Tag Archives: Faith

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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Finding God Where We Are

Last Shabbat, we concluded the book of Exodus. We did so by reading the double Torah portion of Vayahkel-Pekudei in which the building of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, is completed. Upon its completion, God’s Divine Presence was felt in the Mishkan. We read in Exodus 40:33-34:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

After building the Tabernacle, a man-made sanctuary, God’s presence entered the space. If God’s Presence entered the space, then where was God prior to the building of the Tabernacle? In fact, God had been missing in the text since the Golden Calf narrative. Only now does God’s Presence return and reappear.

Many commentators suggest that God had hid and distanced God’s self from the Israelites. God was angry and heartbroken that the people that He brought out of slavery and formed a covenant with abandoned Him so quickly by building an idol. The building of the Tabernacle was their opportunity to re-establish the covenant. It was a physical sign to show their commitment to this relationship with the Divine.

However, I don’t think God abandoned the Israelites. Rather, I think the Israelites stopped looking for God. Still wrestling with their idea of the Divine, and grappling with faith, the Israelites stopped looking for God’s Presence in this world and in the natural world around us. The chose to build a Golden Calf instead of look for God everywhere and in everything. The building of the Tabernacle help them to remove the blinders and see God’s Presence there, and in all places.

We all too often stop looking for God in our own lives. We are busy and preoccupied and become obsessed with our own idols, our own versions of the Golden Calf. In doing so, we ignore God’s Presence. We too need to remove the blinders. We too need to remember that God’s Presence is in this space, in all spaces. We too need to stop for a moment and find God in all of our sanctuaries. And when we find God, it will not be because God was missing. Rather, it will be because until now, we hadn’t searched for the Divine.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Vision for Social Justice in Jacksonville

On Tuesday night, November 5th, 2013, the annual Community Problems Assembly of ICARE (the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment) met at the Abyssinia Baptist Church. As one of the newest member congregations of ICARE, the Jacksonville Jewish Center was proud to be present and participate in the conversation about social justice in our city. Here is the vision for social justice I shared with the almost 600 attendees who were present:

My name is Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and I serve as one of the rabbis of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, which is proud to be officially join ICARE this year as a member congregation, the first Jewish institution to do so. I am here to share the vision of ICARE, but this vision is not only my vision. This vision is not only the vision of my esteemed colleagues, fellow clergy members of Florida’s First Coast who accompany me here this evening. This vision is not simply the vision of this institution. For we do not act to do justice simply because it is the right thing to do. We do not act to do justice because it makes us feel good. We act because the Lord our God, however we refer to God, in whatever language, in our own faiths, commands us, demands of us, begs us, to do so. 

Nehemiah may remind us to do justice, but this is not Nehemiah’s vision. The prophet Amos foresees that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, but this is not Amos’ vision. The prophet Micah commands that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, but this is not Micah’s vision. The Islamic prophet Muhammed teaches that when we see a wrong we should change it with our hand, with our tongue, with our hearts, but this too is not his vision. The Biblical leader of the Jewish people Moses sets up a system of law to enact justice and do what is right, but this too was not his vision. 

For we do not congregate and assemble simply as residents of Jacksonville who are concerned about our city. We come together as representatives of dozens of congregations, of different faiths, and different denominations, people of faith, believers, who are doing God’s will. 

God commands us in Deuteronomy Chapter 15, verse 7 that “if there are needy people among you, you shouldn’t harden your heart towards them, but open your hand to them.” 

God tells us to be kind. God tells us to feed our neighbor, to cloth our neighbor, to help our neighbor; but God does not want us to settle for being kind. Juxtaposed to this verse, immediately beforehand, in verse 4, God commands: “There shall be no needy among you.” God begs us to be kind in the face of injustice, but challenges us to be brave enough to rid this word of true injustice. 

That is God’s vision. That is our vision. A community, a city, a world without any injustice. So we are kind, but we strive to live in a world where we do not help others because they do not need our help. Our vision is a vision of justice. 

As it says in Deuteronomy, in Hebrew, Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof, Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue. God does not tell us that justice is served on a silver platter. God does not want us to sit on our hands and wait for justice to happen. We are God’s partners in creation. We are to pursue justice to complete the utopian Garden of Eden that God originally set out to create. We pursue justice. We chase it. We run after it. We make it a reality. It is not easy, but we do not come together because it is easy. We come together because it is right. We come together because it is sacred. 

ICARE JAXThe mission of ICARE is to powerfully address citywide concerns related to issues of justice and fairness. We use our collective people power to press our elected officials and other city leaders on county-wide solutions to the problems that plague our community. Our vision is that as communities of faith who gather together at least 52 times a year for worship, at least once a year we can all come together to do justice. 

Ultimately, doing justice is worship. Justice is prayer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, once marched arm in arm from Selma to Montgomery with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When asked why he was walking, he explained that he was praying with his feet. So let us do that. Let us pray with our hearts, with our souls, with our voices. Let us act. Let us pray with our feet. Let us pursue justice. 

At the Community Problems Assembly, we were updated on the issues of social justice that ICARE has been tackling, including Youth Crime, Homelessness, Education, and Jobs. The success of ICARE’s efforts is most notable in these fields with the opening of the Downtown Homeless Day Center, which opened last week. The attendees voted on a new issue to work on, and the overwhelming majority decided that together, as people of faith, we must focus on Mental Health. Over the coming weeks and months, experts in the field will study the issue of Mental Health and then we will come together to figure out a strategic plan, so that all residents of Jacksonville can have access to much needed mental healthcare to ensure that Jacksonville is a safer, healthier, and more just city. You can read the Florida Times-Union’s report on the Community Problems Assembly here.

May we all pray and work towards a more just city, society, and world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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