Monthly Archives: November 2018

God Was in This Snowstorm and I Did Not Know it

I spent seven hours in traffic on Thursday during the first snowstorm of the year. Despite having four-wheel drive and driving an SUV, I even spun out once. It was clear that the state of New Jersey was not prepared for this storm. My horror story is like many of yours. My children were stuck at school and I could not get to them. My wife had to abandon her car and at midnight, walked to a friend’s house a mile and a half away to spend the night. A neighbor was able to pick up our daughter finally and she arrived home at 11:30pm. Our son and other daughter were stranded at preschool and friends were able to walk to the school and bring them back to their home until I was able to get to them at 9:00pm. Truth be told, I also know that these horror stories were nothing compared to what others experienced. There are those of you whose children were stuck on school busses without knowing where they were and others whose children ended up sleeping at school that night. Miraculously, when I woke up the next morning to pick up my wife and then drive around until we found her car, the roads were fine. The sun was out. The snow had already begun to melt. But Thursday afternoon and evening was the perfect storm.

I am grateful to all that helped during the storm, but that is what you expect from community. I expected that friends would pick up my children if I needed them or that their teachers would take amazing care of them until we were able to get to them. What I was in awe of though was the help from strangers. When my wife was stuck in her minivan somewhere in Livingston, a man noticed and got out of his home to help push her car, then invited her in for water and to use the bathroom. I saw residents marching from their homes to downtown South Orange with snow shovels to smooth out the roads and help cars that were fishtailing until the plows could finally get there. Community means being there for each other. We are grateful for friends, neighbors, and teachers who were there, but I am in awe of complete strangers who were there as well. In a time of crisis, we were there for each other. We were each other’s angels.

At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder towards the Heavens.

“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12).

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he declared:

“God is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).

Our rabbinic commentators try to explain why the text says that the angels ascended and descended this ladder. If they came down from the Heavens, one would assume that they would descend first. But I would suggest that the fact that they ascended the ladder first meant that they were all around Jacob – God’s Presence was all around Jacob – but he did not realize it.

Jacob was in crisis. The previous Torah portion concludes with him fleeing his home, fearful of his life. He is worried that his brother Esau will kill him. And in crisis, he sees the angels all around him.

So too, on Thursday, during a crazy snowstorm and the traffic that ensued as a result, we saw angels all around us, walking in God’s ways, helping those in need. But why does it take crisis for us to realize the angels all around us? Why don’t we see those angels around us all the time? My hope is that now, we will. Following crisis, Jacob awoke from his dream and declared that now he knew of God’s Presence all around him.

We live at a time when society is so divided. We prefer to stay in our bubbles, with those who think like us. We oppose any political viewpoints that are different than our own and judge others who side with such views. However, in times of crisis, we are not asking about one’s political affiliation, or who they voted for in the most recent election. We are simply helping each other, because we are all human, and we see the divine spark within each person, made in God’s divine image. We are serving as God’s angels as we do so.

May we not just wait for crisis to walk in God’s ways and be God’s angels. May we not all of a sudden awaken from our stumper and realize God’s Presence all around us in the eyes of our fellows. Rather, may we strive to be angels for each other every day, in times of crisis and in times of joy and blessing. Then, we will be able to build a society based on love and unity, where we are able to see the divine spark within each other.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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See The Signs

This past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. On Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938, a pogrom against the Jewish community was carried out by the Nazi’s paramilitary forces. By the next day, over a hundred Jews were murdered, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested or sent to concentration camps. Jewish schools and hospitals were looted. Jewish buildings were demolished. 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed. And over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged. Store windows were shattered. Torah Scrolls were set on fire. These events seem so far removed from our minds. And yet, they are so close.

Historians look at Kristallnacht as a wake-up call, an alarm that was set off. November 9, 1938. But Kristallnacht was already after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935 that sought to limit the freedom of Jewish citizens and exclude them from civil society. Historians identify the beginning of the Holocaust as 1941 – that is when Jews were marched into the gas chambers and Nazis put their plan of mass extermination of the Jewish people into play. But 1941 was three years after Kristallnacht, six years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and eight years after Hitler’s democratically elected rise to power. I can’t help but ask, after each of these events, why didn’t the Jewish community all leave then, even if some tried to? Why didn’t more people stand up and fight back, even if some tried, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Why didn’t the non-Jewish community do more to help the Jews, even if so many risked their own lives to save Jewish lives? Why didn’t other nations intervene sooner?

The Anti-Defamation League said that there was a 57% increase in Anti-Semitism from 2016-2017. We know what that can lead to; we experienced are own modern-day Kristallnact of sorts as we mourned with our brother and sisters in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, two Shabbatot ago. In France, the French Prime Minister’s office announced that Anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 69%. And here, we see laws passed to limit one’s rights based on their identities, be in gender identity, or country of origin, or immigration status. So we are left in the same exact situation. Last week we showed up for Shabbat in solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue. What do we do this week? Next week? Next month? After that?

And we must call out not just those who act with such hate, but those who fan the flames of hate; we must call out those who are just as responsible for those evil acts, not just the physically perpetrators of such acts, but also those whose policies were put in place, whose political promises, stoked the flames of this fire.

When we call out hate, it is easy to blame one person. No one is more to blame than those that committed such acts of hate and violence. Yet, there are so many responsible. And those with the biggest megaphones and soapboxes, rightly deserve such blame. But they are not alone in that blame. Those who are behind the scenes, encouraging the actions of those whose voices are heard are just as responsible. And those who remain silent, when such acts of evil don’t directly affect them –  or directly affect us – are to blame as well.

I often would wonder why more wasn’t done following Kristallnacht, why those in position of power who could’ve stopped the eventuality of the Holocaust didn’t stand up to Hitler and the Nazi party. I often wonder why more people didn’t see the signs and become fearfully aware of where they would lead. Let’s open our eyes and see the signs. This isn’t about politics or partisan issues. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. This isn’t about Red America or Blue America. This is about what hateful words of people in positions of power, who demonize minority groups, can lead to. The Holocaust happened eight years after Hitler rose to power. Let us all see the scary signs – the rise in hate crimes, in hateful acts, and in hateful rhetoric – and stand up to it now, before it is too late. Because when we say never again, we mean never again. And when we say never again, we don’t just mean never again for the Jewish people; we mean never again will we allow this to happen to anyone.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I Will Never Hide Who I Am

Following the murder of 11 congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, in what the Anti-Defamation League called the largest mass killing of Jews in US History, I could not find any words to say. There are no words to make sense of such hate. There are no words to calm the fears that so many in the American Jewish Community feel right now. Through 2000 years wandering in exile, we experienced oppression, ostracization, excommunication, and murder because we were Jews. But the Jewish community has experienced more freedom here, more safety here, and more success here than ever before. And it was here, in America, the land of the free, that on last Shabbat, we were murdered for being Jewish. So I couldn’t find any words to say. There were no words from our tradition, no teachings of rabbinic literature, no verses of Torah that made sense of this moment.

Then I was reminded of words from US history, the words of President George Washington. Washington was touring the country following the establishment of this new government, to buy goodwill from Americans who were still trying to figure out what it meant to be American. Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Yisrael — now known as the Touro Synagogue — is the oldest synagogue in this country. That Jewish community from Newport, Rhode Island sent a letter of congratulations to President Washington in advance of his visit there. He famously replied:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.  

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

In Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah reading that we read this past Shabbat, our biblical patriarch Abraham prepares to bury his beloved wife and find a burial place for her. In doing so, he refers to himself as a ger toshav. He tells the Hittites: “I am a ger toshav; I am a resident and I am a stranger.” He lived among the Hittites, but didn’t quite feel like he was home. He still felt different. He still felt like an outsider.

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

When much of the wave of Jewish immigrants came to this country at the turn of the twentieth century, or prior to or immediately following the Holocaust, or as refugees from the former Soviet Union, long after George Washington wrote these words to the Jewish community of Rhode Island in 1790, they came here – we came herebecause of the promise that this country gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. And that in order to be an American, we must strive to be good citizens.

Last Sunday evening, I stood in downtown South Orange with so many of you at a candlelight vigil mourning those murdered in Squirrel Hill. I did so wearing my tallit, my prayer shawl. Standing among a dozen clergy including many rabbis and cantors, I was alone in wearing a tallit. Because you don’t wear a tallit when it is not a worship service. You certainly don’t wear it at night. In fact, the only time we wear a tallit in the evening is on Kol Nidre, as we begin our Yom Kippur fasts and we experience a spiritual death of sorts. After feeling a sense of communal lose not just another instance of gun violence and not just another mass shooting with a murderer using an AR-15a loss of innocence, a loss of feeling safe and secure in sacred space, I donned this tallit. I intentionally wore a tallit at a time when we typically do not, in public space where we typically do not, as a statement that we will never hide who we are and we will never deny what we believe.

Our people have had to hide all too often throughout our history. There are the Marranos and Conversos of Spain who who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the inquisition and continued to practice Jewish ritual in secret, whose descendants continued to practice certain Jewish rituals, but had no idea that they were Jewish. There are the children of the Kinder Transport, where parents saved their lives by putting them on trains to other parts of Europe and England, saving them from the Nazis; they were raised as Christian to save their lives until the Nazis were defeated. There are those of us who fit into society as much as possible, refusing to stand out because standing out would call attention, standing out would invite further Anti-Semitism and bigotry towards us.

Maybe even in our own communities, we have felt a little bit like a ger toshav at times. But I wore my tallit to declare that I will never be a ger toshav, I will never feel like I do not belong in this country because I am Jewish. I will never be a stranger in my own community. My American identity will be strengthened because of my Jewish identity. And my Jewish identity is strengthened by being American.

There are those of us who came to this country to build a better life and world for our families. There are those of us who are first- and second-generation Americans. I myself am a fourth-generation American. But it doesn’t matter where we were born, or what religion we practice, and it doesn’t matter the language we speak or the color of our skin. Our differences, our uniqueness, makes us Americans because President Washington promised that this is a country that gives to bigotry no sanction. Yet those words from this country’s first president seem so so foreign to the realities of today, where those in power stoke the flames of hate. We will not hide here. But we are fearful when the highest office in the land condones bigotry, rather than promises to give bigotry no sanction.

In our Torah, Abraham is uncertain if he is fully accepted as a resident of Canaan among the Hittites. He refers to himself as a ger toshav because he believes that this is how others see him. No matter how many generations we have lived in a place, we worry, will we always be an outsider. We are worried that we will be stereotyped as cheap with a hooked nose, or referred to as a “globalist” who controls world banking and media empires. We are haunted by chants of White Nationalists declaring “Jews will not replace us” with the flames of their torches in hand illuminating the hate in their eyes. We are scared that our scared spaces will become fortresses, as if this is the only solution to them being safe spaces, because of deranged murderers and words of hate that are espoused that encourage them. 

Abraham ended up being surprised. Bereshit Rabba, the midrash on the book of Genesis, says that the Hitties referred to Abraham as their king, their prince, and their god. But most importantly, Midrash HaGadol suggests that Abraham knew where to bury Sarah because he found all of the Hittites mourning her there, wailing just as he had wailed, crying because her loss was a loss for them as well.

The first calls I received on last Saturday night was from local elected officials, apologizing in advance if they were calling me before Shabbat was over, but wanting to reach out to offer condolences and to see if we were okay. The next calls and texts were from Muslim and Christian clergy colleagues asking what could they do to stand with us. Then there were the hugs and tears shed, and the tightly gripped hands held of neighbors, and the emails and Facebook messages of many who asked if Shabbat services were only open to those of the Jewish faith or if they could join us, to sit with us, to stand with us, at this moment. We are here, a week later, doing exactly what the Tree of Life Synagogue did. Celebrating Shabbat. Praying together as community. Celebrating a Simcha. But we are not alone. And we are not afraid. Because we are not outsiders.

Abraham was worried that his neighbors viewed him as a ger toshav, but his neighbors reaffirmed for him that was not the case. I am not a ger toshav. I am not a stranger. We are not. And I refuse to respond to hate with fear. I respond with love, with love of community, love of all that it means to be a Jew, love of standing up for those who may be different than I am, and love of others who stand with me who stand with us. 

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

That is all the affirmation we nee to stand united against Anti-Semitism and to stand united against hate of any kind. That is all the affirmation we need to be reminded that we are Jews and Americans. That this is our home and we will never hide who we are. None of us shall ever be a ger toshav here. Instead, let our world be just as President Washington promised two centuries ago, learning from the example of our patriarch:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May it be so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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#ShowUpForShabbat

The American Jewish Committee launched the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign following last Shabbat’s massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Jewish Federation of North America, with similar sentiments declared that this Shabbat should Solidarity Shabbat. This Shabbat should be a call for Jew and non-Jew alike to come to synagogue. Regardless of one’s faith, or observance of that faith, or synagogue affiliation, it is an opportunity to stand united against hate, participating in the same act that led to the murder of 11 worshipers last week, the same act that we at Beth El participate in every week.

As I shared on social media earlier this week, I never want to guilt anyone into coming to Shabbat services. I don’t think Jewish guilt should be a reason you ever come to synagogue. With that in mind, I invite you, not because of guilt, but because of pride, to come to synagogue this Shabbat. Show up for Shabbat.

Come to Congregation Beth El or one of our neighboring synagogues in the South Orange-Maplewood area. Or attend services at another synagogue close by in a neighboring town. Or celebrate Shabbat at a synagogue close to where you are or where you’ll be.

We do not respond to hate with fear. We respond to hate with love, with love of community, with love of who we are, with love of all that unites us as well as all that makes us unique. We respond to hate by coming together, for as long as we come together, we shall not fear. Come, not full of guilt, but full of pride. #ShowUpForShabbat

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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