Monthly Archives: May 2016

Being Held to a Higher Standard

When trying to understand what we look for in a leader, everyone has their own list of essential qualities. Forbes offers a list of leadership qualities for business success which include honesty, confidence, and commitment. CNN and Careerbuilder.com add passion and respect to the list of necessary qualities. Even rabbinic tradition offers its own definition of a leader. Midrash explains the qualities of the High Priest by suggesting that he must be handsome, of great strength, of great wealth, of great knowledge, and have many years of experience (Vaykira Rabba 26:9). While we may disagree on what those leadership qualities look like, it is clear that we each expect much from our leaders.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Emor. This section of our narrative begins with specific requirements of what the priests, the religious and ritual leaders of the Israelites, can and cannot do. In Parashat Kedoshim, we were taught that “you should be holy for I, the Lord, Your God, Am Holy.” Holiness is what we all seek. Holiness through our words and holiness through our actions. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we find a greater and more detailed list of expectations for the priests. 

The priests who offered biblical sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites are forbidden from coming into contact with the dead. Additionally, the priests are prohibited from shaving their heads or sideburns. They were forbidden from profaning God’s name. There were limits to whom the priest could marry, how a priest must physically look, to whom and what a priest can and cannot come in contact with.

Remarkably, these verses – unlike most found in the Torah – are specific and limited to the leaders of the community. Clearly, the Torah is suggesting that leaders are held to a different standard. A leader is supposed to be different – not perfect, for no one is. But the beginning of Parashat Emor teaches us that a leader is supposed to be held to a higher standard. A leader puts the interests of those that she or he represents before others. A leader cares about others more than himself or herself. A leader does not ignore the actions of followers. Instead, a leader calls them out when their behavior is inappropriate and defers from the leader’s vision.

If Torah teaches us that leaders are held to a higher standard, that leaders strive for a different level of holiness, then it is our responsibility to call out leaders when all that they do and all that they say are the complete opposite of that which is holy. When our leaders lead through bigotry, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny, we must call it out. Striving to be holy means seeing each individual as holy. And leading through hate is the opposite of holiness, it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

We expect more from our leaders because of the impact that they have on us. The Torah speaks of a great sense of kedushah of the priests, not just because they performed ritual sacrifices, but because of the opportunities they had to guide so many. We should expect our leaders to guide us. May their actions be holy so that they guide us to a life of holiness. May they also see the holiness in each individual. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Transgender Bathrooms are a Human Rights Struggle – and a Jewish Imperative

This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

As Jews our responsibility is to embrace the gender identity of each individual not only in our communities but in society at large. That means repealing transphobic legislation like North Carolina’s HB2.

North Carolina’s controversial “Bathroom Law”, which stipulates that in government buildings, individuals may only use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates, continues to make headlines. Proponents of the law, known officially as HB2 “The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” claim that it is about safety, preventing men from “claiming to be transgender” just so that they can enter a women’s bathroom and invade their privacy. But over 200 local, state, and national organizations that work with assault victims claim that there is nothing to support the fears of these lawmakers. And none of the 18 states that have nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender rights has seen an increase in public safety issues because of these laws.

HB2The fight over the law hit a tipping point when the Department of Justice determined that HB2 violates the Federal Civil Rights Act and gave North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory an ultimatum to ensure that the state would not comply with the law. North Carolina didn’t budge, and instead sued the government. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit of their own, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch describing the battle over this law as the civil rights struggle of this era.

But the fight over HB2 is more than a civil rights struggle; it’s a human rights struggle. And as Jews, we have a particular imperative to treat it as such.

As Jews, we have an obligation to see each individual as made in God’s image. Each individual is unique and created differently. We are not God, and therefore, it is not for us to put parameters on the divine nature or image of another person. Rather, we should honor each individual as divine, regardless of one’s gender identity. Even the rabbis of the Talmud understood that we do not live in a gender binary system. We find six different gender identities in the Talmud. This Talmudic precedent suggests that we should not only acknowledge one’s gender identity, but also celebrate it.

Some Jewish institutions are starting to implement policies in line with this thinking. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution that “affirms the right[s] of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals” and “urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression.” Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of voting on a resolution that affirms its commitment to fully welcoming, accepting and including people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society. These statements understand our commitment as Jews to honor each individual. Last June, I wrote that ensuring that all can use the bathroom in our institutions “is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.”

These statements reflect an understanding of the importance of making sure that our sacred communities and sacred spaces are welcoming of everyone. But our obligation as Jews to embrace the gender identity of each individual does not end with our institutional buildings and programs. We have an obligation as Jews to build a society that is just as inclusive and accepting as the communities we set out to create.

Judaism teaches that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, supersedes everything else in Jewish law. A study by the Williams Institute think tank shows that 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have attempted suicide. This number is substantially greater than the overall suicide rate of 4.6 percent in the United States. The way society has treated transgender individuals makes them feel as if there is no place for them in this world. Denying them the basic human right of going to the bathroom, as North Carolina has attempted to do, only reinforces this feeling.

But embracing all and creating inclusive communities can have the opposite effect. A recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and accepted by family, friends, teachers, clergy, and society as a whole are no more anxious or depressed than other children their age.

HB2 supporters claim the law will keep individuals safe from bathroom predators. But this law doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Instead, it puts lives in danger. It endangers the lives of people in the transgender community by further denying them basic human rights, by suggesting that they don’t really exist, and by closing them off from society. If our responsibility as Jews is to do what we can to save every life, then we have an obligation to repeal HB2 and similar harmful and discriminatory legislation in other states.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that whoever saves a life, saves an entire world, but also that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. We, as Jews, have an obligation to save lives and save worlds. May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. May we make a commitment every day to stopping all transphobic legislation that destroys far too many worlds.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Haaretz Rabbis' Round Table, Jewish Living, Uncategorized

Defining Holiness

Sitting in a packed room at The Woodland in Maplewood last week, I, along with hundreds of neighbors, listened to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak. The author of Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Tatum spoke at the first Conversations on Race almost twenty years ago when the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race was first established.

She reflected on the past twenty years since she last spoke to our community. She attempted to answer the question of whether or not our country was going through a rebirth as a more diverse, more inclusive, more integrated society.

She answered by explaining that in every period of great social change there is a backlash. Shifting change creates anxiety for those who fear such change – regardless of how unfounded or offensive such fears may be. She clarified that if we refer to this period in society as a rebirth, then such hate, this attempt to prevent positive and progressive change, can only be compared to birthing pains or contractions during birth.

But as she also reminded us, lest we take this lightly, the moment of birth can be a dangerous time, life threatening in fact, and we should take that danger seriously.

We just read in last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Kedoshim, a call to be holy.

You should be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:2).

We try to understand what holiness is. A variety of laws and instructions that follow, including the metaphors to not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, give us insight on how to be holy.

The essence though of what it means to be holy comes from the middle of chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. (Lev. 19:18).

imageThe Torah tells us to love each other, because this is what God expects us to do. And while the challenge to love may be difficult, loving our neighbors is quite simple. Dr. Tatum emphasized how even in integrated and diverse communities, we tend to sit with those that look like us, think like us, or worship like us. In our social lives, we tend to spend time with those who have shared values and beliefs. We don’t sit across the table with those that are different from us. So the idea to love your neighbor suggests that we love those that are easy for us to love. But we are commanded to do more than that.

The previous verse, we are commanded:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. (Lev. 19:17).

Do not hate another simply because of how they look, or where they are from, how they worship, or whom they love. Not only are we reminded to love. God emphasizes to not hate. Being holy is not just about action. It is about conscious inaction as well.
Dr. Tatum warned that silence helps create a climate of hate. Refusing to call out hate, prevents us from getting to a place of love. It is our job to work together to be holy, to see the holiness in all, to love, but also to not hate.

That is how we celebrate that rebirth that Dr. Tatum focuses on. That is how we protect ourselves from the dangers of such birthing pains. The priestly blessing concludes with a hope that God will grant us peace. War is not the opposite of peace. Hate is the opposite of peace. Fear is the opposite of peace. So we refuse to hate. We love. We Act. And we strive to be holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Jewish Living, Uncategorized

A Message from Rabbi Olitzky, Rabbi Cohen, & Rabbi Cooper

The following message is being shared with the members of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Dear Friends,

We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship and raise families. At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging. That has been the case over the last days. As many of you know, and as has been reported in a number of local media outlets, there have been a number of bias issues that have taken place at South Orange Middle School in recent weeks. These included hate images posted to social media, student-to-student bias comments in the halls, and lunchroom conversation that has no place in our community. This is, of course, unacceptable and requires response. Such response must, however, be serious in intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges AND the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place. It is in this context that we are taking the unprecedented step of writing to each of our congregations but doing so in a single document.

Upon hearing of this late last week the three of us immediately met to discuss how we, as the rabbis of the three South Orange synagogues, might best respond. As a result of that meeting, late yesterday afternoon we met with members of the administration of the school district, including Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent of Schools, Kevin Walson, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Lynn A. Irby, Principal of SOMS, as well as assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors. Present at the meeting as well were representatives from the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the local Community Coalition on Race. We appreciate Principal Irby’s swift response to organizing this meeting.

It was a good meeting and the first of what we expect will be a series of ongoing meetings and learning opportunities. We left the meeting confident of a number of things. First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong. Second, the school has, and will continue to, address the specific events and those involved in them. Equally important, however, is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large. We emerged confident that they will do just that. We also appreciated the administration’s offer to partner with us to aid in this effort.

We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “we are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” We appreciate the administration’s commitment to cultivating a community of “upstanders,” to initiating anti-bias training for staff, to building peer leadership training opportunities for our children, and to planning parent workshops and conversations on bias. We look forward to working together in teaching our children and ensuring that our community continues to be a blessing.

In friendship,

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Congregation Beth El
Rabbi Dan Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
Rabbi Mark Cooper, Oheb Shalom Congregation

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What it Means to be a Jew

There is a well-known story – or at least a well-known story among us as rabbis who tell stories about rabbis – about Rabbi Solomon Schechter and Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Schechter founded United Synagogue and served as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is referred to by many as the architect of Judaism’s Conservative Movement in North America. One day, while President of the rabbinical seminary, he went for a walk with a young rabbinical student, Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein would eventually become chancellor of JTS from 1940-1972. Schechter, the Romanian-born scholar, told Finkelstein that in order to be a successful rabbi in America, you need to know the game of baseball and you need to be able to play the game of baseball.

In the early twentieth century, Baseball was more than just a game. It was America’s pastime. It was ingrained as part of one’s American identity – like apple pie. To say that a rabbi must know baseball is to say that a rabbi must fully embrace American culture and society. Schechter, who was of Eastern European descent, was suggesting that to be a rabbi in America one must identify as American. One must know pop culture, but more so, one’s Jewish values must also be American values.

There are legends of Jewish immigrants coming over to America from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As they saw Ellis Island in the distance, they would toss tallitot and tefillin, Jewish ritual objects, overboard. While these stories may only be that of legend, the symbolism is clear: they were leaving Judaism behind. Judaism was what caused hate and harm. Coming to America meant that they had to fully embrace their American idealism and abandon their Jewish identities. But this is not what Judaism teaches, nor what Schechter was suggesting.

And then you find the opposite of these legends in the Torah. We read this past Shabbat in Parashat Acharei Mot, the following command from Leviticus 18:1-3:

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

A strict interpretation of what God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion – don’t associate yourselves at all with secular society – would suggest that we should not embrace society. We should put up barriers to society. But this interpretation of Torah couldn’t be further from the truth, and certainly is not what Solomon Schechter was teaching a century ago.

The pious rabbi still laid tefillin every morning. He was not suggested giving up Judaism in favor of the religion of America’s pastime. In fact, he was quite religious and observant. He understood the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and still the importance of being immersed in society. This was not assimilation. This is acculturation. For throughout our history – as Jews and as Americans – we see that religion influences society and society influences religion. We cannot truly live a life based on Jewish values if we are disconnected from society because it is exactly that society that we are supposed to impact with our values!

Wikipedia_blue_star_of_davidThe prophet Isaiah reminds us of our divine responsibility to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world. We believe Judaism and our values has something to teach the world, and guides us in this world. If that is the case, then we cannot be disconnected from this world. Judaism is a part of this world and the decisions we make in this world.

This also means that we cannot limit Judaism to the synagogue, to Shabbat meals, or to lifecycle events. As my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, teaches, Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Jewish ethics are a part of society. They have something to teach us. So we must live a Jewish life daily by ensuring that the ethics and values of our tradition guide us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservative Movement, Jewish Living, Uncategorized