Why Swing State Rabbis Are Avoiding Politics Over High Holy Days

(JTA) — 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.”

This year, with the presidential election looming just one month after Yom Kippur, Gaber will pick a much more pareve topic for his High Holidays 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 on the High Holidays, 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. Instead, when the rabbis address hundreds or thousands of congregants on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they will encourage them to have compassionate conversations. Or they will talk about how the winner — Republican or Democrat — can be a moral leader after Election Day.

“How possible is it to govern and to do so with honesty and with sensitivity?” asked Rabbi Richard Birnholz of the Reform Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Florida, floating a potential sermon topic. “I need to be a rabbi to my people. It’s very easy to have politics or ideology — side taking — 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 survey data of sermons at churches across the country. An August survey by the Pew Research Center 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.

Rabbis in all four states said their synagogues had significant populations of voters for both parties. Some said political discourse had made the atmosphere at synagogue tense, while others don’t feel the pressure. 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, who graduated rabbinical school this year. “So much advertising, so much attention from the campaigns. I think it happens everywhere, but I think any rhetoric that might fuel the elements behind that stuff will certainly be present here, and at a fever pitch by November.”

When they aren’t at the pulpit, rabbis from swing states 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.

Gaber wants to work with the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council to educate congregants about election issues. In December, he and Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of the nearby Reconstructionist Congregation Kol Emet signed a statement by the Bucks County Rabbis’ Council denouncing Republican nominee Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been in my lifetime,” Boswell-Levy said of the national political climate. “I think that the way Trump speaks is incredibly troubling, and people react to it in very strong ways — whether they’re appalled or disgusted by him, or whether they feel that their views are validated by him.”

And rabbis have also discussed politics throughout the year in smaller prayer services. Boswell-Levy feels she can address sensitive issues such as the global refugee crisis or protests in Ferguson, Missouri, at Friday night services, which draw a smaller crowd than the High Holidays.

Rabbi Yechiel Morris of the Young Israel of Southfield, an Orthodox congregation in suburban Detroit, criticized Trump earlier in the campaign and drew backlash. Sermonizing against Trump again during the High Holidays would be pointless, he said, as “you don’t need to repeat yourself.”

“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. “There were some members who felt I should not have highlighted that one particular candidate.”

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of the Conservative Congregation Beth Ahm, also in suburban Detroit, also 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.”

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