Tag Archives: South Orange

Why We Celebrate Pride

Last week, I marched through Maplewood Village to the steps of Town Hall with members of our community in the local South Orange-Maplewood Equality March. Waving a rainbow flag, children in our community would hold my hand as we marched together, teenagers – I’m sure slightly embarrassed that their rabbi was giving them high fives, because you know, their teenagers – leading the march, and adults proudly displaying signs that declared that “love is love is love.” But we all marched together.

Later that afternoon, someone asked me why we had the equality march in our town. I explained that it was a sister march with the Equality March in Washington DC that was taking place on the same day and at the same time. Many members of our community were at that march, and North Jersey Pride organized bussing from our synagogue to DC. For those who couldn’t travel to DC, they could march locally.

But this person clarified their question: “I understand marching in DC,” they said. “To show the government and the President and the administration the importance of Equality, marching to take a stand against any anti-LGBT discrimination or legislation. But why march in South Orange-Maplewood – in an area that is already known as welcoming to the LGBTQ community?” they asked.

TBethElPridehe act of coming out is an act of true bravery and courage. At Beth El, we celebrate this act every year at our National Coming Out Day Shabbat, where different members of our community share their coming out stories. But this act still remains an act of courage because of fears that people have: the fear of not being accepted by family, friends, religious institutions, and schools. And the fear of not being accepted by the law. For rabbis, ministers, and mayors, for parents, children, and siblings, for teachers and community leaders to march side-by-side means that one doesn’t have to hide or deny who they are. One doesn’t have to remain in the closet. One can truly just be. And this is the same reason that we, a congregation that fully embraces and celebrates our LGBTQ members, still pauses to celebrate them and acknowledge Pride.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, the biblical narrative involving twelve spies entering the land of Canaan to scout the land. God clearly tells Moses to find representatives from each tribe of Israel to scout the land. The Torah portion began with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Send individuals into the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel. (Num 13:1-2).

God tells Moses and the Israelites that God is going to give this Promised Land to the Israelites, but is still requiring the Israelites to see it for themselves, and declare it as such for themselves. When ten of the twelve scouts come back with fearful and negative reports, the Israelites do not get to enter the land. This is not because it wasn’t the Promised Land. Some rabbinic commentators suggest the Israelites didn’t have faith in God to entrust that all would be okay. Others suggest that these Israelites still had a slave mentality.

I believe they could not enter the Promised Land because it was only the Promised Land if they made it the Promised Land. It was only the Promised Land when they made it so, when those who would inhabit the land could declare it as such. Ten scouts didn’t think there was a place for them there. As a result, because these representatives did not say this was a safe space for them, others did not believe it either. The community cried out in a loud voice and wept all night.

Ultimately, it was the people who made the place. The Promised Land only became the Promised Land when those who entered it declared it to be the Promised Land. It was not because God was to give it to the Israelites. The people had to claim it as such for themselves. Similarly, this community is not simply a welcome and inclusive institution that affirms that all are loved and celebrated here because of synagogue by-laws or mission statements. We are who we are because as we enter this space, we declare that this is a sacred and holy space for all, and that all in this space are holy, that this is a Promised Land for all. To be the Promised Land for all, we must constantly declare that we are; we must constantly reaffirm that we are; we must celebrate Pride! This way, no scout will enter with fear and trepidation. Rather, all who enter can do so comfortable, as their true and full selves, made in God’s Image. May we always march and always celebrate Pride, so that our community remains a Promised Land for LBGTQ members of the community and allies. And may we constantly push ourselves so that we can strive to be more inclusive to all who walk through our doors.

Happy Pride!

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Vow of #Enough

This article was originally published on June 21, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

SOMAOrlandoVigilWe came together as community, standing side-by-side: interfaith clergy and elected officials, police officers and members of the rescue squad, representatives of North Jersey Pride and Moms Demand Action, engaged and concerned members of our towns. Last week, we came together on Sloan Street, at the South Orange Train Station, for a vigil remembering the victims of the horrendous attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in which 49 members of the LGBTQ community where murdered, and another 53 were injured. News media has called this the largest mass shooting in our country’s history. So we came together.

We came together to cry and to mourn. We came together to lean on each other’s CBEatSOMAOrlandoVigilshoulders. We came together to stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And we came together to say “enough.” We came together hoping for a better world – believing that the diversity of our two towns of South Orange and Maplewood and our commitment to building a safe and caring community will spread to the rest of the country and the world.

Sitting in synagogue this past Friday night, I was reflecting on the power of coming together as community as chills ran down my spine. I quickly realized that Friday night, June 17th, was the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And one year ago, this past Shabbat, we had come together, just as we did last week, standing on Sloan Street, gathering at the South Orange train station.

A year ago, we came together in the same way: clergy and elected officials, law enforcement officers and community members, mourning and saying “enough.” And yet, a year later, we continue to gather on Sloan Street. We continue to come together to mourn. A year later, our country still refuses to deal with our obsession with guns and our complacency that allows for the murder of too many innocent lives with the simple twitch of an index finger. A year later, our elected officials cowardly refuse to act, refuse to pass legislative changes to makes us safer, refuse to do anything besides offering “thoughts and prayers.” A year later, and hate continues to repeat itself. History continues to repeat itself.

SOMAOrlandoVigilRememberThis past Shabbat, as we mourned the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub attacked in Orlando and observed the yahrtzeit of the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church attack in Charleston, we read Parashat Naso. In the Torah portion, we read the priestly benediction, the blessing that Aaron the High Priest recites to the Israelites, the blessing that parents recite to children on Shabbat, the blessing recited to newborns at a bris and simchat bat, the blessing recited as we celebrate lovers underneath a chuppah, and the blessing we give to b’nai mitzvah from the bimah.

Yevareicha Adonai Viyishmereicha. Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka. Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha Veyasem Lecha Shalom. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God’s face and presence lift you up and grant you peace. Amen.

We say this blessing at every life stage, at every seminal moment. We talk about Peace. We pray. I am tired of just praying. I am tired of praying for peace and seeing mass shooting after mass shooting. I am tired of praying for peace after hate of another — because of someone’s sexual orientation, race, religion, gender identity, or ethnicity — causes loss of life. I am tired of praying for peace while our children die, while our lovers die, while this world slowly dies. I am tired of those who are supposed to act, who are meant to represent us and pass laws to keep us safe, and only pray. They offer their thoughts and prayers following tragedy and refuse to act.

So we must act. First, we must stand with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and ensure them that our sanctuaries and sacred spaces are their safe havens as well. When a shooter attacked a gay bar and nightclub, a place that had historically been a sanctuary and safe space for the LGBTQ community, we must declare that our sanctuaries are sanctuaries for all — that our sanctuaries celebrate the sanctity of all.

But acting also means forcing our elected officials to act. Moms Demand Action commends those who participated in the Senate filibuster last week, not to pass a law, but just to get a simple vote for common sense legislation. And yet, we saw in the Senate this week, a refusal to act. Those who were quick to offer thoughts and prayers were even quicker to vote against legislation that would curb gun violence in this country. But we keep saying the words of the priestly benediction: Vayasem Lecha Shalom, may God grant you peace. As we say these words, we must make them reality. Get involved in our local chapter of South Orange-Maplewood chapter of Moms Demand Action or Moms Demand Action nationally. Don’t just pray. Do something. That is what God expects of us.

We pray for peace, as if we are waiting for God to act, but Jewish tradition teaches that God is crying as we cry. God is waiting for us to act. In the midrash, Lamentations Rabbah, God cries out. The book of Lamentations is a text that speaks of widows crying and infants lying lifeless in the street. Trying to comprehend the violence, hate, and destruction of the text, God bemoans:

Woe is Me for My house, My children — where are you? My priests, where are you? Those who love Me, where are you?

God cannot understand why we — those who were created in God’s divine image — refuse to act. I also can’t understand this. We sit and pray for God to grant us peace. Yet, the midrash teaches that God sits and waits for us to act. And instead of acting, we just continue to gather on Sloan Street, year after year, mass shooting after mass shooting, While I love this example of communal unity, I’m tired of waiting for the next tragedy to gather. I am tired of simply gathering and not acting. We must make a vow of #Enough!

Parashat Naso also focuses on the Nazarite vow. This odd vow concerns Nazarites refraining from drinking wine, from cutting their hair or trimming their beards, and from coming into contact with the dead. These prohibitions were not required by Jewish law. Still, they placed these seemingly additional burdens upon themselves by adding these prohibitions. The Torah explains that the Nazarites sought a state of spiritual purity. They felt that these prohibitions would lead them to be spiritually pure, to build a society that was spiritually pure. They added rules, changed teachings, and allowed for law to evolve — all in order to create a society, and a life, that was pure, to build a world that was pure as well. We shouldn’t think of the Nazarites as religious zealots who put unnecessary burdens upon themselves. The Nazarites understood that the legal system was not enough to make the necessary changes that they sought, to make this a truly sacred place, and to build the world God expects us to build. They need more laws, more prohibitions to build a safer, and more sacred, world.

Maybe we need our own pseudo Nazarite vow — we need to act. We need a vow of ENOUGH. We need to say that the laws we currently have are not enough to build a spiritually pure society, a society that God expects of us, a world where we — and our children — are safe. And we must make a vow to evolve the law, to take on further restrictions, just as the Nazarites did, to ensure that hate doesn’t turn to violence, that the life isn’t shattered by easily attainable assault rifles. We must make a vow of ENOUGH. Enough thoughts and prayers. Enough praying for peace and waiting for God to act.

We must pray, and we must act. We must hold our elected officials accountable for their refusal to act. We must ensure work to build a spiritually pure society, a safe society, a Garden of Eden that God set out to build. Only then will we be able to not just pray for peace, but make peace a reality. Let us be renewed in our faith as we continue to pray for peace, and let us be courageous enough to act as well. And let’s stop having to meet like this on Sloan Street, continuing to mourn far too many lives lost. #ENOUGH.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Defining Holiness

Sitting in a packed room at The Woodland in Maplewood last week, I, along with hundreds of neighbors, listened to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak. The author of Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Tatum spoke at the first Conversations on Race almost twenty years ago when the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race was first established.

She reflected on the past twenty years since she last spoke to our community. She attempted to answer the question of whether or not our country was going through a rebirth as a more diverse, more inclusive, more integrated society.

She answered by explaining that in every period of great social change there is a backlash. Shifting change creates anxiety for those who fear such change – regardless of how unfounded or offensive such fears may be. She clarified that if we refer to this period in society as a rebirth, then such hate, this attempt to prevent positive and progressive change, can only be compared to birthing pains or contractions during birth.

But as she also reminded us, lest we take this lightly, the moment of birth can be a dangerous time, life threatening in fact, and we should take that danger seriously.

We just read in last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Kedoshim, a call to be holy.

You should be Holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:2).

We try to understand what holiness is. A variety of laws and instructions that follow, including the metaphors to not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, give us insight on how to be holy.

The essence though of what it means to be holy comes from the middle of chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. (Lev. 19:18).

imageThe Torah tells us to love each other, because this is what God expects us to do. And while the challenge to love may be difficult, loving our neighbors is quite simple. Dr. Tatum emphasized how even in integrated and diverse communities, we tend to sit with those that look like us, think like us, or worship like us. In our social lives, we tend to spend time with those who have shared values and beliefs. We don’t sit across the table with those that are different from us. So the idea to love your neighbor suggests that we love those that are easy for us to love. But we are commanded to do more than that.

The previous verse, we are commanded:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. (Lev. 19:17).

Do not hate another simply because of how they look, or where they are from, how they worship, or whom they love. Not only are we reminded to love. God emphasizes to not hate. Being holy is not just about action. It is about conscious inaction as well.
Dr. Tatum warned that silence helps create a climate of hate. Refusing to call out hate, prevents us from getting to a place of love. It is our job to work together to be holy, to see the holiness in all, to love, but also to not hate.

That is how we celebrate that rebirth that Dr. Tatum focuses on. That is how we protect ourselves from the dangers of such birthing pains. The priestly blessing concludes with a hope that God will grant us peace. War is not the opposite of peace. Hate is the opposite of peace. Fear is the opposite of peace. So we refuse to hate. We love. We Act. And we strive to be holy.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Message from Rabbi Olitzky, Rabbi Cohen, & Rabbi Cooper

The following message is being shared with the members of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.

Dear Friends,

We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship and raise families. At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging. That has been the case over the last days. As many of you know, and as has been reported in a number of local media outlets, there have been a number of bias issues that have taken place at South Orange Middle School in recent weeks. These included hate images posted to social media, student-to-student bias comments in the halls, and lunchroom conversation that has no place in our community. This is, of course, unacceptable and requires response. Such response must, however, be serious in intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges AND the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place. It is in this context that we are taking the unprecedented step of writing to each of our congregations but doing so in a single document.

Upon hearing of this late last week the three of us immediately met to discuss how we, as the rabbis of the three South Orange synagogues, might best respond. As a result of that meeting, late yesterday afternoon we met with members of the administration of the school district, including Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent of Schools, Kevin Walson, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Lynn A. Irby, Principal of SOMS, as well as assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors. Present at the meeting as well were representatives from the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the local Community Coalition on Race. We appreciate Principal Irby’s swift response to organizing this meeting.

It was a good meeting and the first of what we expect will be a series of ongoing meetings and learning opportunities. We left the meeting confident of a number of things. First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong. Second, the school has, and will continue to, address the specific events and those involved in them. Equally important, however, is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large. We emerged confident that they will do just that. We also appreciated the administration’s offer to partner with us to aid in this effort.

We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “we are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” We appreciate the administration’s commitment to cultivating a community of “upstanders,” to initiating anti-bias training for staff, to building peer leadership training opportunities for our children, and to planning parent workshops and conversations on bias. We look forward to working together in teaching our children and ensuring that our community continues to be a blessing.

In friendship,

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Congregation Beth El
Rabbi Dan Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
Rabbi Mark Cooper, Oheb Shalom Congregation

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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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How Lovely Are Your Tents

A couple of weeks ago, we read Parashat Balak on Shabbat morning. In doing so, we read the story of the magician Balaam, being sent by the evil king Balak to curse the Israelites. However, as he explained, God ultimately controlled the words that came out of his mouth. On multiple times, Balaam blessed the people of Israel. His most well-known blessing was the following:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How Lovely are Your Tents People of Jacob, Your Sanctuaries People of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

According to Rashi, Balaam said these words because he was impressed by the modesty of the people of Israel. No tent entrance in the encampment faced another tent entrance. What made these tents so lovely was that each individual was respecting each other’s privacy. I prefer another explanation. I believe that Balaam blessed the Israelites’ encampment, not because the entrances to the tents were closed, but rather because they were all open. The doors to each home were wide open and all guests were welcomed into each dwelling space. The community was a warm and welcoming one, a true sign that God dwelled among the people.

These words are traditionally said upon entering a sanctuary before prayer, entering a place of worship. We find them at the very beginning of our siddur, our prayer book. What is unique about this is that we do not always say these words when we enter a sanctuary and we do not always need a sanctuary to pray. We can pray anywhere, for we create community anywhere. We say these words regardless of how beautiful our sanctuaries are, regardless of how large the space is, or how exquisite the stain glass windows are. We say these words because we appreciate God’s Divine presence among us. We say these words because we acknowledge how lovely community is – warm and welcoming, vibrant and diverse.

bethel-logoI am excited to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, beginning on July 15th. As I enter this community, this place for prayer and learning, this space for socializing, for building community, for wrestling with the Divine, and wrestling with ourselves, I proudly declare: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are these tents. How beautiful is this sanctuary. I look forward to building on Beth El’s already warm and welcoming culture and working together to build an even more vibrant community. May we all always feel comfortable walking through the wide open doors of this community and may all of our experiences with community cause us to count our blessings.

Mah Tovu!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

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