Monthly Archives: March 2013

What Passover Teaches us about Marriage Equality

I spend a lot of time on Facebook. I am one of over one billion monthly active users on the most popular social network in the world. I use Facebook to see what is going on in the world. Often, that is where I get my news, where I learn about what is going on in friends’ lives, and where we are reminded to wish each other a Happy Birthday. I also see Facebook as an extension of my rabbinate – using Facebook to share words of Torah and share the wonderful programs that our community has to offer. The real power of Facebook though is seen when something goes viral. Facebook is the reason that the “Harlem Shake” was the most popular song (and most ridiculous dance) in the country for about two weeks.

equal signThe most recent thing on Facebook to “go viral” is the equal sign. Many Facebook users have chosen to change their profile picture to a red equal sign, in response to the Human Rights Campaign’s call to “paint the town red” for marriage equality. This social media initiative comes as the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments last week on two cases regarding marriage equality. The first decision they must make is whether or not to uphold or strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed almost twenty years ago. This federal law denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The Supreme Court is also hearing oral arguments for and against Proposition 8, the State of California’s ban on Gay Marriage.

It’s clear that support for marriage equality in our country has swelled in the past couple of years. Polls indicate growing public support for marriage equality and many political leaders – both democrats and republicans – have come out in support for marriage equality, including most notably, President Obama and Vice President Biden.

As a Conservative Jew and rabbi at a Conservative synagogue, a congregation that welcomes all regardless of sexual orientation, it would be easy for me to make a case for marriage equality: the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis and cantors and celebrates the love of same-sex couples through marriage. However, that is not the proper argument to be made.

The beauty of America is the supposed separation of Church and State in our country. Making an argument for Marriage Equality through a religious lens is no better than making an argument against Marriage Equality through a religious lens. Each house of worship and religious institution has the right to their own views, no matter how hateful and discriminatory they may be. As a nation though, we have a responsibility and obligation to support equality.

During Passover, we don’t just celebrate freedom from slavery, we celebrate freedom from discrimination. We celebrate freedom from being cast aside, being separate, being considered different. As Jews, we don’t just revel in the freedom against discrimination that we celebrate on Passover. Rather, we fight to end discrimination so that all can celebrate freedom.

This past Shabbat, the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days of Passover, we read Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. It is customary that on each holiday we read a book of the Tanakh: On Purim we read the book of Esther, on Shavuot we read the book of Ruth, etc. The Song of Songs is read because on Passover we celebrate Springtime. Spring is a time when flowers bloom, when animals come out of hibernation, when new life is brought into this world. Spring is “mating season.” The sexual nature of the text focuses on two lovers. While traditionally, rabbis attempt to explain this text as love poetry between God and Israel, it is poetry between two lovers and despite the sensual nature of the text, it clearly states the definition of love: Ani L’Dodo v’Dodi Li, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Love is about partnership. Love is a commitment to another, to a single partner, as your other. Love is a commitment to spend the rest of your life with that partner. Love is finding your better half, your ezer kenegdo, as Eve is called when she is created to be Adam’s partner. That is love. That is the love that we read about in Shir HaShirim. That is the love that we celebrate on Pesach.

That is the love that I hope we, as the city of Jacksonville, as the state of Florida, and as the United States of America, will come to recognize, accept, and celebrate, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. In the Haggadah at our Passover Seders we read: “This year we are still slaves, but next year, free people.”  This year, there is still discrimination in this world, in this land. Next year, let us celebrate the freedom of all, and the freedom for all to marry.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Publix Should Join Companies in Supporting Farmworker’s Raises



This Op-Ed appeared in the Pro & Con section of the March 26, 2013 edition of the Florida Times-Union. The Pro Point of View is represented by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and the Con Point of View is represented by Publix. A digital version of this Op-Ed for Florida Times-Union subscribers can be found here.

More than fifty years ago, Edward R. Murrow presented the ground-breaking documentary “Harvest of Shame” on “CBS Reports.” Murrow detailed troubling conditions that migrant laborers in Florida faced. He concluded: “The migrants have no lobby… They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.” Fifty years later, these conditions are still very real.

I recently returned from a rabbinic delegation with T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to the tomato fields of Immakolee. I learned of the work of the Coalition of Immakolee Workers, launched twenty years ago by a group of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian migrant workers to stand up for their rights. These tomato pickers head out into the fields before dawn and they do not return until dusk.

They pick bucket after bucket full of tomatoes, each bucket weighing thirty-two pounds. This costs consumes eighty-one dollars in the supermarket, but the migrant worker only receives fifty cents per bucket.

A decade ago, the coalition launched the Fair Food Program, which encourages those corporations that purchase these tomatoes – notably restaurants and supermarkets – to commit to only buying tomatoes from growers that take responsibility for the human rights abuses in the fields. The campaign asks corporations to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes in order to improve conditions and wages. Such a change guarantees fieldworkers can earn minimum wage. Fast food chains like Subway, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King have signed on to this program, as have supermarkets like Whole Foods.

Publix, the largest supermarket chain in the state, was approached about joining the Fair Food Program years ago. Publix has refused to even sit down and meet with the coalition. This is a human dignity issue. In an effort to offer the consumer the lowest of prices, Publix is willing to accept the exploitative practices in Florida’s tomato fields.

If Publix really were dedicated to dignity and were responsible citizens as its mission statement suggests, then Publix would join the Fair Food Program.

Jewish communities worldwide are celebrating the Festival of Passover. We celebrate the Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Coalition of Immakolee Workers recently finished their own exodus, marching for rights, respect, and fair food on a fifteen-day, 200-mile journey from Fort Myers (near Immakolee) to the Publix Headquarters in Lakeland.

If we celebrate the Exodus narrative in our scripture, then we must ensure that such freedom is a reality for all those in our midst, including and especially the tomato pickers of Immakolee, because I don’t know about you, but I prefer to buy slavery-free tomatoes.

Publix, wouldn’t you prefer to sell slavery-free tomatoes as well?


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Obama’s Israel Experience

I went to Israel for the first time as a 12 year old. I hated it. The family vacation was fun, but as a whiny pre-teen, I found a reason to complain about everything: I hated the food. I hated the hiking. It was too hot. The bottled water tasted funny. I returned again when I was 16 on USY Israel Pilgrimage and loved Israel, but mostly because I loved the 65 friends on my Israel trip. As teenagers do, we goofed off, snuck into each other’s rooms at night, and had a blast. We loved Israel, but we could’ve had the summer of a lifetime anywhere.

I returned again as a 17 year old and found the true beauty of our people and our heritage – the beauty of history, the beauty of our tradition, and the beauty of Judaism alive and thriving in the holy land. I traveled to Israel several times in college, on my own, and with my wife, to explore our ancestral homeland together. And of course, as part of my Rabbinical Studies, we spent a year living in Jerusalem, coming to understand the challenges that Israel faces, the highs and the lows. We came to understand Israel not as tourists, but as Israelis.

As a Jewish educator, I strive to give our children (and our adults) meaningful and amazing Israel experiences. Jewish institutions create shuks, and Bedouin Tents. We play Israeli music and offer Gadna activities, but we also accept that there is no activity, no program, no text study, or class that can replicate the impact of actually visiting Israel. This is why a program like Birthright Israel has had such an impact on the American Jewish community. As hard as we may try to offer alternatives, nothing beats being in Israel.

This is the reason that President Obama’s recent visit to Israel is such a big deal. Yes, he has gone as a Senator. Yes, he has been as a Presidential Candidate. But now, as the Commander and Chief of the United States of America, as the leader of the free world, to visit Israel shows the unbreakable relationship between the United States and Israel.

obama israelObama said in his initial speech upon landing in Eretz Yisrael: “I want to begin right now, b answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship – why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?  And the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story – patriots determined to be a free people in our land, pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the worl who renew constantly our diverse societies. We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.”

As an American and as a Jew, I’m pleased with Obama’s visit to Israel. This visit was not a mission for peace, or a fact finding mission. This trip was not even a diplomatic trip. Rather, it was a signal of America’s unbreakable commitment to Israel.

That unbreakable commitment is what sent me along with over a dozen members of the Jacksonville Jewish Center to Washington DC earlier this month for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Last year, there were only a couple of members of the Jacksonville delegation. This year we sent fourteen. Next year, I expect that we will send twice that.

From March 3-5, we joined over 13,000 – that’s 13,000 members of the American Jewish community, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal; Observant, and Secular; all Zionists, all of us committed to a strong US-Israel relationship. Included among the 13,000 was over 2,000 High school and College students, ensuring that the next generation of Jews are equally committed to this relationship. Hearing from the likes of former Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke volumes about how grateful Israel is of such support from the American Jewish community and from the United States.

We heard from Congressmen and Senators, and notably Vice President Joe Biden. We saw Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic from New York, stand on stage together and say they don’t agree on anything ever – except for America’s resilient commitment to Israel.

I do not agree with all of the government of Israel’s policies. I’ve shared before the challenges that we face as American Egalitarian Conservative Jews in Israel, connecting aipacto Israel as a Jewish State and being recognized in that Jewish State. In fact I don’t always agree with all of AIPAC’s stances. Still, there is something powerful about AIPAC supporting Israel no matter what. AIPAC supports the government of Israel and the Prime Minister of Israel. They do not endorse Israeli politicians. Whomever is in charge is who they support. It’s a powerful statement. AIPAC doesn’t even endorse American politicians. That isn’t there goal. Their goal is to ensure each political leader, each legislator, is a friend of Israel. That is why on the final afternoon of the Conference, all 13,000 attendees took Capitol Hill by storm, and lobbied every single member of the House and Senate.

Our Jacksonville delegation met with members of Senator Rubio’s office and heard from Senator Nelson. We then had an opportunity to lobby Congressman Crenshaw of Duval County and Congressman DeSantis of St. John’s County. What was most remarkable was that our youth, our teen delegates, the youngest members of our delegation, were the ones who did all the talking. Our youth took charge, becoming leaders and Pro-Israel Advocates in the process.

If this bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable, then we, the American Jewish Community, must be that link in the chain that ensures such a commitment. We must ensure that unbreakable bond. Next year, AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington DC will take place from March 2nd through March 4th, 2014. Who is prepared to join us? Who is willing to travel to DC not as a tourist, not for vacation, but to be an activist, for the most important three days facing Israel’s future? Think about it. President Obama’s visit to Israel was a symbol of support. Our action lobbying our political leaders ensures that such continued support is a reality. Will you join me?


-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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It Takes a Village…

The Well-known African Proverb, “It takes a Village to Raise a Child” was made even more famous when then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote a book about her vision for children in this country with the same title. The ikar, or essence, of this proverb is that as parents we have a large role and responsibility in shaping the types of men and women our children become, but the community around us, the people we surround ourselves with, clergy and teachers, friends and dedicated lay leaders, ultimately have just as much of a role in shaping who they become.

broken tabletsThis proverb came to mind when studying this week’s Torah portion. This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ki Tissa and the infamous account of the Egel Zahav, the Golden Calf. The Israelites got nervous and antsy waiting for Moses to descend from Mount Sinai and built an idol to worship rather than worshipping the God that had just redeemed them from slavery. Upon seeing this Moses, who was holding the tablets of the covenant – the ten commandments – in hand, slammed them on the ground and they shattered.

We read in Exodus 32:19 – “He threw the tablets out of his hands and shattered them at the base of the mountain.”

We assume that Moses did so out of anger and frustration. He saw the Israelites – a people who had just been freed – dancing around a Golden Calf and lost his temper. He threw the tablets on the ground in protest suggesting that the Israelites don’t deserve God’s Divine word.

However, I’d like to offer another explanation. The Kabbalists teach that the tablets were very heavy and large, almost impossible for one individual to carry on his own. Moses was able to carry them though because he knew he was not alone. He understood that the People of Israel in its entirety were “carrying” these tablets as well. When he saw that this was not the case he realized that the weight was too great, the burden too heavy, and he dropped them.

God’s word and our understanding of God is the basis of all that we do and how we live our lives as Jews. We strive to walk in God’s ways and live a life as God’s messengers made in God’s image. Through ritual and prayer, both fixed and spontaneous, we strive to create personal revelatory experiences with the Divine. We wish this for our children as well: a life filled with God’s Presence.

Thus, we realize that we cannot do this alone. We cannot give our children meaningful Jewish experiences alone. Even if we have a Jewish home and live a Jewish life, we thrive in a Jewish community. For it is the community that holds up the heavy weight of our tradition, of our rituals, of our opportunities to wrestle with God. We cannot be Jews alone. A Jew cannot live a vibrant Jewish life alone in a deserted island. We need the support of a community to create those vibrant experiences. We, as parents, need teachers and rabbis and cantors and youth group advisors and role models to mold our children. Together, in creating vibrant communities, we carry the tablets of the covenant high above our heads. After all, it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to create meaningful and vibrant Jewish experiences.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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