Tag Archives: Poverty

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It Begins with a Single Can of Food

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

There Shall be No Needy Among You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized