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5 Times Beltway Politics Sparked Nastiness at Synagogue

(JTA) — With Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner looking for a spiritual home in Washington D.C., Jews of all political stripes would like to think they could find a nice place to pray.

But it doesn’t always work out like that.

Here are six occasions where politics on Washington’s mean streets seeped into shuls and holiday celebrations, and vice versa.

  • William Safire, the late columnist for The New York Times, in his memoir recalled his annoyance when his synagogue’s rabbi during the Nixon administration issued a call “not to let our country be divided and polarized by those who use the technique of alliteration.” Safire, then a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, helped write Vice President Spiro Agnew’s (in)famous speech excoriating the “effete” that included the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” (For this citation, thanks to Tevi Troy, the former deputy health secretary under George W. Bush, who writing in The Wall Street Journal reviewed the phenomenon of politics insinuating themselves into Shabbat and holiday homilies in 2011.)
  • M.J. Rosenberg, a liberal Jewish activist, in 2006 recollected a disruption during Yom Kippur three years earlier, when the rabbi was delivering a pro-peace process sermon at his shul, Ohr Kodesh, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Charles Krauthammer, a fellow congregant and the conservative Washington Post columnist, started yelling at the rabbi. “People tried to ‘shush’ him,” Rosenberg recalled. “It was, after all, the holiest day of the year. But Krauthammer kept howling until the rabbi apologized.”

  • Joe Lieberman schepped nachas at his congregation, Kesher Israel, and among the wider Jewish community in 2000 when he became the first Jew to make a major national ticket — Al Gore picked Lieberman as his running mate on the Democratic ticket.

Not so much nachas was schepped several years later, when much of the Jewish community soured on President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion — and Lieberman remained one of its most assiduous defenders. “In my synagogues today, we might have Mark the doctor, Jim the journalist and Joe the senator,” Lieberman wrote in his 2011 contemplation of Shabbat, “The Gift of Rest,” before he retired as a senator from Connecticut. “In synagogue, Joe might complain to Mark of a pain in his knee, to which Mark complains to Joe about Joe’s vote on the Iraq war. And there can be feuds. Jim the journalist, who used to write very positively about Joe, has lately been writing some things about Joe that Joe thinks are unfair. Now instead of greeting each other with a hearty ‘Good Shabbos!’ when they pass on the stairs, Joe and Jim merely nod their hellos.”

  • Ohev Shalom’s rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, was famously ejected earlier this year from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference for standing up during Trump’s address and decrying him as wicked. Thus Ohev Shalom is reportedly not on Kushner and Trump’s list. But Herzfeld is adored by his congregants for advancing reconciliation within the synagogue’s walls. That didn’t keep one of them, prominent lawyer Nat Lewin, from denouncing Herzfeld in the Orthodox press in 2008 for the rabbi’s public denunciation of labor practices at the AgriProcessors kosher slaughterer. Lewin, noting his membership at Ohev Shalom and crediting Herzfeld with “electrifying” the community, accused him of “joining the vigilantes” against the business. (Lewin led the defense team for AgriProcessor’s manager.)

  • A year and a half ago, at the annual Sukkot reception at the vice president’s residence, a group of prominent Democrats were chatting when one lamented that he was not invited to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s home for his Rosh Hashanah reception, until then a regular occurrence. Others in the group said they had the same regret. A round of cellphone calls later, it was clear that every Democrat in Congress who had said they would vote to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, which Dermer vigorously opposed, had not been invited. I’ve been told that some Democrats raised the issue with the embassy, and they were told that the emails were sent, but through a server that tended to deliver emails to spam folders.

Here’s the thing: That’s probably true. I recall at that time getting a frantic pre-party call from the embassy asking me to check my spam folder — and there was, indeed, an invitation there. The staffer explained that the embassy was not getting RSVPs and was calling invitees to assure them they were on the list. I did notice a dearth of Iran deal backers at the party that year — and I also noted they were back this year. But the impression, however unfair, lingers among Democrats that Dermer cut them out of what was supposed to be a friendly holiday affair.

That’s D.C. for you. And the political climate is only worse these days. So if Ivanka Trump wants some solace, forget shul. She’s probably better off shoe shopping.

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