He’ll be there on the High Holiday pulpit — but probably not by name.
President Donald Trump will hover in and around a number of sermons next week as rabbis grapple with crafting messages that speak both to the current political moment yet seek to transcend it.
That political moment — perhaps more than at any time in recent history — is freighted with grave moral issues that cut to the core of who we are as Americans and Jews: the Muslim travel ban, the pending expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the spike in anti-Semitism, neo-Nazis and white supremacists on the march in Charlottesville.
It’s enough to make a rabbi lean on indirection for the most important sermons of the year, a rhetorical strategy that puts “values” above personality and policy, and perhaps salvages their dual roles as prophetic voices and would-be unifiers.
Rabbi Janet Liss of North Country Reform Temple in Glen Cove, L.I., said she would be sermonizing about the Confederate statue debate — “what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget” — and that she would “deliberately” not mention Trump by name.
“You open a can of worms — suddenly your message becomes political when the message we are giving is values-oriented,” she said.
For Rabbi Ari Saks, the new spiritual leader of the Huntington (L.I) Jewish Center, the country’s toxic political discourse will be a jumping-off point.
“Most rabbis struggle [with] how to address the challenges of the day, especially in the hotly divided political climate we live in,” he said. “As the new rabbi coming in, first and foremost the most important lesson I can teach is to listen to one another.”
Rabbi Saks said he would “deliberately not mention Trump because I think when certain names and certain people get mentioned, people make automatic assumptions and tune out what is said afterwards.”
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn said he plans to explore the meaning of a sacred community and that he and “almost universally [all other] Orthodox rabbis would argue that politics is not an appropriate topic for the High Holidays. The High Holidays are more about internal growth, internal reflection, communal growth, but definitely not a time to talk politics.”
Rabbi Matt Carl of the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn said he plans to “explore what we do when our sense of what is right and wrong changes, or when the world changes and our sense of the rules don’t. Voter suppression is a vindictive form of cheating in which you remove the rights of one group of people. I suppose gerrymandering is also. We ought to think of that when we consider how much cheating we want to accept. Perhaps we need to look at the causes and the results of how we enforce the rules. … America has a long history of enforcing rules differently based on race.”
Politics will be the subject of a sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern at Young Israel of Scarsdale, but he said he would be telling his congregants that they “should not get bogged down in partisan politics because when we do that, we forget about who we really are and we overlook the issues that are of eternal import to us as a people.
“There has been an unhealthy consumption we have all had with the political arena. This is the year to hone in on our eternal issues and to focus on the things we as a community need to focus on.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan — the only one of a dozen rabbis interviewed for this article who said he would be taking on the president directly — said he would be discussing the “troublesome values connected with the ideology of America First.”
The rabbi, who heads the Upper West Side Reform congregation, said, “Then, as now, it is a cynical slogan because it confuses dissent with disloyalty and calls for total allegiance. That is what the president said in his inaugural address. In my view, that creates divisions and seeks scapegoats and pits one group of Americans against another.”
Rabbi Hirsch said he would be pointing out that the “ramifications of America First is that all of these groups are blamed, and the president has, in the past, and continues to, feed that sentiment. Donald Trump peddled the lie that the former president wasn’t born in the United States, and it was candidate Trump who suggested that an American-born judge could not judge him fairly simply because his parents were born in Mexico. … We have often seen this ideology in American history — Japanese Americans [during World War II] were not Americans first and Jews were only loyal to Jews. But when the crises faded, we usually regretted these excesses and characterized them as un-American. It was contrary to the American spirit — the best of America.”
The divisiveness in the country is a topic also being deplored by Rabbi Steven Moss, spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, L.I., who said he is “very disturbed by the negativity in our country and in the world — especially on Twitter and Facebook. From Washington on down, when you go on those social media sites, there are an overwhelming number of negative comments about people and politics. … My sermon is about the power of the Internet, and I will be cautioning everyone not to believe this is an anti-Trump sermon.
“The goal in Jewish mysticism is to overwhelm the negative with the positive to achieve a balance in the universe,” Rabbi Moss continued, saying that to correct the current imbalance he would be asking the approximately 600 congregants in his Reform synagogue to bring their iPads and tablets to synagogue. During the Kol Nidre service, he said, he would ask them in unison to post positive thoughts on Facebook and Twitter. And on Yom Kippur afternoon, he said he would ask them to post their messages on the eastern wall of the synagogue.
The power of speech is also to be the topic of a sermon by Rabbi Howard Stecker, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Great Neck, L.I.
“We have the power to lift up and tear down with our words,” he explained. “We have the power to replace the message of hate [heard in Charlottesville] with a message of love, to replace their message of divisiveness with one of unity. That requires speaking out against bigotry and finding allies who also believe that America must be a place with liberty and justice for all.”
A similar theme is to be struck at the pluralistic Jewish community Makom NY by Rabbi Deborah Bravo, who said that during her sermon at the Bethpage (L.I.) Worship Center she would be “dealing with hatred that is being spewed from the top down. I don’t talk politics from the pulpit, but I do intend to discuss what is on many people’s minds — how to live in a country that doesn’t feel like it is ours, and how to make it better.”
Rabbi Arthur Schneier at Park East Synagogue in Manhattan said he opted not to speak about the political divisions in the country because “we have overriding issues that are life threatening — earthquakes and wildfires and a potential nuclear confrontation with North Korea. We have to pray and hope that all the trouble that ails us will be left behind in the old year and that we have a second chance to start a new chapter of stability.”
Natural disasters will also be addressed by Rabbi Royi Shaffin, spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in North Bellmore, L.I., who said they should be used as an opportunity to “come together as a community and to be there for one another.”
“I will be talking about the importance of community, looking out for one another and keeping up the most valuable and important teachings of Judaism: ‘What is hateful unto you do not do unto your fellow,’ otherwise known as ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’”
The strength of community is also a theme of the sermon by Rabbi Rachel Ain (a cousin of this reporter) of the Sutton Place Synagogue, who said she would focus “on the resilience we need to show after a loss and how we can gain strength from our tradition and community during hard times. I will be using the metaphor from the MetroCard machine, which asks: ‘Do you want to add value or add time to your card?’ I argue that in this New Year we have to add value and not just time.”