Tag Archives: USCJ

What it Means to be a Jew

There is a well-known story – or at least a well-known story among us as rabbis who tell stories about rabbis – about Rabbi Solomon Schechter and Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Schechter founded United Synagogue and served as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is referred to by many as the architect of Judaism’s Conservative Movement in North America. One day, while President of the rabbinical seminary, he went for a walk with a young rabbinical student, Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein would eventually become chancellor of JTS from 1940-1972. Schechter, the Romanian-born scholar, told Finkelstein that in order to be a successful rabbi in America, you need to know the game of baseball and you need to be able to play the game of baseball.

In the early twentieth century, Baseball was more than just a game. It was America’s pastime. It was ingrained as part of one’s American identity – like apple pie. To say that a rabbi must know baseball is to say that a rabbi must fully embrace American culture and society. Schechter, who was of Eastern European descent, was suggesting that to be a rabbi in America one must identify as American. One must know pop culture, but more so, one’s Jewish values must also be American values.

There are legends of Jewish immigrants coming over to America from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As they saw Ellis Island in the distance, they would toss tallitot and tefillin, Jewish ritual objects, overboard. While these stories may only be that of legend, the symbolism is clear: they were leaving Judaism behind. Judaism was what caused hate and harm. Coming to America meant that they had to fully embrace their American idealism and abandon their Jewish identities. But this is not what Judaism teaches, nor what Schechter was suggesting.

And then you find the opposite of these legends in the Torah. We read this past Shabbat in Parashat Acharei Mot, the following command from Leviticus 18:1-3:

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

A strict interpretation of what God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion – don’t associate yourselves at all with secular society – would suggest that we should not embrace society. We should put up barriers to society. But this interpretation of Torah couldn’t be further from the truth, and certainly is not what Solomon Schechter was teaching a century ago.

The pious rabbi still laid tefillin every morning. He was not suggested giving up Judaism in favor of the religion of America’s pastime. In fact, he was quite religious and observant. He understood the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and still the importance of being immersed in society. This was not assimilation. This is acculturation. For throughout our history – as Jews and as Americans – we see that religion influences society and society influences religion. We cannot truly live a life based on Jewish values if we are disconnected from society because it is exactly that society that we are supposed to impact with our values!

Wikipedia_blue_star_of_davidThe prophet Isaiah reminds us of our divine responsibility to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world. We believe Judaism and our values has something to teach the world, and guides us in this world. If that is the case, then we cannot be disconnected from this world. Judaism is a part of this world and the decisions we make in this world.

This also means that we cannot limit Judaism to the synagogue, to Shabbat meals, or to lifecycle events. As my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, teaches, Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Jewish ethics are a part of society. They have something to teach us. So we must live a Jewish life daily by ensuring that the ethics and values of our tradition guide us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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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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The Conservative Movement’s Journey

My father was ordained as a Reform rabbi. I grew up as a young child going to the local Reform temple. I am a committed Conservative rabbi, but truthfully, I became a Conservative Jew by accident.

Growing up in Central New Jersey, my family and I would often drive twenty plus minutes to the Reform synagogue. I didn’t know any of the kids in Religious School so I begged my parents that if they were going to drag me to services Shabbat morning, the least they could do was bring me to the synagogue that was much closer, where all the other children in my neighborhood also belonged. This way, at least, I wouldn’t be getting into mischief by myself. From there, I got involved in USY, switched to a Solomon Schechter Day School, attended Camp Ramah, and eventually, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yet, I became a Conservative Jew by accident because, as a child, I wanted to go to synagogue with my friends. I became a Conservative Jew first, because I was engaged.

I am a Conservative Jew. I believe in Conservative Judaism. As Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, once said: “Conservative Judaism is where Tradition meets Change.” Yet, it seems that that crossroads where these two concepts meet is also at a crossroads.

The Pew Study on the American Jewish Community that came out last week, gives insight to the challenges facing the American Jewish community, but even more specifically, facing Conservative Judaism. According to the study, only 18% of American Jews identify with the Conservative movement. Additionally, over 30% of those raised in Conservative institutions have chosen to affiliate with another movement. Furthermore, the median age of Conservative Jews according to the study is 55 years old, the oldest of all Jewish denominations and movements in this country.

The movement – with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at its head – must reestablish itself if we are to be a movement that offers anything worthwhile a generation – even a decade – from now. I am proud of the thriving, ever evolving, and innovative institution that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is, but as the only Conservative synagogue on Florida’s first coast, it’s easy to see our vibrancy and ignore the struggles of the movement outside outside of Northeast Florida.

Part of the struggles have to do with the evolution of the movement juxtaposed with the ever changing U.S. Jewish community. Some worry that the Conservative Judaism of today is not the Conservative Judaism that they once knew. That is true, but that is because movements move. Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary highlights this idea by explaining that the Judaism he practices is different from the Judaism that his parents practiced and the Judaism that his children practice. Movements move. So where will the Conservative Movement move to?

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Lech Lecha, which focused on Abraham and Sarah’s journey. The Torah portion begins:

Lech Lecha me’artzecha u’mimoladtecha u’mi’beit avicha el haaretz asher Ar’eh’ka

Go out, for yourself, on a new journey, from your land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, from what you know, from what you are used to, from what is most comfortable, from how you grew up.

We aren’t sure where we are going to go to. El Haaretz Asher Ar’eh’ka.  To a land that God will show us. But we will get there eventually. That place may look different from where we started. But it is where you are meant to be. It is where you will find God.

Like Abraham, the Conservative Movement is going on this journey, unsure of where the movement will end up, but knowing that we must take this journey.

USCJFriday October 11th, 2013 began the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference and Celebration, a celebration of USCJ’s 100 years. This centennial conference is the beginning of this journey, figuring out where the movement will end up. This centennial, which includes over 1200 participants, is being called the “Conversation of the Century.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,  has described the centennial as “a big reset button for United Synagogue, and in turn the Conservative Movement.” How big? The conference is offering a wide variety of worship options including egalitarian and non-egalitarian, musical services, “retro” services, renewal services, Carlebach services, and “dynamic” services. Additionally, it will also host honest and essential conversations about the struggle to engage college students, continuing to embrace feminism, welcoming men back into our communities, engaging 20 and 30 somethings, the role of halakha in the future of the movement, the role of music in services, how to reach out to young families, how to engage those who have grown children or no children, and the relationship between Israel and our movement

While I’m unfortunately unable to attend this conference, I’d like to add my thoughts to the conversation. If we are to press the reset button, then these are the five areas in which we must emphasize in order to truly reset the Conservative Movement:

  1. Spirituality. We, as a movement, lack spirituality. Statistics show that while the affiliation rate among Jews in this country is down considerably, the rate of those who seek spiritual connection and meaning has greatly increased. As I said on Kol Nidre and will repeat again, we do plenty of davening, but not enough praying. If the synagogue is to thrive as a House of God and a House of Worship, then we as a movement must create multiple entry points to find God and wrestle with the Divine.
  2. Literacy. For most of the twentieth century, there was an assumption that education would take place at the synagogue school and reinforcement would take place in the home. Now, we need to make our institutions the home base for not just education, but for the experiences that reinforce the education. Furthermore, we need to remember that education does not end at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In fact, for many of us, Jewish education didn’t start until adulthood. Talmud Torah is a lifelong process. In order to ensure the engagement of all affiliated with all our communities, we cannot only emphasize teaching our preschoolers. We must also emphasize learning with – and learning from – our adults.
  3. Stand for something. This is the struggle of being perceived as being “stuck in the middle.” We are the bridge, it seems, between those on the left of us in the Reform movement and those who practice Orthodox Judaism on the right. We, as a movement, for too long feared that if we were to take a stand, we would upset those on our left and those on our right. As a result, the movement rarely took such a stand. The truth is, those to the left may never appreciate the tension between tradition and modernity that we wrestle with and those on the right will never accept our evolving halakhic process as truly authentic. We are who we are, yet if we don’t stand for something, then we stand for nothing. We must take a stand as a movement for what we believe in, even if others disagree.
  4. Social Justice. This is something that the Reform Movement does exceptionally well. We can certainly learn much from them. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, Social Justice is one of the pillars that define us as Jews and yet, our institutions and synagogues often focus on insular education and tefillah before we roll up our sleeves and take action. Social Justice and Social Action are the avenues in which the ethics and values, which are the core of who we are as Jews, are put into practice. According to a study prepared by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity, and fifty-six percent report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in the past year.” We must make Judaism not just about what happens in our buildings. Judaism is also about what happens in this world and through Social Justice, Judaism allows us to act on what happens in this world.
  5. We must create Welcoming Institutions. It is one thing to say that we are welcoming. It is a whole other to prove it. Do our institutions truly welcome all who come through our doors? Do our websites and synagogue brochures reflect the diverse spectrum of what a Jewish family looks like in 2013? Are we reactively welcoming or are we pro-actively welcoming? This is the simplest act and yet the most difficult, for if our institutions aren’t welcoming, then no one will walk through our doors.

Some of these issues must be addressed more in-depth in individual synagogues, including where I serve as rabbi. All of these areas need to be addressed by the Conservative Movement. If we are truly pressing the reset button, and prepared to start over, then this is where we must start. This is how we reset. This is how we reengage.

Like Abraham and Sarah, we are unsure of where this journey will end, but we know where we must start. Lech Lecha. Together, if we, as a movement, are brave enough to move, then we will get to that land that God will show us.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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