Monthly Archives: January 2012

Can I Get An Amen?!?

The room began to shake with the reverberations of a response.  Amen. Uh huh. Indeed. Having had the pleasure of attending the 25th Annual Jacksonville Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast last Friday, I was excited to hear keynote speaker Reverend Dr. Bernice King, the youngest child of the late Martin Luther King Jr. Bernice King gave a rousing speech, a true tribute to her father and a charge to continue his legacy. Minutes into her sermon, I jumped at the unexpected — or at least unanticipated – “uh huh” from a vast majority of the room. The 2000-plus attendees were reaffirming what Bernice King was say and with each response she seemed to be uplifted with renewed energy, to make her message a little bit clearer and push her message a little bit further.

Her preaching style – commonly found in many African-American and Southern churches, focuses on the power of oration. The inflection and timing of the words spoken encourages a response from the congregation. The preacher thus is doing far more than preaching; the preacher is succeeding in engaging his or her community in a sacred conversation.

Although I appreciate the positive feedback I receive from congregants when the words of a sermon resonate with them or when a particular prayer service is meaningful, I yearn for such call-and-response experiences. In fact, such call-and-response experiences are a part of the Jewish tradition.

Using the various forms of the prescribed Kaddish as an example, the congregation often recites specific words reserved for the prayer leader: reciting a yitbarach (meaning, may God be blessed) here or a b’rich Hu (meaning, blessed is God) there. We even add an additional “Amen” to the beginning of the Kaddish – not included in the prayer book and seemingly spontaneous at some point, but eventually becoming a permanent response to the call of Kaddish, regardless of the fixed written words of prayer on the page. Additionally, we regularly add in the words Baruch Sh’mo (Blessed is God’s name) or Baruch Hu u’varuch Sh’mo (Blessed is God and Blessed is God’s name) whenever we hear one say the beginning formula of a blessing aloud.

So why are we so silent during services? Are we uncomfortable with the sound of our own voices? If prayer and sermons are about communication with God, we must strive to continue those conversations. Prayer is not meant to be a short conversation; it is an ongoing dialogue and dialogue is not only one-way. Dialogue does not just come from our rabbis, cantors, or shelichei tzibbor (service leaders.) Dialogue must come from all voices, without worrying about whose voice is best or loudest.

We worry too much about saying the words or pronouncing the Hebrew correctly. We worry so often that we lose sight of the prayer experience entirely. When we do participate, we may read a script instead of sharing our own prayers and speaking our own words. We must make time to add our own words to the written words of the siddur and we must feel comfortable doing so aloud, instead of remaining silent. We are self-conscious, but prayer isn’t supposed to be easy. That is why we come together in community for prayer. We support each other through the struggle of having a meaningful prayer experience, even if that looks different for each individual. Instead of worrying what those around us think and remaining silent, let us shout!

While there is time for silent meditation and personal prayer, I encourage noise. I look forward to the time when I hear shouts during my sermons. Until then, let us raise our communal voice. The many praying as one is far more powerful and meaningful than the many sitting and watching the few. Can I get an Amen?!?

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky


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Reflections on ‘The Food Stamp Challenge’

During the past week, I, along with the clergy of the Jacksonville Jewish Center committed to participating in the Food Stamp Challenge, a program started by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which encourages clergy and community leaders to spend a week “living on food stamps” to raise awareness for hunger. I was committed to spending roughly $1.25 – $1.50 per meal. I spent roughly $21 on five days worth of food. I bought the cheapest option for each type of food, but that was sometimes more difficult when keeping kosher. My list of food for five days consisted of: oatmeal, instant soup, condensed soup, pasta, tomato sauce, a small block of cheese, frozen bagels, apple juice, white rice, and vegetarian baked beans.

I gave up some of the staples (and addictions) that are a part of my regular diet: coffee, Diet Dr. Pepper, and snacking. I was properly better off without the snacks throughout the day or the cans of soda with each meal, but including these items was not even an option for me. They did not fit into my budget. My stomach rumbled and I sometimes went to bed hungry, but I ate three meals a day. Thursday was Asarah B’Tevet, a minor fast on the Hebrew calendar, but when I fasted and skipped breakfast and lunch, that was a conscious choice; it was my decision to fast. I was not forced to skip one meal so that I could eat a more filling meal in the evening.

I realized that hunger was more than just having little food to eat. Hunger meant rationing foods so that I could have three meals a day. Hunger meant monotony – basically eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day because that was all I had in the refrigerator. My greatest challenge was not eating enough food, but it was eating enough healthy foods. Fruits and vegetables, as well as meats and cheeses were not a regular part of my diet. They were too expensive. I found myself choosing cheap foods over healthy foods. When the price of a single grapefruit is the same as a big bag of cheese puffs or greasy potato chips, it is difficult to choose the healthier foods.

Participating in this challenge also made me feel guilty of how much food I waste. We often make too much food when having guests for a meal – food that ends up going to waste. I often “over order” when out to eat at a restaurant and leave plenty of food on my plate. How can I waste so much food when others struggle to have food on their plates?!?

The goal of the Food Stamp Challenge was to raise hunger awareness that would lead to action. We accomplished that by raising thousands of dollars for Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, as well as through continued participation in our many Social Action Community projects. Our responsibility to do Gemilut Hasadim, Acts of Loving Kindness, is not limited to our inner circle or insular communities. Our responsibility is to each other.

I was surprised by how many friends, co-workers, and community members constantly checked in to see how I was feeling and see how I was doing. They offered to buy me coffee or buy me lunch. While I appreciated these kind gestures, I reminded them that I was doing this to raise awareness. My goal was not for others to buy me food. My goal was for us to buy food and give tzedakah to those who actually are hungry and in need of governmental food assistance.

My hope and prayer is that participating in such a program helped to raise awareness and will lead to action so that one day we will live in a world where we all have food in our bellies and a child does not have to go to sleep hungry. For every meal that we have, for every dollar that we spend on food, for all the food that I admittedly waste, I have an obligation to help feed those that are hungry. We all have an obligation. We all have a responsibility. Now what are you going to do with that responsibility?

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Sacred Space is Safe Space

I hated the fifth grade. Each of us have memories and experiences about our childhoods that we wish we could forget. For me, it was the fifth grade. I was in a split class with fifth and sixth graders. It seemed only natural then for the sixth graders to spend all their time picking on the younger fifth graders. I was the only student named Jesse in the entire school which meant I was different. My name was funny and unusual to classmates. For the sixth graders in the room, it was girl’s name. For most of that school year, the sixth graders in the class called me Jessica. “It was just a joke,” they said. “I was just kidding,” they said. Yet, being picked on for most of that year was the reason that I never liked going outside for recess. It was the reason I hated going to school.

Kirk Smalley is a father from Oklahoma. He goes from school to school with his wife Laura to tell students about their son Ty. Ty committed suicide last year – an 11-year-old smiling, freckle-faced child who chose to end his life because he couldn’t put up with being bullied day in and day out. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of adolescents ages 15-24, too often the result of being bullied. Mr. Smalley asks a room full of students to raise their hands if they have ever been bullied. An average of one-third of the students usually raise their hands, for a child is bullied every seven seconds. He asks the students to raise their hands if they have ever bullied another person. In all the schools he has visited and in all the groups he has spoken to, not a single student has raised their hands. We admit being victimized, but won’t take responsibility for our own faults and actions.

Such bullying is far from physical. Bullying is verbal: name calling; bullying is social: spreading rumors and gossip;  and in this day and age, potentially the most harmful, bullying is electronic: cyberbullying – using the internet, cell phones, and social media to harm one another.

Those who are victims of such acts suffer from depression, have increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, tend to do poorly in school, and are more likely to miss school. Furthermore, those who are the bullies, are also likely to be victims themselves – physically or verbally harmed by another: a parent, a sibling, or classmate. One’s own feelings of disappointment translate into picking on another. They don’t feel so low when they can make another feel lesser than them.

This is not a schoolyard problem of teasing or name calling. This is a problem of hate. We are all different, beautifully different, unique in our physical characteristics, and unique in our interests, talents, and skills. We are each made in God’s image, B’tzelem Elohim, and yet no two individuals are the same. We are all different and each difference and distinction is a divine quality, but adolescents – and even adults – just want to fit in and be the same. So children make fun of one another because he looks different, or acts different, or because she doesn’t know the answer, or isn’t good at sports.

Last Shabbat’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, was the culmination of the narrative of Joseph and his brothers. This story may be the earliest biblical example of bullying. Weeks earlier we learned that Joseph was special – the favored child – who perceived himself as better than the others. The dreamer with his head in the clouds, with the ketonet passim, the coat of many colors, Joseph stood out from among his brothers. They despised him for that. We know that some wanted to kill him. We know that Joseph was eventually sold into slavery. Regardless of the outcome, this was a prime example of bullying – the many versus the few. Jacob’s other sons gained up on Joseph.

At the end of the previous parasha, Parashat Mikketz, Joseph’s brothers come groveling before the Egyptian Pharoah and his magistrates. They beg Joseph – who they do not recognize – for food. The famine has impacted them greatly and they are in need. Joseph challenges his brothers by placing a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s sack. After accusing them of left, he decides to make Benjamin a slave – all the other brothers are free to return to Canaan, but Benjamin must stay.

Most interpret this act as a test or a trial – Joseph’s attempt to see if his brothers have changed their ways or if they still won’t hesitate to get rid of their brother to save themselves. This week’s parasha begins with proof that they have changed their ways. Judah, who suggested selling Joseph into slavery only chapters before, is now trying to prove his brother Benjamin’s innocence and begging for his freedom. They may have passed their test, but Joseph failed his test.

Joseph – the previous victim – becomes the bully. Here, the few bully the many. The individual in a position of power picks on the lowly who are desperate for Joseph’s assistance. This narrative is an example of how the victim becomes the bully. This is an endless cycle. The bullied becomes the bully. Hate begets more hate.

Such hate begins at home. We are to blame if our children believe that it is perfectly fine to pick on another person at all, especially if it is because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, physical appearance, or sexual orientation. We are also to blame if we stand idly by and observe this. We are to blame as parents. We are to blame as teachers. I am to blame as a rabbi. We all accept responsibility as a community. No community is immune to such acts of bullying – and I have no doubt that, despite how incredible our various educational arms are at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, there have been instances of bullying in our day school, religious school, and Makom Hebrew High School. Our goal is for the Jacksonville Jewish Center, like all Jewish communal institutions and synagogues, to be a kehillah kedosha, a sacred and holy community. Yet, this cannot be a true sacred space unless it is a safe space.

We may not realize it in our own small community or in our educational programs, but there is a bullying epidemic in this country. Each day an estimated 160,000 students in this country refuse to go to school because they dread the physical and verbal aggression of their peers. Many more attend school in a chronic state of anxiety and depression. It’s reported that 6 out of 10 American youth witness bullying at least once a day.

The Talmud teaches that to embarrass someone and shame them publicly – to bully them – is the moral equivalent to murder. Rashi comments that the face of one who is embarrassed often turns pales and white, as if his blood has been drained and spilled. Thus, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi, teaches that a commitment to end bullying is the moral equivalent to saving a life, Pikuach Nefesh. We would drop everything and do anything we could if it meant saving another. By making such a commitment – a commitment in the classrooms, in our social circles, in all of our programs and activities, and from the bima, we are committing to saving lives, to creating a safe space.

The oft-quoted famous teaching of Hillel from Pirkei Avot speaks volumes:

Im Ain Ani Li, Mi Li? Uch’she’ani L’atzmi, Mah Ani? V’im lo achshav, aimatai? 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

If not now, when? Let us all celebrate 2012 by celebrating how truly sacred our community is, by embracing each individuals differences, and in doing so, bringing ourselves closer to God. May we learn from the mistakes of all of Jacob’s sons, to not gang up on another, and not abuse our positions of power.

Eventually, Joseph reunites with his brothers and reveals his true identity to them. Chapter 45 of Breisheit reveals his true emotions. The text reads:

“And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them; and after that his brethren talked with him” (Gen. 45 12-15).

May our arms be used to hug each other instead of hit each other. May our mouths be used to kiss each other instead of speak ill will and spread rumors about one another. May we always cry – and may our tears, be tears of joy! If not now, when?!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


(excerpt from Sermon delivered at Jacksonville Jewish Center on 12/31/11)


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