Politics on pulpit No way, rabbis say

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When Rosh Hashanah came around last year, Rabbi Aaron Gaber wanted to grapple with an issue roiling the country. So he decided to focus his sermon on racism.

But several members of Brothers of Israel, a 120-family Conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, weren’t pleased.

“Some of the feedback from some of my congregants has caused us some consternation,” Gaber said. Congregants accused the rabbi of calling them racists, he recalled, “which I didn’t do.”

Rabbis in swing states say they’ll skirt direct election talk in their sermons. jta/lior zaltzman

This year, with the presidential election looming just one month after Yom Kippur, Gaber will pick a more parve topic for his High Holy Day sermons: how congregants can be respectful to one another. He won’t directly address the election. Instead he will relate to some of the rhetoric around the campaign.

“One piece that I’m looking to share with my congregation is a spirituality checkup, and to do quite a bit of reflection on who we are and what we represent as Jews and human beings,” Gaber said. “What does it mean to treat one another with respect?”

Gaber’s congregation is in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, a politically divided area in a swing state. In 2012, President Barack Obama won the county over Mitt Romney by just 1 percentage point.

In skirting direct election talk this holiday season, Gaber will be joining rabbis in swing counties across America preferring instead to touch on the vote by speaking about values or personal conduct.

Spiritual leaders from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida noted that synagogues are legally prohibited from endorsing candidates. Anyway, they say, political talk should not come from the pulpit, especially on the High Holy Days. Instead, the rabbis said they will encourage compassionate conversations or talk about how the winner can be a moral leader.

For example, Rabbi Richard Birnholz of the Reform Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Florida, said a potential sermon topic could be “How possible is it to govern and to do so with honesty and with sensitivity?” He added, “It’s very easy to have politics or ideology [or taking sides] get in the way of that, and then I can’t really fulfill my real role, which isn’t as a political or social activist, but as a rabbi.”

The rabbis’ plans track with an August survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that 64 percent of churchgoers heard their pastor discuss election issues from the pulpit, but only 14 percent heard their pastor endorse or speak out against a candidate.

Some rabbis interviewed for this article  said political discourse has made the atmosphere at synagogue tense. Assistant Rabbi Michael Danziger of the Reform Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati said the constant stream of campaign ads doesn’t help.

“I do think all of the tools to make conversation go off the rails are present here,” said Danziger. “So much advertising, so much attention.”

When they aren’t on the bimah, some rabbis have been politically active. Rabbi Sissy Coran of the Rockdale Temple, another Cincinnati Reform synagogue, touted a voter registration drive that the Union for Reform Judaism will be conducting in North Carolina. Birnholz teaches classes at his synagogue about biblical prophets using current events as context.

Rabbis have discussed politics throughout the year in smaller prayer services. Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of Reconstructionist Congregation Kol Emet in Pennsylvania feels she can address sensitive issues such as the global refugee crisis or protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, at Friday night services, which draw a smaller crowd than the High Holy Days.

Rabbi Yechiel Morris of the Young Israel of Southfield, an Orthodox congregation in suburban Detroit, criticized Trump earlier in the campaign and drew backlash.

“I didn’t focus so much on his politics, policies and things of that nature, but more on the character and language he uses, and how upsetting that is,” Morris said. Sermonizing against Trump again during the High Holy Days would be pointless, he said, as “you don’t need to repeat yourself.”

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Conservative Congregation Beth Ahm, also in suburban Detroit, thinks that politics from the pulpit serves little purpose. Involved congregants know their rabbis’ political leanings, no matter the sermon topic.

“People are listening, and they don’t need to be hit over the head, told what to do,” he said. “A very high percentage of the congregants would know who their rabbi would vote for without them saying it.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.