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Synagogues debate separation of pol and pulpit
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Synagogues debate separation of pol and pulpit

A Miami synagogue’s decision to withdraw a speaking invitation to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has become a matter of debate at several New Jersey shuls that have hosted elected officials.

At issue: Is it ever appropriate for nonpartisan houses of worship to host a politician? Is democracy served if they don’t?

Wasserman Schultz’s on-again, off-again speaking engagement at Temple Israel in Miami became national news when a prominent Republican member of the synagogue, Stanley Tate, demanded equal time to refute her scheduled talk after Friday night services.

The invitation to the chair of the Democratic National Committee was withdrawn, but not before Tate quit the Reform synagogue and traded accusations with its leadership over partisanship.

By contrast, Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan heard nary a word of complaint when the local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition hosted an event in its sanctuary on Sunday evening, June 3.

The guest speaker was former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota (see separate story, this page) and a brother of a congregant.

The synagogue’s Rabbi Robert Pilavin said renting the sanctuary to the RJC was not a partisan gesture. To reinforce that point, Coleman’s speech was mentioned in the synagogue bulletin only as a paid advertisement with a boldface disclaimer reading, “This is an independent RJC event, and is not sponsored by Congregation Sons of Israel.”

“There was some internal debate,” said Pilavin, “but we are not endorsing any candidate and we are not endorsing the RJC. We are just saying they are a legitimate organization and they can rent space from us. If the National Jewish Democratic Council had come to us and asked to rent space or take out a paid ad in our bulletin, I can assure you their check would be cashed.”

Pilavin said cancelling Wasserman Schultz’s speech was the correct decision, because it would have been held on Shabbat.

“I think Debbie Wasserman Schultz should have been disinvited because she was scheduled to speak during a service itself, which gives much more of a perception — if not a reality — of partisanship,” he told NJ Jewish News in a May 31 phone interview.

Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein at East Brunswick Jewish Center takes a different view.

“I am cognizant of the sanctity of the Shabbat service, and the truth is, within the Shabbat service there is less time to speak. But I can see it happening,” he told NJJN.

Finkelstein’s synagogue itself played host May 31 to a town hall meeting by Gov. Chris Christie (see story, page 5). “It was an honor to have an elected official come to the synagogue,” Finkelstein said. “It helps create dialogue and allows us to express our concerns and hear the concerns of the official.

“Our governor is a figure of great divide, but when he is the governor, he is the governor of the entire state. I am not naive enough to think he has no political agenda, but that is true of all politicians.”

Judy Gothelf of Montville, vice chair of Pine Brook Jewish Center, told NJJN that Newark’s Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, was invited to speak at her Montville synagogue on June 10 “because he has quite a background in Judaism.” She cited his active participation in the L’Chaim Society while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and his close ties to prominent Chabad Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “This is not going to be a political forum at all,” she insisted.

In fact, Internal Revenue Service rules allow 501(c)(3) institutions like synagogues to host “voter education activities” so long as they are presented in a “nonpartisan manner.”

The key is “nonpartisan,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “You can’t invite a candidate for one office without inviting a candidate from the other side at a similar time. It can’t be one side for Friday night services, and the other side for a Thursday morning youth group.”

Similarly, left- and right-wing partisans in the Jewish community believe politicians have a place in the pulpit so long as the synagogues seek balance.

“Yes, political speakers should be allowed to speak,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, told NJJN. “A synagogue is a place for debate and discussion and education and exploration of issues. The problem comes when both sides are not afforded equal opportunity to speak either in the same platform or at a subsequent time.”

In a rare example of agreement, David Harris, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he too advises synagogues that solicit his group’s services to make sure they hear the opposing side — whether in a face-to-face debate, or at a different time.

“It’s important there’s bipartisan balance throughout an election cycle,” he told JTA.

Keeping politicians and public officials out of the synagogue is not good for the Jews, said the Reform movement’s Pelavin.

“It allows a heckler’s veto,” he said. “The notion that we need to avoid speech that is controversial is troubling. That would leave out every haftara portion and a good chunk of the Torah as well.”

Meanwhile, some in the audience for Coleman’s talk in Manalapan told NJJN they were pleased that the synagogue gave a platform for a Republican to criticize President Obama.

“In this world, with that fellow in the White House, we have to do everything possible to secure a Republican gets in,” said Cheryl Bass of Spotswood.

NJJN reporter Debra Rubin and JTA’s Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

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