Acting for Justice, Searching for Holiness

This past Shabbat, we read the well-known verse and command in Parashat Kedoshim: Kedoshim Tehiyu: You Shall be holy. Yet, we are left looking around society and can’t seem to find that holiness anywhere. Over the past several weeks, following the death of twenty-five year old Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, protests erupted throughout Charm City. Peaceful actions were hijacked by outside agitators, many actions turning into violent riots.

freddiegrayprotestsWe did not find holiness in the death of such a young man, a death which has since causedMaryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to charge six officers in his death. We did not find holiness in violent riots that have caused city-wide curfews (that have since been lifted) and brought fear and concern to many Baltimore residents. But we also don’t find holiness in those stand in protest with residents of Baltimore, while still ignore that so many are stuck in a cycle of multi-generational povery, inequality, and systemic racism. We find holiness in taking action, but we must do more than act.

We must do more than be concerned about our neighbors. We must do more than care about our neighbors. We must do more than act for the sake of justice; we must act for the sake of love.

How do we ultimately become holy? By fulfilling the commandment in this Torah portion, found in Leviticus 19:18:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

The term ‘neighbor’ connotes that this is our neighborhood. The actions towards others ultimately impact us as well. Their home is our home. Their unrest is our unrest. So many Baltimore rabbis and members of the Jewish community acted in solidarity with the Baltimore community, searching for justice for Freddie Gray, but also taking a stand against a system that makes life so challenging for so many of the city’s residents. They rallied not out of obligation, but rather, out of love.

They understood that our neighbors are bleeding, just as our neighbors bled in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Florida. They are bleeding and continue to bleed in Newark, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Our job is to stop the bleeding. And that begins with love. It is only through love, that we can truly understand the hardships of our neighbors. It is only through love that we can acknowledge our own privilege. It is only through love that we can truly be holy. So let us love more. In doing so, let our entire communities, all of our neighborhoods, act and evolve through sanctity and holiness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Appreciating the Eighth Day

By now, most of us have devoured pizzas, bagels, cakes, and cookies. The minute Passover ended, we got our hands on as much chametz as we could, but not because we desperately needed it. We were not malnourished. We were not starving. Rather, after refraining from eating something, we desired it because we could finally eat it.

While I continued to eat matzah last Saturday, many, including my Reform colleagues and the Reform synagogues in the area, as well as all those in Israel, were already eating their much desired chametz. After all, the Torah requires us to refrain from eating leavened products for seven days (Ex. 12:15) and not eight. Yet, while one day of Yom Tov – the special first and last day of a holiday – is observed in Israel, the diaspora traditionally observed two days.

This second day of festival celebration in the diaspora, Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot, was established by rabbinic law during the Second Temple period. The reason given for such an observance is because of the lunar system of the Hebrew calendar. When the Temple stood, the length of a month depended on witnesses who had seen the new coming from where the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Once they declared the new month, news would be sent out to surrounding Jewish communities. Those communities further away from Jerusalem may not have received word of the beginning of the new month on the accurate date because of how much time it took for word to travel. Thus, the diaspora communities would observe a festival for two days to ensure that they were observing it on the correct day.

One can confidently say that in 2015, such a practice may not be necessary anymore. One can Google the date that Passover begins in the year 2035 and get the exact date and time. The Reform Movement abandoned the observance of the second day of Yom Tov many years ago. In fact, Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham Ehrlich wrote a responsum on behalf of Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in February 1969, suggesting that while there is value to the second day of Yom Tov, the day should not be seen as a permanent enactment, but rather a custom and thus, communities should not feel compelled to observe Yom Tov Sheni.

MatzahStill, some forty-five years later, my congregation — as well as almost all diaspora communities that affiliate with the Conservative Movement – continue to observe that second day of Yom Tov, and thus, observed an eighth day of Passover. Yet, while some observe the eighth day stubbornly and are upset by the additional day of eating matzah, I relish the opportunity. For I needed an extra day with chametz. We all do.

Chametz, leavened products, has to do with the bread of affliction, the unleavened bread that the Israelites took with them when they left Egypt, but it is about more than that. Leavened products, chametz, represents that which puffs us up. Chametz is our ego. The act of getting rid of such leavened products allows us to get rid of that part of ourselves. It allows us to act more humbly in the process. Such an idea – riding ourselves of our inner chametz – is certainly appropriate since Passover is seen as a new year celebration of sorts as well.

On the High Holy Days, when the Gates of Heaven are closed at the conclusion of the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, we need to continue to atone so such an act continues through Sukkot until Hoshana Rabba. So too, our struggle to rid ourselves of ourselves is an act that must continue. Instead of counting down the days until Passover is over, the past year, and every year, I appreciated that extra day – the eighth day. We all need that extra time to work on being more humble and less ego centric. Long after we are done eating matzah, may the unleavened bread still continue to remind us to look inside ourselves to be a better version of ourselves.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I’d Rather be Wicked than Wise

Listening to Billy Joel was a part of my childhood. Like most kids from New Jersey and New York, part of growing up was learning the lyrics to his songs. I still rock out to my Billy Joel playlist on Spotify and love that he plays at the Garden monthly. One of my favorite Billy Joel songs – and admittedly my “go to” karaoke song – is Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” In it, he sings to a religious girl, explaining that she is missing out on all the fun in life by hiding behind the strict rules and rites of her faith. I don’t necessarily agree with the lyrics, even if I love the song. As a rabbi, I of course don’t believe that fun and faith are opposing polarities on a single spectrum. Still, I believe there is value in his lyrics. Joel sings, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” He is essentially saying he would rather be wicked than wise. Except, being wicked isn’t so wicked at all.

This week, during the holiday of Passover, we read about the four children during our Passover seders. The text in the Haggadah introduces us to the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask. One can argue that thesearen’t four separate children, but instead are each a part of us. At times we are all wise, wicked, simple, and silent. I don’t take issue with any of these children. I am bothered though by how each child is characterized.

foursonsWhat makes the wise child so wise? This child asks: “What are the testimonies, the laws, and judgments, that the Lord our God has commanded you to follow?” The wise child is only interested in rules and regulations. He or she is interested in a faith that is black and white, full of “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots.” This child is only about doing, without worrying about meaning or intent behind the action.

We must also ask, what makes the wicked child so wicked? After all, wicked, or Rasha in Hebrew, evil one, is quite an intense descriptive term for this child. Haman was evil. Pharaoh was evil. What makes this child so evil? Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah: “The wicked son is not wicked in any of the usual ways. He is not violent or sexually immoral; he does not keep slaves or steal.”

The wicked child asks: “What does this mean to you?” The child is not worried about perfecting ritual or reading liturgy properly. Rather, the wicked child is searching for meaning and understanding. Is that so bad? While traditionally, the rabbis argued that he was scolded because he didn’t care about his people or the scriptural narrative of the Jewish people, I think it is deeper. This text is an attempt by rabbinic tradition to emphasize doing without understanding or finding meaning. Appropriately, when the Israelites received the Torah, they said, “Naaseh v’Nishmah, we will do and then we will understand (Ex. 24:7).”

I am not suggested that there is no value in doing without finding meaning. Of course there is value! Part of doing without truly understanding why we do what we do is tradition, community, and faith. Additionally, the act of doing leads to understanding. Still, I would hardly consider he who only wants to do without questioning why and without searching for meaning as a chacham, as a scholarly and wise individual.

True wisdom is questioning. True wisdom is challenging. True wisdom is constantly searching for meaning and understanding that spiritual journeys are not always straight paths. True wisdom is being committed to doing while challenging. So maybe the wise child isn’t so wise after all. And maybe the wicked child is pretty smart. Instead of chastising the wicked child, we should be rewarding the wicked child. On a holiday full of asking questions, there is no greater question than that which searches for meaning. So I’d rather be wicked than wise, because in the words of Bllly Joel, they have much more fun.

Let us all be wise enough to be “wicked,” to not be as worried about what we do, but to step outside of our comfort zones and search for meaning in what we do.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fifty Years After Selma, Still Fighitng for Liberation at the Seder

50thAnniversaryBloodySundayOn March 7th and March 8th, earlier this month, tens of thousands gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama spoke and former President George W. Bush attended. They were joined by Democrats and Republicans —  legislators, politicians, and civilians –  all marching to commemorate the freedom-marchers clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers as they peacefully marched for the right to vote half a century ago.

This past Shabbat, March 21st, 2015, was the anniversary of the third DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworthof those three marches, the march that led to the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, the march that was successful and led to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act several months later. This march also marked the moment when religious leaders of all faiths, ethnicities, and races refused to stand idly by, and chose to walk alongside the likes of King, Lewis, Abernathy, Bunche, and Shuttlesworth.

This march was a reminder that freedom is a God-given right so we must walk alongside our brothers and sisters to ensure that our freedom is their freedom. The likes of Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Davis, and so many other religious leaders who marched, knew that we could not celebrate our freedom and our liberation while others were not yet liberated, while others were discriminated against.

Fifty years later, we still talk about this picture and this march. We talk about how far society has come and yet, how far we have to go. This past Shabbat, as we observed this fiftieth anniversary, we also read a special Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, the fourth of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover. This special maftir Torah reading comes from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus and goes into detail about how to slaughter the pascal sacrifice and then how to eat that sacrifice. What we rush over, but what is arguably the most significant of instructions, is the reminder to put the blood of the sacrifice on our doorposts. For it was that blood that saved the Israelites and ultimately, following the tenth and final plague, led to their freedom. The essence of the ritual is to remind us of that freedom.

In fact, all rituals of the Passover seder are meant to remind us of freedom and liberation. We are taught:

B’chol Dor va’dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Such an obligation is not about remembering or re-enacting. Such an obligation is about acknowledging that there is still liberation that needs to take place in our society and in our world. Telling the Passover narrative must remind us of the marching that we still need to do, that there is still inequality in society, still those that we must work to liberate. Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of the Jewish social justice organization, Bend the Arc, offers insight into the rabbis of B’nai Brak that we read about in the Passover Haggadah. We learn in the Haggadah that they were so engaged in the seder that theytalk until daybreak, when their students interrupt them. Rothbaum reminds us that they were not discussing ritual or debating halakha, Jewish law. Rather, they were up until the early hours of the morning talking about liberation – about the exodus experience. A room of rabbis suffering through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire were focused on our communal liberation narrative, in hopes of their own liberation.

For ultimately, that is what the seder is all about: telling the story. In my family, we tend to rush through the rituals aspects of the seder in order to get to the magid section in which we retell the exodus narrative. We do so because we find hope and inspiration in the narrative. Such an exodus from slavery to freedom reminds us of what is possible. It reminds us that we must continue to fight for liberation of all. We must continue to fight racial injustice and gender discrimination. We must continue to fight religious persecution, bigotry, and homophobia. We must continue to fight, to march, and to take action, until we can all experience the journey to freedom.

The Zohar explains that Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is derived from the Hebrew MiTzarim, which literally means, “from narrowness.” We march away from narrow-minded discrimination and bigotry towards a promised land of equality and love.

Civil rights leaders organized three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one ended with peaceful protesters bloodied and beaten. But they marched again, and again. We don’t just look back on a single march, but instead on all three marches, for in continuing to march, we find a determination and dedication to justice and to freedom.

With each plague in Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, but that did not stop Moses from demanding to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Each march shared a similar declaration. No matter how many times it took, people of all faiths continued to march and were determined to cross that metaphorical split sea.

The image of that third march, of Heschel and King marching together, along with so many other clergy of diverse faiths and backgrounds, is a reminder that we march together for freedom for all. The prophetic words of Dr. King ring true for people of all faiths:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How can we celebrate freedom when others are not? How can we celebrate liberation when there is still such injustice in our society?

We read in the Haggadah:

This year we are slaves. Next year, free people.

We acknowledge that as long as there is injustice, we cannot truly be free. We cannot celebrate freedom for ourselves until we can celebrate freedom and equality for all. So fifty years later, may we continue to march. May we continue to peacefully assembly and may our seder experiences serve as catalysts in our shared efforts to liberate us all from societal injustice. This year there is still injustice and discrimination. Next year, may we all be liberated.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding God Where We Are

Last Shabbat, we concluded the book of Exodus. We did so by reading the double Torah portion of Vayahkel-Pekudei in which the building of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, is completed. Upon its completion, God’s Divine Presence was felt in the Mishkan. We read in Exodus 40:33-34:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

After building the Tabernacle, a man-made sanctuary, God’s presence entered the space. If God’s Presence entered the space, then where was God prior to the building of the Tabernacle? In fact, God had been missing in the text since the Golden Calf narrative. Only now does God’s Presence return and reappear.

Many commentators suggest that God had hid and distanced God’s self from the Israelites. God was angry and heartbroken that the people that He brought out of slavery and formed a covenant with abandoned Him so quickly by building an idol. The building of the Tabernacle was their opportunity to re-establish the covenant. It was a physical sign to show their commitment to this relationship with the Divine.

However, I don’t think God abandoned the Israelites. Rather, I think the Israelites stopped looking for God. Still wrestling with their idea of the Divine, and grappling with faith, the Israelites stopped looking for God’s Presence in this world and in the natural world around us. The chose to build a Golden Calf instead of look for God everywhere and in everything. The building of the Tabernacle help them to remove the blinders and see God’s Presence there, and in all places.

We all too often stop looking for God in our own lives. We are busy and preoccupied and become obsessed with our own idols, our own versions of the Golden Calf. In doing so, we ignore God’s Presence. We too need to remove the blinders. We too need to remember that God’s Presence is in this space, in all spaces. We too need to stop for a moment and find God in all of our sanctuaries. And when we find God, it will not be because God was missing. Rather, it will be because until now, we hadn’t searched for the Divine.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Trying to Find a Spot in AIPAC’s Tent

I recently returned home from an exhilarating and emotional three days in Washington DC at the AIPAC Policy Conference. With over 16,000 delegates in attendance, and over 650 rabbis and cantors from across the denominational spectrum, this was AIPAC’s largest Policy Conference to date. This was not my first Policy Conference. This will not be my last Policy Conference. I appreciate the effort AIPAC staffers have made to ensure AIPAC is a big tent, to make sure that those of us who identify as progressive and liberal still feel that there is a place for us, who still desire a strong US-Israel relationship.

There were specific progressive rabbi learning sessions as well as breakout sessions that touched on issues that are important to me, including some that focused on NGO’s in Israel committed to co-existence, others that focused on LGBTQ rights and equality in Israel, and others that grappled with what it means to be progressive and a lover of Israel.

AIPAC has worked diligently to widen their tent. That being said, I could not help but also feel that my views on Israel were not always welcomed by the 16,000 delegates. Previous conferences have had various representatives from Knesset speak. In recent years, I have heard representatives from the right and left in Israel speak. While Netanyahu would address the conference, I’ve also heard Herzog, Livni, and Barak at different times speak to delegates in addition to Netanyahu. With elections in Israel only two weeks away, only the Prime Minister was in attendance. It was difficult to show one’s support for Israel, and for AIPAC, without showing one’s support for Netanyahu.

That made it ever more challenging for me to feel like I had a place, like I had a voice. The Prime Minister of Israel received more than a hero’s welcome. In fact, when he spoke, delegates around me were screaming, even crying. I felt like I was surrounded by teenagers at a One Direction concert. The irony — as opinion polls suggest — is that he is much more beloved by those in attendance than by those whom he serves in Israel.

As a Zionist, my Jewish values are intertwined with my views on Israel. While I support a strong and secure Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship (and thus, went to the AIPAC Policy Conference), I also strongly support a two-state solution. In years past, talks of peace — the necessity of peace — were an integral part of the Policy Conference. To my disappointment, those words were hardly uttered at the conference. It is no surprise then that days after the conference, Netanyahu apparently said that he no longer sees a two-state solution as a viable option.

Additionally, I believe as a Jew and a Zionist, that it is my responsibility to challenge Israel when the country does things that are detrimental to the peace process. The building and expanding of settlements in the West Bank does nothing to advance the prospects for peace. The word ‘settlement’ was barely mentioned. Any attempt to admit that such development is a barrier to peace was met with groans, hisses, and boos. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, speaking about the unbreakable US-Israel relationship, had only a single line about the United States’ opinion that continued settlement development hurts the prospects for peace. Delegates sitting around me booed and shook their heads in disappointment. In a breakout session, when former Congressman Barney Frank said that construction of settlements is an obstacle to peace, he again was met with push-back by delegates.

Don’t get me wrong: The AIPAC Policy Conference is an amazing experience. I have never been to a conference so well run. The videos are well produced. The signage catches your eye. Even the smart phone app allows you to stay up-to-date on all information regarding the conference. The conference has also become a get together for Jewish lay leaders, Jewish professionals, educators, and clergy, the only such conference that brings together 16,000 people.

Still, I fear that as hard as AIPAC tries — and I do appreciate them trying — fewer and fewer of those delegates truly make up such a diverse spectrum. I will continue to search for my place in the tent of AIPAC. I will continue to make my views and my thoughts heard. I will continue to proudly march on as a progressive, sharing my sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes critical views of Israel. I hope that my views will be welcomed in AIPAC, not just by the organization, but also by its delegates.

– Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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Why Jews Should Warm to Climate Change

This article was originally published on March 11, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.


When using resources harms the very Earth we are responsible for, we need to reevaluate our actions.

I woke up last week to frozen pipes. The water would not turn on in my sink or my shower. This is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to those living in the northeastern part of the United States. But while I am slowly readjusting to winter weather after moving to New Jersey from Florida, I grew up in the Garden State and don’t remember such cold temperatures.

On that morning, it was 1 degree Fahrenheit. Compare that to the average temperature in this area this time of year: 44 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Weather Channel.

In fact, oddly, New Jersey is one of the coldest places on the planet this winter. We have also seen other winter weather anomalies, like New England being hit with 100 inches of snow. And even the mild-weathered Israel has experienced uncommon snowfall in southern cities like Be’er Sheva, Arad, Mitzpeh Ramon and Yeruham.

Such frigid temperatures and snowfall are consequences of climate change, which causes extreme swings in temperature and weather patterns. While some may try to deny the reality of climate change, the facts on the ground are undeniable: Winters are colder and summers are warmer.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that humans are largely responsible for these changes, explaining that as technology and industry have evolved, we have also released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasesinto the atmosphere.

During the Yamim Noraim (the days of reflection, awe and amazement leading up to the High Holy Days), we are taught to do teshuvah, to repent. However, repenting is about more than just saying sorry and asking for forgiveness. Doing teshuvah is about taking responsibility for what we have done wrong. Thus, instead of just bundling up and turning up the heat in our homes or buying bigger shovels and extra salt, we must acknowledge and admit that we have done wrong.

Only once we admit that, can we move on to the next stage of teshuvah: change.

While the Torah gives us permission to take advantage of the resources of the land, it does not allow us to destroy it. We are commanded to till and tend to the earth (Gen. 2:15). Yet, only moments after God created the utopian Eden, humanity began destroying it.

When using resources harms the very earth we are responsible for, we need to reevaluate our actions. There are no “do-overs” in this creation saga.

Midrash essentially warns that if we destroy the earth, there will be nobody to pick up the pieces and repair what we’ve done (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). All we can do is attempt to stop the damage we are currently causing.

This is why, as Jews, we must now make it our priority to once again tend to the earth and stem the tide of climate change. We should spearhead efforts to make our institutions and buildings more energy efficient. We must promote using renewable energy sources. We must waste less and conserve more. Our synagogues, schools and community centers must become green institutions.

Seeing as environmental justice is a fundamental Jewish value, our institutions must serve as examples. We cannot simply worry about wearing extra layers to deal with the cold weather. We need to worry about leaving this earth in a decent condition, thus providing a world for our descendants.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Answer to Fighting Anti-Semitism is not Aliyah

This article was originally published on February 19, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The Jewish community is still reeling from the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. While there have been scary examples of hate and anti-Semitism towards the Jewish community for years, the hostage crisis and murder of four Jews at the Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket in East Paris on January 9th, 2015, by terrorists awakened the rest of World Jewry to the challenges that the French Jewish community, and much of European Jewry face regularly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to France following the Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket terrorist attack – which occurred only days after the Charlie Hebdo attack – and reminded French Jews that Israel is their home, encouraging them to emigrate from France to Israel if they want to live safely as Jews. The desecration of a Jewish cemetery in France only days ago has only made Netanyahu’s calls for Aliyah that much louder. As it is, seven thousand French Jews made Aliyah in 2014, more than double that of the previous year.

Like a terrible case of Déjà vu, we heard of the tragic terrorist attack at a Copenhagen synagogue on February 14th which left one dead and two wounded – and following an attack at a free speech event at a nearby café earlier in the day. Just as was the case in France, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for Jews of Denmark to make Aliyah to Israel, even discussing with Cabinet members a $46 million plan to encourage mass Aliyah of European Jewry.

French President Hollande disagrees with Netanyahu’s calls for Jews to leave France, saying that he would not allow Jews to “believe that [they] no longer have a place in Europe. Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France.” Similarly, Danish Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt said “the Jewish community has been in this country for centuries. They belong in Denmark, they are a part of the Danish community and we wouldn’t be the same without the Jewish community in Denmark.” Of course talk is cheap. They can make such public statements, but those statements are meaningless if such anti-Semitic terrorist attacks continue. Still, I agree with them, that Europe has failed, and the European Jewish community has failed, if there they leave and immigrate to Israel.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Israel. I support and believe in the state of Israel. I am a Zionist and I believe in the modern-day miracle, a realization of our thousands year old goal to live Jewishly, under Jewish sovereignty, in the Promised land. I am grateful that Jews everywhere in the world can make Aliyah, can move to Israel, and can live in a place where they can be Jewish, speak Hebrew, and observe Jewish law how they see fit. Additionally, I appreciate that there is a safe haven of sorts for World Jewry, a place where Jews who fear their safety can live safely.

That being said, I think we have failed as a people, and as society, if all Jews leave their homes and move to Israel. While there are those who ideologically promote mass Aliyah of all Jews to bring about Messianic redemption, that is not what this is about. This type of Aliyah is about leaving where you are because it is not safe to be a Jew there. We have failed as a people – especially given the horrific events of the twentieth century — if our solution to anti-Semitism anywhere is to make Aliyah.

As an American Jew and as an American rabbi, I admit that my Jewish identity and American identity are intertwined. While it may be scandalous for a rabbi to say, although I am a Zionist, I never envision making Aliyah. I do not dream of living in Israel one day. I love Israel and love visiting Israel, but my Jewish identity is strengthened through my experiences as an American, living in American society. Furthermore, my beliefs regarding policy and legislation in America is influenced by the ethics and values of my faith that I hold to be true. My dream is to be a Jew living in America, just as I am now. My dream is that every Jew is free to be themselves, as they are, where they live.

The answer is not to leave. The answer most certainly is not to make mass Aliyah as Netanyahu promotes. Rather, the answer is for us – Jews in America, Jews in Israel, and Jews throughout the world – to stand up in solidarity with the Jewish communities of Paris, Copenhagen, and all of Europe. The answer is that we must refuse to be silent. We cannot ignore such anti-Semitism. We cannot pretend that it does not exist. Leaving Europe does just that. We must stand up to it. We must make sure that like-minded Christians, Catholics, and Muslims, those who refuse to be consumed by hatred and bigotry, stand up to such anti-Semitism as well.

Judaism existed, and in many cases thrived, for almost two thousand years in the diaspora. We must support Israel, but cannot give up on the need and importance of the diaspora Jewish community. We must not run. We must not flee. Rather, we must stand united against terrorism, against hate, and against anti-Semitism.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Power of Jewish Youth Groups

USYJRAI just returned home from an exhilarating – and of course exhausting – couple of days with our South Orange USY chapter in Philadelphia. Over thirty teens from our USY chapter traveled to Philadelphia to spend Shabbat together with students at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, tour the campus, and then visit highlights of the Jewish aspects of the city, including the Liberty Bell, Congregation Mikveh Israel – the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the country, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More importantly than touring though, our teens spent Sunday and Monday volunteering. Through service learning opportunities with organizations like Jewish Relief Agency, Repair the World, and the Boys & Girls Club of America, these teens came to understand the challenges of food insecurity, hunger, and poverty in the city of Philadelphia as well as throughout the country.

The beauty of youth groups like United Synagogue Youth (USY), is that they emphasize experiential education. We didn’t CleaningBGCAjust study the concepts of justice and law through a Jewish lens. We worked towards justice, understanding that we must also work to change laws that are unjust, that take advantage of society’s most vulnerable. USY is more than just a social experience, although there was plenty of hanging out and having fun! USY inspires the next generation of leaders in the American Jewish community. This trip helped them understand the importance of rolling up our sleeves to make this world a better place. USY helps to teach our children that they must take responsibility for the world around them, for those around them.

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, we find in Exodus 23:6:

You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.


More specifically, we must not take advantage of those who depend on us for justice. Thus, we must also realize the blessings that we have in our lives and instead of taking those blessings for granted, we must make it our priority to bring blessings to others. Through the social action and social justice work of our USYers this past weekend, they did just that. I was just happy to be there to witness the impact that our teens are already making in this world. They are thoughtful, they are committed, and they are inspiring. The American Jewish community, and society, is in good hands.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Promise of Peace in the Promised Land

Last year, before I even arrived to begin my tenure as rabbi at Congregation Beth El, the congregation spent the year reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a ground-breaking book by the Haaretz writer, which tells of both the triumph and tragedy of the reality of the modern state of Israel.

I recently had the privilege of having lunch with Mr. Shavit. AIPAC organized a lunch with Ari Shavit and a handful of liberal progressive community rabbis. He shared his thoughts on the terrible events that took place in Israel and in Gaza this summer. He also shared how in some ways, his views have changed since his book was published.

One thing he said that truly stands out to me is that we cannot focus on a real peace, but instead must focus on a realistic peace. A real peace is focused on drawn out negotiations and a peace process, facilitated by a third party that both sides argue is subjective. A real peace is continuously stalled by the politics involved in the peace process.

Mr. Shavit insisted that we should instead search for a realistic peace. A realistic peace does not focus on land or land swaps, but instead focuses on land use. A realistic peace  emphasizes shared water resources, shared irrigation technology, shared vegetation and growing techniques, as well as shared energy technology and opportunities. A realistic peace comes from a shared commitment to the land.

MyPromisedLandWe recently celebrated the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. In recent years, the holiday has evolved from a Jewish Arbor Day to a Jewish Earth Day, the Jewish community’s ecological holiday, a day that helps us refocus on the land. Except Tu B’Shevat is more than that. This holiday does not just emphasis reconnecting  with the land and understanding its sanctity. Tu B’Shevat is specific to the land of Israel. Tu B’Shevat is specific to cultivating the land, planting the land, and celebrating the land.

If Ari Shavit suggests that cultivating the land and sharing the resources of the land is what we must do to reach a realistic peace, then Tu B’Shevat’s message is ultimately a message of peace. Sharing land is a shared responsibility. Sharing land is a shared opportunity. No matter religion, no matter faith, we have a shared belief in God as Creator — and a shared responsibility to take care of the land and treat it properly. Doing so — together — will lead to the peace that we seek.

Upon seeing the natural beauties of this world, we traditionally recite the following blessing:

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Breisheit. 

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who continuously makes the wonders of creation.

We say this blessing when we see waterfalls and sunsets, snowstorms and canyons. We say this blessing as a reminder that the land, the land that we use and depend on, helps us to appreciate God’s presence around us. May appreciation of that land, the land of Israel, and a shared use of the resources of that land, lead us to praising God for the greatest of all miracles: peace.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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