Monthly Archives: July 2012

When will Joy come?

“The most important thing is not to win, but to take part!”  While it may not be the original motto of the Olympic Games, the most well-known and widely used motto is “The most important thing is not to win, but to take part!” These words date back over a hundred years to the 1908 London games, from a sermon delivered by the Bishop of Pennsylvania. Think about it for a second: the most important thing is to take part. Blue, black, red, yellow, and green – five multi-colored rings interlocking on a white background. Each ring represents a different corner of the world, each color representing the variety of colors that make up the participating nations’ flags. A reminder that while we may live on opposite ends of the earth, despite societal, religious, ethic, or cultural differences, we are united. When we come together for the Olympic games every couple of years, the world stops for two weeks, not just to enjoy friendly competition, but to revel in humanity’s oneness. The Olympic Opening Ceremonies begin this Friday, supposedly celebrating world unity and peace among countries of the world — helping us recognize that despite our differences we are all one. We celebrate together and we mourn together.

These Olympics mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre. In 1972, At 4:30 am local time on September 5th, as the athletes slept, eight tracksuit-clad members of Palestinian terrorist group, Black September carrying duffel bags loaded with AKM assault rifles, pistols, and grenades scaled a two-meter chain-link fence. They used stolen keys to enter two apartments being used by the Israeli team, took the olympians hostage and eventually murdered the eleven Israeli athletes and coaches. The haunting voice of Sportscaster Jim McKay still rings in the ears of the Jewish community. After staying on air covering the hostage situation for fourteen hours without a break, he said with a solemn voice and a broken heart:

When I was a kid my father used to say “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

For months, many of the World Jewish community have petitioned the International Olympic Committee to have a moment of silence during the London Olympics, in memory of the 40th anniversary of the murder of the Israeli athletes. The Olympics last for 17 days, 24,480 minutes, and yet the IOC has decided that they cannot spare a single minute for a moment of silence. Ankie Spitzer, whose husband Andre, was one of the 11 athletes murdered in the terrorist attack met with the President of the London Organizing Committee, who said his “hands were tied” because 46 Arab nations were blocking the moment of silence from taking place.

I believe peace is possible. I believe that there is not an inherent natural hatred among nations, but rather, such hatred is nurtured through experience and schooling. However, I am at a loss for words when the International Olympics Committee, which promotes unity, peace, and participation, is bullied into refusing to honor the memory of those murdered 40 years ago.

We mourned again this past Wednesday, both the State of Israel and the People of Israel — the Jewish community as a whole, as we heard of the breaking news out of Bulgaria, that a suicide bomber blew up a bus full of Israeli tourists, murdering five Israelis, and severely wounding another 33. While Iran has claimed to not be involved in the attack, Israeli intelligence believes that the anti-Israel regime was behind it.

During the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics games, one of the most spirited and celebrated aspects of the ceremony is the Parade of Nations, when one by one, each nation who participates in the friendly competition is announced and citizens of countries cheer as the representative athletes march with flags in hand. Iran, as in years past, will participate in the Olympics games. Months ago, they threatened to pull out over complaints about the logo. They claimed that the artistic design of the numbers 2012, looked too much like the word ‘Zion’ and criticized the IOC of being pro-Israel. An organization that allows a country who threatens to nuke the world on a regular basis to march with pride alongside democracies that promote freedom and human rights, an organization that is bullied by other nations into not memorializing the greatest tragedy in Olympic history, the International Olympic Committee, surely is not Pro-Israel. I only hope and pray that an organization that celebrates world unity is Pro-Peace.

We recently welcomed in the new Hebrew month of Av, the month that we call Menachem Av, almost ironically — Menachem meaning comfort — searching for comfort as we mourn the greatest of tragedies to the Jewish people. On the ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, the Jewish people mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temples, a destruction that rabbinic tradition attributes to sinat chinam, senseless hatred. Yet, on Tisha B’Av we also mourn the tragedy of our people’s history, not just in the past, but in the present as well. We mourn the hatred that still exists in this world. A rabbinic colleague recently suggested the radical idea that maybe, we should no longer fast on Tisha B’Av for while we mourn the destruction of the Temple, we must also acknowledge that the Jewish people — despite our challenges — are better off now than at any other point in history. The American Jewish community, the second largest Jewish community in the world, has the freedom to practice and observe Judaism how we see fit. This is not to mentioned the fact that we have, for the first time in 2000 years, a sovereign Jewish state in the promised land, the State of Israel. We mourned the destruction of the Temple and thus, the beginning of our 2000 year exile from the land, but — as my colleague suggests — now that we have returned to the land and to the city of Jerusalem, why do we continue to mourn?!? We mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av, but not only such an act. We mourn the expulsion from Spain, we mourn the pogroms of Eastern Europe, we mourn the Shoah, we mourn the struggle of Soviet Jewry decades ago, we mourn the murder of the eleven Israeli Olympians forty years ago, and we mourn the murder of five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last week. Tisha B’Av is a day to acknowledge the inevitable heartache that is a part of the Jewish journey.

We live in a disturbing world in which we hope and pray for peace. Lest we think that we only mourn the tragedies that happen to the Jewish people, we mourn all tragedy, all acts of terror, all acts of violence. So, with a heavy heart, we woke up to the news yesterday of a man entering a movie theater with a gas mask and a rifle who started shooting. The midnight premiere of the new Batman film in Aurora, Colorado ended with 12 murdered and 38 severely wounded, over 70 struck by gunfire. Days after we in the Jewish community are still reeling from the suicide bombing in Bulgaria, we as Americans are torn apart by the senseless hatred of gun violence. We gloss over these aspects of our parasha because we do not know how to deal with them, because we do not know how to deal with such violence and terror now, here, in our everyday lives. We talk about peace because we don’t know how to talk about sinat chinam, senseless hatred; we do not know how to talk about the incomprehensible acts of murder.

Yet, the concept of peace, of Shalom, is misleading. Peace suggests an absence of war, an absence of violence, an absence of murder. Yet, one cannot truly achieve peace, without first knowing war, heartache, hatred, and loss. After all, the Garden of Eden, our image of peace and serenity, was not created out of nothing. Rather, the Torah tells us that haaretz hayta tohu vavohu v’choshech al paney t’hom, that the land was unformed and darkness spread over the surfaces and the depths of the earth. The world was filled with darkness before the uptopian Garden of Eden was formed. There was darkness and numbness before there was peace.Yet we hope and pray that the hatred that we have experienced, the anti-Semitism, the anti-Zionism, as well as incomprehensible violence that we have witnessed here in America, the loss of so many innocent victims of violent attacks, persecution and terror, will lead to an eventual state of peace.

We mourn all such events on Tisha B’Av. We acknowledge the reality of the world that we live in and hope and pray that, despite all the heartache, all the mourning, that peace is on the horizon. After all, the Psalmist taught in Psalm 30 – Ba’erev yalin bechi, v’laboker rena. One may weep at night, cry himself to sleep, but joy comes in the morning. We mourn the most tragic moments in our history, the most tragic events of this world, in hopes that joy — that peace — will come in the near future.

I urge you to join the Jewish community’s campaign in the week ahead to push the IOC to offer a moment of silence to mourn the murder of eleven Israelis forty years ago in Munich. Regardless of the IOC’s decision, regardless of their apathy or ignorance, I encourage each of you, each of us, to take a moment out of our day to offer a moment of silence to acknowledge those slain forty years ago, as well as a moment of silence for those Israelis brutally murdered in Bulgaria and the innocent audience shot to death in a moviehouse in Colorado. We offer a moment of silence because we have no words to make sense of the senseless.

The Jewish people will continue to mourn the tragedies of our history on Tisha B’Av, with or without the support of the International Olympic Committee, and humanity will continue to mourn the senseless acts of hatred that too often occur. Let the world mourn such tragedy together, for when the world weeps in the evening, all of humanity — all of the nations of the world together — then the world can wake up in the morning, in joy and in happiness, making peace a reality. We ask “when will joy come?” We find comfort knowing that tomorrow is only hours away.

“The most important thing is not to win, but to take part.” May all nations of the world take part in a future of shalom.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Adapted from Shabbat Sermon delivered at the Jacksonville Jewish Center on 7/21/12

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A Communal Prayer for Peace

Following the tragic events that we have experienced this past week — as Jews reeling from the terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and as Americans unable to comprehend the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado — I offer these words of prayer:

Oseh Shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh Shalom, aleinu, v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel.

Adonai, May You bring peace quickly, for surely we need it. We are lost. Please help us find the way. Bring the way of peace back to us. May all beings, made in Your Divine image, experience Your peace. We dream of a world in which we stop fighting and start breathing. Lost on a path of hatred and ignorance, help us to find a path towards embracing the other. Give us the strength and desire to open our clenched fists, and hold the hand of our fellow.

Our tears of mourning will become tears of joy, as our children learn about love instead of violence, coexistence instead of hate. Let us beat our swords into plowshares and plant flowers of peace in our gun barrels. Our markets will sell berries, rather than bullets, and our leaders will preach acceptance of all, rather than rejection of the other. We know that You do not want us to hate or to destroy. We strive to honor You and walk in Your ways, by teaching only love.

We understand how precious life is, how fragile life can be. Return us to Your path of life, to a path that recognizes, accepts, and appreciates kol haBriyot, all of Your creatures and creations. May we walk side-by-side on a path in which we cast our fears aside and can call the other our friend instead of our enemy. May we fulfill the words of the Psalmist, Hine ma tov u’manayim, shevet achim gam yachad, how wonderful it will surely be when we see all the world as our brothers and sisters, and we can dwell together in harmony. And let us say: Amen.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Jewish State for ALL Jews

Over a month ago in the Shabbat Handout at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, we noted how monumental it was that Israel had officially recognized the first non-orthodox rabbi in the state of Israel. On May 29th, the Israeli Attorney General decided that Rabbi Miri Gold, ordained as a Reform rabbi, will be compensated by the State of Israel for her rabbinic work. We mentioned this in our handout with joy and we wanted to share the news with the community.

Last week, one hundred Orthodox rabbis gathered in Israel for what they called an “emergency meeting.” What was the emergency? That the state of Israel, the Jewish state, recognized Reform and Conservative rabbis, and thus, recognized the ideologies of these movements and congregations as legitimate expressions of Judaism. The meeting, organized by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to prevent Israel from recognizing such forms of religious expression.

Rabbi Amar claimed that the Reform and Conservative rabbis are “battling all that is holy … they are trying to the uproot the foundation of Judaism.” He added: “this is an attempt to tear the Jewish people into two nations.” As a Conservative rabbi, I should be angry. As Conservative Jews we should be furious. However, I am sure that many of us, upon hearing this news, just sort of shrugged as we have come to expect such extremism from the right-wing Israeli Rabbinate. Yet, it is that shrug that is the problem — that “oh well” attitude that we have all too often; that chuckle which simultaneously suggests that we cannot believe the chief rabbi of Israel would say such obscenities, and that we totally expected this to come out of his mouth; that silence while someone in a position of power and authority publicly denigrates the ideology, beliefs, and practices of our community.

My colleague and friend, Arie Hasit, who is a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, the Conservative Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, was tired of shrugging, chuckling, and staying silent. In an op-ed piece this past week in Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz he said:

I believe in modernity, I believe in progress, and I believe that Judaism fits in with these values. I do not believe that the corrupt way of government-sponsored rabbinate in Israel is the true Torah. Amar has accused me of corrupting Judaism. Well, Rabbi Amar, I’d like to tell you something: According to the Midrash, Moses did not recognize the teachings of Rabbi Akiva as Judaism. In the same way, Moses, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, would not recognize my brand of Judaism, nor would they recognize yours. Your brand of Judaism is no more authentic than mine. My Judaism comes from the same Torah as yours, and I refuse to apologize for it.

So maybe I need to stop shrugging my shoulders, chuckling at absurd statements, and remaining silent as well. After all, we – and no one else – must decide what we want the State of Israel to be. For Israel to survive and thrive, and continue to be the Jewish state, then Israel must be a state for all Jews, a state that recognizes all forms of Jewish expression. Some wonder why younger generations seem apathetic towards Israel or lack the Zionistic spark inside of them that was so prevalent among previous generations of American Jews. When the chief rabbi of Israel, the supposed voice of Judaism in the Jewish state, condemns the way in which I – in which we – observe our faith, when a woman is arrested for praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall, with a Tallit on, when a hotel refuses to allow a Solomon Schechter Day School to use the hotel’s Torah scroll because it would be – God forbid – used at an egalitarian minyan, then it is easy to see why younger generations may be apathetic. After all, isn’t that shrug of the shoulders and silence apathy on our part?

In Parashat Balak, we read the famous blessing that Balaam offers to the Jewish people upon seeing the Israelite encampment. This blessing is so well-known that it has become a part of our liturgy:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents, people of Jacob, your sanctuaries people of Israel.

Our rabbis continue to debate the meaning of this blessing. What was so lovely about these tents? Some suggest they were symbols of modesty. Others believe that they showed how welcoming the People of Israel were to guests. I believe Balaam offered this blessing because he saw something far more important, something that we do not see any longer in the Jewish community. He saw civility. He saw acceptance. He saw respect. He saw a Jewish community where individuals appreciated each other, where individuals disagreed, but respected the opinion of the other. He saw an actual community, am echad im lev echad, the encampment of the people of Israel, the Jewish people still in its earliest stages of infancy, as one nation with one heart – maybe a variety of opinions, but one heart.

We offer these words of blessing upon entering a sanctuary, upon beginning our prayers, not as an acknowledgment or way of saying “yes, our sanctuaries are lovely,” but rather as a prayer. We hope that our community, that the Jewish community, will once again return to such a state of civility, respect, and acceptance. We pray that we can disagree but still set up our tents in the same camp. Civility cannot be one-sided. Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov – how lovely are your dwelling places, in which communities can live side by side out of mutual respect, rather than one being overly vocal and critical and us, on the other hand  remaining silent in disappointment. I hope and pray that we can still set up our tents at the same campsite, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Lubavitch, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Secular Humanist, and so on… different tents, different movements, different beliefs, but still one people.

Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah begins with the familiar words:

Kol Od Baleivav Peninah, Nefesh Yehudi Homiyah. As long as the heart within us beats and the Jewish soul still yearns…

It seems that 64 years later, my Jewish soul is still yearning – yearning for a Jewish state in which that which we call Judaism in our synagogues, homes, institutions, and communities here will be recognized and welcomed as Judaism there. Then, we can truly look to Israel and say Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your sanctuaries, your synagogues, each and every one of them. How beautiful is the Jewish State which is filled with such a diverse spectrum of Jewish belief, practice, observance, and expression!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

(Adapted from Shabbat Sermon delivered at the Jacksonville Jewish Center on July 7, 2012)


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