I still have vivid memories of Scoop Jackson’s appearance at our Long Island temple during his campaign for president in 1976. The Washington state Democrat was a hero to the Jewish community for his role in the Soviet Jewry movement and for his support of Israel. I don’t recall what he said to our packed sanctuary, but I remember how my Hebrew school buddies and I chanted “Scooop, Scooop” as he waved from the bima. Mostly, I thought it was cool that our synagogue was part of national events.
I also don’t remember if anyone was bothered that our synagogue had been taken over by a partisan political rally. There was certainly nothing like the brouhaha last month in Miami, when a Reform synagogue made news by cancelling a scheduled talk by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic National Committee. She was scheduled to talk about Israel following Friday night services; a synagogue member, Stanley Tate, who happens to be cochair of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Miami-Dade County, resigned from the synagogue when he learned “he would not get an opportunity to offer a Republican rebuttal,” according to The Miami Herald.
This has led some to suggest that politicians have no place in a synagogue in the first place, and that such invites run afoul of IRS rules forbidding houses of worship from conducting partisan activities. If so, that might come as a surprise to a number of local synagogues. The East Brunswick Jewish Center just hosted a town hall meeting with Chris Christie (see page 9), and Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan held a talk by former Sen. Norman Coleman on behalf of the Republican Jewish Coalition (see page 8). Newark Mayor Cory Booker is scheduled to speak at the Pine Brook Jewish Center on June 10.
Wasserman Schultz was right to point out that pols speak at shuls all the time (which the IRS says is okay so long as the houses of worship offer invites to other parties or if the speaker gives a “nonpolitical” talk). Of course, asking a politician to give a nonpolitical talk is like asking a baby to “just hold it in” until we get home. And in these highly partisan times, it will no longer do for a synagogue to assume its members are all of one mind when it comes to parties or policies.
Surely this Miami synagogue could have found a way to invite Wasserman Schultz and signal to congregants and the outside world that it is nonpartisan. The “rebuttal” format is unwieldy — politicians are loath to share a platform unless the ground rules are made painstakingly clear, and synagogues often don’t have the expertise or resources to create debate formats. (I sometimes have the urge to rebut a sermon, but apparently that is considered bad manners.)
The smartest thing would have been to couple the Wasserman Schultz event with the announcement of an equally prominent Republican speaker at another date.
We don’t want to keep politicians out of the shul altogether. That would only detach synagogues from civic life, which feels like a loss for the congregation and for general society. Politicians can inform and inspire kids and adults no less than Judaics professors, famous rabbis, and similar experts brought in as “scholars-in-residence.” And who knows — you might even learn something from someone with whom you expect to disagree.
The trick is to provide a forum for ideas, not a megaphone for one party or the other.