COVER STORY:Is the bimah the place for politics

When Rabbi Alan Lew gazed out over his congregation last Rosh Hashanah before delivering his sermon, he had no idea a group of his congregants would soon be attempting to have him fired.

The senior rabbi at San Francisco’s Conservative Beth Sholom was angry at the state of things, and his words showed it. He lashed out at the Patriot Act, the California recall election, the detentions of Arab and Muslim Americans, and the general erosion of American democracy.

He also wondered if the Israeli security barrier was creating more problems than it was solving.

More than a few congregants walked out and proceeded to engage in audible shouting matches in the synagogue’s halls. Several prominent members of Beth Sholom quit the congregation after efforts to unseat Lew failed. Similar efforts to limit the subjects available for him to sermonize on also failed.

In an election year, with the Jewish community — and the nation — as polarized as ever, more Bay Area rabbis could face Lew’s travails when offering their takes on political hot-button issues from the bimah.

And with President Bush’s emphatically pro-Israel record, juxtaposed against concerns about his domestic agenda, and Republican campaign efforts within evangelical churches, “Jews feel like they’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

Pearce and other Bay Area rabbis probably won’t feel so much angst in the voting booth, however. Local rabbis vote overwhelmingly Democratic, according to Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, the current president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

When asked to name a local politically conservative conregational rabbi, he answered, “There probably are, but I can’t think of one.”

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of San Francisco’s Orthodox Chevra Thilim admits he is usually more conservative than his congregants on mainstream issues, and he voted for President Bush and is “leaning that way again.”

Still, he believes most newcomers to his synagogue are surprised at how liberal he is.

“The average San Franciscan is expecting the worst. … They’re wondering if anybody is going to give them a hard time because they’re holding the prayer book upside-down. They’re surprised at how relaxed the atmosphere is. The purposes of my sermons are not fire and brimstone. I spend time every sermon talking about Jewish inclusiveness,” he said.

“I think they respect that I’m representing to them an opinion grounded and rooted in Torah values.”

Lew, like every other Bay Area rabbi, has spoken with congregants who differed with his views following a politically charged sermon. Sometimes, he says, “we’ll chat for hours.”

But not last year.

“Well, I was pretty pissed off,” said the rabbi. “I was not anxious to talk to them.”

And, this year, Lew will not be giving political sermons on the High Holy Days, which begin at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 15.

“It’s my right to do whatever I want,” he noted. “But I think the congregation could live without another controversy. And it would be imbalanced of me to give a very political sermon two years in a row.”

Other Bay Area rabbis, however, have every intention of being as political as they wish come the High Holy Days. And if congregants feel that their political beliefs are not represented by the rabbi’s sermon, so be it.

“It’s important that a rabbi stand for something. Your message cannot be all things to all people at all times,” said Rabbi Evan Goodman of San Francisco’s Reform-Conservative Beth Israel-Judea, who engendered a mini-controversy when a past sermon advocating stricter gun control angered some conservative congregants.

“If Judaism is going to be meaningful and relative to us, we need to relate it to our lives and the world around us. It shouldn’t be a cocoon we retreat into, but it should be a system of values and ethics that inform the decisions we make in life. If we don’t deal with currently pressing events, who will?”

Lewis agrees with Goodman, and has even lost congregants over his political statements.

“Over time there have been people in the synagogue who have left because of my views. And I take that philosophically. If you stand for something, you’re going to make somebody unhappy,” said Lewis, the senior rabbi at Palo Alto’s Conservative Kol Emeth.

Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco’s Orthodox Adath Israel has a feeling his sermon “will have something to do with this FBI investigation into a possible mole in the Pentagon giving all sorts of information through AIPAC — and suddenly, interestingly enough, this [is announced] on the eve of the Republican Convention even though this investigation has been going on for a year and a half.”

Traub, who opined frequently and fervently against the Iraq war from the pulpit, said it is the “obligation of a rabbi, or a minister or a priest” to point out when America is on the wrong path.

“Rabbis who shy away from these things are doing a disservice to their congregations. People are interested in this election. It’s an important election. Every election is an important election. It’s important to let people know the Jewish perspective,” he said.

And if, as some congregants claim, his sermons give a harder time to Republicans than Democrats, well, “I find, in general, Republicans deserve a hard time more.”

Other Bay Area rabbis may agree with Traub on that issue, but many are opting to deliver less opinionated sermons this season. Both Rabbi Gerald Raiskin of Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom and Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham are opting to focus on the 350th year of Jewish life in America.

Goodman isn’t planning a political sermon, either, and Lew estimates he only gives a political sermon twice a year, though those do get the most attention.

Other rabbis aren’t entirely sure what they’ll be talking about — even though the High Holy Days are right around the corner.

“I am a last-minute person,” admits Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco’s Congregation B’nai Emunah.

While rabbis like Traub and Lew feel free to criticize the policies of Attorney General John Ashcroft or the morality of President Clinton, it’s a different matter to urge congregants to vote for or against a candidate. As tax-exempt nonprofits, houses of worship are forbidden to endorse specific candidates or parties.

Pearce quoted the old saying that it is a rabbi’s duty to “comfort the discomforted and discomfort the comfortable.”

He has every intention of railing against the possible re-implementation of the draft and the abuses at Abu Ghraib — but without ad hominem attacks that would possibly violate federal laws and definitely rile up conservative congregants.

Meanwhile in Los Gatos, Rabbi Melanie Aron is in a bind. One of her Shir Hadash congregants, Steve Poizner, is running for state Assembly. Aron isn’t willing to endanger the temple’s tax-exempt status by providing an endorsement. And, she notes, Poizner is a Republican and she most certainly is not.

As an outspoken liberal, Aron knows her political views will not please the more conservative members of her congregation. The Reform rabbi’s advice to her congregants: Speak up.

“In New York, they didn’t treat a rabbi’s sermon like the word of God off Mount Sinai,” said Aron, who formerly served in Brooklyn. “They’d argue quite a bit. People here are less likely to come up in line and engage you in argument. Those kind of arguments are healthy. I’m not a prophet. I’m trying my best to interpret our tradition.”

Sometimes, however, a healthy argument is not enough. When Aron initiated an outreach program to the gay and lesbian community, one outraged congregant left. Rabbi Stacy Friedman of San Rafael’s Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom also saw congregants leave following her advocacy of same-sex marriage at last year’s Yom Kippur sermon.

The politically charged issue of gay marriage also provoked a rift at Lafayette’s Reform Temple Isaiah. When Rabbi Roberto Graetz sermonized that he was in full favor of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, a rankled congregant e-mailed him a message quoting Leviticus against homosexuality.

Graetz wrote back that if you quote Leviticus to condemn homosexuality, you could also use the Torah to justify executing rebellious children, offering sacrifices on high places or forbidding the letter-writer’s wife from wearing pants. Graetz and his congregant exchanged several e-mails and, in the end, agreed to disagree.

These rabbis’ experiences with upset congregants were not atypical — most disagreements are resolved via personal meetings and dialogue, but congregants can and do leave.

While Graetz’s e-mail discussion came to an agreeable conclusion, he feels as if American religious liberals are at risk of being run off the road.

“I have always been respectful and very careful about what I say from the pulpit,” said the senior rabbi. “But this year it is so clear that lines are being crossed in evangelical Christian churches in terms of sharing their member lists with the Republican Party, and we cannot afford to be shy about it. We are shy about respecting their right to disagree, but they are not shy about cutting us off, saying we are not patriotic, we are traitors, we are anti-God,” he said.

“I think we have to get out the message that our point of view is also a religious point of view. [Conservative Christians] do not hold a monopoly.”

The overt partnerships the Republican Party has established with evangelical churches alarmed a number of local rabbis. Traub compared it to Mel Gibson’s successful marketing technique for “The Passion of the Christ.” Pearce predicted violations of federal law.

Lew, for his part, said the close relationships “are incredibly inappropriate, but it doesn’t bother me. Who are those people going to vote for? Of course they’ll vote for the guy who said he went to war because God told him to.”

A number of Bay Area rabbis agreed that it has never been harder to deliver a sermon that chides the American government, let alone the government of Israel.

Lew blamed an “insecure climate — dissent is more threatening to people.”

Alexander is also tired of controversy. The veteran rabbi said he is crafting High Holy Day services for a congregation that “doesn’t want to read the newspaper in the morning anymore; they don’t want to aggravate themselves with the hatred and the lies.”

Alexander’s politics are not a secret — he wears a John Kerry pin in his lapel and is a lifelong liberal who was arrested alongside black civil rights leaders in the 1960s.

But, this year, he’s planning to leave politics out of his sermons and focus on more intimate issues.

“What can we do? What can you and I do? We each have a life to live, and we can only do a little bit as individuals to influence the running of the world. But we can do a hell of a lot to live with our loved ones and our people a meaningful life,” he said.

“Listen, I’m 84 years old. I don’t know if this is my last [Rosh Hashanah]; only God knows that. I want to try to do it in such a way that I leave something positive in people’s minds. Have fun. Have a meaningful and good home life. We cannot influence grand politics by ourselves. But we can make our lives livable.

“I don’t want a confrontation,” with conservative congregants, he continued. “This year, I’ll talk about our own chances of living a full life.

“Unless I change my mind.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.