In a New Jersey synagogue last Shabbat, a rabbi urged his congregants to attend a local fund-raising event for Rep. Tom DeLay, conservative Republican and House majority whip.
In a Riverdale shul, a rabbi lauded the efforts of City Councilman Oliver Koppell, who introduced a bill to brand the Palestinian Authority a terrorist organization.
In other congregations, rabbis, recognizing their congregants’ increasing concern over the security of Israel, are giving sermons with a decidedly political nature: lauding politicians with pro-Israel records, while possibly straying close to a legally defined line. Praise is permitted, but outright endorsements are banned by IRS regulations for tax-exempt religious institutions.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, endorsed two events sponsored by the pro-Israel NORPAC public interest group in last week’s sermon: the reception for DeLay at a congregant’s home, and a fact-finding mission next week to Washington.
"I felt that it was important that people come to hear [DeLay], to show our appreciation for his support for Israel," Rabbi Goldin says. "It’s a very, very thin line" between endorsing a politician’s positions and endorsing the politician, he says. "I was not telling them to vote for Tom DeLay."
One member of the Englewood Jewish community who heard the rabbi’s comments said he rabbi stepped over the line. "You don’t use a synagogue for political fund-raising causes," he said. "It’s illegal."
The trend of politicized sermons parallels the growing support of American Jewry for conservative (often fundamentalist Christian) Republicans, and a bill now before the House, promoted by the Christian Coalition, which would allow churches and synagogues to endorse candidates for public office without jeopardizing their tax-free status.
"We’re a barometer of what’s going on around us" in the general Jewish community, Rabbi Goldin says. "It’s important to be politically involved. We’re doing more of this."
Says Rabbi Doniel Kramer, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis: "In the New York area, rabbis were always political. It’s nothing new. Because of the situation" since the start of the current intifada in September, 2000, "rabbis are being more open about it.
"Those individuals who speak very passionately about Israel gain support," Rabbi Kramer says.
Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale cautions that while he spoke in favor of Koppell from the pulpit, "I don’t tell people to vote for Oliver Koppell. People have turned to me for endorsements. I have as a matter of policy never endorsed a candidate for office."