Monthly Archives: November 2019

Our Children are no longer Children


“Hey mom i dont know whats going on here at school but i love you and im so thankful for everything youve done for me. i love you so much”

“everyone is saying theres a shooter on campus i dont know whats going on but i love you and sad so much”

These are the text messages that a teenager sent her mother in the middle of our country’s latest school shooting, this time at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California on Thursday, November 14, when a 16-year-old student showed up on his birthday with a handgun and shot five students, two of them fatally, before shooting himself in the head.

The school is expected to remain closed until December 2, when it will reopen and students will be expected to go about their lives as if this didn’t happen, as if they aren’t dealing with the very real trauma of surviving a mass shooting, the trauma of such a shooting taking place in their school, a place where they are supposed to be protected and safe. Because this is “business as usual” in America in 2019, when we force our children to grow up and they lose their innocence.

In Parashat Vayeira we read of the disturbing narrative  when Abraham kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ignoring the questionable and disturbing actions of our biblical patriarch, I can’t help, but focus on the Hebrew of what happens. Hagar is sent into the wilderness, with her child, her yeled in Hebrew, by her side, with a little bit of bread and a skin of water. They wandered aimlessly until the water was gone and Hagar expected she would die.

Not wanting to watch her child die, the text says: “Al ereh b’mot hayeled,” “don’t let me look at this child dying,” again using the word yeled. But when Hagar began to cry, the Torah tells us “Vayishma Elohim et Kol HaNa’ar,” “God heard the cry of the lad,” using the Hebrew word na’ar instead of yeled. A yeled is a young child, a kid, vulnerable and dependent on a parent, much like Ishmael was in this moment. But a na’ar, is more than a lad, more than an adolescent, or a young adult, or a teenager. A Na’ar is someone who is forced to grow up – someone who was vulnerable before, but empowered at this moment. A na’ar is someone who no longer follows, but instead is ready to lead.

We have no more yeledim. We have no more children. In this day and age, our children have grown up too fast. They have been forced to. They have become na’arim. Our children have more lockdown drills in their schools than fire drills. More than 230,000 schoolchildren have been exposed to gun violence in their schools since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. We have forced our children to grow up way to soon. We have destroyed any age of innocence for them. We have turned yeledim into na’arim long before they should be forced to deal with the hardships and heartache of this world.

Why was it that Hagar cried out, but it was Ishmael’s voice that God heard? And why is it that after hearing Ishmael’s cries, does an angel call out to Hagar in return? Dr. Ellen Frankel teaches that “sometimes it’s our children, speaking from where they are, who teach us how to see what we need to survive… [that] a child’s tears reach the heavens.”

We have failed our children. This most recent school shooting is just another example of that. But the March for our Lives and the movement that the students from Parkland, Florida launched was a sign that our children are now na’arim, that they are empowered, that they will bring about change. And just as God hears Ishmael’s cries and responds to Hagar, God will hear the voices of these na’arim, of these newly empowered young adults and their angelic work will protect us all. The brokenness of this world has turned each yeled into a na’ar, but I pray that, like Ishmael, they are empowered as a result. As Dr. Ellen Frankel said, their tears reach the heavens. May they reach all of us as well – and inspire us to do the necessary work to protect all of us who are wandering, lost in this wilderness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We are a People of Sojourners


Lech Lecha m’artzecha, u’mimoladatecha, u’mibeit avicha el Haaretz Asher areika.

And God said to Abram: Go. For your own sake. Not because I am telling you to do so. Not because this is a Divine command. But because you need to do this for yourself. You must be willing to leave your land, your birthplace, your family’s home, to a new land, to a new place, because ultimately you need to go for your own sake.We thinking of this moment, of Abram going on his spiritual journey, as when we people a people of sojourners. But the truth is Abram was fine at this moment. He was simply following God’s command. It was later, once he settled in the promised land, and realized that it wasn’t a place he could stay in, that he left in search of a safe haven. We read in Genesis 12:10:

There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Conditions get bad. Conditions get rough. And so Abram, even after his divine command to go, never settles. He leaves where he had went to. He leaves where he thought he was supposed to be. He leaves where God commanded him to go. Because his life was in jeopardy. Because his family’s safety and security was in doubt. He did what we would all do.  He leaves and heads down to Egypt because of famine, because his family’s safety and livelihood was at stake. 

Abram went down to Egypt Lagur Sham, to live there. In modern Hebrew, we use Lagur to mean ‘to live.’ But here, it actually means ‘to sojourn.’ For Abram, Lagur was a Ger, a sojourner, a stranger. As Jews, we know all too well what it means to sojourn. And even when we are living in a place, we are still only sojourners, not knowing how long we will be able to stay for. He left the land of Divine promise for another place, not because it is home, but because that is where you’ll survive.

Later, the first mention of the term Hebrew is used. In Genesis 14:13, Avram is referred to as Avram HaIvri, Abram the Hebrew. The term literally means the one who crossed. Abram is the one who crossed bodies of water, the one who crossed boundaries and borders, to go from one nation to the next. And ultimately, we are called Ivrim, Hebrews, for that is who we are as well.

We are the wanders. We are the migrants. We are the Ivrim, those who cross borders. We love the stranger because we were once strangers. So we cannot turn our backs when others are crossing borders as well, searching for a safe haven. Why do we perceive our journey to be worth it, but others not to be? Why do we ignore the calls for help and the cries for justice? Love the stranger. Welcome the stranger. Do not oppress the stranger. For we too wandered, so we too must answer their cries.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Tell Me My Eyes and Ears are Lying to Me

The taste of propaganda was gut-wrenching. Cameras weren’t allowed in the Otero ICE Detention Camp. And without cameras, no one really sees what the conditions are. Not when it is 45 minutes from a border crossing. Not when it is not accessible by public transportation. Not when it is in the middle of the desert, surrounded by mountains. As a group of clergy, PR representatives from ICE and the facility’s warden agreed to meet with us and give us a tour of the facility. And without a doubt, no matter how they tried to spin it, this was a prison. Civil detention, where asylum seekers and those who’ve entered this country irregularly are detained, is supposed to look different than a criminal correctional facility. But these detainees, these asylum seekers, these souls who sought a safe haven were treated as criminals, were treated as something less than human.

And these should were hungry for human connection and relationship. They were hungry for acknowledgement. In a facility that prevents physical contact with visitors, they are divided be glass windows when meeting with family and lawyers. We tried time and time again to silently communicate love and compassion. With each sacred soul we saw, I gently put my hand to my heart – the unspoken sign acknowledging that I saw them, that they were human. We stared into each other’s eyes. I searched deep into their pupils for hope. But all I saw was the weight of despair on their eyelids, as if the divine spark within them has extinguished.

And then we approached the wing of the facility labeled “Restrictive Housing Unit.” The propaganda machine told us that solitary confinement wasn’t practiced there. The propaganda machine tried to convince us that some detainees preferred to be alone. But as we walked down the narrow corridor of this narrow-minded policy, an ICE officer shuttered the small slit windows in each door, preventing anyone from peeking in. And as the propaganda machine assured us that the detainees were treated with dignity, a soul in solitary confinement heard us and began banging on the door as we walked by. He wanted to feel heard. He wanted to make sure we had not forgotten about him.

At the end of tour this facility, I bumped into a group of pro-bono lawyers from Catholic Charities. One explained some of the most frequent complaints at the detention camp: the too frequent use of solitary confinement, including as punishment for a group of detainees who participated in a peaceful action, protesting the rotten and moldy food they were being served. The truth that this pro-bono attorney of one of these asylum seekers revealed was contrary to the promises that the propaganda machine kept telling us. Even though we knew they were lies, they kept saying them, and the warden kept smiling as she said them, as if her pleasantries could mask the horrors of the detention camp.

When this ICE camp is in the middle of the desert and no one can see that these sacred souls are treated like criminals, like less than human beings, than it’s easier to believe the propaganda machine — especially when they smile while they spew their lies to justify their discriminatory polices. But don’t tell me I am lying. Don’t tell me my eyes and ears are lying to me.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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We are the Flood. But We can Stop the Flood.

There was a video circulating on social media this week about Senator Booker as a presidential candidate being interviewed on The View by Meghan McCain, and her pushing him regarding mandatory gun buy backs. He responded personally that this isn’t a policy issue. That someone was murdered on his block by an assault rifle this past year.

I think for many of us, this also is a personal issue. We worry when our children go to school every day. We worry when we enter our houses of worship. Or shopping malls. Or movie theaters. Or concerts. We live in a society where we have the power to do something, but refuse to. We are scared. We are bullied. Our officials care more about gun lobbyists than they do about saving the lives of their constituents. And when Meghan McCain tried to push Senator Booker, he honestly said: there are areas we agree. We agree on background checks, we agree on gun licenses, but there is an unwillingness to work together on the areas that we agree on. But that is what we must do. We must work together – united instead of divided – to stop this culture that leads to 30,000 victims of gun violence every year in this country.

Parashat Noach begins with us being told:

Vatishachet Haaretz lifnei HaElohim VaTimaleh Haaretz Chamas. The land became corrupt before God and the land was filled with Chamas.

We aren’t really sure what this Chamas is. But whatever it was, it was so great, and so sinful, that it led to God destroying the whole world.

Bereishit Rabba tries to explain what Chamas is. Rabbi Levi first teaches that it is idol worship, which doesn’t make much sense since Abraham doesn’t introduce monotheism until chapters later. Then he tries to suggest that Chamas is sexual immorality, something that the righteous Noah is even guilty of at the conclusion of the Torah portion. He finally concludes that Chamas is Shefichut Damim, is spilling of blood, killing another person.

We are troubled by the initial theology of Torah, a theology that introduces a God that would wipe out all of humanity with a forty day-forty night flood. How can we accept a God who would do such a thing (even if the God that we build a relationship today is based on a very different theology than that of Torah)? Why would God do such a thing? Maybe God was accepting that humanity was doing it to themselves. Humanity was the flood. Blood was raining in the streets like a torrential downpour. And if we were filled with such chamas, then there was no humanity left. We destroyed ourselves. 

And that is the reality we are again currently living in. We are filled with so much chamas, so much shefichut damim, so much murder, so much gun violence, so much bloodshed, in our society, that we don’t need to wait for a mabul, for a flood, to destroy us. For we are destroying ourselves.

Among all the chamas, among all the bloodshed, Noah was saved because he was seen as an Ish Tzadik Tamim, a simple and righteous person. Everyone else was at best, apathetic to the epidemic of violence, and at worst, encouraged and celebrated it. We too, at best, are apathetic. We don’t care unless it hits directly close to home, while accepting that even mass shootings have a shelf life in this 24-hour news cycle. And at worst, we are fighting to sell weapons of war in our streets, without care for background checks or gun licenses. At worst, we are guilty of worshipping these assault rifles as idols. And we are the flood; we are responsible for the shefichut damim. We are responsible for the chamas. We are doing this to ourselves. But Noah, was the Ish Tzadik, the righteous person, willing to take a stand against such an epidemic.

We find this word Chamas again when Job cries out to God about the Chamas all around him. And it is paralleled to lo mishpat, to lawlessness, to a lack of justice. Part of being an Ish Tzadik, part of being a righteous person, is standing up to injustice. It is fighting, simply or fiercely, to end this culture ofshefichut damim, of bloodshed, and to get to a point where we are no longer drowning ourselves in the flood. Instead, we are the lifeboat. We are the ark. We are the Ish Tzadik, the righteous person. We are determined to save each other, and to save society. Then, and only then, will we see the metaphorical rainbow.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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