Tag Archives: Human Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah

I occasionally share on my blog the speeches, reflections, and divrei Torah that B’nai Mitzvah share with our congregation. I wanted to share the speech and words of Torah that a recent Bar Mitzvah shared with our congregation and community.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah 

By Noah

Shabbat Shalom. As I stand up here celebrating becoming a bar mitzvah, I reflect on what exactly that means to me. To become a Bar Mitzvah, a son of God’s commandments, is to start acting like a Jewish adult, accepting responsibility, and serving as one of God’s messengers in this world. It means giving food to the poor, visiting the sick, standing up for all people, and fighting for civil rights and human rights.

It’s not right to just let someone bully another person so we must stand up for someone being treated unfairly. As a Bar Mitzvah, I will march in civil rights and justice marches and give money to organizations that fight for civil rights for all because I’ve experienced this struggle. My moms are gay and they shouldn’t be treated any different from any other person because of that. I just turned 13 years old and yet, it was only a few months ago that my moms were finally able to get married. We traveled to New York for their wedding because they couldn’t even get married in our home state, because IT’S NOT LEGAL IN FLORIDA.

I think it’s unfair that my moms are treated differently. If we truly take responsibility for all and stand up for them, then we need to be able to celebrate that we are all the same, made in God’s image, instead of being divided by how we are different.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, we find a number of things. It begins with the requirements to take a census of select groups and clans of the people of Israel. It also mentions the Nazirites vow. But chapter 6 of the book of numbers concludes with what is likely the most famous of all blessings mentioned in the Torah:

May the lord bless you and keep you. May the lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace.

This blessing, which is really three blessings rolled into one, is Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. This blessing is a blessing that Moses tells Aaron to bless the people of Israel with. In fact the Kohanim chant this blessing to the entire congregation while standing on the bimah on the high holidays. It’s also known as the parental blessing because parents say this blessing to their children every Friday night on Shabbat.

This blessing is a blessing in which we pray for God to keep us safe. We pray for God to be kind to us and for us, as God’s messengers, to be kind to others. And finally, we pray for peace because knowing that we look out for the safety of others just as God looks out to us, and knowing that we must be kind to others just as we pray God is kind to us, we can bring peace to this world and peace in our lives. A blessing of peace, security, and grace is a blessing in which we stand up for everybody.

Judaism — and faith in general — is not just about offering blessings. It’s about making the promise of blessing a reality. We don’t just sit around and wait for God to act. We act.

It is our job to be the voice to those who are silent to stand up for the rights of all to ensure the protection God promises. That’s why I believe everybody should have equal rights. That’s why we must fight for the rights of all and specifically I fight for the rights of my two mothers. It is my obligation as a bar mitzvah — and our obligation as the Jewish community. We pray for peace but we work for peace: for peace in our lives, peace in this community, and peace in this world.

As a Bar Mitzvah, son of commandments which takes responsibility for my actions and the actions of others, it is my job, it is all of our jobs, to make this blessing a reality. So as Jews and as B’nai Mitzvah, children of God’s commandments, let’s not only ask for God’s blessings, but let’s recognize the blessings in our own lives and make this blessing, the priestly benediction, a reality.

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Praying with our Feet: Teaching Children to Fight for Human Rights

Today, December 10th, is the  annual International Human Rights Day, dating back to 1950 when the United Nations General Assembly voted for such a day to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We don’t simply acknowledge Human Rights Day. We don’t just celebrate Human Rights. We act. I previously mentioned how the Jacksonville Jewish Center celebrated Human Rights this past Shabbat, as part of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’ Human Rights Shabbat. More Impactful though then our communal Shabbat experience was participating in an action for social justice and Human Rights with the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School on Friday, December 6th, in preparation for International Human Rights Day.

Standing Up for Human Rights

Standing Up for Human Rights

Every Friday afternoon, the students of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School end their week with a “mitzvah project,” a volunteer activity that emphasizes the Jewish imperative to participate in acts of social action and social justice. An important lesson for our Middle School students is understanding the difference between social action and social justice, understanding the difference between helping those in need by providing them with something, and advocating for a societal change and policy shift to fulfill God’s demand in Deuteronomy 15:4 that “there shall be no needy.” Both are necessary and equally important if we are to be God’s partners in creation.

I spent this past year sharing with these students my previous experiences as part of a T’ruah rabbinic delegation to Immakolee, Florida. Immakolee, approximately four hours from Jacksonville, is home to America’s tomato fields. A large percentage of the fresh tomatoes we eat come from the southwestern part of our state. Upon arriving with other rabbis to Immakolee, I learned about the horrors that migrant workers in the fields have previously dealt with: there have been instances in which the farmworkers were enslaved to growers through coercion, force, assault, fraud, and debt. The Coalition of Immakolee Workers (CIW) has worked hard to put an end to such practices in surrounding tomato fields through the Fair Food Program. Having corporations commit to participating in the FFP is a sign that they too are committed to human rights and that their produce is just. As CIW explains, slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices. The Fair Food Program strives to eradicate slavery and such exploitative practices from our midst.

The top five fast-food companies in the nation are: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. All but Wendy’s have signed on to participate in the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s has not only refused to sign on; they have refused to sit down with the CIW and hear about the exploitative practices that they are supporting by continuing to buy such tomatoes. After spending several months learning about the Coalition of Immakolee Workers and the plight of the migrant workers in these tomato fields, our students took action to make a change.

Our students discussed the importance of participating in such an action. Although Wendy’s is not kosher and thus, it is not a restaurant that we as an institution would eat in, it is a corporation that is a staple of our nation. Furthermore, it is a restaurant that stands for quality, respect, and doing the right thing. If they are not taking a stand for human rights, then we must.

Skyping with CIW

Skyping with CIW

Our action began by skyping with representatives from CIW ally, Interfaith Action. Such a conversation (even if it was over the internet) empowered our students and gave context to the action they were to participate in.

We then discussed talking points and made posters and signs to prepare for our trip to a local Wendy’s. We would never put our students in a dangerous situation. We ensured that there was proper parental and staff supervision. Additionally, we also called the restaurant ahead of time. Our task was not to be a menace. Our task was to raise awareness and engage in meaningful conversations to create change. The manager of the restaurant was aware that we were coming and was happy to meet with us and hear our students express their concerns about the exploitation of workers in Florida tomato fields. After explaining to the manager the need for Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, our students handed her signed letters from T’ruah, urging her to pass the letters along to her bosses and the corporate office. Our voices were heard and she assured us that she would speak to the corporate office and share our concerns.

We then left and gathered our posters and signs to raise awareness and take action outside of the restaurant. The manager was also

Giving the Wendy's Manager our Letters

Giving the Wendy’s Manager our Letters

aware that we would be participating in such an action outside the store and welcomed it, emphasizing our right to educate and our freedom of speech and expression. As cars and individuals passed by, we made them aware of the Fair Food Program and the need for Wendy’s to join! Our students felt inspired. As a rabbi, I was even more inspired, watching them take action, prepared to fight for the rights – for the Human Rights – of other individuals. This is a cause that may not have directly affected them, but it very much did because they understood that we are each made in God’s image so our lives are all sacred and interconnected. This was just one afternoon and one action, but it was an afternoon that inspired me, as I now believe that these Middle School students – these future leaders of the Jewish community – will continue to not just learn of our tradition, but also live the ethics and values of our tradition and ensure equality and Human Rights for all.

Taking Action

Taking Action

The American Jewish community has stood up for the Human Rights of others for as long as we’ve been a part of this country. Taking such a stand in our community is often highlighted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. Taking a stand and participating in social justice issues is what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Heschel famously shared that when he was marching with Dr. King, he was “praying with his feet.” On Friday afternoon, our Middle School students took a stand for Human Rights and prayed with their feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and the Torah: Standing Up for Human Rights

Celebrating Human Rights and mourning a champion of Human Rights.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

That is our experience. This past Shabbat, the Jacksonville Jewish Center observed Human Rights Shabbat, sponsored and organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and joined over 150 congregations to participate in this special Shabbat immediately prior to the December 10th recognition of International Human Rights Day. So too, this past Shabbat, we mourned as the world lost a prophet. Nelson Mandela, a champion of Human Rights, died at the age of 95. He was a South African anti-apartheid politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994-199, following 27-years in prison because of his fight for equality. He was the first black South African to be elected President and the first President elected in a fully representative election, one in which blacks in the country were allowed to vote. Fighting for Human Rights, he taught:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

Nelson Mandela and Christo Brand

More remarkable to me than Mandela standing up for Human Rights, for his own rights, were those who eventually joined him in his fight: 18-year-old Christo Brand was a white prison guard at Robben Island, in charge of watching over prisoner Nelson Mandela. He believed the white man was superior and didn’t hesitate to share his pro-apartheid views. But throughout their relationship, Brand began to believe in the Human Rights that Mandela was fighting for. He developed a friendship with Mandela, smuggled him food while in prison, and transferred to Pollsmoor Prison when Mandela was moved there to continue to watch over him. And while it was truly revolutionary that Mandela’s prison guards were sitting in the front row for his 1994 inauguration, Mandela, once freed, would visit Brand in his home and play with his infant son. When Mandela retired from politics, his education fund awarded a scholarship to Brand’s now grown son, to study, and fight for Human Rights as well. Brand, the white prison guard, learned that it too was his responsibility to fight for the human rights of his friend, his brother.  

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

So too in our country, we remembered and acknowledged taking a stand for Human Rights this past week as we marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, because all the other seats on the bus were occupied, she was arrested on December 1st, 1955. This event set off a year-long boycott of public transportation among Montgomery’s African-American population, many of whom were regular commuters on public transportation. They carpooled, and often walked for long miles in sweltering heat and pouring rain. Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat 58 years ago this week was the catalyst for such a boycott.

I am in awe of Parks’ courage and strength. Yet, I am also in awe of the courage of those who joined with her and supported the bus boycott. Rabbi Seymour Atlas served Montgomery’s Agudath Israel Congregation during the 1950’s. A photo appeared in Life Magazine with Rabbi Atlas standing side-by-side with an African-American peer who was participating in the boycott. Immediately following that, he gave a Shabbat sermon suggesting that the Jewish community as a whole participate in the Montgomery bus boycott and refrain from using public transportation.

I completely understand why he would do so. After all, I always learned that the Jewish community was immensely involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, this was Montgomery, where the city as a whole, including the vast majority of its Jewish community, supported segregation. Congregants at Agudath Israel wanted Rabbi Atlas to ask Life Magazine to retract the picture taken of him, calling it an error. He refused. And when he publicly supported the bus boycott, he was relieved of his duties as rabbi at Agudath Israel. Yet, that too did not stop him. He continued to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He continued to support the bus boycott. He continued to take a stand on an issue that did not directly affect him, but affected him simply because he is human, because Rosa Parks was his sister. He continued to take a stand because the issue of Civil Rights was really an issue of Human Rights.

We recognize the importance of taking a stand for Human Rights, taking a stand, not just for us, but for others as well. For taking a stand for others is taking a stand for ourselves because all of our lives are interwoven and connected.

A successful right hand man of Pharaoh, Joseph has come a long way from being picked on and bullied by his siblings, being thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and sent in prison. Now that he controls the wealth and crops, his brothers travel to Egypt and approach him, asking for food during the famine. We find at the end of Parashat Mikketz that after being bullied in his youth, Joseph becomes the bully. He places a goblet in younger brother Benjamin’s knapsack, only to find it in there moments later and accuse him of stealing it. Joseph demands that Benjamin become his slave in return while the other brothers may return to Canaan.

The beginning of  Parashat Va-yiggash, which the Jewish community read this past Shabbat, is the reason we do what we do when it comes to standing up for Human Rights. Judah, the same brother who suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites only chapters ago, takes a stand. He calls out to Joseph and demands that Joseph enslave him instead of Benjamin. He cannot live a free life if his brother is not free. He cannot appreciate his rights if his brother’s rights are taken from him.

Instead of just groveling, Judah takes a stand. How could he return without his brother?! Who is he without his brother?! He could not imagine living life to the fullest while his brother is enslaved. So he – who is free and is not being penalized at all – takes a stand for Benjamin. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for another. He’s willing to take a stand for his brother.

In fact, standing up for Human Rights is how the Torah portion begins: Va’Yiggash Alav Yehudah. And Judah went  up to Joseph. We refer to the parasha by this first word: Va’Yiggash: and Judah went up. And Judah stood up. And Judah took a stand. But as I learned from my friend and teacher Yael Hammerman, the Hasidic Rabbi the Sfat Emet suggests that this means something more: he translates this as “And Judah came close to him,” and clarifies that the “him” is not only Joseph. Judah came close to himself, came close to Benjamin whose rights he was fighting for, for Benjamin’s rights were also Judah’s rights, and in this courageous act of taking a stand, he also came close to God.

While the Jewish people are called the Children of Israel (of Jacob, Judah’s father) in the Torah, the term, Jewish, and Judaism, comes from the fact that we are the People of Judah. We settled in the land of Judea, represented by the strong lion of Judah. Thus, to identify as the Jewish people, the people of Judah, is to proudly declare that we are a people who stand up for Human Rights.

There are so many areas where we must continue to fight for Human Rights. They happen in every corner of the world, and they happen in our own backyard. All we have to do is open up the newspaper, and be willing to open up our eyes, to realize that we have a responsibility to take a stand for the rights of another. We must be willing to take a stand for that is what our tradition teaches us, and urges us, to do. Find your cause. Find your fight. Step up. Be a voice for the silent and stand up tall for the downtrodden.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: All Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Or to put it more simply, we are all, BTzelem Elohim, made in the Image of God.

As a congregation and community, we did not just observe Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated Human Rights Shabbat. We celebrated our proud history of taking a stand for Human Rights. We celebrated being a voice for morality.

In the spirit of Human Rights leaders Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, may their memories be for a blessing, but also in the spirit of Christo Brand – Mandela’s prison guard who became his supporter and friend – and in the spirit of Rabbi Seymour Atlas – who lost his job because he stood up for what was right – let us stand up for justice and Human Rights. Let us participate in an act that is so engrained in our faith and tradition. Let us, like Judah, stand up for the rights of others, for we are all brothers and sisters. In doing so, we bring ourselves closer to all of humanity, we bring ourselves closer to ourselves, and we bring ourselves closer to God.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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