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San Bernardino stirs local rabbis to action
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San Bernardino stirs local rabbis to action

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi David Vaisberg focused on the need for “sacred conversation” — the middle ground that emerges in a polarized debate.
Rabbi David Vaisberg focused on the need for “sacred conversation” — the middle ground that emerges in a polarized debate.

In the wake of the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead and 21 wounded, rabbis are raising their voices. 

For some, it means doubling down on advocacy for gun control and safety. 

For others, it means blunt talk about Islam — and Islamophobia. 

And members of a third group are using their pulpits to offer hope, encouragement, and, yes, prayer, notwithstanding the NY Daily News’ front page admonition — in response to politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” for the shooting victims — that “God is not fixing this.” 

In an interview, Rabbi Michael Pont of Marlboro Jewish Center addressed the “God isn’t fixing this” headline directly. “Prayers should not be derided,” he said. “They offer comfort and support to those in pain over this tragedy, and empower the pray-er as well.” 

That said, he added, “Our tradition teaches that it’s not enough to pray.” The congregation was scheduled to participate in a Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence Shabbat on Dec. 11-12, part of a series of events sponsored by a coalition of more than 50 national denominations and faith-based organizations. Pont is also urging congregants to write to elected officials. 

Rabbi Marc Kline of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls took Pont’s position one step further. In his weekly e-mail to congregants, he wrote, “To say words of prayer and then move on to the next item on an agenda is not prayer; in fact, it may be blasphemy. If we pray for and dream of a world at peace, then we need to prepare ourselves to make it so.” 

Ultimately, Kline urged his congregants to take action, writing, “Turn the time we spend fearing and grieving into time spent speaking and writing, changing the conversation that fosters the madness into the conversation that heals our spirits. Write City Hall, call the Statehouse, visit Congress, and make sure you are heard.” 

In his Dec. 4 sermon, Rabbi David Vaisberg of Temple Emanu-El in Edison focused on Islamophobia and the Syrian refugee crisis, and the need for what he calls “sacred conversation” — the middle ground that emerges in a polarized debate, when the parties can actually hear each other. He emphasized the rabbinic distinction between a mahloket, or a disagreement for the sake of argument, and debates that are “b’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. 

In his sermon, he said, “In our world today, particularly in our nation, there is far too much mahloket and too little b’shem shamayim. There are so many who believe themselves to be preaching the words of the living God, figuratively and literally, but so few are willing to recognize any truth in those with whom they disagree.”

He did not advocate a particular action in the sermon.

Rabbi Robert Wolkoff at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick has taken an entirely different approach. He believes that terrorism in the name of Islam will dissipate only when Muslims reevaluate their own religion. 

“The real problem is the elements built into classical Islam,” he said in an interview, referring to concepts like jihad — which he translates as “holy war against the infidels,” and dhimmi, treating Christians and Jews as protected but still second-class peoples. “They are undeniably there, and the Muslim community will not really talk about it. They will talk about religious freedom and nice values. But the elements of the Muslim religion that lead to ugly and nefarious things are never adequately addressed.”

He suggested that it is the Muslim community that must take action. 

“They have to take the next step,” he said. “They have to look at Islam and see where [massacres like San Bernardino] come from. If they don’t, they will occur over and over again.” 

Wolkoff also said he worries that Syrian refugees were raised in a climate in which Muslims are taught that Islam seeks “hegemony” over other peoples. “Syrian refugees were brought up in that world,” he said. While “they do not go to Europe or America and say, ‘Okay. Now I will make jihad’…, they have been operating in a world their whole lives where these are the normal principles.”

He said he planned making this topic the center of his Dec. 12 Shabbat sermon.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States came too late for Dec. 5 sermons. While Trump’s rhetoric was denounced by numerous Jewish groups — including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America — one local rabbi has taken a very different tack. 

Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, the former religious leader of Congregation Beth-El in Edison, created a Rabbis for Trump Facebook group to “unite Jewish support for his candidacy.”

Rosenberg said his group, created with California-based author Shlomo Phillips, is intended to elicit full-throated support of Israel from the GOP frontrunner. Trump was booed at a Republican Jewish Coalition event this month for refusing to pledge support for a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying that to do so would compromise him as a peace broker. Said Rosenberg: “Through dialogue, I hope this group can influence him to show full support for the State of Israel.”

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