Local rabbis are calling the actions of United States Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) antithetical to Jewish values and democratic ideals.
According to a May 15 report by WNYC, Rep. Frelinghuysen, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, sent a fundraising letter to a board member of a local bank, noting that an employee, Saily Avelenda of West Caldwell, was among the “ringleaders” of a fight against him by NJ 11th for Change, a grassroots organization formed in November. Avelenda, then a senior vice president at Lakeland Bank, subsequently resigned citing pressure she felt from her employer regarding her political activism.
In response to the incident, Rabbi David Greenstein of Shomrei Emunah in Montclair wrote in an email to NJJN, “I think it was a grave ethical breach for the Congressman to have sent that note to the bank, highlighting the presence of one of his dissenting constituents.” He added, “I think it is shameful that the bank did not immediately convey to its employee that it would support their exercise of free speech completely and assure the person that they had nothing to fear from their employer…The betrayal of these ethical demands needs to be recognized and should not be ignored or allowed to gain strength. These are Jewish values.”
Frelinghuysen has been under heavy criticism for refusing to hold or attend local town hall meetings for almost four years. Regular protests have been staged at his office in Morristown since last November, and Greenstein was among a group of three rabbis who organized a Havdalah demonstration outside Frelinghuysen’s Morristown office in April to protest the congressman’s unwillingness to meet with constituents.
The rabbi said Frelinghuysen’s actions were “a shameful dereliction of duty,” and he offered his support to NJ 11th for Change “for calling on the congressman to answer legitimate questions.”
Greenstein is not alone in his stand against Frelinghuysen. Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, who was also among the organizers of the Havdalah at Frelinghuysen’s office, said the congressman was being “undemocratic.”
“[O]ne the highest duties of our political representatives is to safeguard the democratic process,” said Tepperman. “It should go without saying that singling out an activist in a way that could be construed as intimidating goes against our most basic democratic values of free speech and civic engagement.”
Rabbi Cliff Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston has been writing to Frelinghuysen since before November, he told NJJN, and wrote the congressman a letter on Monday regarding the action that led, at least in part, to Avelenda’s resignation. “I have previously expressed my concerns to the congressman directly that he has failed to engage actively with his constituents, going far back before the formation of the NJ 11th. In a letter I sent to the congressman today, I stated that I hoped the letter in the news today was sent without his knowledge, and that he would publicly disavow it. If he was responsible for sending it, I expressed my disappointment.”
In his email to NJJN, Greenstein went much further than his colleagues, saying that in light of incidents like these, along with several other issues that speak to the volatile political climate, Jews have a responsibility to act. “I believe that the Jewish community is presently faced with a really intensified moral challenge,” he said. “It may be that some people do not hold that supporting the poor and the ill, protecting the environment, or protecting and supporting the disenfranchised are precious values. But if you are a serious Jew, you do.”
Greenstein added that Jews have a moral obligation to challenge the status quo. “I try to teach my community that it is our Jewish duty and challenge to consider what values are at stake in any issue and to be honest and courageous in upholding those values, even when that task is very difficult. It is a shame that some people think that this is just partisan politics.”