Tag Archives: Judaism

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 be a Jew

There is a well-known story – or at least a well-known story among us as rabbis who tell stories about rabbis – about Rabbi Solomon Schechter and Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Schechter founded United Synagogue and served as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is referred to by many as the architect of Judaism’s Conservative Movement in North America. One day, while President of the rabbinical seminary, he went for a walk with a young rabbinical student, Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein would eventually become chancellor of JTS from 1940-1972. Schechter, the Romanian-born scholar, told Finkelstein that in order to be a successful rabbi in America, you need to know the game of baseball and you need to be able to play the game of baseball.

In the early twentieth century, Baseball was more than just a game. It was America’s pastime. It was ingrained as part of one’s American identity – like apple pie. To say that a rabbi must know baseball is to say that a rabbi must fully embrace American culture and society. Schechter, who was of Eastern European descent, was suggesting that to be a rabbi in America one must identify as American. One must know pop culture, but more so, one’s Jewish values must also be American values.

There are legends of Jewish immigrants coming over to America from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As they saw Ellis Island in the distance, they would toss tallitot and tefillin, Jewish ritual objects, overboard. While these stories may only be that of legend, the symbolism is clear: they were leaving Judaism behind. Judaism was what caused hate and harm. Coming to America meant that they had to fully embrace their American idealism and abandon their Jewish identities. But this is not what Judaism teaches, nor what Schechter was suggesting.

And then you find the opposite of these legends in the Torah. We read this past Shabbat in Parashat Acharei Mot, the following command from Leviticus 18:1-3:

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

A strict interpretation of what God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion – don’t associate yourselves at all with secular society – would suggest that we should not embrace society. We should put up barriers to society. But this interpretation of Torah couldn’t be further from the truth, and certainly is not what Solomon Schechter was teaching a century ago.

The pious rabbi still laid tefillin every morning. He was not suggested giving up Judaism in favor of the religion of America’s pastime. In fact, he was quite religious and observant. He understood the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and still the importance of being immersed in society. This was not assimilation. This is acculturation. For throughout our history – as Jews and as Americans – we see that religion influences society and society influences religion. We cannot truly live a life based on Jewish values if we are disconnected from society because it is exactly that society that we are supposed to impact with our values!

Wikipedia_blue_star_of_davidThe prophet Isaiah reminds us of our divine responsibility to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world. We believe Judaism and our values has something to teach the world, and guides us in this world. If that is the case, then we cannot be disconnected from this world. Judaism is a part of this world and the decisions we make in this world.

This also means that we cannot limit Judaism to the synagogue, to Shabbat meals, or to lifecycle events. As my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, teaches, Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Jewish ethics are a part of society. They have something to teach us. So we must live a Jewish life daily by ensuring that the ethics and values of our tradition guide us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Star Wars and Jewish Thought Have Same Take on Good Versus Evil

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. How one uses the Force is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s ‘yetzer tov’ and ‘yetzer rah.’

HaaretzStarWarsPicMost sci-fi enthusiasts say the most pivotal moment in the iconic Star Wars franchise took place in The Empire Strikes Back when the evil Darth Vader reveals to the young Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker that he is in fact his father. They use this argument to support their claim that Episode V is the best film in the series.

While that may be true, the most important moment for me is the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader prevents the evil Darth Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, from killing his son Luke. At that moment, Vader abandons his commitment to the Dark Side and his status as a Sith Lord, and instead uses the Force for good. He even has his son remove his mask, killing him in the process.

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. The Force within the Star Wars universe represents the talent and ability inside each of us to be good and do good. The Force is each individual’s opportunity and responsibility to stand up for good. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the result of how one uses the Force, is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s yetzer tov and yetzer rah, one’s good inclination and one’s evil inclination.

The yetzer rah that haunts us, and leads us down a dark path, is not what we think. We tend to look at those who do wrong as selfish, only thinking about themselves. Similarly, when we look at Anakin Skywalker embracing the Dark Side, we think that jealousy and ego led him to turn evil. Yet, there is a selflessness to that selfishness. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises that doing so will give him the power to save his wife, Padmé. Midrash teaches that a similar drive pushes someone to do wrong (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). We desire safety, security, health – for ourselves, but also for others. We do not want to accept that some things are out of our control. Trying to control what we cannot control ultimately leads us down the path of wrongdoing. There is not a Sith Lord pushing us to do evil. There is only ourselves and our own desires.

One may think that we begin in a pure state and that our relationship with others and the manner in which we are influenced by society makes us impure. Rabbinic Judaism offers the opposite perspective. Rabbinic tradition teaches that one is born solely with the yetzer rah and only acquires the yetzer tov at age 13 (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 16). That is why one does not become bar mitzvah, and does not become obligated or responsible until that age. If Judaism teaches that we begin with a state of wrongdoing and only learn to do good, then the yetzer tov is not only equivalent to the Force being used for good. It is also symbolic of the hope that is present throughout the films. The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, is even called A New Hope.

That hope is what drives the Jewish people. In fact, that eternal hope is the gift of Judaism. The hope that good will defeat evil, both in this world and within ourselves, is the hope we sing about in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. That hope is found in the scriptural narrative of our people, the exodus experience following 400 years of slavery and servitude. That hope is prominent in Psalms, as the Psalmist promises “weeping may endure for an evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Similarly, Star Wars embodies hope for a better future. We can easily become disheartened by reading headlines and watching the news. We see evil in the world around us and fear the dark direction that society is heading in. We hear xenophobic and bigoted statements from community leaders and politicians and fear that our society, which prides itself on freedom and democracy, is becoming the evil empire.

Yet, Star Wars is a call to action. It turned a moisture farmer on the forgotten desert planet of Tattoine into a Jedi Knight. It turned the self-centered Han Solo into a hero that cared about others and not just about himself. Yet it demands we drive that change toward a better future by ensuring the yetzer tov within each us, and within society, prevails.

May the Force be with you.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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It Begins with a Single Can of Food

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, in which we are commanded to help those among us that are most vulnerable. We see the ultimate goal of a society that we strive to create in Deuteronomy 15:4:

There Shall be No Needy Among You.

However, we also know that this isn’t the reality of the world that we live in. We continue to work towards the day when there will be no one who is in need, but until we get to that point, we must then follow what the Torah portion says only a few verses later in Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

If, however, there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

We have a responsibility to help those who are in need and yet, even when we give tzedakah, we too often ignore those who are most vulnerable in our own backyards. How can we help those on the other side of the world who are in need and ignore the needy among us? What does our responsibility to help those “among us” really mean?

Is this referring to those who are in our families? Members of our synagogues? Those living in our neighborhoods and on our blocks? Essex County is unique in the close proximity of the small villages and larger cities that make up this county. South Orange and Maplewood in particular are surrounded by so many that are in need. We cannot simply ignore those around us because they have a different zip code. They are still our neighbors, and in many cases, live only a short walk away.

According to city-data.com the poverty rate in New Jersey in 2013 was 8.5%. That is the percentage of residents in the state who live below the poverty line. In South Orange, that number is significantly less, only 5.3%. In Maplewood, that number is reduced further, to 4.4%. In Millburn, only 1.5% of residents live below the poverty line. Yet, when we look among us, we only need to look down the road. Only a couple of miles away in Irvington, the poverty rate is 17.4%. In Orange, that number is 18.8%. In East Orange, it increases to 19.2%. And in Newark, which begins just down the road from our synagogue (less than a mile away!) that number is 28.4%. All of these communities are among us. All those in need among us are our responsibility.

Two of the ways you can take action and fulfill our obligation found in Deuteronomy 15:7-8 is by volunteering for the Interfaith Hospitality Network and by volunteering for the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. The IHN helps homeless families in our county who are in need of shelter. We partner with other local houses of worship to provide them with a place to stay and three meals. Their children continue to be in a safe space and they are recognized as sacred and holy, even as they deal with such a challenge. Congregation Beth El is one of three synagogues to join other houses of worship in supporting, volunteering at, and running the IFPO. The Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, housed at the Church of the Epiphany in Orange, provides supplemental and emergency food to low-income residents of Orange and East Orange every Wednesday, except the first Wednesday of the month.

IFPOAt each entrance to our synagogue building, we have collection bins to collect non-perishable food items for the IFPO. While we give out hundreds of bags of food a month, I know that there have been weeks when our bins have been overflowing with donations and weeks when they have been nearly empty. Yet, hunger does not stop. In fact, during the summer months, without breakfast and lunch programs in schools, many more children go hungry. A simple can of food can make a huge difference. Think about how many times you regularly enter our synagogue building. We come for services and for meetings, we come to drop off our children and we come to socialize. We come to learn and we come to teach. Next time you come into the building, bring a can of food with you. In fact, I invite you to bring a can of food with you every time you come in the building. Doing so is a small step to help ensure that we open our hands – and our hearts – to all those in need among us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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…And this is the Law

Zot Chukat HaTorah. This is the law of the Torah. These insignificant words mean little in the continuing narrative of our Torah. In fact, these initial words from last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, introduce the ritual laws of the red heifer, laws that we struggle to understand, laws that we certainly no longer practice.

Yet, as we reflect on the historic events of this past week, we also come to understand the power and significance that the words Zot Chukat HaTorah, this is the law of the Torah, have. We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Ben Bag-Bag taught that every time we read from the Torah, it offers insight into our lives, and the monumental moments in history shed light on our understanding of Torah. In witnessing this historic decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, a decision that legally guarantees marriage equality in all fifty states, we witnessed the power of law as well as the power of the evolution of law and legal interpretation. We should be blessed that we live at a time and in a society in which the highest court in the land interprets our constitution to understand that all of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to marry. I am proud to be rabbi of a community in which we can also celebrate such a decision, in which we can declare that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that such a decision is also the law of the Torah. We celebrate the kedusha, the sacred nature of this ruling.

SCOTUS Marriage EqualityAs we celebrate such a historic decision, we cannot forget the many steps that led to such a historic decision. Beginning with the initial Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969 that launched the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in this country, continuing to the SCOTUS decision of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 which ensured that same-sex sexual activity was not an illegal act, to the groundbreaking passage of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2004, to the rapid pace of state after state allowing marriage equality in recent years and the SCOTUS decision defeating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, each step led to this historic decision.

Every action causes a reaction. Every event causes another resulting event. We read in Parashat Chukat about Moses’ actions which led to him not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Yet, we ignore the steps that took place that ultimately led to this turning point in our narrative. The Israelites are thirsty. Moses strikes a rock to give them water. Miriam provides a well for them. Miriam dies. The well dries up. The people are thirsty again and complain to Moses. Moses again strikes a rock, but ignores God’s command to speak to the rock instead. As a result, the Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron will not enter the land of Israel. This wasn’t just about the striking of a rock. This was about every step along the way, every moment in the Israelites’ journey, that led to this turning point.

So too, as we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday June 26th, we must also pause to celebrate, honor, and remember, the many steps that were taken, the many events in our history, and the many leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality, that led to this moment. We also know that we have a long way to go for true equality. We know that even though marriage equality is legal in all fifty states, in many states individuals can still be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fight for true equality is far from over.

Still, we need to pause and celebrate the many steps that have led to this moment, that allow us to celebrate marriage equality and say that Zot Chukat HaTorah, that this legal decision which emphasizes that each individual is equal, and made in God’s image, is also the law of our Torah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Why Jews Should Warm to Climate Change

This article was originally published on March 11, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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When using resources harms the very Earth we are responsible for, we need to reevaluate our actions.

I woke up last week to frozen pipes. The water would not turn on in my sink or my shower. This is a phenomenon that is all too familiar to those living in the northeastern part of the United States. But while I am slowly readjusting to winter weather after moving to New Jersey from Florida, I grew up in the Garden State and don’t remember such cold temperatures.

On that morning, it was 1 degree Fahrenheit. Compare that to the average temperature in this area this time of year: 44 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Weather Channel.

In fact, oddly, New Jersey is one of the coldest places on the planet this winter. We have also seen other winter weather anomalies, like New England being hit with 100 inches of snow. And even the mild-weathered Israel has experienced uncommon snowfall in southern cities like Be’er Sheva, Arad, Mitzpeh Ramon and Yeruham.

Such frigid temperatures and snowfall are consequences of climate change, which causes extreme swings in temperature and weather patterns. While some may try to deny the reality of climate change, the facts on the ground are undeniable: Winters are colder and summers are warmer.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that humans are largely responsible for these changes, explaining that as technology and industry have evolved, we have also released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasesinto the atmosphere.

During the Yamim Noraim (the days of reflection, awe and amazement leading up to the High Holy Days), we are taught to do teshuvah, to repent. However, repenting is about more than just saying sorry and asking for forgiveness. Doing teshuvah is about taking responsibility for what we have done wrong. Thus, instead of just bundling up and turning up the heat in our homes or buying bigger shovels and extra salt, we must acknowledge and admit that we have done wrong.

Only once we admit that, can we move on to the next stage of teshuvah: change.

While the Torah gives us permission to take advantage of the resources of the land, it does not allow us to destroy it. We are commanded to till and tend to the earth (Gen. 2:15). Yet, only moments after God created the utopian Eden, humanity began destroying it.

When using resources harms the very earth we are responsible for, we need to reevaluate our actions. There are no “do-overs” in this creation saga.

Midrash essentially warns that if we destroy the earth, there will be nobody to pick up the pieces and repair what we’ve done (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). All we can do is attempt to stop the damage we are currently causing.

This is why, as Jews, we must now make it our priority to once again tend to the earth and stem the tide of climate change. We should spearhead efforts to make our institutions and buildings more energy efficient. We must promote using renewable energy sources. We must waste less and conserve more. Our synagogues, schools and community centers must become green institutions.

Seeing as environmental justice is a fundamental Jewish value, our institutions must serve as examples. We cannot simply worry about wearing extra layers to deal with the cold weather. We need to worry about leaving this earth in a decent condition, thus providing a world for our descendants.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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I Am Planting For My Children

We get all dressed up for Rosh Hashanah. We buy new suits and dresses, often wear white, and invite family and friends into our homes for festive meals. Similarly, Passover – which is referred to in the Torah as a new year – is given just as much attention. We gather for the seder, we retell and re-imagine the exodus experience, and celebrate the arrival of Spring. Yet, we often ignore or overlook one of the most important “New Year” celebrations on the Hebrew calendar: Tu B’Shevat.

The lack of celebration may be because we don’t have a special service on Tu B’Shevat. The mystical Tu B’Shevat seder has not caught on in the same way as the Passover seder. More likely, Tu B’Shevat gets ignored because it arrives in the dead of winter. It’s hard for us living in New Jersey to think about planting trees and sustaining the earth as we bundle up, even if trees will soon begin to bud in the holy land. Although it will never likely equal Rosh Hashanah and Passover in celebration, both can be more meaningful if we understand the need for Tu B’Shevat.

Sun-treeIt is through our relationship with the earth, through sunrises and sunsets, through glistening dew and budding flowers, that we truly see God as work as Creator. It is through our experiences in nature that we understand and appreciate the Divine presence all around us, and witness everyday miracles. And it’s through the ecological message of Tu B’Shevat – replanting, regrowing, and recommitting to the earth – that we ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren, and for generations to come. A well-known Talmudic story found in Tractate Taanit 23a tells of Choni, who sees a man planting a carob tree. He asks the man, “How long will it take for the tree to bear fruit?” The man responded, “seventy years.” Choni challenges the man, unable to understand why he would plant such a tree if he knew that he would no longer be alive seventy years from now to eat of its fruits. The man profoundly responded, “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

How we treat the earth is a representation of what world we want to leave for generations to come. Therefore, our congregation’s celebration of Tu B’Shevat will not only focus on planting trees in Israel, but also on opportunities to plant trees and community gardens. On Tu B’Shevat, we pledge not only to plant more, but also to reuse and recycle more, and to waste less.

We are reminded that this land was once Eden, a utopia of plants and trees, fresh water and healthy animals. Let Tu B’Shevat serve as our catalyst to recommit to the land, to ourselves, and to God. We were provided with a fruitful world because our ancestors planted for us. May we continue to plant for our children.

This blog post originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the “Beth El Bulletin.” You can read it, and other articles from the rest of the Bulletin here

– 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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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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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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