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Area rabbis react to the election of the new president
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Area rabbis react to the election of the new president

From ‘God runs the world’ to ‘I’m stunned and disheartened’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Cliff Kulwin: “If we do not fully understand one another…, we do not fully care for one another.”
Rabbi Cliff Kulwin: “If we do not fully understand one another…, we do not fully care for one another.”

In the immediate aftermath of the election, many area rabbis blogged, posted on Facebook, and delivered Shabbat sermons. Some rabbis were open about their opposition to the president-elect; others offered carefully balanced statements that put the synagogue at the center of the opportunity to heal.

Here’s a sampling of some of their responses, both in public forums and in conversation with NJJN:

Rabbi Cliff Kulwin, Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston — “[W]hether through insight or luck, [Donald Trump] correctly perceived that a great many in our nation feel like they have been left behind, that they are not cared about. And they are angry.

“Are these core supporters of his genuinely the ‘left behind’? Have they really lost out while others have benefitted? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that’s the way they feel. That feeling dictated their vote.” 

Focusing on the need for empathy, Kulwin added, “The unexpected comes when we do not fully understand one another. And if we do not fully understand one another, the inescapable conclusion is that we do not fully care for one another and are thus incapable of the work to make America what it should be for every citizen. I write these words this morning not as a rabbi dabbling in political analysis [but] as a rabbi concerned about a society in which so many feel that they are not cared about — a subject securely within my wheelhouse.”

Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky, The Chai Center of Short Hills — “To all my friends who were very strongly against a Trump victory, and to all my friends who were very much in favor of a Trump victory: God runs the world, not our politicians. They are tools for God’s will to be fulfilled, based on the Jewish people’s merits and how we act, not the other way around. We are in a time of world peace, not world destruction. Great change can mean great blessings. It depends on us. How we live our lives and how much good we can each individually do will determine our collective future well-being, prosperity, and tranquility.” 

Rabbi Mark Cooper, Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange — “I’m stunned and disheartened by the results of the presidential election.” Calling the election “unusually contentious and divisive,” Cooper asked how it is that the country elected a man “widely seen as racist, bigoted, and xenophobic, someone who, even unintentionally, gave cover to bigots and racists to come out of hiding and whose divisive tone unleashed an ugly and worrisome anger that seemed to pit people against one another. As if that weren’t enough, how did we just elect someone who seems to be lacking a serious understanding of global politics and social policy and who seems unwilling and even unable to be prepared for the presidency, someone who offered almost no indication of how he would govern this great country? 

“I find myself walking around in a haze, wondering what America will become in the next four years.” He urged congregations to get involved in local organizations, stand up against hate, and affirm that this country is a democracy in which people who support a losing candidate “face no recriminations or threats.” 

Rabbi Bill Kraus, Chai Center for Jewish Life, Watchung — Hillary Clinton “was unfortunately a seriously flawed candidate who was running against a pathological liar and marketing genius. Hillary thought she could attract a following by associating herself with the likes of Beyoncé…, but as they say in show biz — be careful who your warmup act is.” 

Rabbi Robert Tobin, B’nai Shalom, West Orange — “For Clinton supporters who saw the election as a referendum on pluralism, globalism, and (most importantly) women’s dignity, the surprise loss shatters not just political ideals but wounds a sense of identity and security. The loss is personal and devastating in a way most elections are not….

“For Trump supporters, prior to victory, they often felt ridiculed or degraded. They were called racists and bigots. In New Jersey, where they were a minority, the affirmation of national victory is sweet.” Tobin pointed out, “There have been rapid and unprecedented changes in liberal social norms in the country over the past decade and, much like the stock market, it is not surprising that a ‘correction’ might occur. Social change takes time, and it comes with forward, backward, and sideways developments. That process is understandable, no matter our individual views in the moment.” 

Tobin also suggested that as Jews, “we have significant internal differences regarding social norms, family structures, economic policy, national security, immigration, how best to support Israel, and what our relationships with other people and religions should be. These differences are as deep as those we saw in this election campaign.” 

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, B’nai Keshet, Montclair — “[T]here is genuine sense of anxiety that the rhetoric of this election has attacked core American and Jewish values. Immigrants, people of color, Muslims have all been especially singled out during this campaign. There have been promises to roll back LGBT rights and reproductive rights. All of this has happened in an environment that included a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Now is a time for us to reach out with love to each other and to those who have reason to feel especially anxious.

“We have an obligation to stand with those who may feel attacked. We have an opportunity to replace the fear of fear with love and support born from our faith that every human being is a reflection of the divine.” 

Rabbi George Nudell, Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains — “We have been called, in this election, to divide, to suspect, to hate, to generalize, to simplify, to draw lines between communities — precisely when it feels that the world needs more unity and understanding. And it’s a familiar human drama, a human crisis that has fueled political events, and it has led us in the past to the brink of rupture in our society — and I fear it can again today. And we can’t let that happen. 

“Silence permits racism to thrive and it permitted evil to thrive in Europe, and it does throughout the world even now. We disrupt silence by telling our stories.” Nudell also advocated “standing up to hate speech and bullying when we see it. I remember how the community of Billings, Montana, stood up to anti-Semitism by shining a light on it and calling it out for the wrong that it is. It made a big difference.”

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Congregation Beth El, South Orange — “I do not believe that the roughly half of this country that voted for [Trump] support his hateful rhetoric. I think many, if not most, who supported Trump did so because they are feeling pain and feel that the political system has forgotten them.” But, he added, “a vote for Trump, even if it was a vote for change, or a vote because of one’s suffering, was still a vote that condoned this hateful rhetoric. Months ago, I decided to take a stand against that rhetoric because as Jews, we know all too well how hateful words about another lead to hateful acts against another. I fear that this victory legitimizes this hateful rhetoric and allows it to be a part of the political conversation and debate going forward. I am fearful that it will only get louder. 

“As a rabbi, I believe it is my responsibility to continue to teach the values of our tradition of love and inclusion — of loving your neighbor and not hating another, of welcoming the stranger, of seeing each person as being created in God’s image.” 

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, Temple B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills — “We really are a great nation. We have problems of profound injustice and civil intransigence that are alarming. There is serious hatred and bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia. But because we are a democracy, we have the potential to change that which ails us. We have the ability to speak freely and act to transform to our highest sense of self. Our system, as broken as it sometimes feels, still allows us to act in ways which in other countries people are jailed for even thinking such ideas of protest…. [O]ur national leaders are itinerant; it is we the people who hold the power in our hands. How we react and operate each day is the stuff that can make our nation continue to be exceptional. 

“Mr. Trump has done much to make us turn our heads in disgust. And yet, part of propping up our democracy is to come together and give our new leader the chance to guide us on a path to unity. I know how complex that path can be, but to act nastily toward each other and to block legislation for the sake of anger (as so many have done over the past eight years) will only bring us down. 

“We all have work to do,” said Gewirtz. “There will be no room in our community for racism, hatred, bigotry, or misogyny. Indeed, I will be the first one leading you in marches of protest against mass deportations or all-out bans on Muslims…. We Jews were taught not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in a strange land. More than ever, we must stand up with and for our neighbors who have been made to feel like they don’t belong. Any person who acts with love and compassion and kindness has a place here.”

Rabbi Avi Friedman, Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center — After discussing a talmudic passage in which a bullying rabbi was removed from his post, Friedman wrote, “I don’t know how things will play out in a Trump presidency. (I’m still having difficulty even typing those words!) My personal objections have nothing to do with policy. My objections are moral ones. I have protested — and continue to protest! — his bullying behavior vis-a-vis Jews, Latinos, the disabled, Muslims, women, and others. Although he has attained a position of power, and our power seems diminished, we must remain vigilant in calling out this unacceptable behavior. [W]e can still hope that through our words and actions, we will get his attention…then, perhaps, he too will reconsider his bullying ways.”

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