Monthly Archives: August 2014

Prepare For The New Year With The Pop Elul Project

pop apple 2

Interested in finding a way to connect the themes of the High Holy Days with all that is trendy? With the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, comes the return of the Pop Elul Project. Check out the Pop Elul Project for conversations about the latest hit songs, movies, and television shows and find out how they have something to teach us about our faith and ourselves.




– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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Love the Stranger, Stand Up for the Stranger

Like so many, I am troubled and saddened by the news this past week coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown, an African-American teenager living in Ferguson, a St. Louis neighborhood, was gunned down in the middle of the street by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. The officer, according to multiple eyewitnesses, shot the unarmed teenager multiple times because he challenged the policeman’s order to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street.

don't shootThis event — the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street, even if Michael Brown physically assaulted the officer as he claims — set off a violent and scary chain of events. The community protested, demanding justice, wanting the name of the officer to be released (it finally was several days ago). The police responded with armored vehicles and riot gear. In turn, an angry few participated in looting, the breaking of windows, and setting storefronts on fire. A curfew was instituted (which has since been lifted, at least temporarily) and the National Guard has been sent in, turning Ferguson into a military state. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, taking advantage of their constitutional right to peacefully assemble. The media have been documenting these events, taking advantage of their constitutional right as well. Yet, many news correspondents and peaceful protesters were arrested, including a Getty Images photographer and a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor.

The media spent the weekend explaining that Michael Brown was a suspect in an attempted robbery at a QuikTrip convenience store, allegedly taking several cigars from the counter of a local convenience store without paying for them, accused of threatening the store’s worker as he left. Some have actually said that this justifies the shooting. Nothing –NOTHING –justifies the shooting of an unarmed individual by police. Plus, the Ferguson Police Chief has clearly stated that the attempted robbery had nothing to do with the police officer’s initial contact with Michael Brown. In the words of Michael Skolnik, Editor-in-Chief of GlobalGrind, “An alleged robbery doesn’t matter when you have your hands up and are yelling don’t shoot.”

Two hands in the air is the classic gesture of surrender to authority. Protestors in Ferguson have taken to this act and incorporated it into their protest, as they have urged us all to take a stand against bigotry, against hate, against one group taking authority over another. There is nothing — not race, ethinicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation — that justifies the shooting of an unarmed person, whether it be by an individual or a police officer. The message is clear: I may be a stranger, but I am not strange. I may be different, but truthfully, we are all the same.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Eikev. In the Torah portion, Moses goes on a tangent regarding how we treat each other. While focusing on how we must adhere to God’s laws and only worship one God, we are also reminded that we must see God in everyone and strive to act as God does towards everyone.

We read, beginning in Deuteronomy 10:17:

…for God Almighty shows no favor among people. God ensures justice for the neglected and forgotten, loves the stranger, providing sustenance and clothing. You too must love the stranger, because you too were strangers in Egypt.

This is a powerful statement by the leader of the supposed ‘chosen’ people, that God does not favor one people over another. We are all God’s people. We are all made in God’s image. Furthermore, our charge is that we cannot, we must not, only look out for ourselves. We are equally obligated to stand up to the injustices of all humanity. We must love the stranger. We must look out for the stranger. Because we too are strangers and we are all God’s people.

The media has been so focused on the protests and riots of Ferguson, the tear gas and rubber bullets of riot police, that a week and a half later, we are completely ignoring what we need to be protesting: an unarmed black teenager was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer.

While I shared my thoughts about the injustice that is exemplified in Ferguson, Missouri, this past Shabbat, I am deeply troubled by the lack of statements regarding the shooting of Michael Brown by the Jewish community. Where are the statements by movements and movement leaders? Where are the press releases by institutions, organizations, and seminary presidents? Where are the calls for justice from the Jewish community?

I was comforted to see my colleague and friend Rabbi Ari Kaiman of St. Louis participate in a peaceful protest and national moment of silence at the St. Louis arch last week. The message of the protest was simple: life – all life – is precious, is priceless, is Divine. All life matters. We must love all life, care about all life, and as God commands, Va’ahavtem et HaGer, love the stranger as much as we love each other. For love more than anything else is what will defeat injustice in this world.

What happened to the Jewish community’s march for justice? The Jewish Daily Forward had an article this week entitled, When We Marched Together in Selma, focusing on the Jewish community’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Jewish community used to be heavily involved in the call for social justice, with rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. King and local rabbinic leader, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, of blessed memory, speaking at the March on Washington. Yet, a black unarmed teenager is shot in cold blood by a police officer and the greater Jewish community is silent. Is it that gun violence has become too common place? Is it that we already showed our anger when Trayvon Martin was murdered by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, or when Jordan Davis was shot because his music was too loud? Are our voices hoarse? Maybe the Jewish community has understandably been focused on Israel and the war in Gaza this summer. Whatever the reason for lack of statements and action, the silence of the Jewish community is deafening.

We cannot say that this is not our problem. We cannot say that this is not our issue. This is not Iraq. This is not Syria. This is not Egypt. This is not Russia. This is not Gaza. This is America. This is home. And we must stand up, as Moses asserts that God does in the Torah, for all humanity, ensuring justice for the neglected, loving those that are different than us, embracing the stranger as our friend, understanding that that we are inextricably bound.

The call for justice still beckons. As Dr. King famously said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Thus, we must stop being silent and speak out for justice. We must stand up for justice for all.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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Searching for Comfort on Shabbat Nachamu

It is customary that throughout the summer at Congregation Beth El we have summer darshanim, different congregants who teach, share, and offer words of Torah about the Torah portion. Last Shabbat, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, David Suskauer, share his thoughts about Shabbat Nachamu and how it relates to what is currently going on in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested in sharing their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah over the summer, please contact me directly. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


D’var Torah for Shabbat Nachamu

By David Suskauer

David Suskauer

David Suskauer

Since I returned from the World ORT Solidarity Mission to Israel, I have been asked what I learned while I was in Israel.  We were driving in the south around 10:30 AM Israel time, when the siren sounded and we had to get out of our van and into a bomb shelter.  Soon after World ORT posted on Facebook that we were evading missiles before I had the chance to tell anyone what took place.  This meant that World ORT told Mara what happened and not me.  Not good.  Lesson learned.  Don’t fear Hamas, fear the Wifey.

I want to put into context the missile threat that Israel has faced since the fighting began.  Israel is comparable in size to New Jersey.  Imagine that for the last number of years, Philadelphia had been launching rockets at Cherry Hill and Trenton.  Occasionally they could reach Atlantic City.  Now suddenly the missiles are targeted at Newark, New York City and on a good day Paramus.  The danger is real.

The news has been so difficult to read and watch.  At security briefings in Israel, we learned that Hamas’ weakness is its greatest strength.  Hamas knows that it cannot defeat Israel militarily.  They understand that the world cannot stand to watch footage of Israeli responses to their rockets and the Palestinian casualties and physical destruction that follow.  They also know that they can inflict suffering on Israeli society through imprecise rockets aimed at civilian targets.  I heard numerous times that the worst night of Hamas attacks was when they announced that rockets would be launched, Mozei Shabbat at 9:00 PM.  The resulting anticipation and fear meant that although the rockets were intercepted, they did achieve partial success.

While Israelis have been unusually supportive of the government and the war, they are uncertain as to whether Israel has won or is winning.  What we should not question is Israel’s right to self-defense.  What we can question are Israel’s methods.  Herein lies the trap.  Hamas wanted to lure Israel into a ground war; it helps to accomplish their goals.  When the fighting stops, Israel is going to be faced with difficult questions.

  1. After the 3 Israeli teens were kidnapped, when did Israel know their fate?
  2. Did Israel take actions that led to the Hamas escalation?
  3. Israeli intelligence is going to have to answer for not realizing the extent and the capability of the Hamas tunnels.

Also bear this in mind- Israel has said that it has uncovered a horrific plot regarding the tunnels.  There was a plan for a Rosh Hashanah massacre- terrorists would come through the tunnels and head straight for the southern communities.  While we must hold Israel accountable for its actions, we must acknowledge the threat and the danger posed by the enemy.  With all of the available evidence of what Hamas has done both to Israel and its own people, why is the world so quick to judge?  Only part of this can be explained by the difference in their military capabilities.  It is good that we question Israel, but we must remember that Israel has a responsibility to its citizens.

After a week or two of fighting, I found that I could no longer read what some colleagues and friends were writing, comparing Israel and Hamas.  Perhaps in the beginning it was necessary to tell the world of how Hamas put its own citizens at risk, uses them as human shields and has a different moral compass.  We agree.  We can also agree about our support for the IDF and commend its conduct during the fighting.  I am an IDF veteran and am for the most part proud of how Israel has conducted itself.  But I get nervous when I read about our “holy soldiers” because in Jewish history, ‘holy soldiers’ brings to mind death and destruction as the Crusaders marched across Europe.  We will read some of this during the Martyrology on Yom Kippur.  We must not mix Israel’s right to defend itself with a holy war.  Our tradition teaches us differently.

Earlier in the week I had the idea that I should take a look at this week’s Haftorah.  The link seemed obvious- it is the first Haftorah of Consolation after Tisha B’Av and I was hoping that the 72 hour truce would extend into Shabbat.  Shabbat would provide an ideal consolation- a time of rest and reflection with hopefully more quiet to follow.  We all know how that worked out.  More than 70 rockets were fired at Israel yesterday and they were followed by Israeli reprisals.

My thought process took me to a whole new and different place.  The Haftorah begins with, “Nachmu, nachmu ami…” which Etz Haim translates as, “Comfort, oh Comfort My People.”  We are told that Jerusalem and her people have suffered their punishment and are ready to be redeemed.  Isaiah goes on to write that people come and go, but G-d remains constant.  Chapter 40, line 9 states, “Ascend a lofty mountain O herald of joy to Zion; Raise your voice with power, O herald of joy to Jerusalem- Raise it have no fear.”  This week I find that line to be particularly moving.  Regardless of your position on what has taken place between Israel and Hamas, it has been hard to miss not just the criticism of Israel, but the anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. I think that we must be careful not to confuse legitimate criticism with anti-Semitism.  “Raise your voice with power” resonates with me not as power as force, but the power that comes from having a state, the return to Zion and the ability that Israel has to defend itself.  Israel is the regional military superpower but also the economic and democratic power of the region.

I find Chapter 40, Verse 18 very powerful:

“To whom, then can you liken G-d,

What form compare to Him?

The idol?  A woodworker shaped it,

And a smith overlaid it with gold,

Forging links of silver. 

As a gift, he chooses the mulberry-

A wood that does not rot-

Thou seeks a skillful woodworker to make a firm idol,

That will not topple”

My problem is that it is easy to quote Isaiah, and while I believe in G-d’s enduring promise of our homeland, my identification with Zionism demands that it was not enough to wait for our return, we needed to make it happen.  I believe that Zionism was necessary because a new Jew had to be made, one capable of defending him or herself who could take destiny into their own hands.  (As an aside, I was tempted to quote from Bialik’s City of Slaughter, comparing Jews of 1903 with today, but decided it was too heavy handed.) We demand more of Israel than we do of other countries.  Israel is held to a higher standard people complain.  But I think that this can be a good thing.  It also acknowledges our biblical connection to the land.  We must remember our origins, how and why we were sent into Exile and the modern sacrifices required to build the state of Israel.  My family was sent to exile from Spain in 1492 and kept the key to the family home in Cordoba, originally hoping to return, but also serving as a reminder.  The key presumably is still in the house in Poland, a house that we know still exists, now in Ukraine, where generations lived until those who were unable to get out met their fate at the hands of the Nazis.  We speak of lessons learned and Jewish morality that must be applied to each other and our neighbors.  Only then can we truly fulfill the promise laid out in this week’s Haftorah.  When the fighting ends, there are going to be new opportunities for a negotiated comprehensive settlement.  We have chosen to return to our homeland and fulfill G-d’s promise.  Now we must face the difficult choices that will enable us to live with our neighbors in peace. 

Shabbat Shalom

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The Power of Words

This past Shabbat, we began reading the book of Deuteronomy, Sefer Devarim. Parashat Devarim, the first Torah portion of the final book of the Torah, begins with the following statement:

Eleh Devarim Asher Diber Moshe El Kol Yisrael

These are the Words that Moses spoke to all of Israel.

This Torah portion begins Moses’ final speech to the people of Israel. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness and Moses’ role and relationship during that journey. However, we must still ask ourselves, how is it possible that Moses shared these words with all of Israel? The text does not say with the Children of Israel or the People of Israel. It specifically notes that Moses’ spoke these words to every single individual associated with the people of Israel.

This would be an unattainable task by any individual, speaking to hundreds of thousands, but considering Moses’ old age and frail state, as well as his speech impediment and fear of public speaking, the possibility of him sharing his words with all of Israel is rather far-fetched. So then, how is it possible that Moses’ words reached all of the People of Israel? The answer to that question lies in the power of words.

mouthspeakingWe often think that when we speak to someone, our words only impact that individual, but our words have a far greater ripple effect. When we speak, and share our words with the world, they are ultimately felt by the entire world. Our words are passed on, from conversation to conversation, from individual to individual. Like a game of telephone, our words have an impact. Moses may have only been speaking to a select few, but they shared his words with others who in turn, shared his words as well. Moses spoke these words to all of Israel because ultimately, his words impacted all of Israel.

The same can be said about our words. Do we ever stop to think about the power of our own words? Do we realize how many people are impacted by our words? When we speak, are we speaking words of love or words of hate? Are our words promoting a world of peace where we embrace the other or a world that further divides us? When we share our words, we do not realize the impact of those words. We do not realize how many will hear our words.

As we conclude the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, let us take into account the lessons of this fast day. Rabbinic tradition (Bab. Tal. Mes. Yoma 9b) teaches that sinat chinam, that senseless hatred, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and subsequently, the holy city as well. Senseless hatred is speaking ill will about another. Senseless hatred is preaching words of hatred and bigotry, words of misogyny, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Senseless hatred is forget that Divine spark within each individual, refusing to recognize that we are each made in God’s image. Senseless hatred is using our words to curse this world instead of blessing this world.

Our words have great power. Let us keep in mind the power of our words and use our words to teach love. Let us ensure that our words are not catalysts for senseless hatred. Instead, let our words create sparks of unconditional love.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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