Monthly Archives: March 2015

Fifty Years After Selma, Still Fighting for Liberation at the Seder

50thAnniversaryBloodySundayOn March 7th and March 8th, earlier this month, tens of thousands gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama spoke and former President George W. Bush attended. They were joined by Democrats and Republicans —  legislators, politicians, and civilians –  all marching to commemorate the freedom-marchers clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers as they peacefully marched for the right to vote half a century ago.

This past Shabbat, March 21st, 2015, was the anniversary of the third DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworthof those three marches, the march that led to the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, the march that was successful and led to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act several months later. This march also marked the moment when religious leaders of all faiths, ethnicities, and races refused to stand idly by, and chose to walk alongside the likes of King, Lewis, Abernathy, Bunche, and Shuttlesworth.

This march was a reminder that freedom is a God-given right so we must walk alongside our brothers and sisters to ensure that our freedom is their freedom. The likes of Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Davis, and so many other religious leaders who marched, knew that we could not celebrate our freedom and our liberation while others were not yet liberated, while others were discriminated against.

Fifty years later, we still talk about this picture and this march. We talk about how far society has come and yet, how far we have to go. This past Shabbat, as we observed this fiftieth anniversary, we also read a special Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, the fourth of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover. This special maftir Torah reading comes from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus and goes into detail about how to slaughter the pascal sacrifice and then how to eat that sacrifice. What we rush over, but what is arguably the most significant of instructions, is the reminder to put the blood of the sacrifice on our doorposts. For it was that blood that saved the Israelites and ultimately, following the tenth and final plague, led to their freedom. The essence of the ritual is to remind us of that freedom.

In fact, all rituals of the Passover seder are meant to remind us of freedom and liberation. We are taught:

B’chol Dor va’dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Such an obligation is not about remembering or re-enacting. Such an obligation is about acknowledging that there is still liberation that needs to take place in our society and in our world. Telling the Passover narrative must remind us of the marching that we still need to do, that there is still inequality in society, still those that we must work to liberate. Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of the Jewish social justice organization, Bend the Arc, offers insight into the rabbis of B’nai Brak that we read about in the Passover Haggadah. We learn in the Haggadah that they were so engaged in the seder that theytalk until daybreak, when their students interrupt them. Rothbaum reminds us that they were not discussing ritual or debating halakha, Jewish law. Rather, they were up until the early hours of the morning talking about liberation – about the exodus experience. A room of rabbis suffering through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire were focused on our communal liberation narrative, in hopes of their own liberation.

For ultimately, that is what the seder is all about: telling the story. In my family, we tend to rush through the rituals aspects of the seder in order to get to the magid section in which we retell the exodus narrative. We do so because we find hope and inspiration in the narrative. Such an exodus from slavery to freedom reminds us of what is possible. It reminds us that we must continue to fight for liberation of all. We must continue to fight racial injustice and gender discrimination. We must continue to fight religious persecution, bigotry, and homophobia. We must continue to fight, to march, and to take action, until we can all experience the journey to freedom.

The Zohar explains that Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is derived from the Hebrew MiTzarim, which literally means, “from narrowness.” We march away from narrow-minded discrimination and bigotry towards a promised land of equality and love.

Civil rights leaders organized three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one ended with peaceful protesters bloodied and beaten. But they marched again, and again. We don’t just look back on a single march, but instead on all three marches, for in continuing to march, we find a determination and dedication to justice and to freedom.

With each plague in Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, but that did not stop Moses from demanding to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Each march shared a similar declaration. No matter how many times it took, people of all faiths continued to march and were determined to cross that metaphorical split sea.

The image of that third march, of Heschel and King marching together, along with so many other clergy of diverse faiths and backgrounds, is a reminder that we march together for freedom for all. The prophetic words of Dr. King ring true for people of all faiths:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How can we celebrate freedom when others are not? How can we celebrate liberation when there is still such injustice in our society?

We read in the Haggadah:

This year we are slaves. Next year, free people.

We acknowledge that as long as there is injustice, we cannot truly be free. We cannot celebrate freedom for ourselves until we can celebrate freedom and equality for all. So fifty years later, may we continue to march. May we continue to peacefully assembly and may our seder experiences serve as catalysts in our shared efforts to liberate us all from societal injustice. This year there is still injustice and discrimination. Next year, may we all be liberated.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding God Where We Are

Last Shabbat, we concluded the book of Exodus. We did so by reading the double Torah portion of Vayahkel-Pekudei in which the building of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, is completed. Upon its completion, God’s Divine Presence was felt in the Mishkan. We read in Exodus 40:33-34:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

After building the Tabernacle, a man-made sanctuary, God’s presence entered the space. If God’s Presence entered the space, then where was God prior to the building of the Tabernacle? In fact, God had been missing in the text since the Golden Calf narrative. Only now does God’s Presence return and reappear.

Many commentators suggest that God had hid and distanced God’s self from the Israelites. God was angry and heartbroken that the people that He brought out of slavery and formed a covenant with abandoned Him so quickly by building an idol. The building of the Tabernacle was their opportunity to re-establish the covenant. It was a physical sign to show their commitment to this relationship with the Divine.

However, I don’t think God abandoned the Israelites. Rather, I think the Israelites stopped looking for God. Still wrestling with their idea of the Divine, and grappling with faith, the Israelites stopped looking for God’s Presence in this world and in the natural world around us. The chose to build a Golden Calf instead of look for God everywhere and in everything. The building of the Tabernacle help them to remove the blinders and see God’s Presence there, and in all places.

We all too often stop looking for God in our own lives. We are busy and preoccupied and become obsessed with our own idols, our own versions of the Golden Calf. In doing so, we ignore God’s Presence. We too need to remove the blinders. We too need to remember that God’s Presence is in this space, in all spaces. We too need to stop for a moment and find God in all of our sanctuaries. And when we find God, it will not be because God was missing. Rather, it will be because until now, we hadn’t searched for the Divine.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Trying to Find a Spot in AIPAC’s Tent

I recently returned home from an exhilarating and emotional three days in Washington DC at the AIPAC Policy Conference. With over 16,000 delegates in attendance, and over 650 rabbis and cantors from across the denominational spectrum, this was AIPAC’s largest Policy Conference to date. This was not my first Policy Conference. This will not be my last Policy Conference. I appreciate the effort AIPAC staffers have made to ensure AIPAC is a big tent, to make sure that those of us who identify as progressive and liberal still feel that there is a place for us, who still desire a strong US-Israel relationship.

There were specific progressive rabbi learning sessions as well as breakout sessions that touched on issues that are important to me, including some that focused on NGO’s in Israel committed to co-existence, others that focused on LGBTQ rights and equality in Israel, and others that grappled with what it means to be progressive and a lover of Israel.

AIPAC has worked diligently to widen their tent. That being said, I could not help but also feel that my views on Israel were not always welcomed by the 16,000 delegates. Previous conferences have had various representatives from Knesset speak. In recent years, I have heard representatives from the right and left in Israel speak. While Netanyahu would address the conference, I’ve also heard Herzog, Livni, and Barak at different times speak to delegates in addition to Netanyahu. With elections in Israel only two weeks away, only the Prime Minister was in attendance. It was difficult to show one’s support for Israel, and for AIPAC, without showing one’s support for Netanyahu.

That made it ever more challenging for me to feel like I had a place, like I had a voice. The Prime Minister of Israel received more than a hero’s welcome. In fact, when he spoke, delegates around me were screaming, even crying. I felt like I was surrounded by teenagers at a One Direction concert. The irony — as opinion polls suggest — is that he is much more beloved by those in attendance than by those whom he serves in Israel.

As a Zionist, my Jewish values are intertwined with my views on Israel. While I support a strong and secure Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship (and thus, went to the AIPAC Policy Conference), I also strongly support a two-state solution. In years past, talks of peace — the necessity of peace — were an integral part of the Policy Conference. To my disappointment, those words were hardly uttered at the conference. It is no surprise then that days after the conference, Netanyahu apparently said that he no longer sees a two-state solution as a viable option.

Additionally, I believe as a Jew and a Zionist, that it is my responsibility to challenge Israel when the country does things that are detrimental to the peace process. The building and expanding of settlements in the West Bank does nothing to advance the prospects for peace. The word ‘settlement’ was barely mentioned. Any attempt to admit that such development is a barrier to peace was met with groans, hisses, and boos. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, speaking about the unbreakable US-Israel relationship, had only a single line about the United States’ opinion that continued settlement development hurts the prospects for peace. Delegates sitting around me booed and shook their heads in disappointment. In a breakout session, when former Congressman Barney Frank said that construction of settlements is an obstacle to peace, he again was met with push-back by delegates.

Don’t get me wrong: The AIPAC Policy Conference is an amazing experience. I have never been to a conference so well run. The videos are well produced. The signage catches your eye. Even the smart phone app allows you to stay up-to-date on all information regarding the conference. The conference has also become a get together for Jewish lay leaders, Jewish professionals, educators, and clergy, the only such conference that brings together 16,000 people.

Still, I fear that as hard as AIPAC tries — and I do appreciate them trying — fewer and fewer of those delegates truly make up such a diverse spectrum. I will continue to search for my place in the tent of AIPAC. I will continue to make my views and my thoughts heard. I will continue to proudly march on as a progressive, sharing my sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes critical views of Israel. I hope that my views will be welcomed in AIPAC, not just by the organization, but also by its delegates.

– Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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Why Jews Should Warm to Climate Change

This article was originally published on March 11, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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When using resources harms the very Earth we are responsible for, we need to reevaluate our actions.

I woke up last week to frozen pipes. The water would not turn on in my sink or my shower. This is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to those living in the northeastern part of the United States. But while I am slowly readjusting to winter weather after moving to New Jersey from Florida, I grew up in the Garden State and don’t remember such cold temperatures.

On that morning, it was 1 degree Fahrenheit. Compare that to the average temperature in this area this time of year: 44 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Weather Channel.

In fact, oddly, New Jersey is one of the coldest places on the planet this winter. We have also seen other winter weather anomalies, like New England being hit with 100 inches of snow. And even the mild-weathered Israel has experienced uncommon snowfall in southern cities like Be’er Sheva, Arad, Mitzpeh Ramon and Yeruham.

Such frigid temperatures and snowfall are consequences of climate change, which causes extreme swings in temperature and weather patterns. While some may try to deny the reality of climate change, the facts on the ground are undeniable: Winters are colder and summers are warmer.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that humans are largely responsible for these changes, explaining that as technology and industry have evolved, we have also released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasesinto the atmosphere.

During the Yamim Noraim (the days of reflection, awe and amazement leading up to the High Holy Days), we are taught to do teshuvah, to repent. However, repenting is about more than just saying sorry and asking for forgiveness. Doing teshuvah is about taking responsibility for what we have done wrong. Thus, instead of just bundling up and turning up the heat in our homes or buying bigger shovels and extra salt, we must acknowledge and admit that we have done wrong.

Only once we admit that, can we move on to the next stage of teshuvah: change.

While the Torah gives us permission to take advantage of the resources of the land, it does not allow us to destroy it. We are commanded to till and tend to the earth (Gen. 2:15). Yet, only moments after God created the utopian Eden, humanity began destroying it.

When using resources harms the very earth we are responsible for, we need to reevaluate our actions. There are no “do-overs” in this creation saga.

Midrash essentially warns that if we destroy the earth, there will be nobody to pick up the pieces and repair what we’ve done (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). All we can do is attempt to stop the damage we are currently causing.

This is why, as Jews, we must now make it our priority to once again tend to the earth and stem the tide of climate change. We should spearhead efforts to make our institutions and buildings more energy efficient. We must promote using renewable energy sources. We must waste less and conserve more. Our synagogues, schools and community centers must become green institutions.

Seeing as environmental justice is a fundamental Jewish value, our institutions must serve as examples. We cannot simply worry about wearing extra layers to deal with the cold weather. We need to worry about leaving this earth in a decent condition, thus providing a world for our descendants.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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