Inauguration day was a fast day for Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
“Judaism teaches that there are certain days when we are obligated to fast… But there are also private personal fasts at times of distress, at times of trouble, at time when the unknown future was scary,” he told the crowd assembled at Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood for an interfaith gathering protesting the inauguration of the president of the United States, Donald Trump.
In his remarks, Olitzky addressed the reasons why everyone —not just those most likely to suffer under the new administration — must act. The Jewish vision of goodwill, he said, demands action.
“Goodwill is stepping up and standing up — for yourself, but for the other at times when it’s easy, but also at times when it’s not,” he said, the audience’s “mm-hmms” clearly audible throughout Olitzky’s remarks.
Olitzky was one of two local rabbis who addressed a crowd of approximately 60 people on Friday, Jan. 20. Timed to coincide with Trump’s being sworn into office, the “Inauguration of the Spirit of Goodwill” was organized by community activists Barbara League-Velazquez and Kelly Quirk-Ceperley.
The event included a variety of speakers including clergy representing Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Protestantism, and Ethical Culture, and others speaking for groups “mostly likely to suffer or be further marginalized under the new administration,” according to organizers, who were comprised of a women’s studies professor, a media professor, a political organizer, an immigration attorney (and local politician), and a leader of the South Orange Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.
A sign taped to the lectern facing the audience read, “In this house, black lives matters, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.” Russ Kaplan, a composer who lives in Maplewood and whose a cappella musical, “In Transit,” is currently on Broadway, led the group in singing during parts of the program.
“The greatest risk to fundamental rights is not oppression. It’s complacency,” said David Harris, vice chair of the Community Coalition on Race. “The worst thing we can do now is to surrender to despair…[and] what we perceive as dark times can sometimes awaken us.”
Despite the advantages that he, “a white, straight male,” and many others in attendance have long enjoyed, Olitzky said everyone has a responsibility to fight for justice. Focusing on one of the messages of Shemot, the Torah portion that would be read the next morning during Shabbat services, he pointed out that Moses was the epitome of privilege — “living in Pharaoh’s palace, living the good life, has all the gold and silver that he wants, all the food, all the servants, whatever he needs.” But when he strikes an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave, “the text tells us he looks this way and that way and he sees no one around.” Olitzky asked the crowd why and they answered that Moses didn’t want to get caught, an answer Olitzky rejected.
“How is it possible, in the deserts of Egypt, where there are tens of thousands of slaves building pyramids, that there was no one around?” he asked. “Rabbi Hillel in our tradition teaches that, ‘In a place where there are no good people, be a good person.’ It’s not that Moses was looking around to make sure nobody was there. He was looking around because there were so many people there. And he couldn’t understand why this was happening. All he saw was apathy.”
“Our tradition teaches to act like Moses,” he added. “What do you do? Look this way and that way. And when you see nobody doing — especially then — because of that, you act.”
Rabbi Erica Sekuler Lebovitz of Maplewood spoke as a representative of the LGBTQ community. Having moved to town just six months earlier from a nearby suburb, she thanked the assembly for creating a community her family can call home.
“Both of my sons are LGBT and one of the factors that led us here is that we wanted them to be in the community where they didn’t have to explain themselves, where they didn’t have to feel as ‘other,’” she said. “I want to thank you all for creating this place that we could come home to.”
Sheryl Parker, a resident of Maplewood and one of several members of Congregation Beth El in attendance, told NJJN that she came because, “I wanted to do something that felt productive and positive.” She added, “It was good to hear a variety of speakers. I really appreciated hearing from [Harris] about the power of action — that you can’t sink into despair, and that you have to take that and turn it into something more positive. I really believe that.”