Tag Archives: Interfaith

Celebrating and Welcoming Everyone

This article was originally published on June 26th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I received two phone calls in recent months, one from a good friend from college who is a lawyer and the other from my cousin who is a speech and language pathologist. Each had been asked to officiate at a wedding of a friend, so they called me, a rabbi who has officiated many weddings, for advice. They wanted to understand the different traditional Jewish rituals so that they could incorporate them into a meaningful wedding experience. They went online to get “ordained,” making sure that their weddings were legal in the states they took place, in addition to being legal “according to the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.” Neither of these weddings were interfaith weddings. In each case, the couple wanted someone to stand under the chuppah with them that they were deeply connected to, and also to have the ceremony be meaningful and sacred. These were also clearly conscious choices to not have a rabbi — or other clergy member for that matter — officiate. This was about the established institutions in the Jewish community failing to bring these families in.

To be honest, I am not interested in having a discussion about rabbinic officiation at weddings in this forum, mostly because writing an opinion piece on a website is not the appropriate format for such a conversation. As it is, I expect plenty who will comment in agreement and disagreement. But as we’ve seen over these past several weeks in recent articles and op-eds, this conversation is filled with a multitude of opinions. Some are from a halakhic perspective, and some from a sociological one, some from personal experiences of joy, and some from personal experiences of hurt and heartache. All needs to be a part of any conversation in guiding one’s understanding of this. This conversation should be had in a appropriate way with respectful dialogue, respectful of one’s beliefs, but most importantly, of one’s choices. This conversation is not about hypotheticals. This conversation is about actual individuals and their choices.

I appreciate colleagues Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieand Rabbi Roly Matalon for finding ways that they feel comfortable with to celebrate the wedding of members of their community, even if one of the partners in that couple does not identify as Jewish. However, I turn back to the experiences of these two friends who called me and are now officiating at weddings just as I am and realize that the problem is deeper, if rabbis aren’t being called to officiate at weddings, even when both partners identify as Jewish. Yes, if a rabbi officiates at a wedding and participates in a couple’s most meaningful and sacred moments, whether both members of a couple are Jewish or not, then it is much easier to help that couple become involved in the Jewish community and navigate Jewish experiences. As someone who understands the importance of halakha as a guide to Jewish living and Jewish ritual, I also understand the complexity of a halakhic framework at times. And I know that it is much more difficult and challenging, and arguably hypocritical, for a rabbi – including me – to say “I cannot officiate at your wedding, but the day after your wedding, I want you to be involved in our community.”

Rabbi Abby Treu reminded me this week of these calls from my friends. She wrote in the New York Jewish Week that:

It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.

 

The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?

Standing under the chuppah is one way to create connection and community. But it’s also only one way. My responsibility as rabbi and I believe the responsibility of every synagogue is to create connection and community for all who walk through the synagogue doors. As you enter our lobby at Congregation Beth El, it says exactly that:

We welcome people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to join us on our journey – learned and novice; born Jewish, Jew-by-choice, or non-Jewish living Jewishly; single or partnered; gay or straight. We hope that all who enter find a Makom Kadosh – a holy space – in which to seek God, connection, and community.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater, of which I am a proud alum, came out with a statement last week that I was particularly critical of. First I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say – simultaneously reaffirming their age-old stance which seemed to be exclusionary while also striving to be welcoming, and using language at best missed the point and at worst was offensive. Most importantly, statements like this only make it harder for those of us in our communities to build the welcoming and inclusive institutions we strive to build. I believe this conversation is not really a conversation solely about rabbinic officiation. It is about the language we use and the culture we create. It is about how we make sure to connect with all whho identify as Jewish and all who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. It is about how we make sure all who are raising Jewish children feel welcome, regardless of their own faiths. If we fail to help people connect and we fail to create multiple entry points for them to connect, then nothing else matters.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Abraham wrote in the Times of Israel this past week about his commitment to create inclusive communities. He concluded his writing with this analogy:

For years, educators have bemoaned the practice of teaching abstinence only in our school systems. To my knowledge, they did not disagree because it isn’t the best form of birth control, but because the facts on the ground tell us that our children are in relationships and they require more information than simply being told “wait till your married”.

His point is that we need to do better than just saying ‘date someone who is Jewish’ and ‘marry someone who is Jewish” or ‘rabbis won’t officiate at your wedding.’ We need to give individuals meaningful spiritual experiences and connection so that they’ll want to make Judaism a core part of their identities and their lives. We need to realize that individuals are going to make the decisions that they are going to make, the decisions that are right from them, and we need to do better as communities to accept, and yes even celebrate, those decisions. We need to do a better job to celebrate those who want to be a part of our communities and make sure that they feel welcome. We can’t just open our doors wide and say “look how welcoming we are.” We need to show it with our actions. That won’t mean the same thing for everyone and every synagogue or Jewish communal institution, but that does mean that digging our heels in the ground does not do anything to make people feel welcome. It only turns people away.

I truly believe that creating a welcoming and inclusive community is what is most important. Everything follows from that. We cannot create meaningful spiritual, sacred, educational, communal, social, and social justice experiences if we do not first ensure that someone feels welcome here. We as a Jewish community often only get one chance at making sure someone feels welcome. And if we miss that chance, then we will not be able to help someone grow in their Jewish journeys. We will not be there to help them build their Jewish homes and grow their Jewish families. We as a Jewish community – and Jewish communal leaders – must do better, to not judge other people and their life decisions, but to. Instead, we must truly welcome each and every person who we interact with, and help them navigate their own Jewish journeys, even if their journeys, and ultimately their destinations, may look different from our own personal ones.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the greatest of all my teachers, has been a leading voice in this work, and spent almost two decades as Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism. A number of years ago, he introduced me to their work with renowned Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, who calculated population projections for American Jewry through the year 2080. That study suggested that based on the status quo, the Jewish community from now until 2080 would decrease by millions. But get this: if there was no intermarriage, the population would still decrease by millions. But if the Jewish community was more welcoming and celebrated every family and welcomed them into our institutions, and truly understood the importance of outreach, then the size of the Jewish community would actually increase! This has proven to be the case.image

 

This past Shabbat, the Jewish community read from Parashat Korachand of Korach’s rebellion. Rabbinic tradition concludes that Korach’s rebellion fails because his rebellion was more of a coup to overthrow Moses as leader. But the essence of his words still resonate.

You’ve gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the rest of God’s people? (Num. 16:3).

Rashi explains that when Korach says that all of the community is holy, he means that each person heard God’s voice at Sinai. Each individual is sacred. No person is anymore closer to God than anyone else, even Moses! Each individual is holy and we should not deny the holiness of anyone or of any decision they make, because of who they love, or because their Jewish family may look a little bit different than yours.

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4).

Rashbam suggests that Moses was praying and Ibn Ezra explains that Moses did so in a fit of prophecy. But I believe the Bekhor Shor is spot on: Moses fell on his face out of shame. Moses realized that there was a part of what Korach was saying that was true, that he was seeing some people as better than others, instead of seeing each individual as sacred.

It doesn’t matter if a rabbi will officiate at a couple’s wedding if we fail to help that couple find connection to a rabbi, a synagogue, or the organized Jewish community at all. We need to ensure that everyone feels like they belong in the community. So let us no longer simply fall on our faces. Instead, let us see, and celebrate, every person as holy and welcome them in.

-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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