Tag Archives: Justice

$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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Jewish Institutions Should Preach Social Justice From the Pulpit

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

HaaretzSocial Justice is a central tenet of Judaism. Why, then, are rabbis and synagogues afraid to broach it?

Throughout my studies in rabbinical school, I was taught to not preach politics from the pulpit. The reasoning for this was backed up by the regulations of America’s Internal Revenue Service, which say houses of worship and not-for-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
These regulations have been misinterpreted as meaning we, religious leaders, cannot talk about any issue that’s deemed “political.” Yet all key issues facing American society are addressed by elected officials. And when they are, they are perceived to have become “political.” So, in turn, we conclude that we can’t talk about them for fear of mixing politics and religion.

This logic is completely misguided.

The fact that politicians address issues does not inherently make these issues “political,” and does not automatically bar rabbis and synagogues from taking a stand.

So why do these institutions really shy away from such issues? For fear of being controversial or labeled in an unpalatable way.

These communities are missing an opportunity to connect the values we, Jewish leaders, teach our children and the lessons of Torah we teach each Shabbat to the world that we live in.

So many issues that I have spoken about from the pulpit – including marriage equality, systemic racism, gun violence, prison reform, refugee crises, and modern day slavery – are anything but political. These are social justice issues.
There may be disagreements on how we as Jews address these issues or how we as Americans guided by Jewish ethics and values address these issues, and disagreement is healthy. But there can be no disagreement regarding our need as rabbis to speak about issues of social justice and address these issues with our congregations.

From November 13 to 17, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the American Jewish community’s Conservative movement, will be hosting its biennial convention in the Chicago-area. This convention, labeled “Shape the Center,” is an opportunity for Conservative congregations and institutions to shape their future and rethink their purpose. Clergy, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders will be coming together during Shabbat and the convention that follows to discuss many issues facing the American Jewish community, in hopes to reshape their visions and to align their missions with the needs of its members.

Among the many presentations at the convention, I will be leading a discussion about putting social justice at the center of our communities, where I will emphasize the need to walk the path of the prophets. Judaism will not survive, let alone thrive, if we solely concern ourselves with the heady debates of the rabbinic tradition and ignore the world in which we live. The prophetic texts of the Bible teach us that Judaism and Jewish values is not just about our own personal actions; it is about impacting our society and our world.

It was Amos who said “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7). It was Jeremiah was said: “Execute ye justice and righteousness … do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22:3). It is Isaiah who challenged: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him” (Is. 58:6-7).

Why are we so scared to share how Judaism has relevant lessons to teach us about facing the issues facing our society? Why are we afraid to be guided by the values of our tradition to change the world around us?

When looking at the now well-documented, inspected and over-analyzed Pew Study on the American Jewish community of 2013, we find that an overwhelming 69 percent of the community believe that living an ethical life is essential to their sense of Jewishness, and 56 percent add that being Jewish means working for justice and equality. If our goal in shaping our institutions is to create entry points for engagement, we should embrace the connection many in our communities make between Judaism and social justice.

Spiritual experience must be more than just Shabbat services. It must be rallies and public actions, too. Education must be more than just religious school and preschool. It must be protests and letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. We must not only assemble in our buildings for prayer. We must assemble on the streets, and in front of town halls and statehouses. We must see social justice as a core part of our congregations, and a core part of our Jewish identities.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Acting for Justice, Searching for Holiness

This past Shabbat, we read the well-known verse and command in Parashat Kedoshim: Kedoshim Tehiyu: You Shall be holy. Yet, we are left looking around society and can’t seem to find that holiness anywhere. Over the past several weeks, following the death of twenty-five year old Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, protests erupted throughout Charm City. Peaceful actions were hijacked by outside agitators, many actions turning into violent riots.

freddiegrayprotestsWe did not find holiness in the death of such a young man, a death which has since causedMaryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to charge six officers in his death. We did not find holiness in violent riots that have caused city-wide curfews (that have since been lifted) and brought fear and concern to many Baltimore residents. But we also don’t find holiness in those stand in protest with residents of Baltimore, while still ignore that so many are stuck in a cycle of multi-generational povery, inequality, and systemic racism. We find holiness in taking action, but we must do more than act.

We must do more than be concerned about our neighbors. We must do more than care about our neighbors. We must do more than act for the sake of justice; we must act for the sake of love.

How do we ultimately become holy? By fulfilling the commandment in this Torah portion, found in Leviticus 19:18:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

The term ‘neighbor’ connotes that this is our neighborhood. The actions towards others ultimately impact us as well. Their home is our home. Their unrest is our unrest. So many Baltimore rabbis and members of the Jewish community acted in solidarity with the Baltimore community, searching for justice for Freddie Gray, but also taking a stand against a system that makes life so challenging for so many of the city’s residents. They rallied not out of obligation, but rather, out of love.

They understood that our neighbors are bleeding, just as our neighbors bled in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Florida. They are bleeding and continue to bleed in Newark, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Our job is to stop the bleeding. And that begins with love. It is only through love, that we can truly understand the hardships of our neighbors. It is only through love that we can acknowledge our own privilege. It is only through love that we can truly be holy. So let us love more. In doing so, let our entire communities, all of our neighborhoods, act and evolve through sanctity and holiness.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Letting Martin Luther King’s Legacy Snap us out of Complacency

This article was originally published on January 19, 2015 on the American observance of Martin Luther King Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz

Why the Jewish community must be reawakened to praying with our feet, and recommit to participating in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

Martin Luther King Day recognizes the life, legacy, and work of the fallen leader of the civil rights movement, but it is hardly a celebration. In 1994, President Clinton signed federal legislation into law, turning this day into a National Martin Luther King Day of Service. This initiative invites Americans to get inspired by the ideals, ethics and values that Dr. King embodied and volunteer their time to help others, making this world just a little bit better.

However, we are selling King’s legacy short if we settle for a once-a-year volunteer opportunity or a community service project as a way to honor him. King was not just about helping those in need. He was about creating lasting change, inspiring legislative reform, through peaceful protest and non-violent action.

Such action is highlighted in the film “Selma,” which tells the story of King leading a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the statehouse in Montgomery. Hanging on the wall in my office is a picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm-in-arm with King during that march. Heschel reflected about his experience that day with a now well-known phrase: “I felt my feet were praying.” I look at this picture every day as I sit at my desk. It is a reminder of the Jewish imperative to work toward justice. But it also serves as a reminder that we all too often become complacent.

MLK DayKing famously said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” The deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, at the hands of white police officers, and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict these officers, serve as chilling reminders that systemic racism is still a scary reality. Those of us who live a life of privilege can’t take our advantages for granted or allow them to lull us into complacency. We need to get off of our metaphorical butts. We cannot ignore the injustice that our brothers and sisters deal with every day. We need to draw inspiration from King, and Heschel, and learn again to pray with our feet.

Rabbi Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot 2:6 that in a place where there are no good and righteous people, we must strive to be those righteous individuals. All the more so, when so many others are silent and apathetic, we must strive to be righteous and act toward justice. We are commanded in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The Torah acknowledges that while justice is an ideal, it does not come easily. We are not commanded to sit around and wait for justice to happen. We are not commanded to talk about justice and expect society will be different. We are commanded to pursue justice, to chase after it.

Let us not settle for a day of remembrance. Let us not settle for a day of community service. Let our observance of Martin Luther King Day be a day filled with dialogue, spirited debate and ultimately, action. Let King’s peaceful protests remind us that we have the ability to bring about change. Let King’s words be a call to action, decades after he said them. As Jews, let us not stand idly by. As we celebrate the life King, may we also remember to live the principles of the Torah, and not just study them. In doing so, may we stand alongside those who suffer injustices because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Let us pursue justice by praying with our feet.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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New Year’s Resolutions Aren’t Just About Us

My family and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at South Orange/Maplewood’s First Night celebration and we had a blast! What stood out to me though was the table in the lobby of Columbia High School, encouraging those who passed by to write down their New Year’s resolutions for 2015. One would be selected at random and win an iPad. In hopes of winning a new iPad, I submitted 16 different New Year’s resolutions, none of which were to win an iPad.

As I looked through all the resolutions displayed in the lobby, I found them troubling. We shouldn’t have to wait until we turn the page on the calendar for us to start anew. After all, our liturgy allows us to start fresh every morning. We don’t need a New Year’s Day — on any calendar — for us to do that.

HappyNewYearWhat was troubling though was not the time of year in which we made these resolutions; it was the resolutions themselves. They were self-centered, including mine! We make resolutions focused on ourselves: to lose weight, to exercise more, to work harder, to study more, to lie less, to spend more time with family. These aren’t bad resolutions. These are the type of resolutions we should all strive to make, opportunities that set us on course to be a better version of ourselves. But if we are to truly make New Year’s resolutions, then we need to think of resolutions that have an impact on others.

Our resolutions for the year ahead must focus on our communities and our neighbors, they must focus on those that we too often neglect or don’t think about enough. They must focus on the challenges of our country and the challenges on the other side of the world. We may choose to ignore these challenges because they seem impossible to tackle, impossible for a simple resolution to make a difference. Yet, such a thought process has led us to ignoring what we truly need to address, those issues which need to be a part of our 2015: justice, poverty, equality, and peace.

Our resolutions must not focus on our own lives, but rather how do we want to leave this world for generations to come. So join me in my New Year’s resolution for 2015, striving to make this world a better place, not just for all of us, but for our children and their children as well.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Love the Stranger, Stand Up for the Stranger

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

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

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

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

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

We read, beginning in Deuteronomy 10:17:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Pope and the Rabbi

Every year, at the conclusion of the calendar year, Time Magazine comes out with their Person of the Year cover. The cover story focuses on the most influential individual in the news over the past twelve months. During the last fifteen years, Time Magazine Person of the Year award winners have included US Presidents Obama and Bush, world leaders like Vladimir Putin, and social innovators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The list of nominees of this past year’s Person of the Year cover story included Edward Snowden, who announced to the world that the NSA spies on us, Edith Windsor, whose case before the Supreme Court led to the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and a recognition by the high court of the rights of same-sex married couples, Bashar Assad, the tyrant who has murdered tens of thousands of those who challenge his authority in Syria, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who pushed for the government shut down last fall. All of these nominees are worthy of the cover, but who ended up on the Time Magazine cover? Pope Francis.

According to Time Magazine, Pope Francis was the most influential newsmaker over the last 12 months. As noted in the magazine’s article, instead of worrying about sexual ethics or fighting over lines of authority, the Pope has elevated the healing mission of the Catholic Church, using the church as a comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world. Pope Francis’ predecessors were professors of theology, but Pope Francis is the pope of the people, serving as a janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician, and school teacher before becoming a man of the cloth.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion in which the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. While we may tend to focus on the legalistic core of the Torah portion, we refer to as Yitro, meaning Jethro, the high priest of Midyan, the chief cleric of the Midianites. In fact, the Torah portion begins with Yitro’s embrace of Moshe, the leader of the Israelites, making Yitro’s impact all the more noteworthy. Moses, reunites with his family after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, into freedom. His wife Tzipporah and their two sons, stayed behind as he journeyed back into Egypt in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery. Following the miracles, and the splitting of the sea, following the singing and dancing and praising God with timbrel in hand, Moses is reunited with his family. Yet, before Moses even reunites with his wife and kids, he runs right past them and greets his father in law.

But this singular embrace was not a son-in-law hugging his father-in-law. Rather, it was two religious leaders embracing each other. This was an embrace of the leader of the Israelites embracing Yitro, Kohen Midyan, the High Priest of Midian. They went into the tent and shared stories of faith and of God’s glory. Jethro’s impact continues as he instructs Moses to set up a court system, ensuring justice in the process, making sure everyone’s voices are heard.

Every year, during Martin Luther King weekend, we in the Jewish community are reminded ofDR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth the powerful impact of interfaith dialogue and building relationships, based on a shared commitment between faith-based communities and faith leaders. The image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may both of their memories be for a blessing, marching arm-in-arm is engrained in our communal memories. It’s a reminder of the importance of our shared paths as humanity, regardless of our faith and beliefs. It is a reminder that we need to come together, despite our differences, to learn about those differences. Doing so, allows us to grow as individuals. To know the other is to truly know one’s self. Heschel understood King’s tasks as his own, based on a shared ideology, theology, and scripture.

On Florida’s First Coast, Martin Luther King Jr. was barred from entering Jacksonville and instead went south to speak in St. Augustine. Upon his arrest for speaking at the Monson motel, King reached out to his rabbinic colleagues for help. Rabbis gathered and united in support of King, and their shared mission towards justice. The end result: the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history. A more important result: faith-based leaders coming together for the sake of one another.

Many suggest that religion is the root of all evil, that religion and differences in religious beliefs, are what causes violence and war. The reality is that ignorance is the root of all evil. Ignorance, a misunderstanding of another’s beliefs, or a refusal to acknowledge that there are those that believe differently from us, is the root of all evil.

Coming together though, learning from one another and embracing each other – and our differences – is the key to peace. After all, the Psalmist challenges us: Hineh Mah Tov Umah Nayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. How wonderful would it be if we all were willing to see each other as brothers and sisters, as one, despite our differences in belief, in practice, in ritual.

Moses understood thisthis when he embraced Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, before embracing anyone else. He knew this because he was a Hebrew living among Egyptians, growing up in Egyptian culture, living in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. His Judaism was strengthened by learning from those around him who are different.

Pope Francis and Rabbi SkorkaLike the relationship between Yitro and Moshe, the Time Magazine cover means great things for  understanding and embracing the other. Never before has a Pope had such a positive and personal relationship with representatives of other faiths, especially those in the Jewish community. Long before he was Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as Cardinal and Archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, going out of his way to pastor to the most needy. Rabbi Abraham Skorka serves the Jewish community of Buenos Aires and actually serves as rector of Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano, the Latin American Rabbinical School affiliated with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently, their friendship began with Bergoglio ribbed the Rabbi about their rival soccer teams.

But their friendships grew. They began meeting and having regular inter-religious dialogue, that culminated in the book On Heaven and Earth, a conversation about their views. Their friendship is so strong that Rabbi Skorka actually has spent evenings in the Vatican visiting the Pope, and the Pope has hosted him and his family for Shabbat dinner, kashering the kitchen in the Vatican to accommodate him. They plan on visiting Israel together later this year.

Such a public expression of their friendship is more than a statement about their friendship. It is setting an example, for Catholics, for Jews, and for all people of faith to embrace each other and learn from each other, for the betterment of society and the world. A rabbi having Shabbos dinner at the Vatican is the equivalent of Exodus 18:7:

Vayetzeh Moshe Likrat Chotno va’yishtachu va’yishak lo

It’s the equivalent to Moses running out to greet Jethro, bowing before him and kissing him; a public display of acceptance, of appreciation, of friendship.

Jacksonville is set comfortably in the Bible Belt, in a community where there are more churches than gas stations. We are a part of a cohesive and warm Jewish community, yet I fear that sometimes, we do not reach out to “the other” and thus, the other doesn’t reach out to us in return. We have an opportunity in the Jewish community in Jacksonville, and in all faith-based communities, to embrace the other, to be like Moshe and Yitro. We have an opportunity to work together, based on our shared beliefs, faith, and values. We have an opportunity to learn together, grow together, and work together to create a more just society. That is what Moshe and Yitro did creating a judicial system. That is what Heschel and King did, marching together and fighting for the Civil Rights for all. That is what Rabbi Skorka and Pope Francis do, learning, conversing, and breaking bread together. That is what we must do. So let us seek out those Midianite Priests around us and welcome them into our tents. May we emulate Moses and Jethro’s shared knowledge, mutual respect, and friendship. And may we be better people as a result.

 – Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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