Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Answer to Fighting Anti-Semitism is not Aliyah

This article was originally published on February 19, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The Jewish community is still reeling from the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. While there have been scary examples of hate and anti-Semitism towards the Jewish community for years, the hostage crisis and murder of four Jews at the Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket in East Paris on January 9th, 2015, by terrorists awakened the rest of World Jewry to the challenges that the French Jewish community, and much of European Jewry face regularly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to France following the Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket terrorist attack – which occurred only days after the Charlie Hebdo attack – and reminded French Jews that Israel is their home, encouraging them to emigrate from France to Israel if they want to live safely as Jews. The desecration of a Jewish cemetery in France only days ago has only made Netanyahu’s calls for Aliyah that much louder. As it is, seven thousand French Jews made Aliyah in 2014, more than double that of the previous year.

Like a terrible case of Déjà vu, we heard of the tragic terrorist attack at a Copenhagen synagogue on February 14th which left one dead and two wounded – and following an attack at a free speech event at a nearby café earlier in the day. Just as was the case in France, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for Jews of Denmark to make Aliyah to Israel, even discussing with Cabinet members a $46 million plan to encourage mass Aliyah of European Jewry.

French President Hollande disagrees with Netanyahu’s calls for Jews to leave France, saying that he would not allow Jews to “believe that [they] no longer have a place in Europe. Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France.” Similarly, Danish Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt said “the Jewish community has been in this country for centuries. They belong in Denmark, they are a part of the Danish community and we wouldn’t be the same without the Jewish community in Denmark.” Of course talk is cheap. They can make such public statements, but those statements are meaningless if such anti-Semitic terrorist attacks continue. Still, I agree with them, that Europe has failed, and the European Jewish community has failed, if there they leave and immigrate to Israel.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Israel. I support and believe in the state of Israel. I am a Zionist and I believe in the modern-day miracle, a realization of our thousands year old goal to live Jewishly, under Jewish sovereignty, in the Promised land. I am grateful that Jews everywhere in the world can make Aliyah, can move to Israel, and can live in a place where they can be Jewish, speak Hebrew, and observe Jewish law how they see fit. Additionally, I appreciate that there is a safe haven of sorts for World Jewry, a place where Jews who fear their safety can live safely.

That being said, I think we have failed as a people, and as society, if all Jews leave their homes and move to Israel. While there are those who ideologically promote mass Aliyah of all Jews to bring about Messianic redemption, that is not what this is about. This type of Aliyah is about leaving where you are because it is not safe to be a Jew there. We have failed as a people – especially given the horrific events of the twentieth century — if our solution to anti-Semitism anywhere is to make Aliyah.

As an American Jew and as an American rabbi, I admit that my Jewish identity and American identity are intertwined. While it may be scandalous for a rabbi to say, although I am a Zionist, I never envision making Aliyah. I do not dream of living in Israel one day. I love Israel and love visiting Israel, but my Jewish identity is strengthened through my experiences as an American, living in American society. Furthermore, my beliefs regarding policy and legislation in America is influenced by the ethics and values of my faith that I hold to be true. My dream is to be a Jew living in America, just as I am now. My dream is that every Jew is free to be themselves, as they are, where they live.

The answer is not to leave. The answer most certainly is not to make mass Aliyah as Netanyahu promotes. Rather, the answer is for us – Jews in America, Jews in Israel, and Jews throughout the world – to stand up in solidarity with the Jewish communities of Paris, Copenhagen, and all of Europe. The answer is that we must refuse to be silent. We cannot ignore such anti-Semitism. We cannot pretend that it does not exist. Leaving Europe does just that. We must stand up to it. We must make sure that like-minded Christians, Catholics, and Muslims, those who refuse to be consumed by hatred and bigotry, stand up to such anti-Semitism as well.

Judaism existed, and in many cases thrived, for almost two thousand years in the diaspora. We must support Israel, but cannot give up on the need and importance of the diaspora Jewish community. We must not run. We must not flee. Rather, we must stand united against terrorism, against hate, and against anti-Semitism.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Power of Jewish Youth Groups

USYJRAI just returned home from an exhilarating – and of course exhausting – couple of days with our South Orange USY chapter in Philadelphia. Over thirty teens from our USY chapter traveled to Philadelphia to spend Shabbat together with students at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, tour the campus, and then visit highlights of the Jewish aspects of the city, including the Liberty Bell, Congregation Mikveh Israel – the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the country, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More importantly than touring though, our teens spent Sunday and Monday volunteering. Through service learning opportunities with organizations like Jewish Relief Agency, Repair the World, and the Boys & Girls Club of America, these teens came to understand the challenges of food insecurity, hunger, and poverty in the city of Philadelphia as well as throughout the country.

The beauty of youth groups like United Synagogue Youth (USY), is that they emphasize experiential education. We didn’t CleaningBGCAjust study the concepts of justice and law through a Jewish lens. We worked towards justice, understanding that we must also work to change laws that are unjust, that take advantage of society’s most vulnerable. USY is more than just a social experience, although there was plenty of hanging out and having fun! USY inspires the next generation of leaders in the American Jewish community. This trip helped them understand the importance of rolling up our sleeves to make this world a better place. USY helps to teach our children that they must take responsibility for the world around them, for those around them.

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, we find in Exodus 23:6:

You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.


More specifically, we must not take advantage of those who depend on us for justice. Thus, we must also realize the blessings that we have in our lives and instead of taking those blessings for granted, we must make it our priority to bring blessings to others. Through the social action and social justice work of our USYers this past weekend, they did just that. I was just happy to be there to witness the impact that our teens are already making in this world. They are thoughtful, they are committed, and they are inspiring. The American Jewish community, and society, is in good hands.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Promise of Peace in the Promised Land

Last year, before I even arrived to begin my tenure as rabbi at Congregation Beth El, the congregation spent the year reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a ground-breaking book by the Haaretz writer, which tells of both the triumph and tragedy of the reality of the modern state of Israel.

I recently had the privilege of having lunch with Mr. Shavit. AIPAC organized a lunch with Ari Shavit and a handful of liberal progressive community rabbis. He shared his thoughts on the terrible events that took place in Israel and in Gaza this summer. He also shared how in some ways, his views have changed since his book was published.

One thing he said that truly stands out to me is that we cannot focus on a real peace, but instead must focus on a realistic peace. A real peace is focused on drawn out negotiations and a peace process, facilitated by a third party that both sides argue is subjective. A real peace is continuously stalled by the politics involved in the peace process.

Mr. Shavit insisted that we should instead search for a realistic peace. A realistic peace does not focus on land or land swaps, but instead focuses on land use. A realistic peace  emphasizes shared water resources, shared irrigation technology, shared vegetation and growing techniques, as well as shared energy technology and opportunities. A realistic peace comes from a shared commitment to the land.

MyPromisedLandWe recently celebrated the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. In recent years, the holiday has evolved from a Jewish Arbor Day to a Jewish Earth Day, the Jewish community’s ecological holiday, a day that helps us refocus on the land. Except Tu B’Shevat is more than that. This holiday does not just emphasis reconnecting  with the land and understanding its sanctity. Tu B’Shevat is specific to the land of Israel. Tu B’Shevat is specific to cultivating the land, planting the land, and celebrating the land.

If Ari Shavit suggests that cultivating the land and sharing the resources of the land is what we must do to reach a realistic peace, then Tu B’Shevat’s message is ultimately a message of peace. Sharing land is a shared responsibility. Sharing land is a shared opportunity. No matter religion, no matter faith, we have a shared belief in God as Creator — and a shared responsibility to take care of the land and treat it properly. Doing so — together — will lead to the peace that we seek.

Upon seeing the natural beauties of this world, we traditionally recite the following blessing:

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam Oseh Maaseh Breisheit. 

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who continuously makes the wonders of creation.

We say this blessing when we see waterfalls and sunsets, snowstorms and canyons. We say this blessing as a reminder that the land, the land that we use and depend on, helps us to appreciate God’s presence around us. May appreciation of that land, the land of Israel, and a shared use of the resources of that land, lead us to praising God for the greatest of all miracles: peace.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I Am Planting For My Children

We get all dressed up for Rosh Hashanah. We buy new suits and dresses, often wear white, and invite family and friends into our homes for festive meals. Similarly, Passover – which is referred to in the Torah as a new year – is given just as much attention. We gather for the seder, we retell and re-imagine the exodus experience, and celebrate the arrival of Spring. Yet, we often ignore or overlook one of the most important “New Year” celebrations on the Hebrew calendar: Tu B’Shevat.

The lack of celebration may be because we don’t have a special service on Tu B’Shevat. The mystical Tu B’Shevat seder has not caught on in the same way as the Passover seder. More likely, Tu B’Shevat gets ignored because it arrives in the dead of winter. It’s hard for us living in New Jersey to think about planting trees and sustaining the earth as we bundle up, even if trees will soon begin to bud in the holy land. Although it will never likely equal Rosh Hashanah and Passover in celebration, both can be more meaningful if we understand the need for Tu B’Shevat.

Sun-treeIt is through our relationship with the earth, through sunrises and sunsets, through glistening dew and budding flowers, that we truly see God as work as Creator. It is through our experiences in nature that we understand and appreciate the Divine presence all around us, and witness everyday miracles. And it’s through the ecological message of Tu B’Shevat – replanting, regrowing, and recommitting to the earth – that we ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren, and for generations to come. A well-known Talmudic story found in Tractate Taanit 23a tells of Choni, who sees a man planting a carob tree. He asks the man, “How long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” The man responded, “seventy years.” Choni challenges the man, unable to understand why he would plant such a tree if he knew that he would no longer be alive seventy years from now to eat of its fruits. The man profoundly responded, “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

How we treat the earth is a representation of what world we want to leave for generations to come. Therefore, our congregation’s celebration of Tu B’Shevat will not only focus on planting trees in Israel, but also on opportunities to plant trees and community gardens. On Tu B’Shevat, we pledge not only to plant more, but also to reuse and recycle more, and to waste less.

We are reminded that this land was once Eden, a utopia of plants and trees, fresh water and healthy animals. Let Tu B’Shevat serve as our catalyst to recommit to the land, to ourselves, and to God. We were provided with a fruitful world because our ancestors planted for us. May we continue to plant for our children.

This blog post originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the “Beth El Bulletin.” You can read it, and other articles from the rest of the Bulletin here

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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