Tag Archives: Social Justice

Do Not Stand Idly By…

This article was originally published on May 10th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

This past week, we had a different sort of Shehechiyanu moment. My three-year-old son was the first of our children to visit the emergency room, after slicing his finger on a sharp piece of metal. He’d return with quite the souvenir: five stitches. He was proud. He showed off his bandage of gauze and medical tape like he was a hero, and this was a necessary battle scar. As parents, my spouse and I worried and panicked. And yet, looking back, we realized that this was something small, only a laceration, and we are grateful that such an emergency room visit was a minor expense, literally a couple of bills in my wallet. I also understand that his handful of stitches on a small finger pale in comparison to the serious illnesses and diseases that others at the hospital were being treated for. I am grateful that we now live in a country where someone cannot be denied healthcare or treatment because of lack of finances or because of pre-existing conditions. I fear that this reality will change.

This past Shabbat, we read the joint Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which began with the command “be Holy, for I, the Lord, Your God, am Holy.” Such a command means that we must see everyone as holy and see the divine spark within each person. Therefore, denying the rights of any individual means that one refuses to acknowledge the holiness of that person, and denies that they are made in the image of God. If we are to all strive to be holy like God, then we must strive to treat each individual in the same way our faith teaches us to treat God, with sanctity, honor, and respect.

In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. The text compares him to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. Abaye and Rava often offer differing opinions, but it’s their opinions that often conclude rabbinic debate about a topic. More often than not, it was Abaye’s opinion that was deemed correct. Still, Abba Umana is seemingly seen as more sacred than these learned rabbis. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently than he — an incredible rabbi and scholar — does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life. This helps us to understand how important and essential healthcare is in the eyes of the Talmud.

In addition to the command to be holy in last Shabbat’s Torah reading, we are also commanded “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:15). In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, we find an interpretation of this verse. The Talmud says that one must go out of one’s way to save a neighbor from danger. In fact, the Talmud says that one must even use one’s own resources to hire another individual to help assist and care for this person. The Talmud in this case is pretty clear: we have an obligation to ensure that all receive medical care, even if that means that our costs ensure that our neighbors who are ill get the medical treatment that they need and deserve.

The Torah is clear that we must do all that we can to prevent further harm to our neighbors. The Talmud goes into great detail about how we must ensure the health and safety of our neighbors, and even sees medical treatment as a holy and sacred act, with medical professionals placed on a higher level than Torah scholars. The Shulchan Aruch, often referred to as the leading Jewish law code and most widely cited law code, also confirms our halachic obligation to ensure everyone receives the healthcare they need and deserve. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that taking care of those who are ill is a religious obligation and that if a physician withholding treatment is the equivalent of bloodshed (YD 336:1). The text adds that if there is medicine that will help a sick individual, one is forbidden from charging more than what is appropriate for that medicine (YD 336:3).

I can’t speak about all the details of the latest version of the AHCA because I, like most people, haven’t read it in its entirety. I can’t speak to the economic impact it would have on our country, because the House voted on it before the CBO scored it. I can only speak as a rabbi, regarding what I believe the Torah, Talmud, and Halacha teach us. We are taught that it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to save a life. We are taught that saving a life is so important it supersedes every other mitzvah. The values of our Torah are meaningless if they do not guide us to act. Therefore, I am saddened by the House of Representative’s vote last week that makes it harder and more expensive for those with pre-existing conditions to get health care coverage. This hurts the poor and the elderly more than anyone else, but it especially hurts anyone with a pre-existing condition. And this hurts all of us, because when a law is passed that denies the rights of an individual to be treated, that denies the holiness of that individual, we fail to live up to our responsibility and obligation. When a law is passed that is antithetical to who we are as Jews and to what we stand for, then we must take a stand. We cannot stand idly by. One who saves a life, saves the world. Let us do all in our power to ensure that many lives, and many worlds are saved.

– 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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Fulfilling God’s Promise of Protection

Just a few weeks ago, as we read Parashat Vayetze, I couldn’t help but feel that the words of Torah were speaking directly to what is going on in the world around us. The Torah portion begins with Vayetze –  and he left –  telling the story of Jacob on the run, fleeing, concerned about his own safety and security. The narrative even concludes with Jacob on the run again, fleeing once more, even if the imminent danger is unclear. The parasha focuses on our patriarch Jacob wandering without a place to call home, without a place where he is welcomed in.

These words hit close to home as our country and society continues to grapple with welcoming in Syrian refugees. Welcoming in the most vulnerable is a key element of who we are as Jews – and should be a key element of who we are as human beings. We do not abandon the most vulnerable. We promise to be with them when they need us most.

When a wandering Jacob sees God’s divine messengers in his dream, angels ascending and descending staircases, Jacob is comforted by hearing God’s promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go… (Gen. 28:15).

Our obligation, as we strive to walk in God’s ways, and also be God’s messengers, is to be there for those who need us most. We cannot turn our backs on them. I read a disturbing poll in the Washington Post recently. The poll stated that over two-thirds of Americans, more than 67%, believe that we should try to keep refugees out of this country. Those numbers are disturbing in their own right. However, chills ran down my spine as I realized that this poll wasn’t taken in December 2015 and wasn’t referring to the millions of Syrian refugees who are desperately seeking asylum. Rather, this poll was taken in July 1938, and was referring to refugees from Germany and Austria fleeing the Nazis.

Poll

This poll was referring to many of our ancestors being turned away as they sought freedom and safety in this country. What worries me is our refusal, both then and now, to fulfill God’s promise to be “with you” and “protect you wherever you go.”

Refugees are fleeing from terror, not perpetrators of terror. I understand the fear of ISIS – a real threat in the world, but we cannot turn our backs on millions of refugees. We cannot turn our backs, in the same way that so many turn their backs on our ancestors trying to come to this country decades ago. We cannot ignore the stranger. We must love the stranger. We must embrace the stranger. For we were once strangers.

I am deeply troubled by the recent news that many governors, including Governor Christie of New Jersey, have publicly stated that they wouldn’t welcome refugees into their states. I decided to write Governor Christie and urge him, based on the teachings of so many faith traditions, to reconsider his positions. Rabbis began to sign on to this letter, and before I knew it, over 100 members of the clergy, all residents of New Jersey, from many faith traditions and religious backgrounds, signed on to the letter as well.

While we await a response from the Governor, I – and my community – continues to commit to doing our part to welcome in the stranger. I refuse to ignore the most vulnerable. May we uphold God’s promise of protection to those who need it most.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The full text of the letter can be found here:

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees2

 

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees3

LetterToGovChristieAboutSyrianRefugees4

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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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Respecting the Rights of Laborers – Locally & Globally

After hearing the news over the summer that A&P Supermarkets had declared bankruptcy, I was excited to hear that Stop & Shop Supermarkets would be buying a number of the A&P locations, including Pathmark store which are owned by A&P. At the end of July, we learned that the Pathmark on Valley Street in South Orange, the closest and most convenient grocery store for many of us in town, would become a Stop & Shop. This news was not only exciting because this local market would get a much needed facelift, with a cleaner store and more product options. This was exciting because this means that the fight to end modern day slavery and exploitation of workers in the fields of Florida and across this nation — the fight for human rights of migrant agricultural workers in this country — continues to gain momentum and impact us locally.

Many are familiar with the Fair Food Program, as I’ve written about the this important program and the important work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers time and time and time again. Last year, as part of our recognition of T’ruah’s Human Rights Shabbat, Congregation Beth El screened the film Food Chains, as a reminder that our fight to ensure freedom, equality, and justice for all is far from over.

StopAndShopAt the end of July, it was also announced that Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold USA — which also owns Giant Foods — was joining the Fair Food Program, making it the first major supermarket chain in the Northeast to join the program. Soon enough, we can rest assured that the tomatoes and produce we buy, the produce from our local supermarket, will be picked under humane conditions, ensuring that the laborers who work hard to bring the food from the fields to our tables are treated with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves. This soon-to-be Stop & Shop will join other local supermarkets, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, as part of the Fair Food Program and I hope that soon enough, other supermarket chains, restaurants, and food service providers will follow suit. The Fair Food Program has been so successful that the program’s labor rights education sessions have expanded from the tomato fields of Florida all the way to the farms of New Jersey, continuing to fight for the dignity of those who work in our own backyards.

We were reminded this past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Ki Teitzei, that our obligation to fight for the rights of these workers is a sacred obligation. We read in Deuteronomy 24:14:

You should not oppress a hired laborer that is poor and needy.

Furthermore, we are commanded just verses later in verse 17:

You shall not deprive a stranger of justice.

Fighting for the rights of every worker — from fellow colleagues and employees to those who work in the tomato fields — is holy work. We are taught that the Torah is Etz Chayim Hee, a Tree of Life, but the Torah — and the words of Torah — is only a Tree of Life, is only a living document, if our lives and our actions are guided by words of Torah. May we continue to work, advocate, and fight for the rights of workers. May we continue to work for the expansion of the Fair Food Program, ensuring that the Torah is a living document and guide in our lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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It’s Time for Less Prayer and More Action

I was disappointed with myself last week. It took me several hours to even reflect and realize my own apathy. Flipping through channels last Thursday, I saw the news report of the latest mass shooting in our country, when gunman John Russel Houser opened fire last week at The Grand Movie Theater in Lafayette, during a screening of Trainwreck. Two victims were murdered. An additional nine victims were injured, and the gunman eventually took his own life. I watched reports of this terrible tragedy for a few moments and then changed the channel to see what else was on. Hours later I was so angry with myself — and with what society has become — that mass shootings have become so commonplace, have become the norm, that such an event is a nightly headline. I was so disappointed with myself that instead of this massacre leading to action, I just flipped the channel to watch something funny, lighthearted, and fiction instead.

The reality is that mass shootings are all too common in this country. It was less than two weeks ago that Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on a military base in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S. Marines and himself. It was barely a month ago that Dylann Roof shot up Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the racist intentions of murdering African-American parishioners. He murdered nine people, included the church’s senior pastor. And of course, these are only the mass shootings that we hear about, that are covered on television, in newspapers, and on blogs. According to Business Insider, Mass Shootings are so common in America that we don’t even hear about most of them.

Lafayette shootingI was angry at my own apathy because we cannot let apathy become our reality. We cannot let our minds, hearts, and souls become numb to our country’s gun violence epidemic. Gun violence in America is much worse than in other developed countries. We need to start doing a lot more, and simply praying is not the answer. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for prayers following an ‘awful night in Louisiana,’ referring to last week’s movie theater shooting in Lafayette. As a rabbi who prays three times daily, I strongly encourage prayer. I believe pray helps us connect to something greater than ourselves and balances us when life feels chaotic and we feel helpless. But prayer alone cannot be the answer.

Last Shabbat, the Shabbat prior to the mournful day of Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar, was referred to as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named for the prophetic warnings found in the special Haftarah reading. While Tisha B’av is a day on the Jewish calendar that allows us to mourn the societal tragedies of history caused by humanity’s hateful actions, the Sabbath prior is meant to warn us of the tragedy on the horizon if we do not change our ways. In this Haftarah, taken from chapter one of the book of Isaiah, the prophet urges the Israelites to change their ways and finally, speaking for God, essentially says, “enough with the worship. It is time to act!”

We read in Isaiah 1:11-12 —

‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnet offerings of rams,

And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me –Who asked that of you?’

God is saying that there is no point in worship if people will not change their ways, if society is unwilling to change. Such sacrificial ritual, and such modern-day prayer, is almost offensive if the prayerful words are meaningless, if the promise to change is a false promise. God goes as far as to say in Isaiah 1:15 —

And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen.

Instead God wants us to seek justice and change our ways as a people and as society. Isaiah continues in 1:15-17 –

Your hands are stained with crime – Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.

It’s time for less prayer and more action. We must take Isaiah’s words – God’s words – to heart. I am sorry Governor Jindal, but I disagree with you. We cannot simply pray. We need to act. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I am tired of a country that cannot pass any true gun control legislation because the gun lobby has more control over our elected officials than we, the voters, residents, and citizens of this country, do. I am tired of a country where a true conversation about level-headed gun control gets shut down automatically and becomes partisan debate. I am tired of a country which understands every other part of the U.S. constitution to be up for interpretation except for our reading of the Second Amendment. And I am tired of a country that permits me to become apathetic, even for a moment, when hearing about bloodshed caused by a bullet.

Those who disagree with me challenge how I can guarantee that guns will be kept out of the hands of criminals. I cannot. Legislative changes cannot. However, I do know this: I know that it is easier to legally buy a gun than it is to register to vote. Furthermore, the restrictions on driving and receiving a driver’s license because of mental illness, medical conditions, or previous illegal driving activity make it far more difficult to legally drive a car than to legally buy a gun. I also know this: Muhammed Abdulazeez had a history of drug abuse and depression and was able to legally buy the gun that he used to murder four U.S. Marines. Dylann Roof had pending felony charge. Federal law prohibits people with pending felony charges from obtaining firearms. Yet, a legal loophole allowed Roof to obtain a gun, because South Carolina is one of many states that does not require background checks for private gun transactions. John Houser was mentally unstable and told by judges on two separate occasions that his cognitive well-being needed to be evaluated by a specialist. But because he was never involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he was still able to legally buy a gun, which he did from a pawn shop in Alabama, before using it to shoot up a movie theater in Louisiana.

I know that we as a nation can do better. We must do better. We must pass commonsense gun control reform to prevent those who shouldn’t be able to, from legally obtaining a firearm. We will not be able to fully solve the gun violence epidemic in our country. However, doing nothing only allows it to continue, and as long as we do nothing, we are just as responsible for the bloodshed of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our loved ones. How many people need to be murdered by a firearm in a movie theater or house of worship, on a military base or in a hospital, in a shopping mall or school, before we finally come to our senses and pass commonsense gun control?

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God requires that we devote ourselves to justice. To fail to act and to allow our elected officials to not act is an injustice! We need to stop our calls for prayer and begin our calls for action. God requires that of us, and the fragility of life requires that of us as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Power of Jewish Youth Groups

USYJRAI just returned home from an exhilarating – and of course exhausting – couple of days with our South Orange USY chapter in Philadelphia. Over thirty teens from our USY chapter traveled to Philadelphia to spend Shabbat together with students at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, tour the campus, and then visit highlights of the Jewish aspects of the city, including the Liberty Bell, Congregation Mikveh Israel – the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the country, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More importantly than touring though, our teens spent Sunday and Monday volunteering. Through service learning opportunities with organizations like Jewish Relief Agency, Repair the World, and the Boys & Girls Club of America, these teens came to understand the challenges of food insecurity, hunger, and poverty in the city of Philadelphia as well as throughout the country.

The beauty of youth groups like United Synagogue Youth (USY), is that they emphasize experiential education. We didn’t CleaningBGCAjust study the concepts of justice and law through a Jewish lens. We worked towards justice, understanding that we must also work to change laws that are unjust, that take advantage of society’s most vulnerable. USY is more than just a social experience, although there was plenty of hanging out and having fun! USY inspires the next generation of leaders in the American Jewish community. This trip helped them understand the importance of rolling up our sleeves to make this world a better place. USY helps to teach our children that they must take responsibility for the world around them, for those around them.

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, we find in Exodus 23:6:

You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.

USYtefillah

More specifically, we must not take advantage of those who depend on us for justice. Thus, we must also realize the blessings that we have in our lives and instead of taking those blessings for granted, we must make it our priority to bring blessings to others. Through the social action and social justice work of our USYers this past weekend, they did just that. I was just happy to be there to witness the impact that our teens are already making in this world. They are thoughtful, they are committed, and they are inspiring. The American Jewish community, and society, is in good hands.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Giving Thanks Means Realizing the Divine Spark in Each of Us

Thanksgiving is arguably the most “Jewish” of all American holidays. This is not only because of the link between Thanksgiving as a fall harvest holiday and the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, mentioned often in scripture. Thanksgiving is authentically Jewish because at the core of Judaism, Jewish practice, and Jewish ritual is the act of giving thanks. Unlike American tradition which designates a day for giving thanks for those things that we otherwise take for granted, Judaism ritualizes this process on a daily basis. We offer blessings of thanks three times daily in the Amidah prayer. In fact, the rabbis teach that we offer one hundred blessings a day, one hundred opportunities to give thanks, one hundred opportunities to express gratitude for the everyday miracles in our lives. Doing so ensures that giving thanks is not about turkey or football, but rather about true gratitude for what we have.

However, the act of giving thanks cannot simply end with gratitude. Giving thanks — appreciating what we have — must lead to helping others who do not experience the blessings that we too often take for granted. This includes helping those in need by providing food, goods, and services to those less fortunate. But this also included being a voice for justice and equality, standing up for those who God-given dignity and rights are being neglected or taken advantage of. Giving thanks must lead to helping others. Giving thanks must lead to action. Giving thanks is about seeing the Divine spark, seeing God, in each individual.

This past Shabbat, we read in the Torah portion, Parashat Vayetze, of Jacob’s dream. Jacob dreams of staircases from the earth all the way up into the Heavens. The text says that angels of God were ascending and descending up these staircases. Messengers of God, those made in God’s Divine image, were going up and down. Jacob awakens and realizes that “God was in this place and I did not know it.” For the first time, Jacob the selfish becomes Jacob the selfless. Jacob realizes the Divine spark in each individual, that God is all around us because all those made in God’s image are all around us.

Thus, to give thanks to God is to give thanks to each other. And we cannot truly express our gratitude to the Divine if we do not also work to ensure that all those made in God’s image have a great deal to be thankful for. Giving thanks must lead to action. Doing so, allows us all to pause, reflect, and appreciate God’s blessings.

– 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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The Journey in the Voting Booth

Last week, I added my name to a letter signed by clergy across faiths and religions in solidarity, urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The letter, prepared by the Jewish Social Justice organization Bend the Arc, urges Congress to pass this amendment and restore the mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act, mechanisms that they Supreme Court got rid of last year. Thus, the upcoming election day, Tuesday November 4th, will be the first election day in this country in over fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Voter disenfranchisement troubles me. Scare tactics and stumbling blocks — including special ID cards — make in near impossible for some American citizens to fulfill their duty, obligation, and opportunity as Americans and vote. What is equally troubling, maybe even more troubling, is that so many of us who do not have such stumbling blocks in our path, choose to stay home on election day.

The 2008 election saw over 70% of eligible voters head to the voting booth. In 2010, the last “midterm” elections, only 42% of eligible voters actually voted. 58% of eligible voters did not cast a ballot. Many in the news media think that turnout on Tuesday will be even lower. Some of us may not vote because we think our vote is only one vote and a single vote does not matter. Others may stay home, fed up with the gridlock in Washington, annoyed by the lack of productivity of our representatives. However, as I wrote previously, we have a Jewish imperative to vote. We have a responsibility — as keepers of Torah, as those who strive to make the ethics and morals of our tradition reality for all of God’s creations, as those who see the Torah as a tree of life because it is a guide in our lives —  to vote.

voteforpeaceVoting is taking a leap of faith. Like Abram who began his journey in Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, which we read about this past Shabbat, we go on a journey, even if we do not know where exactly we will end up. God promised Abram in Genesis 12:1 that God would take him to a land yet unseen. He did not know where the journey would take him. He did not know what the final destination would be. But he still took the journey.

We vote for candidates, on the local, state, and national level, that we think best represent our ethics and values. We do not know what they will achieve once they are elected. But we still take to journey. To refuse to vote, to refrain from voting, to be apathetic towards the democratic process is the equivalent of Abram settling and remaining in Haran.

Voting is a sacred experience, a sacred journey. Even if we do not know where we will end up, may we be brave enough to take the journey. May we do our duty, may we fulfill our responsibility, and vote. Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul compares the voting booth to the Holy of Holies, for it is truly a sacred space, an act in which become a little bit closer to the Divine. May we take the act seriously, and may we appreciate the holiness of this journey.

No matter what political party you affiliate with, no matter what candidate you support, don’t forget that election day is a holy day. Don’t forget to vote.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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