, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

We are leading the movement to protest the Republican frontrunner at AIPAC’s conference because we feel compelled to stand on the other side of a great moral divide, in solidarity with those Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and LGBTQI brothers and sisters.

When Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump takes the podium at next week’s AIPAC Policy Conference, we plan on walking out, joined by hundreds of other rabbis and conference participants.

This protest, which we both helped to organize, is not about party, politics or policies. Rather, it is about our tradition’s insistence that “silence is tantamount to consent” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 37b). We want to send a clear message that we stand against the bigotry and vitriol that has become central to the Trump campaign. We cannot stand idly by and condone such bigotry. We cannot risk sitting through a speech when doing so might give the appearance that we consent to the hateful tenor at the core of his candidacy.
TrumpProtest

Whether we support them or not, we will warmly welcome other candidates who speak to the delegation. We believe that, in a vibrant pluralistic democracy, many viewpoints are valid and have their place in respectful, constructive debate. We appreciate AIPAC’s efforts to make supporting Israel a matter of broad bipartisan consensus. Furthermore, as rabbis, we understand that Jewish tradition can be interpreted in a number of ways, and we humbly acknowledge that no individual or ideology has a monopoly on truth.

 

However, time and again Trump has crossed the line of reasonable disagreement into the realm of hateful invective and violent incitement. His openly xenophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic remarks, both prior to and during this campaign, are hurtful and beyond the pale of tolerable rhetoric in a decent society. They are especially disturbing when they inform policy proposals like building a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, deporting the roughly 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the country, banning Muslims from entering this country, and registering Muslims in America into a database. His thinly-veiled racial dog-whistling, both in the past and during this campaign, paired with his failure to distance himself from white supremacists and avowed racists, grant harmful legitimacy to the most disgusting and dangerous elements within our country. Even more distressing is his incitement and encouragement of violent behavior among his supporters at rallies, something that is not only immoral, but also contrary to both American and Jewish values.

Our protest is not a criticism of AIPAC. We will, after all, be attending the conference, and both of us have a history of involvement with AIPAC. We respect and support AIPAC’s work securing bipartisan partnership for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and we especially appreciate this year’s theme, “Come Together.” We also understand why AIPAC invited Trump. As in past years, AIPAC has invited all presidential candidates to speak. We, like they, want to ensure that leaders of both parties, whoever they are, continue to strongly support Israel.

Some have argued that it would not be wise for the Jewish establishment to confront Trump, that the pro-Israel lobby should “keep itself on decent terms with whatever powers govern in Washington.” But the AIPAC conference is more than just a pro-Israel rally. It is also the single-largest annual gathering of the American Jewish community. As such, we feel obligated to send a message to Donald Trump that we believe many of his views, his words, and his actions are anathema to Jewish values and are opposed by many within our community. We feel compelled to stand on the other side of what we feel is a great moral divide. And we feel especially moved to take this opportunity to stand as Jews in solidarity with those who Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and differently-abled, and LGBTQI brothers and sisters who have been the targets of Trump’s vitriol and who would be most at risk should Trump get elected.

 

We do not intend to respond to hate with hate. We intend to respond to hate with Torah. We believe that there is no greater way to combat Trump’s dangerous rhetoric than by learning together. For this reason, when we walk out of his speech, we will gather to learn Torah together, uniting in the values of our tradition that we hold dear, values of common decency that Trump has ignored.

In taking this action, we mean only to speak for ourselves, for like-minded individuals who may not be at the conference, and for Jewish values as we understand them. While we have many constituents who will support our efforts next week, we are not protesting on behalf of the institutions we serve. Rather, we are protesting because we believe that, even as rabbis, we have the right and the responsibility in a democracy to voice our conscience to those in power and to those pursuing power, especially when it pertains to important matters like this.

And, while we are not acting on behalf of our communities, we are taking these actions knowing that we do, indeed, represent many American Jews who feel similarly. At the largest annual gathering of American Jews on the eve of an election, where candidates are seeking the support not only of the pro-Israel community broadly speaking, but also of the Jewish community specifically, we feel a special moral obligation to give voice to the many Jews who are appalled at what Trump has unleashed in our country’s politics, and alarmed at what a Trump presidency might look like.

Donald Trump does not speak for us. His hateful tone does not speak for us. So we must take a stand.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky and Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

$15 and the Half-Shekel: Lessons from the Torah on a Living Wage

Last week, at the urging of Faith in New Jersey (@FaithinNJ), a faith-based social justice organization (formerly known as PICO-NJ), I – along with other Essex County clergy – was asked to attend Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s press conference at Newark City Hall. As clergy, we stood beside Mayor Baraka and members of 32BJ SEIU as the Mayor declared his support for raising the minimum wage for Port Authority employees to $15 an hour. These employees include those who work at Newark Liberty International Airport, an airport that all in our area – and most throughout the state of Jersey – frequent for air travel. The airport is owned by the city of Newark, but leased to the Port Authority. Since the city owns the land, and the airport is the largest employer in the city of Newark – and likely the entire state – the airport, and the way its employees are treated are representative of the values of Newark and the entire state of New Jersey.

The Mayor was asked what mathematical formula he used to come up with the number $15. He smiled and responded “the formula we used was the formula of justice.” He added:

No airport worker that works full-time should have to live in poverty and be forced to make the choice between housing, food and health care. I think we need $15 immediately.

BarakaLivingWage.jpg

Mayor Baraka, members of 32BJ SEIU, and Essex County clergy

When the minimum wage became a requirement of law as part of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, it was meant to be a sufficient amount so that an individual could provide for his or her family. Minimum wage was meant to be a living wage. In 1968, the minimum wage was at $1.60/hour. In 2013, that wage would be equivalent to $10.71/hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if wage increases had kept up with labor productivity, then the minimum wage in 2013 should have been $18.23/hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour. The New Jersey state minimum wage is $8.38/hour. These are hardly a living wage, and hardly what was intended when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed over 75 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we read a special Torah reading as part of the special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim. In this Torah reading, we are told:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight… (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah commands that each pay a half-shekel as part of a census. Most read the text and conclude that this census was to see how many able-bodied adult males there were to fight, as the Israelites were preparing for the inevitable battles when they entered the Promised Land. However, the half-shekel had even greater significance. The half-shekel was not too much money. It was enough so that everyone could participate. It was an example of everyone being on equal footing, and having the same chance, the same equal opportunity. Obviously the half-shekel meant less to the wealthy than others. Still, it was a symbol of equal opportunity and an equal chance.

We live in a society that is not living up to the promise of this biblical society, in which all are seen as equals and all are given an equal opportunity. No one donated a half-shekel and cried poverty. All were seen as equals. So too, no one should work a forty-hour a week job and not be able to provide food on the table or a home to live in.

I proudly stood with other clergy as Mayor Baraka made his statements in support of increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. I did so not just as a resident of Essex County. I did so as a person of faith. We must fulfill the biblical promise of this census. We must ensure that all have equal opportunity to succeed in society. That begins with the fight for $15. That begins with the promise to pay individuals a living wage.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized