Tag Archives: Welcoming

Celebrating and Welcoming Everyone

This article was originally published on June 26th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I received two phone calls in recent months, one from a good friend from college who is a lawyer and the other from my cousin who is a speech and language pathologist. Each had been asked to officiate at a wedding of a friend, so they called me, a rabbi who has officiated many weddings, for advice. They wanted to understand the different traditional Jewish rituals so that they could incorporate them into a meaningful wedding experience. They went online to get “ordained,” making sure that their weddings were legal in the states they took place, in addition to being legal “according to the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.” Neither of these weddings were interfaith weddings. In each case, the couple wanted someone to stand under the chuppah with them that they were deeply connected to, and also to have the ceremony be meaningful and sacred. These were also clearly conscious choices to not have a rabbi — or other clergy member for that matter — officiate. This was about the established institutions in the Jewish community failing to bring these families in.

To be honest, I am not interested in having a discussion about rabbinic officiation at weddings in this forum, mostly because writing an opinion piece on a website is not the appropriate format for such a conversation. As it is, I expect plenty who will comment in agreement and disagreement. But as we’ve seen over these past several weeks in recent articles and op-eds, this conversation is filled with a multitude of opinions. Some are from a halakhic perspective, and some from a sociological one, some from personal experiences of joy, and some from personal experiences of hurt and heartache. All needs to be a part of any conversation in guiding one’s understanding of this. This conversation should be had in a appropriate way with respectful dialogue, respectful of one’s beliefs, but most importantly, of one’s choices. This conversation is not about hypotheticals. This conversation is about actual individuals and their choices.

I appreciate colleagues Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieand Rabbi Roly Matalon for finding ways that they feel comfortable with to celebrate the wedding of members of their community, even if one of the partners in that couple does not identify as Jewish. However, I turn back to the experiences of these two friends who called me and are now officiating at weddings just as I am and realize that the problem is deeper, if rabbis aren’t being called to officiate at weddings, even when both partners identify as Jewish. Yes, if a rabbi officiates at a wedding and participates in a couple’s most meaningful and sacred moments, whether both members of a couple are Jewish or not, then it is much easier to help that couple become involved in the Jewish community and navigate Jewish experiences. As someone who understands the importance of halakha as a guide to Jewish living and Jewish ritual, I also understand the complexity of a halakhic framework at times. And I know that it is much more difficult and challenging, and arguably hypocritical, for a rabbi – including me – to say “I cannot officiate at your wedding, but the day after your wedding, I want you to be involved in our community.”

Rabbi Abby Treu reminded me this week of these calls from my friends. She wrote in the New York Jewish Week that:

It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.

 

The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?

Standing under the chuppah is one way to create connection and community. But it’s also only one way. My responsibility as rabbi and I believe the responsibility of every synagogue is to create connection and community for all who walk through the synagogue doors. As you enter our lobby at Congregation Beth El, it says exactly that:

We welcome people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to join us on our journey – learned and novice; born Jewish, Jew-by-choice, or non-Jewish living Jewishly; single or partnered; gay or straight. We hope that all who enter find a Makom Kadosh – a holy space – in which to seek God, connection, and community.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater, of which I am a proud alum, came out with a statement last week that I was particularly critical of. First I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say – simultaneously reaffirming their age-old stance which seemed to be exclusionary while also striving to be welcoming, and using language at best missed the point and at worst was offensive. Most importantly, statements like this only make it harder for those of us in our communities to build the welcoming and inclusive institutions we strive to build. I believe this conversation is not really a conversation solely about rabbinic officiation. It is about the language we use and the culture we create. It is about how we make sure to connect with all whho identify as Jewish and all who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. It is about how we make sure all who are raising Jewish children feel welcome, regardless of their own faiths. If we fail to help people connect and we fail to create multiple entry points for them to connect, then nothing else matters.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Abraham wrote in the Times of Israel this past week about his commitment to create inclusive communities. He concluded his writing with this analogy:

For years, educators have bemoaned the practice of teaching abstinence only in our school systems. To my knowledge, they did not disagree because it isn’t the best form of birth control, but because the facts on the ground tell us that our children are in relationships and they require more information than simply being told “wait till your married”.

His point is that we need to do better than just saying ‘date someone who is Jewish’ and ‘marry someone who is Jewish” or ‘rabbis won’t officiate at your wedding.’ We need to give individuals meaningful spiritual experiences and connection so that they’ll want to make Judaism a core part of their identities and their lives. We need to realize that individuals are going to make the decisions that they are going to make, the decisions that are right from them, and we need to do better as communities to accept, and yes even celebrate, those decisions. We need to do a better job to celebrate those who want to be a part of our communities and make sure that they feel welcome. We can’t just open our doors wide and say “look how welcoming we are.” We need to show it with our actions. That won’t mean the same thing for everyone and every synagogue or Jewish communal institution, but that does mean that digging our heels in the ground does not do anything to make people feel welcome. It only turns people away.

I truly believe that creating a welcoming and inclusive community is what is most important. Everything follows from that. We cannot create meaningful spiritual, sacred, educational, communal, social, and social justice experiences if we do not first ensure that someone feels welcome here. We as a Jewish community often only get one chance at making sure someone feels welcome. And if we miss that chance, then we will not be able to help someone grow in their Jewish journeys. We will not be there to help them build their Jewish homes and grow their Jewish families. We as a Jewish community – and Jewish communal leaders – must do better, to not judge other people and their life decisions, but to. Instead, we must truly welcome each and every person who we interact with, and help them navigate their own Jewish journeys, even if their journeys, and ultimately their destinations, may look different from our own personal ones.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the greatest of all my teachers, has been a leading voice in this work, and spent almost two decades as Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism. A number of years ago, he introduced me to their work with renowned Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, who calculated population projections for American Jewry through the year 2080. That study suggested that based on the status quo, the Jewish community from now until 2080 would decrease by millions. But get this: if there was no intermarriage, the population would still decrease by millions. But if the Jewish community was more welcoming and celebrated every family and welcomed them into our institutions, and truly understood the importance of outreach, then the size of the Jewish community would actually increase! This has proven to be the case.image

 

This past Shabbat, the Jewish community read from Parashat Korachand of Korach’s rebellion. Rabbinic tradition concludes that Korach’s rebellion fails because his rebellion was more of a coup to overthrow Moses as leader. But the essence of his words still resonate.

You’ve gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the rest of God’s people? (Num. 16:3).

Rashi explains that when Korach says that all of the community is holy, he means that each person heard God’s voice at Sinai. Each individual is sacred. No person is anymore closer to God than anyone else, even Moses! Each individual is holy and we should not deny the holiness of anyone or of any decision they make, because of who they love, or because their Jewish family may look a little bit different than yours.

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4).

Rashbam suggests that Moses was praying and Ibn Ezra explains that Moses did so in a fit of prophecy. But I believe the Bekhor Shor is spot on: Moses fell on his face out of shame. Moses realized that there was a part of what Korach was saying that was true, that he was seeing some people as better than others, instead of seeing each individual as sacred.

It doesn’t matter if a rabbi will officiate at a couple’s wedding if we fail to help that couple find connection to a rabbi, a synagogue, or the organized Jewish community at all. We need to ensure that everyone feels like they belong in the community. So let us no longer simply fall on our faces. Instead, let us see, and celebrate, every person as holy and welcome them in.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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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Seven Ways to Make Jewish Institutions LGBTQ-Friendly

This article was originally published on June 8, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzPride Month is the perfect time to celebrate the sexual orientations and gender identities of all our community members.

prideparadeThe commencement of Pride Month is a fitting time to acknowledge the progress the United States has made toward LGBTQ inclusion. Same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia; television shows increasingly include gay, lesbian and transgender characters; and, just last week, Caitlyn Jenner introduced her new – post-gender transition – self on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Yet, with all this progress in secular America, the Jewish community here has a way to go until it can be considered truly inclusive.

Being inclusive is about more than just whether or not Judaism recognizes same-sex marriages, or “condones” LGBTQ individuals. It is about celebrating the divine nature of each person, keeping in mind that each of us was created in God’s divine image.

This month, the American Jewish community has an opportunity to stand against the discrimination, hatred and homophobia that too many religion- and faith-based institutions nurture. Here are seven ways we can make our institutions more inclusive:

  1. Values matter

Jewish institutions should have a values statement. This is different from a mission statement. The values statement focuses on what the institution stands for. If an institution is welcoming to the LGBTQ community, then this should be put in writing. My synagogue’s values statement, which hangs on the wall at the entrance to our synagogue states that we welcome all individuals, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.

  1. Language is critical

Truly inclusive institutions should not assume that each family unit is made up of a mother and a father (or that it comprises two-parents, for that matter.) We need to celebrate the diverse range of Jewish homes – whether they have two moms, two dads, one parent or multiple. The language on membership forms should reflect that the institution does not make heteronormative assumptions about the sexual orientation of its members. Furthermore, the language that institutional leaders and representatives speak should acknowledge this fact: When the rabbi talks about family units, does he or she say “mom and dad,” or use a more general term like “parents?”

  1. Teach inclusivity

Inclusivity begins with institutions’ youngest members. We need to recognize and respect that some children may already be questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others may have gay parents. Institutions must ensure these children feel equally included in the community. Some preschools celebrate Shabbat every Friday by having a Shabbat Ima (mother) and Shabbat Abba (father), but this reinforces a heteronormative culture. At my congregation’s Thelma K. Reisman preschool, we have Shabbat boys and girls; sometimes with two boys, and sometimes with two girls. Schools can also ensure teaching materials are LGBTQ inclusive. Preschool teachers should read children storybooks with LGBTQ characters, and high schools should have Gay-Straight Alliances.

  1. Provide inclusive facilities

Most communal institutions have public restrooms that revert back to a gender-binary system: a men’s room and a women’s room. While having multiple stalls and urinals in each room serves to accommodate more people at a time, making the choice of which restroom to enter can be unwelcoming for members that are transgender or gender nonconforming. Providing gender-neutral bathrooms is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.

  1. Build LGBTQ leadership

As the Jewish community builds inclusive congregations, they also want to make sure that there are role models for all congregants. While one should never be selected for a leadership position or hired for a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, an inclusive institution makes it clear that the LGBTQ community is warmly invited to be a part of its leadership team.

  1. Participate in pride programs

Participating in Pride Month and hosting pride events emphasizes and exhibits an institution’s commitment to inclusivity. Ways to mark the month can include hosting pride parties for the institution’s LGBTQ members and allies, holding educational programs, adding unique rituals and blessings to Shabbat prayer services, or joining the city-wide festivals and parades.

  1. Prohibit hate

Ultimately, being an inclusive congregation means not tolerating hate, discrimination and bigotry. Enforcing this can include formally stipulating that such views are not welcome, and, by contrast, reinforcing what is welcome, by hanging up signs throughout the institution – including on the doors of the rabbis’ offices – stating that this is an LGBTQ safe zone.

I am proud to be a congressional rabbi of an LGBTQ-inclusive community. My experience as a leader of such an institution has taught me that welcoming everyone requires welcoming change. In order to be inclusive, communities must first and foremost be committed to shifting the way they operate.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Instead of Spin, Celebrate Inclusion

This article was originally published on January 4, 2015, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here

Times of Israel

The conversation is still unfolding about the vote by the International Officers and Regional Presidents at the recent USY International Convention in Atlanta, passing an amendment that changed the language of expected standards for these youth leaders.

Most of the articles, as well as statements by USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, explain this amendment as a change in language, from “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating” to “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Many of the statements offer the explanation that this is simply about language:  not a change in policy, but just a change in rhetoric, from a “thou shall not” command to a more positive statement on relationships. Much of the spin suggests that there is a difference between “welcoming” and “condoning.” But we miss an important lesson when we suggest that the message is the same, and only the wording is different.

The fact is that the message is not the same — and that is a good thing.

This new language celebrates the inclusive movement that we strive to create, and our youth are leading the way. USYers have embraced a position that will lead our institutions to become more inclusive, as these youth leaders assume leadership of the synagogues and Jewish institutions they will inherit. We do not need to spin this amendment that USYers passed. Instead, we should strive to learn from their example.

Those concerned with the amendment claim that while we can be welcoming, there is a danger in being too welcoming. In fact, “welcoming” has become a hackneyed adjective among Jewish institutions. It is easy to say you are welcoming. But, welcoming isn’t about what you say. Welcoming is about what you do. USYers chose to be inclusive of all, regardless of the faith of a parent or significant other, demonstrating welcoming through action.

Statistics show that Jews in America marry later than other ethnic groups, which raises questions about the true impact of high school dating on future marriage choices. The faith of a partner or spouse is not a rejection of one’s own faith. The faith (or lack thereof) of a spouse or partner (or teenage boyfriend or girlfriend) does not speak to one’s own Jewish commitment, the commitment to raising his or her children as Jewish, or building a Jewish home. The reason someone marries a person of another faith is for the same reason we all get married: love. We should celebrate that love and a family’s commitment to building a Jewish home.

The fear about this amendment is misplaced: who our USYers date,or marry will not determine their future Jewish identity. USY does give our teens the tools they need to build Jewish lives as adults. However, how we welcome, educate, and help them find their place in the community will impact how many of them actually stay connected to Judaism. By insisting on inclusion and creating more welcoming communities, we have the opportunity to embrace the diverse Jewish families that walk through our doors. We can celebrate each of them, regardless of the faith of a spouse or parent. because every Jewish family looks different.

As a former USY International President and rabbi in the Conservative movement, I am proud that USY is leading the way in doing the same.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We are all Pilgrims: Why Jewish Americans should support Obama’s Immigration Reform

This article was originally published on November 27, 2014, on the American holiday of Thanksgiving, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

Haaretz-logo

The Jewish community, once pilgrims ourselves, must embrace those who enter our lands in search of new beginnings and opportunities.

As a child, every Thanksgiving I would read the children’s book “Molly’s Pilgrim” by Barbara Cohen, that inspired the 1986 Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. Now, even as an adult, I refer to the book as a reminder of the true meaning of Thanksgiving in America.

The children’s book and film tell the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant named Molly, who came with her family to America to escape religious persecution. Molly’s teacher assigns her entire third grade class to make Pilgrim dolls as part of their Thanksgiving project. Every other child brings a doll to school dressed in mostly white and black hats, colors, and cuffs – the dress that we generally associate with the Pilgrims of America’s Thanksgiving narrative. Molly, though, brings a doll to school, dressed in clothing associated with her home in Russia. She teaches the class that in every generation, in all places, there are pilgrims, immigrants who search for a new home, a new life, a new opportunity and a newfound freedom.

The traditional Thanksgiving narrative tells the story of a feast and celebration in Plymouth, now Massachusetts, in 1621 following a good harvest. The story, while poorly documented and likely inaccurate, tells of the Pilgrims and Puritans breaking bread with the Native Americans, who embraced them peacefully and taught them how to cultivate the land and survive the harsh winter, before these new immigrants turned around and later savagely slaughtered so many Native Americans.

The message of this story – true or not – is one of embrace. We embrace those who are new in our midst. We welcome them with open arms. We understand the desire – and God-given right – to be free and the journey that so many pilgrims take in order to be free.

ObamaImmigrationReformHaaretzPhotoLast week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would use executive action to reform immigration in the United States. Some may question the method of executive action, but attempts at real reform have been stuck in a gridlocked Congress for years. Regardless of the method, the Jewish community must support such reform. Such executive action extends temporary legal status to almost 5 million undocumented immigrants.

This is not granting citizenship. This does not give them a green card. However, this ensures that millions of parents are not deported and separated from their children who were born here and are citizens of this country. Additionally an estimated 330,000 dreamers,330,000 pilgrims, undocumented immigrants who came to America as children, will be eligible to stay in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The Jewish community is a community of pilgrims. The Torah (Deuteronomy 10:19) reminds us that we must embrace the stranger for we were once strangers. Our communal history, our communal narrative, speaks of wandering. We did not only wander for 40 years in the wilderness. We wandered in exile from country to country for 2,000 years before pilgrims, pioneers, returned to the land of Israel. And during those 2,000 years, we also became pilgrims in every country we settled. We were pilgrims at the turn of the 20th century that saw large waves of Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe to the United States. We were pilgrims when we left the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

Since we were all once pilgrims, we must embrace all other pilgrims, all immigrants who enter our lands in search of new opportunities and new beginnings.

Immediately after Obama made his announcement on primetime television, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of rabbis associated with the Conservative Movement, of which I am a member, applauded the announcement, saying that ” Jewish people have benefited from immigration policies in the United States” and expressing hope “that President Obama’s Executive Order will spur Congress to create a more permanent immigration solution.”

As a Jew living in America, I wrestle with which identity comes first: Am I an American Jew or am I a Jewish American? The truth is that both identities are intertwined. During Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to give thanks for our new beginnings in our land of opportunity – for we were once strangers in a strange land. This year, may we pray that millions of pilgrims, millions of immigrants, will be able to stay in this country that they call home. May we strive to break bread with them, too, for we all have much to be thankful for.

– 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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