Monthly Archives: November 2012

Standing with Israel, Praying for Peace

My remarks from the Jacksonville Jewish Center‘s Israel Solidarity Service for Peace that took place on Monday November 19th, 2012:

Esrim v’shmoneh Rehov Kaf Tet b’november, Kenisah Alef, Dirah Chamesh. 28, Kaf Tet b’november Street. Entrance A, Apartment 5. This was our address, when my wife Andrea and I spent 2008 and 2009 living in Jerusalem as part of my rabbinic studies. This will forever be my address  – just as Dayton, New Jersey, my childhood home will forever be my address, just as Jacksonville, Florida, my current home will forever be my address. Jerusalem, Israel will forever be my home.

To be honest, I couldn’t even tell you where the miklat was, where the bomb shelter was. All I know is that the landlord used it as storage, keeping his bicycle, some furniture, and some of our boxes in there. He didn’t even show it to us. No problem – Ain Ba’ayah – he said. After all, air raid sirens hadn’t sounded in the holy city since 1970.

I was brought to tears in my office last Friday when I heard that Hamas was now shooting rockets towards Jerusalem – the holy city for Jews, Muslims, Christians, and so many ethic and faith traditions. This is after rockets were also launched at Tel Aviv last week. This is of course on top of thousands of rockets raining down on the roughly three million Israelis in Southern Israel for the past decade. Bomb Shelters have been converted to classrooms, to indoor playgrounds, to guarantee safe space for children. This has forced the Israel Defense Forces to respond with air strikes towards Hamas militants which ultimately (although unintentionally) lead to civilian causalities. My heart breaks any time an innocent man, woman, or child is killed, whether they are Israeli or Palestinian. There are no winners in war. There is only heart break. We do not want war, we do not hope for war. As Golda Meir once said, “We do not thrive on military acts. We do them because we have to.”

More so than anything before, Israel is God’s greatest miracle to the Jewish people. More so than redemption from slavery, more so than freedom, more so than the exodus from Egypt, more so than revelation at Mount Sinai, the modern State of Israel was created against all odds, and has survived – and thrived – despite it being the only democracy in the Middle East, despite it being surrounded by neighbors that vow to destroy her. Miracles do not happen twice. The miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel will never happen again in history. That is why we must make sure that Israel continues to survive and thrive. That is why we celebrate Israel, why we support Israel’s right to defend herself, and why we pray for Israel. All of us in this room may not always agree on Israel’s policies, on the lack of religious diversity, on its political or governmental decisions. However, one thing is true: no matter where we stand, we stand with Israel. So let us stand with Israel, let us celebrate Israel. Let us pray for Israel. Let us join together in song and in prayer.

As we pray for Israel, we pray for peace. I believe that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians support peace, support a two-state solution. The voice of peace needs to be louder than the voice of hate. The voice of friendship, coexistence, and brotherhood needs to be louder than the air raid sirens and rocket explosions. We pray for peace. We hope and pray for an end to this violence. We hope and pray that half of Israel’s population does not have to sleep in bomb shelters. We hope and pray that the moderates in Gaza, the Palestinians that believe in a two-state solution, that want peace, that also want to live without fear, will rise up against Hamas that currently controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas is identified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and others, and their purpose is to destroy the Jewish State. A cease-fire, as is the case in the past, is only a temporary solution. We must pray for peace – for permanent peace in the region among Israelis and Palestinians, among Jewish Israelis and Arabs. David Broza wrote his song Yihyeh Tov, meaning “It’ll be good, It’ll get better,” decades ago. This is his song, his hope, his prayer for peace. At one point he added a final verse that reads:

Still, we’ll learn to live together
among groves of olive trees
children will be without fear
without borders, without bomb shelters

Upon graves, grass will grow
for peace and love
a hundred years of destruction
and still hope is not lost

It will be good, It will be good, oh yes!
Sometimes I break, but the night, oh the night, I remain, I survive with you!

Many friends, colleagues, and congregants tell me that peace is unfortunately not the reality. It is true that it seems impossible to imagine at this moment, but that is why it is a prayer, that is why it is our prayer. We continue to pray, to hope, and to believe that one day it will be reality. It may be hard to imagine as air raid sirens go off throughout the land, but to no longer have faith in peace, to no longer believe that one day — next week, next year, twenty years from now, a hundred years from now — peace will be reality, is to no longer believe in God’s miracles, and is to no longer believe in the power of humanity made in God’s image. Yihye Tov. I believe in peace. I hope, pray, and believe that one day it will be better. May we all see that peace, that Shalom, that Salaam, speedily in our day.


Please click here to see News4Jax’s coverage of our prayer service.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Spending a Week Living on Food Stamps

For the second year in a row, I, along with the clergy and many congregants at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, spent a week living on food stamps. Of course, I wasn’t actually living on food stamps. Rather, I was living on the monetary equivalent to food stamps, which equals roughly $1.50 per person per meal. $4.50 per day. As a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I participated in the Food Stamp Challenge along with lay leaders, professionals, and clergy across the American Jewish community. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, assist those who are most vulnerable. In fact, according to, 76% of households that receive SNAP assistance include a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. More than 46 milliion Americans, that is 1 if every 7, are on food stamps and 25% of children in this country are on food stamps.

I expected, as I did last year, that I would feel hungry. I am embarrassed to admit that the greatest inconveniences were saying goodbye to by supplemental drinks for the week – a Starbucks coffee or a can of Diet Dr. Pepper. Additionally, I am one who enjoys snacking throughout the day (which I know isn’t good for me anyway) and this week I had to prioritize. My expenses barely covered three meals a day. There was no room for a mid-afternoon or a late-night snack.

Still, I was not hungry. My portions were smaller and I was more conscious about not letting any food go to waste, but I did not starve. My meals were repetitive: a lot of soup, pasta, oatmeal, rice, and beans. The lack of variety seemed to annoy me more than a lack of food. I also found that I was excluded from social and communal gatherings. Eating (going out to restaurants, etc.) is a key component to socializing. I declined invitations to dinner with peers because I was limited to $1.50 for dinner instead of fifteen or twenty dollars.

I also realized that there is a difference between being hungry and being food insecure. While I did not experience hunger, I certainly experienced food insecurity. This includes rationing one’s food, and for many, not knowing where your next meal will come from. Food insecurity often leads to insufficient nutrition. As I walked up and down the aisles of the supermarket with my calculator, being sure to stay in my $1.50/meal budget, it was very clear what foods would fit in my budget and would foods would not. I was able to buy foods that were boxed, processed, and packaged, but it was nearly impossible to fit any whole foods – vegetables, fruits, meats, and cheeses – into my miniscule budget. This is especially true when kosher food is even more expensive! I didn’t mind not eating fruits, vegetables, or meat for the week. After all, it was only a week. However, a food insecure child is left with very little nutritional foods. A lack of nutrition can weaken a young child’s immune system and put them more at risk for illness. It was no surprise to me why so many food insecure children end up eating unhealthy foods. A big bag of cheaps is one dollar. A fast food hamburger is ninety-nine cents. When you are on such a tight budget, the quality of food is of no concern. Rather, one only cares about putting food in his or her belly.

Many in our communities and congregations may be food insecure and we are unaware. Nothing they say or do would suggest this. We are responsible for each other, for caring for each other, for ensuring that no one goes hungry. Let us do all that we can – raise money and donate funds to organizations like Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, raise awareness, and take action – so that fewer children go to bed wondering where their next meal will come from, so that fewer parents skip breakfast to ensure that their kids have enough to eat, so that fewer individuals are forced to choose the food that is cheapest over the food that is healthiest.

Leviticus 19:9-10 teaches us that we must not reap the corners of our fields or gather the cleanings after our harvest. Rather, we should leave them for the poor and the stranger. The Torah is teaching us that we are responsible to feed those who are hungry in our community. With 46 million in this country dealing with food insecurity, we better get moving.

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Voting for Peace

Following last Tuesday’s presidential election, there is a collective exhaustion. Thsi has nothing to do with which candidate won or lost, but rather simply about the process – a presidential race that has been going on for what seems like years, a race that has been the talk – and really the only talk – of twenty-four hour cable news channels, a race that has bombarded us Floridians with the typical assortment of commercials expected in a swing state. However, after months of receiving robocalls from Jennifer Lopez and Chris Rock, mailings full of facts and lies, and DVRing every television show I enjoy watching just so I can fast forward through political ads, the election is over and I’m exhausted!

Like a student who stays up all night to cram for a big exam, I have that post-exam feeling, wondering what now will occupy my time. You see, I am a bit of a political junkie. The CNN Political Ticker is the first websitesI check in the morning. I try to spend a couple of minutes every evening watching all of the major cable news networks, and even save some time for the absurd and comical analysis of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Even news outlets have felt this post-election exhaustion, not knowing what to do next, not knowing what actual news to report. In fact, just days ago, the Washington Post had a two page article handicapping the 2016 Presidential Race. Clearly, those who enjoy the campaign cycle leading up to an election more so than even the election itself are grasping for another election to obsess over. Well, have no fear – that election is in ten weeks from now. That’s right. In the middle of January, Israel will have emergency elections, following the disbanding of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Coalition government.

Andrea and I were living in Jerusalem as part of my rabbinical studies four years ago during election time. We were not only there for the historic Obama-McCain election of four years ago. We were also their months later for the Knesset elections. Israel, like England, has a parliamentary system with many parties. Unlike America’s two party system, Israel has dozens of parties. Actually, in the Knesset elections four years ago, close to forty different parties were on the ballot, ranging from the right-wing Likud party currently in power and the more leftist Labor party in which Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was a part of, to the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, the Israeli Arab party Ta’al, and small parties like Nitzolei HaShoah im Bogrei Aleh Yarok, a party made up of Holocaust survivors who want to decriminalize marijuana.

Without a two-party system, like here in the states, it is very difficult for a particular party to gain a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Thus, coalition governments are created, and ultimately fall apart as well because of deals brokered and promises broken. The winning party doesn’t even necessarily control the government. Netanyahu and his Likud party didn’t win the most seats in the election four years ago. The left-of-center leaning Kadima party then led by Tzipi Livni did, but because of backroom political deals that are reminiscent of the issues that we too often deal with with the political process here in the United States, she was unable to gather enough support for a coalition government. I offer this brief introduction to Israeli Political Science because one of the main themes in the Jewish community over the last two years was that this past week’s presidential election was the most important election in Israel’s history.

Both sides argued that their candidate was strong in his support for Israel, that if he were elected, it would guarantee strong US-Israel relations. The truth is that organizations such as AIPAC ensure that whomever is elected, Republican or Democrat, the senior senator from New York to the first-term congressman from North Dakota, supports strong US-Israel relations. The reality is that the election that has the greatest impact on Israel’s future is not the election that took place this past week. Rather, it is the election that will take place on January 22nd that will deem what Israel’s future holds and while we in the American Jewish community want to feel that we are responsible for ensuring Israel’s future, Israel is a sovereign, independent state. Israel, and Israelis, are responsible for ensuring Israel’s future.

Early elections were only recently announced so, unlike in this country where our politicians seem like they are on the campaign trail around the clock, Israel “only” has a couple of months of campaigning. And the biggest issues to be debated during the campaign range from the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel’s recent Social Justice protests, negativity towards the Tal law that allows Haredi Jews to indefinitely defer their national service, and the of course, the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations.

I expect that the issue of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be center stage when the candidates debate each other in a matter of weeks. Of course we must understand that this is a two way street. Israeli politicians can debate the peace process, but they do so as just this weekend, close to 100 rockets from Gaza continued to strike Southern Israel. With residents spending Shabbat in bomb shelters, it is clear that the path we are on cannot continue. So as the election cycle shifts from the United States to the Jewish State, we must ask ourselves and Israel must ask herself, how can we achieve peace? What vision do Israelis want for the future? Is it a future of chaos and confusion with their neighbors or peace and coexistence? As mentioned many times before, I am a “dove,” a peacenik, an optimist who believes that peace is still possible, and necessary, to ensure that Israel survives and thrives as both a Jewish and democratic state. I also believe that our tradition teaches us that peace is not only possible, but the only inevitable solution.

We find that at the end of Parashat Chayei Sarah. In the past couple of weeks, we have learned of the whirlwind that has been Abraham’s life. He has gone from an old man with a barren wife who journey’s to destination unknown to a man with two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, from two different women, his wife Sarah and her maidservant Hagar. Sarah’s jealously had led to Hagar and Ishmael being displaced and homeless. Abraham’s commitment to his wife led to him kicking out his beloved son Ishmael and the mother of his child, forever creating a schism within the family.

The irony is that life didn’t get any easier for him without Hagar and Ishmael around. Abraham almost sacrifices the one son that he doesn’t kick out, Isaac, and we learn at the beginning of Parashat Chayei Sarah that Sarah dies. Rashi explains that when Sarah hears that Abraham has gone to sacrifice her son Isaac, she dies immediately of heartache. While our tradition teaches us that Isaac is the patriarch of our people and ultimately it is through his lineage that the Jewish people increase, Islam views Abraham’s first son, Ishmael as their patriarch, an ancestor to the Arab world, and the forefather to Islamic prophet Muhammed. Two peoples, two religions, brothers, separated and divided by the acts and emotions of their parents. Yet, we see that such division between these two brothers, and ultimately the nations that will come from them, is not permanent. Towards the conclusion of Parashat Chayei Sarah, we read Genesis 25:8-9 : “And Abraham breathed his last breath, and died in a goold old age, an old man full of years. And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, came together and buried him in teh cave of Machpelah.”

Abraham expels Ishmael from his home and according to the plain reading of the Hebrew Bible, of the Torah, distances himself from Ishmael. Additionally, there is no evidence in the Torah to suggest that Isaac and Ishmael, these two patriarchs of two different peoples remain in touch. Yet, somehow, after their father Abraham breathed his last breath, they reunited and came together and realized that they weren’t so different after all. Despite differences, they remembered that they were brothers. Let this lasting image be a sign and model for Ishmael and Isaac’s contemporary descendants: Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find common ground and remember that we are all brothers and sisters.

So as we analyze the upcoming Israeli elections, I urge the next leader of the Jewish state, be that Benjamin Netanyahu, Shelly Yachimovish, Shaul Mofaz, Yair Lapid, or other, to remember this lesson we learn from the Torah. Regardless of the past, there are opportunities to come together. Both Isaac and Ishmael had no doubt strained relationships with their father. One was almost killed, the other kicked to the curb. Both acknowledged their tumultuous past and yet, in heartache, because of loss, they came together. I hope and pray that the current and future soon-to-be-elected leaders of Israel can find a way to come together with their neighbors. For coexistence will lead to a more stable Jewish state and ensure a better or brighter future for all. May we all hope and pray that when Israel votes in the coming months, they vote for peace!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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The Jewish Imperative to Vote

The first teaching of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, may also be the most powerful. This tractate of Mishnah, offering the ethics and values of our tradition, begins with the following teaching:

Moses received the Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Great Assembly.

This mishnah attempts to link us, the members of the Great Assembly, the People, directly to revelation at Mount Sinai, as if God gave the Torah directly to each of us. The mishnah also suggests that the power of Torah, the responsibility and obligation to walk in God’s ways and create communities based on Middot, on Jewish morals, is no longer in the hands of Moses, or Joshua, or the elders, or the prophets. The Torah is now in the hands of the People.

While the Great Assembly was surely some sort of authoritative body in the postexilic period, it is easy for us to define the Great Assembly today as us – all of us. We are the modern day Great Assembly. We are the People. Thus, the Torah is in our hands and the responsibility to turn the ethical vision of Torah into a reality is in our hands as well.

There is no greater opportunity in this country, in which we constantly walk the line as Jewish Americans and American Jews, to act as part of the People of the Great Assembly, then by voting. To vote is to act. To complain about the political process without voting is useless. Voting is the naaseh, the action that goes along with the nishmah, the understanding. Voting is a responsibility and those who choose to be irresponsible remove themselves from the People of the Great Assembly. After all, the United States Constitution, the sacred core of our country, was ordained and established by WE THE PEOPLE, a reminder of the honor and obligation that we the people, the Great Assembly have. So go and vote. Do not say that one vote does not matter for every voice of the Great Assembly matters and must be heard.

As a rabbi, I will never endorse a specific candidate. However, I encourage you to vote with your values. Do not vote for a candidate because of commercials, or misquotes, or political pundits’ perspectives, or YouTube clips. Vote for the candidate that best represents your values and remember that as you walk into the voting booth, you enter a sacred space, performing a sacred act, as a member of the Great Assembly, doing your part – doing our part – to make the vision of peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom, present in our Torah a reality for all.

It is clear that whichever candidate wins this election, will have done so by a narrow margin of victory. On Wednesday November 7th, half of this country will be disappointed and angry, while the other half will be ecstatic and relieved. My hope and prayer is that the schism created in this country as a result of partisan politics will be no more and we will again work together, regardless of the outcome of the election and despite our differences, towards a more perfect union. The great rabbis Hillel and Shammai would often disagree. In fact, their houses of study are the prime examples of polar opposites and opposing viewpoints in rabbinic literature. However, regardless of disagreements, Hillel and Shammai were good friends and chevrutah, study partners. May we all, the People of the Great Assembly of this great nation vote on November 6th based on our values, but look past our differences on November 7th for the betterment of the entire community. Amen.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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