Monthly Archives: June 2018

The same law for citizens and sojourners

childDetentionCenterIf there were 2300 children separated from their parents without any tracking system, without even knowing where they are, without having any way to reunite them with their families, and they were white children, American citizens, government officials would be arrested and tried for trafficking children. If we kept American children in cages, the entire country would be up in arms. But they are not, so the government tries to convince us that somehow, their actions are completely justified. They suggest that the laws that are meant to protect our civil rights and human rights don’t apply to them. Somehow, these laws are meant to keep us safe from them. But these are children. And they are human beings. Forget for a second about supposed laws that have been broken. Think instead about how many hearts and souls this administration has broken, the broken souls of babies, of parents, of our nation.

Today a federal judge ordered immigration agencies to quickly begin reunifying these families that have been separated due to Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy. While such an order is a positive step in the right direction, that does not change the President’s intentions of using his executive powers to treat someone human beings as animals, as inferior, as profane.

Last Shabbat, Jewish communities read around the world the Torah portion of Chukat. Parashat Chukat focuses on two well-known biblical narratives, Moses’ striking of a rock and the death of Aaron. However, the Torah portion begins with a list of seemingly outdated laws regarding the ritual impurity. Regardless of the laws or the reasoning behind these laws, the text is clear that laws regarding the sanctity and holiness of individuals apply equally to all individuals:

“This shall be the same law for citizens and sojourners who reside among you” (Numbers 19:10).

Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Torah commentator from Northern Spain, explained that “even the strangers who reside among them must abide by this rule, for the land of Israel is holy, since the Presence of God dwells there.” However, such biblical law was to be followed while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness prior to entering the promised land. While I appreciate Ibn Ezra’s explanation, it had nothing to do with where one resides. For many like myself who believe in God, or at least wrestle with God, we believe that the Divine doesn’t reside in a specific place. God is everywhere and all are made in God’s image. Here too then, we must understand that one human being must be treated the same way as another. The same law must apply equally to citizens and sojourners who reside among us. While the President may be quick to point out the laws of American citizens do not apply to these immigrants who are being detained, certainly citizens and sojourners have the same basic human rights, and thus must be treated as such. To disagree with this is to deny the divine spark within each person. These ‘zero-tolerance’ policies exemplify how morally corrupt we have become. As mentioned, not only have we broken the souls of separated parents and children, but we have broken the soul of this nation. And a soulless nation doesn’t see the Godliness of each child. A soulless nation puts children in cages.

But I believe that we are better than that. I believe society is better than that. That is why we continue to fight — to build a society where the same basic laws and human rights apply to citizens and sojourners alike, to see the divine spark in each individual, to build communities not cages, to build bridges not walls. May we continue to fight to reunite each child unconscionably taken from their parents. May we continue to fight to end a system that incarcerates children. And may we continue to fight until the sanctity of each human being, regardless of ethnicity, race, or immigration status, is recognized and celebrated.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stop Using the Bible to Justify Discrimination!

This past Sunday, my family asked me what I wanted to do for Father’s Day. First of all, I acknowledge that Father’s Day is a “Hallmark” holiday. In my family, it is an opportunity to simply spend the day together, something that I often don’t get to do on Sundays when I am working during the school year. So when my kids asked if I wanted breakfast in bed that morning, I responded that instead, I wanted to protest against discrimination and bigotry.

My wife and I joined hundreds at the ICE Detention Center in Elizabeth, with our daughter carrying a sign she made herself that read “Keep families together,” our preschooler on my shoulders, and our toddler in a stroller, because we couldn’t celebrate family without fighting for those whose families are being torn apart by discriminatory policies.

This past Shabbat, we read from Parashat Korach, beginning with chapter 16 of the book of Numbers. While Korach was a failed leader, his words still resonate and claims are still worthwhile. He challenged Moses:

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. All of them, and God is in their midst” (Num. 16:3).

OlitzkyFamilyRally1Every disturbing decision, policy, and action of this President and his administration regarding the treatment of immigrants represent the antithesis of this verse and of all that our Torah represents. We are commanded to welcome the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger. And as we read last Shabbat, we are told that each and every member of the community is holy. Yet, the President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Secretary, even the Press Secretary, defend these actions, and justify them by quoting the Bible.

Stop using biblical verses to justify discrimination!

I understand the irony that I am quoting the Bible to justify loving the stranger and welcoming immigrants while calling out hiding behind biblical quotes to try and justify bigotry. However, that is because one can find scriptural verses of any faith tradition if they tried hard enough that supports or opposes any opinion. You can skew anything to justify your claims. But just because you can find a specific verse and interpret it, or misinterpret it, to mean something, that does not mean that it justifies one’s bigotry.

No religion justifies separating parents from children. Children are our most vulnerable in society. Religion is focused on educating our children, caring for our children, and preparing them for adulthood to live a life full of values and to look out for their fellow human beings. Religion never justifies tearing children away from their families and locking them in cages. If you use biblical verses to justify that, then you are not practicing religion. You are desecrating God’s name, all that faith teaches, and all that faith is supposed to represent.

So I will keep quoting that the Bible tells us to protect our children and to love the stranger. Because to believe that God expects and requires anything else, anything less than that is morally corrupt.

The problem is rooted in those in charge themselves. When Korach rises up to question Moses’ leadership, he does so with many individuals. The text says that he is joined by Anshei Shem, translated as individuals of repute, literally ‘people of name.’ These were individuals whose names were known, whose names, family lineage, and thus privilege, gave them power. They stood beside Korach in demand of more power.

Rabbi Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz taught that a person of a great name, one who is a descendant of a famous or distinguished relative, should be humble. He should think “are my deeds as great as my ancestors who have come before me?” However, these people end up being arrogant, always seeking to increase their power.

Those is positions of power can use their power for good, to build a more just society, to be God’s partner in creation. Or, they can abuse their power, weakening the most vulnerable. It is shameful that those in positions of power aren’t using their power to help those in need. They are incarcerating children, discriminating against those seeking asylum, and trying to claim that the Bible justifies these actions.

Not my Bible. Not my religion. Not my God. If you are going to pass bigoted policies, stop hiding behind scripture to mask your discrimination. Call it was it is: bigotry.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride and Teshuvah

Grasshoppers. Our Torah, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, read last Shabbat, emphasizes that we saw ourselves as grasshoppers. Moses is commanded to send out twelve scouts to scout out the promised land. While Caleb and Joshua give favorable remarks, ten return and say:

“All the people that we saw in the land were of great size – we saw giants there – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 12: 32-33).

Clearly, if we see ourselves as grasshoppers, we fear others see us this way as well. But we never stop to acknowledge why we might see ourselves as grasshoppers and who or what might cause us to think of ourselves as grasshoppers. When we are told that something is wrong with us, we begin to feel that something is wrong with us, we believe that something us wrong with us.

PrideFlagsInLobbyI posted on Instagram at the beginning of the month – because if you know me, you know that I regularly post on social media. (Shameless plug: feel free to follow me @JMOlitzky and everything Congregation Beth El related #BethElNJ). I had posted a picture of our Pride flags hanging in our synagogue lobby as we kicked off Pride month. A rabbinic colleague reached out following my post and asked about why we proudly hang our pride flags. The Jewish community already knows that you are welcoming and inclusive, he said. After all, you are located in South Orange-Maplewood, he said. And this my friends, is the problem with most religious institutions. We thinking it is good enough to be welcoming. We think it is acceptable just to be accepting.

Too many of our institutions refuse to acknowledge the hurt and pain that we have caused. So many of our synagogues and churches, schools, camps, and youth groups caused so much pain to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community members for so long. We not only turned away so many amazing individuals from organized religion and God, but also pushed a hetero-normative culture, and hid behind a specific verse of scripture – or a particular rabbinic interpretation of said verse – to suggest that there was something wrong with them because of who they love or how they identify. Our communities are at fault for far too long treating our loved ones, our community members who identify as gay, trans, bi, queer, gender non-binary or gender fluid, as grasshoppers.

AndGodCreatedLGBTQAnd too many institutions, too many houses of worship refuse to even do teshuvah and acknowledge the pain that we caused on generations of members of our communities. It is amazing how many religious communities celebrate the LGBTQ community. At the recent North Jersey Pride Festival, there were five synagogues and three churches present! It is not enough to just condone our community members. It is not enough to just accept our community members. We celebrate. We wave our pride flags high to celebrate. We recite pride blessings to celebrate. We participate in the Pride Festival to celebrate. We celebrate as a way of doing teshuvah. We celebrate so that no one here should ever feel as if they are grasshoppers. We celebrate so we all always feel like giants. We celebrate so that every home we enter, whenever we stand on the precipice of our promised lands, we don’t have to fear entering that new land or fear coming out of the closet. Rather, we celebrate each and every person, and in doing so, we celebrate our faith in God because we celebrate our faith in ourselves, being created in God’s image.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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