Monthly Archives: March 2016

Standing Up on Purim

Purim is a holiday that promotes silliness. With costumes to groggers, loud noises and disguises, it’s easy to ignore the true message of Purim: it is the celebration of a miracle. In fact, we recite the words of Al HaNisim in our liturgy on the festival day — a variation of the same prayer that we say on Chanukah — praising the Divine for the miracle of saving the Jewish people. We celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the miracle of our continued existence.

 

However, I believe the miracle is also about something greater: it is about Esther’s transformation.

 

Apricot-Hamantaschen1At the very beginning of chapter two of Megillat Esther, Esther is referred to a single time as Hadassah, her Jewish name. The name Esther acculturated her, helping her to become Ahashverosh’s new queen. And as queen, she had it made. The text says that she “obtained grace and favor” in the sight of the king; she received unlimited gifts and dined at countless feasts. She was living the good life. When her cousin Mordechai shared with her Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she didn’t have to do anything. Although she was born Jewish, she had no fear for her personal safety; nothing was going to happen to Ahashverosh’s most beloved queen.

 

Esther was initially hesitant about standing up to the King. She didn’t feel the impact of Haman’s threat. But then she saw Mordecai tear his clothes and heard that the Jews of Shushan fasted for three days. She witnessed their pain and fear. While she knew that Haman’s plan might not impact her directly, she decided to use her privilege as queen to take a stand for the Jewish community.

 

Esther’s actions reflect those of Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus. He, too, was a Jew-by-birth, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of wealth, freedom, and prosperity. Pharaoh’s actions towards the Israelite slaves didn’t directly affect Moses. He didn’t have to do anything. Yet, seeing the suffering of the Israelites as they were being beaten by taskmasters, he took a stand. He didn’t have to for his own sake: he had to for the sake of others. Esther and Moses risked their own safety and gave up their comfort in order to save those who were suffering around them.

 

The miracle that we celebrate on Purim isn’t just that the Jews of Shushan were saved. The miracle is also that Esther took a stand to help others. We must live the lessons of Purim. We cannot only step out of our comfort zone to be silly. We must step out of our comfort zone to fight for the well being of others. We cannot only blot out Haman’s name. We must also blot out injustice. And as we celebrate miracles that will then take place, may we celebrate our willingness – and obligation – to take a stand for one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stand Up to Trump: Not for AIPAC, Not for the Jews, but for Something Much Greater

This article was originally published on March 18, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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We are leading the movement to protest the Republican frontrunner at AIPAC’s conference because we feel compelled to stand on the other side of a great moral divide, in solidarity with those Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and LGBTQI brothers and sisters.

When Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump takes the podium at next week’s AIPAC Policy Conference, we plan on walking out, joined by hundreds of other rabbis and conference participants.

This protest, which we both helped to organize, is not about party, politics or policies. Rather, it is about our tradition’s insistence that “silence is tantamount to consent” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 37b). We want to send a clear message that we stand against the bigotry and vitriol that has become central to the Trump campaign. We cannot stand idly by and condone such bigotry. We cannot risk sitting through a speech when doing so might give the appearance that we consent to the hateful tenor at the core of his candidacy.
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Whether we support them or not, we will warmly welcome other candidates who speak to the delegation. We believe that, in a vibrant pluralistic democracy, many viewpoints are valid and have their place in respectful, constructive debate. We appreciate AIPAC’s efforts to make supporting Israel a matter of broad bipartisan consensus. Furthermore, as rabbis, we understand that Jewish tradition can be interpreted in a number of ways, and we humbly acknowledge that no individual or ideology has a monopoly on truth.

 

However, time and again Trump has crossed the line of reasonable disagreement into the realm of hateful invective and violent incitement. His openly xenophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic remarks, both prior to and during this campaign, are hurtful and beyond the pale of tolerable rhetoric in a decent society. They are especially disturbing when they inform policy proposals like building a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, deporting the roughly 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the country, banning Muslims from entering this country, and registering Muslims in America into a database. His thinly-veiled racial dog-whistling, both in the past and during this campaign, paired with his failure to distance himself from white supremacists and avowed racists, grant harmful legitimacy to the most disgusting and dangerous elements within our country. Even more distressing is his incitement and encouragement of violent behavior among his supporters at rallies, something that is not only immoral, but also contrary to both American and Jewish values.

Our protest is not a criticism of AIPAC. We will, after all, be attending the conference, and both of us have a history of involvement with AIPAC. We respect and support AIPAC’s work securing bipartisan partnership for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and we especially appreciate this year’s theme, “Come Together.” We also understand why AIPAC invited Trump. As in past years, AIPAC has invited all presidential candidates to speak. We, like they, want to ensure that leaders of both parties, whoever they are, continue to strongly support Israel.

Some have argued that it would not be wise for the Jewish establishment to confront Trump, that the pro-Israel lobby should “keep itself on decent terms with whatever powers govern in Washington.” But the AIPAC conference is more than just a pro-Israel rally. It is also the single-largest annual gathering of the American Jewish community. As such, we feel obligated to send a message to Donald Trump that we believe many of his views, his words, and his actions are anathema to Jewish values and are opposed by many within our community. We feel compelled to stand on the other side of what we feel is a great moral divide. And we feel especially moved to take this opportunity to stand as Jews in solidarity with those who Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and differently-abled, and LGBTQI brothers and sisters who have been the targets of Trump’s vitriol and who would be most at risk should Trump get elected.

 

We do not intend to respond to hate with hate. We intend to respond to hate with Torah. We believe that there is no greater way to combat Trump’s dangerous rhetoric than by learning together. For this reason, when we walk out of his speech, we will gather to learn Torah together, uniting in the values of our tradition that we hold dear, values of common decency that Trump has ignored.

In taking this action, we mean only to speak for ourselves, for like-minded individuals who may not be at the conference, and for Jewish values as we understand them. While we have many constituents who will support our efforts next week, we are not protesting on behalf of the institutions we serve. Rather, we are protesting because we believe that, even as rabbis, we have the right and the responsibility in a democracy to voice our conscience to those in power and to those pursuing power, especially when it pertains to important matters like this.

And, while we are not acting on behalf of our communities, we are taking these actions knowing that we do, indeed, represent many American Jews who feel similarly. At the largest annual gathering of American Jews on the eve of an election, where candidates are seeking the support not only of the pro-Israel community broadly speaking, but also of the Jewish community specifically, we feel a special moral obligation to give voice to the many Jews who are appalled at what Trump has unleashed in our country’s politics, and alarmed at what a Trump presidency might look like.

Donald Trump does not speak for us. His hateful tone does not speak for us. So we must take a stand.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky and Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf

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$15 and the Half-Shekel: Lessons from the Torah on a Living Wage

Last week, at the urging of Faith in New Jersey (@FaithinNJ), a faith-based social justice organization (formerly known as PICO-NJ), I – along with other Essex County clergy – was asked to attend Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s press conference at Newark City Hall. As clergy, we stood beside Mayor Baraka and members of 32BJ SEIU as the Mayor declared his support for raising the minimum wage for Port Authority employees to $15 an hour. These employees include those who work at Newark Liberty International Airport, an airport that all in our area – and most throughout the state of Jersey – frequent for air travel. The airport is owned by the city of Newark, but leased to the Port Authority. Since the city owns the land, and the airport is the largest employer in the city of Newark – and likely the entire state – the airport, and the way its employees are treated are representative of the values of Newark and the entire state of New Jersey.

The Mayor was asked what mathematical formula he used to come up with the number $15. He smiled and responded “the formula we used was the formula of justice.” He added:

No airport worker that works full-time should have to live in poverty and be forced to make the choice between housing, food and health care. I think we need $15 immediately.

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Mayor Baraka, members of 32BJ SEIU, and Essex County clergy

When the minimum wage became a requirement of law as part of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, it was meant to be a sufficient amount so that an individual could provide for his or her family. Minimum wage was meant to be a living wage. In 1968, the minimum wage was at $1.60/hour. In 2013, that wage would be equivalent to $10.71/hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if wage increases had kept up with labor productivity, then the minimum wage in 2013 should have been $18.23/hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour. The New Jersey state minimum wage is $8.38/hour. These are hardly a living wage, and hardly what was intended when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed over 75 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we read a special Torah reading as part of the special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim. In this Torah reading, we are told:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight… (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah commands that each pay a half-shekel as part of a census. Most read the text and conclude that this census was to see how many able-bodied adult males there were to fight, as the Israelites were preparing for the inevitable battles when they entered the Promised Land. However, the half-shekel had even greater significance. The half-shekel was not too much money. It was enough so that everyone could participate. It was an example of everyone being on equal footing, and having the same chance, the same equal opportunity. Obviously the half-shekel meant less to the wealthy than others. Still, it was a symbol of equal opportunity and an equal chance.

We live in a society that is not living up to the promise of this biblical society, in which all are seen as equals and all are given an equal opportunity. No one donated a half-shekel and cried poverty. All were seen as equals. So too, no one should work a forty-hour a week job and not be able to provide food on the table or a home to live in.

I proudly stood with other clergy as Mayor Baraka made his statements in support of increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. I did so not just as a resident of Essex County. I did so as a person of faith. We must fulfill the biblical promise of this census. We must ensure that all have equal opportunity to succeed in society. That begins with the fight for $15. That begins with the promise to pay individuals a living wage.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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