Monthly Archives: May 2019

Bringing the Joy of Jewish Camping to our Community

There’s a legendary story often told among experiential Jewish educators about the child who returns from Jewish sleepaway camp. Upon returning home, her parents ask her how camp was, and she responses with a smile that camp was incredible. When asked what her favorite part of camp was, she quickly responds that it was Havdallah. Her parents are elated. Among all the activities at camp, it was a Jewish ritual, the moment when we say goodbye to Shabbat for the weekend, when we separate out that which is kadosh – holy – from that which is chol – ordinary – that stuck with her most. When asked if she wants them to start doing Havdallah together as a family every Saturday night, she quickly responds “no!” When her parents ask her why, she clarifies: “we don’t have a lake!”

While this story is meant to cause us to laugh, there is some truth to it. Jewish summer camp is one of the most successful institutions in the American Jewish community for engaging Jewish youth in joyful Jewish experiences. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to bring those experiences back to synagogues and Jewish communities who are in search of the community building and spiritual growth that the utopian environment of Jewish camping provides. At Congregation Beth El, we too were interested in bringing the joy of Jewish camp to Beth El. Our answer was to bring Beth El to camp.

Ever since I arrived at Congregation Beth El, I had a vision of having a congregational retreat at a summer camp. I know that some members of our community had this vision long before I was a part of the community. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who made up our retreat committee and an enthusiastic community, we had over 250 members of our community join us over Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania.

RetreatShabbatService2019This retreat was an incredible opportunity to build community, to disconnect from the outside world and our devices and screens that often consume so much of our time (including mine!), to be with loved ones, to make new friends, to strengthen existing friendships, to connect with God as Creator in the beauty of nature, to try new things, to have fun, and to appreciate the sanctity of Shabbat. The melodies and singing of prayers and Hebrew songs brought Judaism to life. Shabbat services outdoors in the amphitheater and weekday minyan by the lake allowed us to experience the Presence of God that we were praying to all around us. Our meals allowed us to break bread with new friends, building intergenerational connections around the tables of the dining hall. And friendly competition – congregational-wide softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee games – helped build community as well. The gorgeous whether was an added bonus.

RetreatBonfire2019.jpgOn Saturday night, as we saw three stars glisten in the sky, we gathered by the lake for Havdallah, just like the camp experienced in that urban legend. Earlier, each child had made their own havdallah candle, and slowly as the light of one candle extended to another, and the flickering flames of over 100 candles illuminated our circle, we experienced the true light of community. Singing and swaying and saying goodbye to Shabbat transitioned into a late-night bonfire with s’mores and karaoke.

RetreatZipline2019.jpgAnd although we had a closing activity on Sunday morning, with everyone taking home a new friendship bracelet to wear, reminiscent of the new relationships we’ve built, there were no tearful goodbyes or bus notes to write. We weren’t saying goodbye to a community, to a home away from home. Rather, we were bringing the joy of camp back home with us, as a community. The ruach of that experience will carry with us in so much that we do. And for those who yearn to go back, we are already beginning registration for next summer.

May the joy we feel at summer camp carry with us all the time. May we always smile like we do when we are singing outdoors, or zipping down the zipline, or tie dying our t-shirts, or hitting the bullseye in archery. And may we always have enriching Jewish moments, without needed a lake to make them happen.


We are especially grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and One Happy Camp NJ for their generous grant that helped make this retreat a reality! One Happy Camper can help your child find the right Jewish summer camp for them. Click here for more information.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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Denying a Woman’s Reproductive Rights is Profaning God

V’lo tichalelu et shem kodshi. You shall not profane my holy name (Lev. 22:32).

You shall not profane God’s name. And we are left asking ourselves what does it mean to profane God’s name and in turn, to profane God? Essentially to our understanding of all texts is that God created each person made in God’s image. Each person has a divine spark within them. Therefore, when you deny a person their rights, you profane God’s name. When a group of male legislators try to make decisions regarding a woman’s body, they are profaning God’s name. And when they seem to take more of an issue with abortion, then with rape, incest, or sexual assault, they are profaning God’s name.

I’m angry. And I’m tired.

I am tired of people using the term “pro-life” when they are not. I am tired of those who say they are “pro-life” but in actuality, are against a woman having any rights in her life. I am tired of those who claim to be “pro-life” but have no concern for the life of a pregnant woman or the decisions that she makes. Because it is her body. And her choice. When states like Alabama and Missouri were passing laws that criminalized abortion this week, including in cases of rape or incest, and would send a doctor who performed an abortion to prison for longer than the perpetuator who raped that woman, those laws are not “pro-life.” They are quite the opposite. Any such law that is passed, including that which was signed into law this week in Alabama, is not a “pro-life” law and don’t let anyone else suggest otherwise. Because any such law isn’t really a case of banning abortions. What Alabama is attempting to do is ban safe abortions. And thus, putting women’s lives at risk in the process.

I’m tired.

I am tired of those on the religious right claiming that the stances they are taking are based on so-called “Judeo-Christian” values. I’ll let you in on a little secret: there is not such thing as “Judeo-Christian.”  People can take whatever stances they want based on their own right-wing extremism, but don’t bring Judaism into it. For starters, Judaism is a faith that celebrates reproductive rights and reproductive justice. I can quote text, biblical verses, Mishna, and modern halakhic responsa that justify and legitimize a women’s right to choose what she does with her body according to rabbinic tradition and Jewish law.

But the truth is, I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to respond to claims from right-wing Christian extremists that quote a verse that is anti-choice, with the rebuttal of another verse or teaching that is pro-choice. We don’t need a war of quoting scripture – and I say this especially as a rabbi and a person of faith –  because we should not be legislating based on faith. We live in a country that is supposed to govern based on a separation of church and state. Still, it is quite clear in Jewish texts that life does not begin at conception and life begins when a child becomes its own independent being out of the womb. And while Mishnah is clear that an abortion is not only permitted but required if a fetus is causing any harm to the mother, the Conservative Movement clarifies that it is up to each individual – it is a woman’s right – to define that harm for herself, be it physical, emotional, mental, or otherwise. In fact, when Roe v. Wade became law in 1973, l the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement came out with a statement the next year, not only quoting text of our tradition that protects a woman’s right to choose, but opposing any legislation, including a constitutional amendment, on the federal or state level, that would outlaw abortion.

V’lo tichalelu et shem kodshi. You shall not profane my holy name (Lev. 22:32).

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a, the Talmud asks: “What are the circumstances that cause desecration of God’s name? Rav said: For example, in the case of someone like me, a public figure and pious rabbi, if I take meat from the butcher and do not give the butcher money for it immediately, [people are likely to think that I did not mean to pay at all, and thus would be desecrating God’s name.]” Now, if someone was poor, and food insecure, it wouldn’t be seen as a desecration of God if they didn’t pay the butcher right away. But a pious rabbi, it would.

Rav is essentialy saying in this section of the Talmud that if one has a responsibility in a position of authority and uses their position to only help themselves and harm others, ithey are profaning God’s name. When an elected official has a responsibility to protect the rights of their constituents, and he, and in this case I very much mean he, goes out of his way to pass policies and legislation that deny the rights of women, when a group of legislators that are men are getting together to limit the rights of women, when a group of legislators pass policies that deny the rights of anyone, they are profaning God’s name. And that is exactly what the elected officials in Alabama and Missouri did this week.

I’m tired.

I’m tired of too many of us being silent. When you, when I, when we, are silent about one’s human rights, one’s reproductive rights being taken away, then that too is a Chilul Hashem, we are profaning God’s name. Protecting women’s rights is not only a women’s issue and too many people who do not identify as women remain silent. So specifically to all the men out there: SPEAK UP. SPEAK OUT. Or you too are profaning God’s name. The Talmud also teaches that silence is equal to complacency. Let’s stop being silent. Let us make our voices heard. A passed bill or law doesn’t mean that such a law is just. In actuality, such a law is desecrating and profaning God. So we must stand up and fight when women’s rights are being challenged. Because to remain silent, is also a Chillul Hashem.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Here’s a list of organizations to contribute to, that are on the grounding, fighting to support women’s reproductive rights:

Planned Parenthood 

Planned Parenthood Action Fund Planned Parenthood Action Fund 

NARAL: Pro-Choice America

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice 

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Holiness is Defined By How We Treat Others

You should be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am Holy (Lev. 19:2).

The very beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, which we read last Shabbat, is a command to strive to be holy, to strive to be like God. While the word ‘holy’ is quite difficult to define, this command is followed by several other mitzvot that attempt to explain how we should be holy.

We are told how we should treat our family members, focusing on the holiness of the home.

We are told that we should not make idols or worship false gods, emphasizing that the root of holiness is our relationship with the Creator of all life.

And then, we are told:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God (Lev. 19:9-10).

In this case, holiness is defined by how we take care of the most vulnerable. Holiness is ensuring that we look out for others rather than only being concerned with ourselves. This is truly a challenging task since our natural instinct is to care for ourselves first. We make sure we are okay; we protect our children. Yet, the Torah is telling us that only looking out for yourself and ignoring the needs of another is the opposite of holiness. Rather than a sanctification of God, it is a desecration of God, because when you ignore the needs of others, you are ignoring those made in God’s image. In turn, you are ignoring God.

We also find holiness defined this same Torah portion with the command to love our neighbors:

Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). 

The command to love is a challenging one. One cannot be commanded to feel something. And yet, we are commanded to love another, essentially to treat others the way we want to be treat. For if we truly loved another in the same way we loved ourselves, then we would take care of the most vulnerable. We wouldn’t reap from the corners of our fields — metaphorically speaking — and would ensuring that no one went to bed hungry, wondering where their next meal was going to come from.

So be holy. Not just because God is holy. Be holy for the sake of holiness. Be holy because all are created in God’s image and that make each of us holy. So we cannot ignore the needs of another. We cannot ignore the holiness of another. Rather, we build in our holiness by seeing the holiness in others.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Living Without Fear

Acharei Mot. After death. That’s how last Shabbat’s Torah portion begins, barely referencing the tragic loss of Aaron’s two sons that previously occurred. The text doesn’t focus on mourning. It doesn’t focus on grief. It just gets back to business. After the death of Aaron’s two sons, the Torah explains that God speaks to Moses and continues to instruct him on the laws of offerings and how Aaron must preside over these offerings.

I am left wondering why the Torah doesn’t give us, or Aaron the High Priest, time to grieve. When this loss occurred in Leviticus chapter 10,  the Torah simply states that Aaron was silent. I can’t get over these words though: Acharei mot, after death, especially after the deadly mass shooting at the Chabad of Poway, California a little over a week ago on the final day of Passover, six months to the day since the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because we cannot simply move on. We cannot do what the Torah is telling us and just act like all is normal. We cannot accept this as the new normal. There is nothing normal about shootings at houses of worship. There is nothing normal about accepting mass shootings as a part of society. There is nothing normal about anti-semitism rearing its head and causing harm in the most violent attacks on Jews in our country’s history. But somehow, for whatever reason, we do. Only here. Nowhere else in the world. And we wait until the 24-hour news cycle has moved on to the next topic, and like the Torah even does, Acharei Mot, after death, we move on.

The Sifra, the halakhic midrashic word on the book of Leviticus, explains that these laws regarding entering the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, at inopportune times were commanded directly after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu so that one can understand the deadly consequences of one’s actions. The problem with this midrashic interpretation is that it is telling us to live our lives in fear. Midrash is suggesting that we should fear death and act accordingly. I refuse to do so.

Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein, the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, refused to be immediately treated for his wounds, after the shooter shot off his two index fingers, as he held his hands up to try to protect himself and his community, from the gunfire raining down on his community at the hands of a domestic terrorist with an AR-15. Instead, he used whatever he could find to stop the bleeding, including a tallit, a prayer shawl, and gathered the congregation outside their sacred space that had become a crime scene.

He pulled a chair and in front of the building, stood on the chair and gave the sermon he was going to give and started saying over and over again, Am Yisrael Chai. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he said. “We are a Jewish people that will stand tall. And we will not let anyone or anything take us down.” He was essentially teaching the opposite of what this week’s parasha suggests, we do not live our lives based on fear. We do not fear for our own lives because of those whose lives were lost. Instead, we say what Rabbi Goldstein said, Am Yisrael Chai. We are proud of who we are and will never hide who we are or what we believe.

At the Passover seder where we celebrated being freed from slavery through a festive meal and ritual retelling, we still said “Hashata L’Avday, L’shana Haba’ah b’nai chorin, We are still slaves. Next year, may we be fully free.” At the meal when we celebrated freedom, we acknowledged that we are not yet fully free. And in 2019, in America, in a country and at a time when Jews have experienced more religious freedom than at any other time in Jewish history of 2000 years living in the diaspora, we are still not free from anti-semitism. And society is not free from hatred. We say these words because we recognize that we cannot truly be free until we are all free. This tragic shooting in Poway on the last day of our holiday that celebrates freedom was just a reminder of that. We will not simply move on Acharei Mot, after death. We will not simply continue like this is the new normal.

During these days between Passover and Shavuot, we count the Omer. These days of counting the omer representing our people’s spiritual wandering, as we wandered throughout the wilderness, from the exodus from Egypt until Revelation at Sinai, lost. After another deadly anti-semitic incident, we feel lost. We are left wandering in a tearful daze. But we will not simply move on, Acharei Mot, like this is the new normal. We will proudly declare, as Rabbi Goldstein did, Am Yisrael Chai, and live our lives as Jews with pride, fighting to ensure our freedom, and everyone’s freedom from hatred and bigotry.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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