Tag Archives: Heschel

The Night I Prayed Behind Bars

“We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before. We came as Jews who remember the faceless millions who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

These are the words of a rabbi who spent the night in jail. These are not my words. These are the words of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and 14 other rabbinic colleagues who on Thursday June 18, 1964, while praying in an integrated prayer group in downtown St. Augustine, Florida, were arrested. They came to Florida at the urging of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke weeks earlier at the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis convention about the fierce urgency of now. I thought of this group and this story on Monday night as I spent the evening in a holding cell with 18 of my teachers and colleagues. We each took turns teaching words of Torah as inspiration and meditation, and singing words of our sacred liturgy, pleas that drifted towards the Heavens, turning NY’s 33rd precinct into a Makom Kodesh

I do not mean to compare or conflate the two. However, those words were an important reminder for me of the role of civil disobedience. It is those very words Rabbi Borowitz, and those very words of Torah that we taught each other that served as a spiritual catalyst for our participation in this act. We marched with hundred of rabbis towards Trump International Hotel, protesting what I believe to be the President’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim agenda. I did so – and continue to do so – as a Jew, a rabbi, and a human being. As a person of faith, any executive order that intentionally targets another faith, is deeply troubling, and a reminder of our obligation to stand up. We know all too well what happens when one faith doesn’t stand up for another.

The Jewish people are also a people of refugees. For thousands of years we wandered. We were sojourners, either being evicted from or fleeing every home that we had known, fearing our own safety. That is especially true when we think of our ancestors who sought refuge, fleeing Nazi Germany. But additionally, we know that we are a community – and a country – of immigrants. My great grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine. We each have our own family immigration stories. It wasn’t until the Jewish community settled in this country that we stopped having to seek refuge. 

Our Torah teaches us to welcome the stranger and reminds us that we too were once strangers.

Our Torah also teaches us that we must not just come to understand the teachings of our faith; we must also act on them. And acts of civil disobedience are a common part of our history. I think of the midwives Shifra and Puah, who intentionally ignored the Pharaoh’s command to murder innocent children, and in the process, saved so many lives. I think of the Prophet Jeremiah, who put bands and bars on his arms and around his neck as a protest in the eyes of the King, a symbol of the impending defeat by Nebuchadnezzar. I think of Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman. I think of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who risked his life to publicly criticize the Roman government, a government that prohibited the study of Torah. I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma with Dr. King. I think of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and his colleagues who wrote a letter from prison. And I think of so many in our community who march – and act – and serve as examples to me, reminders that we pray with our feet. 

So on Monday night, I marched with 250 of my rabbinic colleagues. And as we arrived at our destination, I sat in the middle of the street with 18 of my colleagues. We sat and we sang the words of Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, words that we chant this Shabbat as part of Parashat Beshallah. These words that the Israelites sang upon crossing a split sea are words of courage, but also a promise of freedom — a freedom that I believe our faith obligates us to ensure for all. We sang Ozi v’Zimrat Yah, Vayehe Li Lishua. God is my strength and my song. And God will become my salvation.

These words are not just a testament of faith. These words are a reminder for me of why I do what I do. I understand that as a rabbinic leader and public figure, every action has an impact – potentially positively or negatively – on others. I think deeply about the statements I make, the stances I take, and the forms of protest that I may participate in. I also consider those things that for many reasons I choose not to say or share. I know all may not always agree with what I say or do, but I hope that the decisions I make are respected because ultimately, everything I say, and everything I do, every statement I make, and every stance I take, is not rooted in politics, but rooted in Torah. They are rooted in the teachings of Pirkei Avot that remind us to especially speak up and act when others won’t. They are rooted in God serving as my strength and my song. They are rooted in my attempt to walk in God’s ways and fight for all made in God’s image. That is how I understood this act as well, an act of civil disobedience to remind all of our obligation to love the stranger. 

I understand that for some, this point could’ve been made — and has been made — without ending in arrest. The goal of civil disobedience is to raise the profile of an issue because of the importance of that issue. If such an act helped the world see and the government see that I, my 250 colleagues, and our faith, stand up for, protect, and welcome the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee, then it served its purpose.

I also recognize the privilege I have as a white male, and as an upper-middle class rabbi. I understand that the NYPD may have treated a group of nineteen rabbis differently than they treated other peaceful protesters. I then have a responsibility to not only acknowledge that privilege, but also to use it: to speak for those who are fearfully silent because of their skin color, faith, country of origin, or uncertain immigration status. I spent the evening in jail for them. But I believe that I did so, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before me, guided by the values of our faith.

I know that some may agree with my decision to act in such a way and some may disagree. I value the feelings and opinions of every member of our congregation and community. There is always a place in our community for every opinion and I hope that every member of our community will always feel comfortable sharing their feelings with me. Because ultimately, what makes a community a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah, is our ability to share what we believe and feel with each other. I hope all will always feel comfortable talking to me, meeting with me, and sharing their opinions with me. We are a community that is committed to Torah. Everything I do as a rabbi and we do as a community is guided by our understanding of Torah. What makes our community so beautiful is our ability to discuss our own perspectives of Torah, even when we disagree. 

When Queen Esther was hesitant to speak up and stand up, she was reminded by Mordecai: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace, you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” The Hebrew Bible urges us to speak up for others; doing so means that we are also speaking up for ourselves. 


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Jewish Institutions Should Preach Social Justice From the Pulpit

This article was originally published on November 11, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzSocial Justice is a central tenet of Judaism. Why, then, are rabbis and synagogues afraid to broach it?

Throughout my studies in rabbinical school, I was taught to not preach politics from the pulpit. The reasoning for this was backed up by the regulations of America’s Internal Revenue Service, which say houses of worship and not-for-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
These regulations have been misinterpreted as meaning we, religious leaders, cannot talk about any issue that’s deemed “political.” Yet all key issues facing American society are addressed by elected officials. And when they are, they are perceived to have become “political.” So, in turn, we conclude that we can’t talk about them for fear of mixing politics and religion.

This logic is completely misguided.

The fact that politicians address issues does not inherently make these issues “political,” and does not automatically bar rabbis and synagogues from taking a stand.

So why do these institutions really shy away from such issues? For fear of being controversial or labeled in an unpalatable way.

These communities are missing an opportunity to connect the values we, Jewish leaders, teach our children and the lessons of Torah we teach each Shabbat to the world that we live in.

So many issues that I have spoken about from the pulpit – including marriage equality, systemic racism, gun violence, prison reform, refugee crises, and modern day slavery – are anything but political. These are social justice issues.
There may be disagreements on how we as Jews address these issues or how we as Americans guided by Jewish ethics and values address these issues, and disagreement is healthy. But there can be no disagreement regarding our need as rabbis to speak about issues of social justice and address these issues with our congregations.

From November 13 to 17, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the American Jewish community’s Conservative movement, will be hosting its biennial convention in the Chicago-area. This convention, labeled “Shape the Center,” is an opportunity for Conservative congregations and institutions to shape their future and rethink their purpose. Clergy, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders will be coming together during Shabbat and the convention that follows to discuss many issues facing the American Jewish community, in hopes to reshape their visions and to align their missions with the needs of its members.

Among the many presentations at the convention, I will be leading a discussion about putting social justice at the center of our communities, where I will emphasize the need to walk the path of the prophets. Judaism will not survive, let alone thrive, if we solely concern ourselves with the heady debates of the rabbinic tradition and ignore the world in which we live. The prophetic texts of the Bible teach us that Judaism and Jewish values is not just about our own personal actions; it is about impacting our society and our world.

It was Amos who said “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7). It was Jeremiah was said: “Execute ye justice and righteousness … do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22:3). It is Isaiah who challenged: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him” (Is. 58:6-7).

Why are we so scared to share how Judaism has relevant lessons to teach us about facing the issues facing our society? Why are we afraid to be guided by the values of our tradition to change the world around us?

When looking at the now well-documented, inspected and over-analyzed Pew Study on the American Jewish community of 2013, we find that an overwhelming 69 percent of the community believe that living an ethical life is essential to their sense of Jewishness, and 56 percent add that being Jewish means working for justice and equality. If our goal in shaping our institutions is to create entry points for engagement, we should embrace the connection many in our communities make between Judaism and social justice.

Spiritual experience must be more than just Shabbat services. It must be rallies and public actions, too. Education must be more than just religious school and preschool. It must be protests and letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. We must not only assemble in our buildings for prayer. We must assemble on the streets, and in front of town halls and statehouses. We must see social justice as a core part of our congregations, and a core part of our Jewish identities.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Fifty Years After Selma, Still Fighting for Liberation at the Seder

50thAnniversaryBloodySundayOn March 7th and March 8th, earlier this month, tens of thousands gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama spoke and former President George W. Bush attended. They were joined by Democrats and Republicans —  legislators, politicians, and civilians –  all marching to commemorate the freedom-marchers clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers as they peacefully marched for the right to vote half a century ago.

This past Shabbat, March 21st, 2015, was the anniversary of the third DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworthof those three marches, the march that led to the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arm-in-arm with Dr. King, the march that was successful and led to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act several months later. This march also marked the moment when religious leaders of all faiths, ethnicities, and races refused to stand idly by, and chose to walk alongside the likes of King, Lewis, Abernathy, Bunche, and Shuttlesworth.

This march was a reminder that freedom is a God-given right so we must walk alongside our brothers and sisters to ensure that our freedom is their freedom. The likes of Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Davis, and so many other religious leaders who marched, knew that we could not celebrate our freedom and our liberation while others were not yet liberated, while others were discriminated against.

Fifty years later, we still talk about this picture and this march. We talk about how far society has come and yet, how far we have to go. This past Shabbat, as we observed this fiftieth anniversary, we also read a special Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, the fourth of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover. This special maftir Torah reading comes from chapter 12 of the book of Exodus and goes into detail about how to slaughter the pascal sacrifice and then how to eat that sacrifice. What we rush over, but what is arguably the most significant of instructions, is the reminder to put the blood of the sacrifice on our doorposts. For it was that blood that saved the Israelites and ultimately, following the tenth and final plague, led to their freedom. The essence of the ritual is to remind us of that freedom.

In fact, all rituals of the Passover seder are meant to remind us of freedom and liberation. We are taught:

B’chol Dor va’dor chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Such an obligation is not about remembering or re-enacting. Such an obligation is about acknowledging that there is still liberation that needs to take place in our society and in our world. Telling the Passover narrative must remind us of the marching that we still need to do, that there is still inequality in society, still those that we must work to liberate. Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of the Jewish social justice organization, Bend the Arc, offers insight into the rabbis of B’nai Brak that we read about in the Passover Haggadah. We learn in the Haggadah that they were so engaged in the seder that theytalk until daybreak, when their students interrupt them. Rothbaum reminds us that they were not discussing ritual or debating halakha, Jewish law. Rather, they were up until the early hours of the morning talking about liberation – about the exodus experience. A room of rabbis suffering through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire were focused on our communal liberation narrative, in hopes of their own liberation.

For ultimately, that is what the seder is all about: telling the story. In my family, we tend to rush through the rituals aspects of the seder in order to get to the magid section in which we retell the exodus narrative. We do so because we find hope and inspiration in the narrative. Such an exodus from slavery to freedom reminds us of what is possible. It reminds us that we must continue to fight for liberation of all. We must continue to fight racial injustice and gender discrimination. We must continue to fight religious persecution, bigotry, and homophobia. We must continue to fight, to march, and to take action, until we can all experience the journey to freedom.

The Zohar explains that Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, is derived from the Hebrew MiTzarim, which literally means, “from narrowness.” We march away from narrow-minded discrimination and bigotry towards a promised land of equality and love.

Civil rights leaders organized three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first one ended with peaceful protesters bloodied and beaten. But they marched again, and again. We don’t just look back on a single march, but instead on all three marches, for in continuing to march, we find a determination and dedication to justice and to freedom.

With each plague in Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, but that did not stop Moses from demanding to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Each march shared a similar declaration. No matter how many times it took, people of all faiths continued to march and were determined to cross that metaphorical split sea.

The image of that third march, of Heschel and King marching together, along with so many other clergy of diverse faiths and backgrounds, is a reminder that we march together for freedom for all. The prophetic words of Dr. King ring true for people of all faiths:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How can we celebrate freedom when others are not? How can we celebrate liberation when there is still such injustice in our society?

We read in the Haggadah:

This year we are slaves. Next year, free people.

We acknowledge that as long as there is injustice, we cannot truly be free. We cannot celebrate freedom for ourselves until we can celebrate freedom and equality for all. So fifty years later, may we continue to march. May we continue to peacefully assembly and may our seder experiences serve as catalysts in our shared efforts to liberate us all from societal injustice. This year there is still injustice and discrimination. Next year, may we all be liberated.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Pope and the Rabbi

Every year, at the conclusion of the calendar year, Time Magazine comes out with their Person of the Year cover. The cover story focuses on the most influential individual in the news over the past twelve months. During the last fifteen years, Time Magazine Person of the Year award winners have included US Presidents Obama and Bush, world leaders like Vladimir Putin, and social innovators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The list of nominees of this past year’s Person of the Year cover story included Edward Snowden, who announced to the world that the NSA spies on us, Edith Windsor, whose case before the Supreme Court led to the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and a recognition by the high court of the rights of same-sex married couples, Bashar Assad, the tyrant who has murdered tens of thousands of those who challenge his authority in Syria, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who pushed for the government shut down last fall. All of these nominees are worthy of the cover, but who ended up on the Time Magazine cover? Pope Francis.

According to Time Magazine, Pope Francis was the most influential newsmaker over the last 12 months. As noted in the magazine’s article, instead of worrying about sexual ethics or fighting over lines of authority, the Pope has elevated the healing mission of the Catholic Church, using the church as a comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world. Pope Francis’ predecessors were professors of theology, but Pope Francis is the pope of the people, serving as a janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician, and school teacher before becoming a man of the cloth.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion in which the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. While we may tend to focus on the legalistic core of the Torah portion, we refer to as Yitro, meaning Jethro, the high priest of Midyan, the chief cleric of the Midianites. In fact, the Torah portion begins with Yitro’s embrace of Moshe, the leader of the Israelites, making Yitro’s impact all the more noteworthy. Moses, reunites with his family after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, into freedom. His wife Tzipporah and their two sons, stayed behind as he journeyed back into Egypt in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Following the miracles, and the splitting of the sea, following the singing and dancing and praising God with timbrel in hand, Moses is reunited with his family. Yet, before Moses even reunites with his wife and kids, he runs right past them and greets his father in law.

But this singular embrace was not a son-in-law hugging his father-in-law. Rather, it was two religious leaders embracing each other. This was an embrace of the leader of the Israelites embracing Yitro, Kohen Midyan, the High Priest of Midian. They went into the tent and shared stories of faith and of God’s glory. Jethro’s impact continues as he instructs Moses to set up a court system, ensuring justice in the process, making sure everyone’s voices are heard.

Every year, during Martin Luther King weekend, we in the Jewish community are reminded ofDR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the powerful impact of interfaith dialogue and building relationships, based on a shared commitment between faith-based communities and faith leaders. The image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may both of their memories be for a blessing, marching arm-in-arm is engrained in our communal memories. It’s a reminder of the importance of our shared paths as humanity, regardless of our faith and beliefs. It is a reminder that we need to come together, despite our differences, to learn about those differences. Doing so, allows us to grow as individuals. To know the other is to truly know one’s self. Heschel understood King’s tasks as his own, based on a shared ideology, theology, and scripture.

On Florida’s First Coast, Martin Luther King Jr. was barred from entering Jacksonville and instead went south to speak in St. Augustine. Upon his arrest for speaking at the Monson motel, King reached out to his rabbinic colleagues for help. Rabbis gathered and united in support of King, and their shared mission towards justice. The end result: the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history. A more important result: faith-based leaders coming together for the sake of one another.

Many suggest that religion is the root of all evil, that religion and differences in religious beliefs, are what causes violence and war. The reality is that ignorance is the root of all evil. Ignorance, a misunderstanding of another’s beliefs, or a refusal to acknowledge that there are those that believe differently from us, is the root of all evil.

Coming together though, learning from one another and embracing each other – and our differences – is the key to peace. After all, the Psalmist challenges us: Hineh Mah Tov Umah Nayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. How wonderful would it be if we all were willing to see each other as brothers and sisters, as one, despite our differences in belief, in practice, in ritual.

Moses understood thisthis when he embraced Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, before embracing anyone else. He knew this because he was a Hebrew living among Egyptians, growing up in Egyptian culture, living in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. His Judaism was strengthened by learning from those around him who are different.

Pope Francis and Rabbi SkorkaLike the relationship between Yitro and Moshe, the Time Magazine cover means great things for  understanding and embracing the other. Never before has a Pope had such a positive and personal relationship with representatives of other faiths, especially those in the Jewish community. Long before he was Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as Cardinal and Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, going out of his way to pastor to the most needy. Rabbi Abraham Skorka serves the Jewish community of Buenos Aires and actually serves as rector of Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano, the Latin American Rabbinical School affiliated with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently, their friendship began with Bergoglio ribbed the Rabbi about their rival soccer teams.

But their friendships grew. They began meeting and having regular inter-religious dialogue, that culminated in the book On Heaven and Earth, a conversation about their views. Their friendship is so strong that Rabbi Skorka actually has spent evenings in the Vatican visiting the Pope, and the Pope has hosted him and his family for Shabbat dinner, kashering the kitchen in the Vatican to accommodate him. They plan on visiting Israel together later this year.

Such a public expression of their friendship is more than a statement about their friendship. It is setting an example, for Catholics, for Jews, and for all people of faith to embrace each other and learn from each other, for the betterment of society and the world. A rabbi having Shabbos dinner at the Vatican is the equivalent of Exodus 18:7:

Vayetzeh Moshe Likrat Chotno va’yishtachu va’yishak lo

It’s the equivalent to Moses running out to greet Jethro, bowing before him and kissing him; a public display of acceptance, of appreciation, of friendship.

Jacksonville is set comfortably in the Bible Belt, in a community where there are more churches than gas stations. We are a part of a cohesive and warm Jewish community, yet I fear that sometimes, we do not reach out to “the other” and thus, the other doesn’t reach out to us in return. We have an opportunity in the Jewish community in Jacksonville, and in all faith-based communities, to embrace the other, to be like Moshe and Yitro. We have an opportunity to work together, based on our shared beliefs, faith, and values. We have an opportunity to learn together, grow together, and work together to create a more just society. That is what Moshe and Yitro did creating a judicial system. That is what Heschel and King did, marching together and fighting for the Civil Rights for all. That is what Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis do, learning, conversing, and breaking bread together. That is what we must do. So let us seek out those Midianite Priests around us and welcome them into our tents. May we emulate Moses and Jethro’s shared knowledge, mutual respect, and friendship. And may we be better people as a result.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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