Monthly Archives: August 2015

Respecting the Rights of Laborers – Locally & Globally

After hearing the news over the summer that A&P Supermarkets had declared bankruptcy, I was excited to hear that Stop & Shop Supermarkets would be buying a number of the A&P locations, including Pathmark store which are owned by A&P. At the end of July, we learned that the Pathmark on Valley Street in South Orange, the closest and most convenient grocery store for many of us in town, would become a Stop & Shop. This news was not only exciting because this local market would get a much needed facelift, with a cleaner store and more product options. This was exciting because this means that the fight to end modern day slavery and exploitation of workers in the fields of Florida and across this nation — the fight for human rights of migrant agricultural workers in this country — continues to gain momentum and impact us locally.

Many are familiar with the Fair Food Program, as I’ve written about the this important program and the important work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers time and time and time again. Last year, as part of our recognition of T’ruah’s Human Rights Shabbat, Congregation Beth El screened the film Food Chains, as a reminder that our fight to ensure freedom, equality, and justice for all is far from over.

StopAndShopAt the end of July, it was also announced that Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold USA — which also owns Giant Foods — was joining the Fair Food Program, making it the first major supermarket chain in the Northeast to join the program. Soon enough, we can rest assured that the tomatoes and produce we buy, the produce from our local supermarket, will be picked under humane conditions, ensuring that the laborers who work hard to bring the food from the fields to our tables are treated with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves. This soon-to-be Stop & Shop will join other local supermarkets, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, as part of the Fair Food Program and I hope that soon enough, other supermarket chains, restaurants, and food service providers will follow suit. The Fair Food Program has been so successful that the program’s labor rights education sessions have expanded from the tomato fields of Florida all the way to the farms of New Jersey, continuing to fight for the dignity of those who work in our own backyards.

We were reminded this past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Ki Teitzei, that our obligation to fight for the rights of these workers is a sacred obligation. We read in Deuteronomy 24:14:

You should not oppress a hired laborer that is poor and needy.

Furthermore, we are commanded just verses later in verse 17:

You shall not deprive a stranger of justice.

Fighting for the rights of every worker — from fellow colleagues and employees to those who work in the tomato fields — is holy work. We are taught that the Torah is Etz Chayim Hee, a Tree of Life, but the Torah — and the words of Torah — is only a Tree of Life, is only a living document, if our lives and our actions are guided by words of Torah. May we continue to work, advocate, and fight for the rights of workers. May we continue to work for the expansion of the Fair Food Program, ensuring that the Torah is a living document and guide in our lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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It Begins with a Single Can of Food

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, in which we are commanded to help those among us that are most vulnerable. We see the ultimate goal of a society that we strive to create in Deuteronomy 15:4:

There Shall be No Needy Among You.

However, we also know that this isn’t the reality of the world that we live in. We continue to work towards the day when there will be no one who is in need, but until we get to that point, we must then follow what the Torah portion says only a few verses later in Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

If, however, there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

We have a responsibility to help those who are in need and yet, even when we give tzedakah, we too often ignore those who are most vulnerable in our own backyards. How can we help those on the other side of the world who are in need and ignore the needy among us? What does our responsibility to help those “among us” really mean?

Is this referring to those who are in our families? Members of our synagogues? Those living in our neighborhoods and on our blocks? Essex County is unique in the close proximity of the small villages and larger cities that make up this county. South Orange and Maplewood in particular are surrounded by so many that are in need. We cannot simply ignore those around us because they have a different zip code. They are still our neighbors, and in many cases, live only a short walk away.

According to the poverty rate in New Jersey in 2013 was 8.5%. That is the percentage of residents in the state who live below the poverty line. In South Orange, that number is significantly less, only 5.3%. In Maplewood, that number is reduced further, to 4.4%. In Millburn, only 1.5% of residents live below the poverty line. Yet, when we look among us, we only need to look down the road. Only a couple of miles away in Irvington, the poverty rate is 17.4%. In Orange, that number is 18.8%. In East Orange, it increases to 19.2%. And in Newark, which begins just down the road from our synagogue (less than a mile away!) that number is 28.4%. All of these communities are among us. All those in need among us are our responsibility.

Two of the ways you can take action and fulfill our obligation found in Deuteronomy 15:7-8 is by volunteering for the Interfaith Hospitality Network and by volunteering for the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. The IHN helps homeless families in our county who are in need of shelter. We partner with other local houses of worship to provide them with a place to stay and three meals. Their children continue to be in a safe space and they are recognized as sacred and holy, even as they deal with such a challenge. Congregation Beth El is one of three synagogues to join other houses of worship in supporting, volunteering at, and running the IFPO. The Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, housed at the Church of the Epiphany in Orange, provides supplemental and emergency food to low-income residents of Orange and East Orange every Wednesday, except the first Wednesday of the month.

IFPOAt each entrance to our synagogue building, we have collection bins to collect non-perishable food items for the IFPO. While we give out hundreds of bags of food a month, I know that there have been weeks when our bins have been overflowing with donations and weeks when they have been nearly empty. Yet, hunger does not stop. In fact, during the summer months, without breakfast and lunch programs in schools, many more children go hungry. A simple can of food can make a huge difference. Think about how many times you regularly enter our synagogue building. We come for services and for meetings, we come to drop off our children and we come to socialize. We come to learn and we come to teach. Next time you come into the building, bring a can of food with you. In fact, I invite you to bring a can of food with you every time you come in the building. Doing so is a small step to help ensure that we open our hands – and our hearts – to all those in need among us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Return of the Pop Elul Project

As the Hebrew month of Elul begins, look out for the return of the Pop Elul Project. Throughout the month, blog posts on thPopElule Pop Elul Project help us find meaning in the themes of the High Holy Days.

Each daily Blog Post focuses on a piece of Pop Culture (Movies, Television, Music, Books, etc.) and connects that which is “trendy” to the themes of the Days of Awe and the High Holy Day season.

The Pop Elul Project is an open forum for discussion and debate about God, Renewal, and Repentance with help from the music we love to listen to and the shows and movies we love to watch!

You can visit the blog at and check it out for new and archived blog posts.

Wishing you a meaningful High Holy Day season!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Acting on our Obligation to “Love the Stranger”

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, for Parashat Eikev, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, MIke Finesilver, share his thoughts about the recent events in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested to share their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah in the future, please contact me directly. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev

By Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

In this week’s Parasha, Eikev, Moshe continues to address the Jewish people.  These parashiot are his final words before he leaves them; his farewell TED talk if you will.

Last week, Moshe recounted in detail the journey from slavery to freedom.  A reminder that we need to learn from our past, to analyze our missteps in order to be able to move forward and to change.  It also contained the six verses which make up the first parasha of the Sh’ma (our central prayer).

This week’s parasha contains nine verses which make up the second parasha of the Sh’ma.

Both of them command us to Love Adonai “Bechol L’vavecha oo’vchol nafshecha.  With all your heart and all your soul.  Last week addressed this to the individual and this week to the community.

Moshe, knows that he will not be around to go into the promise land and therefore it is important that he leaves behind a clear and concise directive.  He stresses to the people that if they/we follow the commandments, they/we will be rewarded and if not, then not.  I include “we”, because when we read the Torah, Moshe is also addressing us.

If we take care to follow the commandments, God will take care of the rest.

We are told that even though odds are not always in our favor, we will prevail over all diversity and go forth to prosper with land, with children and with wealth.  However, we are warned not to be led astray by our rewards (not to feel we have earned them), lest we be corrupted by them.

We are also reminded of our missteps in order that we do not repeat or forget them and we are also commanded to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” So my heart has been heavy from recent events in Israel and I need to ask the question “For people who say that they follow the Torah (word for word and letter for letter), how does the command to “love the stranger” translate to some of the atrocities that took place in and around Jerusalem, perpetrated by a few extremist Jews only a week ago?

I know that Rabbi Olitzky addressed this last week, but as a Jew and a Gay Man I cannot explain the pain I experienced over the attack on the people peacefully marching in the Gay Pride rally in Jerusalem by an ultra-orthodox man wielding a knife, resulting in five marchers being seriously wounded and the death this week of a 16 year old girl, Shira Banki.  The attacker was just released from prison three weeks before for doing the same thing in 2005.  I marched in the Jerusalem Pride rally in 2007 for world pride and there were bomb threats and demonstrations that stopped the parade.  Just to be clear, this is not a loud, brightly colored, saucy parade like in Tel Aviv or New York. The Jerusalem march is a respectful rally for LGBTQ people of all ethnicities and religions who live in Jerusalem.

As if that wasn’t enough, the day after we learned of the fire bomb attack on the Palestinian settlement in the West Bank by extremist Jewish settlers, resulting in the death of 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabsha and serious injury to his four year old brother and parents.

And it makes me ask, Did we as a people not go through the holocaust where hate resulted in the destruction of six million Jews and countless LGTB people?  “Love the Stranger”

It could be very easy for us to say these are the actions of a few extremists and dismiss these acts of terrorism as not being our responsibility.  We are commanded this week to love the stranger, but the people who committed these acts were grown out of communities of hate for the stranger/the other.

Last Saturday night there was a Rally in Jerusalem with Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau.  Lau, is the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one). He addressed thousands of people who turned out to condemn these attacks.

He said “It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

“All the worshippers in all the synagogues in Israel,” Lau continued, “all of them heard today, this very day, heard for themselves the Ten Commandments [in the weekly Torah portion]. And in them, at the top, they stood and heard, ‘Do not murder.’”

“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”

In this week’s haftarah from Isaiah we are reminded that the persecutors will be punished.

It says “Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from my hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.”Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie downBehold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  I also say Love the hated, for we were hated.

This parasha talks about the gift of a land that is perfect, in return for doing the work every day to follow G-d’s ordinances.  The message is clear “Do the work and reap the benefits.”  It is not about taking the law into one’s own hands to control the outcome.  This week addresses the community obligation to work every day to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.

We also enter the month of Elul, which begins next Shabbat and these parashiot remind us to reflect on our past actions and to make amends.  We are commanded to strive each day to surround ourselves with good deeds and mindful speech.  As a community it is important what we say, what we teach our children.   Are we teaching them to do the right thing?  Are we mindful of how we talk about others?

I feel truly blessed to have a community like ours, to see young parents bringing their children to Shacharit services.  To feel the true acceptance in this community and be surrounded by truly selfless giving and love.

May we continue to Love the Stranger and to expand a community that is built on inclusion and mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom!

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