Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, November 11, 2016
A Letter to My Congregants
To my congregants:
As I write this on the day after the election was decided, there is great concern for the future, among Democrats and Republicans alike. I’ve already shared some of my initial thoughts in an article where I wrote of the need to roll up our sleeves and work together, now more than ever.
Let me begin by saying that I am deeply fearful.
I know that’s not what many of you want to hear. Not since 9/11 have I been been so overwhelmed by people of all ages reaching out to me for some words of hope. I’ve tried to summon them, to look for slivers of a silver lining, but in my quieter moments, I am sleepless and despairing, and I don’t have a rabbi to turn to.
I am fearful for the baby I’m going to name today.
I am fearful for all the groups and individuals Donald Trump has disparaged.
I am fearful, especially for Muslims, immigrants and little girls.
I’m fearful for our planet.
I’m fearful for our world, and all the forces that will become unmoored without stable American leadership at the helm.
I’m fearful for Israel too, although many Israelis are cheering this turn of events. All I can say to them is what I say to Trump supporters: Be careful what you wish for.
I’m fearful that someday soon, they will be fearful too.
I’m so sad to have to share these fears. You know how many parents feel they need to put on a strong front for their children? In some ways, that’s my job. You aren’t my children, but you are my family, and I’ve always tried to be strong – and yet always honest with you.
I’m fearful for honesty too. Truthfully, truthfulness took the biggest hit in this election. That and privacy.
I’m fearful for those who cheered every Wikileaks revelation, and even, to a lesser extent, the Access Hollywood Video. Our “Gotcha” culture has eliminated every vestige of privacy that we thought we had left. Those who cheer Julian Assange as a hero need to reflect, like the rest of us, on what we have done.
Now, for the road ahead…
I am aware that advocacy and engagement are things that some may not deem central to a synagogue’s mission. Many people want their synagogue to be a sanctuary (pun intended) from the worries of the outside world. The rabbi needs to set the tone for this “no worries” mode, and to an extent, I agree with that. Unlike many of my rabbinic colleagues, I’ve refrained from personally endorsing candidates in political campaigns and I’ve not taken public positions on some of the hottest of hot button controversies (like the Iran deal), so that everyone can find here a safe space, a place where opposing views can be exchanged respectfully, where no one feels left out. Even when positions are taken, opposing views should still be respected. People should always be able to come to a service and find the embrace of a non-judgmental, loving community in common purpose and prayer.
Here’s the hope part:
There is reason to hope that the next four years will be more positive than the bleak scenarios that have been painted. I am praying for our new president to succeed in bringing all Americans together. The tone of the acceptance speech was gracious and the first face to face meeting at the White House was deemed “excellent” by President Obama. That’s a very good start.
But things could easily go in a decidedly different direction. Sorry, the hope part is small. Now begins the vigilance part:
One of our college students wrote me yesterday, extremely troubled by this series of Tweets called “The First Day in Trump’s America,” a collection of bigoted acts perpetrated on vulnerable individuals in just one day. He wondered whether Jews agree with this. Nearly in tears, I assured him that Judaism condemns this kind of behavior, that advocacy, engagement and vigilance are at the core of Judaism’s message. Sensing the true purpose of his email, I also assured him that if he ever feels afraid, he should know that I have his back.
One of our twenty somethings texted me, saying that none of her friends could sleep and that they are worried sick.
I met yesterday with our seventh grade class. They are petrified, not knowing what has become of our country and our world. They have seen their parents weeping openly these past two days.
The concerns about Trump’s America are bipartisan. What’s keeping so many people awake at night this week has nothing to do with donkeys and elephants, and the concern is often focused less on Mr. Trump than on the advisers he selects. After all, had King Ahashverosh just chosen a different chief of staff, he could well have made Persia great again. We need to be watching carefully whom he selects for which position in the Administration.
I’m fearful of the shadowy figure behind Trump, whom we heard of but rarely saw, whose name I will not mention lest it pop up on his Google alert. I’ve seen the Breitbart headlines. As shadowy as he’s been, no one can say his is a hidden agenda.
I have always tried to be most sensitive to those who disagree with me, in order to make our big tent as “huge” as it can be, ideologically, demographically and in so many other ways. That transparency and sensitivity will continue for as long as I’m here.
In that spirit, I hope everyone will understand that, if the rhetoric of the campaign is to be believed, the concerns that have arisen go far beyond the typical right-left banter and go right to the heart of our core democratic values and institutions. For example, there is legitimate fear, based on the candidate’s own statements, that basic First Amendment rights will be challenged over the coming years. That will put religious leaders and journalists in the cross-hairs, precisely at the time when their voices will be needed most in protecting the rights of individuals and in speaking truth to power. I take those responsibilities seriously, as both a religious leader and a journalist. When the need to speak out is there, at times I may err, but I try never to err on the side of inaction or apathy. And I will try always to listen and to learn from those whose views differ.
As Aaron Sorkin wrote in his now viral letter to his daughter, this is not simply sour grapes over disliking the results of an election. Like Sorkin, I’ve seen favored candidates go down to defeat many times, but never have seen the need to write a letter like this.
Given that only 25 percent of Jews voted for Trump, the vast majority presumably Orthodox, I still assume we have well over a minyan of Trump supporters here in our large congregation. I implore those within the congregation who voted for Mr. Trump, to hear me out before tossing this aside as just another rant by the crazy progressive rabbi.
You like Trump? So you must like deals, and I have a deal for you. I’ll continue to do my best to keep our services as spiritually uplifting as possible, so that everyone can come here any Shabbat and find solace from the political storms that will be raging. Yes, sermons and discussions will still probe how Jewish texts and values are relevant in our day, which is what you pay a rabbi to do, but, as I did on the High Holidays, I will always aim to “go high” and try to keep at least some of my legendary snark in check.
But in return I ask for your patience and understanding. These will likely not be easy times for many; especially, I fear, the weakest among us. When I stand to defend them, I hope you will support those efforts. If you choose not to, I hope you will at least understand why I need to speak. I hope the rest of the congregation will too – and that everyone will know that there may be times when all our voices will need to be heard. We all need to seek out especially those who feel most threatened and offer them support. Every day needs to be “Hug a Muslim” Day and “Hug an Immigrant” Day at TBE. Those most vulnerable need to know that we are prepared to put our necks on the line to defend them.
And, Trump supporters, we need you to stay active in our TBE family. We need you to help us be a true model for the kind of society we want our America to be. I will do my best to hear your concerns. If there is to be a kind of salvation here, I suspect it will need to be faith based. If there is to be peace on earth, let it begin with TBE. A nation turns its lonely eyes to us.
As if on cue, literally just now I received an email from TBE congregants who are at Mt. Everest today. I share below a photo taken literally at the top of the world. We can’t help but set our sights high – and with that, maybe also our hopes. The road ahead will involve a steep climb, but the view from the top lets us know how magnificent is the gift that we have been given and how wonderful it is to be alive
At services this evening, we will pray for our country and yes, that means we will pray for our – yes, our – President-elect to succeed in unifying the nation. Let’s hope the period ahead will be one of continued strength, security, inclusiveness, compassion, prosperity and peace for America, for Israel and for the world.