Tag Archives: Obama

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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We are all Pilgrims: Why Jewish Americans should support Obama’s Immigration Reform

This article was originally published on November 27, 2014, on the American holiday of Thanksgiving, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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The Jewish community, once pilgrims ourselves, must embrace those who enter our lands in search of new beginnings and opportunities.

As a child, every Thanksgiving I would read the children’s book “Molly’s Pilgrim” by Barbara Cohen, that inspired the 1986 Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. Now, even as an adult, I refer to the book as a reminder of the true meaning of Thanksgiving in America.

The children’s book and film tell the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant named Molly, who came with her family to America to escape religious persecution. Molly’s teacher assigns her entire third grade class to make Pilgrim dolls as part of their Thanksgiving project. Every other child brings a doll to school dressed in mostly white and black hats, colors, and cuffs – the dress that we generally associate with the Pilgrims of America’s Thanksgiving narrative. Molly, though, brings a doll to school, dressed in clothing associated with her home in Russia. She teaches the class that in every generation, in all places, there are pilgrims, immigrants who search for a new home, a new life, a new opportunity and a newfound freedom.

The traditional Thanksgiving narrative tells the story of a feast and celebration in Plymouth, now Massachusetts, in 1621 following a good harvest. The story, while poorly documented and likely inaccurate, tells of the Pilgrims and Puritans breaking bread with the Native Americans, who embraced them peacefully and taught them how to cultivate the land and survive the harsh winter, before these new immigrants turned around and later savagely slaughtered so many Native Americans.

The message of this story – true or not – is one of embrace. We embrace those who are new in our midst. We welcome them with open arms. We understand the desire – and God-given right – to be free and the journey that so many pilgrims take in order to be free.

ObamaImmigrationReformHaaretzPhotoLast week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would use executive action to reform immigration in the United States. Some may question the method of executive action, but attempts at real reform have been stuck in a gridlocked Congress for years. Regardless of the method, the Jewish community must support such reform. Such executive action extends temporary legal status to almost 5 million undocumented immigrants.

This is not granting citizenship. This does not give them a green card. However, this ensures that millions of parents are not deported and separated from their children who were born here and are citizens of this country. Additionally an estimated 330,000 dreamers,330,000 pilgrims, undocumented immigrants who came to America as children, will be eligible to stay in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The Jewish community is a community of pilgrims. The Torah (Deuteronomy 10:19) reminds us that we must embrace the stranger for we were once strangers. Our communal history, our communal narrative, speaks of wandering. We did not only wander for 40 years in the wilderness. We wandered in exile from country to country for 2,000 years before pilgrims, pioneers, returned to the land of Israel. And during those 2,000 years, we also became pilgrims in every country we settled. We were pilgrims at the turn of the 20th century that saw large waves of Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe to the United States. We were pilgrims when we left the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

Since we were all once pilgrims, we must embrace all other pilgrims, all immigrants who enter our lands in search of new opportunities and new beginnings.

Immediately after Obama made his announcement on primetime television, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of rabbis associated with the Conservative Movement, of which I am a member, applauded the announcement, saying that ” Jewish people have benefited from immigration policies in the United States” and expressing hope “that President Obama’s Executive Order will spur Congress to create a more permanent immigration solution.”

As a Jew living in America, I wrestle with which identity comes first: Am I an American Jew or am I a Jewish American? The truth is that both identities are intertwined. During Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to give thanks for our new beginnings in our land of opportunity – for we were once strangers in a strange land. This year, may we pray that millions of pilgrims, millions of immigrants, will be able to stay in this country that they call home. May we strive to break bread with them, too, for we all have much to be thankful for.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Ger Toshav, the Jewish Community, and Immigration Reform

It initially looked like bipartisan immigration reform would happen in 2011 or 2012. This was delayed because politicians were more focused on getting elected than making change. A bipartisan immigration reform bill came to the floor of the house in 2013, after it overwhelmingly passed in the Senate. It has since been stuck in the gridlock that is the United States Congress. President Obama seemed determined to act on immigration reform this fall, but was pressured by leaders of the Democratic Party to again wait until after the recent midterm elections. They were concerned that such action would have an impact on close races. Pundits now suggest that such inaction was in fact what kept the Democratic base away from the polls on election day.

ImmigrationReformNowMany news outlets have been suggesting that President Obama will act as early as this week, using his executive authority to change America’s immigration policy.  Such reform would not be citizenship and would not be issuing green cards. Rather, it would be an opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief for some five million members of society who live in the United States and work in the United States, who identify as American even if they were not born or raised here, even if they are not citizens. Such action would ensure that these five million individuals are not deported and separated from their children who were born here and are American citizens.

This past week, we read Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah. The Torah reading begins with Abraham, in Hebron, attempting to find a burial site for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. He ends up buying Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Cave of Machpela, and burying her there. What is so interesting to me is why he chooses Hebron, in the biblical land of Canaan, as the burial site for his wife, and eventually himself as well. He only recently journeyed to Canaan, to the land that God promised to show him, and yet, it felt like home. It was the destination of his journey. It was where he believed things would be better.

He was not a citizen of the land. He was not truly settled and familiar with his surroundings. Yet, he dwelt there; he considered it home. He did not return to his birthplace of Ur Kasdim to bury Sarah, or to Haran where they had settled for many years. He chose Hebron, and in Genesis 23:4 he referred to himself as a Ger Toshav, a resident alien, there. A stranger. A dweller. Someone who feels at home even if others treat him as an outsider. Abraham remarkably identifies himself as a Ger Toshav. The Hittites, even more remarkably, welcome him in with open arms, offering him land before Abraham insists on buying it.

I have my opinions about the President using executive orders to change policy. I also have my opinions about the United States Congress doing its best to never pass any legislation. Regardless of how immigration reform is passed, I think it is important that we remember that our patriarch Abraham referred to himself as a Ger Toshav, as a resident alien. We cannot ignore, neglect, or dehumanize the Ger Toshav among us.

We are commanded to welcome the stranger more times in the Torah than any other commandment. With each command, we are reminded that we were once strangers in a strange land. That is true for the Jewish people. That is also true for American society. The beauty of America is that it is a country full of immigrants, a melting pot of different ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures, each coming to this country with a belief that it would bring about new opportunities. We were each once a Ger Toshav. In some ways, we all still are. Just as the Hittites did with Abraham, we have a responsibility as Americans to welcome in those immigrants in our midst, who are a part of our culture, our society, and our workforce, regardless of how they arrived in this country.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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