Monthly Archives: January 2015

Letting Martin Luther King’s Legacy Snap us out of Complacency

This article was originally published on January 19, 2015 on the American observance of Martin Luther King Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

Why the Jewish community must be reawakened to praying with our feet, and recommit to participating in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

Martin Luther King Day recognizes the life, legacy, and work of the fallen leader of the civil rights movement, but it is hardly a celebration. In 1994, President Clinton signed federal legislation into law, turning this day into a National Martin Luther King Day of Service. This initiative invites Americans to get inspired by the ideals, ethics and values that Dr. King embodied and volunteer their time to help others, making this world just a little bit better.

However, we are selling King’s legacy short if we settle for a once-a-year volunteer opportunity or a community service project as a way to honor him. King was not just about helping those in need. He was about creating lasting change, inspiring legislative reform, through peaceful protest and non-violent action.

Such action is highlighted in the film “Selma,” which tells the story of King leading a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the statehouse in Montgomery. Hanging on the wall in my office is a picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm-in-arm with King during that march. Heschel reflected about his experience that day with a now well-known phrase: “I felt my feet were praying.” I look at this picture every day as I sit at my desk. It is a reminder of the Jewish imperative to work toward justice. But it also serves as a reminder that we all too often become complacent.

MLK DayKing famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” The deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict these officers, serve as chilling reminders that systemic racism is still a scary reality. Those of us who live a life of privilege can’t take our advantages for granted or allow them to lull us into complacency. We need to get off of our metaphorical butts. We cannot ignore the injustice that our brothers and sisters deal with every day. We need to draw inspiration from King, and Heschel, and learn again to pray with our feet.

Rabbi Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot 2:6 that in a place where there are no good and righteous people, we must strive to be those righteous individuals. All the more so, when so many others are silent and apathetic, we must strive to be righteous and act toward justice. We are commanded in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The Torah acknowledges that while justice is an ideal, it does not come easily. We are not commanded to sit around and wait for justice to happen. We are not commanded to talk about justice and expect society will be different. We are commanded to pursue justice, to chase after it.

Let us not settle for a day of remembrance. Let us not settle for a day of community service. Let our observance of Martin Luther King Day be a day filled with dialogue, spirited debate and ultimately, action. Let King’s peaceful protests remind us that we have the ability to bring about change. Let King’s words be a call to action, decades after he said them. As Jews, let us not stand idly by. As we celebrate the life King, may we also remember to live the principles of the Torah, and not just study them. In doing so, may we stand alongside those who suffer injustices because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Let us pursue justice by praying with our feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Refusing to Be a Bystander

The greatest threat to humanity is not violence, hate, or terror. The greatest threat to humanity is apathy, complacency, and silence. When we witness such terror and refuse to do anything about it, refuse to say anything about it, refuse to take a stand, then we let hate win.

Fear is what keeps us silent. We fear such hate, but are too often ignore hate as long as  such hate is not projected towards us. We fear that if we get too involved, if we are vocal, if we take a stand, then such hate will be projected towards us. Such a view ignores that humanity is interconnected. That is why, in spite of such hate, violence, and terror that we have witnessed in Paris over the past week and we found comfort in coming together and refusing to be a bystander.

WorldLeadersatUnityMarchYesterday, we witnessed a historic unity march against extremism take place in Paris with more than forty world leaders present. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas marched alongside France’s President Hollande, along with millions of citizens. Millions more took to social media showing unity through hashtag activism. Such a show of support at a time of mourning, such a show of unity at a time of sorrow, is our universal statement, declaring that we refuse to stand idly by when one is killed because of what he says, looks like, believes in, or whom he loves. Standing up in such a manner is doing exactly what Moses did.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shemot, the Torah portion of Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus. This familiar story retold yearly at Passover seders, tells the life of Moses, a Hebrew baby adopted by the Pharaoh daughter, before seeing injustice before him which ultimately leads to him standing up, and fleeing Egypt as a result. We learn in Exodus chapter 2 of Moses growing up and going out to see the burden of the Israelites, of his brethren. Upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, we read in Exodus 2:12:

And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

At first read, we understand that Moses looked all around and wanted to make sure that no one was looking. Once he saw that no one was around, he took a stand, smiting the Egyptian taskmaster. However, such a reading is incorrect. How is it possible that no man was around? In the very next verse, Moses approaches two Israelites that are arguing. They respond in fear that he will assault one of them as he did the Egyptian taskmaster. Clearly, someone must’ve seen what he did. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that this taskmaster and slave were alone in the middle of the desert. A more likely account is that they were surrounded by thousands, other slaves and other taskmasters, other examples of injustice. Why then does the text say that when Moses looked around, there was no man?

We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, 2:6, the teaching of Rabbi Hillel:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I don’t like translating this teaching in this way. Such a translation is based on gender stereotypes and is outdated. However, if we replace the word “man” with the Yiddish word for “man” than it makes a lot more sense. Mensch. Mensch is the word we often use to mean a good person and righteous individual. However, its literal translation is “man.” Let us than retranslate this teaching:

In a place where there is no mensch, be a mensch.

Hundreds of thousands of people gather on the Place de la Republique to attend the solidarity march (Rassemblement Republicain) in the streets of ParisIn a place where there is no one willing to take a stand and put a stop to injustice, hate, violence, and terror, all the more so, you must, all the more so, we must. Thus, Moses saw many surrounding him and witnessing this taskmaster beat a slave just as he did. All continued to be bystanders. All continued to ignore hate, violence, terror, and injustice. Moses took a stand in unity, refusing to be a bystander.

Millions in France and across the world did the same yesterday. We must refuse to be bystanders and let our lives be dictated by hate and fear. We must come together in unity, and just as Moses did, take a stand.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Response to the Tragic News in France

The news coming out of France the past couple of days is tragic, scary, and heartbreaking. First, the news of a terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in which 12 people were murdered, including a police officer. Today only added to our communal heartache  as reportedly 4 hostages and the gunman have been killed after a terrorist took hostages in a Kosher supermarket in Paris. Why was Charlie Hedbo targeted? Because it represented freedom of expression, regardless of how satirical or offensive that expression was at times. Why was this supermarket targeted? Because the store’s patrons were Jews. We pray for a Shabbat Shalom — truly a Shabbat of peace, which we all greatly need. We find that peace in friends, in family, in coming together as community.

Apparently, French police called rabbis minutes before Shabbat started and asked them to cancel Shabbat services at their synagogues for security reasons. I cannot imagine receiving such a call. I cannot imagine living in a place where welcoming in Shabbat, where holding services, was a security risk.

May we take this Shabbat and come together as community. May we come together for all those who cannot, for those whom were murdered and will never again experience a Shabbat of peace, for those whose synagogues have been closed this Shabbat for security reasons and cannot come together, and for all of us who deeply need community, who deeply need to wrestle with God, and who deeply need each other’s shoulders to lean on at such a dark moment. May tomorrow bring light and may that ray of sunshine light up the darkness that we face, the darkness that exists. May that light put an end to hate, an end to fear, and be an expression of unity, of love, of peace.

May all humanity realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.

May we love each other a little bit more this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Instead of Spin, Celebrate Inclusion

This article was originally published on January 4, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The conversation is still unfolding about the vote by the International Officers and Regional Presidents at the recent USY International Convention in Atlanta, passing an amendment that changed the language of expected standards for these youth leaders.

Most of the articles, as well as statements by USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, explain this amendment as a change in language, from “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating” to “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Many of the statements offer the explanation that this is simply about language:  not a change in policy, but just a change in rhetoric, from a “thou shall not” command to a more positive statement on relationships. Much of the spin suggests that there is a difference between “welcoming” and “condoning.” But we miss an important lesson when we suggest that the message is the same, and only the wording is different.

The fact is that the message is not the same — and that is a good thing.

This new language celebrates the inclusive movement that we strive to create, and our youth are leading the way. USYers have embraced a position that will lead our institutions to become more inclusive, as these youth leaders assume leadership of the synagogues and Jewish institutions they will inherit. We do not need to spin this amendment that USYers passed. Instead, we should strive to learn from their example.

Those concerned with the amendment claim that while we can be welcoming, there is a danger in being too welcoming. In fact, “welcoming” has become a hackneyed adjective among Jewish institutions. It is easy to say you are welcoming. But, welcoming isn’t about what you say. Welcoming is about what you do. USYers chose to be inclusive of all, regardless of the faith of a parent or significant other, demonstrating welcoming through action.

Statistics show that Jews in America marry later than other ethnic groups, which raises questions about the true impact of high school dating on future marriage choices. The faith of a partner or spouse is not a rejection of one’s own faith. The faith (or lack thereof) of a spouse or partner (or teenage boyfriend or girlfriend) does not speak to one’s own Jewish commitment, the commitment to raising his or her children as Jewish, or building a Jewish home. The reason someone marries a person of another faith is for the same reason we all get married: love. We should celebrate that love and a family’s commitment to building a Jewish home.

The fear about this amendment is misplaced: who our USYers date,or marry will not determine their future Jewish identity. USY does give our teens the tools they need to build Jewish lives as adults. However, how we welcome, educate, and help them find their place in the community will impact how many of them actually stay connected to Judaism. By insisting on inclusion and creating more welcoming communities, we have the opportunity to embrace the diverse Jewish families that walk through our doors. We can celebrate each of them, regardless of the faith of a spouse or parent. because every Jewish family looks different.

As a former USY International President and rabbi in the Conservative movement, I am proud that USY is leading the way in doing the same.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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New Year’s Resolutions Aren’t Just About Us

My family and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at South Orange/Maplewood’s First Night celebration and we had a blast! What stood out to me though was the table in the lobby of Columbia High School, encouraging those who passed by to write down their New Year’s resolutions for 2015. One would be selected at random and win an iPad. In hopes of winning a new iPad, I submitted 16 different New Year’s resolutions, none of which were to win an iPad.

As I looked through all the resolutions displayed in the lobby, I found them troubling. We shouldn’t have to wait until we turn the page on the calendar for us to start anew. After all, our liturgy allows us to start fresh every morning. We don’t need a New Year’s Day — on any calendar — for us to do that.

HappyNewYearWhat was troubling though was not the time of year in which we made these resolutions; it was the resolutions themselves. They were self-centered, including mine! We make resolutions focused on ourselves: to lose weight, to exercise more, to work harder, to study more, to lie less, to spend more time with family. These aren’t bad resolutions. These are the type of resolutions we should all strive to make, opportunities that set us on course to be a better version of ourselves. But if we are to truly make New Year’s resolutions, then we need to think of resolutions that have an impact on others.

Our resolutions for the year ahead must focus on our communities and our neighbors, they must focus on those that we too often neglect or don’t think about enough. They must focus on the challenges of our country and the challenges on the other side of the world. We may choose to ignore these challenges because they seem impossible to tackle, impossible for a simple resolution to make a difference. Yet, such a thought process has led us to ignoring what we truly need to address, those issues which need to be a part of our 2015: justice, poverty, equality, and peace.

Our resolutions must not focus on our own lives, but rather how do we want to leave this world for generations to come. So join me in my New Year’s resolution for 2015, striving to make this world a better place, not just for all of us, but for our children and their children as well.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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