Category Archives: Conservative Movement

A Vow of #Enough

This article was originally published on June 21, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

SOMAOrlandoVigilWe came together as community, standing side-by-side: interfaith clergy and elected officials, police officers and members of the rescue squad, representatives of North Jersey Pride and Moms Demand Action, engaged and concerned members of our towns. Last week, we came together on Sloan Street, at the South Orange Train Station, for a vigil remembering the victims of the horrendous attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in which 49 members of the LGBTQ community where murdered, and another 53 were injured. News media has called this the largest mass shooting in our country’s history. So we came together.

We came together to cry and to mourn. We came together to lean on each other’s CBEatSOMAOrlandoVigilshoulders. We came together to stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And we came together to say “enough.” We came together hoping for a better world – believing that the diversity of our two towns of South Orange and Maplewood and our commitment to building a safe and caring community will spread to the rest of the country and the world.

Sitting in synagogue this past Friday night, I was reflecting on the power of coming together as community as chills ran down my spine. I quickly realized that Friday night, June 17th, was the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And one year ago, this past Shabbat, we had come together, just as we did last week, standing on Sloan Street, gathering at the South Orange train station.

A year ago, we came together in the same way: clergy and elected officials, law enforcement officers and community members, mourning and saying “enough.” And yet, a year later, we continue to gather on Sloan Street. We continue to come together to mourn. A year later, our country still refuses to deal with our obsession with guns and our complacency that allows for the murder of too many innocent lives with the simple twitch of an index finger. A year later, our elected officials cowardly refuse to act, refuse to pass legislative changes to makes us safer, refuse to do anything besides offering “thoughts and prayers.” A year later, and hate continues to repeat itself. History continues to repeat itself.

SOMAOrlandoVigilRememberThis past Shabbat, as we mourned the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub attacked in Orlando and observed the yahrtzeit of the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church attack in Charleston, we read Parashat Naso. In the Torah portion, we read the priestly benediction, the blessing that Aaron the High Priest recites to the Israelites, the blessing that parents recite to children on Shabbat, the blessing recited to newborns at a bris and simchat bat, the blessing recited as we celebrate lovers underneath a chuppah, and the blessing we give to b’nai mitzvah from the bimah.

Yevareicha Adonai Viyishmereicha. Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka. Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha Veyasem Lecha Shalom. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God’s face and presence lift you up and grant you peace. Amen.

We say this blessing at every life stage, at every seminal moment. We talk about Peace. We pray. I am tired of just praying. I am tired of praying for peace and seeing mass shooting after mass shooting. I am tired of praying for peace after hate of another — because of someone’s sexual orientation, race, religion, gender identity, or ethnicity — causes loss of life. I am tired of praying for peace while our children die, while our lovers die, while this world slowly dies. I am tired of those who are supposed to act, who are meant to represent us and pass laws to keep us safe, and only pray. They offer their thoughts and prayers following tragedy and refuse to act.

So we must act. First, we must stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and ensure them that our sanctuaries and sacred spaces are their safe havens as well. When a shooter attacked a gay bar and nightclub, a place that had historically been a sanctuary and safe space for the LGBTQ community, we must declare that our sanctuaries are sanctuaries for all — that our sanctuaries celebrate the sanctity of all.

But acting also means forcing our elected officials to act. Moms Demand Action commends those who participated in the Senate filibuster last week, not to pass a law, but just to get a simple vote for common sense legislation. And yet, we saw in the Senate this week, a refusal to act. Those who were quick to offer thoughts and prayers were even quicker to vote against legislation that would curb gun violence in this country. But we keep saying the words of the priestly benediction: Vayasem Lecha Shalom, may God grant you peace. As we say these words, we must make them reality. Get involved in our local chapter of South Orange-Maplewood chapter of Moms Demand Action or Moms Demand Action nationally. Don’t just pray. Do something. That is what God expects of us.

We pray for peace, as if we are waiting for God to act, but Jewish tradition teaches that God is crying as we cry. God is waiting for us to act. In the midrash, Lamentations Rabbah, God cries out. The book of Lamentations is a text that speaks of widows crying and infants lying lifeless in the street. Trying to comprehend the violence, hate, and destruction of the text, God bemoans:

Woe is Me for My house, My children — where are you? My priests, where are you? Those who love Me, where are you?

God cannot understand why we — those who were created in God’s divine image — refuse to act. I also can’t understand this. We sit and pray for God to grant us peace. Yet, the midrash teaches that God sits and waits for us to act. And instead of acting, we just continue to gather on Sloan Street, year after year, mass shooting after mass shooting, While I love this example of communal unity, I’m tired of waiting for the next tragedy to gather. I am tired of simply gathering and not acting. We must make a vow of #Enough!

Parashat Naso also focuses on the Nazarite vow. This odd vow concerns Nazarites refraining from drinking wine, from cutting their hair or trimming their beards, and from coming into contact with the dead. These prohibitions were not required by Jewish law. Still, they placed these seemingly additional burdens upon themselves by adding these prohibitions. The Torah explains that the Nazarites sought a state of spiritual purity. They felt that these prohibitions would lead them to be spiritually pure, to build a society that was spiritually pure. They added rules, changed teachings, and allowed for law to evolve — all in order to create a society, and a life, that was pure, to build a world that was pure as well. We shouldn’t think of the Nazarites as religious zealots who put unnecessary burdens upon themselves. The Nazarites understood that the legal system was not enough to make the necessary changes that they sought, to make this a truly sacred place, and to build the world God expects us to build. They need more laws, more prohibitions to build a safer, and more sacred, world.

Maybe we need our own pseudo Nazarite vow — we need to act. We need a vow of ENOUGH. We need to say that the laws we currently have are not enough to build a spiritually pure society, a society that God expects of us, a world where we — and our children — are safe. And we must make a vow to evolve the law, to take on further restrictions, just as the Nazarites did, to ensure that hate doesn’t turn to violence, that the life isn’t shattered by easily attainable assault rifles. We must make a vow of ENOUGH. Enough thoughts and prayers. Enough praying for peace and waiting for God to act.

We must pray, and we must act. We must hold our elected officials accountable for their refusal to act. We must ensure work to build a spiritually pure society, a safe society, a Garden of Eden that God set out to build. Only then will we be able to not just pray for peace, but make peace a reality. Let us be renewed in our faith as we continue to pray for peace, and let us be courageous enough to act as well. And let’s stop having to meet like this on Sloan Street, continuing to mourn far too many lives lost. #ENOUGH.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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

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Instead of Spin, Celebrate Inclusion

This article was originally published on January 4, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The conversation is still unfolding about the vote by the International Officers and Regional Presidents at the recent USY International Convention in Atlanta, passing an amendment that changed the language of expected standards for these youth leaders.

Most of the articles, as well as statements by USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, explain this amendment as a change in language, from “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating” to “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Many of the statements offer the explanation that this is simply about language:  not a change in policy, but just a change in rhetoric, from a “thou shall not” command to a more positive statement on relationships. Much of the spin suggests that there is a difference between “welcoming” and “condoning.” But we miss an important lesson when we suggest that the message is the same, and only the wording is different.

The fact is that the message is not the same — and that is a good thing.

This new language celebrates the inclusive movement that we strive to create, and our youth are leading the way. USYers have embraced a position that will lead our institutions to become more inclusive, as these youth leaders assume leadership of the synagogues and Jewish institutions they will inherit. We do not need to spin this amendment that USYers passed. Instead, we should strive to learn from their example.

Those concerned with the amendment claim that while we can be welcoming, there is a danger in being too welcoming. In fact, “welcoming” has become a hackneyed adjective among Jewish institutions. It is easy to say you are welcoming. But, welcoming isn’t about what you say. Welcoming is about what you do. USYers chose to be inclusive of all, regardless of the faith of a parent or significant other, demonstrating welcoming through action.

Statistics show that Jews in America marry later than other ethnic groups, which raises questions about the true impact of high school dating on future marriage choices. The faith of a partner or spouse is not a rejection of one’s own faith. The faith (or lack thereof) of a spouse or partner (or teenage boyfriend or girlfriend) does not speak to one’s own Jewish commitment, the commitment to raising his or her children as Jewish, or building a Jewish home. The reason someone marries a person of another faith is for the same reason we all get married: love. We should celebrate that love and a family’s commitment to building a Jewish home.

The fear about this amendment is misplaced: who our USYers date,or marry will not determine their future Jewish identity. USY does give our teens the tools they need to build Jewish lives as adults. However, how we welcome, educate, and help them find their place in the community will impact how many of them actually stay connected to Judaism. By insisting on inclusion and creating more welcoming communities, we have the opportunity to embrace the diverse Jewish families that walk through our doors. We can celebrate each of them, regardless of the faith of a spouse or parent. because every Jewish family looks different.

As a former USY International President and rabbi in the Conservative movement, I am proud that USY is leading the way in doing the same.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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How Lovely Are Your Tents

A couple of weeks ago, we read Parashat Balak on Shabbat morning. In doing so, we read the story of the magician Balaam, being sent by the evil king Balak to curse the Israelites. However, as he explained, God ultimately controlled the words that came out of his mouth. On multiple times, Balaam blessed the people of Israel. His most well-known blessing was the following:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How Lovely are Your Tents People of Jacob, Your Sanctuaries People of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

According to Rashi, Balaam said these words because he was impressed by the modesty of the people of Israel. No tent entrance in the encampment faced another tent entrance. What made these tents so lovely was that each individual was respecting each other’s privacy. I prefer another explanation. I believe that Balaam blessed the Israelites’ encampment, not because the entrances to the tents were closed, but rather because they were all open. The doors to each home were wide open and all guests were welcomed into each dwelling space. The community was a warm and welcoming one, a true sign that God dwelled among the people.

These words are traditionally said upon entering a sanctuary before prayer, entering a place of worship. We find them at the very beginning of our siddur, our prayer book. What is unique about this is that we do not always say these words when we enter a sanctuary and we do not always need a sanctuary to pray. We can pray anywhere, for we create community anywhere. We say these words regardless of how beautiful our sanctuaries are, regardless of how large the space is, or how exquisite the stain glass windows are. We say these words because we appreciate God’s Divine presence among us. We say these words because we acknowledge how lovely community is – warm and welcoming, vibrant and diverse.

bethel-logoI am excited to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, beginning on July 15th. As I enter this community, this place for prayer and learning, this space for socializing, for building community, for wrestling with the Divine, and wrestling with ourselves, I proudly declare: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are these tents. How beautiful is this sanctuary. I look forward to building on Beth El’s already warm and welcoming culture and working together to build an even more vibrant community. May we all always feel comfortable walking through the wide open doors of this community and may all of our experiences with community cause us to count our blessings.

Mah Tovu!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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The Conservative Movement’s Journey

My father was ordained as a Reform rabbi. I grew up as a young child going to the local Reform temple. I am a committed Conservative rabbi, but truthfully, I became a Conservative Jew by accident.

Growing up in Central New Jersey, my family and I would often drive twenty plus minutes to the Reform synagogue. I didn’t know any of the kids in Religious School so I begged my parents that if they were going to drag me to services Shabbat morning, the least they could do was bring me to the synagogue that was much closer, where all the other children in my neighborhood also belonged. This way, at least, I wouldn’t be getting into mischief by myself. From there, I got involved in USY, switched to a Solomon Schechter Day School, attended Camp Ramah, and eventually, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yet, I became a Conservative Jew by accident because, as a child, I wanted to go to synagogue with my friends. I became a Conservative Jew first, because I was engaged.

I am a Conservative Jew. I believe in Conservative Judaism. As Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, once said: “Conservative Judaism is where Tradition meets Change.” Yet, it seems that that crossroads where these two concepts meet is also at a crossroads.

The Pew Study on the American Jewish Community that came out last week, gives insight to the challenges facing the American Jewish community, but even more specifically, facing Conservative Judaism. According to the study, only 18% of American Jews identify with the Conservative movement. Additionally, over 30% of those raised in Conservative institutions have chosen to affiliate with another movement. Furthermore, the median age of Conservative Jews according to the study is 55 years old, the oldest of all Jewish denominations and movements in this country.

The movement – with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at its head – must reestablish itself if we are to be a movement that offers anything worthwhile a generation – even a decade – from now. I am proud of the thriving, ever evolving, and innovative institution that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is, but as the only Conservative synagogue on Florida’s first coast, it’s easy to see our vibrancy and ignore the struggles of the movement outside outside of Northeast Florida.

Part of the struggles have to do with the evolution of the movement juxtaposed with the ever changing U.S. Jewish community. Some worry that the Conservative Judaism of today is not the Conservative Judaism that they once knew. That is true, but that is because movements move. Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary highlights this idea by explaining that the Judaism he practices is different from the Judaism that his parents practiced and the Judaism that his children practice. Movements move. So where will the Conservative Movement move to?

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Lech Lecha, which focused on Abraham and Sarah’s journey. The Torah portion begins:

Lech Lecha me’artzecha u’mimoladtecha u’mi’beit avicha el haaretz asher Ar’eh’ka

Go out, for yourself, on a new journey, from your land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, from what you know, from what you are used to, from what is most comfortable, from how you grew up.

We aren’t sure where we are going to go to. El Haaretz Asher Ar’eh’ka.  To a land that God will show us. But we will get there eventually. That place may look different from where we started. But it is where you are meant to be. It is where you will find God.

Like Abraham, the Conservative Movement is going on this journey, unsure of where the movement will end up, but knowing that we must take this journey.

USCJFriday October 11th, 2013 began the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference and Celebration, a celebration of USCJ’s 100 years. This centennial conference is the beginning of this journey, figuring out where the movement will end up. This centennial, which includes over 1200 participants, is being called the “Conversation of the Century.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,  has described the centennial as “a big reset button for United Synagogue, and in turn the Conservative Movement.” How big? The conference is offering a wide variety of worship options including egalitarian and non-egalitarian, musical services, “retro” services, renewal services, Carlebach services, and “dynamic” services. Additionally, it will also host honest and essential conversations about the struggle to engage college students, continuing to embrace feminism, welcoming men back into our communities, engaging 20 and 30 somethings, the role of halakha in the future of the movement, the role of music in services, how to reach out to young families, how to engage those who have grown children or no children, and the relationship between Israel and our movement

While I’m unfortunately unable to attend this conference, I’d like to add my thoughts to the conversation. If we are to press the reset button, then these are the five areas in which we must emphasize in order to truly reset the Conservative Movement:

  1. Spirituality. We, as a movement, lack spirituality. Statistics show that while the affiliation rate among Jews in this country is down considerably, the rate of those who seek spiritual connection and meaning has greatly increased. As I said on Kol Nidre and will repeat again, we do plenty of davening, but not enough praying. If the synagogue is to thrive as a House of God and a House of Worship, then we as a movement must create multiple entry points to find God and wrestle with the Divine.
  2. Literacy. For most of the twentieth century, there was an assumption that education would take place at the synagogue school and reinforcement would take place in the home. Now, we need to make our institutions the home base for not just education, but for the experiences that reinforce the education. Furthermore, we need to remember that education does not end at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In fact, for many of us, Jewish education didn’t start until adulthood. Talmud Torah is a lifelong process. In order to ensure the engagement of all affiliated with all our communities, we cannot only emphasize teaching our preschoolers. We must also emphasize learning with – and learning from – our adults.
  3. Stand for something. This is the struggle of being perceived as being “stuck in the middle.” We are the bridge, it seems, between those on the left of us in the Reform movement and those who practice Orthodox Judaism on the right. We, as a movement, for too long feared that if we were to take a stand, we would upset those on our left and those on our right. As a result, the movement rarely took such a stand. The truth is, those to the left may never appreciate the tension between tradition and modernity that we wrestle with and those on the right will never accept our evolving halakhic process as truly authentic. We are who we are, yet if we don’t stand for something, then we stand for nothing. We must take a stand as a movement for what we believe in, even if others disagree.
  4. Social Justice. This is something that the Reform Movement does exceptionally well. We can certainly learn much from them. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, Social Justice is one of the pillars that define us as Jews and yet, our institutions and synagogues often focus on insular education and tefillah before we roll up our sleeves and take action. Social Justice and Social Action are the avenues in which the ethics and values, which are the core of who we are as Jews, are put into practice. According to a study prepared by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity, and fifty-six percent report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in the past year.” We must make Judaism not just about what happens in our buildings. Judaism is also about what happens in this world and through Social Justice, Judaism allows us to act on what happens in this world.
  5. We must create Welcoming Institutions. It is one thing to say that we are welcoming. It is a whole other to prove it. Do our institutions truly welcome all who come through our doors? Do our websites and synagogue brochures reflect the diverse spectrum of what a Jewish family looks like in 2013? Are we reactively welcoming or are we pro-actively welcoming? This is the simplest act and yet the most difficult, for if our institutions aren’t welcoming, then no one will walk through our doors.

Some of these issues must be addressed more in-depth in individual synagogues, including where I serve as rabbi. All of these areas need to be addressed by the Conservative Movement. If we are truly pressing the reset button, and prepared to start over, then this is where we must start. This is how we reset. This is how we reengage.

Like Abraham and Sarah, we are unsure of where this journey will end, but we know where we must start. Lech Lecha. Together, if we, as a movement, are brave enough to move, then we will get to that land that God will show us.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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