Category Archives: Jewish Living

Transgender Bathrooms are a Human Rights Struggle – and a Jewish Imperative

This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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As Jews our responsibility is to embrace the gender identity of each individual not only in our communities but in society at large. That means repealing transphobic legislation like North Carolina’s HB2.

North Carolina’s controversial “Bathroom Law”, which stipulates that in government buildings, individuals may only use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates, continues to make headlines. Proponents of the law, known officially as HB2 “The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” claim that it is about safety, preventing men from “claiming to be transgender” just so that they can enter a women’s bathroom and invade their privacy. But over 200 local, state, and national organizations that work with assault victims claim that there is nothing to support the fears of these lawmakers. And none of the 18 states that have nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender rights has seen an increase in public safety issues because of these laws.

HB2The fight over the law hit a tipping point when the Department of Justice determined that HB2 violates the Federal Civil Rights Act and gave North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory an ultimatum to ensure that the state would not comply with the law. North Carolina didn’t budge, and instead sued the government. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit of their own, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch describing the battle over this law as the civil rights struggle of this era.

But the fight over HB2 is more than a civil rights struggle; it’s a human rights struggle. And as Jews, we have a particular imperative to treat it as such.

As Jews, we have an obligation to see each individual as made in God’s image. Each individual is unique and created differently. We are not God, and therefore, it is not for us to put parameters on the divine nature or image of another person. Rather, we should honor each individual as divine, regardless of one’s gender identity. Even the rabbis of the Talmud understood that we do not live in a gender binary system. We find six different gender identities in the Talmud. This Talmudic precedent suggests that we should not only acknowledge one’s gender identity, but also celebrate it.

Some Jewish institutions are starting to implement policies in line with this thinking. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution that “affirms the right[s] of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals” and “urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression.” Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of voting on a resolution that affirms its commitment to fully welcoming, accepting and including people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society. These statements understand our commitment as Jews to honor each individual. Last June, I wrote that ensuring that all can use the bathroom in our institutions “is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.”

These statements reflect an understanding of the importance of making sure that our sacred communities and sacred spaces are welcoming of everyone. But our obligation as Jews to embrace the gender identity of each individual does not end with our institutional buildings and programs. We have an obligation as Jews to build a society that is just as inclusive and accepting as the communities we set out to create.

Judaism teaches that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, supersedes everything else in Jewish law. A study by the Williams Institute think tank shows that 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have attempted suicide. This number is substantially greater than the overall suicide rate of 4.6 percent in the United States. The way society has treated transgender individuals makes them feel as if there is no place for them in this world. Denying them the basic human right of going to the bathroom, as North Carolina has attempted to do, only reinforces this feeling.

But embracing all and creating inclusive communities can have the opposite effect. A recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and accepted by family, friends, teachers, clergy, and society as a whole are no more anxious or depressed than other children their age.

HB2 supporters claim the law will keep individuals safe from bathroom predators. But this law doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Instead, it puts lives in danger. It endangers the lives of people in the transgender community by further denying them basic human rights, by suggesting that they don’t really exist, and by closing them off from society. If our responsibility as Jews is to do what we can to save every life, then we have an obligation to repeal HB2 and similar harmful and discriminatory legislation in other states.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that whoever saves a life, saves an entire world, but also that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. We, as Jews, have an obligation to save lives and save worlds. May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. May we make a commitment every day to stopping all transphobic legislation that destroys far too many worlds.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Defining Holiness

Sitting in a packed room at The Woodland in Maplewood last week, I, along with hundreds of neighbors, listened to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak. The author of Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Tatum spoke at the first Conversations on Race almost twenty years ago when the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race was first established.

She reflected on the past twenty years since she last spoke to our community. She attempted to answer the question of whether or not our country was going through a rebirth as a more diverse, more inclusive, more integrated society.

She answered by explaining that in every period of great social change there is a backlash. Shifting change creates anxiety for those who fear such change – regardless of how unfounded or offensive such fears may be. She clarified that if we refer to this period in society as a rebirth, then such hate, this attempt to prevent positive and progressive change, can only be compared to birthing pains or contractions during birth.

But as she also reminded us, lest we take this lightly, the moment of birth can be a dangerous time, life threatening in fact, and we should take that danger seriously.

We just read in last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Kedoshim, a call to be holy.

You should be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:2).

We try to understand what holiness is. A variety of laws and instructions that follow, including the metaphors to not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, give us insight on how to be holy.

The essence though of what it means to be holy comes from the middle of chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. (Lev. 19:18).

imageThe Torah tells us to love each other, because this is what God expects us to do. And while the challenge to love may be difficult, loving our neighbors is quite simple. Dr. Tatum emphasized how even in integrated and diverse communities, we tend to sit with those that look like us, think like us, or worship like us. In our social lives, we tend to spend time with those who have shared values and beliefs. We don’t sit across the table with those that are different from us. So the idea to love your neighbor suggests that we love those that are easy for us to love. But we are commanded to do more than that.

The previous verse, we are commanded:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. (Lev. 19:17).

Do not hate another simply because of how they look, or where they are from, how they worship, or whom they love. Not only are we reminded to love. God emphasizes to not hate. Being holy is not just about action. It is about conscious inaction as well.
Dr. Tatum warned that silence helps create a climate of hate. Refusing to call out hate, prevents us from getting to a place of love. It is our job to work together to be holy, to see the holiness in all, to love, but also to not hate.

That is how we celebrate that rebirth that Dr. Tatum focuses on. That is how we protect ourselves from the dangers of such birthing pains. The priestly blessing concludes with a hope that God will grant us peace. War is not the opposite of peace. Hate is the opposite of peace. Fear is the opposite of peace. So we refuse to hate. We love. We Act. And we strive to be holy.

-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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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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Nine Days of Vegetarianism

I was once a vegetarian. Admittedly, this was not my choice. When I was in Middle School, my parents decided to become vegetarian. All of a sudden, we only have a dairy set of dishes in our home and I was forced into a corner. So, at age 12, I became vegetarian. I  lasted as a vegetarian for over a year. It was a Friday night Shabbat dinner at summer camp, when some of my friends convinced me to take a bite of the Shabbos chicken. For those of you who’ve been to summer camp, you know the Shabbos chicken tastes more like a rubber chicken! Yet, after a year and a half without any beef or poultry, that rubbery, cold, undercooked camp chicken was delicious!
I am a carnivore. I admit it. I enjoy eating meat. One would then think that the Nine Days of Av are challenging for me, but the opposite is true.

From Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, until Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month when we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it is customary to refrain from eating meat (except on Shabbat.) We do not eat meat because it represents a worldly pleasure, something served at a meal of celebration or a simcha. We are spiritually and emotionally preparing for the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar, so we avoid such pleasures. Additionally, The meat that we eat is symbolic of the sacrifices offered to God in the Temple. Refraining from eating meat recognizes the gapping hole left in our religious tradition, ritually and ideologically, with the destruction of the Temple.

Refraining from eating meat — especially if you are a meat lover like me — helps us to understand how much meat as a people we consume. With a staff of just 750, Empire Kosher Poultry ritually slaughters 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys a week! This is just poultry; this doesn’t even take into consideration the amount of beef that is slaughtered for consumption in this country. That is a lot of meat, arguably too much meat!

Maybe vegetarianism is what God wanted from us all along. After all, in chapter one, verse 29 of Genesis, God creates the world and explains to Adam that “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, they shall be yours for food.” God makes no mention of eating animals at all! In fact, it is only after the great flood (Gen. 9:3) that God tells Noah “every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.”

I am not preaching vegetarianism because I am not a vegetarian. I have no intention of becoming a vegetarian! My family continues to try to convince me to reverse course and go back to my herbivorous ways of middle school. I am suggesting though that we take advantage of these nine days without meat to reflect on how many animals are slaughtered, how much life is lost, so that we can eat and sustain ourselves. We take advantage of these nine days to consider that even if we eat meat, maybe we eat too much meat. We live in a wasteful society. Obviously for health reasons, leftover food on a plate at restaurants get thrown out. We too are guilty in our own homes by making too much food and then dumping the leftovers or letting them sit in the fridge until they go bad. We waste too much chicken and turkey and beef. If we are going to kill an animal, then we need to make sure we eat it, instead of wasting it. While we are at it, we also have the opportunity to praise God for the food on our tables, for being able to eat, grow, and live, even at the expense of another being’s life.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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Southern Hospitality, with a side of grits and a glass of sweet tea

Jacob Abbott, the American children’s author wrote the following about the South in 1835: “[T]he hospitality of southerners is so profuse… A traveler, with the garb and the manners of a gentleman, finds a welcome at every door… He sees a plantation, surrounded with trees, a little distance from the road. Without hesitation he rides to the door. The gentleman of the house sees his approach and is ready upon the steps.”

Life is pleasantly slower in the south. As I continue to settle into my new home in Florida, many have asked, what is biggest difference between New York and Jacksonville? The short answer is that life is slower. Some may think that when life is slower, less gets accomplished. I would suggest that the opposite is true. Walking on the streets of New York, people were so busy to get to where they needed to go that they would run over anybody that got in their way.

In Jacksonville, people slow down to greet someone on the street. We hold the door open for others instead of trying to squeeze through the door before it closes shut. We offer a hug and a handshake instead of a cold shoulder. Jacksonville is warm. I am not just talking about the temperature here in August! I mean that Jacksonville is a warm community, a community that welcomes people with open doors and open arms. This is certainly true about the Jacksonville Jewish Center as well as other Jewish communal institutions in Jacksonville.

I don’t mean to generalize New Yorkers. In my ten years in Manhattan, I met plenty of warm individuals, but overall the New York community isn’t as welcoming. I’d say that New Yorkers — and the entire American Jewish community — can learn a great deal from the South. Slow down. Warmly embrace friends and neighbors, guests and strangers. Open your doors, your arms, and your hearts. A successful and thriving Jewish community is a warm and welcoming Jewish community. No matter where the community is located, it would be wise to take a lesson from the city of Jacksonville: add a little Southern Hospitality (grits and sweet tea are optional.)

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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