Tag Archives: Trump

The Night I Prayed Behind Bars

“We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before. We came as Jews who remember the faceless millions who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

These are the words of a rabbi who spent the night in jail. These are not my words. These are the words of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and 14 other rabbinic colleagues who on Thursday June 18, 1964, while praying in an integrated prayer group in downtown St. Augustine, Florida, were arrested. They came to Florida at the urging of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke weeks earlier at the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis convention about the fierce urgency of now. I thought of this group and this story on Monday night as I spent the evening in a holding cell with 18 of my teachers and colleagues. We each took turns teaching words of Torah as inspiration and meditation, and singing words of our sacred liturgy, pleas that drifted towards the Heavens, turning NY’s 33rd precinct into a Makom Kodesh

I do not mean to compare or conflate the two. However, those words were an important reminder for me of the role of civil disobedience. It is those very words Rabbi Borowitz, and those very words of Torah that we taught each other that served as a spiritual catalyst for our participation in this act. We marched with hundred of rabbis towards Trump International Hotel, protesting what I believe to be the President’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim agenda. I did so – and continue to do so – as a Jew, a rabbi, and a human being. As a person of faith, any executive order that intentionally targets another faith, is deeply troubling, and a reminder of our obligation to stand up. We know all too well what happens when one faith doesn’t stand up for another.

The Jewish people are also a people of refugees. For thousands of years we wandered. We were sojourners, either being evicted from or fleeing every home that we had known, fearing our own safety. That is especially true when we think of our ancestors who sought refuge, fleeing Nazi Germany. But additionally, we know that we are a community – and a country – of immigrants. My great grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine. We each have our own family immigration stories. It wasn’t until the Jewish community settled in this country that we stopped having to seek refuge. 

Our Torah teaches us to welcome the stranger and reminds us that we too were once strangers.

Our Torah also teaches us that we must not just come to understand the teachings of our faith; we must also act on them. And acts of civil disobedience are a common part of our history. I think of the midwives Shifra and Puah, who intentionally ignored the Pharaoh’s command to murder innocent children, and in the process, saved so many lives. I think of the Prophet Jeremiah, who put bands and bars on his arms and around his neck as a protest in the eyes of the King, a symbol of the impending defeat by Nebuchadnezzar. I think of Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman. I think of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who risked his life to publicly criticize the Roman government, a government that prohibited the study of Torah. I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma with Dr. King. I think of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and his colleagues who wrote a letter from prison. And I think of so many in our community who march – and act – and serve as examples to me, reminders that we pray with our feet. 

So on Monday night, I marched with 250 of my rabbinic colleagues. And as we arrived at our destination, I sat in the middle of the street with 18 of my colleagues. We sat and we sang the words of Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, words that we chant this Shabbat as part of Parashat Beshallah. These words that the Israelites sang upon crossing a split sea are words of courage, but also a promise of freedom — a freedom that I believe our faith obligates us to ensure for all. We sang Ozi v’Zimrat Yah, Vayehe Li Lishua. God is my strength and my song. And God will become my salvation.

These words are not just a testament of faith. These words are a reminder for me of why I do what I do. I understand that as a rabbinic leader and public figure, every action has an impact – potentially positively or negatively – on others. I think deeply about the statements I make, the stances I take, and the forms of protest that I may participate in. I also consider those things that for many reasons I choose not to say or share. I know all may not always agree with what I say or do, but I hope that the decisions I make are respected because ultimately, everything I say, and everything I do, every statement I make, and every stance I take, is not rooted in politics, but rooted in Torah. They are rooted in the teachings of Pirkei Avot that remind us to especially speak up and act when others won’t. They are rooted in God serving as my strength and my song. They are rooted in my attempt to walk in God’s ways and fight for all made in God’s image. That is how I understood this act as well, an act of civil disobedience to remind all of our obligation to love the stranger. 

I understand that for some, this point could’ve been made — and has been made — without ending in arrest. The goal of civil disobedience is to raise the profile of an issue because of the importance of that issue. If such an act helped the world see and the government see that I, my 250 colleagues, and our faith, stand up for, protect, and welcome the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee, then it served its purpose.

I also recognize the privilege I have as a white male, and as an upper-middle class rabbi. I understand that the NYPD may have treated a group of nineteen rabbis differently than they treated other peaceful protesters. I then have a responsibility to not only acknowledge that privilege, but also to use it: to speak for those who are fearfully silent because of their skin color, faith, country of origin, or uncertain immigration status. I spent the evening in jail for them. But I believe that I did so, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before me, guided by the values of our faith.

I know that some may agree with my decision to act in such a way and some may disagree. I value the feelings and opinions of every member of our congregation and community. There is always a place in our community for every opinion and I hope that every member of our community will always feel comfortable sharing their feelings with me. Because ultimately, what makes a community a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah, is our ability to share what we believe and feel with each other. I hope all will always feel comfortable talking to me, meeting with me, and sharing their opinions with me. We are a community that is committed to Torah. Everything I do as a rabbi and we do as a community is guided by our understanding of Torah. What makes our community so beautiful is our ability to discuss our own perspectives of Torah, even when we disagree. 

When Queen Esther was hesitant to speak up and stand up, she was reminded by Mordecai: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace, you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” The Hebrew Bible urges us to speak up for others; doing so means that we are also speaking up for ourselves. 


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing Up to Hardened Hearts

This article was originally published on January 30th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I spent last Sunday with the new Syrian family that our community helped resettle in New Jersey. Along with my rabbinic colleagues, we spent time with the family that Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation helped to resettle. The family has asked that we do not use their names out of fear of retribution to family members still in Syria. During our conversation together, it was clear how grateful they were to be here, and how much emotional baggage they carried with them. They came with just a few suitcases. Our community graciously and lovingly donated clothing, houseware, and furniture to furnish their new home that we found for them. But all they brought with them, all they had left of their lives, was a few suitcases. Their children are beginning school in the local elementary and high school in the coming days and their oldest child is committed to being fluent in English as quickly as possible so that she could enroll in a university soon.

They arrived at Newark International Airport days before President Trump’s inauguration, and days later, I can’t help but think how lucky they are that they arrived when they did. If they were delayed and arrived any later, they wouldn’t have been allowed in this country, a consequence of the President’s discriminatory executive order that temporarily bans citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, temporarily freezes the US refugee program entirely, and bans all Syrian refugees from entering the United States going forward.

As a rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, this xenophobic policy is deeply troubling to me. In June 1939 the St. Louis was turned away and not allowed to anchor in the United States, out of fear that the German Jews on board were actually Nazi spies.More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Statistics from 1938 show that the vast majority of Americans weren’t willing to allow German or Austrian refugees into the country. On January 27th, we observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and made the commitment of ‘Never Again.’ The promise of ‘Never Again’ means that never again will be turn away refugees, sending them off to be slaughtered. Never again will we be apathetic towards millions who are just seeking safety under God’s sheltering presence. And yet, we find ourselves at this crossroads, where the government has seemed to ignore this commitment of ‘Never Again,’ specifically singling out refugees because of their ethnicity and faith.

My congregation joined the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees a year and a half ago and joined HIAS’ list of Welcoming Congregations this past spring. We, along with the other synagogues in the area, joined withChurch World Service to resettle refugees because we were determined to not just talk the talk – to not just sign on to a statement or add our names to a petition – but to walk the walk. And now in light of this discriminatory executive action, we are left asking ourselves: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Who do we want to be?

mattgewirtzjesseolitzky

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz & Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Newark International Airport

On Saturday night, I joined hundreds at Newark International Airport, among them congregants and rabbinic colleagues, to protest these discriminatory executive orders and demand that refugees and immigrants be allowed to enter this country. I cannot be silent. I refuse to be silent. We must continue to take action, even when we feel hopeless – and especially when we feel hopeless – to fight for what we believe is right.

 

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, a continuation of the exodus narrative, in which God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed. God begins with a promise, looking into the future, focusing on the destination of the journey ahead:

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you for the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Ex. 6:5-6).

This initial promise sounds pretty good. Those who have suffered will be given a new opportunity to begin again. Yet, as God explains to Moses that he will be the leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron will be his voice, the Lord threw a wrench into this supposed promise:

You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:2-3).

This always baffled me. Why would an Omnipotent God intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why wouldn’t God just free the Israelites at that moment? One would think that after finally hearing their cries of four hundred years of servitude, God would immediately take them out of slavery. The rabbis are equally concerned with this and try to rationalize Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

Midrash Lekach Tov blames the Israelites, suggesting that after being enslaved for so long, they weren’t ready to be free. They needed to witness God’s miracles to understand that freedom was actually a possibility for them. Rashi teaches that at that moment, if Pharaoh was to repent, it would be inauthentic. He couldn’t have experienced wholehearted teshuvah, so his heart was hardened. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah suggests that Pharaoh needed to be punished for his actions. Pharaoh needed to suffer from these plagues as a revenge of sorts. But none of this explains why God preemptively warns Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. Why does God reveal the plot twist before it even happens? Because ultimately, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh; it was about Moses.

Moses may have been a hesitant leader due to his fear of speaking in public, his “uncircumcised lips,” but his belief in helping the Israelites was never in doubt. He risked his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace to prevent a taskmaster from beating a slave! This was a cause that he cared about from an early age. But what would happen when he got to that first road block? What would happen when the door was slammed in his face? Would he return to Midian as a shepherd and ignore the hardships of the Hebrews? Or would he continue to bang on Pharaoh’s door, until he banged the door down, demanding ‘Let My People Go’?

God wanted to make sure that Moses was in this for the long haul, because if he cared enough about this cause, then he needed to be in it for the long haul. It would’ve been easy to get frustrated, pack up, and go home. The path to justice isn’t straight, but that doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing it. Moses knew that time and time again he would demand the Israelites’ freedom and would be turned away, but he kept coming back. He refused to give up. He knew what he stood for was right and wasn’t going to let the hardened heart of an authoritarian get in his way.

So now, at this point in history, we ask ourselves where do we go from here? Who do we want to be? We are the descendants of refugees who came to this country seeking safe haven. Many of us are refugees ourselves. We are a people who are taught to welcome the stranger, a commandment found in the Torah more times than any other commandment. So who do we want to be? After signing on to statements and petitions and even resettling refugees, do we move on in the face of bigoted policies? Do we continue to complain to our friends in our own echo chambers, posting on social media to those who already share our views? Do we give up and return to Midian, defeated with our heads hanging in shame? Or do we do what Moses did, keep banging on Pharaoh’s door, fighting for what is right?

Who do we want to be?

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Journey Continues…

This article was originally published on November 13th, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

Over the past several days, I have felt sadness, anger, and disbelief. I feel lucky to live in a town, and be part of a synagogue, with such shared values. In democracy there is always a winner or a loser. My concern was not eliminating that – that division exists in a two party system. But, we have much work to do to repair a country that is so divided and so broken.

What was hard for me, and continues to be hard for me, is the tone and rhetoric. That is why I stood up time and time again condemning such hate speech. And now a candidate who, yes, ran on change, jobs, and the economy — but also on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and bigotry — won. A candidate won who seemed to bully all the other candidates during the primaries and general election: calling them names, yelling at them, interrupting them.

It was hardest to share this information with my children – they are still so young. My daughter was so excited to come into the voting booth with us – about the historic nature of this election. I was upset to share the results. We teach our children certain values, at home, in school, at synagogue and in our sacred spaces: about how to treat other people, those like you and those who are different than you, about loving your neighbor instead of hating the other, about respect. And it seems with the results of this election, I fear that electing a candidate whose campaign seemed to reflect the opposite of those values we teach our children condones hate.

I fear for so many – and I fear also as a Jew – what it means when a candidate who was endorsed by the KKK is elected President. There is real fear for many of us that the hateful rhetoric of this campaign will lead to hateful acts. This week, we also observed the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a pogrom when Nazis torched synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses, and schools, killing over a hundred people. Kristallnacht was a turning point, when hate speech led to hateful acts.

I was also reminded this week of the profound words of George Washington, found in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country’s oldest Jewish house of worship. In it, he pledged that the “government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I acknowledge my privilege as a white, straight, man and I promise to do my part, as an American, and as a human being, to ensure George Washington’s words ring true – that our government does not sanction bigotry or persecution.

So when I spoke to my children, I reminded them that this election does not change what we believe and the way we act. We must continue to be kind. We must continue to stand up for what is right, and stand up for others. A single election does not change the values we stand for. That is what our text and our tradition teach us. We read at the beginning of Genesis 12 that Abram goes on a journey to “a land that I will show you” – traditionally understood as not knowing where he is going to end up. But Abram’s journey was not a journey into the unknown. It was a journey in which they knew exactly where they were going, because the text tells us that Abram’s father, Terach, also set out on this exact journey. We read in Genesis 11:31:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot… and his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

So we learn really that Abram was recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped and settled and never continued. Maybe he was tired; maybe he despaired; maybe he gave up; maybe he was content with simply getting this far.

The disappointment some feel following this election is not just because a candidate won and a candidate lost. It is a fear – fear that the progress this country has made, great progress forward toward justice and equal rights – progress that I believe our tradition celebrates, as well – will stop.

So for those disappointed, I say that the journey continues just as Abram continued Terach’s journey. We will continue on this journey determined to reach a destination of justice and equality. We will come together as a community, as a diverse people, and we will continue the American journey.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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