Tag Archives: racism

Standing up in Solidarity

On September 15, 1963, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite right outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was always busy, serving as a local meeting place for civil rights leaders. On Sunday morning, due to worship services and the many activities it hosted, it was particularly packed. At 10:22 AM that morning, the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls, and injuring an additional 22 people. This was domestic terrorism, clearly a racist hate crime.

Over fifty years later, we are left asking what has changed? Last week, a man entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man joined congregants for bible study and stayed for over an hour, before opening fire on the African-American men and women present, killing nine, ranging in age from 16-87, including the church’s pastors. In custody, Dylan Roof admitted that he was hoping to start a race war.

We celebrate the advances in society towards equality and yet, we ignore that racism is alive and well in this country. The confederate flag flies high at statehouses in this country and is sold in stores. Highways are named after Southern generals who laid down their lives fighting for slavery. Since this tragic murder, many including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, have called for the confederate flag — a flag that is a symbol of racism, slavery, and the greatest blemish on this country’s history — to be removed from the statehouse. Wal-mart and Amazon are among the companies that have declared that they will stop selling the confederate flag. While this is progress, albeit too late — after the murder of nine innocent victims, there is much that  our religious leaders and political leaders still must do.

I am proud to be a part of the local South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Association. Last Friday, before Shabbat, we organized a last minute vigil at the South Orange NJ Transit train station to mourn, pray, and hope together. Although the vigil was scheduled at the last minute, well over a hundred members of the community attended to cry together and pray together. This was a power experience of unity. Yet, we must do more than pray. We must challenge our leaders.

StandAgainstRacismOrganizations representing the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism announced this week that they have joined together to declare that this Shabbat will be a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American community against racism. I appreciate the sentiment and always stand with my black brothers and sisters against racism. I don’t think you will find anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t agree that what happened at the Emanuel AME Church was a heinous, racist attack. The murderer said so himself! But we cannot only take a stand against racism when such terrible murders happen in this country and ignore the systemic racism that exists in society and that too many deal with on a daily basis. Where was the solidarity Shabbat following the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray? Where was the solidarity Shabbat when Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie or young black teens were tackled by police for swimming in McKinney, Texas? The Jewish community — and society as a whole — has been too quiet in standing up to the systemic racism in this country. We all must stand up against racism, but I must ask, what has taken us so long to take a stand?

As we stand in solidarity, the tragedy of Charleston must be a spark that forces us to stand up more. We cannot wait for our leaders to act. We must stand up to our leaders and demand that they act. Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Korach. In this Torah portion Korach challenges Moses’ leadership and attempts to start a rebellion. He embarrasses Moses publicly, fails in his attempt to overthrow the leadership, and ends up being swallowed up by the earth. The Torah commentator Rashi suggests that Korach failed because he was only interested in his own power. Yet, maybe he wasn’t wrong in his efforts, just in his execution. There are times when we must stand up to leadership. There are times when we must stand up to apathy and stand up for what we believe in. We must take what Korach attempted to do and channel it for the right cause — to change society and make a difference in the world. Fifty years later we need to stop standing up a lot more.

– 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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After Sterling’s racist remarks, Jewish community can’t accept his money

This article was originally published on May 5, 2014, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.


The owner of the LA Clippers have given tens of thousands of dollars annually to local Jewish causes. Taking a stand against his racism means refusing his charity.

Every Jewish institution, organization and synagogue that I’ve ever been a part of has been dependent on donations. Especially in the economic climate of the past several years, nonprofit organizations have been hoping for specific individuals to give major gifts to bridge the deficit gap. We depend on gifts of tzedakah – charity. The Los Angeles Jewish community has relied on one individual to help them meet their fund-raising goals over the past several years, and now they are left to ask themselves: “What do we do with these funds?”

DonaldSterlingDonald Sterling, the now infamous owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, has given tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to local Jewish causes, including major gifts to the Los Angeles Jewish Federationand, somewhat ironically, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

Now, even non-sports fans know Sterling’s name, as we learned last week of secret recordings in which he made racist comments, bluntly informing his mistress that he did not want to see her taking pictures with African-Americans or inviting them to Clippers games. In fact, he even stated it would be better if no African-American fans attended in general.

The NBA responded sternly and appropriately to these comments, with a lifetime ban, a fine of $2.5 million, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saying he would encourage the NBA’s Board of Governors to vote and force Sterling to sell the team.

Some have suggested he should be forced to give more money and donations to organizations that combat racism, bigotry and hate. However, is accepting his money not a tacit acceptance of his thoughts, opinions and viewpoints? Does accepting his donations not condone his prejudice?

Furthermore, to continue to accept donations from him suggests that his comments, at least in private where he made them, are acceptable and commonplace.

The Jewish community as a whole must be more careful in considering whose charitable gifts we accept. Otherwise, we run the risk of being defined by the unethical and prejudiced viewpoints of some of those who give. We must always look a gift horse in the mouth. Donald Sterling’s recent racist comments are just a reminder of that.

Diane Tobin, founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization which focuses on ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community, explains that the sentiment behind Donald Sterling’s comments are more troublesome than the comments themselves.

She explains: “The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end, as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades – a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents – it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.”

Mr. Sterling’s comments suggest a white superiority that the Jewish community cannot hold. His comments became public last week only days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we mourn and memorialize the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, and the 11 million people murdered because of religion, race, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. He made bigoted comments as a Jew only days before world Jewry mourned the scariest result of such bigotry: mass murder and genocide.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is now commonly referred to as Yom Hashoa u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. This is because we do not only mourn the six million Jews murdered simply because of their faith; we also honor and celebrate the brave men and women, Jew and non-Jew, who were willing to take a stand in the face of bigotry and hate.

We must be willing to stand up to bigotry as well.

We, as a Jewish community, must publicly take a stand and declare that Sterling’s views are not our views, that he does not define us, and that we refuse to benefit from his money. If we truly believe in the promise of ‘Never Again,’ then we must stamp out all forms of bigotry in our midst.

Tzedakah is about more than just writing a five, six or seven figure check. The root of the Hebrew word tzedakah is tzedek, meaning justice. Let us ensure justice for all by ensuring that each individual is treated with the dignity and respect he or she deserves, and not be bullied into beliefs, opinions or bigotry by those who have the means to influence such beliefs. Let us embrace each other. As we hang our heads in shame at Sterling’s comments, let us proudly say that they do not represent us, for we see God in each individual. This, after all, is the real meaning of tzedakah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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