Tag Archives: Protest

Our Liberation is Bound Up Together

We read about the Kriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea, this past Shabbat, as we also celebrated the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And we did so, as many across the nation continued to march, organize, and protest. When we read of the splitting of the sea, the greatest of all miracles that our people experienced, and the marching, walking, singing, and dancing that took place as we crossed, I can’t help but connect these two images: the image of the marching across a split sea and that of marching for justice and equality.

splitting the seaThere are countless midrashim, rabbinic explanations, that detail the splitting of the sea. These midrashim focuses on the ripple effect – pun intended – that such public actions, and such miracles, can have. The Mechilta says that the roar of the split sea was so loud that it was heard in neighboring countries. Shemot Rabbah says that all waters split, not just those of the sea that the Israelites crossed. As those waters split, so too did the waters of the lakes and wells, and even water in people’s glasses and jars. The impact was felt by those who were not even present.

Midrash focuses further on the actions of the angels during this experience. These celestial beings, who are perfect in the Heavens, wanted to sing and celebrate as the Israelites crossed the split sea. But God stopped them for the Israelites were not yet free, were not yet safe. “How can I let you sing as they fear their lives?”, God challenged the angels. Essentially, God is asking, how can you be content, when others fear for their safety? God is even telling the angels, God’s messengers meant to guide us in God’s path, that they are not superior or holier than we are. We are bound up together. They cannot be content if others are not free.

Lilla Watson, the 1970’s Queensland Aboriginal Activist, reminds us:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Your liberation is bound up with mine. And mine with yours. Our liberation is bound up in one another. And so Midrash Avkir even concludes that the angel Gabriel walked with the Israelites as they crossed the split sea, holding back the water on the right and on the left, and preventing the walls of water from collapsing on them. He could not remain in the Heavens on high, simply relaxing and being content with his life when others feared for theirs. He – an angel of God – marched arm-in-arm, side-by-side, with the Israelites and protected them in their most vulnerable state. He acknowledged that our liberations are bound up together.

So what is our mission, our obligation, our responsibility in 2019, as bigotry against all minorities is on the rise, as hate groups seem to have come out of the sewers and back into daylong? Our mission is to be united against the shared adversity that we face.  Our mission is to not sit and sing while others fear. Our mission is to be angels for each other, to stand united against police brutality, against mass incarceration and a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, to stand against transphobic and homophobic policies pushed by the White House, to stand up to Islamophobic travel bans and xenophobic policing of immigrants, to unite against a rise in anti-Semitism, to break down walls that are trying to be built to divide us. Our mission is to understand that we are all in this together. And only then, when we all cross that split sea, leaving Mitzrayim, the narrowest places of society behind, can we truly sing and rejoice. Then, and only then, will we all finally be free.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Songs of Resistance

There’s a great story told about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. His words may have echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when he preached his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-four years ago. But according to Kingʼs speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, those were not the words he had planned to share. Kingʼs speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper and the press was given advanced copies. And his speech that day on the March on Washington began the same with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ʻem about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King was startled and flustered, but stuck to the script. Again, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”  Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: “the people donʼt know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning with Rev. William Barber, when he taught Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He retold this story and referred to Mahalia Jackson not a Gospel singer, but as a theomusicologist. He said that Dr. King would sometimes call her up in the middle of the night, wake her when he couldn’t sleep, and say, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” She would sing, and that ease his anxiety, knowing that God was with him. A theomusicologist. This term suggests that there is something holy, something divine, about singing. This suggests that singing is an act of praying, but also, like prayer, singing is meant to lead to action.

On Shabbat Shira, we read of two such theomusicologists: Miriam in the Torah reading and Deborah in the Haftarah reading. Miriam and Devorah are both called prophetesses; in fact they are two of only five women in the entire Bible referred to as female prophets. Clearly, their song and action is divinely inspired. Deborah is even mentioned as a judge, the only female judge in the entire Hebrew bible, further supporting the case that through her songs, she fights for justice. And these women leaders acted through music to lead the resistance. While it was Moses who sang the Song of the Sea as the Israelites crossed the split Sea of Reeds – Az Yashir Moshe, and Moses sang, the Torah says – the text also says that it was Miriam, who sang with timbrel in hand, that led the Israelites onward in celebrating throughout the wilderness after they crossed the split sea.

Shirat Devorah, Deborah’s Song, makes up most of the Haftarah reading, taken from chapters four and five of the book of Judges. In this song, Deborah declares that we rise up! Song is our declaration to Rise up!

Uri Uri Dabri Shir. Rise Up. Rise Up. And Sing a Song.

There is an inherit connection between song and protest, between songs and marching. This is true for the songs that Moses, Miriam, and Deborah sang. This is equally true for the songs that we sing, for the protests that we participate in, for the marches that we march in. Last weekend, so many in our community participated in the second annual Women’s March, locally in Morristown and Westfield, in Trenton and Manhattan, in Washington DC, and all across the nation. And they marched – we marched – and we prayed, and we sang.

The song I immediately think of as a song of the resistance, a song of protest, is “We Shall Overcome.” This song was an early twentieth century gospel hymn. It was a song of faith. But in 1945 it was sung for the first time by tobacco workers on strike in Charleston as a song of protest. In the 1960s, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger made it an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, someday…

A song of protest that remains a song of prayer.

HistoryHasItsEyesOnYouAnd we sang. And we sing. For Miriam and Deborah led us through song, and song got us through the darkest of moments. And song continues to do so. Song inspires us for what we will be, for what we can be, for the future that we will create. I encouraged members of our community to share pictures and experiences of those women’s marches with me that inspired them. And those pictures inspired me. Specifically, pictures of the youngest members of our congregation holding signs, including those that read: “History has its eyes on you,” “Girl Power,” “Fight like a girl,” “The Future is Female,” and “Girls will save the world.”

We have a long way to go, but what was inspiring about these marches were not the speakers standing at podiums, or those holding the banner who led the way. What was inspiring about these marches, were these children, the future leaders – and in many ways current leaders – of our community. Like the songs of Deborah and Miriam, we need song to move us and inspire us. A powerful song is not just a catchy pop-tune about a crush or a broken heart. A song of protest is a song whose message is as powerful as Torah, whose message is the essence of Torah. These songs remind us to march in the rain and in the cold, when our legs are tired and when we approach the banks of the sea without a clear path in front of us. We need these songs of protest, these songs of resistance, to teach us to rise up and act.

The beauty of the Haftarah is that the song serves as a backdrop; it is the inspiration that leads to action. The narrative of the Haftarah speaks of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite King Yavin’s army. Deborah declares that she will deliver Sisera and the army into the hands of Barak and his soldiers. But when Sisera flees on foot to Yael’s tent, she greets him, invites him in, seduces him, gives him a strong glass of milk, and waits for him to go to sleep. Although she promised to stand guard, she takes a tent pin and a mallet and drives the pin through his temple, killing him.

Of course I’m not advocating such action. But I think it’s important to remember that is wasn’t Deborah’s song that defeated Sisera. It was Yael. Song leads to action. Song leads to purpose. Song inspires us to rise up. It’s not the leaders, the preachers, the theomusicologists, or the activists whom we know by their first names, that will ultimately make change in our society. It’s not those marching in front leading the way. It’s all of us, in the crowd, marching arm in arm, hand in hand, declaring in acts of civil disobedience that we shall not be moved, that will ultimately bring about the change that we seek.

In the middle of Deborah’s song, she declares:

 Tidrechi Nafshi Oz, March on, my soul, with courage and strength!

She sings so that we have the courage and strength to keep going, to know that our values are right, to keep going in spite of daily headlines that make us want to cry and scream, to keep going when it seems like we are marching against headwinds, to keep marching until we have crossed the split sea and can finally, like Miriam, take timbrel in hand, and have our songs of resistance become songs of freedom. Until then, we continue to sing. And we continue to march. We continue to act. May the words of our lips and the songs of our hearts inspire us to do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Safe Haven for All

At the height of the Nike Live Strong yellow bracelet craze, every organization was selling every possible colored rubber bracelet, representing a diverse spectrum of causes. For about four or five years or so, I wore a green bracelet, never taking it off, as a subtle way to take a stand on a larger issue. From about 2003 or so until 2008, I wore a green bracelet made and sold by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) that had embossed on it two simple words: Save Darfur.

Save Darfur. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, was – and still is – consumed by violence and genocide. Since early 2003, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, the militias that they armed, were conducting a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur. They focused on ethnic cleansing, murdering close to half a million people, and displacing another 2 million people. Even when a peace agreement was signed in 2006, it was clear that the Sudanese government had escalated its campaign to terrorize and kill civilians, to rape women and young girls, and to burn villages and drive innocent people from their homes.

SaveDarfurBraceletTwo words — Save Darfur — were embossed on my wrist. Why? With two other words, Never Again, engrained in the collective memory of our people, it’s our obligation to make sure genocide no longer happens. We do not only stand up to prevent genocide against our people, to prevent a second Holocaust, but we stand up to put an end to ethnic cleansing, no matter the corner of the world. To me, the words Save Darfur meant the same as Never Again.

The establishment of the Modern State of Israel made the promise of “Never Again” a reality. Israel was to be a safe haven, a place where individuals didn’t have to worry about being abused, imprisoned, raped, or murdered simply because of who they were.

World Jewry, and more specifically, the American Jewish Community with AJWS at the forefront, sought to end to the violence in the Sudan. So, it is only appropriate that the Jewish community doesn’t just fight to end genocide, but ensures the continued safety of those impacted by such genocide.

In 2010, thousands of Sudanese refugees began entering Israel illegally, trekking by foot for weeks from Sudan through Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel seeking political asylum. Sudan’s neighboring Eritrea is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders and thousands of refugees came from this neighboring nation as well, also seeking political asylum.

Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator for Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that there are over 54,000 African asylum seekers in Israel from this region. Israel has not granted a single one of them asylum, with many in the government claiming that they are simply “work infiltrators” in Israel not for interested in their own safety, but only to improve their quality of life.

Last week, Israel witnessed a dramatic demonstration staged by refugees. 150 Sudanese men AfricanRefugeesProtestwho had been incarcerated in an immigration prison in Southern Israel – some for as long as two years – marched for three days along with twenty or so human rights workers to the Israeli government compound in Jerusalem. With handmade signs written in Hebrew and English, they marched, chanting “No More Prison. Refugees’ rights right now!” They were marching for freedom.

Israeli border police eventually intervened, forming a human barricade around the group, forcing them back into busses waiting to drive them back to the cold cells in southern Israel. Following the illegal immigration of these asylum seekers years ago, Israel built a $400 million security fence at its southern border. Still, not knowing how to deal with these 50,000 asylum seekers, a new Anti-Infiltration Law was passed by Knesset which transfers these refugees to an “open air” prison, which essentially means that they are still locked up, but they can walk around outside while they’re locked up. Even more worrisome about this new law is the fact that it permits government to incarcerate refugees seeking asylum indefinitely.

Following the protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a brief three sentence statement: referring to these asylum seekers as work infiltrators and calmly explained that they are welcome to remain locked up in this immigration prison or return to genocide in their home countries. We promised to Save Darfur. We declared Never Again. And yet, these 50,000 refugees are left with a choice of incarceration or genocide.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, and were reminded of what it feels like to be imprisoned,reminded of what it feels like to be enslaved. Stuck in the 400 year old reality of slavery in Egypt, we refused to remain incarcerated by Pharaoh any longer. Moses, along with Aaron, come to Pharaoh demanding freedom for the Israelites and when Pharaoh refuses, God brings upon the Egyptians the first seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail. And with each time, with each hardship, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. Still, time and time again, Moses and Aaron, continue to demand that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves.

Exodus 7:1 reveals the Divine nature of fighting for an individuals freedom:

Vayomer Adonai El Moshe Re’eh N’ta’ticha Elohim l’faroh v’aharon achi’cha yihye n’viecha.

God said to Moses: See that I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.

God’s statement confirms the Divine nature of standing up for freedom and justice. When one stands up and says “Let my people go” he or she is not speaking his own words, he’s not just speaking for himself; he is speaking for God. He is doing God’s will. When one demands justice and freedom, one speaks for God. Moses’ cry for freedom was God’s cry for freedom. Aaron’s prophetic voice spread God’s call for freedom.

Every time an African refugee asylum seeker is brave enough to stand up for his own justice the same is true. His cry for freedom is God’s cry for freedom. His call for justice is a prophetic call for justice.

We know eventually what happens in our narrative, beginning this Shabbat as we read Parashat Bo: locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn, splitting of the sea, freedom. And once the Jewish people, the Israelites, are freed, God reminds us in Exodus 22:20, that we should not oppress the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We should not incarcerate, imprison, or enslave, for we were once incarcerated, imprisoned, and enslaved. We need to continue to be the prophetic voice, to place ourselves in the role of God – to do God’s Divine work in this world.

After these brave souls marched from Southern Israel to Jerusalem demanding freedom and asylum last week, I looked through my things, trying to find that green Save Darfur bracelet. I couldn’t find it. But the message of those two words remains true. We aren’t seeking to just save the region, we are seeking to save the lives of the people of the region. That does not mean imprisoning them, that means allowing our safe haven to be their safe haven. Such an act is a public statement and a fulfillment of a promise, so that when we say “Never Again,” we mean it.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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