Tag Archives: Immigration

Instead of Arguing over Semantics, We Must Act

Controversy took over the headlines this week – you know, not real controversy, but the type of controversy that we’ve come to expect in a 24-hour news cycle where every tweet, comment, and quote get over analyzed and twisted out of context. This week, in reference to the detention facilities that the Trump administration has set up on the US-Mexico border, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as concentration camps. Many of her political opponents were quick to criticize her, suggesting that one cannot use Holocaust allegory to condemn the human rights violations happening right now in our country, as if we say “never again” but don’t actually mean it, like it only means never again to us.

I understand that using the term concentration camps is a trigger. I understand that doing so suggests that the actions of the Trump administration are no different than Nazi Germany. I would never say that or suggest that. But we have been so consumed over the last several days by whether or not these are concentration camps,  and ignored the half a dozen children – CHILDREN – who have died in these detention facilities for lack of care, or the babies born prematurely in these internment camps without being seen by a medical professional. We’ve debated appropriate analogies instead of highlighting the reports that a traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children, and teens at the border who have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water, or sanitation.

And it doesn’t matter that there are those historians who say that concentration camps is the appropriate term, because I am not sure it is the appropriate term. But we get consumed and distracted by those arguments, by those who are trying to prove that concentration camps is an appropriate term, or those who suggest that using such a term minimizes the actual horrors of the Holocaust. We end up ignoring the President’s promise of a modern-day Kristellnacht – yes, I too used such an analogy — reporting that he will soon be demanding that ICE begin rounding up millions – MILLIONS – of residents to arrest them, detain them, and deport them, because of their immigration status, and will question those based on how they look or the languages they speak.

The 24-hour news cycle has forced us down this narrowly-focused path where we only have tunnel vision, where we are arguing over semantics, and ignoring the actual problem, refusing to act entirely. It’s as if only certain people can say certain things, like decrying human rights violations can only be done by those who they themselves have suffered such violations, like using the term concentration camp is reserved only for survivors of the Shoah. Unfortunately, as there are fewer and fewer survivors left, it is up to those who only learned about such atrocities and thank God, didn’t live through them, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Or even worse, it is up to us to make sure society doesn’t turn a blind eye, when history does repeat itself.

In Parashat Behaalotecha, we are introduced to Eldad and Meidad, two individuals who we only hear of for the very first time in Numbers 11:26. The text tells us that vatanach aleihem haRuach, that God’s divine spirit rested on them, and they offered prophecy. When a young man runs out to complain to Joshua and Moses that two random men are prophesizing and speaking truth to power, Joshua freaks out, but Moses puts him in his place. He says: It should be that all of God’s people are prophets, and that God’s spirit rests with everyone.

It is on all of us to speak up when we see the atrocities going on all around us. And maybe we are overly hyperbolic. But maybe, just maybe, such analogies are appropriate. And most definitely, such analogies bring attention to the problem – to kids locked in cages, to ICE agents raiding apartment buildings and elementary schools, to families being separated, to children being denied safety and sanitation by this supposed land of the free. We all have an obligation to be that prophetic voice – not just our leaders. And especially when one attempts to silence another for calling out such atrocities, or for the imagery they use when doing so, we must speak up and be reminded that God’s divine spirit rests on all of us. We are all prophets. We must all speak truth to power.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The same law for citizens and sojourners

childDetentionCenterIf there were 2300 children separated from their parents without any tracking system, without even knowing where they are, without having any way to reunite them with their families, and they were white children, American citizens, government officials would be arrested and tried for trafficking children. If we kept American children in cages, the entire country would be up in arms. But they are not, so the government tries to convince us that somehow, their actions are completely justified. They suggest that the laws that are meant to protect our civil rights and human rights don’t apply to them. Somehow, these laws are meant to keep us safe from them. But these are children. And they are human beings. Forget for a second about supposed laws that have been broken. Think instead about how many hearts and souls this administration has broken, the broken souls of babies, of parents, of our nation.

Today a federal judge ordered immigration agencies to quickly begin reunifying these families that have been separated due to Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy. While such an order is a positive step in the right direction, that does not change the President’s intentions of using his executive powers to treat someone human beings as animals, as inferior, as profane.

Last Shabbat, Jewish communities read around the world the Torah portion of Chukat. Parashat Chukat focuses on two well-known biblical narratives, Moses’ striking of a rock and the death of Aaron. However, the Torah portion begins with a list of seemingly outdated laws regarding the ritual impurity. Regardless of the laws or the reasoning behind these laws, the text is clear that laws regarding the sanctity and holiness of individuals apply equally to all individuals:

“This shall be the same law for citizens and sojourners who reside among you” (Numbers 19:10).

Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Torah commentator from Northern Spain, explained that “even the strangers who reside among them must abide by this rule, for the land of Israel is holy, since the Presence of God dwells there.” However, such biblical law was to be followed while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness prior to entering the promised land. While I appreciate Ibn Ezra’s explanation, it had nothing to do with where one resides. For many like myself who believe in God, or at least wrestle with God, we believe that the Divine doesn’t reside in a specific place. God is everywhere and all are made in God’s image. Here too then, we must understand that one human being must be treated the same way as another. The same law must apply equally to citizens and sojourners who reside among us. While the President may be quick to point out the laws of American citizens do not apply to these immigrants who are being detained, certainly citizens and sojourners have the same basic human rights, and thus must be treated as such. To disagree with this is to deny the divine spark within each person. These ‘zero-tolerance’ policies exemplify how morally corrupt we have become. As mentioned, not only have we broken the souls of separated parents and children, but we have broken the soul of this nation. And a soulless nation doesn’t see the Godliness of each child. A soulless nation puts children in cages.

But I believe that we are better than that. I believe society is better than that. That is why we continue to fight — to build a society where the same basic laws and human rights apply to citizens and sojourners alike, to see the divine spark in each individual, to build communities not cages, to build bridges not walls. May we continue to fight to reunite each child unconscionably taken from their parents. May we continue to fight to end a system that incarcerates children. And may we continue to fight until the sanctity of each human being, regardless of ethnicity, race, or immigration status, is recognized and celebrated.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Stop Using the Bible to Justify Discrimination!

This past Sunday, my family asked me what I wanted to do for Father’s Day. First of all, I acknowledge that Father’s Day is a “Hallmark” holiday. In my family, it is an opportunity to simply spend the day together, something that I often don’t get to do on Sundays when I am working during the school year. So when my kids asked if I wanted breakfast in bed that morning, I responded that instead, I wanted to protest against discrimination and bigotry.

My wife and I joined hundreds at the ICE Detention Center in Elizabeth, with our daughter carrying a sign she made herself that read “Keep families together,” our preschooler on my shoulders, and our toddler in a stroller, because we couldn’t celebrate family without fighting for those whose families are being torn apart by discriminatory policies.

This past Shabbat, we read from Parashat Korach, beginning with chapter 16 of the book of Numbers. While Korach was a failed leader, his words still resonate and claims are still worthwhile. He challenged Moses:

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. All of them, and God is in their midst” (Num. 16:3).

OlitzkyFamilyRally1Every disturbing decision, policy, and action of this President and his administration regarding the treatment of immigrants represent the antithesis of this verse and of all that our Torah represents. We are commanded to welcome the stranger. We are commanded to love the stranger. And as we read last Shabbat, we are told that each and every member of the community is holy. Yet, the President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Secretary, even the Press Secretary, defend these actions, and justify them by quoting the Bible.

Stop using biblical verses to justify discrimination!

I understand the irony that I am quoting the Bible to justify loving the stranger and welcoming immigrants while calling out hiding behind biblical quotes to try and justify bigotry. However, that is because one can find scriptural verses of any faith tradition if they tried hard enough that supports or opposes any opinion. You can skew anything to justify your claims. But just because you can find a specific verse and interpret it, or misinterpret it, to mean something, that does not mean that it justifies one’s bigotry.

No religion justifies separating parents from children. Children are our most vulnerable in society. Religion is focused on educating our children, caring for our children, and preparing them for adulthood to live a life full of values and to look out for their fellow human beings. Religion never justifies tearing children away from their families and locking them in cages. If you use biblical verses to justify that, then you are not practicing religion. You are desecrating God’s name, all that faith teaches, and all that faith is supposed to represent.

So I will keep quoting that the Bible tells us to protect our children and to love the stranger. Because to believe that God expects and requires anything else, anything less than that is morally corrupt.

The problem is rooted in those in charge themselves. When Korach rises up to question Moses’ leadership, he does so with many individuals. The text says that he is joined by Anshei Shem, translated as individuals of repute, literally ‘people of name.’ These were individuals whose names were known, whose names, family lineage, and thus privilege, gave them power. They stood beside Korach in demand of more power.

Rabbi Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz taught that a person of a great name, one who is a descendant of a famous or distinguished relative, should be humble. He should think “are my deeds as great as my ancestors who have come before me?” However, these people end up being arrogant, always seeking to increase their power.

Those is positions of power can use their power for good, to build a more just society, to be God’s partner in creation. Or, they can abuse their power, weakening the most vulnerable. It is shameful that those in positions of power aren’t using their power to help those in need. They are incarcerating children, discriminating against those seeking asylum, and trying to claim that the Bible justifies these actions.

Not my Bible. Not my religion. Not my God. If you are going to pass bigoted policies, stop hiding behind scripture to mask your discrimination. Call it was it is: bigotry.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Night I Prayed Behind Bars

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“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.

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– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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