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When politics came to synagogue
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When politics came to synagogue

Worshippers uncomfortable that ideology, prayer intersect

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Sefi, left, and Sarit Greenwood of West Orange accompanied their father, Matt, to a political rally.
Sefi, left, and Sarit Greenwood of West Orange accompanied their father, Matt, to a political rally.

Anat Cohen of Livingston and her family dropped their membership this year at the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Her increasing discomfort as a Trump supporter in a liberal environment was one of several factors that went into her family’s decision.

“It was annoying that there was not another voice,” said Cohen, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her family’s privacy. While she said the rabbi and cantor were “very careful” in their rhetoric, nonetheless, “The message got across that we are terrible Jews if we do not open our border to refugees. The social action aspects of Judaism just take precedence over Judaism.”

Not too far away, West Orange resident Matt Greenwood, an avowed socialist and member of the Orthodox Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D), quipped that he and the others among the congregation who share liberal political views have their own “secret handshake.”

Meanwhile rabbis, such as Alan Silverstein of Cohen’s former synagogue, Cong. Agudath Israel, say it’s imperative for synagogues to be sensitive to the diverse views of its congregants.

“These are highly charged times within society-at-large,” said Silverstein. “It is essential that synagogues provide a safe space in which Jews of all public policy points of view can engage in shared worship, Torah study, and social action on behalf of folks in need.” 

Increasingly Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews are championing liberal causes, whereas Orthodox Jews appear to be siding with the GOP. 

In interviews with several members of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community it became clear that in today’s polarized political climate, congregants can be left scrambling to hold onto their respective spiritual homes when ideological and religious views fall out of alignment. 

When religiously liberal Jews are politically conservative, it can be uncomfortable to sit in synagogue and listen to sermons on tikkun olam and social justice, and have discussions with fellow worshippers who rail against Trump’s immigration ban. 

The same disconnect occurs for Orthodox Jews on the left side of the political spectrum, whose viewpoints are shaped by more than just U.S. policy toward Israel, and who are concerned about how the president’s orders affect people of all religions. For rabbis, the challenge comes in maintaining an inclusive congregation in a divisive political climate. 

A resident of Maplewood, who also asked not to be named, told NJJN he feels unwelcome at any of the non-Orthodox congregations in the area, which include South Orange’s Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Oheb Shalom, Congregation Beth El, and Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. He wrote, via email, “Not that the clergy isn’t nice to us, they are, but they set a tone that says the congregation is all about social justice (and not broadly, but narrowly defined as immigration rights, LBGTQI rights, attending the women’s marches, Black Lives Matter, etc.).” 

Youth programming can serve to extend these rifts. For example, a February USY event at Oheb Shalom focuses on “becoming an activist in the 21st century.”

The Maplewood resident no longer brings his children to synagogue, saying that congregants are quick to “hurl labels” if he doesn’t conform to others’ views on hot-button issues. 

“Is that welcoming?” he asked.

“Clearly we want to take care of those who are less fortunate,” said Anat Cohen. “I’m not a terrible ogre who wants people starving and dying in the streets. But we also have an obligation for self-preservation, and there are sources for that.” In the end, she said, between the pulpit and the community feeling, “I felt constantly lectured at. I became a pariah for expressing my views.”

Even those who said they don’t feel “unwelcome” in synagogue because of their politics acknowledge the existence of a palpable tension.

Greenwood thinks that his position is easier theologically than his counterparts who are on the outs in liberal synagogues, as he sees a socialist strain running through the Torah. “I can quote sources and primary texts that make it perfectly clear we are not meant to lord it over others,” he said, adding, “You can look at the Torah all through the prophets and that’s what it is.”    

The strain in synagogue doesn’t really bother Greenwood. As a British expatriate who holds a green card, he said he takes a sort of “outside observer” approach. “My biggest disappointment is not that people are on the other side of the political divide, but that they are unwilling to think about anything other than Israel and what’s good for Israel. There’s no substantive discussion,” he said, about other issues, which he views as “myopic.” But he added that he thinks it’s a mistake to conceive of synagogues as monolithic. “Usually, they are actually tapestries with many threads and there is not one megaphone for the shul.” 

Greenwood credits AABJ&D’s rabbi, Eliezer Zwickler, for refusing to take an active role in the political back and forth. “He works hard to be apolitical from the bima and maintain shalom bayit [peace in the house].”

Naftali Falda, also a member of AABJ&D, considers himself  “certainly left of most in my community.” He said he wears his views “as a badge of honor,” and  knows who he can talk to about politics. While he relishes being “the odd man out,” he acknowledges that there are some people with similar views in his cohort of friends in their 30s and 40s. 

“The older generation is more doctrinaire,” he said, adding that for his parents, who also live in the community, things are more complicated than they are for him. “Among people their age, it’s better not to talk politics at all. It doesn’t go to a happy place.” 

He respects Zwickler’s intention to remove politics from the institution’s Jewish practices. “It would be totally inappropriate for the shul to take a position,” he said. “It would make people feel left out.”

Dave Esrig, a member of the Conservative B’nai Shalom in West Orange, said although his rabbi, Robert Tobin, is to the “left of me,” he generally feels included, as the congregation’s members don’t seem to lean overwhelmingly to one side or the other. He wrote in an email that B’nai Shalom “has a number of regulars (like me — I go most Saturdays) who are Republicans or will vote for candidates of either party depending on the particulars of the race.” He added that he does sometimes “adamantly disagree” with the rabbi’s sermons “but with few exceptions he prefers to hew to the weekly text and how it affects our lives.”   

However, Esrig said that he is careful about attending events at other synagogues. “I don’t like to be on the wrong side of a leftist harangue that has no apparent basis in Torah or any special expertise by the speaker.” 

It’s not an accident that Esrig feels comfortable at B’nai Shalom. Tobin made  conscious decisions on how to manage post-election tensions back in November, starting with not taking sides. “I have extremely strong political views,” he told NJJN, “but my vote is not my rabbinic voice.”  

In an email exchange with NJJN, he wrote, “I am regularly pressured to speak politics from the bima, while others pressure me not to.  I have chosen to speak only when the Torah mandate is clear and unequivocal.”    

He explained, “I will assert that we must protect the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, as that is what the Torah commands of us. But I respect that how we protect the widow, the orphan, and the stranger can be a matter of sincere difference in a political system.”   

Tobin said there is an imbalance and natural source of conflict, since approximately 30 percent on Jews identify as Republican and the rest Democrats. His role, he said, is to tread cautiously. In a January post on his blog he encouraged members to pursue Jewish beliefs and values through political advocacy and engagement, and even to do so through the synagogue. But he wrote, “I will not lead such efforts myself. I need to be everyone’s rabbi, and I take that very seriously.” 

Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler at AABJ&D spoke to the entire congregation on the Shabbat following the presidential election to set the tone. “This is a place where everyone needs to feel at home and welcome,” he recalled telling the community. “If anyone comes to shul with the goal of making someone feel bad for their political leanings, they have no place in our shul.” 

With regard to politics, he said, “I try to stay pareve on that. My role is to develop a spiritual connection between a person and their creator.” The synagogue, in his view, is “a place to spend intimate time with God. It’s not meant to be political.”

Even when politics is impossible to ignore he sets it aside, he said. When former President Barack Obama’s decided not to veto the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, some congregants questioned whether they should continue to recite the prayer for the American government. Zwickler responded that the prayer would remain in the liturgy. Even when people have different approaches, he said, “We always have a modicum of respect for the institution of government of the U.S.”

Others feel there are moral issues at stake that preclude neutrality. Rabbi Jesse Olitzky at Beth El, perhaps the most outspoken of the local Jewish clergy, fasted on Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration; was among the T’ruah rabbis arrested in Manhattan last week; and together with the other South Orange rabbis, has been an active participant in welcoming two refugee families in recent weeks, one from Syria, the other Iraq (see related story)

Olitzky recently wrote in his blog, “I understand that as a rabbinic leader and public figure, every action has an impact — potentially positively or negatively — on others. I think deeply about the statements I make, the stances I take, and the forms of protest that I may participate in. I also consider those things that for many reasons I choose not to say or share. I know all may not always agree with what I say or do, but I hope that the decisions I make are respected because ultimately, everything I say, and everything I do, every statement I make, and every stance I take, is not rooted in politics, but rooted in Torah. They are rooted in the teachings of Pirkei Avot that remind us to especially speak up and act when others won’t. They are rooted in God serving as my strength and my song. They are rooted in my attempt to walk in God’s ways and fight for all made in God’s image.”

Rabbi Dan Cohen of Sharey Tefilo- Israel thinks a synagogue should be welcoming for everyone, and he has had conversations with members who feel disconnected. However, he said, he will not keep quiet when he believes issues “rooted in Jewish values and commitments” arise and require him to speak out. 

“I cannot help if they fall into one side of the partisan divide or the other, but just because they do does not mean I won’t address them,” he said. “When I do, however, I am not raising them because they are the position of one party or the other but because they are moral issues for me.” 

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