Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Jewish View on Universal Health Care

The United States Supreme Court made a groundbreaking decision today, voting to uphold the landmark Affordable Care Act with a 5-4 vote. The court upheld arguably the most controversial part of the law that requires all Americans to purchase health insurance.

Many Jewish organizations have made statements about the Supreme Court’s vote. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly wrote an op-ed piece back in March when the Supreme Court’s hearings on such a plan began, suggesting that universal health care is a Jewish moral imperative.

The fact is that we have no idea how universal health care will impact our country and we won’t know until it takes full effect in 2014. Many who are already blessed to have health insurance are concerned about the change in coverage, care, and quality of service, as well as the added expenses. The cost of health care very well may go up. Still, from a Jewish perspective I cannot deny the importance of such a Supreme Court vote.

Judaism teaches that Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, is the most important mitzvah. In fact, it is so important that it takes precedent over other mitzvot. How important is health care, looking after the physical well-being of another, and saving a life? In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. He is compared to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the Yeshiva L’Maalah, from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently the he, as an incredible rabbi and scholar, does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life.

For saving a life, bringing the ill back to a refuah shlemah, a full recovery, is the most important thing one can do in Judaism, more so than learning Torah or teaching Torah, because when one saves a life, one gives another an opportunity to live Torah! In fact, the Tzitz Eliezer, a halakhic work, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg, basing his halakhic ruling on the Shulkhan Arukh, concludes that care of the sick is our first priority. We must prioritize using communal funds for the care of the sick over other obligations, including the construction of a synagogue. Taking care of the sick comes before having a house of worship, a place to daven, a community gathering space.

We do not know how society will evolve as a result of universal health care being a reality in America. I do know – and strongly believe – that it is our halakhic obligation to take care of one another, to raise up the downtrodden, and to help heal the sick. Every day, we recite the words of the Amidah prayer, the central part of fixed Jewish liturgy. Included in the Amidah is this blessing:


Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed. Help us and save us, for You are our glory. Grant perfect healing for all our afflictions. For You are the faithful and merciful God of healing. Praised are You Adonai, Healer of His people Israel.

Health care for all is a pretty good start to making sure that what we pray for daily in the Amidah becomes reality.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Faith in God, Faith in Oneself

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelah Lekha, we read the famous “Spies” narrative. In this parasha, God commands Moses to send out twelve men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, to scout out the land of Canaan, the land that God has promised to the people of Israel. In Numbers 13:17-18, Moses tells these spies to “go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?” Scouting out the land is no different than what professional sports teams do. A baseball team sends out an advanced scout to observe a team days before they play against each other, to note the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. The Israelites were not promised a barren and empty land for the taking. The land that God had promised was a land inhabited by many nations.

The Israelites wanted to scout these nations, and the land itself, before moving forward on their journey. Such advanced scouting work makes sense, but it is interesting that God, who had promised this land to the chosen people, commands this act of scouting. If God promised this land, why does God need the Israelites to scout it out first? If God knew the Israelites would ultimately settle in this land, why are the Israelites concerned about the strength or size of the nations already dwelling in Canaan?

The answer is in the language of God’s command. In Numbers 13:2, God tells Moses Shelah lekha, to not just send spies, but to “send for yourself.” Such a scouting journey is not a journey that God needs (even if God commands this journey.) Rather, it is a journey that the people need to go on for themselves, to deepen their faith in God, and to deepen their faith in themselves.

As I learned from my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, that Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught that the book of Ezekiel begins with the verse “the Heavens opened and I saw visions of God,” because the first letter of each of these words in Hebrew form the Hebrew word Emunah, meaning ‘faith.’ When you believe in God, you see God. When one lacks faith in God, one has trouble seeing and also lacks faith in himself.

What are the journeys that we take in our own lives because they are journeys that we need to take for ourselves? Interestingly, such a journey had negative consequences and results. Still, it was an experience that the Israelites needed to have. Can we each grow in a failed experience? Is there value and personal growth in that experience, even when the results are negative? Is our faith only strengthened in the everyday miracles of our lives, or do we also find faith in God when we struggle and create doubt?

May we all have faith in ourselves, and in turn find faith in God. Shabbat Shalom!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Take Me Out to the Ballgame!

June is upon us and the end of the school years in only days away (I imagine students counting down and crossing days off their calendars as you read this!) With the end of the school year comes summer vacation and camp for so many of our children! As a child, I spent my summers at day camp and then Jewish sleepaway camp. As a teen, my summers were spent on youth group programs and Israel trips. I get particularly giddy during the summer though because baseball season is in full swing. I know baseball season technically begins in April and many games have already been played. However, it’s the dog days of summer in which the season really takes off. After school is out, ballparks fill up with young boys and girls hoping to catch a homerun ball, snacking on peanuts and crackerjacks. I realize that Jacksonville is a football town and as much as we may root for our Jacksonville Suns Minor League team, many of us are first and foremost fans of the Jaguars, Gators, Bulldogs, or Seminoles. Yet, there is still something unique and sacred about the game of baseball that all of us can relate to as Jews.

My favorite apocryphal story involves Solomon Schechter, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of the Conservative Movement, walking the streets of Manhattan with a young rabbinical student Louis Finkelstein (who would later go on to serve as chancellor of JTS) in the 1910s. Schechter stopped at a newsstand to check the box scores from the previous day’s games and asked Finkelstein if he played baseball. The young student shook his head no. Solomon Schechter explained that if you do not play baseball and know the game of baseball, then you will never be a successful rabbi in this country.

The accuracy of the story is unimportant. The takeaway of this conversation is what resonates: there is a profound connection between our identities as American Jews and our passion as fans of America’s pastime. For me, the analogy of baseball is specifically meaningful as it relates to prayer.  I often discuss tefillah with members of the Center and brainstorm how we can make prayer more meaningful for each individual. We spend the school year working hard to ensure our MJGDS and BASRS students are literate in tefillah skills while still have inspiring prayer experiences. I admit it: I do not always have a meaningful prayer experience. Yes, I am a rabbi and I do not always get something out of davening. While I cannot speak for others, I can assume that the same is true for Rabbi Lubliner, Hazzan Holzer, and just about every single member of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. This has nothing to do with fixed liturgy, the language of prayer, the choreography of tefillot or anything like that. This has everything to do with the fact that praying to God, developing a personal revelatory experience, and understanding the Divine is the hardest thing to do… even harder than hitting a ninety-five miles-per-hour fastball. Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the American Jewish University notes that “It would not be realistic or fair to expect a home run each time one is at bat in prayer any more than it would be in baseball. Those who pray very little often make that mistake. A homerun in prayer, like in baseball, requires much practice, many trials and errors, and, ultimately, consummate skill. Even that is not enough. One needs some luck, too. The conditions have to be just right, and one’s body, mind, and emotions have to be perfectly attuned to one another and to the task at hand. This does not happen very often.”

Imagine another profession in which one succeeds only thirty percent of the time. If that was the case, that individual would soon be unemployed and yet, a .300 hitter (a hitter who gets a hit – not even a homerun, but just a hit – three out of every ten chances) is an all-star and among the best in the sport! So instead of swinging for the fences every single time we pray, let us focus on consistency and strive to make spiritual practice a regular part of our lives. We may not always make contact, but there is something special and sacred about stepping up to the plate, making regular prayer practice a part of our lives. The more at-bats a batter has, the more comfortable he gets, eventually turning strike-outs into homeruns. So too, the more one attends services, makes prayer a regular part of one’s life, and becomes more familiar with the fixed liturgy, the easier it is for one to add spontaneous prayer to one’s daily routine. So take time this summer to root, root, root for the home team, and make personal and communal time to talk to God as well. Before you know it, it will be a lot easier than trying to hit that fastball!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

(Originally published in the June 2012 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s CenterPieces Magazine)

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Equality for All in Jacksonville

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


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The Importance of Blessing our Children

We begin the month of June with Parashat Naso, the Torah portion of Naso, in which we learn about the priest’s role in Ancient Israel with regards to his relationship with the people. This parasha includes arguably the most famous of blessings, the priestly benediction. Chapter six of the book of numbers concludes with God telling Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons, the high priests, that they should bless the people of Israel as follows:

“May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace!”

These words of blessing are referred to as a single blessing or benediction and yet they are really three separate blessings woven together: a blessing for protection, a blessing for kindness towards others as well as from others, and lastly a blessing of peace. While this blessing is said regularly during services as part of the repetition of the Amidah or in more traditional contexts during duchenen on Festivals, these words are familiar to so many of us because they are the words we use to bless our children on Friday evening as we welcome in Shabbat. Although these words were reserved for ritual, exclusively when Aaron blessed the entire nation, they are especially fitting on the personal level as a blessing that parents offer a child. The reality of parenting is that children become fiercely independent way too quickly. This is true for the teenager with a driver’s license, the middle school student who no longer wants to “hang out” with her parents, or the elementary school student who prefers to do tasks on his own, even if done incorrectly. The same is even true for my own daughter who at just nineteen months old insists on picking out her own outfits every day. Such independence helps parents realize that we cannot protect our children from the challenges of the “real world” forever so we turn to God and pray.

We pray that God will continue to protect them as they make mistakes, because we all make mistakes and frankly, part of what it means to be independent is to make mistakes. Such protection gives children (and adults!) the courage to try again after making mistakes! We pray to God for kindness in hopes that the lessons we have taught our children, and ethics and values we have instilled in our children, will carry with them as they become more independent. Making decisions on their own, we pray that they will be kind to everyone, to never superficially judge another, and to always greet someone with a cheerful face. Additionally, we pray that others will be kind to our own children. There are no security blankets in the real world that we can cling to when we are frightened and there are plenty of mean people that deflate kindness. We pray that the kindness of our children ignites a spark in others, creating a cultural shift and making an effort for everyone to be kinder to each other. When this happens our final prayer, a prayer for peace, will become a reality.

Never stop praying with your children. No matter how much they grow up or how old they get, you will always be there to protect them, teach them kindness, and help them make peace in this world a reality. Let us recite these words of blessing as we bless our children every Shabbat and let us not be afraid to add our own personal words of blessing as well. Let us never stop blessing our children because they bless our lives every day with everything that they do.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

(Also published in the June 2012 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish News)

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