Tag Archives: Justice

Fast, Pray, March

This weekend is a weekend of transition for our country. For some, it is filled with hope. For many, it is filled with fear. As I have said before, I hope and pray that the new administration lives up to the ideals of this country and of our faith. However, the fear that many feel comes from the hateful rhetoric of the campaign and the election. Many who voted for Mr. Trump voted for change, jobs, and the economy. I understand and acknowledge that. But I also know that this campaign and election condoned misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry. Many who fear this new administration coming to power do so because we fear that we will lose our healthcare, we fear that our loved ones will be deported, we fear that our marriages that we fought to be recognized will be questioned, we fear that there will be regression in the fight for racial justice, and we fear that others will try to legislate our bodies and our reproductive rights. At this time of transition, a time filled with hope for some, but fear for so many, we are taught to act. Our tradition teaches that when we face an unknown future, we act.

On Friday, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, I will be participating in a local grassroots event, the Inauguration of the Spirit of Goodwill. This event will focus on how the shared message of our faiths call on us to welcome the stranger, to work towards justice, and to love kindness. I encourage you to join me. I will also be joining many rabbinic colleagues on Friday in an Inauguration Fast. Private fasts used to be popular and commonplace and are mentioned throughout rabbinic literature. Jewish Law even encourages one to fast as an active way to atone for guilt or during a time of trouble to call on God’s mercy. Communal fasts were just as common when Jewish communities were dealing with events that caused great distress and threats to one’s safety. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Burt Visotzky, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spoke of the need to have an Inauguration Fast:

There’s a whole tractate (section) of the Talmud that assumes that if there’s been a drought we need to look to our own piety … We are in a drought. We are hungry to live in a society that holds the ideals of our founding fathers dear.

If you are of able mind and body, and look to turn towards God as we face this unknown future, I encourage you to consider joining me in this sunrise-to-sunset fast.

feet-marchingMany have asked me where I will be this Shabbat. I will be where I am every Shabbat, with my community. I will be with our congregation, leading services and learning Torah together. We will have a full schedule of services for adults, preschoolers, and elementary school-aged children. I encourage you to join us to be with community this Shabbat. But I will also not be surprised or disappointed if I see many seats and pews that are empty, with many in our community spending Shabbat at marches in Washington DC, Manhattan, and Trenton. As I have mentioned many times, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, he answered the question of why he marched by explaining that he was praying with his feet. I know that no matter where you find yourself this Shabbat, be it at Congregation Beth El, Washington DC, New York City, or Trenton, you will be praying.

As our country begins a new chapter, I echo the words of my colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

O God and God of our Ancestors, help us with our struggle. We yearn for the success of the American government, to fulfill its righteous mandate to protect its citizens from threats internal and foreign, to fortify the bonds between liberty and justice, to ordain fair treatment under the law, and to expand welfare to all those within its capacity.

We pray that the vision of the prophets—the redemptive power of justice; relief for the poor, welcome for the marginal, protection for the oppressed, care for the sick—and the vision of the Constitution of a more perfect union be brought about.

May this vision become a reality and may it happen speedily in our day. And may we continue to fast, to march, to pray, and to act, until it is so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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The Journey Continues…

This article was originally published on November 13th, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

Over the past several days, I have felt sadness, anger, and disbelief. I feel lucky to live in a town, and be part of a synagogue, with such shared values. In democracy there is always a winner or a loser. My concern was not eliminating that – that division exists in a two party system. But, we have much work to do to repair a country that is so divided and so broken.

What was hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, is the tone and rhetoric. That is why I stood up time and time again condemning such hate speech. And now a candidate who, yes, ran on change, jobs, and the economy — but also on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry — won. A candidate won who seemed to bully all the other candidates during the primaries and general election: calling them names, yelling at them, interrupting them.

It was hardest to share this information with my children – they are still so young. My daughter was so excited to come into the voting booth with us – about the historic nature of this election. I was upset to share the results. We teach our children certain values, at home, in school, at synagogue and in our sacred spaces: about how to treat other people, those like you and those who are different than you, about loving your neighbor instead of hating the other, about respect. And it seems with the results of this election, I fear that electing a candidate whose campaign seemed to reflect the opposite of those values we teach our children condones hate.

I fear for so many – and I fear also as a Jew – what it means when a candidate who was endorsed by the KKK is elected President. There is real fear for many of us that the hateful rhetoric of this campaign will lead to hateful acts. This week, we also observed the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a pogrom when Nazis torched synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses, and schools, killing over a hundred people. Kristallnacht was a turning point, when hate speech led to hateful acts.

I was also reminded this week of the profound words of George Washington, found in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship. In it, he pledged that the “government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I acknowledge my privilege as a white, straight, man and I promise to do my part, as an American, and as a human being, to ensure George Washington’s words ring true – that our government does not sanction bigotry or persecution.

So when I spoke to my children, I reminded them that this election does not change what we believe and the way we act. We must continue to be kind. We must continue to stand up for what is right, and stand up for others. A single election does not change the values we stand for. That is what our text and our tradition teach us. We read at the beginning of Genesis 12 that Abram goes on a journey to “a land that I will show you” – traditionally understood as not knowing where he is going to end up. But Abram’s journey was not a journey into the unknown. It was a journey in which they knew exactly where they were going, because the text tells us that Abram’s father, Terach, also set out on this exact journey. We read in Genesis 11:31:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot… and his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

So we learn really that Abram was recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped and settled and never continued. Maybe he was tired; maybe he despaired; maybe he gave up; maybe he was content with simply getting this far.

The disappointment some feel following this election is not just because a candidate won and a candidate lost. It is a fear – fear that the progress this country has made, great progress forward toward justice and equal rights – progress that I believe our tradition celebrates, as well – will stop.

So for those disappointed, I say that the journey continues just as Abram continued Terach’s journey. We will continue on this journey determined to reach a destination of justice and equality. We will come together as a community, as a diverse people, and we will continue the American journey.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Learning a Lesson from Korach

I often wonder where Korach went wrong. In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korach, Korach and his followers stand up to the leaders of the Israelites. Although he challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority with an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion, the essence of his message is one that we cannot forget. He says:

You are too much! For all of the community is holy and God is in their midst. (Num. 16:3)

Of course this is true! Korach is challenging Moses and Aaron, lest they think that they are any better than anyone else simply because they are leaders. The entire community is God’s people. All of humanity is holy.

I often wonder where we as a society went wrong. Day after day, we wake up to the latest heartbreaking and horrific news stories. Last Wednesday, we woke up to news of the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the hands of two police officers, killed for selling CD’s in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot. His death was filmed on a cell phone. On Thursday, I woke up to news of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer at a traffic stop; the shooting was streamed live on Facebook by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the passenger sit. And we woke up on Friday morning, to hear news of the manhunt and shootout that took place in Dallas, Texas the night before in which five officers were murdered and seven wounded. At a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter action and protest, a man started shooting at officers and at the crowd, putting the whole downtown area in a panic.

Don’t we believe the words of Korach’s challenge? Don’t we believe that the whole community is holy? If so, then it is our responsibility to stand up and ensure that all are considered holy. We need to preach that. We need to act on that. We need to stand up for the holiness of all.

BlackLivesMatterSome suggest that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is somehow anti-police. But that is unfair and inaccurate. It is anti-police brutality. We all should be against police brutality. Some suggest that to support police officers somehow means that one condones the systemic racism and brutality that we have witnessed and seen, that all too often leads to the death of black men and women at the hands of police in this country. That too is unfair and inaccurate. One can – and should – support a movement which stands to protect the holiness of the lives of black men and women and still support our police in their efforts to keep us safe. Gene Testimony Hall, of the #BlackLivesMatter movement wrote that:

Let’s be clear, we said “Black Lives Matter.” We never said “only black lives matter.” In truth, we know that all lives matter. We’ve supported your lives throughout history. Now we need your help with Black Lives Matter for black lives are in danger.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that Korach ultimately failed because he didn’t really believe in the message that he was preaching. He didn’t believe that the whole community was holy. He didn’t believe that God resided within all of us, that we were all created in God’s image. Rather, he only cared about power. He was jealous of the power that Moses and Aaron had and wanted that power for himself. That is why he failed. Because he didn’t care about the true meaning of the message he taught, he was swallowed up by the earth. And it seems that unless we take a stand against systemic racism, then the earth will swallow us all up – we will continue to destroy each other.

Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s followers and supporters, but they refused to meet with him. They cried out their concern that they were taken out of slavery, with a promise to be brought to the land flowing with milk and honey, only to die in the wilderness. Their challenge is an important one: what is the point of freedom if it only leads to us killing each other in the wilderness? May we no longer wander in the wilderness. May we work together, to create a metaphoric Promised Land for us all.

I pray that we no longer wake up to the news of another life taken too soon – a life taken because of racism, bigotry, or hate. We are committed to building a better world – a more peaceful and just world. Yet, day after day, we cry ourselves to sleep with news of another soul taken from this world far too soon. The Psalmist teaches:

We may weep through the night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

May we wake up to a new day, a day full of joy, a day where we take a stand. May we take Korach’s message to heart that all are holy and God resides within each individual. And may we march with our black brothers and sisters for justice, until the essence of Korach’s message is realized.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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Still Waiting for Elijah

This past Shabbat, as we read Parashat Metzora, we came to understand that the odd spiritual impurity mentioned in Torah is not just about skin disease or emission or discharge. This impurity can spread to clothing, to walls, and to homes. This is a scriptural reminder that this isn’t really about a skin disease at all! Rather, this is about how we let societal spiritual impurities – how we let injustice – spread. How quickly we let the spiritual impurities all around us spread. The Torah portion doesn’t simply comment on these spiritual impurities. It gives us instructions as to the cleaning ritual that is to take place to rid ourselves, and society, of these impurities.

Coincidentally, at this time of year leading up to Passover, we are supposed to rid ourselves of Chametz. Similarly, we clean our homes and our offices; we even clean our cars! But this symbolic and ritual cleaning is about more than just ridding ourselves of leavened products. We rid ourselves of our ego. We rid ourselves of that which puffs us up. We rid ourselves of societal spiritual impurities. But if we only do so ritually, if we only do so symbolically, then we miss the point entirely.

We recite at the Passover seder table:

Kol Dichfin yeitei v’yeichol, kol ditzrich yeittei v’yifsach . Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in the New American Haggadah:

Precisely because it is the most fundamental form of charity, this invitation to the hungry seems empty and hypocritical. Why? Because it comes too late. By the time we read this passage, we are seated, our hands are washed, the wine is poured, the table is crowded with fine dishes.. And only now we invite the poor to join us?

If we acknowledge an issue, but don’t do anything about it, what’s the point? If we half-heartedly or hypocritically ritually offer to help those in need, are we then just letting the impurities of society, the injustices of society — those who are hungry, those who are homeless, those who are in dire straits – continue to spread? Are we welcoming those in need to our Passover seders, but not really? Are we making ourselves feel better as if we tried, when we really didn’t?

This past Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, we also read a special Haftarah reading. This reading, taken from chapter 3 of the book of Malachi, recalls Elijah the prophet. We even repeat the penultimate verse, making it the last statement of the reading, leaving us with the taste of Elijah’s coming, something that we again ritually and symbolically hope for at our seder tables.

KosEliyahuJudaism teaches that Elijah will announce the coming of the messianic era, and with it, true freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice, freedom from the shackles of poverty and food insecurity, freedom from the spiritual impurities of society. Recalling Elijah in the haftarah and again in just a few days at our seder tables is our symbolic gesture hoping for an end to the spiritual impurities of injustice that plague us. Using the imagery of Elijah, the Talmud teaches us an important lesson.

In Sanhedrin 98a, we learn of the encounter between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Elijah. Rabbi Yehoshua meets the prophet and asks when the messianic era of justice and equality will come. Elijah instructs him to ask the Messiah who is waiting at the gates of the city, among the lepers and the infirmed, among the homeless, poor, excluded, and forgotten. This messianic figure tells Rabbi Yehoshua that this messianic era will come today. Yet, when it does not, Rabbi Yehoshua returns to Elijah and asks for an explanation. Elijah the prophet explains by quoting a verse from Psalms:

Today – if only you will listen to God’s voice (Ps. 95:7).

Maybe the possibility of messianic redemption is always upon us, a time for freedom from the spiritual impurities of society, but all too often we do not truly listen – we speak and we recite, we ritually acknowledge that we care about those in need. But then we don’t do anything about it. We do not listen to God’s voice, to the cries of those in need as God’s cries. Rabbi Yehoshua went to the infirm, the poor, and the suffering at the city gates and ignored them to only speak to whom Elijah called the messiah. We say let all who are hungry come and eat at our seders and then expect this symbolic Elijah to swoop in when we really haven’t done our parts to help those in need.

Before we ritually invite Elijah into our homes and our seder tables, we need to do a lot more than simply ritually opening up our homes and our hearts to those in need. Just as we clean our spaces to rid our homes of spiritual impurity, we need to rid society of the injustice and inequality that plague us as well. May this be a Passover in which we strive to free all from the injustices of our society.

Chag Sameach!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up on Purim

Purim is a holiday that promotes silliness. With costumes to groggers, loud noises and disguises, it’s easy to ignore the true message of Purim: it is the celebration of a miracle. In fact, we recite the words of Al HaNisim in our liturgy on the festival day — a variation of the same prayer that we say on Chanukah — praising the Divine for the miracle of saving the Jewish people. We celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the miracle of our continued existence.

 

However, I believe the miracle is also about something greater: it is about Esther’s transformation.

 

Apricot-Hamantaschen1At the very beginning of chapter two of Megillat Esther, Esther is referred to a single time as Hadassah, her Jewish name. The name Esther acculturated her, helping her to become Ahashverosh’s new queen. And as queen, she had it made. The text says that she “obtained grace and favor” in the sight of the king; she received unlimited gifts and dined at countless feasts. She was living the good life. When her cousin Mordechai shared with her Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she didn’t have to do anything. Although she was born Jewish, she had no fear for her personal safety; nothing was going to happen to Ahashverosh’s most beloved queen.

 

Esther was initially hesitant about standing up to the King. She didn’t feel the impact of Haman’s threat. But then she saw Mordecai tear his clothes and heard that the Jews of Shushan fasted for three days. She witnessed their pain and fear. While she knew that Haman’s plan might not impact her directly, she decided to use her privilege as queen to take a stand for the Jewish community.

 

Esther’s actions reflect those of Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus. He, too, was a Jew-by-birth, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of wealth, freedom, and prosperity. Pharaoh’s actions towards the Israelite slaves didn’t directly affect Moses. He didn’t have to do anything. Yet, seeing the suffering of the Israelites as they were being beaten by taskmasters, he took a stand. He didn’t have to for his own sake: he had to for the sake of others. Esther and Moses risked their own safety and gave up their comfort in order to save those who were suffering around them.

 

The miracle that we celebrate on Purim isn’t just that the Jews of Shushan were saved. The miracle is also that Esther took a stand to help others. We must live the lessons of Purim. We cannot only step out of our comfort zone to be silly. We must step out of our comfort zone to fight for the well being of others. We cannot only blot out Haman’s name. We must also blot out injustice. And as we celebrate miracles that will then take place, may we celebrate our willingness – and obligation – to take a stand for one another.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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$15 and the Half-Shekel: Lessons from the Torah on a Living Wage

Last week, at the urging of Faith in New Jersey (@FaithinNJ), a faith-based social justice organization (formerly known as PICO-NJ), I – along with other Essex County clergy – was asked to attend Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s press conference at Newark City Hall. As clergy, we stood beside Mayor Baraka and members of 32BJ SEIU as the Mayor declared his support for raising the minimum wage for Port Authority employees to $15 an hour. These employees include those who work at Newark Liberty International Airport, an airport that all in our area – and most throughout the state of Jersey – frequent for air travel. The airport is owned by the city of Newark, but leased to the Port Authority. Since the city owns the land, and the airport is the largest employer in the city of Newark – and likely the entire state – the airport, and the way its employees are treated are representative of the values of Newark and the entire state of New Jersey.

The Mayor was asked what mathematical formula he used to come up with the number $15. He smiled and responded “the formula we used was the formula of justice.” He added:

No airport worker that works full-time should have to live in poverty and be forced to make the choice between housing, food and health care. I think we need $15 immediately.

BarakaLivingWage.jpg

Mayor Baraka, members of 32BJ SEIU, and Essex County clergy

When the minimum wage became a requirement of law as part of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, it was meant to be a sufficient amount so that an individual could provide for his or her family. Minimum wage was meant to be a living wage. In 1968, the minimum wage was at $1.60/hour. In 2013, that wage would be equivalent to $10.71/hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if wage increases had kept up with labor productivity, then the minimum wage in 2013 should have been $18.23/hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour. The New Jersey state minimum wage is $8.38/hour. These are hardly a living wage, and hardly what was intended when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed over 75 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we read a special Torah reading as part of the special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim. In this Torah reading, we are told:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight… (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah commands that each pay a half-shekel as part of a census. Most read the text and conclude that this census was to see how many able-bodied adult males there were to fight, as the Israelites were preparing for the inevitable battles when they entered the Promised Land. However, the half-shekel had even greater significance. The half-shekel was not too much money. It was enough so that everyone could participate. It was an example of everyone being on equal footing, and having the same chance, the same equal opportunity. Obviously the half-shekel meant less to the wealthy than others. Still, it was a symbol of equal opportunity and an equal chance.

We live in a society that is not living up to the promise of this biblical society, in which all are seen as equals and all are given an equal opportunity. No one donated a half-shekel and cried poverty. All were seen as equals. So too, no one should work a forty-hour a week job and not be able to provide food on the table or a home to live in.

I proudly stood with other clergy as Mayor Baraka made his statements in support of increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. I did so not just as a resident of Essex County. I did so as a person of faith. We must fulfill the biblical promise of this census. We must ensure that all have equal opportunity to succeed in society. That begins with the fight for $15. That begins with the promise to pay individuals a living wage.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bitter Waters and Bottled Water: Lessons of Flint, Charity, and Justice

This article was originally published on January 31, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

I’ve always been annoyed by the actions of the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt. I’d roll my eyes at their childish and immature behavior. How is it possible that they could complain so quickly after experiencing the miracle of the freedom, so quickly after witnessing the waters part? They complained about not having enough water, about the waters of Marah being too bitter to drink:

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were too bitter (Ex. 15:23).

Too bitter?! I used to scoffed as I read this narrative. Deal with it. Stop complaining. The water is fine. After all, you’re finally free. Drink whatever is put in front of you. But now I get it. You aren’t really free if you don’t have water to drink. You aren’t really free if only bitter water is provided for you. Because that bitterness – that unclean water – still reeks of oppression and discrimination.

I’ve watched the news over the past several weeks in disbelief as Flint, Michigan, an entire city of 100,000 has been drinking toxic and poisonous water. What is scary is that while we were made aware of this by the national media a few weeks ago, the people of Flint have been consuming this lead-poisoned water for over two years. This isn’t a third world country. This is happening in America, where we spend seven dollars on a latte, and yet, government officials try to cut costs by poisoning a city. The wealthy legislators cut costs that only impacted the poor city of Flint, where 41% of the city live below the poverty line, where the majority of residents are black. They did so and claimed that the water was fine to drink, but brought in bottled purified water for all state officials who worked in the city.

I received a letter last week from Mayor Ras Baraka, mayor of neighboring city of Newark. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Mayor Baraka explained that Newark, along with Paterson and Jersey City, will be spending the next two weeks collecting bottles of water to be delivered to residents of Flint. We at Congregation Beth El, like so many other Jewish communities, accept the call to pursue justice and decided that we too would collect bottles of water and we continue to do so. We are committed to donating because we cannot stand idly by. We are committed to donating because we are committed to fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 15:7, to not closing our hands or our hearts to those in need.

bottled water.pngYet, after announcing that we were going to be collecting bottles of water, I, like many, read Michael Moore’s letter that had gone viral. The famous documentary film maker who is from Flint, Michigan wrote: “Don’t send us bottles of water. Instead, join us in revolt.” Some questioned if we should be collecting bottles of water at all. I understand Moore’s point and I agree with him. He points out that with 100,000 residents in Flint, we’d have to send roughly 200 bottles per day per person to Flint to meet their essential needs for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, and of course, drinking. That is roughly 20 million bottles per day! He also reminds us in his letter that the damage is done. The neurological damage done to the children of this city is irreversible. Stopping to drink the water now won’t change that damage.

20 million bottles of water per day seems impossible – and there are environmental challenges to that many bottles of water. I agree with him that sending bottles of water doesn’t solve all the problem and Michael Moore knows the city a lot better than I do. I agree that sending bottles of water is a short-term fix. But just because something is a short-term fix, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act. Food pantries are also short-term solutions and don’t solve hunger. Yet, we still collect donations. Shelters are a short-term fix and don’t solve homelessness. Yet, we still volunteer. In fact, charity – Tzedakah – is a short term fix. I get all that. But what about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until, or if, this problem is resolved? What about the 100,000 residents of Flint who need water until they are evacuated by FEMA? What about the 100,000 people in Flint who, despite the damage that has already been done, still need clean water to drink?

Moore is suggesting that we focus our time on holding the government accountable and making sure those who did this are brought to justice. I agree that we can’t just send water and feel good about ourselves, and then ignore the dire needs of this city. But I refuse to not try to provide clean water – no matter the damage already caused – for a city. We can still revolt and fight for justice while providing water. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There is a difference between charity and justice. We should not and cannot confuse the two. We cannot only give charity. We must also fight for justice. But we cannot forget the need to do charity while we are fighting for justice. That is the reason that we have two biblical commands: Deuteronomy 15:4, to build a just society, and Deuteronomy 15:7, to help those in need as well strive for justice. We must do both.

The actions of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, in our biblical narrative are some of the most important actions in the Torah. He is there alongside Moses and the Israelites as they receive the Ten Commandments, representing the Divine law. But juxtaposed to this event is Jethro – an outsider of sorts – who tells Moses that a court system, a justice system, must be set up. We read:

This thing that you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, and this people that are with you as well. For this task, this burden, is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone (Ex. 18:17-18).

Jethro is doing more than just helping Moses find the proper work-life balance. He is doing more than making sure Moses isn’t micromanaging. He is acknowledging that as the Israelites are receiving law, law is not set in stone. Law does not always equal justice.

Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it is just. Jethro teaches that we must wrestle with law, struggle with the legal system, and make sure that laws are just for all. That is the justice system that he set up. That is the justice system that we still seek. So yes, Michael Moore, we should revolt. We should pursue justice. We should hold Governor Snyder and the state officials of Michigan accountable for poisoning an entire city. But we have an obligation to give charity, to give Tzedakah, while we fight for Tzedek. We have an obligation to throw that metaphorical branch into the bitter waters to make them sweet. We have an obligation to provide clean, drinkable water, to every resident of this country. And we have an obligation to continue to fight for justice while we do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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That Which Plagues Us

Last week, I watched the CNN Town Hall conversation with President Obama on gun violence in America. More so than by any executive action that Obama made a reality, and more so than by any statement the President made, I was impacted by the stories of two members of the audience. Their realities were heart-wrenching. For these two individuals gun violence wasn’t about mass shootings in schools or cinemas or office buildings. Gun violence was everyday life.

The first was Father Michael Pfleger, a white, Roman Catholic priest, whose parrish is on the south side of Chicago, where he said he has buried hundreds of congregants, hundreds of victims of gun violence. He reminded the President – and the country – about the dangers that his congregants, so many young black men and women in the inner city of Chicago, face every day, and the reality of inequality that still exists that is the root cause of such violence. The second person was Tre Bosley, a young black teenager from Chicago, who spoke about his brother Terrell who was murdered in Chicago ten years ago at the age of 18 while in a church parking lot. Tre challenged the President to understand what he and his peers face daily, surrounded by gun violence and poverty. He said that he cannot look into the future and imagine what his life will be like. His peers don’t know if they’ll be alive years from now. They live week to week, day to day.

And the statistics support his fears. The Chicago Tribune keeps a running list of how many people were shot in the city. And since January 1st of this year, in seventeen days, 148 people have been shot in Chicago. 148! In two weeks. That is approximately nine shootings a day! In our own backyard, there are similar fears. While there has been a decline in state-wide violence, the opposite is true in Newark. Shootings surged in Newark in 2015, up almost 20% from the prior year. For too many young children this fear is a reality.

Too many young children fear that Hadiya Pendleton’s fate will be their fate. Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl, who was murdered on a playground in Chicago in 2013. She and her friends were walking home from school and it started pouring rain. They took over under the slides and swing sets. She was shot and killed by two men who thought that she and her friends, gathering together, looking for shelter and safety in the rain were a rival gang. A week earlier, she performed at the President’s second inauguration. And then she was murdered by a bullet.

This past Shabbat, we read the most disturbing part of the Exodus narrative. While frogs, cattle disease, lice, and hail, were inconveniences, the tenth and final plague sent an entire nation into mourning.

God said:

Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. (Ex. 11:4-6)

A mournful cry was heard among all of Egypt. What was it about the tenth plague that did it? Why was that the straw that broke the camel’s back? One could argue that Pharaoh deserved to be punished for his actions, as did his taskmasters, courtiers, and government officials. And while they may’ve suffered from grief, they survived. It was the firstborns, their children, so young and innocent, that were killed. Seeing them taken from the world, with their full lives ahead of them is what did it. That is what finally caused Pharaoh to realize something needed to change.

This society, where young boys and girls in inner cities don’t feel safe, and may be shot on a playground is on us. We are experiencing Makat Bechorot, that plague of the death of our innocent children. We must acknowledge the root cause of such violence: the systemic racist reality that still exists in our culture, that we caused with white flight, the creation of urban ghettoes, not to mention a broken windows policy of policing, and a criminal justice system to is harsher on minorities and the impoverished. We could spend years talking about the reality that exists – and the cause of that reality. Regardless of the root cause, we must acknowledge that our hearts remain hardened like Pharaoh’s heart. Or better said, our hearts remain apathetic. Our hearts remain complacent. Our hearts have come to accept this reality.

Dr. King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now. To rid ourselves of our hardened hearts, of our apathetic souls, and change society. Now is the time to end this plague of gun violence that effects so many innocent children.

What I find so troubling about Parashat Bo, is that while all the Egyptians, including the innocent bystanders, suffered and watched the bloodshed, witnessed the angel of death murdering their firstborns, the Israelites were protected. The Israelites were safe.

God said:

When I see the blood on the doorpost I will protect you so that no plague destroy you. (Ex. 12:13)

The Israelites tucked their children in at night and knew that they would wake up the next morning safe and sound. They knew that they their neighbors were suffering, but they were fine. And so it continues. This plague continues. Death. Loss. Too many innocent victims. And we – distant and removed from it all – allow the plague to passover us.

Rabbi Daniel Burg serves as rabbi of Beth Am in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, one of the few synagogues to remain in the city of Baltimore, instead of moving to the suburbs like much of the Jewish community did decades ago. He speaks of two neighborhoods in the city: Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived, and Roland Park, the first planned suburb in North America. Beth Am is between these two neighborhoods, these two neighborhoods which are roughly three miles apart. He asked his community if they knew the difference between the life expectancy in Roland Park and Sandtown-Winchester. The answer: fifteen years. Statistically speaking, one who lives in the suburbs of Roland Park with the fine supermarkets and superb schools will live for fifteen more years than those who live in the poverty stricken neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. These two neighborhoods are right down the street from each other, but one is plagued be the angel of death and the other is protected by the sacrifical lamb. The society that we live in allows this plague to pass over some of us and attack others.

But no more. What will it take for us to end this plague? What will it take for us to create and build a safer society for all of God’s children? We must put an end to this plague. We must metaphorically spread the blood of the pascal lamb upon all of our doorposts, so that poverty, injustice, and inequality, and the fear and violence that is often the result, will pass over all of us. May it be so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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