Forrest Gump was the defining movie of 1994. For the first ten weeks of its release, the film held the number one position at the box office and it received the Academy Award for Best Picture. One of the most iconic moments in the film though was when Forrest Gump began running across the country. He just started to run – from coast to coast – gaining a group of followers along the way.
A real-life Forrest Gump is coming to Jacksonville. On March 12th, Activist Richard Noble decided to set out to Walk across America, beginning his journey at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, determined to gain awareness as he passed through each state and each city. On June 9th, one week from today, he will conclude his walk here on the first coast, in the city of Jacksonville. His goal: to get the American Equality Bill passed. This bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation, and gender identity.
While he is advocating for such a change, Jacksonville’s city council is debating a similar change on the city level. A proposed Amendment, 2012-296, to the city council’s human rights ordinances would protect the LGBT community from discrimination. Jacksonville is the only major metropolitan area in the State of Florida that doesn’t protect openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered residents from targeted discrimination. Such individuals can be fired by an employer, evicted from a residence, or refused service at a store or restaurant because of sexual orientation or gender identity. On Tuesday May 22nd, the City Council’s chambers were packed with hundreds to have their voices heard. I am proud that my signature was among that of twenty-five clergy members, signing a letter that appeared in the Florida Times-Union last month, encouraging the city council to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinances.
Some recommend that rabbis avoid sharing thoughts about something so “politically charged.” Frankly, there is nothing political about this issue. This is not about democrats or republicans. This is not about specific politicians or councilmen. This is about human rights. This is about what is right: believing that we are all made B’Tzelem Elohim, and ensuring that if we are in fact all made in God’s image, then we are each treated with the dignity and respect that we show towards God, with the dignity and respect that we all deserve.
This past Shabbat we read the beautiful words of the Priestly Benediction, the Birkat Kohanim. In Numbers 6:22-26, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons, the high priests of the people of Israel to bless the people of Israel with these words:
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up God’s face towards you and grant you peace.
This blessing is actually three blessings rolled into one, three blessings so important, three blessings of equal importance, that we cannot discern one from another. They are one and the same. The first: “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” A blessing – a promise, that God, and thus humanity who strive to walk in God’s ways, will protect each of us, will guard each of us, not just from physical harm, but also from blatant discrimination, hatred, and bigotry – the adult version of the bullying that we try to protect our children from. The second blessing: “May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.” May we see God’s face shine upon each and every one of us, may we recognize the Divine nature of each individual, regardless of religion, ethnic background, race, gender or sexual orientation. May we find the chen, the grace that we look for in God, in each and every individual and may we be graceful in the way we treat each and every individual. The third blessing: “May God lift up God’s face unto us and grant us peace.” May God look out for each and every one of us, and may we do the same. May we each feel a sense of peace, of Shalom, of wholeness and completeness and may we be able to do so because we are fully recognized and protected with the same rights, each and every one of us.
This past week – really just days ago – a monumental decision was made in the Conservative Movement. At the conclusion of the meeting of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the committee that sets standards, policy, and halakha for the Conservative Movement, a teshuva, a halakhic responsa, was passed by an overwhelming majority that provides guidelines for same-sex wedding ceremonies and officially welcomes such ceremonies and celebrations within the Conservative movement. Such a ruling is a welcomed change of policy. While the teshuva offers two separate guidelines for such ceremonies – one based closely on the traditional wedding ceremony and the other full of innovation and alternatives – they both speak of the movement’s willingness to recognize and celebrate the love of all Jewish partners. Most importantly, such a decision of the movement reaffirms our commitment to equality of all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The real question you must ask yourself is not “how can Rabbi Olitzky be sharing thoughts about something so politically charged?” The real question that we must ask is how are we, we as the Jewish community – charged with being an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world, a community which is supposed to not just learn of the ethics and values of our tradition, but act on them – supposed to speak of such ethics and values of equality within our community when, in our community of Jacksonville, such blatant homophobia and discrimination still exists?!!? How are we to stand idly by knowing that it is perfectly legal and within an employer’s right to firer someone or a landlord’s right to evict a resident in the city of Jacksonville because of sexual orientation? If Hillel is correct and the entire Torah rests on the statement V’ahavta L’rey’eicha Kamocha, to love thy neighbor as thyself, then we must take this golden rule to heart: we must treat others the way we want to be treated. We must ensure that all of us are treated the way some of us are already treated.
The city council will vote on this amendment as early as June 12th – I hope that this day will be a day of celebration for the city of Jacksonville. When Richard Noble concludes his walk across America next Saturday I will not be there because it is Shabbat. Still I commend and support such activism. I look forward to the day when the Great City of Jacksonville will truly be great, for it will be a city that looks out for all who reside here and then the city council will ensure that the blessing of the Kohanim, the blessing that we bless our children with every Shabbat, the blessing that is our charge and our vision for a better future and a better world, is bestowed on all corners of this city.
Yevareycha Adonai v’yishmereicha, Ya’eir Adonai Panav Eleicha Vichuneka, Yisa Adonai Panav Eleicha v’Yasem lecha Shalom. May we turn to God and in turn, may God bless and protect all of us. May God’s light shine upon us and be gracious unto us. May we see God face to face and walk in God’s ways and may God grant us – all of us – peace. May we all come to see the time, speedily in our day, that such words of blessing are words of reality for each and every one of us in Jacksonville. Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will. Amen.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky