With Election Day bearing down on a bitterly divided nation, the presidential campaign — perhaps not surprisingly — seeped into many High Holy Day sermons this year as rabbis called on congregants to reject anti-immigrant rhetoric, speak civilly to each other and “enter the political fray for the sake of democracy.”
But what did seem surprising was the passion brought to bear in tying the current political moment to Jewish history and memory, and the willingness of some spiritual leaders to take off the gloves, so to speak.
“Right now, America is in danger of forgetting our own history,” Rabbi Angela Buchdahl told her congregants at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. “There are voices raised in this country unlike any we have heard in years, preaching the very lowest form of tribal behavior, romanticizing violence, fomenting distrust of every difference and trying to convince our nation that we can only be great if we build walls.
“Is it not our calling as American Jews … to be a light to this great nation?” she asked. “Consider this: Gallup conducted a survey of whether America should open its doors to 10,000 refugee children — innocents caught in the crossfires of war. Ask yourself: Would you let them in? More than two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup said: ‘No, we should keep them out.’
“But this was not a recent poll regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. This Gallup poll was taken in 1939 [and] those 10,000 children seeking refuge on our shores were mostly Jews. We were the Other. … And when we hear someone urging us to build barriers, when we hear someone demonizing the Other, is it not our moral obligation to remember that we were chosen for something different? Our Jewish memory demands we use our moral voice and be the world’s conscience.”
Rabbi Ian Silverman, spiritual leader of the East Northport Jewish Center on Long Island, said he is equally disgusted with the presidential campaign.
“The candidates insult one another,” he told his congregation. “One claims the other is unfit in temperament and the other claims equal unfitness due to physical and mental fatigue. One claims the other candidate is a sheister and a hypocrite and the other a criminal and a monster. How has it come to be that insulting the opponent is a way to victory rather than sound policy positions? What has happened to basic civility? Why has it become: My position is absolutely right and theirs is evil? Instead of listening we discount and we demonize. …
“Hillel and Shammai teach that there are two kinds of arguments. One is for the sake of heaven and the other that is not. …Though these two schools differed, most often there was no ostracizing or demonizing. Each sect allowed daughters and sons to marry one another. Affection and friendships were cultivated.”
At the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, Rabbi Samuel Weintraub recalled listening to talk radio on a recent road trip and “hearing about the swarms of foreigners pouring over our borders to take what is rightfully ours. We hear all about the Mexicans and the Muslims and the criminals and the scofflaws. We have to keep them out, went the refrain, because 10,000 of their families means 40,000 people and we all know how great the chances are of bringing in people who will hurt our children, attack our morals, pervert our lifestyle, target us, kill us.
“Lost in all of this is recognition that our criteria for refugee resettlement are among the most stringent on the planet … . Listen to their language, their tone, the seductive mixture of alarm and invitation. Come back with us, they implore, to a simpler time, a better time, a time when we were respected, when we were great.
“As a Jew, those appeals terrify me. When societies dream about returning to their ‘golden age,’ it is almost always bad news for groups who are different, especially Jews.”
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz sounded a similar refrain when he said he rejected “as antithetical to the Jewish spirit the dismissal of immigrants — the lifeblood of this nation’s creative spirit. I reject the disdain thrown most especially towards our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our Jewish tradition demands that we love the stranger.”
Rabbi Moskowitz, spiritual leader of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor in Oyster Bay, L.I., added: “They want the same thing that my grandparents wanted: to be accepted and welcomed in their adopted country, to be allowed to see the American dream fulfilled for themselves, their children and grandchildren. I welcome them with open arms.”
Anxiety over refugees is just one of the things making Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz nervous this holiday season. He told his congregation at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I.: “We live in a time when it’s easy to be frightened. The violence perpetrated by radical jihadists seems to strike ever closer to home. It isn’t just guns we have to worry about, it’s some fanatic with a kitchen knife or a truck or a pressure cooker. … In our schools and workplaces we no longer have only fire drills, but teach our children how to hide in closets behind barred doors.
“I am anxious about being overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees — and fear that a few among them may seek to take advantage of the situation to cause mayhem,” he added. “Yet how can my compassion not respond to the image of a dead refugee child on a beach? How can I harden my heart, as did Pharaoh and those who turned their backs on Jews, when we were refugees?”
Rabbi Anchelle Perl, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom Chabad in Mineola, L.I., said he told his congregants that “we’re all suffering from ‘whiplash’ from the insanity of this election season. … Regardless of who prevails in the election, America is going to need Hashem’s providence and protection as much as ever… We’ve survived far worse situations – and we shall survive this too.”
Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center told his congregants that they can’t sit out this election, that “[Jewish]tradition places a powerful value — an imperative — to enter into the fray and participate for the sake of the health and … strength of our democracy. Voting responsibly is a predicate of Judaism.”
In prepared remarks for Kol Nidre, Rabbi Rachel Ain of the Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan said she would be speaking about the importance of civil discourse.
“Too often in our world we listen to an echo chamber of what we are already predisposed to agree with and we automatically wave off an opinion different than our own without getting to the essence of the ideas,” she wrote in an email. “I want us to try to understand what role we can play in talking about complex issues, for words and language are the core of this evening, Kol Nidre. … Can we bring people who are on disparate sides of an issue to the table for the sake of the world that we are celebrating on this new year? I, the eternal optimist, will tell you an answer — I believe the answer is yes. …
“And this evening, Kol Nidre, that is what we are confronting. How do we build up and support a healthy community, not tear it down? How do we engage in ideas with which we disagree? How do we understand who we are, even if it is in contrast to someone else? And how do we understand that it is our words and our ideas, even if they are at odds with one another, that we need to listen to, in order to strengthen our community?”