Celebrating and Welcoming Everyone

This article was originally published on June 26th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I received two phone calls in recent months, one from a good friend from college who is a lawyer and the other from my cousin who is a speech and language pathologist. Each had been asked to officiate at a wedding of a friend, so they called me, a rabbi who has officiated many weddings, for advice. They wanted to understand the different traditional Jewish rituals so that they could incorporate them into a meaningful wedding experience. They went online to get “ordained,” making sure that their weddings were legal in the states they took place, in addition to being legal “according to the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.” Neither of these weddings were interfaith weddings. In each case, the couple wanted someone to stand under the chuppah with them that they were deeply connected to, and also to have the ceremony be meaningful and sacred. These were also clearly conscious choices to not have a rabbi — or other clergy member for that matter — officiate. This was about the established institutions in the Jewish community failing to bring these families in.

To be honest, I am not interested in having a discussion about rabbinic officiation at weddings in this forum, mostly because writing an opinion piece on a website is not the appropriate format for such a conversation. As it is, I expect plenty who will comment in agreement and disagreement. But as we’ve seen over these past several weeks in recent articles and op-eds, this conversation is filled with a multitude of opinions. Some are from a halakhic perspective, and some from a sociological one, some from personal experiences of joy, and some from personal experiences of hurt and heartache. All needs to be a part of any conversation in guiding one’s understanding of this. This conversation should be had in a appropriate way with respectful dialogue, respectful of one’s beliefs, but most importantly, of one’s choices. This conversation is not about hypotheticals. This conversation is about actual individuals and their choices.

I appreciate colleagues Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieand Rabbi Roly Matalon for finding ways that they feel comfortable with to celebrate the wedding of members of their community, even if one of the partners in that couple does not identify as Jewish. However, I turn back to the experiences of these two friends who called me and are now officiating at weddings just as I am and realize that the problem is deeper, if rabbis aren’t being called to officiate at weddings, even when both partners identify as Jewish. Yes, if a rabbi officiates at a wedding and participates in a couple’s most meaningful and sacred moments, whether both members of a couple are Jewish or not, then it is much easier to help that couple become involved in the Jewish community and navigate Jewish experiences. As someone who understands the importance of halakha as a guide to Jewish living and Jewish ritual, I also understand the complexity of a halakhic framework at times. And I know that it is much more difficult and challenging, and arguably hypocritical, for a rabbi – including me – to say “I cannot officiate at your wedding, but the day after your wedding, I want you to be involved in our community.”

Rabbi Abby Treu reminded me this week of these calls from my friends. She wrote in the New York Jewish Week that:

It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.

 

The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?

Standing under the chuppah is one way to create connection and community. But it’s also only one way. My responsibility as rabbi and I believe the responsibility of every synagogue is to create connection and community for all who walk through the synagogue doors. As you enter our lobby at Congregation Beth El, it says exactly that:

We welcome people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to join us on our journey – learned and novice; born Jewish, Jew-by-choice, or non-Jewish living Jewishly; single or partnered; gay or straight. We hope that all who enter find a Makom Kadosh – a holy space – in which to seek God, connection, and community.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater, of which I am a proud alum, came out with a statement last week that I was particularly critical of. First I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say – simultaneously reaffirming their age-old stance which seemed to be exclusionary while also striving to be welcoming, and using language at best missed the point and at worst was offensive. Most importantly, statements like this only make it harder for those of us in our communities to build the welcoming and inclusive institutions we strive to build. I believe this conversation is not really a conversation solely about rabbinic officiation. It is about the language we use and the culture we create. It is about how we make sure to connect with all whho identify as Jewish and all who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. It is about how we make sure all who are raising Jewish children feel welcome, regardless of their own faiths. If we fail to help people connect and we fail to create multiple entry points for them to connect, then nothing else matters.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Abraham wrote in the Times of Israel this past week about his commitment to create inclusive communities. He concluded his writing with this analogy:

For years, educators have bemoaned the practice of teaching abstinence only in our school systems. To my knowledge, they did not disagree because it isn’t the best form of birth control, but because the facts on the ground tell us that our children are in relationships and they require more information than simply being told “wait till your married”.

His point is that we need to do better than just saying ‘date someone who is Jewish’ and ‘marry someone who is Jewish” or ‘rabbis won’t officiate at your wedding.’ We need to give individuals meaningful spiritual experiences and connection so that they’ll want to make Judaism a core part of their identities and their lives. We need to realize that individuals are going to make the decisions that they are going to make, the decisions that are right from them, and we need to do better as communities to accept, and yes even celebrate, those decisions. We need to do a better job to celebrate those who want to be a part of our communities and make sure that they feel welcome. We can’t just open our doors wide and say “look how welcoming we are.” We need to show it with our actions. That won’t mean the same thing for everyone and every synagogue or Jewish communal institution, but that does mean that digging our heels in the ground does not do anything to make people feel welcome. It only turns people away.

I truly believe that creating a welcoming and inclusive community is what is most important. Everything follows from that. We cannot create meaningful spiritual, sacred, educational, communal, social, and social justice experiences if we do not first ensure that someone feels welcome here. We as a Jewish community often only get one chance at making sure someone feels welcome. And if we miss that chance, then we will not be able to help someone grow in their Jewish journeys. We will not be there to help them build their Jewish homes and grow their Jewish families. We as a Jewish community – and Jewish communal leaders – must do better, to not judge other people and their life decisions, but to. Instead, we must truly welcome each and every person who we interact with, and help them navigate their own Jewish journeys, even if their journeys, and ultimately their destinations, may look different from our own personal ones.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the greatest of all my teachers, has been a leading voice in this work, and spent almost two decades as Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism. A number of years ago, he introduced me to their work with renowned Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, who calculated population projections for American Jewry through the year 2080. That study suggested that based on the status quo, the Jewish community from now until 2080 would decrease by millions. But get this: if there was no intermarriage, the population would still decrease by millions. But if the Jewish community was more welcoming and celebrated every family and welcomed them into our institutions, and truly understood the importance of outreach, then the size of the Jewish community would actually increase! This has proven to be the case.image

 

This past Shabbat, the Jewish community read from Parashat Korachand of Korach’s rebellion. Rabbinic tradition concludes that Korach’s rebellion fails because his rebellion was more of a coup to overthrow Moses as leader. But the essence of his words still resonate.

You’ve gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the rest of God’s people? (Num. 16:3).

Rashi explains that when Korach says that all of the community is holy, he means that each person heard God’s voice at Sinai. Each individual is sacred. No person is anymore closer to God than anyone else, even Moses! Each individual is holy and we should not deny the holiness of anyone or of any decision they make, because of who they love, or because their Jewish family may look a little bit different than yours.

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4).

Rashbam suggests that Moses was praying and Ibn Ezra explains that Moses did so in a fit of prophecy. But I believe the Bekhor Shor is spot on: Moses fell on his face out of shame. Moses realized that there was a part of what Korach was saying that was true, that he was seeing some people as better than others, instead of seeing each individual as sacred.

It doesn’t matter if a rabbi will officiate at a couple’s wedding if we fail to help that couple find connection to a rabbi, a synagogue, or the organized Jewish community at all. We need to ensure that everyone feels like they belong in the community. So let us no longer simply fall on our faces. Instead, let us see, and celebrate, every person as holy and welcome them in.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Why We Celebrate Pride

Last week, I marched through Maplewood Village to the steps of Town Hall with members of our community in the local South Orange-Maplewood Equality March. Waving a rainbow flag, children in our community would hold my hand as we marched together, teenagers – I’m sure slightly embarrassed that their rabbi was giving them high fives, because you know, their teenagers – leading the march, and adults proudly displaying signs that declared that “love is love is love.” But we all marched together.

Later that afternoon, someone asked me why we had the equality march in our town. I explained that it was a sister march with the Equality March in Washington DC that was taking place on the same day and at the same time. Many members of our community were at that march, and North Jersey Pride organized bussing from our synagogue to DC. For those who couldn’t travel to DC, they could march locally.

But this person clarified their question: “I understand marching in DC,” they said. “To show the government and the President and the administration the importance of Equality, marching to take a stand against any anti-LGBT discrimination or legislation. But why march in South Orange-Maplewood – in an area that is already known as welcoming to the LGBTQ community?” they asked.

TBethElPridehe act of coming out is an act of true bravery and courage. At Beth El, we celebrate this act every year at our National Coming Out Day Shabbat, where different members of our community share their coming out stories. But this act still remains an act of courage because of fears that people have: the fear of not being accepted by family, friends, religious institutions, and schools. And the fear of not being accepted by the law. For rabbis, ministers, and mayors, for parents, children, and siblings, for teachers and community leaders to march side-by-side means that one doesn’t have to hide or deny who they are. One doesn’t have to remain in the closet. One can truly just be. And this is the same reason that we, a congregation that fully embraces and celebrates our LGBTQ members, still pauses to celebrate them and acknowledge Pride.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, the biblical narrative involving twelve spies entering the land of Canaan to scout the land. God clearly tells Moses to find representatives from each tribe of Israel to scout the land. The Torah portion began with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Send individuals into the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel. (Num 13:1-2).

God tells Moses and the Israelites that God is going to give this Promised Land to the Israelites, but is still requiring the Israelites to see it for themselves, and declare it as such for themselves. When ten of the twelve scouts come back with fearful and negative reports, the Israelites do not get to enter the land. This is not because it wasn’t the Promised Land. Some rabbinic commentators suggest the Israelites didn’t have faith in God to entrust that all would be okay. Others suggest that these Israelites still had a slave mentality.

I believe they could not enter the Promised Land because it was only the Promised Land if they made it the Promised Land. It was only the Promised Land when they made it so, when those who would inhabit the land could declare it as such. Ten scouts didn’t think there was a place for them there. As a result, because these representatives did not say this was a safe space for them, others did not believe it either. The community cried out in a loud voice and wept all night.

Ultimately, it was the people who made the place. The Promised Land only became the Promised Land when those who entered it declared it to be the Promised Land. It was not because God was to give it to the Israelites. The people had to claim it as such for themselves. Similarly, this community is not simply a welcome and inclusive institution that affirms that all are loved and celebrated here because of synagogue by-laws or mission statements. We are who we are because as we enter this space, we declare that this is a sacred and holy space for all, and that all in this space are holy, that this is a Promised Land for all. To be the Promised Land for all, we must constantly declare that we are; we must constantly reaffirm that we are; we must celebrate Pride! This way, no scout will enter with fear and trepidation. Rather, all who enter can do so comfortable, as their true and full selves, made in God’s Image. May we always march and always celebrate Pride, so that our community remains a Promised Land for LBGTQ members of the community and allies. And may we constantly push ourselves so that we can strive to be more inclusive to all who walk through our doors.

Happy Pride!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Do Not Stand Idly By…

This article was originally published on May 10th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

This past week, we had a different sort of Shehechiyanu moment. My three-year-old son was the first of our children to visit the emergency room, after slicing his finger on a sharp piece of metal. He’d return with quite the souvenir: five stitches. He was proud. He showed off his bandage of gauze and medical tape like he was a hero, and this was a necessary battle scar. As parents, my spouse and I worried and panicked. And yet, looking back, we realized that this was something small, only a laceration, and we are grateful that such an emergency room visit was a minor expense, literally a couple of bills in my wallet. I also understand that his handful of stitches on a small finger pale in comparison to the serious illnesses and diseases that others at the hospital were being treated for. I am grateful that we now live in a country where someone cannot be denied healthcare or treatment because of lack of finances or because of pre-existing conditions. I fear that this reality will change.

This past Shabbat, we read the joint Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which began with the command “be Holy, for I, the Lord, Your God, am Holy.” Such a command means that we must see everyone as holy and see the divine spark within each person. Therefore, denying the rights of any individual means that one refuses to acknowledge the holiness of that person, and denies that they are made in the image of God. If we are to all strive to be holy like God, then we must strive to treat each individual in the same way our faith teaches us to treat God, with sanctity, honor, and respect.

In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. The text compares him to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. Abaye and Rava often offer differing opinions, but it’s their opinions that often conclude rabbinic debate about a topic. More often than not, it was Abaye’s opinion that was deemed correct. Still, Abba Umana is seemingly seen as more sacred than these learned rabbis. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently than he — an incredible rabbi and scholar — does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life. This helps us to understand how important and essential healthcare is in the eyes of the Talmud.

In addition to the command to be holy in last Shabbat’s Torah reading, we are also commanded “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:15). In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, we find an interpretation of this verse. The Talmud says that one must go out of one’s way to save a neighbor from danger. In fact, the Talmud says that one must even use one’s own resources to hire another individual to help assist and care for this person. The Talmud in this case is pretty clear: we have an obligation to ensure that all receive medical care, even if that means that our costs ensure that our neighbors who are ill get the medical treatment that they need and deserve.

The Torah is clear that we must do all that we can to prevent further harm to our neighbors. The Talmud goes into great detail about how we must ensure the health and safety of our neighbors, and even sees medical treatment as a holy and sacred act, with medical professionals placed on a higher level than Torah scholars. The Shulchan Aruch, often referred to as the leading Jewish law code and most widely cited law code, also confirms our halachic obligation to ensure everyone receives the healthcare they need and deserve. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that taking care of those who are ill is a religious obligation and that if a physician withholding treatment is the equivalent of bloodshed (YD 336:1). The text adds that if there is medicine that will help a sick individual, one is forbidden from charging more than what is appropriate for that medicine (YD 336:3).

I can’t speak about all the details of the latest version of the AHCA because I, like most people, haven’t read it in its entirety. I can’t speak to the economic impact it would have on our country, because the House voted on it before the CBO scored it. I can only speak as a rabbi, regarding what I believe the Torah, Talmud, and Halacha teach us. We are taught that it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to save a life. We are taught that saving a life is so important it supersedes every other mitzvah. The values of our Torah are meaningless if they do not guide us to act. Therefore, I am saddened by the House of Representative’s vote last week that makes it harder and more expensive for those with pre-existing conditions to get health care coverage. This hurts the poor and the elderly more than anyone else, but it especially hurts anyone with a pre-existing condition. And this hurts all of us, because when a law is passed that denies the rights of an individual to be treated, that denies the holiness of that individual, we fail to live up to our responsibility and obligation. When a law is passed that is antithetical to who we are as Jews and to what we stand for, then we must take a stand. We cannot stand idly by. One who saves a life, saves the world. Let us do all in our power to ensure that many lives, and many worlds are saved.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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On Your First Shabbat

I thank God that this week, my wife and I welcomed a beautiful and healthy baby girl into this world. We will officially name her in the week ahead, but I share these words of prayer as we go into your first Shabbat my child. I wrote these words years ago when your older sister was first born. They remain true on this day as we welcome you into our family and into this world, and celebrate our first Shabbat together. 

imageAvinu Shebashamayim, give me the wisdom, insight, courage, and strength to be a father to this beautiful child. You have blessed me with a child, one of Your divine creations, made in Your divine image. You have blessed me with fatherhood, now show me how. You who have provided for me my whole life, You who continues to provide for all my needs, give me the strength to provide for my daughter, strength when I am weary from sleepless nights of teething, sleepless nights of slumber parties, sleepless nights of staying out past curfew. Bless me with the wisdom to discern between tears of joy and tears of sorrow, the ability to heal a sore throat and a broken heart, the humor to make my daughter laugh with me and at me, the self-discipline to discipline her even when it eats me up inside. Lord who walks with me, allow me to walk in your ways, so that she may walk in your ways, to live a life full of the ethics and values that I want her to hold dear, to discern between right and wrong so that I can teach her the difference. Just as I hope and pray that You will bless her and protect her, permit me to bless and protect her. Most of all, My Strength, when I am not there, provide my child with the strength to protect herself, and protect others as well. Permit her to recognize the divine spark within her so that she may cling to You.

Shabbat Shalom my daughter. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

These words first appeared in Jewish Men Pray, published by Jewish Lights Publishing, and available on Amazon. 

 

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Davening During Jumu’ah

This past Friday, Congregation Beth El joined with our friends and neighbors at the NIA Masjid & Community Center for their weekly Jumu’ah prayer service. Last spring, my friend Ashraf Latif, Ameer of the NIA Masjid, spent Erev Shavuot, during our Tikkun Leil Shavuot learning session, teaching about the Qur’an. After ending his daily Ramadan fast with an iftar, he joined us so that we could compare and contrast the concepts of revelation in Jewish and Muslim scripture. Over the past few years, we have developed a friendship and a commitment to learning from each other about the other’s faith. We also have a shared commitment to standing up for the other. In the winter of 2015, when presidential candidates first mentioned the possibility of a discriminatory Muslim Ban in this country, he was the first person I reached out to – to let him know that his community is not alone and their Jewish brothers and sisters stand with them. This past Hanukkah, when the local South Orange menorah was vandalized, his call was the first I received; he and his community offered to help however possible. Weeks ago, we found each other among the hundreds who had gathered late into the night at Newark International Airport, protesting the President’s executive orders that had banned immigrants for seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. At that moment we truly understood the fierce urgency of now and we reaffirmed our commitment to be there for each other. The first step was our synagogue joining the NIA Masjid & Community Center last week during their Jumu’ah prayers. Our goal was to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters during this time of uncertainty and fear in our country. We intended for the afternoon to be a day of standing with them, but we were blown away by how simultaneously, they stood with us.  

We were welcomed by their entire community. While we initially stood in the back of their prayer space, as to not disturb the ritual and intention of the service, after being publicly welcomed, so many parishioners came up to us to welcome us and thank us for being present. We were comforted by the words of Imam Daud’s weekly sermon, words that focused on standing up for justice, words that mirrored the teachings of our Torah, words that were so similar to what we often learned and taught.

At that moment, I took the opportunity to not just observe or be present, but to pray as well. I whispered words of prayer privately to myself, the text and liturgy of our faith, and concluded with the hope that Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael v’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel. May the Divine One who makes peace in high places, bring about peace for us and all of the Jewish people, and all who dwell on earth. My prayers may have been in Hebrew and may have come from our liturgical afternoon Mincha service. But there was no doubt that I felt as if I was praying with all those present. My kavanah, my intention, was uplifted by being in a holy space and by being among those present.

After the Jumu’ah service, we were invited to join members of the community for lunch and to get to know each other better. The community members went out of their way to make sure there was kosher food, so that we would feel comfortable eating, labeling a variety of foods as under kosher supervision and as “dairy” and “pareve”. As we took turns introducing ourselves, we came to understand and appreciate our shared beliefs, even if we practice different faiths, and our shared commitment to know the other and care for the other. Furthermore, we acknowledged the communal fear that was felt, but promised each other that we wouldn’t let that fear define us or determine our lot in life. 

I was honored to offer words of Torah and teachings from the Jewish faith to those present at the masjid. Referencing Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion read the following day, I noted that Jethro brought Moses’ sons and wife to him, but Moses went out and greeted Jethro before he greeted his own immediate family. He bowed low and kissed him and invited him into his tent. He embraced his fellow cleric because he understood the importance of their relationship as two religious leaders, as two people of faith. We understand the importance of religious communities coming together. Because to embrace the other, and have the other as a friend, means we see the other in the same way that we see ourselves. And to know the other, is to truly know ourselves. How beautiful to learn from our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and grow in our own faiths as a result. Most importantly, we understand our responsibility to stand up for ourselves and stand up for others, made in God’s image. Doing so ensures that we continue to walk in God’s ways and honor God in the process.

Attending a single service was only a small sign of solidarity. However, it also represented our deeper promise and commitment to stand with our neighbors and support them. As Jews, we know all too well what happens when others are silent in the face of bigotry and discrimination. We refuse to be silent and promise to stand united together.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Night I Prayed Behind Bars

“We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before. We came as Jews who remember the faceless millions who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

These are the words of a rabbi who spent the night in jail. These are not my words. These are the words of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and 14 other rabbinic colleagues who on Thursday June 18, 1964, while praying in an integrated prayer group in downtown St. Augustine, Florida, were arrested. They came to Florida at the urging of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke weeks earlier at the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis convention about the fierce urgency of now. I thought of this group and this story on Monday night as I spent the evening in a holding cell with 18 of my teachers and colleagues. We each took turns teaching words of Torah as inspiration and meditation, and singing words of our sacred liturgy, pleas that drifted towards the Heavens, turning NY’s 33rd precinct into a Makom Kodesh

I do not mean to compare or conflate the two. However, those words were an important reminder for me of the role of civil disobedience. It is those very words Rabbi Borowitz, and those very words of Torah that we taught each other that served as a spiritual catalyst for our participation in this act. We marched with hundred of rabbis towards Trump International Hotel, protesting what I believe to be the President’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim agenda. I did so – and continue to do so – as a Jew, a rabbi, and a human being. As a person of faith, any executive order that intentionally targets another faith, is deeply troubling, and a reminder of our obligation to stand up. We know all too well what happens when one faith doesn’t stand up for another.

The Jewish people are also a people of refugees. For thousands of years we wandered. We were sojourners, either being evicted from or fleeing every home that we had known, fearing our own safety. That is especially true when we think of our ancestors who sought refuge, fleeing Nazi Germany. But additionally, we know that we are a community – and a country – of immigrants. My great grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine. We each have our own family immigration stories. It wasn’t until the Jewish community settled in this country that we stopped having to seek refuge. 

Our Torah teaches us to welcome the stranger and reminds us that we too were once strangers.

Our Torah also teaches us that we must not just come to understand the teachings of our faith; we must also act on them. And acts of civil disobedience are a common part of our history. I think of the midwives Shifra and Puah, who intentionally ignored the Pharaoh’s command to murder innocent children, and in the process, saved so many lives. I think of the Prophet Jeremiah, who put bands and bars on his arms and around his neck as a protest in the eyes of the King, a symbol of the impending defeat by Nebuchadnezzar. I think of Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman. I think of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who risked his life to publicly criticize the Roman government, a government that prohibited the study of Torah. I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma with Dr. King. I think of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and his colleagues who wrote a letter from prison. And I think of so many in our community who march – and act – and serve as examples to me, reminders that we pray with our feet. 

So on Monday night, I marched with 250 of my rabbinic colleagues. And as we arrived at our destination, I sat in the middle of the street with 18 of my colleagues. We sat and we sang the words of Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, words that we chant this Shabbat as part of Parashat Beshallah. These words that the Israelites sang upon crossing a split sea are words of courage, but also a promise of freedom — a freedom that I believe our faith obligates us to ensure for all. We sang Ozi v’Zimrat Yah, Vayehe Li Lishua. God is my strength and my song. And God will become my salvation.

These words are not just a testament of faith. These words are a reminder for me of why I do what I do. I understand that as a rabbinic leader and public figure, every action has an impact – potentially positively or negatively – on others. I think deeply about the statements I make, the stances I take, and the forms of protest that I may participate in. I also consider those things that for many reasons I choose not to say or share. I know all may not always agree with what I say or do, but I hope that the decisions I make are respected because ultimately, everything I say, and everything I do, every statement I make, and every stance I take, is not rooted in politics, but rooted in Torah. They are rooted in the teachings of Pirkei Avot that remind us to especially speak up and act when others won’t. They are rooted in God serving as my strength and my song. They are rooted in my attempt to walk in God’s ways and fight for all made in God’s image. That is how I understood this act as well, an act of civil disobedience to remind all of our obligation to love the stranger. 

I understand that for some, this point could’ve been made — and has been made — without ending in arrest. The goal of civil disobedience is to raise the profile of an issue because of the importance of that issue. If such an act helped the world see and the government see that I, my 250 colleagues, and our faith, stand up for, protect, and welcome the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee, then it served its purpose.

I also recognize the privilege I have as a white male, and as an upper-middle class rabbi. I understand that the NYPD may have treated a group of nineteen rabbis differently than they treated other peaceful protesters. I then have a responsibility to not only acknowledge that privilege, but also to use it: to speak for those who are fearfully silent because of their skin color, faith, country of origin, or uncertain immigration status. I spent the evening in jail for them. But I believe that I did so, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before me, guided by the values of our faith.

I know that some may agree with my decision to act in such a way and some may disagree. I value the feelings and opinions of every member of our congregation and community. There is always a place in our community for every opinion and I hope that every member of our community will always feel comfortable sharing their feelings with me. Because ultimately, what makes a community a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah, is our ability to share what we believe and feel with each other. I hope all will always feel comfortable talking to me, meeting with me, and sharing their opinions with me. We are a community that is committed to Torah. Everything I do as a rabbi and we do as a community is guided by our understanding of Torah. What makes our community so beautiful is our ability to discuss our own perspectives of Torah, even when we disagree. 

When Queen Esther was hesitant to speak up and stand up, she was reminded by Mordecai: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace, you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” The Hebrew Bible urges us to speak up for others; doing so means that we are also speaking up for ourselves. 


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up to Hardened Hearts

This article was originally published on January 30th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I spent last Sunday with the new Syrian family that our community helped resettle in New Jersey. Along with my rabbinic colleagues, we spent time with the family that Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation helped to resettle. The family has asked that we do not use their names out of fear of retribution to family members still in Syria. During our conversation together, it was clear how grateful they were to be here, and how much emotional baggage they carried with them. They came with just a few suitcases. Our community graciously and lovingly donated clothing, houseware, and furniture to furnish their new home that we found for them. But all they brought with them, all they had left of their lives, was a few suitcases. Their children are beginning school in the local elementary and high school in the coming days and their oldest child is committed to being fluent in English as quickly as possible so that she could enroll in a university soon.

They arrived at Newark International Airport days before President Trump’s inauguration, and days later, I can’t help but think how lucky they are that they arrived when they did. If they were delayed and arrived any later, they wouldn’t have been allowed in this country, a consequence of the President’s discriminatory executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, temporarily freezes the US refugee program entirely, and bans all Syrian refugees from entering the United States going forward.

As a rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, this xenophobic policy is deeply troubling to me. In June 1939 the St. Louis was turned away and not allowed to anchor in the United States, out of fear that the German Jews on board were actually Nazi spies.More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Statistics from 1938 show that the vast majority of Americans weren’t willing to allow German or Austrian refugees into the country. On January 27th, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and made the commitment of ‘Never Again.’ The promise of ‘Never Again’ means that never again will be turn away refugees, sending them off to be slaughtered. Never again will we be apathetic towards millions who are just seeking safety under God’s sheltering presence. And yet, we find ourselves at this crossroads, where the government has seemed to ignore this commitment of ‘Never Again,’ specifically singling out refugees because of their ethnicity and faith.

My congregation joined the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees a year and a half ago and joined HIAS’ list of Welcoming Congregations this past spring. We, along with the other synagogues in the area, joined withChurch World Service to resettle refugees because we were determined to not just talk the talk – to not just sign on to a statement or add our names to a petition – but to walk the walk. And now in light of this discriminatory executive action, we are left asking ourselves: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Who do we want to be?

mattgewirtzjesseolitzky

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz & Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Newark International Airport

On Saturday night, I joined hundreds at Newark International Airport, among them congregants and rabbinic colleagues, to protest these discriminatory executive orders and demand that refugees and immigrants be allowed to enter this country. I cannot be silent. I refuse to be silent. We must continue to take action, even when we feel hopeless – and especially when we feel hopeless – to fight for what we believe is right.

 

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, a continuation of the exodus narrative, in which God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed. God begins with a promise, looking into the future, focusing on the destination of the journey ahead:

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you for the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Ex. 6:5-6).

This initial promise sounds pretty good. Those who have suffered will be given a new opportunity to begin again. Yet, as God explains to Moses that he will be the leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron will be his voice, the Lord threw a wrench into this supposed promise:

You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:2-3).

This always baffled me. Why would an Omnipotent God intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why wouldn’t God just free the Israelites at that moment? One would think that after finally hearing their cries of four hundred years of servitude, God would immediately take them out of slavery. The rabbis are equally concerned with this and try to rationalize Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

Midrash Lekach Tov blames the Israelites, suggesting that after being enslaved for so long, they weren’t ready to be free. They needed to witness God’s miracles to understand that freedom was actually a possibility for them. Rashi teaches that at that moment, if Pharaoh was to repent, it would be inauthentic. He couldn’t have experienced wholehearted teshuvah, so his heart was hardened. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh needed to be punished for his actions. Pharaoh needed to suffer from these plagues as a revenge of sorts. But none of this explains why God preemptively warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. Why does God reveal the plot twist before it even happens? Because ultimately, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh; it was about Moses.

Moses may have been a hesitant leader due to his fear of speaking in public, his “uncircumcised lips,” but his belief in helping the Israelites was never in doubt. He risked his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace to prevent a taskmaster from beating a slave! This was a cause that he cared about from an early age. But what would happen when he got to that first road block? What would happen when the door was slammed in his face? Would he return to Midian as a shepherd and ignore the hardships of the Hebrews? Or would he continue to bang on Pharaoh’s door, until he banged the door down, demanding ‘Let My People Go’?

God wanted to make sure that Moses was in this for the long haul, because if he cared enough about this cause, then he needed to be in it for the long haul. It would’ve been easy to get frustrated, pack up, and go home. The path to justice isn’t straight, but that doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing it. Moses knew that time and time again he would demand the Israelites’ freedom and would be turned away, but he kept coming back. He refused to give up. He knew what he stood for was right and wasn’t going to let the hardened heart of an authoritarian get in his way.

So now, at this point in history, we ask ourselves where do we go from here? Who do we want to be? We are the descendants of refugees who came to this country seeking safe haven. Many of us are refugees ourselves. We are a people who are taught to welcome the stranger, a commandment found in the Torah more times than any other commandment. So who do we want to be? After signing on to statements and petitions and even resettling refugees, do we move on in the face of bigoted policies? Do we continue to complain to our friends in our own echo chambers, posting on social media to those who already share our views? Do we give up and return to Midian, defeated with our heads hanging in shame? Or do we do what Moses did, keep banging on Pharaoh’s door, fighting for what is right?

Who do we want to be?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fast, Pray, March

This weekend is a weekend of transition for our country. For some, it is filled with hope. For many, it is filled with fear. As I have said before, I hope and pray that the new administration lives up to the ideals of this country and of our faith. However, the fear that many feel comes from the hateful rhetoric of the campaign and the election. Many who voted for Mr. Trump voted for change, jobs, and the economy. I understand and acknowledge that. But I also know that this campaign and election condoned misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry. Many who fear this new administration coming to power do so because we fear that we will lose our healthcare, we fear that our loved ones will be deported, we fear that our marriages that we fought to be recognized will be questioned, we fear that there will be regression in the fight for racial justice, and we fear that others will try to legislate our bodies and our reproductive rights. At this time of transition, a time filled with hope for some, but fear for so many, we are taught to act. Our tradition teaches that when we face an unknown future, we act.

On Friday, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, I will be participating in a local grassroots event, the Inauguration of the Spirit of Goodwill. This event will focus on how the shared message of our faiths call on us to welcome the stranger, to work towards justice, and to love kindness. I encourage you to join me. I will also be joining many rabbinic colleagues on Friday in an Inauguration Fast. Private fasts used to be popular and commonplace and are mentioned throughout rabbinic literature. Jewish Law even encourages one to fast as an active way to atone for guilt or during a time of trouble to call on God’s mercy. Communal fasts were just as common when Jewish communities were dealing with events that caused great distress and threats to one’s safety. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Burt Visotzky, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke of the need to have an Inauguration Fast:

There’s a whole tractate (section) of the Talmud that assumes that if there’s been a drought we need to look to our own piety … We are in a drought. We are hungry to live in a society that holds the ideals of our founding fathers dear.

If you are of able mind and body, and look to turn towards God as we face this unknown future, I encourage you to consider joining me in this sunrise-to-sunset fast.

feet-marchingMany have asked me where I will be this Shabbat. I will be where I am every Shabbat, with my community. I will be with our congregation, leading services and learning Torah together. We will have a full schedule of services for adults, preschoolers, and elementary school-aged children. I encourage you to join us to be with community this Shabbat. But I will also not be surprised or disappointed if I see many seats and pews that are empty, with many in our community spending Shabbat at marches in Washington DC, Manhattan, and Trenton. As I have mentioned many times, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, he answered the question of why he marched by explaining that he was praying with his feet. I know that no matter where you find yourself this Shabbat, be it at Congregation Beth El, Washington DC, New York City, or Trenton, you will be praying.

As our country begins a new chapter, I echo the words of my colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

O God and God of our Ancestors, help us with our struggle. We yearn for the success of the American government, to fulfill its righteous mandate to protect its citizens from threats internal and foreign, to fortify the bonds between liberty and justice, to ordain fair treatment under the law, and to expand welfare to all those within its capacity.

We pray that the vision of the prophets—the redemptive power of justice; relief for the poor, welcome for the marginal, protection for the oppressed, care for the sick—and the vision of the Constitution of a more perfect union be brought about.

May this vision become a reality and may it happen speedily in our day. And may we continue to fast, to march, to pray, and to act, until it is so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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Be The Shamash

The following Chanukah message was shared at the beginning of the festival with the Congregation Beth El community:

The Chanukiyah, the Chanukah Menorah, serves more than just a ritual purpose. We are taught that when we light the Menorah, we should place it in the window for all to see. By doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of Pirsum HaNes — of publicizing the Chanukah miracle. During the winter solstice, at the darkest point in the year, the flames of the Menorah add light to the darkness.

The Talmud mentions how Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel debated the proper way to light the Menorah. But regardless of their differing perspectives, there was universal agreement that you use a shamash, a helper candle, to light all the other candles. To this day, the shamash is on a different level than all the other candles of the Menorah, emphasizing its significance.

We look around the world and it is easy to be consumed by the darkness of society. But doing so means that we forget the miracles that surround us everyday. On Chanukah, we don’t only celebrate the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees, or even the miracle of oil burning for eight nights. The miracle of Chanukah is to appreciate the miracles in our lives, despite the darkness that we all too often may feel or experience.

When we celebrate the miracles in our lives, no matter how large or small they may be, we also understand our responsibility to be a metaphorical shamash. With each day, the light of the Menorah increases, until all nine candles (including the shamash) burn on the final night of the festival. The use of the shamash reminds us how easy it is to light up the darkness. Just as the light of the shamash spreads to other candles and quickly illuminates the night, we must also be the initial spark to illuminate the darkness, helping to inspire and enlighten others. 

May we appreciate the miracles of old and the miracles in our everyday lives. And may we never stop trying to light up the darkness. Chag Urim Sameach! Wishing you a joyous and inspiring Chanukah!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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