Jewish Institutions Should Preach Social Justice From the Pulpit

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

HaaretzSocial Justice is a central tenet of Judaism. Why, then, are rabbis and synagogues afraid to broach it?

Throughout my studies in rabbinical school, I was taught to not preach politics from the pulpit. The reasoning for this was backed up by the regulations of America’s Internal Revenue Service, which say houses of worship and not-for-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
These regulations have been misinterpreted as meaning we, religious leaders, cannot talk about any issue that’s deemed “political.” Yet all key issues facing American society are addressed by elected officials. And when they are, they are perceived to have become “political.” So, in turn, we conclude that we can’t talk about them for fear of mixing politics and religion.

This logic is completely misguided.

The fact that politicians address issues does not inherently make these issues “political,” and does not automatically bar rabbis and synagogues from taking a stand.

So why do these institutions really shy away from such issues? For fear of being controversial or labeled in an unpalatable way.

These communities are missing an opportunity to connect the values we, Jewish leaders, teach our children and the lessons of Torah we teach each Shabbat to the world that we live in.

So many issues that I have spoken about from the pulpit – including marriage equality, systemic racism, gun violence, prison reform, refugee crises, and modern day slavery – are anything but political. These are social justice issues.
There may be disagreements on how we as Jews address these issues or how we as Americans guided by Jewish ethics and values address these issues, and disagreement is healthy. But there can be no disagreement regarding our need as rabbis to speak about issues of social justice and address these issues with our congregations.

From November 13 to 17, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the American Jewish community’s Conservative movement, will be hosting its biennial convention in the Chicago-area. This convention, labeled “Shape the Center,” is an opportunity for Conservative congregations and institutions to shape their future and rethink their purpose. Clergy, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders will be coming together during Shabbat and the convention that follows to discuss many issues facing the American Jewish community, in hopes to reshape their visions and to align their missions with the needs of its members.

Among the many presentations at the convention, I will be leading a discussion about putting social justice at the center of our communities, where I will emphasize the need to walk the path of the prophets. Judaism will not survive, let alone thrive, if we solely concern ourselves with the heady debates of the rabbinic tradition and ignore the world in which we live. The prophetic texts of the Bible teach us that Judaism and Jewish values is not just about our own personal actions; it is about impacting our society and our world.

It was Amos who said “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7). It was Jeremiah was said: “Execute ye justice and righteousness … do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22:3). It is Isaiah who challenged: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him” (Is. 58:6-7).

Why are we so scared to share how Judaism has relevant lessons to teach us about facing the issues facing our society? Why are we afraid to be guided by the values of our tradition to change the world around us?

When looking at the now well-documented, inspected and over-analyzed Pew Study on the American Jewish community of 2013, we find that an overwhelming 69 percent of the community believe that living an ethical life is essential to their sense of Jewishness, and 56 percent add that being Jewish means working for justice and equality. If our goal in shaping our institutions is to create entry points for engagement, we should embrace the connection many in our communities make between Judaism and social justice.

Spiritual experience must be more than just Shabbat services. It must be rallies and public actions, too. Education must be more than just religious school and preschool. It must be protests and letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. We must not only assemble in our buildings for prayer. We must assemble on the streets, and in front of town halls and statehouses. We must see social justice as a core part of our congregations, and a core part of our Jewish identities.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Biblical Back to the Future

Happy Belated Holiday! For those unaware, there was another holiday last week, but not one of the many Jewish holidays that took over the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It also wasn’t a federal holiday that gave children a day off from school. This was more of a pop culture holiday: Back to the Future Day! Happy Belated Back to the Future Day! Back to the Future Day was observed on October 21st, 2015 because that was the exact date that Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, entered into his DeLorean time machine to take Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, and Jennifer Parker, played by Elizabeth Shue in the sequels, thirty years into the future to save their future children in Back to the Future Part II. Even USA Today celebrated the day with a special Back to the Future front page.

BTTFThe film’s version of the future was exciting, with self-laced Nike sneakers, hoverboards, Jaws 19, and even the Cubs winning the World Series. It was certainly my favorite of the trilogy (let’s face it: Part III was a disappointment), reshooting parts of the first film and reusing footage so that when the Marty McFly of the future goes back to the past, he also sees the Marty McFly of the present in the past! My favorite part of the sequel’s narrative is when Biff, the bully from the first film who had become a subordinate to the McFly’s by the end of that film witnesses the DeLorean. He sees them take off into the future in 1985 and an older Biff finds the DeLorean when they arrive in futuristic 2015. Biff takes the DeLorean back in time to 1955, the night that Marty McFly travels back to in the first film, and gives the younger version of himself a Sports Almanac, which reveals the sports scores for the next several decades. This one event completely changes the present. 1985 becomes a dystopia, with Biff becoming a Donald Trump of sorts, a billionaire tycoon (who won all of his money from betting successfully on sports), and is even Marty McFly’s stepfather! The pop culture holiday (if you can still consider a film that was released over twenty five years ago “pop culture”) celebrated that our future is not written for us. Any action, or inaction, as evidenced in the entire Back to the Future trilogy can change the future.

There was no DeLorean, no clock tower, and no traveling through time in Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah portion we read last week. Yet, the Torah asked the same question as Director Robert Zemeckis: can we change the future?

In Lech Lecha, Abram complains to God that he has no descendants, no children to call his own.  Through an odd dreamlike sequence, known as the Brit Bein HaBetarim, the Covenant between the Parts, God promises Abram that his will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. God then added in Genesis 15:13-14:

Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.

God foretells what will happen to the Israelites centuries later, from resettling in Egypt, to their enslavement, to their eventual freedom. I can’t help ask, why does Abram not flinch at this dark glimpse into the future? McFly hopes in the DeLorean to save his at-risk children of the future. Abram’s descendants are to be enslaved for four hundred years and he does nothing.

Maybe Abram is overwhelmed by the promises of this covenant: the infinite descendants and the blessings of the Promised Land. Maybe Abram was distracted by the smoking oven and flaming torch while in a deep slumber. Either way, he just accepts the future as reality. Some may see these verses as editorial additions, trying to both connect the book of Genesis to the book of Exodus, and justify the eventually Israelite enslavement that is at the core of our narrative. The editors go back to the past of the narrative to justify the future.

Yet, the whole point of the Lech Lecha journey that takes place, and the narrative that follows, is that his journey is not set. Abram doesn’t know where the destination is, because the destination doesn’t matter. It is the journey to get there that matters. The destination is unknown because Abram must find the destination for himself. So too, our destinations are unknown. Our futures are unwritten. And even when we think the future is decided and mapped out for us, a single detour, bump in the road, or U-Turn on that journey changes the destination, changes the future.

So on this belated Back to the Future Day celebration, let us focus more on the patriarch McFly rather than the patriarch Abram. Let us continue to believe that our actions write our future, that our journeys are not yet complete. Let us go off road and not always depend on a map to get us to where we need to be. As we renew our own personal covenants, let us remember that these covenants are not just for us, but for generations to come. Let us refuse to accept that the future is set in stone and let us remember that every action of the present impacts our future.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Congregation Beth El Celebrates National Coming Out Day 2015

On October 11th, Congregation Beth El celebrated National Coming Out Day. Beth El Congregant and Executive Director of North Jersey Pride, CJ Prince, taught sixth and seventh graders of our Jewish Learning Center about inclusion, acceptance, and equality. 

This past Shabbat, the Shabbat following National Coming Out Day, CJ shared her story with our congregation and community. We read Parashat Noach, the story of Noah’s Ark that Shabbat and read of the rainbow, the Keshet, as a sign and symbol of God’s promise to protect all of God’s creatures. The rainbow is the symbol of the LGBTQ community as well, not just because it represents diversity, but also because it represents love and protection, the same love and protection that God promised all of us following the flood. We at Beth El also celebrate all, building a safe and inclusive community for all, exemplified by that very rainbow. 

The following are the words shared by CJ Prince at Congregation Beth El in honor of National Coming Out Day:

CJ PrinceThank you to Rabbi Olitzky for inviting me to speak today, on National Coming Out Day. For those not familiar with the origins of this special day, it started the year after the 1987 march on Washington. More than 250,000 people gathered on the mall in DC to demand equal rights for gays and lesbians. It was decided by the movement’s leaders that having a positive day celebrating revelation, honesty, wholeness would be a nice change from protesting negative stuff. And there was still plenty of negative stuff.  Just the year before, in 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a ruling that upheld the state of Georgia’s right to arrest same-sex couples for being intimate in the privacy of their own homes. So although the American Psychiatric Association had removed “homosexuality” from the list of pathologies in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in in 1973, it was still essentially illegal to be gay at this time. So we weren’t crazy; we were just criminals.

Right around this time, ’86, ’87, I was a teenager in high school. I attended Yeshiva University High School for Girls. I had wanted to attend the co-ed Frisch School in New Jersey, also Orthodox, but my father insisted that I had to go to an all-girls school, so I could “concentrate on my studies.” Somewhere in ninth or tenth grade I became aware that something was different about me. My hair was permed like the other girls. I wore big belts and neon sweatshirts and long jeans skirts, like everyone else. But I didn’t have crushes on boys like the other girls. I had crushes on girls. That was a pretty big difference—and I was completely freaked out. Because being gay was bad. And invisible.

In the 1980s, the only gays on television or in movies were either asexual and alone or criminals and psychopaths. Very few celebrities were out. Melissa Etheridge hadn’t even come out yet, let alone Ellen Degeneres or Jodie Foster, who were deep in the closet with all the other gays. There was no Glee, no L-Word, no Queer As Folk, no Orange is the New Black, and certainly no Transparent. As far as anyone knew, there were absolutely no gay people in my hometown of Monsey, New York. For those who haven’t heard of Monsey, it’s a tiny Orthodox Jewish enclave in Rockland County, about an hour north of here, sometimes called Monsey-eer-hakodesh. My rabbi, Reb Moshe Tendler, was vocally, vehemently, anti-gay, although to be honest it didn’t come up much in his divrei torah. But if it had, it wouldn’t have been warm and fuzzy. The only time I heard a reference to gay was when my parents and their friends would call a man a faygele. I didn’t know exactly what it meant but I gathered it wasn’t a compliment.

So I worried a lot—quietly. When I was 17, I entered Stern College at Yeshiva University on an early admissions program. I was becoming increasingly concerned about what I saw as a huge impediment to my destiny, which was to marry a man and have children. Fortunately, engagement announcements were a daily event at Stern, which did a good job of reminding me of the time pressure I faced. I knew I had only a year or two until the clouds of suspicion would gather about my lack of a steady boyfriend. I had no choice but to work on changing it. I found a therapist through a friend. I went to her, explained the problem and told her I needed to fix it. I said, I have just two years until I have to be engaged. Tick-tock. She said, okay, we can try that. But you may have to accept just the smallest possibility that this isn’t something you can change. It may not be something you fix. I told her that that was all fine for her other patients, but for me, we’d have to change it. Deep inside, though, a part of me sighed with relief. She was the first human being I had ever told, and she didn’t expel me from the room. She even implied that I might be okay just as I was. Food for thought.

Still, I still didn’t see a light at the end of my tunnel. I couldn’t see how it would all be alright. I did have passing thoughts about suicide, but I never acted on them. Instead, I went for a year in Israel and after spending a soul-searching and very chaste year in yeshiva—I decided I was so religious that I would be shomeret negiyah, a rule that meant I could not touch boys. Which was very convenient. I asked my father if I could stay in Israel for shanah bet, a second year of yeshiva. Israel felt safe, a haven from myself and my reality back home, and I wanted to stay. I knew if I went back I’d have to find out more about who I was and that seemed like it wouldn’t end well. I thought for sure my parents would be thrilled, but to my surprise, they denied my petition. My mother had dropped out of college to have my brother and never finished, and I think she was determined that I would be the first woman in the line to earn a degree. They said, come back and finish college and then if you want to go back, okay.

Fortunately, they let me transfer to Barnard because I was miserable at Stern—and because Barnard was all-girls, too. At Barnard, I found my people. And by the time I graduated I was pretty sure I knew who I was. And I was equally sure that my parents could not know what I knew about who I was. So I kept my life a secret for the next five years. During this time, I abandoned all yiddishkeit. I believed that there was no place for me in a Jewish context and no room for my Jewish identity if I was going to embrace my gay identity. And after 22 years of living as a good Jewish girl, I felt it was time to let my other identity have equal time. The truth is, I was angry and I was hurt, and I just jettisoned it all. It was just too painful to try to integrate these two halves of me, so I didn’t.

Then, in the mid-’90s, I found Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the LGBT synagogue in Manhattan. I was in awe of a Jewish house of worship that invited people not to check one identity at the door, but to bring all identities in to be welcomed, accepted, celebrated. There, I didn’t have to choose between being Jewish and being gay. I could just be.

Still, I always went home to Monsey for the High Holy Days. My father was one of the chazzanim at the shul and it was just assumed I would be there so long as I wasn’t married. But during those years, I was not observant at all in my life, and Yom Kippur behind a mechitzah became unbearable. So when I was 26, I attended my first Yom Kippur at CBST. It was an incredible experience to be asking for forgiveness, but not for who we were. When we said the al cheyts, we said the traditional ones, but then we added in a few. Al cheyt she-chatanu lefanecha…for the wrong we have done before you by rejecting a part of ourselves. For the wrong we have done before you by being ashamed of how you created us. For the wrong we have done before you by keeping ourselves hidden from the people we love.

By ne’ilah, I knew the time had come to tell my parents. I did a trial run with my older brother, Jay. It took me a couple of stiff drinks to get the words out, but when I finally said, “I’m gay,” he said, “Yeah…and?” So apparently I hadn’t been as good at hiding this as I thought. He didn’t know whether my parents had a clue, and I didn’t guess they did. But I was emboldened by this experience. Maybe it would all be okay.

So I made plans to go home to Monsey for a Shabbos and at some point over the day, I would tell them. It was only after we lit candles that I realized this might not have been the best plan. We didn’t drive on Shabbat or use phones and we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, so if it didn’t go well, I was kind of up a creek. So I twisted and agonized about this for about…twenty-four and a half hours. I’ll tell them at dinner, I thought. Hmm, no, I’ll tell them at lunch, after my father’s had some bourbon for Kiddush. No maybe after he’s had a nap would be better.

Finally, it was evening. My father had gone to shul for maariv and my mother and I were playing card games together. I was trying to get up the nerve to tell her, but felt as though I might literally be sick. We finished our 20th game of gin rummy.

“What should we play next?” she asked.

“Well…how about we play truth or dare?” I said.

“How do we play that?” She looked worried.

I took a deep breath. “That’s the game…where I tell you the truth.”

Mind you, this was not part of a plan. I had not rehearsed what I would say and had no idea what I was talking about. But I had to start somewhere. After that opening, though, I just couldn’t get it out. The words wouldn’t come. It’s hard to explain what that moment is like unless you’ve long hidden a fundamental, unchangeable part of yourself—from the people closest to you—and then decide one day to suddenly reveal it. The best analogy I can make is that it’s akin to wearing a mask over your face for decades, believing that what’s underneath it will be hideous to everyone else. Then one day you decide to take off the mask, hoping people aren’t as horrified as you think they will be. The fear is  overwhelming, literally paralyzing. Long agonizing minutes passed. Tears streamed down my face but the words just wouldn’t come. Finally my mother took my hand.

“Just say it,” she said.

“I’m gay.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

She cried a little. I cried a lot. We hugged. Then I asked her what she thought my father would say. She wasn’t sure. She asked me what I was most afraid of. I said that I thought he might not love me anymore if he knew. She said, “Why don’t you let me tell him and let him come to you.”

So I ran upstairs to my old room to hide while my mother sat down with my father when he came home from shul to tell him all that I’d said. It was only a few minutes later that I heard his footsteps running up the stairs. He found me and wrapped me in a big hug.

“How could you think I wouldn’t love my best girl because of that?” he said. Then he added that he wished I didn’t have such a difficult road ahead of me. But I left Monsey that night knowing that my road had just become a little bit easier to travel.  I was really, really lucky. Having heard many, many stories about rejection by parents, I know just how lucky I was, and am.

Of course, over the next few years, we had some steps forward, some back, some anger, some bargaining, some denial. Lessons were learned. For example, I learned if you let too much time lapse after coming out without talking about it, the coming out expires and you have to do it again.

But by 2001, they were almost there. Not ready to march in the parade, but they had almost accepted that this was who I was. Almost. And then in February of that year we found out my brother, Jay, had a very rare form of cancer and his prognosis was not good. It took nine months from start to finish. He was 41 years old. He left four children, the youngest was two. Tonight, coincidentally, I will light a candle for his 14th yarzheit.

His death crushed all of us. And of course, my parents were, quite literally, devastated. Things changed after that, between us. It was almost as if they knew, having lost a child, they would never risk losing another one.  Their children, however imperfect, however unexpected, were gifts from Hashem and they were going to cherish every minute they had with them. They not only came to my wedding in 2003, but they walked me down the aisle. My father gave a beautiful dvar torah during the dinner. My mother passed away the very next year from breast cancer—another devastating blow. But I was grateful that before she died, she knew me. My father has been nothing but one hundred percent supportive since. That’s a big deal considering how many times he has had to come out to other people he knows and meets, since I’ve had children. He loves his granddaughters to the moon.

When we moved out to New Jersey, I was sad to leave CBST. I thought I’d never find that sort of welcoming community again. But I was wrong. Beth El is a truly inclusive Conservative synagogue. It welcomes all to “come as you are.”  Worship here as yourself. Don’t check your identity at the door; bring it inside and we will not only accept it, but celebrate it. I can’t tell you what that means for me, what it would have meant to me as a young person, and what I know it means today to the teens and kids even younger who suspect they may be LGBT and are terrified of the consequences of revealing who they are.

When Rabbi Olitzky arrived at Beth El, he immediately reached out to me and to North Jersey Pride to see how we could partner and make Beth El an even safer and more inclusive space for LGBTQ members. Beth El was a proud 2015 Equality Sponsor of North Jersey Pride this past year and more nachas I could not have schepped.

Over the past two decades, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous strides. We can now marry in every state in the country—something I never imagined I would see in my lifetime. There are lots of out and proud celebrities, gay-themed shows on television, films, and so on. But it is still legal to fire someone for being gay in 28 states. We also have a ways to go on transgender rights. We are still fighting entrenched homophobia in our culture. And the biggest threat is to our youth. Young LGBT people are still at a much higher risk for depression and suicide. They are bullied at a much higher rate. They often feel isolated and feel unable to seek help. They don’t see the light at the end of their tunnel, just as I couldn’t see it, even though it really was there.

We deal with bullying in our schools, which of course we should, but that’s just one leg of the stool. If we don’t model that inclusiveness in our homes and in our houses of worship, how can we ask our youth to live it in school?

At Beth El, inclusiveness seems to be the norm. That’s what the quiet, closeted gay teen in the back of the shul sees. She sees it’s okay out there. The air is fine. She doesn’t have to live in fear or in silence. I, for one, have tremendous gratitude for that.

I thank Rabbi Olitzky for the invitation to speak to you, and I encourage you all, if you are not LGB or T, to celebrate National Coming Out Day by coming out as an ally to someone you know, someone who you think might be a little uncomfortable with it or someone who you might feel a little uncomfortable talking to about the topic. The next time you hear a joke or a stereotype or a slur, even if the speaker didn’t mean any harm, say something. You just never know who’s listening.

Every time you stand up and speak out, you make this world just a little bit safer for all of us. You become a light unto others. And you become an active part in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.  Shabbat Shalom.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Standing with our Brothers and Sisters

Last week, as we began the Torah anew, and read Parashat Breishit, we did more than just simply read about the creation of the world. We read about our need, as human beings, to look out for one another, and be concerned about each other. Upon creating Adam, God declares in Genesis 2:18:

It’s not good for an individual to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for that person.

We often thing that this verse suggests our need to search for our bashert, our soul mate. We tend to believe that this verse focuses on the need to find a partner. However, I would like to suggest that this has little to do with love and companionship and instead, is a guide to our relationship with the world. It is not good for a person to be alone. So too, we cannot live in this world alone. We cannot live only focused on ourselves, on our own issues, on that which concerns us or impacts us, and ignore everything else. We cannot pretend that the hate, violence, and terror in this world does not exist. We cannot look at the world around us and become apathetic or pretend that we don’t care. We cannot think that as long as we are safe, the world is safe. We cannot pretend that we are alone and most importantly, we cannot leave our brothers and sisters alone when they need us most.

Over the past two weeks, there have been dozens of terror attacks throughout Israel. These aren’t just attacks in disputed territories in the West Bank (which still would not justify the violent acts that took place). These are attacks on individuals in downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These are attacks in quaint and quiet suburbs. These murderers are driving their cars into populated areas, and mobbing cars as Israelis drive by. They are stealing IDF soldiers’ guns and opening fire. Most often, they are stabbing incident victims in public areas with butcher knives.

I am guilty – like many of us – of just reading the headlines and accepting the reality of terror and fear. We do not know what to do and feel helpless. We read of these horrific accounts and may mourn privately, but don’t do anything. We just watch when we must be our brothers’ keepers.

We find in the Book of Daniel the reference to the Iyr, the Watcher, an angel that comes down from Heaven solely to observe They appear again in the books of the Apocrypha and are mentioned in the Kabbalistic texts of the Zohar. They just watch. They do not intervene. They do not react.

As human beings, we too are angels. We too are messengers. After all, when Abraham is visited by three angels of God, he first sees three men in the distance. It is only after greeting them and welcoming them in, that he learns of their divine tasks. We too are angels, and yet, we are becoming Watchers. We witness murder and bloodshed, a world of hate and violence, and we just watch. Our goal is to be divine messengers, not angelic observers.

We not only find the creation of life in Parashat Breishit. We also find the end of life. Soon after Cain and Abel are born to Eve, Cain murders his brother. God, already knowing the answer to the question, asks Cain where his brother Abel is. Cain responds with a challenging question of his own:

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Yes. We are our brothers’ keepers. We are our sisters’ keepers. We cannot only sit and watch like angelic creatures and not do anything about it. As we pray for peace, may we also stand united in support of Israel and her citizens who in the current state of affairs, risk their lives everyday by simply living their normal lives. I pray for the day that peace will come. I pray for an end to violence and terrorism. Until then, we must not be alone, and make sure that our brothers and sisters do not feel left alone either. We must look out for each other. We must stand with each other. Together, united, as each other’s angels, may we find peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Yom Kippur Sermons 5776

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Yom Kippur sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Kol Nidre: Letting Go of Guilt

Yom Kippur Morning: Carrying our Loved Ones – and their Memories – with us

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Returning is Not Hitting the Reset Button

As I’ve mentioned before, my preschooler and I have very different understandings of what it means to binge watch something. I love binge watching a full season of a show in a week, or devoting all my television viewing to a single show that I’ve never seen. I spend the next several months only watching that, until I’ve completed all seven seasons. My daughter understands binge watching to mean watching the same thing over and over again. Her latest obsession: Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. When she wakes up early in the morning before it is time to get ready for school, we cuddle on the couch and I dose off again as she watches the same movie one more time. While I enjoy the film, and appreciate the video game comedy (most of which entirely goes over her head), I still think twelve times in two weeks is a bit much for one movie!

During these Aseret Yamei Teshuva, these Ten Days of Repentance, I was watching it again with my daughter and was wreckitralphstruck by the recurring video game-based humor of the movie that offered insight during these days of reflection. The premise focuses on the “real lives” of video game characters in an arcade. Much like Toy Story was for toys, Wreck-It Ralph imagines that after the arcade closes, all the video game characters come to life hang out with each other, traveling through the wires (a subway system) from stop to stop, from console to console.

Yet, they would joke that as long as they remained in their own game, they would not die. Even Fix-It Felix Jr. had a piece of ceiling crush him and yet, he reappeared, a reference to the many lives one has in a video game. And at the end of every day, once the arcade closed, the characters of each game, the bad guys and the heroes, even the bystanders, would straighten up the game so that it was ready for the next day when the next quarter was inserted into the console, when they would return to the beginning and start all over again.

I thought of this as we celebrated Shabbat Shuva this past Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Shabbat of Return. The name of the Shabbat is taken from the beginning of the Haftarah read that morning in which the prophet Hosea calls out:

Shuva Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha, Return people of Israel to Adonai your God.

We are taught that we spend these days of repentance returning. But where do we return to? Unlike these arcade game characters, we do not return to the beginning. When we make mistakes, we do not get sent back to the beginning of level one to start our journeys over. We do not get extra lives to bring us back from mistakes. Yet, we do get a clean slate. More powerful than starting over and more practical than hitting the reset button, we get to return to something greater.

We do not – and cannot – return to the beginning of our journeys. Instead, we return to the truest version of ourselves. That means that we still have to clean up our messes and deal with whatever happened in the past. But it also means that we cannot change the past. Nor should we try to. Let the past stay in the past. We cannot return to level one. Instead we return brand-new as our authentic selves, wherever we are in our journeys in the game of life. May we take advantage of this opportunity to return to each other, and return to God as well.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you have a meaningful conclusion to the High Holy Day season.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5776

For those who missed them, want to read them again, or are interested, here are my Rosh Hashanah sermons, delivered at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ:

Rosh Hashanah Day One: Saving The Stranger

Rosh Hashanah Day Two: Wasting Time Waiting to Change

Please feel free to share your feedback, thoughts, and comments.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Filed under Uncategorized

Respecting the Rights of Laborers – Locally & Globally

After hearing the news over the summer that A&P Supermarkets had declared bankruptcy, I was excited to hear that Stop & Shop Supermarkets would be buying a number of the A&P locations, including Pathmark store which are owned by A&P. At the end of July, we learned that the Pathmark on Valley Street in South Orange, the closest and most convenient grocery store for many of us in town, would become a Stop & Shop. This news was not only exciting because this local market would get a much needed facelift, with a cleaner store and more product options. This was exciting because this means that the fight to end modern day slavery and exploitation of workers in the fields of Florida and across this nation — the fight for human rights of migrant agricultural workers in this country — continues to gain momentum and impact us locally.

Many are familiar with the Fair Food Program, as I’ve written about the this important program and the important work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers time and time and time again. Last year, as part of our recognition of T’ruah’s Human Rights Shabbat, Congregation Beth El screened the film Food Chains, as a reminder that our fight to ensure freedom, equality, and justice for all is far from over.

stop-and-shop-logoAt the end of July, it was also announced that Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold USA — which also owns Giant Foods — was joining the Fair Food Program, making it the first major supermarket chain in the Northeast to join the program. Soon enough, we can rest assured that the tomatoes and produce we buy, the produce from our local supermarket, will be picked under humane conditions, ensuring that the laborers who work hard to bring the food from the fields to our tables are treated with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves. This soon-to-be Stop & Shop will join other local supermarkets, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, as part of the Fair Food Program and I hope that soon enough, other supermarket chains, restaurants, and food service providers will follow suit. The Fair Food Program has been so successful that the program’s labor rights education sessions have expanded from the tomato fields of Florida all the way to the farms of New Jersey, continuing to fight for the dignity of those who work in our own backyards.

We were reminded this past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Ki Teitzei, that our obligation to fight for the rights of these workers is a sacred obligation. We read in Deuteronomy 24:14:

You should not oppress a hired laborer that is poor and needy.

Furthermore, we are commanded just verses later in verse 17:

You shall not deprive a stranger of justice.

Fighting for the rights of every worker — from fellow colleagues and employees to those who work in the tomato fields — is holy work. We are taught that the Torah is Etz Chayim Hee, a Tree of Life, but the Torah — and the words of Torah — is only a Tree of Life, is only a living document, if our lives and our actions are guided by words of Torah. May we continue to work, advocate, and fight for the rights of workers. May we continue to work for the expansion of the Fair Food Program, ensuring that the Torah is a living document and guide in our lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It Begins with a Single Can of Food

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

There Shall be No Needy Among You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Return of the Pop Elul Project

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

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

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

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

Wishing you a meaningful High Holy Day season!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized