Bitter Waters and Bottled Water: Lessons of Flint, Charity, and Justice

This article was originally published on January 31, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

I’ve always been annoyed by the actions of the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt. I’d roll my eyes at their childish and immature behavior. How is it possible that they could complain so quickly after experiencing the miracle of the freedom, so quickly after witnessing the waters part? They complained about not having enough water, about the waters of Marah being too bitter to drink:

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were too bitter (Ex. 15:23).

Too bitter?! I used to scoffed as I read this narrative. Deal with it. Stop complaining. The water is fine. After all, you’re finally free. Drink whatever is put in front of you. But now I get it. You aren’t really free if you don’t have water to drink. You aren’t really free if only bitter water is provided for you. Because that bitterness – that unclean water – still reeks of oppression and discrimination.

I’ve watched the news over the past several weeks in disbelief as Flint, Michigan, an entire city of 100,000 has been drinking toxic and poisonous water. What is scary is that while we were made aware of this by the national media a few weeks ago, the people of Flint have been consuming this lead-poisoned water for over two years. This isn’t a third world country. This is happening in America, where we spend seven dollars on a latte, and yet, government officials try to cut costs by poisoning a city. The wealthy legislators cut costs that only impacted the poor city of Flint, where 41% of the city live below the poverty line, where the majority of residents are black. They did so and claimed that the water was fine to drink, but brought in bottled purified water for all state officials who worked in the city.

I received a letter last week from Mayor Ras Baraka, mayor of neighboring city of Newark. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Mayor Baraka explained that Newark, along with Paterson and Jersey City, will be spending the next two weeks collecting bottles of water to be delivered to residents of Flint. We at Congregation Beth El, like so many other Jewish communities, accept the call to pursue justice and decided that we too would collect bottles of water and we continue to do so. We are committed to donating because we cannot stand idly by. We are committed to donating because we are committed to fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, to not closing our hands or our hearts to those in need.

bottled water.pngYet, after announcing that we were going to be collecting bottles of water, I, like many, read Michael Moore’s letter that had gone viral. The famous documentary film maker who is from Flint, Michigan wrote: “Don’t send us bottles of water. Instead, join us in revolt.” Some questioned if we should be collecting bottles of water at all. I understand Moore’s point and I agree with him. He points out that with 100,000 residents in Flint, we’d have to send roughly 200 bottles per day per person to Flint to meet their essential needs for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, and of course, drinking. That is roughly 20 million bottles per day! He also reminds us in his letter that the damage is done. The neurological damage done to the children of this city is irreversible. Stopping to drink the water now won’t change that damage.

20 million bottles of water per day seems impossible – and there are environmental challenges to that many bottles of water. I agree with him that sending bottles of water doesn’t solve all the problem and Michael Moore knows the city a lot better than I do. I agree that sending bottles of water is a short-term fix. But just because something is a short-term fix, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Food pantries are also short-term solutions and don’t solve hunger. Yet, we still collect donations. Shelters are a short-term fix and don’t solve homelessness. Yet, we still volunteer. In fact, charity – Tzedakah – is a short term fix. I get all that. But what about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until, or if, this problem is resolved? What about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until they are evacuated by FEMA? What about the 100,000 people in Flint who, despite the damage that has already been done, still need clean water to drink?

Moore is suggesting that we focus our time on holding the government accountable and making sure those who did this are brought to justice. I agree that we can’t just send water and feel good about ourselves, and then ignore the dire needs of this city. But I refuse to not try to provide clean water – no matter the damage already caused – for a city. We can still revolt and fight for justice while providing water. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There is a difference between charity and justice. We should not and cannot confuse the two. We cannot only give charity. We must also fight for justice. But we cannot forget the need to do charity while we are fighting for justice. That is the reason that we have two biblical commands: Deuteronomy 15:4, to build a just society, and Deuteronomy 15:7, to help those in need as well strive for justice. We must do both.

The actions of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, in our biblical narrative are some of the most important actions in the Torah. He is there alongside Moses and the Israelites as they receive the Ten Commandments, representing the Divine law. But juxtaposed to this event is Jethro – an outsider of sorts – who tells Moses that a court system, a justice system, must be set up. We read:

This thing that you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, and this people that are with you as well. For this task, this burden, is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone (Ex. 18:17-18).

Jethro is doing more than just helping Moses find the proper work-life balance. He is doing more than making sure Moses isn’t micromanaging. He is acknowledging that as the Israelites are receiving law, law is not set in stone. Law does not always equal justice.

Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it is just. Jethro teaches that we must wrestle with law, struggle with the legal system, and make sure that laws are just for all. That is the justice system that he set up. That is the justice system that we still seek. So yes, Michael Moore, we should revolt. We should pursue justice. We should hold Governor Snyder and the state officials of Michigan accountable for poisoning an entire city. But we have an obligation to give charity, to give Tzedakah, while we fight for Tzedek. We have an obligation to throw that metaphorical branch into the bitter waters to make them sweet. We have an obligation to provide clean, drinkable water, to every resident of this country. And we have an obligation to continue to fight for justice while we do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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That Which Plagues Us

Last week, I watched the CNN Town Hall conversation with President Obama on gun violence in America. More so than by any executive action that Obama made a reality, and more so than by any statement the President made, I was impacted by the stories of two members of the audience. Their realities were heart-wrenching. For these two individuals gun violence wasn’t about mass shootings in schools or cinemas or office buildings. Gun violence was everyday life.

The first was Father Michael Pfleger, a white, Roman Catholic priest, whose parrish is on the south side of Chicago, where he said he has buried hundreds of congregants, hundreds of victims of gun violence. He reminded the President – and the country – about the dangers that his congregants, so many young black men and women in the inner city of Chicago, face every day, and the reality of inequality that still exists that is the root cause of such violence. The second person was Tre Bosley, a young black teenager from Chicago, who spoke about his brother Terrell who was murdered in Chicago ten years ago at the age of 18 while in a church parking lot. Tre challenged the President to understand what he and his peers face daily, surrounded by gun violence and poverty. He said that he cannot look into the future and imagine what his life will be like. His peers don’t know if they’ll be alive years from now. They live week to week, day to day.

And the statistics support his fears. The Chicago Tribune keeps a running list of how many people were shot in the city. And since January 1st of this year, in seventeen days, 148 people have been shot in Chicago. 148! In two weeks. That is approximately nine shootings a day! In our own backyard, there are similar fears. While there has been a decline in state-wide violence, the opposite is true in Newark. Shootings surged in Newark in 2015, up almost 20% from the prior year. For too many young children this fear is a reality.

Too many young children fear that Hadiya Pendleton’s fate will be their fate. Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl, who was murdered on a playground in Chicago in 2013. She and her friends were walking home from school and it started pouring rain. They took over under the slides and swing sets. She was shot and killed by two men who thought that she and her friends, gathering together, looking for shelter and safety in the rain were a rival gang. A week earlier, she performed at the President’s second inauguration. And then she was murdered by a bullet.

This past Shabbat, we read the most disturbing part of the Exodus narrative. While frogs, cattle disease, lice, and hail, were inconveniences, the tenth and final plague sent an entire nation into mourning.

God said:

Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. (Ex. 11:4-6)

A mournful cry was heard among all of Egypt. What was it about the tenth plague that did it? Why was that the straw that broke the camel’s back? One could argue that Pharaoh deserved to be punished for his actions, as did his taskmasters, courtiers, and government officials. And while they may’ve suffered from grief, they survived. It was the firstborns, their children, so young and innocent, that were killed. Seeing them taken from the world, with their full lives ahead of them is what did it. That is what finally caused Pharaoh to realize something needed to change.

This society, where young boys and girls in inner cities don’t feel safe, and may be shot on a playground is on us. We are experiencing Makat Bechorot, that plague of the death of our innocent children. We must acknowledge the root cause of such violence: the systemic racist reality that still exists in our culture, that we caused with white flight, the creation of urban ghettoes, not to mention a broken windows policy of policing, and a criminal justice system to is harsher on minorities and the impoverished. We could spend years talking about the reality that exists – and the cause of that reality. Regardless of the root cause, we must acknowledge that our hearts remain hardened like Pharaoh’s heart. Or better said, our hearts remain apathetic. Our hearts remain complacent. Our hearts have come to accept this reality.

Dr. King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now. To rid ourselves of our hardened hearts, of our apathetic souls, and change society. Now is the time to end this plague of gun violence that effects so many innocent children.

What I find so troubling about Parashat Bo, is that while all the Egyptians, including the innocent bystanders, suffered and watched the bloodshed, witnessed the angel of death murdering their firstborns, the Israelites were protected. The Israelites were safe.

God said:

When I see the blood on the doorpost I will protect you so that no plague destroy you. (Ex. 12:13)

The Israelites tucked their children in at night and knew that they would wake up the next morning safe and sound. They knew that they their neighbors were suffering, but they were fine. And so it continues. This plague continues. Death. Loss. Too many innocent victims. And we – distant and removed from it all – allow the plague to passover us.

Rabbi Daniel Burg serves as rabbi of Beth Am in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, one of the few synagogues to remain in the city of Baltimore, instead of moving to the suburbs like much of the Jewish community did decades ago. He speaks of two neighborhoods in the city: Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived, and Roland Park, the first planned suburb in North America. Beth Am is between these two neighborhoods, these two neighborhoods which are roughly three miles apart. He asked his community if they knew the difference between the life expectancy in Roland Park and Sandtown-Winchester. The answer: fifteen years. Statistically speaking, one who lives in the suburbs of Roland Park with the fine supermarkets and superb schools will live for fifteen more years than those who live in the poverty stricken neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. These two neighborhoods are right down the street from each other, but one is plagued be the angel of death and the other is protected by the sacrifical lamb. The society that we live in allows this plague to pass over some of us and attack others.

But no more. What will it take for us to end this plague? What will it take for us to create and build a safer society for all of God’s children? We must put an end to this plague. We must metaphorically spread the blood of the pascal lamb upon all of our doorposts, so that poverty, injustice, and inequality, and the fear and violence that is often the result, will pass over all of us. May it be so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Star Wars and Jewish Thought Have Same Take on Good Versus Evil

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. How one uses the Force is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s ‘yetzer tov’ and ‘yetzer rah.’

HaaretzStarWarsPicMost sci-fi enthusiasts say the most pivotal moment in the iconic Star Wars franchise took place in The Empire Strikes Back when the evil Darth Vader reveals to the young Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker that he is in fact his father. They use this argument to support their claim that Episode V is the best film in the series.

While that may be true, the most important moment for me is the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader prevents the evil Darth Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, from killing his son Luke. At that moment, Vader abandons his commitment to the Dark Side and his status as a Sith Lord, and instead uses the Force for good. He even has his son remove his mask, killing him in the process.

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. The Force within the Star Wars universe represents the talent and ability inside each of us to be good and do good. The Force is each individual’s opportunity and responsibility to stand up for good. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the result of how one uses the Force, is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s yetzer tov and yetzer rah, one’s good inclination and one’s evil inclination.

The yetzer rah that haunts us, and leads us down a dark path, is not what we think. We tend to look at those who do wrong as selfish, only thinking about themselves. Similarly, when we look at Anakin Skywalker embracing the Dark Side, we think that jealousy and ego led him to turn evil. Yet, there is a selflessness to that selfishness. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises that doing so will give him the power to save his wife, Padmé. Midrash teaches that a similar drive pushes someone to do wrong (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). We desire safety, security, health – for ourselves, but also for others. We do not want to accept that some things are out of our control. Trying to control what we cannot control ultimately leads us down the path of wrongdoing. There is not a Sith Lord pushing us to do evil. There is only ourselves and our own desires.

One may think that we begin in a pure state and that our relationship with others and the manner in which we are influenced by society makes us impure. Rabbinic Judaism offers the opposite perspective. Rabbinic tradition teaches that one is born solely with the yetzer rah and only acquires the yetzer tov at age 13 (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 16). That is why one does not become bar mitzvah, and does not become obligated or responsible until that age. If Judaism teaches that we begin with a state of wrongdoing and only learn to do good, then the yetzer tov is not only equivalent to the Force being used for good. It is also symbolic of the hope that is present throughout the films. The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, is even called A New Hope.

That hope is what drives the Jewish people. In fact, that eternal hope is the gift of Judaism. The hope that good will defeat evil, both in this world and within ourselves, is the hope we sing about in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. That hope is found in the scriptural narrative of our people, the exodus experience following 400 years of slavery and servitude. That hope is prominent in Psalms, as the Psalmist promises “weeping may endure for an evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Similarly, Star Wars embodies hope for a better future. We can easily become disheartened by reading headlines and watching the news. We see evil in the world around us and fear the dark direction that society is heading in. We hear xenophobic and bigoted statements from community leaders and politicians and fear that our society, which prides itself on freedom and democracy, is becoming the evil empire.

Yet, Star Wars is a call to action. It turned a moisture farmer on the forgotten desert planet of Tattoine into a Jedi Knight. It turned the self-centered Han Solo into a hero that cared about others and not just about himself. Yet it demands we drive that change toward a better future by ensuring the yetzer tov within each us, and within society, prevails.

May the Force be with you.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Miracle of Civil Discourse

There was only enough oil to last for one night, and miraculously it lasted for eight whole nights!

This is the Chanukah story we teach our children in school and what is generally accepted as the root of our Chanukah celebration. Yet oil lasting for longer than expected is hardly a miracle, and such a story is hardly a reason to establish in annual festival. Rather, the lighting of the Menorah, and its flames continuing to burn, holds greater significance than we realize.

The Menorah had been lit at one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. The Temple desecrated, and more alarming was that many Jews had assimilated and embraced the cultural trends of the Assyrian-Greeks. The guerrilla warfare of Chanukah and the Maccabean revolt was not Jew vs. Assyrian-Greek. It was Jew vs. Jew. This civil war pitted the Jewish community against itself and put the future of Judaism in serious jeopardy. When the Menorah was lit, and the Temple was rededicated, the light became a symbol of something greater. The light served as a new beginning.

ArguingOur tradition teaches that the Jewish people are an ohr la’goyim, a light unto the world. We believe that we have insight to share, and ethics and values to teach. Yet, I fear that often, we spend too much time in civil war. Disagreement is good. Discussion is healthy. Much “discussion” we find in the Talmud is deemed a Machloket L’Shem Shamayim, a disagreement for the Sake of Heaven. Sometimes, disagreements are holy disagreements.

But recently, the Jewish community has gotten to a point where it seems we can’t even talk to each other. We won’t come to the table with those that we disagree with. We take to social media not to reasonably discuss and debate, but to seemingly belittle others’ opinions, embarrassing them in the process. Our broad Jewish community needs to reframe our conversations and reframe our relationships.

As we light our Chanukiyot this holiday season, let us not only focus on the historic rededication of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Let us also rededicate ourselves – to civility, to unity, and to an understanding that despite our deepest of disagreements, we still must strive to be Am Echad Im Lev Echad: one people with one heart.

We cannot be a light unto the world until we are a light unto ourselves. On Chanukah we are taught not only to say Chag Sameach, meaning “happy holiday,” but also to say Chag Urim Sameach, meaning “may you have a happy and light-filled holiday.” At this darkest time of the year, when the shortened days mean the sky is dark when we awake and dark when we return home, may our paths be illuminated by the light of the original Menorah, and our own individual menorahs that we light. May we rededicate ourselves to civility, to our ability to come together as community. May we embrace each other and respect each other, regardless of our opinions. If we can do that, then that would be a true miracle!

This blog post was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the Congregation Beth El Bulletin. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fulfilling God’s Promise of Protection

Just a few weeks ago, as we read Parashat Vayetze, I couldn’t help but feel that the words of Torah were speaking directly to what is going on in the world around us. The Torah portion begins with Vayetze –  and he left –  telling the story of Jacob on the run, fleeing, concerned about his own safety and security. The narrative even concludes with Jacob on the run again, fleeing once more, even if the imminent danger is unclear. The parasha focuses on our patriarch Jacob wandering without a place to call home, without a place where he is welcomed in.

These words hit close to home as our country and society continues to grapple with welcoming in Syrian refugees. Welcoming in the most vulnerable is a key element of who we are as Jews – and should be a key element of who we are as human beings. We do not abandon the most vulnerable. We promise to be with them when they need us most.

When a wandering Jacob sees God’s divine messengers in his dream, angels ascending and descending staircases, Jacob is comforted by hearing God’s promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go… (Gen. 28:15).

Our obligation, as we strive to walk in God’s ways, and also be God’s messengers, is to be there for those who need us most. We cannot turn our backs on them. I read a disturbing poll in the Washington Post recently. The poll stated that over two-thirds of Americans, more than 67%, believe that we should try to keep refugees out of this country. Those numbers are disturbing in their own right. However, chills ran down my spine as I realized that this poll wasn’t taken in December 2015 and wasn’t referring to the millions of Syrian refugees who are desperately seeking asylum. Rather, this poll was taken in July 1938, and was referring to refugees from Germany and Austria fleeing the Nazis.

Poll

This poll was referring to many of our ancestors being turned away as they sought freedom and safety in this country. What worries me is our refusal, both then and now, to fulfill God’s promise to be “with you” and “protect you wherever you go.”

Refugees are fleeing from terror, not perpetrators of terror. I understand the fear of ISIS – a real threat in the world, but we cannot turn our backs on millions of refugees. We cannot turn our backs, in the same way that so many turn their backs on our ancestors trying to come to this country decades ago. We cannot ignore the stranger. We must love the stranger. We must embrace the stranger. For we were once strangers.

I am deeply troubled by the recent news that many governors, including Governor Christie of New Jersey, have publicly stated that they wouldn’t welcome refugees into their states. I decided to write Governor Christie and urge him, based on the teachings of so many faith traditions, to reconsider his positions. Rabbis began to sign on to this letter, and before I knew it, over 100 members of the clergy, all residents of New Jersey, from many faith traditions and religious backgrounds, signed on to the letter as well.

While we await a response from the Governor, I – and my community – continues to commit to doing our part to welcome in the stranger. I refuse to ignore the most vulnerable. May we uphold God’s promise of protection to those who need it most.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The full text of the letter can be found here:

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees2

 

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees3

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees4

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Jewish Institutions Should Preach Social Justice From the Pulpit

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

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

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

This logic is completely misguided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Biblical Back to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Congregation Beth El Celebrates National Coming Out Day 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What should we play next?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

“Just say it,” she said.

“I’m gay.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Standing with our Brothers and Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons 5776

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

Kol Nidre: Letting Go of Guilt

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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