When Rabbi Hannah Orden of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Summit, participated in telephone links with the White House in previous years, she was highly impressed with the words former President Barack Obama shared in his High Holy Days greetings with some 400 to 700 rabbis.
“He spoke of reconciliation, reaching out to those in need, and recognizing ourselves in others. These are things that Judaism values, and I was inspired to have a president who expressed these values to Jews and to all Americans,” she told NJJN in an email.
But this year, Donald Trump’s ambiguous response to the right-wing racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., has inspired Orden and many others of the nation’s Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative rabbis to withdraw from a pre-Rosh HaShanah call with the president.
“When a man who is supposed to represent and provide leadership to the whole country expresses support for people who are racist and anti-Semitic,” Orden wrote, “it is important for many, many people to stand up and say that we do not agree and we do not accept this.”
Following the Charlottesville Unite the Right rallies on Aug. 11 and 12, during which James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, Trump initially said that there was blame “on many sides.” Two days later, under extreme pressure from the politicians, the public, and reportedly members of his own staff, the president firmly condemned neo-Nazis and white supremacists. However, the next day he held a press conference and said of the protestors and counter-protesters that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
Four rabbinic governing bodies — the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association — said in a jointly issued statement on Aug. 23: “We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.”
The Orthodox movement is not siding with the boycott.
“We respect the office of the presidency and believe it is more effective to address questions and concerns directly with the White House,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Council of America.
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, an Orthodox congregation in West Orange, said he is planning to dial in.
“We are a little too comfortable and arrogant in a country if the democratically elected leader would like to speak with the leadership of the Jewish community and we reject his offer,” Zwickler wrote in an email to NJJN. “I can’t help but think about how many times over the millennia our people would have only dreamed about having an audience with the head of the country they resided in in the hopes of bringing peace to our people.”
Local rabbis from non-Orthodox streams disagreed.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange has also been on previous High Holy Days calls with Obama. He said taking part in such communications has “always been an honor.”
He called his refusal to participate this year “an important moral statement about how we, as Americans, can and should respond to acts of extremist hatred.” He said many of the president’s statements regarding the racism, anti-Semitism, and violence at the Charlottesville march were “reprehensible.”
Cohen said the rabbis’ refusal “makes clear our belief that good people do not march with Nazis and white supremacists and that there is no equivalency between Nazis and those who stand up in response to those who are filled with hate.”
Since 2011 Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Conservative Congregation Beth El in South Orange has participated in the High Holy Days calls.
But not this year.
“When you sit down at the table with somebody who I believe condones bigotry and at best is apathetic toward such bigotry, it allows such bigotry to continue and it continues to fuel and fan the flames,” he told NJJN.
Asked whether being on a call with the president would present an opportunity to “speak truth to power,” Olitzky responded vehemently.
“Speaking truth to power is important if there is an ear that is willing to listen. I don’t believe the president is concerned with our concerns. If we disagree with him he does not want to hear it. The only way to truly speak truth to power is through protests in the streets, through protests in the press, and through taking action to refuse to meet with him,” Olitzky said.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, told NJJN she participated in six calls with Obama during his presidency. “Under the previous administration it was something we looked forward to. He was incredibly aware and educated and often brought seasonably appropriate greetings in well-accented Hebrew. Then we would have an exchange of viewpoints.”
Those calls, said Wechterman, were “a very open and welcome exchange of ideas” and “a lovely way to start a season, to start a year where our place in this country was recognized by the highest powers.”
But, Wechterman said, she had doubts about whether the rabbinical protest would resonate at the White House.
“I don’t know if it will make an impact on the president,” she said. “I don’t think he is particularly concerned about what a bunch of rabbis think about him.”