Tag Archives: Congregation Beth El

Davening During Jumu’ah

This past Friday, Congregation Beth El joined with our friends and neighbors at the NIA Masjid & Community Center for their weekly Jumu’ah prayer service. Last spring, my friend Ashraf Latif, Ameer of the NIA Masjid, spent Erev Shavuot, during our Tikkun Leil Shavuot learning session, teaching about the Qur’an. After ending his daily Ramadan fast with an iftar, he joined us so that we could compare and contrast the concepts of revelation in Jewish and Muslim scripture. Over the past few years, we have developed a friendship and a commitment to learning from each other about the other’s faith. We also have a shared commitment to standing up for the other. In the winter of 2015, when presidential candidates first mentioned the possibility of a discriminatory Muslim Ban in this country, he was the first person I reached out to – to let him know that his community is not alone and their Jewish brothers and sisters stand with them. This past Hanukkah, when the local South Orange menorah was vandalized, his call was the first I received; he and his community offered to help however possible. Weeks ago, we found each other among the hundreds who had gathered late into the night at Newark International Airport, protesting the President’s executive orders that had banned immigrants for seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. At that moment we truly understood the fierce urgency of now and we reaffirmed our commitment to be there for each other. The first step was our synagogue joining the NIA Masjid & Community Center last week during their Jumu’ah prayers. Our goal was to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters during this time of uncertainty and fear in our country. We intended for the afternoon to be a day of standing with them, but we were blown away by how simultaneously, they stood with us.  

We were welcomed by their entire community. While we initially stood in the back of their prayer space, as to not disturb the ritual and intention of the service, after being publicly welcomed, so many parishioners came up to us to welcome us and thank us for being present. We were comforted by the words of Imam Daud’s weekly sermon, words that focused on standing up for justice, words that mirrored the teachings of our Torah, words that were so similar to what we often learned and taught.

At that moment, I took the opportunity to not just observe or be present, but to pray as well. I whispered words of prayer privately to myself, the text and liturgy of our faith, and concluded with the hope that Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael v’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel. May the Divine One who makes peace in high places, bring about peace for us and all of the Jewish people, and all who dwell on earth. My prayers may have been in Hebrew and may have come from our liturgical afternoon Mincha service. But there was no doubt that I felt as if I was praying with all those present. My kavanah, my intention, was uplifted by being in a holy space and by being among those present.

After the Jumu’ah service, we were invited to join members of the community for lunch and to get to know each other better. The community members went out of their way to make sure there was kosher food, so that we would feel comfortable eating, labeling a variety of foods as under kosher supervision and as “dairy” and “pareve”. As we took turns introducing ourselves, we came to understand and appreciate our shared beliefs, even if we practice different faiths, and our shared commitment to know the other and care for the other. Furthermore, we acknowledged the communal fear that was felt, but promised each other that we wouldn’t let that fear define us or determine our lot in life. 

I was honored to offer words of Torah and teachings from the Jewish faith to those present at the masjid. Referencing Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion read the following day, I noted that Jethro brought Moses’ sons and wife to him, but Moses went out and greeted Jethro before he greeted his own immediate family. He bowed low and kissed him and invited him into his tent. He embraced his fellow cleric because he understood the importance of their relationship as two religious leaders, as two people of faith. We understand the importance of religious communities coming together. Because to embrace the other, and have the other as a friend, means we see the other in the same way that we see ourselves. And to know the other, is to truly know ourselves. How beautiful to learn from our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and grow in our own faiths as a result. Most importantly, we understand our responsibility to stand up for ourselves and stand up for others, made in God’s image. Doing so ensures that we continue to walk in God’s ways and honor God in the process.

Attending a single service was only a small sign of solidarity. However, it also represented our deeper promise and commitment to stand with our neighbors and support them. As Jews, we know all too well what happens when others are silent in the face of bigotry and discrimination. We refuse to be silent and promise to stand united together.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Be The Shamash

The following Chanukah message was shared at the beginning of the festival with the Congregation Beth El community:

The Chanukiyah, the Chanukah Menorah, serves more than just a ritual purpose. We are taught that when we light the Menorah, we should place it in the window for all to see. By doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of Pirsum HaNes — of publicizing the Chanukah miracle. During the winter solstice, at the darkest point in the year, the flames of the Menorah add light to the darkness.

The Talmud mentions how Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel debated the proper way to light the Menorah. But regardless of their differing perspectives, there was universal agreement that you use a shamash, a helper candle, to light all the other candles. To this day, the shamash is on a different level than all the other candles of the Menorah, emphasizing its significance.

We look around the world and it is easy to be consumed by the darkness of society. But doing so means that we forget the miracles that surround us everyday. On Chanukah, we don’t only celebrate the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees, or even the miracle of oil burning for eight nights. The miracle of Chanukah is to appreciate the miracles in our lives, despite the darkness that we all too often may feel or experience.

When we celebrate the miracles in our lives, no matter how large or small they may be, we also understand our responsibility to be a metaphorical shamash. With each day, the light of the Menorah increases, until all nine candles (including the shamash) burn on the final night of the festival. The use of the shamash reminds us how easy it is to light up the darkness. Just as the light of the shamash spreads to other candles and quickly illuminates the night, we must also be the initial spark to illuminate the darkness, helping to inspire and enlighten others. 

May we appreciate the miracles of old and the miracles in our everyday lives. And may we never stop trying to light up the darkness. Chag Urim Sameach! Wishing you a joyous and inspiring Chanukah!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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A Message from Rabbi Olitzky, Rabbi Cohen, & Rabbi Cooper

The following message is being shared with the members of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Dear Friends,

We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship and raise families. At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging. That has been the case over the last days. As many of you know, and as has been reported in a number of local media outlets, there have been a number of bias issues that have taken place at South Orange Middle School in recent weeks. These included hate images posted to social media, student-to-student bias comments in the halls, and lunchroom conversation that has no place in our community. This is, of course, unacceptable and requires response. Such response must, however, be serious in intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges AND the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place. It is in this context that we are taking the unprecedented step of writing to each of our congregations but doing so in a single document.

Upon hearing of this late last week the three of us immediately met to discuss how we, as the rabbis of the three South Orange synagogues, might best respond. As a result of that meeting, late yesterday afternoon we met with members of the administration of the school district, including Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent of Schools, Kevin Walson, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Lynn A. Irby, Principal of SOMS, as well as assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors. Present at the meeting as well were representatives from the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the local Community Coalition on Race. We appreciate Principal Irby’s swift response to organizing this meeting.

It was a good meeting and the first of what we expect will be a series of ongoing meetings and learning opportunities. We left the meeting confident of a number of things. First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong. Second, the school has, and will continue to, address the specific events and those involved in them. Equally important, however, is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large. We emerged confident that they will do just that. We also appreciated the administration’s offer to partner with us to aid in this effort.

We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “we are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” We appreciate the administration’s commitment to cultivating a community of “upstanders,” to initiating anti-bias training for staff, to building peer leadership training opportunities for our children, and to planning parent workshops and conversations on bias. We look forward to working together in teaching our children and ensuring that our community continues to be a blessing.

In friendship,

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Congregation Beth El
Rabbi Dan Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
Rabbi Mark Cooper, Oheb Shalom Congregation

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Bitter Waters and Bottled Water: Lessons of Flint, Charity, and Justice

This article was originally published on January 31, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

I’ve always been annoyed by the actions of the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt. I’d roll my eyes at their childish and immature behavior. How is it possible that they could complain so quickly after experiencing the miracle of the freedom, so quickly after witnessing the waters part? They complained about not having enough water, about the waters of Marah being too bitter to drink:

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were too bitter (Ex. 15:23).

Too bitter?! I used to scoffed as I read this narrative. Deal with it. Stop complaining. The water is fine. After all, you’re finally free. Drink whatever is put in front of you. But now I get it. You aren’t really free if you don’t have water to drink. You aren’t really free if only bitter water is provided for you. Because that bitterness – that unclean water – still reeks of oppression and discrimination.

I’ve watched the news over the past several weeks in disbelief as Flint, Michigan, an entire city of 100,000 has been drinking toxic and poisonous water. What is scary is that while we were made aware of this by the national media a few weeks ago, the people of Flint have been consuming this lead-poisoned water for over two years. This isn’t a third world country. This is happening in America, where we spend seven dollars on a latte, and yet, government officials try to cut costs by poisoning a city. The wealthy legislators cut costs that only impacted the poor city of Flint, where 41% of the city live below the poverty line, where the majority of residents are black. They did so and claimed that the water was fine to drink, but brought in bottled purified water for all state officials who worked in the city.

I received a letter last week from Mayor Ras Baraka, mayor of neighboring city of Newark. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Mayor Baraka explained that Newark, along with Paterson and Jersey City, will be spending the next two weeks collecting bottles of water to be delivered to residents of Flint. We at Congregation Beth El, like so many other Jewish communities, accept the call to pursue justice and decided that we too would collect bottles of water and we continue to do so. We are committed to donating because we cannot stand idly by. We are committed to donating because we are committed to fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, to not closing our hands or our hearts to those in need.

bottled water.pngYet, after announcing that we were going to be collecting bottles of water, I, like many, read Michael Moore’s letter that had gone viral. The famous documentary film maker who is from Flint, Michigan wrote: “Don’t send us bottles of water. Instead, join us in revolt.” Some questioned if we should be collecting bottles of water at all. I understand Moore’s point and I agree with him. He points out that with 100,000 residents in Flint, we’d have to send roughly 200 bottles per day per person to Flint to meet their essential needs for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, and of course, drinking. That is roughly 20 million bottles per day! He also reminds us in his letter that the damage is done. The neurological damage done to the children of this city is irreversible. Stopping to drink the water now won’t change that damage.

20 million bottles of water per day seems impossible – and there are environmental challenges to that many bottles of water. I agree with him that sending bottles of water doesn’t solve all the problem and Michael Moore knows the city a lot better than I do. I agree that sending bottles of water is a short-term fix. But just because something is a short-term fix, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Food pantries are also short-term solutions and don’t solve hunger. Yet, we still collect donations. Shelters are a short-term fix and don’t solve homelessness. Yet, we still volunteer. In fact, charity – Tzedakah – is a short term fix. I get all that. But what about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until, or if, this problem is resolved? What about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until they are evacuated by FEMA? What about the 100,000 people in Flint who, despite the damage that has already been done, still need clean water to drink?

Moore is suggesting that we focus our time on holding the government accountable and making sure those who did this are brought to justice. I agree that we can’t just send water and feel good about ourselves, and then ignore the dire needs of this city. But I refuse to not try to provide clean water – no matter the damage already caused – for a city. We can still revolt and fight for justice while providing water. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There is a difference between charity and justice. We should not and cannot confuse the two. We cannot only give charity. We must also fight for justice. But we cannot forget the need to do charity while we are fighting for justice. That is the reason that we have two biblical commands: Deuteronomy 15:4, to build a just society, and Deuteronomy 15:7, to help those in need as well strive for justice. We must do both.

The actions of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, in our biblical narrative are some of the most important actions in the Torah. He is there alongside Moses and the Israelites as they receive the Ten Commandments, representing the Divine law. But juxtaposed to this event is Jethro – an outsider of sorts – who tells Moses that a court system, a justice system, must be set up. We read:

This thing that you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, and this people that are with you as well. For this task, this burden, is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone (Ex. 18:17-18).

Jethro is doing more than just helping Moses find the proper work-life balance. He is doing more than making sure Moses isn’t micromanaging. He is acknowledging that as the Israelites are receiving law, law is not set in stone. Law does not always equal justice.

Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it is just. Jethro teaches that we must wrestle with law, struggle with the legal system, and make sure that laws are just for all. That is the justice system that he set up. That is the justice system that we still seek. So yes, Michael Moore, we should revolt. We should pursue justice. We should hold Governor Snyder and the state officials of Michigan accountable for poisoning an entire city. But we have an obligation to give charity, to give Tzedakah, while we fight for Tzedek. We have an obligation to throw that metaphorical branch into the bitter waters to make them sweet. We have an obligation to provide clean, drinkable water, to every resident of this country. And we have an obligation to continue to fight for justice while we do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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Congregation Beth El Celebrates National Coming Out Day 2015

On October 11th, Congregation Beth El celebrated National Coming Out Day. Beth El Congregant and Executive Director of North Jersey Pride, CJ Prince, taught sixth and seventh graders of our Jewish Learning Center about inclusion, acceptance, and equality. 


This past Shabbat, the Shabbat following National Coming Out Day, CJ shared her story with our congregation and community. We read Parashat Noach, the story of Noah’s Ark that Shabbat and read of the rainbow, the Keshet, as a sign and symbol of God’s promise to protect all of God’s creatures. The rainbow is the symbol of the LGBTQ community as well, not just because it represents diversity, but also because it represents love and protection, the same love and protection that God promised all of us following the flood. We at Beth El also celebrate all, building a safe and inclusive community for all, exemplified by that very rainbow. 

The following are the words shared by CJ Prince at Congregation Beth El in honor of National Coming Out Day:

CJ PrinceThank you to Rabbi Olitzky for inviting me to speak today, on National Coming Out Day. For those not familiar with the origins of this special day, it started the year after the 1987 march on Washington. More than 250,000 people gathered on the mall in DC to demand equal rights for gays and lesbians. It was decided by the movement’s leaders that having a positive day celebrating revelation, honesty, wholeness would be a nice change from protesting negative stuff. And there was still plenty of negative stuff.  Just the year before, in 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a ruling that upheld the state of Georgia’s right to arrest same-sex couples for being intimate in the privacy of their own homes. So although the American Psychiatric Association had removed “homosexuality” from the list of pathologies in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in in 1973, it was still essentially illegal to be gay at this time. So we weren’t crazy; we were just criminals.

Right around this time, ’86, ’87, I was a teenager in high school. I attended Yeshiva University High School for Girls. I had wanted to attend the co-ed Frisch School in New Jersey, also Orthodox, but my father insisted that I had to go to an all-girls school, so I could “concentrate on my studies.” Somewhere in ninth or tenth grade I became aware that something was different about me. My hair was permed like the other girls. I wore big belts and neon sweatshirts and long jeans skirts, like everyone else. But I didn’t have crushes on boys like the other girls. I had crushes on girls. That was a pretty big difference—and I was completely freaked out. Because being gay was bad. And invisible.

In the 1980s, the only gays on television or in movies were either asexual and alone or criminals and psychopaths. Very few celebrities were out. Melissa Etheridge hadn’t even come out yet, let alone Ellen Degeneres or Jodie Foster, who were deep in the closet with all the other gays. There was no Glee, no L-Word, no Queer As Folk, no Orange is the New Black, and certainly no Transparent. As far as anyone knew, there were absolutely no gay people in my hometown of Monsey, New York. For those who haven’t heard of Monsey, it’s a tiny Orthodox Jewish enclave in Rockland County, about an hour north of here, sometimes called Monsey-eer-hakodesh. My rabbi, Reb Moshe Tendler, was vocally, vehemently, anti-gay, although to be honest it didn’t come up much in his divrei torah. But if it had, it wouldn’t have been warm and fuzzy. The only time I heard a reference to gay was when my parents and their friends would call a man a faygele. I didn’t know exactly what it meant but I gathered it wasn’t a compliment.

So I worried a lot—quietly. When I was 17, I entered Stern College at Yeshiva University on an early admissions program. I was becoming increasingly concerned about what I saw as a huge impediment to my destiny, which was to marry a man and have children. Fortunately, engagement announcements were a daily event at Stern, which did a good job of reminding me of the time pressure I faced. I knew I had only a year or two until the clouds of suspicion would gather about my lack of a steady boyfriend. I had no choice but to work on changing it. I found a therapist through a friend. I went to her, explained the problem and told her I needed to fix it. I said, I have just two years until I have to be engaged. Tick-tock. She said, okay, we can try that. But you may have to accept just the smallest possibility that this isn’t something you can change. It may not be something you fix. I told her that that was all fine for her other patients, but for me, we’d have to change it. Deep inside, though, a part of me sighed with relief. She was the first human being I had ever told, and she didn’t expel me from the room. She even implied that I might be okay just as I was. Food for thought.

Still, I still didn’t see a light at the end of my tunnel. I couldn’t see how it would all be alright. I did have passing thoughts about suicide, but I never acted on them. Instead, I went for a year in Israel and after spending a soul-searching and very chaste year in yeshiva—I decided I was so religious that I would be shomeret negiyah, a rule that meant I could not touch boys. Which was very convenient. I asked my father if I could stay in Israel for shanah bet, a second year of yeshiva. Israel felt safe, a haven from myself and my reality back home, and I wanted to stay. I knew if I went back I’d have to find out more about who I was and that seemed like it wouldn’t end well. I thought for sure my parents would be thrilled, but to my surprise, they denied my petition. My mother had dropped out of college to have my brother and never finished, and I think she was determined that I would be the first woman in the line to earn a degree. They said, come back and finish college and then if you want to go back, okay.

Fortunately, they let me transfer to Barnard because I was miserable at Stern—and because Barnard was all-girls, too. At Barnard, I found my people. And by the time I graduated I was pretty sure I knew who I was. And I was equally sure that my parents could not know what I knew about who I was. So I kept my life a secret for the next five years. During this time, I abandoned all yiddishkeit. I believed that there was no place for me in a Jewish context and no room for my Jewish identity if I was going to embrace my gay identity. And after 22 years of living as a good Jewish girl, I felt it was time to let my other identity have equal time. The truth is, I was angry and I was hurt, and I just jettisoned it all. It was just too painful to try to integrate these two halves of me, so I didn’t.

Then, in the mid-’90s, I found Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the LGBT synagogue in Manhattan. I was in awe of a Jewish house of worship that invited people not to check one identity at the door, but to bring all identities in to be welcomed, accepted, celebrated. There, I didn’t have to choose between being Jewish and being gay. I could just be.

Still, I always went home to Monsey for the High Holy Days. My father was one of the chazzanim at the shul and it was just assumed I would be there so long as I wasn’t married. But during those years, I was not observant at all in my life, and Yom Kippur behind a mechitzah became unbearable. So when I was 26, I attended my first Yom Kippur at CBST. It was an incredible experience to be asking for forgiveness, but not for who we were. When we said the al cheyts, we said the traditional ones, but then we added in a few. Al cheyt she-chatanu lefanecha…for the wrong we have done before you by rejecting a part of ourselves. For the wrong we have done before you by being ashamed of how you created us. For the wrong we have done before you by keeping ourselves hidden from the people we love.

By ne’ilah, I knew the time had come to tell my parents. I did a trial run with my older brother, Jay. It took me a couple of stiff drinks to get the words out, but when I finally said, “I’m gay,” he said, “Yeah…and?” So apparently I hadn’t been as good at hiding this as I thought. He didn’t know whether my parents had a clue, and I didn’t guess they did. But I was emboldened by this experience. Maybe it would all be okay.

So I made plans to go home to Monsey for a Shabbos and at some point over the day, I would tell them. It was only after we lit candles that I realized this might not have been the best plan. We didn’t drive on Shabbat or use phones and we were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, so if it didn’t go well, I was kind of up a creek. So I twisted and agonized about this for about…twenty-four and a half hours. I’ll tell them at dinner, I thought. Hmm, no, I’ll tell them at lunch, after my father’s had some bourbon for Kiddush. No maybe after he’s had a nap would be better.

Finally, it was evening. My father had gone to shul for maariv and my mother and I were playing card games together. I was trying to get up the nerve to tell her, but felt as though I might literally be sick. We finished our 20th game of gin rummy.

“What should we play next?” she asked.

“Well…how about we play truth or dare?” I said.

“How do we play that?” She looked worried.

I took a deep breath. “That’s the game…where I tell you the truth.”

Mind you, this was not part of a plan. I had not rehearsed what I would say and had no idea what I was talking about. But I had to start somewhere. After that opening, though, I just couldn’t get it out. The words wouldn’t come. It’s hard to explain what that moment is like unless you’ve long hidden a fundamental, unchangeable part of yourself—from the people closest to you—and then decide one day to suddenly reveal it. The best analogy I can make is that it’s akin to wearing a mask over your face for decades, believing that what’s underneath it will be hideous to everyone else. Then one day you decide to take off the mask, hoping people aren’t as horrified as you think they will be. The fear is  overwhelming, literally paralyzing. Long agonizing minutes passed. Tears streamed down my face but the words just wouldn’t come. Finally my mother took my hand.

“Just say it,” she said.

“I’m gay.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

She cried a little. I cried a lot. We hugged. Then I asked her what she thought my father would say. She wasn’t sure. She asked me what I was most afraid of. I said that I thought he might not love me anymore if he knew. She said, “Why don’t you let me tell him and let him come to you.”

So I ran upstairs to my old room to hide while my mother sat down with my father when he came home from shul to tell him all that I’d said. It was only a few minutes later that I heard his footsteps running up the stairs. He found me and wrapped me in a big hug.

“How could you think I wouldn’t love my best girl because of that?” he said. Then he added that he wished I didn’t have such a difficult road ahead of me. But I left Monsey that night knowing that my road had just become a little bit easier to travel.  I was really, really lucky. Having heard many, many stories about rejection by parents, I know just how lucky I was, and am.

Of course, over the next few years, we had some steps forward, some back, some anger, some bargaining, some denial. Lessons were learned. For example, I learned if you let too much time lapse after coming out without talking about it, the coming out expires and you have to do it again.

But by 2001, they were almost there. Not ready to march in the parade, but they had almost accepted that this was who I was. Almost. And then in February of that year we found out my brother, Jay, had a very rare form of cancer and his prognosis was not good. It took nine months from start to finish. He was 41 years old. He left four children, the youngest was two. Tonight, coincidentally, I will light a candle for his 14th yarzheit.

His death crushed all of us. And of course, my parents were, quite literally, devastated. Things changed after that, between us. It was almost as if they knew, having lost a child, they would never risk losing another one.  Their children, however imperfect, however unexpected, were gifts from Hashem and they were going to cherish every minute they had with them. They not only came to my wedding in 2003, but they walked me down the aisle. My father gave a beautiful dvar torah during the dinner. My mother passed away the very next year from breast cancer—another devastating blow. But I was grateful that before she died, she knew me. My father has been nothing but one hundred percent supportive since. That’s a big deal considering how many times he has had to come out to other people he knows and meets, since I’ve had children. He loves his granddaughters to the moon.

When we moved out to New Jersey, I was sad to leave CBST. I thought I’d never find that sort of welcoming community again. But I was wrong. Beth El is a truly inclusive Conservative synagogue. It welcomes all to “come as you are.”  Worship here as yourself. Don’t check your identity at the door; bring it inside and we will not only accept it, but celebrate it. I can’t tell you what that means for me, what it would have meant to me as a young person, and what I know it means today to the teens and kids even younger who suspect they may be LGBT and are terrified of the consequences of revealing who they are.

When Rabbi Olitzky arrived at Beth El, he immediately reached out to me and to North Jersey Pride to see how we could partner and make Beth El an even safer and more inclusive space for LGBTQ members. Beth El was a proud 2015 Equality Sponsor of North Jersey Pride this past year and more nachas I could not have schepped.

Over the past two decades, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous strides. We can now marry in every state in the country—something I never imagined I would see in my lifetime. There are lots of out and proud celebrities, gay-themed shows on television, films, and so on. But it is still legal to fire someone for being gay in 28 states. We also have a ways to go on transgender rights. We are still fighting entrenched homophobia in our culture. And the biggest threat is to our youth. Young LGBT people are still at a much higher risk for depression and suicide. They are bullied at a much higher rate. They often feel isolated and feel unable to seek help. They don’t see the light at the end of their tunnel, just as I couldn’t see it, even though it really was there.

We deal with bullying in our schools, which of course we should, but that’s just one leg of the stool. If we don’t model that inclusiveness in our homes and in our houses of worship, how can we ask our youth to live it in school?

At Beth El, inclusiveness seems to be the norm. That’s what the quiet, closeted gay teen in the back of the shul sees. She sees it’s okay out there. The air is fine. She doesn’t have to live in fear or in silence. I, for one, have tremendous gratitude for that.

I thank Rabbi Olitzky for the invitation to speak to you, and I encourage you all, if you are not LGB or T, to celebrate National Coming Out Day by coming out as an ally to someone you know, someone who you think might be a little uncomfortable with it or someone who you might feel a little uncomfortable talking to about the topic. The next time you hear a joke or a stereotype or a slur, even if the speaker didn’t mean any harm, say something. You just never know who’s listening.

Every time you stand up and speak out, you make this world just a little bit safer for all of us. You become a light unto others. And you become an active part in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.  Shabbat Shalom.

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Acting on our Obligation to “Love the Stranger”

It is customary that throughout the summer at Congregation Beth El we have summer darshanim, different congregants who teach, share, and offer words of Torah about the Torah portion. Last Shabbat, for Parashat Eikev, we were privileged to have one of our congregants, MIke Finesilver, share his thoughts about the recent events in Israel. His words of Torah are below. We invite all who are interested to share their words of Torah with the community. If you are interested in giving a D’var Torah in the future, please contact me directly. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev

By Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

Mike Finesilver

In this week’s Parasha, Eikev, Moshe continues to address the Jewish people.  These parashiot are his final words before he leaves them; his farewell TED talk if you will.

Last week, Moshe recounted in detail the journey from slavery to freedom.  A reminder that we need to learn from our past, to analyze our missteps in order to be able to move forward and to change.  It also contained the six verses which make up the first parasha of the Sh’ma (our central prayer).

This week’s parasha contains nine verses which make up the second parasha of the Sh’ma.

Both of them command us to Love Adonai “Bechol L’vavecha oo’vchol nafshecha.  With all your heart and all your soul.  Last week addressed this to the individual and this week to the community.

Moshe, knows that he will not be around to go into the promise land and therefore it is important that he leaves behind a clear and concise directive.  He stresses to the people that if they/we follow the commandments, they/we will be rewarded and if not, then not.  I include “we”, because when we read the Torah, Moshe is also addressing us.

If we take care to follow the commandments, God will take care of the rest.

We are told that even though odds are not always in our favor, we will prevail over all diversity and go forth to prosper with land, with children and with wealth.  However, we are warned not to be led astray by our rewards (not to feel we have earned them), lest we be corrupted by them.

We are also reminded of our missteps in order that we do not repeat or forget them and we are also commanded to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” So my heart has been heavy from recent events in Israel and I need to ask the question “For people who say that they follow the Torah (word for word and letter for letter), how does the command to “love the stranger” translate to some of the atrocities that took place in and around Jerusalem, perpetrated by a few extremist Jews only a week ago?

I know that Rabbi Olitzky addressed this last week, but as a Jew and a Gay Man I cannot explain the pain I experienced over the attack on the people peacefully marching in the Gay Pride rally in Jerusalem by an ultra-orthodox man wielding a knife, resulting in five marchers being seriously wounded and the death this week of a 16 year old girl, Shira Banki.  The attacker was just released from prison three weeks before for doing the same thing in 2005.  I marched in the Jerusalem Pride rally in 2007 for world pride and there were bomb threats and demonstrations that stopped the parade.  Just to be clear, this is not a loud, brightly colored, saucy parade like in Tel Aviv or New York. The Jerusalem march is a respectful rally for LGBTQ people of all ethnicities and religions who live in Jerusalem.

As if that wasn’t enough, the day after we learned of the fire bomb attack on the Palestinian settlement in the West Bank by extremist Jewish settlers, resulting in the death of 18 month old Ali Saad Dawabsha and serious injury to his four year old brother and parents.

And it makes me ask, Did we as a people not go through the holocaust where hate resulted in the destruction of six million Jews and countless LGTB people?  “Love the Stranger”

It could be very easy for us to say these are the actions of a few extremists and dismiss these acts of terrorism as not being our responsibility.  We are commanded this week to love the stranger, but the people who committed these acts were grown out of communities of hate for the stranger/the other.

Last Saturday night there was a Rally in Jerusalem with Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau.  Lau, is the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one). He addressed thousands of people who turned out to condemn these attacks.

He said “It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,’” Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

“All the worshippers in all the synagogues in Israel,” Lau continued, “all of them heard today, this very day, heard for themselves the Ten Commandments [in the weekly Torah portion]. And in them, at the top, they stood and heard, ‘Do not murder.’”

“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”

In this week’s haftarah from Isaiah we are reminded that the persecutors will be punished.

It says “Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from my hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.”Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie downBehold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.Behold all of you who kindle fire, who give power to flames; go in the flame of your fire, and in the flames you have kindled; from My hand has this come to you, in grief you shall lie down.

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  I also say Love the hated, for we were hated.

This parasha talks about the gift of a land that is perfect, in return for doing the work every day to follow G-d’s ordinances.  The message is clear “Do the work and reap the benefits.”  It is not about taking the law into one’s own hands to control the outcome.  This week addresses the community obligation to work every day to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah.

We also enter the month of Elul, which begins next Shabbat and these parashiot remind us to reflect on our past actions and to make amends.  We are commanded to strive each day to surround ourselves with good deeds and mindful speech.  As a community it is important what we say, what we teach our children.   Are we teaching them to do the right thing?  Are we mindful of how we talk about others?

I feel truly blessed to have a community like ours, to see young parents bringing their children to Shacharit services.  To feel the true acceptance in this community and be surrounded by truly selfless giving and love.

May we continue to Love the Stranger and to expand a community that is built on inclusion and mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom!

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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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