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.

Haaretz-logo

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.

USYtefillah

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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I Am Planting For My Children

We get all dressed up for Rosh Hashanah. We buy new suits and dresses, often wear white, and invite family and friends into our homes for festive meals. Similarly, Passover – which is referred to in the Torah as a new year – is given just as much attention. We gather for the seder, we retell and re-imagine the exodus experience, and celebrate the arrival of Spring. Yet, we often ignore or overlook one of the most important “New Year” celebrations on the Hebrew calendar: Tu B’Shevat.

The lack of celebration may be because we don’t have a special service on Tu B’Shevat. The mystical Tu B’Shevat seder has not caught on in the same way as the Passover seder. More likely, Tu B’Shevat gets ignored because it arrives in the dead of winter. It’s hard for us living in New Jersey to think about planting trees and sustaining the earth as we bundle up, even if trees will soon begin to bud in the holy land. Although it will never likely equal Rosh Hashanah and Passover in celebration, both can be more meaningful if we understand the need for Tu B’Shevat.

Sun-treeIt is through our relationship with the earth, through sunrises and sunsets, through glistening dew and budding flowers, that we truly see God as work as Creator. It is through our experiences in nature that we understand and appreciate the Divine presence all around us, and witness everyday miracles. And it’s through the ecological message of Tu B’Shevat – replanting, regrowing, and recommitting to the earth – that we ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren, and for generations to come. A well-known Talmudic story found in Tractate Taanit 23a tells of Choni, who sees a man planting a carob tree. He asks the man, “How long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” The man responded, “seventy years.” Choni challenges the man, unable to understand why he would plant such a tree if he knew that he would no longer be alive seventy years from now to eat of its fruits. The man profoundly responded, “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

How we treat the earth is a representation of what world we want to leave for generations to come. Therefore, our congregation’s celebration of Tu B’Shevat will not only focus on planting trees in Israel, but also on opportunities to plant trees and community gardens. On Tu B’Shevat, we pledge not only to plant more, but also to reuse and recycle more, and to waste less.

We are reminded that this land was once Eden, a utopia of plants and trees, fresh water and healthy animals. Let Tu B’Shevat serve as our catalyst to recommit to the land, to ourselves, and to God. We were provided with a fruitful world because our ancestors planted for us. May we continue to plant for our children.

This blog post originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the “Beth El Bulletin.” You can read it, and other articles from the rest of the Bulletin here

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Martin Luther King’s Legacy Snap us out of Complacency

This article was originally published on January 19, 2015 on the American observance of Martin Luther King Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

Why the Jewish community must be reawakened to praying with our feet, and recommit to participating in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

Martin Luther King Day recognizes the life, legacy, and work of the fallen leader of the civil rights movement, but it is hardly a celebration. In 1994, President Clinton signed federal legislation into law, turning this day into a National Martin Luther King Day of Service. This initiative invites Americans to get inspired by the ideals, ethics and values that Dr. King embodied and volunteer their time to help others, making this world just a little bit better.

However, we are selling King’s legacy short if we settle for a once-a-year volunteer opportunity or a community service project as a way to honor him. King was not just about helping those in need. He was about creating lasting change, inspiring legislative reform, through peaceful protest and non-violent action.

Such action is highlighted in the film “Selma,” which tells the story of King leading a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the statehouse in Montgomery. Hanging on the wall in my office is a picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm-in-arm with King during that march. Heschel reflected about his experience that day with a now well-known phrase: “I felt my feet were praying.” I look at this picture every day as I sit at my desk. It is a reminder of the Jewish imperative to work toward justice. But it also serves as a reminder that we all too often become complacent.

MLK DayKing famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” The deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict these officers, serve as chilling reminders that systemic racism is still a scary reality. Those of us who live a life of privilege can’t take our advantages for granted or allow them to lull us into complacency. We need to get off of our metaphorical butts. We cannot ignore the injustice that our brothers and sisters deal with every day. We need to draw inspiration from King, and Heschel, and learn again to pray with our feet.

Rabbi Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot 2:6 that in a place where there are no good and righteous people, we must strive to be those righteous individuals. All the more so, when so many others are silent and apathetic, we must strive to be righteous and act toward justice. We are commanded in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The Torah acknowledges that while justice is an ideal, it does not come easily. We are not commanded to sit around and wait for justice to happen. We are not commanded to talk about justice and expect society will be different. We are commanded to pursue justice, to chase after it.

Let us not settle for a day of remembrance. Let us not settle for a day of community service. Let our observance of Martin Luther King Day be a day filled with dialogue, spirited debate and ultimately, action. Let King’s peaceful protests remind us that we have the ability to bring about change. Let King’s words be a call to action, decades after he said them. As Jews, let us not stand idly by. As we celebrate the life King, may we also remember to live the principles of the Torah, and not just study them. In doing so, may we stand alongside those who suffer injustices because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Let us pursue justice by praying with our feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Refusing to Be a Bystander

The greatest threat to humanity is not violence, hate, or terror. The greatest threat to humanity is apathy, complacency, and silence. When we witness such terror and refuse to do anything about it, refuse to say anything about it, refuse to take a stand, then we let hate win.

Fear is what keeps us silent. We fear such hate, but are too often ignore hate as long as  such hate is not projected towards us. We fear that if we get too involved, if we are vocal, if we take a stand, then such hate will be projected towards us. Such a view ignores that humanity is interconnected. That is why, in spite of such hate, violence, and terror that we have witnessed in Paris over the past week and we found comfort in coming together and refusing to be a bystander.

WorldLeadersatUnityMarchYesterday, we witnessed a historic unity march against extremism take place in Paris with more than forty world leaders present. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas marched alongside France’s President Hollande, along with millions of citizens. Millions more took to social media showing unity through hashtag activism. Such a show of support at a time of mourning, such a show of unity at a time of sorrow, is our universal statement, declaring that we refuse to stand idly by when one is killed because of what he says, looks like, believes in, or whom he loves. Standing up in such a manner is doing exactly what Moses did.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shemot, the Torah portion of Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus. This familiar story retold yearly at Passover seders, tells the life of Moses, a Hebrew baby adopted by the Pharaoh daughter, before seeing injustice before him which ultimately leads to him standing up, and fleeing Egypt as a result. We learn in Exodus chapter 2 of Moses growing up and going out to see the burden of the Israelites, of his brethren. Upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, we read in Exodus 2:12:

And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

At first read, we understand that Moses looked all around and wanted to make sure that no one was looking. Once he saw that no one was around, he took a stand, smiting the Egyptian taskmaster. However, such a reading is incorrect. How is it possible that no man was around? In the very next verse, Moses approaches two Israelites that are arguing. They respond in fear that he will assault one of them as he did the Egyptian taskmaster. Clearly, someone must’ve seen what he did. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that this taskmaster and slave were alone in the middle of the desert. A more likely account is that they were surrounded by thousands, other slaves and other taskmasters, other examples of injustice. Why then does the text say that when Moses looked around, there was no man?

We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, 2:6, the teaching of Rabbi Hillel:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I don’t like translating this teaching in this way. Such a translation is based on gender stereotypes and is outdated. However, if we replace the word “man” with the Yiddish word for “man” than it makes a lot more sense. Mensch. Mensch is the word we often use to mean a good person and righteous individual. However, its literal translation is “man.” Let us than retranslate this teaching:

In a place where there is no mensch, be a mensch.

Hundreds of thousands of people gather on the Place de la Republique to attend the solidarity march (Rassemblement Republicain) in the streets of ParisIn a place where there is no one willing to take a stand and put a stop to injustice, hate, violence, and terror, all the more so, you must, all the more so, we must. Thus, Moses saw many surrounding him and witnessing this taskmaster beat a slave just as he did. All continued to be bystanders. All continued to ignore hate, violence, terror, and injustice. Moses took a stand in unity, refusing to be a bystander.

Millions in France and across the world did the same yesterday. We must refuse to be bystanders and let our lives be dictated by hate and fear. We must come together in unity, and just as Moses did, take a stand.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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