Tag Archives: Jewish community

The Miracle of Civil Discourse

There was only enough oil to last for one night, and miraculously it lasted for eight whole nights!

This is the Chanukah story we teach our children in school and what is generally accepted as the root of our Chanukah celebration. Yet oil lasting for longer than expected is hardly a miracle, and such a story is hardly a reason to establish in annual festival. Rather, the lighting of the Menorah, and its flames continuing to burn, holds greater significance than we realize.

The Menorah had been lit at one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. The Temple desecrated, and more alarming was that many Jews had assimilated and embraced the cultural trends of the Assyrian-Greeks. The guerrilla warfare of Chanukah and the Maccabean revolt was not Jew vs. Assyrian-Greek. It was Jew vs. Jew. This civil war pitted the Jewish community against itself and put the future of Judaism in serious jeopardy. When the Menorah was lit, and the Temple was rededicated, the light became a symbol of something greater. The light served as a new beginning.

ArguingOur tradition teaches that the Jewish people are an ohr la’goyim, a light unto the world. We believe that we have insight to share, and ethics and values to teach. Yet, I fear that often, we spend too much time in civil war. Disagreement is good. Discussion is healthy. Much “discussion” we find in the Talmud is deemed a Machloket L’Shem Shamayim, a disagreement for the Sake of Heaven. Sometimes, disagreements are holy disagreements.

But recently, the Jewish community has gotten to a point where it seems we can’t even talk to each other. We won’t come to the table with those that we disagree with. We take to social media not to reasonably discuss and debate, but to seemingly belittle others’ opinions, embarrassing them in the process. Our broad Jewish community needs to reframe our conversations and reframe our relationships.

As we light our Chanukiyot this holiday season, let us not only focus on the historic rededication of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Let us also rededicate ourselves – to civility, to unity, and to an understanding that despite our deepest of disagreements, we still must strive to be Am Echad Im Lev Echad: one people with one heart.

We cannot be a light unto the world until we are a light unto ourselves. On Chanukah we are taught not only to say Chag Sameach, meaning “happy holiday,” but also to say Chag Urim Sameach, meaning “may you have a happy and light-filled holiday.” At this darkest time of the year, when the shortened days mean the sky is dark when we awake and dark when we return home, may our paths be illuminated by the light of the original Menorah, and our own individual menorahs that we light. May we rededicate ourselves to civility, to our ability to come together as community. May we embrace each other and respect each other, regardless of our opinions. If we can do that, then that would be a true miracle!

This blog post was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the Congregation Beth El Bulletin. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Pride Is…

Last week, my congregation participated in the annual North Jersey Pride week, hosting a “Progress in the Pulpit” conversation on Monday night, speaking about Pride and equality on Shabbat from the bimah, celebrating with a Pride ice cream social on Shabbat afternoon, and being present at last Sunday’s Pride Festival. Pride week, and Pride month, is observed in June because of the Stonewall riots that took place in late June of 1969, which was arguably the turning point event leading up to the modern fight for LGBT rights.

PrideFest1Last Shabbat, during Pride week, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, and read the narrative of the twelve scouts being sent to the Promised Land to scout the land and the nations that inhabit the land. This narrative though is about more than scouting the land. This story is really a story of how we see ourselves and not a story about how we are seen by others.

In Numbers 13:33, ten scouts report back:

We saw Giants there and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

More than anything else, this is a statement about self-esteem and self-confidence. Who we are as a people and who we are as a community is determined by how we make people feel. We fail if there are those in our community that have low self-esteem, doubt who they are, who they love, and how they identify because of statements we make.

PrideFest2According to the Trevor Project, while suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults, LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Yet, as Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, explains, if they are shown that they are loved and excepted by their teachers, families, and faith communities, then the statistics even out.

So Pride is to be like Joshua and Caleb. We do not just condone; we celebrate each individual. We must teach each
individual to be like Joshua and Caleb, to believe that they are good enough, brave enough, and strong enough, to be themselves. Anything else is unacceptable.  That is what Pride is.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Love the Stranger, Stand Up for the Stranger

Like so many, I am troubled and saddened by the news this past week coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown, an African-American teenager living in Ferguson, a St. Louis neighborhood, was gunned down in the middle of the street by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. The officer, according to multiple eyewitnesses, shot the unarmed teenager multiple times because he challenged the policeman’s order to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street.

don't shootThis event — the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street, even if Michael Brown physically assaulted the officer as he claims — set off a violent and scary chain of events. The community protested, demanding justice, wanting the name of the officer to be released (it finally was several days ago). The police responded with armored vehicles and riot gear. In turn, an angry few participated in looting, the breaking of windows, and setting storefronts on fire. A curfew was instituted (which has since been lifted, at least temporarily) and the National Guard has been sent in, turning Ferguson into a military state. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, taking advantage of their constitutional right to peacefully assemble. The media have been documenting these events, taking advantage of their constitutional right as well. Yet, many news correspondents and peaceful protesters were arrested, including a Getty Images photographer and a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor.

The media spent the weekend explaining that Michael Brown was a suspect in an attempted robbery at a QuikTrip convenience store, allegedly taking several cigars from the counter of a local convenience store without paying for them, accused of threatening the store’s worker as he left. Some have actually said that this justifies the shooting. Nothing –NOTHING –justifies the shooting of an unarmed individual by police. Plus, the Ferguson Police Chief has clearly stated that the attempted robbery had nothing to do with the police officer’s initial contact with Michael Brown. In the words of Michael Skolnik, Editor-in-Chief of GlobalGrind, “An alleged robbery doesn’t matter when you have your hands up and are yelling don’t shoot.”

Two hands in the air is the classic gesture of surrender to authority. Protestors in Ferguson have taken to this act and incorporated it into their protest, as they have urged us all to take a stand against bigotry, against hate, against one group taking authority over another. There is nothing — not race, ethinicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation — that justifies the shooting of an unarmed person, whether it be by an individual or a police officer. The message is clear: I may be a stranger, but I am not strange. I may be different, but truthfully, we are all the same.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Eikev. In the Torah portion, Moses goes on a tangent regarding how we treat each other. While focusing on how we must adhere to God’s laws and only worship one God, we are also reminded that we must see God in everyone and strive to act as God does towards everyone.

We read, beginning in Deuteronomy 10:17:

…for God Almighty shows no favor among people. God ensures justice for the neglected and forgotten, loves the stranger, providing sustenance and clothing. You too must love the stranger, because you too were strangers in Egypt.

This is a powerful statement by the leader of the supposed ‘chosen’ people, that God does not favor one people over another. We are all God’s people. We are all made in God’s image. Furthermore, our charge is that we cannot, we must not, only look out for ourselves. We are equally obligated to stand up to the injustices of all humanity. We must love the stranger. We must look out for the stranger. Because we too are strangers and we are all God’s people.

The media has been so focused on the protests and riots of Ferguson, the tear gas and rubber bullets of riot police, that a week and a half later, we are completely ignoring what we need to be protesting: an unarmed black teenager was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer.

While I shared my thoughts about the injustice that is exemplified in Ferguson, Missouri, this past Shabbat, I am deeply troubled by the lack of statements regarding the shooting of Michael Brown by the Jewish community. Where are the statements by movements and movement leaders? Where are the press releases by institutions, organizations, and seminary presidents? Where are the calls for justice from the Jewish community?

I was comforted to see my colleague and friend Rabbi Ari Kaiman of St. Louis participate in a peaceful protest and national moment of silence at the St. Louis arch last week. The message of the protest was simple: life – all life – is precious, is priceless, is Divine. All life matters. We must love all life, care about all life, and as God commands, Va’ahavtem et HaGer, love the stranger as much as we love each other. For love more than anything else is what will defeat injustice in this world.

What happened to the Jewish community’s march for justice? The Jewish Daily Forward had an article this week entitled, When We Marched Together in Selma, focusing on the Jewish community’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Jewish community used to be heavily involved in the call for social justice, with rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. King and local rabbinic leader, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, of blessed memory, speaking at the March on Washington. Yet, a black unarmed teenager is shot in cold blood by a police officer and the greater Jewish community is silent. Is it that gun violence has become too common place? Is it that we already showed our anger when Trayvon Martin was murdered by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, or when Jordan Davis was shot because his music was too loud? Are our voices hoarse? Maybe the Jewish community has understandably been focused on Israel and the war in Gaza this summer. Whatever the reason for lack of statements and action, the silence of the Jewish community is deafening.

We cannot say that this is not our problem. We cannot say that this is not our issue. This is not Iraq. This is not Syria. This is not Egypt. This is not Russia. This is not Gaza. This is America. This is home. And we must stand up, as Moses asserts that God does in the Torah, for all humanity, ensuring justice for the neglected, loving those that are different than us, embracing the stranger as our friend, understanding that that we are inextricably bound.

The call for justice still beckons. As Dr. King famously said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Thus, we must stop being silent and speak out for justice. We must stand up for justice for all.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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After Sterling’s racist remarks, Jewish community can’t accept his money

This article was originally published on May 5, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

The owner of the LA Clippers have given tens of thousands of dollars annually to local Jewish causes. Taking a stand against his racism means refusing his charity.

Every Jewish institution, organization and synagogue that I’ve ever been a part of has been dependent on donations. Especially in the economic climate of the past several years, nonprofit organizations have been hoping for specific individuals to give major gifts to bridge the deficit gap. We depend on gifts of tzedakah – charity. The Los Angeles Jewish community has relied on one individual to help them meet their fund-raising goals over the past several years, and now they are left to ask themselves: “What do we do with these funds?”

DonaldSterlingDonald Sterling, the now infamous owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, has given tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to local Jewish causes, including major gifts to the Los Angeles Jewish Federationand, somewhat ironically, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

Now, even non-sports fans know Sterling’s name, as we learned last week of secret recordings in which he made racist comments, bluntly informing his mistress that he did not want to see her taking pictures with African-Americans or inviting them to Clippers games. In fact, he even stated it would be better if no African-American fans attended in general.

The NBA responded sternly and appropriately to these comments, with a lifetime ban, a fine of $2.5 million, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saying he would encourage the NBA’s Board of Governors to vote and force Sterling to sell the team.

Some have suggested he should be forced to give more money and donations to organizations that combat racism, bigotry and hate. However, is accepting his money not a tacit acceptance of his thoughts, opinions and viewpoints? Does accepting his donations not condone his prejudice?

Furthermore, to continue to accept donations from him suggests that his comments, at least in private where he made them, are acceptable and commonplace.

The Jewish community as a whole must be more careful in considering whose charitable gifts we accept. Otherwise, we run the risk of being defined by the unethical and prejudiced viewpoints of some of those who give. We must always look a gift horse in the mouth. Donald Sterling’s recent racist comments are just a reminder of that.

Diane Tobin, founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization which focuses on ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community, explains that the sentiment behind Donald Sterling’s comments are more troublesome than the comments themselves.

She explains: “The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end, as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades – a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents – it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.”

Mr. Sterling’s comments suggest a white superiority that the Jewish community cannot hold. His comments became public last week only days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we mourn and memorialize the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, and the 11 million people murdered because of religion, race, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. He made bigoted comments as a Jew only days before world Jewry mourned the scariest result of such bigotry: mass murder and genocide.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is now commonly referred to as Yom Hashoa u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. This is because we do not only mourn the six million Jews murdered simply because of their faith; we also honor and celebrate the brave men and women, Jew and non-Jew, who were willing to take a stand in the face of bigotry and hate.

We must be willing to stand up to bigotry as well.

We, as a Jewish community, must publicly take a stand and declare that Sterling’s views are not our views, that he does not define us, and that we refuse to benefit from his money. If we truly believe in the promise of ‘Never Again,’ then we must stamp out all forms of bigotry in our midst.

Tzedakah is about more than just writing a five, six or seven figure check. The root of the Hebrew word tzedakah is tzedek, meaning justice. Let us ensure justice for all by ensuring that each individual is treated with the dignity and respect he or she deserves, and not be bullied into beliefs, opinions or bigotry by those who have the means to influence such beliefs. Let us embrace each other. As we hang our heads in shame at Sterling’s comments, let us proudly say that they do not represent us, for we see God in each individual. This, after all, is the real meaning of tzedakah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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