As a Rabbi & Dad, This is What I Want My Kids to Take Away from Hillary Clinton

This article was originally published on August 3, 2016, on Kveller.com. 

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I rushed home from work early last Tuesday afternoon. The roll call was taking place at the Democratic National Convention and I wanted to sit on the couch with my children by my side to witness history.

Hillary Clinton

Saint Louis, MO, USA -€“ March 12, 2016: Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton campaigns at Nelson-Mulligan Carpenters Training Center in St. Louis.

We cuddled up as I struggled to find CSPAN on the television to watch as the first woman ever was selected as a major party’s political nominee. I found the roll call to be fascinating, as with each state, we inched closer to this historic moment. After a few moments, my son got off the couch and began playing with his toys. I held my daughter close though, wanting her to watch this moment. But truthfully, she soon started asking how long this “show” would be.

She didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. She didn’t realize the pain and suffering that women went through for the right to vote, that women continue to go through just for equal rights under the law. She didn’t realize the struggles that those who came before her went through so that she can grow up to believe that she can be anyone and do anything…

You can read the rest of this article, on the Kveller.com website here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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How Lovely are Your Tents, Your Dwelling Places, Rawabi

This article was originally published on July 25, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

In reading the well-known narrative found in Parashat Balak this past Shabbat, in which the Moabite King Balak sends out the magician Balaam to curse the Israelites, we learn of the blessing of potential. Balak knew that he whom Balaam blessed would surely be blessed and he whom he cursed would surely be cursed. He hoped for such a curse so that the Moabites could drive them out of the land. Balaam reminded Balak’s officials though, that regardless of the silver, gold, and riches given to him, he couldn’t do anything contrary to God’s wishes. He could not just curse who he wants or bless who he wants. He had no control over the words that would come out of his mouth. Time and time again, when he approached the encampment of the Israelites, he opened his mouth and words of blessing came out.

I spent time this month in Israel on a Progressive Rabbis Mission to Israel, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AEIF), and organized by AIPAC. This trip is an example of AIPAC’s efforts to widen the tent and make sure there is room for progressive Zionists among their membership. We spent the majority of one day of our trip in the occupied territories of the West Bank. We drove by parts of the West Bank that looked like abandoned ghost towns; we saw the buildings still shelled and destroyed during the second intifada, abandoned long ago and never rebuilt. I expected to see the metaphorical “curses” of the community. How the Palestinians, because of failed leadership on the Palestinian and Israeli side.

Rawabi1Yet, among the many places we visited that day was a tour of Rawabi. The first-of-its-kind planned Palestinian city, we approached it and I opened my mouth and saw nothing but blessing. Rawabi is a short drive from Ramallah, in Area A, the area of the occupied territories in which the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian police has full autonomy according to the Oslo Accords. This planned city will have 23 different neighborhoods and a total of 5,000 housing units. There are already 650 people who have moved into one of the completed neighborhoods with another 600 soon to come – the plan is for the city to have a population of 40,000 when all the housing units are complete.

But like any planned city, Rawabi is about more than just housing units: We walked Rawabi2through the 14,000 person amphitheater, the largest in the Arab world – where only weeks earlier, Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and won the most recent season of Arab Idol, performed. We wandered through the center-of-town commercial district, modeled after Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall – the first shopping center in the Palestinian territories that will have brand name stores like Kenneth Cole. And we saw the Wadina family fun center in the distance, with volley ball courts, playgrounds, and the soon-to-be safari section with off-road ATV’s and a zipline that will be built. This seems like a model city.

The city is the vision of Palestinian Billionaire Bashar Masri, who invested in Rawabi as a vision for what Palestine can one day be, a small model for what a Palestinian State in the future can look like. Masri shared with us that he was tired of waiting for the Israelis to take care of Palestinians and described himself as being treated like a second-class citizen. He also said he was tired of the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority who never helped and just continued to make broken promises. He invested his own money to make Rawabi, meaning ‘the Hills’, a reality. Upon the hills of Rawabi, you can even see the Tel Aviv skyline in the distance on a clear day. But these hills are also metaphoric: the hilltop represents a vision of opportunity, of what can be, for a struggling people.

So Masri began construction in January 2010. Yet when I visited six years later, there was still much to do. Why? Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian government has made this easy for him. It took until 2012 for Israel to grant the project use of a single small access road for construction trucks. It took until 2013 for a new stretch of road to be approved for Palestinians to be permitted to drive into the town. And as of last year, Israel has still refused to widen the road, or allow for access to Rawabi from Ramallah or Nablus. Additionally, Israel connecting a water line to Israel’s water grid was promised by 2014, but that didn’t finally come until February of 2016, and Rawabi still has only a limited water supply for its residents, substantially less water than its settler neighbors has. And for what it’s worth, Masri agreed to use Israeli companies and building supplies to build the project, while employing Palestinian workers. When he said that he refused to allow products manufactured in settlements because he disagreed with settlement building, these companies agreed. The response was the right-wing government passing a law that allows a settlement to sue an organization, company, or individual who boycotts settlement products for economic damage.

And then there is the lack of support from the Palestinians. Many Palestinians criticize the city and Masri, seeing it as betrayal. Instead of seeing it as potential of what can be, they suggest that it normalizes occupation. Furthermore, many have protested the projected because Masri involved Israeli companies. And the Palestinian Authority completely betrayed him, promising to help fund the project and yet ultimately, because of the corruption of the elected leadership, they still haven’t contributed any money. The schools, medical centers, parks, water and sewage systems, and first-of-its-kind in the occupied Palestinian territories fiber-optics network are all privately funded by Masri. Rawabi is a vision of what can be and both Israeli leadership and Palestinian leadership are providing hurdles and barriers for it to reach its potential.

When Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, he only had words of blessing for them:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel. (Num. 24:5)

Rashi suggests that “How lovely are your tents” refers to modesty – that the entrances of these tents didn’t face each other. They respected each other’s privacy and no one sought to look in on another’s private life. Hizkuni links the concept of “tents” and “Jacob” to Genesis 25:27 which refers to Jacob as an Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim, a quiet man who dwelt in tents. However, Nachmanides, the Ramban, sees this supposed-to-be curse that turned-out-to-be a blessing by Balaam as a prophecy for the future. “Your tents” refers to the current fragile state which is temporary. “Your dwelling places” focuses on a more permanent future. The blessing sees the reality of now and envisions a future that can be.

How lovely are your tents, your dwelling places. How lovely they can be and will be, if only there was support to make that a reality. Rawabi should be a prophecy fulfilled, vision that would lead towards economic growth and stability, and ultimately peace and a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. But that has yet to come. During our time in Ramallah, we also met with Dr. Khalil Shakaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He focused on changing statistics and research and said that while there are reasons to be pessimistic, there are still a majority of Palestinians, a majority of Israeli Jews, and a majority of Israeli Arabs who support a two-state solution.

How lovely may the tents of Rawabi be. May the temporary become permanent. May a dream become reality. Among the many conversation we had during this trip, it was also clear that Israelis and Palestinians had a shared view of their leadership: both Palestinians and Israelis don’t think their respective elected leaders were truly interested in peace. May they stop being the roadblocks to this city being achieved. If there were more projects like Rawabi, the Palestinian people would be far better off. And maybe, they too would see this as a prophecy into the future. And with this prophecy fulfilled, we could be one step closer to peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Learning a Lesson from Korach

I often wonder where Korach went wrong. In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korach, Korach and his followers stand up to the leaders of the Israelites. Although he challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority with an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion, the essence of his message is one that we cannot forget. He says:

You are too much! For all of the community is holy and God is in their midst. (Num. 16:3)

Of course this is true! Korach is challenging Moses and Aaron, lest they think that they are any better than anyone else simply because they are leaders. The entire community is God’s people. All of humanity is holy.

I often wonder where we as a society went wrong. Day after day, we wake up to the latest heartbreaking and horrific news stories. Last Wednesday, we woke up to news of the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the hands of two police officers, killed for selling CD’s in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot. His death was filmed on a cell phone. On Thursday, I woke up to news of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer at a traffic stop; the shooting was streamed live on Facebook by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the passenger sit. And we woke up on Friday morning, to hear news of the manhunt and shootout that took place in Dallas, Texas the night before in which five officers were murdered and seven wounded. At a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter action and protest, a man started shooting at officers and at the crowd, putting the whole downtown area in a panic.

Don’t we believe the words of Korach’s challenge? Don’t we believe that the whole community is holy? If so, then it is our responsibility to stand up and ensure that all are considered holy. We need to preach that. We need to act on that. We need to stand up for the holiness of all.

BlackLivesMatterSome suggest that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is somehow anti-police. But that is unfair and inaccurate. It is anti-police brutality. We all should be against police brutality. Some suggest that to support police officers somehow means that one condones the systemic racism and brutality that we have witnessed and seen, that all too often leads to the death of black men and women at the hands of police in this country. That too is unfair and inaccurate. One can – and should – support a movement which stands to protect the holiness of the lives of black men and women and still support our police in their efforts to keep us safe. Gene Testimony Hall, of the #BlackLivesMatter movement wrote that:

Let’s be clear, we said “Black Lives Matter.” We never said “only black lives matter.” In truth, we know that all lives matter. We’ve supported your lives throughout history. Now we need your help with Black Lives Matter for black lives are in danger.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that Korach ultimately failed because he didn’t really believe in the message that he was preaching. He didn’t believe that the whole community was holy. He didn’t believe that God resided within all of us, that we were all created in God’s image. Rather, he only cared about power. He was jealous of the power that Moses and Aaron had and wanted that power for himself. That is why he failed. Because he didn’t care about the true meaning of the message he taught, he was swallowed up by the earth. And it seems that unless we take a stand against systemic racism, then the earth will swallow us all up – we will continue to destroy each other.

Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s followers and supporters, but they refused to meet with him. They cried out their concern that they were taken out of slavery, with a promise to be brought to the land flowing with milk and honey, only to die in the wilderness. Their challenge is an important one: what is the point of freedom if it only leads to us killing each other in the wilderness? May we no longer wander in the wilderness. May we work together, to create a metaphoric Promised Land for us all.

I pray that we no longer wake up to the news of another life taken too soon – a life taken because of racism, bigotry, or hate. We are committed to building a better world – a more peaceful and just world. Yet, day after day, we cry ourselves to sleep with news of another soul taken from this world far too soon. The Psalmist teaches:

We may weep through the night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

May we wake up to a new day, a day full of joy, a day where we take a stand. May we take Korach’s message to heart that all are holy and God resides within each individual. And may we march with our black brothers and sisters for justice, until the essence of Korach’s message is realized.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Vow of #Enough

This article was originally published on June 21, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

SOMAOrlandoVigilWe came together as community, standing side-by-side: interfaith clergy and elected officials, police officers and members of the rescue squad, representatives of North Jersey Pride and Moms Demand Action, engaged and concerned members of our towns. Last week, we came together on Sloan Street, at the South Orange Train Station, for a vigil remembering the victims of the horrendous attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in which 49 members of the LGBTQ community where murdered, and another 53 were injured. News media has called this the largest mass shooting in our country’s history. So we came together.

We came together to cry and to mourn. We came together to lean on each other’s CBEatSOMAOrlandoVigilshoulders. We came together to stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And we came together to say “enough.” We came together hoping for a better world – believing that the diversity of our two towns of South Orange and Maplewood and our commitment to building a safe and caring community will spread to the rest of the country and the world.

Sitting in synagogue this past Friday night, I was reflecting on the power of coming together as community as chills ran down my spine. I quickly realized that Friday night, June 17th, was the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And one year ago, this past Shabbat, we had come together, just as we did last week, standing on Sloan Street, gathering at the South Orange train station.

A year ago, we came together in the same way: clergy and elected officials, law enforcement officers and community members, mourning and saying “enough.” And yet, a year later, we continue to gather on Sloan Street. We continue to come together to mourn. A year later, our country still refuses to deal with our obsession with guns and our complacency that allows for the murder of too many innocent lives with the simple twitch of an index finger. A year later, our elected officials cowardly refuse to act, refuse to pass legislative changes to makes us safer, refuse to do anything besides offering “thoughts and prayers.” A year later, and hate continues to repeat itself. History continues to repeat itself.

SOMAOrlandoVigilRememberThis past Shabbat, as we mourned the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub attacked in Orlando and observed the yahrtzeit of the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church attack in Charleston, we read Parashat Naso. In the Torah portion, we read the priestly benediction, the blessing that Aaron the High Priest recites to the Israelites, the blessing that parents recite to children on Shabbat, the blessing recited to newborns at a bris and simchat bat, the blessing recited as we celebrate lovers underneath a chuppah, and the blessing we give to b’nai mitzvah from the bimah.

Yevareicha Adonai Viyishmereicha. Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka. Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha Veyasem Lecha Shalom. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God’s face and presence lift you up and grant you peace. Amen.

We say this blessing at every life stage, at every seminal moment. We talk about Peace. We pray. I am tired of just praying. I am tired of praying for peace and seeing mass shooting after mass shooting. I am tired of praying for peace after hate of another — because of someone’s sexual orientation, race, religion, gender identity, or ethnicity — causes loss of life. I am tired of praying for peace while our children die, while our lovers die, while this world slowly dies. I am tired of those who are supposed to act, who are meant to represent us and pass laws to keep us safe, and only pray. They offer their thoughts and prayers following tragedy and refuse to act.

So we must act. First, we must stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and ensure them that our sanctuaries and sacred spaces are their safe havens as well. When a shooter attacked a gay bar and nightclub, a place that had historically been a sanctuary and safe space for the LGBTQ community, we must declare that our sanctuaries are sanctuaries for all — that our sanctuaries celebrate the sanctity of all.

But acting also means forcing our elected officials to act. Moms Demand Action commends those who participated in the Senate filibuster last week, not to pass a law, but just to get a simple vote for common sense legislation. And yet, we saw in the Senate this week, a refusal to act. Those who were quick to offer thoughts and prayers were even quicker to vote against legislation that would curb gun violence in this country. But we keep saying the words of the priestly benediction: Vayasem Lecha Shalom, may God grant you peace. As we say these words, we must make them reality. Get involved in our local chapter of South Orange-Maplewood chapter of Moms Demand Action or Moms Demand Action nationally. Don’t just pray. Do something. That is what God expects of us.

We pray for peace, as if we are waiting for God to act, but Jewish tradition teaches that God is crying as we cry. God is waiting for us to act. In the midrash, Lamentations Rabbah, God cries out. The book of Lamentations is a text that speaks of widows crying and infants lying lifeless in the street. Trying to comprehend the violence, hate, and destruction of the text, God bemoans:

Woe is Me for My house, My children — where are you? My priests, where are you? Those who love Me, where are you?

God cannot understand why we — those who were created in God’s divine image — refuse to act. I also can’t understand this. We sit and pray for God to grant us peace. Yet, the midrash teaches that God sits and waits for us to act. And instead of acting, we just continue to gather on Sloan Street, year after year, mass shooting after mass shooting, While I love this example of communal unity, I’m tired of waiting for the next tragedy to gather. I am tired of simply gathering and not acting. We must make a vow of #Enough!

Parashat Naso also focuses on the Nazarite vow. This odd vow concerns Nazarites refraining from drinking wine, from cutting their hair or trimming their beards, and from coming into contact with the dead. These prohibitions were not required by Jewish law. Still, they placed these seemingly additional burdens upon themselves by adding these prohibitions. The Torah explains that the Nazarites sought a state of spiritual purity. They felt that these prohibitions would lead them to be spiritually pure, to build a society that was spiritually pure. They added rules, changed teachings, and allowed for law to evolve — all in order to create a society, and a life, that was pure, to build a world that was pure as well. We shouldn’t think of the Nazarites as religious zealots who put unnecessary burdens upon themselves. The Nazarites understood that the legal system was not enough to make the necessary changes that they sought, to make this a truly sacred place, and to build the world God expects us to build. They need more laws, more prohibitions to build a safer, and more sacred, world.

Maybe we need our own pseudo Nazarite vow — we need to act. We need a vow of ENOUGH. We need to say that the laws we currently have are not enough to build a spiritually pure society, a society that God expects of us, a world where we — and our children — are safe. And we must make a vow to evolve the law, to take on further restrictions, just as the Nazarites did, to ensure that hate doesn’t turn to violence, that the life isn’t shattered by easily attainable assault rifles. We must make a vow of ENOUGH. Enough thoughts and prayers. Enough praying for peace and waiting for God to act.

We must pray, and we must act. We must hold our elected officials accountable for their refusal to act. We must ensure work to build a spiritually pure society, a safe society, a Garden of Eden that God set out to build. Only then will we be able to not just pray for peace, but make peace a reality. Let us be renewed in our faith as we continue to pray for peace, and let us be courageous enough to act as well. And let’s stop having to meet like this on Sloan Street, continuing to mourn far too many lives lost. #ENOUGH.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Throw Away Your Shot, Shot

If you weren’t at synagogue over the festival of Shavuot, then you missed me rapping the lyrics of Alexander Hamilton, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. Hamilton has become so popular that it is impossible to get a ticket. Some of you have been lucky enough to see it on stage. The rest of us are forced to instead listen to it over and over on Spotify, watching the occasional YouTube video of a performance.

Hamilton was the sensation of the Tony’s awards this past weekend. They were nominated for a record 16 Tony’s and walked away with 11 wins. And yet, Miranda got the idea for this groundbreaking musical because at an airport bookstore. He picked up the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow to read while on vacation. That is not a light read. But he said that as he read it, he couldn’t help but realize how the life of Hamilton embodies hip hop. Hamilton was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, what was then called an illegitimate birth, and become George Washington’s righthand man. He became treasury secretary and “caught beef with every other founding father.”  After all, it is a remarkable story. We would think it is fiction if we didn’t read of it in our history books.

HamiltonOn Shavuot, we read of a woman whose life embodies “hip hop” just as much as Hamilton’s:  Ruth. Yes. Ruth the Moabite. My name is Ruth the Moabite. And there are a million things I haven’t done. Just you wait. Just you wait.

The rabbis offer many interpretations about why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.  Many identify Ruth as the first convert to Judaism. Her statement to Naomi of “Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. And your God shall be my God” is identified as an affirmation of faith. Since Shavuot is when we receive the Torah, when we celebration revelation at Sinai, this affirmation of faith is an affirmation of Torah, an affirmation of revelation. Ruth is choosing to stand at the foot of Sinai. Additionally, we read about Ruth on Shavuot, because Shavuot marks the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. In the book of Ruth, Ruth who is hungry, along with her mother-in-law Naomi, is sent out to glean with the other women of Boaz’s field. So much of the book focuses on her cleaning of the wheat and barley, and this is the holiday of the wheat harvest. That is certainly appropriate.

But the book of Ruth is about something greater, something deeper. This book is Tony Award worthy.

Ruth marries into Naomi’s family, a Moabite woman marrying an outsider, only to have her father-in-law die, quickly followed by the deaths of her husband and brother-in-law. As much as her mother-in-law tries to get her to leave, she stays. She promises to remain with Naomi. They travel to Bethelem and are poor, homeless, and hungry, so she is forced to glean the fields. She comes across Boaz and She waits for him to have his fill – to eat a lot and drink a lot – and then ends up seducing him. Eventually, they marry. The end of the book though, having nothing to do with the narrative itself, is key:

There is a son to be born to Naomi, meaning born to Ruth: And they called him Oved, the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The book of Ruth ends declaring that this outsider who experienced nothing but death, who followed her mother-in-law to an unknown place, who was poor and homeless, who slept around in order to find favor and get food, is the great grandmother of David. Ruth is the great grandmother of the great King of Israel, and as tradition teaches, is responsible for the lineage of the Messiah. Essentially, despite all that she had been through, her actions will lead to messianic redemption.

The book of Ruth teaches us despite the challenges of one’s life, anything is possible. No matter the bumps one experiences in the road, you have great influence and the ability to impact and change society and the world – just as Ruth did for Jewish history and Hamilton did for American history. We are inspired by each that despite the tragedies of the past, the world will know your name.

May we find comfort and inspiration knowing that regardless of whatever challenges we face, there is still so much opportunity to change the world.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Being Held to a Higher Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Defining Holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The previous verse, we are commanded:

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

In friendship,

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

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What it Means to be a Jew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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