Tag Archives: Jacksonville

Lighting a Spark for Human Rights and Inclusion

onesparkIf you live in the Jacksonville area and haven’t yet checked out the One Spark Festival, the world’s largest crowdfunding festival, then I encourage you to check it out. I spent time there on Thursday and Friday and it was a great experience. I went not only to check out the creators and amazing innovators and ideas. I went because of my work with the We are Straight Allies campaign, an ad campaign that brings together clergy, city business leaders, political leaders, community leaders, philanthropists, and “faces” of Jacksonville to encourage the city council to pass the Human Rights’ Ordinance, ensuring that it would no longer be legal for landlords to evict tenants or employers to fire employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The city council disgracefully failed to do so in June 2012! Some suggest that this ad campaign is just stirring the pot, that it is making something out of nothing, just trying to create controversy. Some believe that there is no discrimination in our city and this campaign is just trying to make something out of nothing. Unfortunately, recent events have suggested otherwise.

There was an article in Friday’s edition of the Florida Times-Union explaining that some were unhappy with the We Are Straight Allies campaign being a part of One Spark, and specifically being housed in the Wells Fargo building, alongside other vendors committed to “Building a Better City.” Housed in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Building, the building’s management company, Parkway Properties, informed the We Are Straight Allies campaign that some of the “key stakeholders” of the building were uncomfortable with the pro-LGBT agenda of the campaign. They were concerned that they – and I – were pushing our agenda on others. While this was in the Wells Fargo building, this was not a complaint from Wells Fargo, for they are an ally and big supporter of LGBT rights and equality. However, other unidentified companies in the building were uncomfortable with the signage and window displays, even wanting to know if the musical performances associated with this creator were going to be “controversial.” The whole point of the campaign – pushing the city council to pass the HRO – is about inclusion, not controversy. The actions of these so-called key stakeholders only reinforced the need to pass the HRO. If this is how companies treat such an organization that focuses on inclusion and human rights, I can’t even imagine how they treat their LGBTQ employees.

we are straight allies

I share this not just because it happened only days ago, but also, because this past Shabbat’s Torah reading, Parashat Acharei Mot, is arguably the root cause of such hate, homophobia, and exclusion. In Leviticus chapter 18, we find the beginning of the so-called “holiness code,” a text in which focuses on a lot of “Thou Shalt Not’s.” In that list we find the infamous verse, Lev. 18:22:

V’et zahar lo tishkav mishk’vei isha – to’eivah hi.

Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.

As Conservative Jews, we are part of a movement and a community that does not believe that Torah is set in stone, is min hashamayim, directly from God, without human influence. We also recognize that our own interpretation of Torah evolves through time as society continues to evolve.

When Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in this country, was a scholar-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center this past winter, he explained how he reinterpreted the verse. This is an interpretation that I have heard before by many of my own teachers, that suggests that if we truly look at the Hebrew, the text isn’t focusing on homosexual relations, but rather forced sexual relations. Thus, according to the Torah a man can force himself unto a woman, but because the text is a patriarchal scripture, you couldn’t do that do another man. So to clarify, according to this understanding, a man can have sexual relations with another man, but it must be consensual. Yet, according to the Torah, a man can rape another woman, can force himself on her. We may not like this interpretation because it is just as problematic, idenitifying the misogyny of scripture.

In all honesty, I am not concerned with how we translate the Hebrew. This is a problematic verse. I am not saying we just get rid of the verse, erase it from Torah, because it is problematic to us. As Conservative Jews, we struggle with text, even when we are uncomfortable with it. But also as Conservative Jews, we cannot accept it as Divine truth because, in 2014, this sole verse has been used to condemn, criticize, delegitimize, and even criminalize same-sex relationships.

We can look at problematic verses in the Torah and see them for what they are – simply a human interpretation from thousands of years ago of the Divine word, be it by Moses or another author. It is then possible for us, in 2014, based on religion’s influence on society and society’s influence on religion, to also interpret the Divine word. And when we interpret the Divine word, at least when I interpret the Divine word, I choose to focus on the holiness of loving my neighbor as myself, of remembering that we are all made in God’s image, and I refuse to believe in a God or accept as Divine word a single verse that delegitimizes a human being.

This past Friday, April 11th, 2014, was the National Day of Silence, an initiative started in 1996 by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which is now the largest student-run action towards creating safer school environments. Gay-Straight Alliances, common in Middle School and High Schools vowed to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. It is clear that if we do not put an end to such bullying in our schools, then it only continues as adults, no example greater than these key stakeholders trying to bully the We Are Straight Allies campaign out of One Spark, trying to bully human rights and inclusion.

If that bullying is a result of this verse, if the discrimination, bigotry, and hate, is a result of Leviticus 18:22, then we in the Jewish community as a wholerainbow-flag2-thumb-300x170-4984 have a moral obligation and imperative to say that this verse does not define us, does not speak for us, and is not how we understand, interpret, or translate God’s Divine word.

I prefer to focus on the begin words of the next Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim, often linked and read as a double portion with Acharei Mot.If we look at these begin words, we truly understand how to act. For it begins with:

Kedoshim Ti’h’yu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai.

Be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, Am Holy.

There is nothing holy about bullying, hate, bigotry, homophobia, discrimination, or exclusion. In fact, it is the opposite of holiness: an abomination. Let us then focus on that which is truly holy: each and every one of us, made in God’s image, and let us work to ensure that the holiness and sanctity of each individual is recognized and embraced.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Holiness of Brokenness

There are conversations that have been going on in our community, our city, and our country for too long, but until now, these conversations have been kept to a mumbled whisper. These are conversations in which we want to share our brokenness with the world, but instead we keep it hidden. We keep it hidden because we think we are alone. But we are not. Mental illness impacts your family. Mental illness impacts my family. It affects us all.

And when we don’t discuss it, when we don’t talk about it, when we don’t offer help and support, especially in a sacred community, then the unthinkable happens, then mental illness leads to loss. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, of Florida’s 18.3 million residents, over 660,000 adults and 181,000 children live with serious mental illness. In the state of Florida alone last year there were over 3,000 deaths by suicide, which is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated serious mental illness. That is more than 8 a day in the state. As a result of the lack of mental health awareness, care, and treatment, Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in our country, and rising quickly.

We don’t talk a lot about mental illness in my family, even though I have loved ones who have suffered and do suffer from such an illness. Part of it is because of the stigma attached to such illness. I’m sure such a stigma has led many of us to not discuss the mental illness that we or our own loved ones suffer from. That stigma remains. That stigma remains because of ignorance. That stigma remains because of fear.

MentalIllnessBut it also remains because we don’t talk about it. And when we don’t talk about it, it goes untreated. We do not hesitate to discuss the physical ailments family members suffer from, the surgeries we are recovering from, or the cancer we are fighting. Those are acceptable to talk about. For some reason, mental health and mental illness is not.

For that reason, two organizations in our city that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is a part of have taken it upon themselves to increase mental health awareness and mental health services in this city.

Florida’s public mental health system provides services to only 26% of adults who live with serious mental illness and the statistics of just a couple of years ago suggest that Florida spent just $38 per capital on mental health agency services. In fact, Florida is ranked 49th out of all 50 states in the federal funding it receives for mental health services and Duval County receives the least amount of funding among all counties in the state.

JCCI, Jacksonville Community Council, in which our congregation participates, focuses on Engaging People for Community Change. Their latest inquiry, entitled “Unlocking the Pieces: Community Mental Health in Jacksonville” will examine the prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders as well as mental illness in Northeast Florida and develop community-wide recommendations for system change. ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation, and Empowerment, the social justice organization that our congregation is also a part of, has a similar mission this year. At the Community Problems Assembly a couple of months ago, representatives from our congregation were present with dozens of other congregations to decide what the most pressing needs of our city were and overwhelmingly chose mental health and mental illness as the issue we must address.

We must remove the stigma. We must embrace the brokenness of ourselves and of our loved ones. We must be okay with carrying that brokenness with us. For that brokenness is a part of us and a part of who we as a community are. For that brokenness is holy.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects every race, ethnicity, gender, language, and religion. According to the US Center for Mental Health Services, at any given moment more than 48 million Americans are suffering from “diagnosable” mental illness. Many more are suffering and go undiagnosed. It is our job as a sacred community to rid our community, and our country, of this stigma. For each of us, even with the brokenness that we sometimes carry, are made in God’s image and are worthy in the eyes of God. Removing the stigma can allow us to open our doors, our arms, and our hearts and be supportive, allowing our loved ones to get the treatment that they need.

This past week, we read the Torah portion Parashat Ki Tissa. In it, we learn that the Israelites built the Egel Zahav, the Golden Calf. They got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. When Moses finally came near the people’s encampment with tablets in hand and saw the calf and the dancing, he shattered the tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Most assume that Moses hurled these tablets out of anger. I want to suggest a different explanation.The tablets were heavy, too heavy to carry. Moses didn’t carry the heavy stone tablets alone. Rather, because he carried them in his heart, they lifted him up and carried him. He was willing to take the burden of God’s word on his shoulders because he believed that this was a burden that the entire community was carrying. They broke when he saw the Israelites dancing around the idol because he felt alone. When he realized he was alone, that this was a burden he was holding on to all by himself, they shattered. It was too much to bear without the support of community.

We all have our burdens, our challenges, to carry. When we carry them alone and feel we cannot share them with community, when we are embarrassed to share them because of ignorance and fear, when we worry about not being embraced or accepted, then those burdens, like the tablets of the covenant, turn to brokenness.

But that brokenness is just as much a part of who we are as our whole selves. For we read at the end of the Torah portion, in Exodus 34:4, that

Vayifsol shenei luchot avanim karishonim.

That Moses carved two new tablets of stone, just like the first. He ascended Mount Sinai again with stone tablets in hand and inscribed God’s word on to them.

Yet, we learn that when the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was eventually completed, the two sets of tablets both rested in the Holy Ark. The brokenness displayed alongside that which was whole, for both are holy and both are worthy in the eyes of God. The darker, more challenging parts of our identities and who we are and the pleasant and joyful demeanors are both holy.

We cannot hide the brokenness. We cannot brush it under the rug, we cannot pretend it isn’t happening. We cannot pretend that mental illness does not exist. Rather, we understand that those who suffer from mental illness are still sacred and holy. We care for them and we reach out, in the same way we do for any other illness.

Moses didn’t throw the shattered pebbles of sacred text away. Rather, he understood the holiness of brokenness. And while we cannot hide the brokenness, we also must do our best, as community, to prevent such shattering. Moses shattered the tablets because he felt alone. There was no place for him. There was no outlet. There was no help. There was no support. We must be that support. When those among us – our family, friends, members of our community – fear that life is broken, we must be that outlet.

As a synagogue, when we pray for healing in the Mi Sheberach prayer, we must understand that we are not only praying for recovery of bodily harm and physical ailments, but also for strength and stability from mental illness. We must continue to use our communication to inform the community about the work of JCCI, ICARE, and other community endeavors that strive to make mental health care more accessible. We must open up our synagogue building to offer support groups for those suffering from serious mental illness as well as for family members and caregivers of those who suffer from mental illness.

Finally, and most importantly, we must teach, preach, and recognize that no matter what illness – physical or mental – that we suffer from, we each still have the Divine spark within us. There is a place for each of us, at times when we are feel broken and times when we feel whole, in our holy ark, in our sacred community. May it always be so.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Proud to Be an Ally

I am proud to be a part of the “We Are Straight Allies” campaign, bringing together allies for LGBT inclusion and equality throughout Jacksonville and Florida’s First Coast. This campaign, launched by Chevara Orrin, Dan Bagan, and Laura Riggs, features individuals — children and adults — throughout the community who stand up and support the sanctity of each individual, as we once again attempt to pass the Human Rights Ordinances. This campaign includes changemakers like Gloria Steinem and local business leaders, like Florida Blue CEO Pat Geraghty. I am proud, as a faith leader, to stand with other clergy involved in this campaign, and “Come out as a Straight Ally.”

RabbiJesseOlitzkyWeAreStraightAllies

As I shared in the campaign:

“As a rabbi, I believe that God created each individual in God’s Divine image. I believe that each individual is holy; each individual is sacred. I cringe when I hear preachers and people of faith spew hate in God’s name or try to make conclusions of discrimination or inequality based on scripture. My responsibility as a rabbi, member of the clergy, and person of faith, is to promote inclusion, promote love, and promote the holiness of every individual, regardless of background, faith, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. That is why I am coming out as a straight ally. We need to stand up for the rights of all of God’s creations and celebrate the sanctity of all.”

Check out the campaign here and here. Take action. Get involved. Make a difference.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Vision for Social Justice in Jacksonville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Pursuit of Happiness

Last week, Columbia University’s Earth Institute released its yearly World Happiness Report. Yes, you read that correctly. This is an annual scientific survey that rates which countries throughout the world are happiest. How do they measure happiness? To be honest I have no idea, but apparently the study comes on the back of a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers throughout the world to focus less on economic growth and more on people’s overall well-being. It is a fascinating idea that government policies, including economic policies, employment opportunities, and the like don’t necessarily cause happiness. Furthermore, financial struggles, unemployment, and even illness don’t cause one to be unhappy, according to the study. It’s just as we are taught in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages:

Ezeh Hu Ashir, Sameach B’Chelko.

Who is rich? One who is happy with want he has. 

Happiness has nothing to do with wealth. Rather, it has to do we appreciating the miracles in one’s life. Thus, Columbia’s Earth Institute decided to focus on happiness as the most important gauge of how successful a country is and its citizens are. 

According to the survey of 156 countries, the world’s happiest countries are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. Canada comes in at #6, Australia at #10, Israel at #11, and Mexico at #16. The United States of America ranks as #17. It makes you wonder what causes one’s happiness altogether. Why are the Swiss happier than we are? Why is Canada and the United Arab Emirates happier than we are? How can one even truly define happiness? After all, happiness is a part of our identity, a part of the fabric of who we are as a nation. The initial words of the Declaration of Independence clarifies for us that all are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Some of us spend our whole lives trying to accomplish that pursuit. Life is all about that pursuit. All we want to do is be happy. For happiness allows us to not worry about what others are doing, not worry about the problems in the world around us. Instead, it allows us to just focus on us. It allows us to be happy with whom we are. On the festival of Sukkot we sing the words: V’Semachta B’Hagecha, V’Hiyyata Ach Sameach, taken from Chapter 16 of the book of Deuteronomy, meaning And You shall rejoice in your festival and you will have nothing but joy. We are commanded to be joyful on the holiday! Furthermore, in our liturgy, we refer to Sukkot as Z’man Simchateinu , a time for our happiness and joy.

What an odd command. We cannot be happy, we cannot feel an emotion, solely because we are told to do so, simply because we are commanded to do so. Rather, we are happy because we are content with our lives and our appreciative of the blessings in our lives, and the blessing of being alive.

During Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot we read the book of Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiates. This book teaches us that there is a season for everything and reminds us of the importance of polarities. There is a time to be born, and a time to die; there is a time to plant and a time to reap; there is a time to laugh and a time to weep.

There is a time to be happy and a time to be sad.

Maybe we are told that Sukkot is a time to be joyous because it follows immediately on the heels of Yom Kippur, such a serious holiday. However, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that actually Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year. So maybe our hope then is to carry on the supposed joy of Yom Kippur and let it last and linger into Sukkot. Whatever the reason, we feel at a loss with such a command to be happy.

We as a community are still in a sense of shock follow the tragic event that took a member of our community and critically injured a child in our community. We are saddened. We are angry. We grieve. We ask and wonder how we can be happy, how can we be commanded to be happy, when our hearts continue to  break, when we continue to mourn?

Maybe Ecclesiastes had a point. We live in a world of polarities. We cannot appreciate peace without experiencing war. We cannot appreciate life without witnessing death. We cannot appreciate our health without experiencing illness. We cannot appreciate waking up to experience a new day, without coming face-to-face with life’s trials and tribulations. We cannot appreciate happiness, without also expressing gloom and grief. We cannot comprehend, nor will we ever comprehend evil, suffering, or tragedy. Still, we can come to appreciate our own lives. We witness sorrow, and come to experience joy. As the Psalmist taught, “our mourning will turn into dancing.”

There is a time to be sad, and there is a time to be happy.

HappyFaceImageWhen we see such darkness in the world, such chaos, and experience such tragedy in our own community, we give up on trying to be happy. We see tragedy on the news and find it hard to smile. This is exactly why we are commanded to be happy! Maybe if we were never commanded to be happy then we wouldn’t be. Being commanded to be happy allows us to let go of the heartache and tragedy. Being commanded to be happy allows us to wipe away the tears and begin to smile again.

Being commanded to be happy allows us to smile. Ron Gutman focused on the importance of smiling in a TEDTalks presentation he gave. He explained that smiling – that happiness – is actually our natural state. Seeing the darkness of the world changes that, but we are actually born smiling. 3D sonograms actually show that while still in the womb, developing babies are smiling. Babies continue to smile in their sleep when they are born.

He further noted that more than a 1/3 of humanity smiles more than twenty times per day, but children, who are still innocent and have yet to be exposed to some of the challenges of this world, smile as many as 400 times a day. That is why being around children make us smile. Smiling is contagious.

So if we are to fulfill the command of V’Semachta b’Hagecha v’Hiyyata Ach Sameach, then it begins with smiling. After all, Pirkei Avot teaches in the name of Rabbi Shammai:

Mekabel et Kol HaAdam b’sever Panim Yafot.

Greet every person with a cheerful face, with a smile.

In our smiling, may we experience the happiness that we seek, the happiness that we are commanded to find, and may such smiles and such happiness comfort us among the grief and sorrow that we all too often feel. May we all find happiness and joy in this festival and in our lives. Moadim L’Simcha and Chag Sameach.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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