Monthly Archives: February 2013

Each Individual is a Mishkan: A Message to the Boy Scouts of America

In this past week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, God instructs Moses how to make the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the desert. Terumah literally means gift, for God wanted each individual to bring their own personal gifts in order to make up this sacred community. Each individual was seen as a gift. Each individual, made in God’s image, was central and necessary to make up this sacred community of Jews in the desert. The building of a sacred community, an inclusive community in which all are valued, all contribute, and all are seen as equal, is the true gift to the Divine. The parasha focuses on specific and exact measurements of materials to bring to this traveling sanctuary: Dolphin skins; Acacia wood; Oil; Spices; Blue and purple and crimson yarns; Pure gold. The entire Torah portion – save for a few verses – is full of detailed instructions and measurements. The irony is that this was a traveling sanctuary, a tabernacle that moved throughout the desert. It wasn’t permanent. Despite all the glitz and glamor, the wood, gold, and dolphin skin, it wasn’t the building that made the community. Rather, it was the people that made the community. This Mishkan, was not a specific place. It was every place that the community was, for all in the community were a part of the Mishkan, for all in the community contributed to the Mishkan. It was the people that made the Mishkan. It was the people that were the Mishkan.

Exodus 25:8 offers the well-known command: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Make for me a Sanctuary, a holy space, a sacred space, so that I will dwell among you.” Perhaps the desert Mishkan became a Holy space because it involved the entire community, and God truly lived within the people. The sanctuary is symbolic of a sacred space where we can experience God’s presence, but only when we recognize that all are made in God’s image, that every single member of the community radiates a Divine spark, do we truly become a Mikdash, a holy place, and a sacred community.

A Sacred Community acknowledges the Divine spark in every person, that every person is sacred. Such an understanding and belief of what makes a sacred community only led to disappointment, frustration and anger recently upon hearing the news that the Boy Scouts of America have decided to postpone any vote regarding inclusion of all scouts, regardless of sexual orientation. In July 2012, the Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed their policy banning openly gay boys from membership and gay and lesbian parents from serving as scout leaders.

In the year 2012, the Boy Scouts had an opportunity to embrace everyone as equal and Divine and failed to do so. A week and a half ago, there was to be a vote of the Boy Scouts of America’s national board of directors regarding this policy, following pressure from individuals as well as corporate sponsorship. Representatives from the Jewish community’s National Jewish Committee on Scouting, one of this country’s oldest faith-based scouting sponsors, which includes over 40,000 volunteers from troops affiliated with synagogues and Jewish institutions, arrived at the Boys Scouts’ national office in Irving, Texas urging the organization to end such a ban and recognize each individual as made in God’s image. The National Executive Board decided to delay this vote until May when the 1,400 voting members of the National Council will take on this issue – or once again, ignore it. The Boy Scouts’ oath begins with the following words: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” The National Executive Board had an opportunity to be courageous in understanding that all are made in God’s image, but instead was cowardly in delaying such a vote.

At the Jacksonville Jewish Center, in which we pride ourselves on being welcoming to all who walk in our doors, we hold the charter for Troop #14 of the North Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Troop #14 is the only Jewish troop in Northeast Florida and one of the oldest troops in Northern Florida, being associated with the Jacksonville Jewish Center for over ninety-two years. Many in our community participated and continue to participate in our Boy Scouts troop. I actually believe there is great value in scouting. As a child, I wanted to be a cub scout, but there was no Shomer Shabbat troop in my area, so I could not participate. As a Jewish scouting troop and a part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, Troop #14 strives to use the lessons learned in scouting and connect them to our tradition. This includes campouts that consist of Sabbath meals and worship services as well as social action mitzvah projects, in addition to the outdoor skills and leadership skills learned.

I am proud to say that regardless of the Boy Scouts of America’s National policy ban, our troop, as a part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, welcomes all who walk through its doors. As an organization and institution, we are not afraid to say that our synagogue promotes ourselves as a Community of Kindness, teaching our youth to respect others. Such a national stance is a disgusting example of bigotry, homophobia, and hate that encourages bullying, the exact opposite of what we are trying to promote to our youth. Such a stance has no place in our institution and I am proud to say that it is a stance that Troop #14 and the Jacksonville Jewish Center refuses to take.

gay_rainbow_flag_with_Boy_Scout_emblemSome organizations have taken a stance against the Boy Scouts’ homophobic policies by disbanding their troops, ripping up their charters, and disaffiliating with the Boy Scouts of America. I believe that change comes from within. Our ultimate goal is to change the bigotry of the Boy Scouts. We do so from within. We do so by declaring that our Boy Scouts’ troop is a troop that welcomes all, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity of child or parent. We do so by recognizing the Godliness of all!

A story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev: He was visiting a town and attending services at a local synagogue. One day, he stopped at the synagogue’s door and refused to enter the sanctuary. His students asked, “Rabbi, why are you not entering?” He responded: “The sanctuary is too crowded.” His followers were baffled. “The synagogue is empty,” they said. “There are only a few people there.” “Yes,” he answered. “But they refuse to recognize the Godliness of all, leaving no room for us, and no room for God to dwell among us” he said.

Judaism teaches that each individual is created B’Tzelem Elohim, in God’s image and we celebrate that image – we celebrate the Divine nature of each person, including his or her sexual orientation. As a synagogue affiliated with the Conservative Movement, a movement that ordains openly gay rabbis and cantors, and a movement that celebrates the love of same-sex Jewish couples through marriage, we cannot and will not affiliate ourselves with the offensive stance that Boy Scouts of America has taken.

I am disappointed with the Boy Scouts of America’s unwillingness to change their own narrow view. I recognize that those of other faiths – even those of other movements and denominations within our own religious tradition – may disagree with me. Still, I am proud to be a part of a movement and an institution that recognizes the sanctity of each individual. That makes our community a true Mikdash for God to dwell in. It is not because of our building, or beautiful sancutary, or our thirty-five acres of land. It is because of how we treat other people, how we treat each other. It is because we recognize the Divine nature of each individual.

V’asu Li Mikdash v’Shachanti B’tocham. Build for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in it. This reminds me of a Christian worship song, although there is nothing specific Christian about it: “Oh Lord make me a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.” Each of us is a sanctuary. Each individual, made in God’s image, is a Mishkan. To understand that allows for our community as a whole to become a Mikdash, a sanctuary, a holy Temple. To ignore this only encourages Avodah Zarah – Idol worship – behavior that contradicts the ethics and values that we hold dear in our faith. I am proud that the National Jewish Committee on Scouting is serving as a voice for inclusion. I am proud that Troop #14 at the Jacksonville Jewish Center is serving as an example of inclusion. I hope and pray that the time will come soon, speedily in our day, when an institution as historic as the Boy Scouts of America values one of the most essential teachings of our tradition, Kavod HaBriyot, honoring and respecting all of God’s creations. Only then will the promise of Shechanti Betocham, that God will dwell among us — all of us — finally be fulfilled.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
Here is the letter that the Jacksonville Jewish Center Leadership recently sent to the Boy Scouts of America:
Boy Scouts Letter


Filed under Uncategorized

Will You Be My Valentine?

Every year on February 14th, I’m asked the question, “Rabbi, Can Jews celebrate Valentine’s Day?” If we take away the “Hallmarkization” of this holiday, the challenge of Jews celebrating this holiday comes from its Christian roots. Valentine’s Day is really Saint Valentine’s Day.  This holiday began as a liturgical celebration of early Christian saints and became linked to the celebration of love because Saint Valentine was imprisoned for performing weddings for couples who were forbidden from marrying. While the Roman Empire persecuted Christians and thus, forbade certain relationships, Saint Valentine celebrated his own religious beliefs and the love that two individuals had for each other and married them. This basis of a saint marrying individuals and thus celebrating two lovers’ commitment to one another has led to Valentine’s Day in its current state: lovers giving each other cards, candies, chocolate, and flowers. Ultimately, this day is about giving gifts as an expression of one’s love for another.

I was taught as a child that we have no need to celebrate Valentine’s Day because as Jews, we have our ritual celebration of such love, Tu B’Av. What?!? What do you mean you’ve never heard of Tu B’Av? First mentioned in the Mishnah, Tu B’Av was seen as a day of joy and became a matchmaking day for unmarried Jewish women during the Second Temple period. It was like the Jewish version of Sadie Hawkin’s Day! We can say that we do not need to celebrate Valentine’s Day because we have our own Jewish holiday that celebrates love. However, the truth is the vast majority of the Jewish community fails to even pause and acknowledge Tu B’Av, the Fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when it takes place. So, then why can’t we all celebrate Valentine’s Day in its current state?

heartDo we worry that we would be promoting the celebration of a Christian holiday? Thanks to florists, candy shops, and Hallmark, this has certainly become a commercial holiday. I do not want to promote the celebration of a commercial holiday, but I would encourage the celebration of a holiday that promotes Jewish values. For this reason, regardless of its original religious undertones, we celebrate Thanksgiving. Students often ask me, if the holiday is no longer viewed as a Christian holiday, then can we as Jews celebrate it? My response is always the same: can we find Jewish values in the holiday? With regards to Valentine’s Day, I believe the answer is certainly yes. The holiday centers on the celebration of love, a central theme in Jewish ritual, liturgy, and belief. Jews celebrate commitment and relationships. In fact, the Midrash teaches that it is not just two significant others who are present in a relationship. God is also present. Thus, experiencing the feeling of love, and expressing that feeling, allows us to experience God and brings us closer to the Divine. Our liturgy even focuses on how as Jews we celebrate our love for God (found in the V’Ahavta) as well as God’s love for us (found in the Ahavah Rabbah.) If we celebrate our loving relationship with God, then shouldn’t we also celebrate our loving relationship with each other, especially if each of us is made in God’s image, and exudes a Divine spark?

We live in a world full of chaos, darkness, war, violence, and hate. It is sometimes hard to see the good in the world, to find the beauty, and to recognize God’s presence. The feeling of love, and the celebration of that feeling, allows us to do just that. Truthfully, we should take time to appreciate those that we love – our spouses, our significant others, our siblings, our children, our parents, our family, our friends, and our community – everyday. We know though that the busyness of life gets in the way sometimes and we don’t take the time necessary to appreciate our lot, to appreciate our life. For this reason, we create ritual to help us pause and reflect. If February 14th can be that time, regardless of its origin, then this is a wonderful thing. If this day allows for us to reflect on how blessed we are because of those that love us and those that we love, then it becomes a sacred moment. It becomes a moment to thank God. It becomes a moment to appreciate God. So whatever day we stop to reflect and appreciate the love that we have for one another, whether it is February 14th, the 15th of Av, or any other day, it is a good thing because we do not stop to say “I love you” enough. Maybe if we said “I love you” more and we took the time to speak of that love we had for each other, than this world wouldn’t be such a dark place. Instead, it would be a place in which we were able to celebrate each other, celebrate companionship, celebrate friendship, celebrate harmony, celebrate love, and as a result, celebrate and experience peace as well.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized