Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Safe Haven for All

At the height of the Nike Live Strong yellow bracelet craze, every organization was selling every possible colored rubber bracelet, representing a diverse spectrum of causes. For about four or five years or so, I wore a green bracelet, never taking it off, as a subtle way to take a stand on a larger issue. From about 2003 or so until 2008, I wore a green bracelet made and sold by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) that had embossed on it two simple words: Save Darfur.

Save Darfur. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, was – and still is – consumed by violence and genocide. Since early 2003, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, the militias that they armed, were conducting a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur. They focused on ethnic cleansing, murdering close to half a million people, and displacing another 2 million people. Even when a peace agreement was signed in 2006, it was clear that the Sudanese government had escalated its campaign to terrorize and kill civilians, to rape women and young girls, and to burn villages and drive innocent people from their homes.

SaveDarfurBraceletTwo words — Save Darfur — were embossed on my wrist. Why? With two other words, Never Again, engrained in the collective memory of our people, it’s our obligation to make sure genocide no longer happens. We do not only stand up to prevent genocide against our people, to prevent a second Holocaust, but we stand up to put an end to ethnic cleansing, no matter the corner of the world. To me, the words Save Darfur meant the same as Never Again.

The establishment of the Modern State of Israel made the promise of “Never Again” a reality. Israel was to be a safe haven, a place where individuals didn’t have to worry about being abused, imprisoned, raped, or murdered simply because of who they were.

World Jewry, and more specifically, the American Jewish Community with AJWS at the forefront, sought to end to the violence in the Sudan. So, it is only appropriate that the Jewish community doesn’t just fight to end genocide, but ensures the continued safety of those impacted by such genocide.

In 2010, thousands of Sudanese refugees began entering Israel illegally, trekking by foot for weeks from Sudan through Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel seeking political asylum. Sudan’s neighboring Eritrea is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders and thousands of refugees came from this neighboring nation as well, also seeking political asylum.

Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator for Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that there are over 54,000 African asylum seekers in Israel from this region. Israel has not granted a single one of them asylum, with many in the government claiming that they are simply “work infiltrators” in Israel not for interested in their own safety, but only to improve their quality of life.

Last week, Israel witnessed a dramatic demonstration staged by refugees. 150 Sudanese men AfricanRefugeesProtestwho had been incarcerated in an immigration prison in Southern Israel – some for as long as two years – marched for three days along with twenty or so human rights workers to the Israeli government compound in Jerusalem. With handmade signs written in Hebrew and English, they marched, chanting “No More Prison. Refugees’ rights right now!” They were marching for freedom.

Israeli border police eventually intervened, forming a human barricade around the group, forcing them back into busses waiting to drive them back to the cold cells in southern Israel. Following the illegal immigration of these asylum seekers years ago, Israel built a $400 million security fence at its southern border. Still, not knowing how to deal with these 50,000 asylum seekers, a new Anti-Infiltration Law was passed by Knesset which transfers these refugees to an “open air” prison, which essentially means that they are still locked up, but they can walk around outside while they’re locked up. Even more worrisome about this new law is the fact that it permits government to incarcerate refugees seeking asylum indefinitely.

Following the protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a brief three sentence statement: referring to these asylum seekers as work infiltrators and calmly explained that they are welcome to remain locked up in this immigration prison or return to genocide in their home countries. We promised to Save Darfur. We declared Never Again. And yet, these 50,000 refugees are left with a choice of incarceration or genocide.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, and were reminded of what it feels like to be imprisoned,reminded of what it feels like to be enslaved. Stuck in the 400 year old reality of slavery in Egypt, we refused to remain incarcerated by Pharaoh any longer. Moses, along with Aaron, come to Pharaoh demanding freedom for the Israelites and when Pharaoh refuses, God brings upon the Egyptians the first seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail. And with each time, with each hardship, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. Still, time and time again, Moses and Aaron, continue to demand that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves.

Exodus 7:1 reveals the Divine nature of fighting for an individuals freedom:

Vayomer Adonai El Moshe Re’eh N’ta’ticha Elohim l’faroh v’aharon achi’cha yihye n’viecha.

God said to Moses: See that I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.

God’s statement confirms the Divine nature of standing up for freedom and justice. When one stands up and says “Let my people go” he or she is not speaking his own words, he’s not just speaking for himself; he is speaking for God. He is doing God’s will. When one demands justice and freedom, one speaks for God. Moses’ cry for freedom was God’s cry for freedom. Aaron’s prophetic voice spread God’s call for freedom.

Every time an African refugee asylum seeker is brave enough to stand up for his own justice the same is true. His cry for freedom is God’s cry for freedom. His call for justice is a prophetic call for justice.

We know eventually what happens in our narrative, beginning this Shabbat as we read Parashat Bo: locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn, splitting of the sea, freedom. And once the Jewish people, the Israelites, are freed, God reminds us in Exodus 22:20, that we should not oppress the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We should not incarcerate, imprison, or enslave, for we were once incarcerated, imprisoned, and enslaved. We need to continue to be the prophetic voice, to place ourselves in the role of God – to do God’s Divine work in this world.

After these brave souls marched from Southern Israel to Jerusalem demanding freedom and asylum last week, I looked through my things, trying to find that green Save Darfur bracelet. I couldn’t find it. But the message of those two words remains true. We aren’t seeking to just save the region, we are seeking to save the lives of the people of the region. That does not mean imprisoning them, that means allowing our safe haven to be their safe haven. Such an act is a public statement and a fulfillment of a promise, so that when we say “Never Again,” we mean it.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Jews, Embrace Christmas as a Day to Make a Difference

This article was originally published on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2013, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Instead of taking a day off, Jews should make Christmas a ‘day on;’ with community service for those in need.

The morning of December 25 begins in my home with much excitement. We wake up, run downstairs, and open up the… menus and movie listings. We plan our “Chinese food and a movie” Christmas day outing that seemingly every other American Jew participates in. America shuts down, with nothing but Chinese restaurants and movie theaters open. This federal holiday is not our holiday and thus, we aren’t quite sure how to deal with it. But the truth is the Movie and Chinese Food inside joke is outdated. We eat egg rolls and catch a flick, not because these are the only places open on Christmas Day, but because hiding indoors allow us to hide who we are. We are uncomfortable being the minority when it seems like the world around us is celebrating a holiday that is not ours.

The Jewish community’s discomfort with Christmas dates back to the 17th century, when Jews observed Christmas Eve as Nittel Nacht, a day in which they refrained from appearing in public out of fear of sieges and physical anti-Jewish expressions and acts by the Christian community. Hundreds of years later, the Jewish community still doesn’t know how to deal with being a minority in a Christian society.

Instead of hiding indoors with Chinese food and movie marathons, we Jews should embrace Christmas day. No, I am not suggesting that we celebrate Christmas, but I am suggesting that we help others do so.

The millennial generation is wired through community service. According to a study of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “Jewish young adults indicate a commitment to civic engagement and being agents of civic change. Sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity and 56% report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in [the year in question].”

Christmas is our opportunity to turn December 25 into a day of volunteering and doing mitzvahs. There is nothing greater than helping others, so why not help others celebrate their own holidays? If we engage in service learning on this day and commit to helping others, we help make the world a better place, and assist others in celebrating their holiday. Just as U.S. President Barack Obama declared that Martin Luther King Day should be a day of community service, a day “on,” not a day off, the Jewish community could embrace Christmas as a day service to the larger community, to make the world a better place.

Tomorrow morning, December 25, members of my congregation  will cook and deliver hundreds of holiday meals to elderly and homebound residents of our city, ensuring that they will not go hungry and can properly celebrate their holiday – even if it is not our holiday – with a festive meal. Our community also assembled packages of baked goods and will deliver them to first responders, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who are on call on their holiday, committed to keeping us safe.

Feeding the HungryFor almost a decade, the Baltimore Jewish community has turned Christmas day into their annual Mitzvah Day,  making blankets and bagged meals for the homeless, and encouraging members of the community to visit nursing homes and children’s hospitals to spread holiday cheer. We fear spreading holiday cheer when it is not our holiday. We fear enjoying the holiday celebrations of another’s faith. We fear exposing our children to Christmas because we don’t want them to be too drawn to the bright lights and snowmen that the commercialization of Christmas brings. Yet Pirkei Avot teaches that we should greet everyone with a cheerful smile. Spreading warmth during the cold and lonely days of winter, bringing a smile to one’s face who feels alone on his or her holiday is not rejoicing in another’s holiday. Rather, it is rejoicing in the ethics and values of Jewish tradition, and using those values to help others celebrate. This is not something we should fear; this is something we should embrace.

Instead of taking the day off because others are celebrating their holiday, make it a day of meaning, a day of doing good, and a day committed to repairing the world. Before you pick up your chopsticks, make sure that those who are hungry also have food on their table. Before you go into a warm indoor cinema, invite those who are on the streets fighting the wintry conditions into the warmth as well. Before you take advantage of a day off, make it a day on by helping others. Here’s hoping that on December 25, 2014, synagogues and Jewish institutions will remain open and open up their doors to those in need.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Saying Kaddish for 26 Souls

This Shabbat marks the first yahrtzeit – the anniversary of the death – on the secular calendar of 26 individuals, 20 young children and 6 adults, who were murdered in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It is customary that mourners recite a specific prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish, on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. After shooting these 26 innocent souls, the murderer turned the gun on himself and ended his own life. The gun was purchased legally by the shooter’s mother and licensed in her name; he killed her moments before opening fire on these schoolchildren.

Newtown One Year LaterThe Newtown massacre was the second deadliest mass shooting in American history. Never before had our country experienced a school shooting in which the victims were so young, with so much of life still to live. The shooting ignited debates on gun control and mental health, while legislators proposed bills that would ban certain semi-automatic weapons as well as magazines with more than ten rounds of ammunition. Yet, as we remember the lives of those tragically taken from this world on that solemn day, we are left wondering a year later: “What have we done to make our children safer? What have we done to make this world safer?”

As I wrote in the compilation Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence, following the Newtown shooting:

In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, many parents suggested that we should simply go home, pray, and hug our children. This is what I did. This is what I always do at the end of the day. I squeeze my daughter tight and beg God to protect her. Then I ask, “What can I do to protect her?” That is when I remember that I cannot hug her all the time. I cannot permanently shield her from harm’s way. I must take responsibility to make this world a better place, a safer place, for her.

So as we mourn on this first yahrtzeit for the 26 beautiful souls who were taken from this world far too soon, who were murdered in cold blood, we continue to cry and mourn, and God continues to cry and mourn, because the world is not better nor safer than it was on that fateful day a year ago. God continues to cry and mourn as we have continued to live our lives in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre without making a change. We mourn the 26 souls murdered on December 14th, 2013, but we also mourn so many more. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 33,000 Americans have been killed by guns since the shooting in Newtown a year again. We mourn those losses as well. For God demands of us in Leviticus 19:16 that we shall not stand idly by when a neighbor’s life is threatened. So we take responsibility for both our action and inaction.

Our complacency has led to no new legislation regarding stricter background checks, no new legislation banning semi-automatic weapons, no new legislation requiring background checks for private sales or gun shows, and no new legislation providing essential mental healthcare for those who desperately need it. We have continued to allow lethal weapons to legally end up in the hands of those who should not be carrying them. Our refusal to act has led to tens of thousands of more deaths by bullet. Since the Newtown shootings, there have been 24 more school shootings. And God continues to cry.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayehi, the final Torah portion of the Book of Genesis. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob, on his deathbed, offers his blessings to his children and grandchildren. He offers his hopes and prayers to protect the next generation, long after they are gone. When blessing grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh, Jacob prays:

Hamalach HaGoel Oti Mikol-Rah, Yevarech et Ha’ne’arim

The Angel who has redeem me from all harm – bless these young men.

This is the prayer of all parents and grandparents. We pray that God keeps us safe, but even more so, that God redeems all future generations, our descendants, from all harm. This is our prayer for our children, but we cannot sit still and simply wait for this prayer to come true. We cannot wait for Divine intervention. We, God’s Angels on earth, God’s Messengers, must act, to ensure that we – and our children – are safe.

I encourage you to make your voices heard by participating in Faiths Calling and contacting your representatives from Congress to urge them to ensure that the prayers of Jacob, prayers of protection for our children, are heard.

When we conclude our Torah reading this Shabbat, we also conclude the Book of Genesis. Just as we do whenever we finish reading any book of the Torah, we declare as a community Hazak Hazak v’Nithazek, Be Strong, Be Strong, and Let Us Be Strengthened! Such a charge is no more appropriate than at this moment, at this crossroads in time. May we be strong enough to make our voices heard. May we be strong enough to fight for the safety of our children. May we be strong enough to take action. May we be strong enough to make this world a safer place, a place where our children’s biggest fears are about pop quizzes instead of stray bullets. Only then will we truly be strengthened.

May the memories of the 26 innocent souls murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago – as well as the over 33,000 who have died as a result of gun violence since then – be for a blessing.

Hazak Hazak v’Nithazek.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Praying with our Feet: Teaching Children to Fight for Human Rights

Today, December 10th, is the  annual International Human Rights Day, dating back to 1950 when the United Nations General Assembly voted for such a day to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We don’t simply acknowledge Human Rights Day. We don’t just celebrate Human Rights. We act. I previously mentioned how the Jacksonville Jewish Center celebrated Human Rights this past Shabbat, as part of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’ Human Rights Shabbat. More Impactful though then our communal Shabbat experience was participating in an action for social justice and Human Rights with the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School on Friday, December 6th, in preparation for International Human Rights Day.

Standing Up for Human Rights

Standing Up for Human Rights

Every Friday afternoon, the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School end their week with a “mitzvah project,” a volunteer activity that emphasizes the Jewish imperative to participate in acts of social action and social justice. An important lesson for our Middle School students is understanding the difference between social action and social justice, understanding the difference between helping those in need by providing them with something, and advocating for a societal change and policy shift to fulfill God’s demand in Deuteronomy 15:4 that “there shall be no needy.” Both are necessary and equally important if we are to be God’s partners in creation.

I spent this past year sharing with these students my previous experiences as part of a T’ruah rabbinic delegation to Immakolee, Florida. Immakolee, approximately four hours from Jacksonville, is home to America’s tomato fields. A large percentage of the fresh tomatoes we eat come from the southwestern part of our state. Upon arriving with other rabbis to Immakolee, I learned about the horrors that migrant workers in the fields have previously dealt with: there have been instances in which the farmworkers were enslaved to growers through coercion, force, assault, fraud, and debt. The Coalition of Immakolee Workers (CIW) has worked hard to put an end to such practices in surrounding tomato fields through the Fair Food Program. Having corporations commit to participating in the FFP is a sign that they too are committed to human rights and that their produce is just. As CIW explains, slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices. The Fair Food Program strives to eradicate slavery and such exploitative practices from our midst.

The top five fast-food companies in the nation are: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. All but Wendy’s have signed on to participate in the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s has not only refused to sign on; they have refused to sit down with the CIW and hear about the exploitative practices that they are supporting by continuing to buy such tomatoes. After spending several months learning about the Coalition of Immakolee Workers and the plight of the migrant workers in these tomato fields, our students took action to make a change.

Our students discussed the importance of participating in such an action. Although Wendy’s is not kosher and thus, it is not a restaurant that we as an institution would eat in, it is a corporation that is a staple of our nation. Furthermore, it is a restaurant that stands for quality, respect, and doing the right thing. If they are not taking a stand for human rights, then we must.

Skyping with CIW

Skyping with CIW

Our action began by skyping with representatives from CIW ally, Interfaith Action. Such a conversation (even if it was over the internet) empowered our students and gave context to the action they were to participate in.

We then discussed talking points and made posters and signs to prepare for our trip to a local Wendy’s. We would never put our students in a dangerous situation. We ensured that there was proper parental and staff supervision. Additionally, we also called the restaurant ahead of time. Our task was not to be a menace. Our task was to raise awareness and engage in meaningful conversations to create change. The manager of the restaurant was aware that we were coming and was happy to meet with us and hear our students express their concerns about the exploitation of workers in Florida tomato fields. After explaining to the manager the need for Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, our students handed her signed letters from T’ruah, urging her to pass the letters along to her bosses and the corporate office. Our voices were heard and she assured us that she would speak to the corporate office and share our concerns.

We then left and gathered our posters and signs to raise awareness and take action outside of the restaurant. The manager was also

Giving the Wendy's Manager our Letters

Giving the Wendy’s Manager our Letters

aware that we would be participating in such an action outside the store and welcomed it, emphasizing our right to educate and our freedom of speech and expression. As cars and individuals passed by, we made them aware of the Fair Food Program and the need for Wendy’s to join! Our students felt inspired. As a rabbi, I was even more inspired, watching them take action, prepared to fight for the rights – for the Human Rights – of other individuals. This is a cause that may not have directly affected them, but it very much did because they understood that we are each made in God’s image so our lives are all sacred and interconnected. This was just one afternoon and one action, but it was an afternoon that inspired me, as I now believe that these Middle School students – these future leaders of the Jewish community – will continue to not just learn of our tradition, but also live the ethics and values of our tradition and ensure equality and Human Rights for all.

Taking Action

Taking Action

The American Jewish community has stood up for the Human Rights of others for as long as we’ve been a part of this country. Taking such a stand in our community is often highlighted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. Taking a stand and participating in social justice issues is what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Heschel famously shared that when he was marching with Dr. King, he was “praying with his feet.” On Friday afternoon, our Middle School students took a stand for Human Rights and prayed with their feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and the Torah: Standing Up for Human Rights

Celebrating Human Rights and mourning a champion of Human Rights.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

That is our experience. This past Shabbat, the Jacksonville Jewish Center observed Human Rights Shabbat, sponsored and organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and joined over 150 congregations to participate in this special Shabbat immediately prior to the December 10th recognition of International Human Rights Day. So too, this past Shabbat, we mourned as the world lost a prophet. Nelson Mandela, a champion of Human Rights, died at the age of 95. He was a South African anti-apartheid politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994-199, following 27-years in prison because of his fight for equality. He was the first black South African to be elected President and the first President elected in a fully representative election, one in which blacks in the country were allowed to vote. Fighting for Human Rights, he taught:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

More remarkable to me than Mandela standing up for Human Rights, for his own rights, were those who eventually joined him in his fight: 18-year-old Christo Brand was a white prison guard at Robben Island, in charge of watching over prisoner Nelson Mandela. He believed the white man was superior and didn’t hesitate to share his pro-apartheid views. But throughout their relationship, Brand began to believe in the Human Rights that Mandela was fighting for. He developed a friendship with Mandela, smuggled him food while in prison, and transferred to Pollsmoor Prison when Mandela was moved there to continue to watch over him. And while it was truly revolutionary that Mandela’s prison guards were sitting in the front row for his 1994 inauguration, Mandela, once freed, would visit Brand in his home and play with his infant son. When Mandela retired from politics, his education fund awarded a scholarship to Brand’s now grown son, to study, and fight for Human Rights as well. Brand, the white prison guard, learned that it too was his responsibility to fight for the human rights of his friend, his brother.  

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

So too in our country, we remembered and acknowledged taking a stand for Human Rights this past week as we marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, because all the other seats on the bus were occupied, she was arrested on December 1st, 1955. This event set off a year-long boycott of public transportation among Montgomery’s African-American population, many of whom were regular commuters on public transportation. They carpooled, and often walked for long miles in sweltering heat and pouring rain. Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat 58 years ago this week was the catalyst for such a boycott.

I am in awe of Parks’ courage and strength. Yet, I am also in awe of the courage of those who joined with her and supported the bus boycott. Rabbi Seymour Atlas served Montgomery’s Agudath Israel Congregation during the 1950’s. A photo appeared in Life Magazine with Rabbi Atlas standing side-by-side with an African-American peer who was participating in the boycott. Immediately following that, he gave a Shabbat sermon suggesting that the Jewish community as a whole participate in the Montgomery bus boycott and refrain from using public transportation.

I completely understand why he would do so. After all, I always learned that the Jewish community was immensely involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, this was Montgomery, where the city as a whole, including the vast majority of its Jewish community, supported segregation. Congregants at Agudath Israel wanted Rabbi Atlas to ask Life Magazine to retract the picture taken of him, calling it an error. He refused. And when he publicly supported the bus boycott, he was relieved of his duties as rabbi at Agudath Israel. Yet, that too did not stop him. He continued to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He continued to support the bus boycott. He continued to take a stand on an issue that did not directly affect him, but affected him simply because he is human, because Rosa Parks was his sister. He continued to take a stand because the issue of Civil Rights was really an issue of Human Rights.

We recognize the importance of taking a stand for Human Rights, taking a stand, not just for us, but for others as well. For taking a stand for others is taking a stand for ourselves because all of our lives are interwoven and connected.

A successful right hand man of Pharaoh, Joseph has come a long way from being picked on and bullied by his siblings, being thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and sent in prison. Now that he controls the wealth and crops, his brothers travel to Egypt and approach him, asking for food during the famine. We find at the end of Parashat Mikketz that after being bullied in his youth, Joseph becomes the bully. He places a goblet in younger brother Benjamin’s knapsack, only to find it in there moments later and accuse him of stealing it. Joseph demands that Benjamin become his slave in return while the other brothers may return to Canaan.

The beginning of  Parashat Va-yiggash, which the Jewish community read this past Shabbat, is the reason we do what we do when it comes to standing up for Human Rights. Judah, the same brother who suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites only chapters ago, takes a stand. He calls out to Joseph and demands that Joseph enslave him instead of Benjamin. He cannot live a free life if his brother is not free. He cannot appreciate his rights if his brother’s rights are taken from him.

Instead of just groveling, Judah takes a stand. How could he return without his brother?! Who is he without his brother?! He could not imagine living life to the fullest while his brother is enslaved. So he – who is free and is not being penalized at all – takes a stand for Benjamin. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for another. He’s willing to take a stand for his brother.

In fact, standing up for Human Rights is how the Torah portion begins: Va’Yiggash Alav Yehudah. And Judah went  up to Joseph. We refer to the parasha by this first word: Va’Yiggash: and Judah went up. And Judah stood up. And Judah took a stand. But as I learned from my friend and teacher Yael Hammerman, the Hasidic Rabbi the Sfat Emet suggests that this means something more: he translates this as “And Judah came close to him,” and clarifies that the “him” is not only Joseph. Judah came close to himself, came close to Benjamin whose rights he was fighting for, for Benjamin’s rights were also Judah’s rights, and in this courageous act of taking a stand, he also came close to God.

While the Jewish people are called the Children of Israel (of Jacob, Judah’s father) in the Torah, the term, Jewish, and Judaism, comes from the fact that we are the People of Judah. We settled in the land of Judea, represented by the strong lion of Judah. Thus, to identify as the Jewish people, the people of Judah, is to proudly declare that we are a people who stand up for Human Rights.

There are so many areas where we must continue to fight for Human Rights. They happen in every corner of the world, and they happen in our own backyard. All we have to do is open up the newspaper, and be willing to open up our eyes, to realize that we have a responsibility to take a stand for the rights of another. We must be willing to take a stand for that is what our tradition teaches us, and urges us, to do. Find your cause. Find your fight. Step up. Be a voice for the silent and stand up tall for the downtrodden.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: All Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Or to put it more simply, we are all, BTzelem Elohim, made in the Image of God.

As a congregation and community, we did not just observe Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated our proud history of taking a stand for Human Rights. We celebrated being a voice for morality.

In the spirit of Human Rights leaders Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, may their memories be for a blessing, but also in the spirit of Christo Brand – Mandela’s prison guard who became his supporter and friend – and in the spirit of Rabbi Seymour Atlas – who lost his job because he stood up for what was right – let us stand up for justice and Human Rights. Let us participate in an act that is so engrained in our faith and tradition. Let us, like Judah, stand up for the rights of others, for we are all brothers and sisters. In doing so, we bring ourselves closer to all of humanity, we bring ourselves closer to ourselves, and we bring ourselves closer to God.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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