The press release from the Orthodox Union arrived in my inbox yesterday, just moments after the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as secretary of education in the closest, most divisive vote for a Cabinet official in U.S. history. Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the deciding ballot for DeVos, handing the administration a wafer-thin victory.
“We have long supported education policies that empower parents with the resources and choices to ensure their children receive the best education they deem fit for their children,” the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization wrote. DeVos “will be a force for such empowerment and we look forward to working with her to ensure all American children have access to great schools and the opportunity to realize their God-given potential.”
At a time when several Jewish advocacy groups opposed DeVos’s appointment primarily because of her strong support for government funding of religious schools, Orthodox groups were exultant. Aside from the O.U., which offered the newly confirmed secretary a hearty mazel tov, Agudath Israel of America fervently championed her cause.
Turns out Israel is not the only contentious issue dividing American Jews. The Trump administration’s sustained assault on the separation of religion and state is likely only to exacerbate the already wide gap between Orthodox Jews and the more progressive majority that has, until now, dominated the conversation over the role of religion in the American public square. The split over DeVos is but one example.
There’s the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, which pleases Orthodox Jews because of his record on “religious liberty” cases, and displeases their more liberal counterparts for the same reason. “Judge Gorsuch would be a threat to the rights and safety of women and girls and an impediment to the equality of all people,” Jewish Women International warned. “In the Hobby Lobby case, he aligned himself against women and families who rely on insurance coverage of contraception.”
Then there’s the broad hint of action rolling back gay and lesbian rights, and the president’s vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment and allow not-for-profit religious institutions to openly campaign for and fund political candidates.
This dynamic is playing out not only in Washington, but also at the state and local levels. In New York, Orthodox groups have argued that “religious liberty” should permit them to continue performing a controversial circumcision ritual even though it’s proved dangerous, even deadly, to infants. And they have successfully lobbied for more state funding for yeshivas.
All this is happening against a fascinating backdrop of shifting attitudes, where America’s Orthodox Jews — small in number, but increasing rapidly — more closely resemble white evangelical Christians than they do their fellow Jews in the way they vote, worship and raise their children.
It would be tempting, in today’s toxic political environment, for the liberal majority to take to the barricades against any further incursion of religion into the public square, especially when some of it is led by a Trump administration that seems hell bent on destroying the glorious balance of power that has strengthened America for centuries.
And sometimes, absolute resistance is called for. Trump’s declared intention to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which for six decades has prevented churches and other tax-exempt religious institutions from endorsing political candidates, is a horrible idea. It would politicize faith and wreak havoc with the tax code. It also has little public support and would solve no real problem.
Preachers aren’t silenced; in return for neutrality, churches currently receive tax-exempt status and are allowed to disclose nothing about their finances. If members of the clergy want to champion a political candidate from the pulpit, then their churches can also pay taxes and file annual tax returns, like you and I do.
Here in New York City, there was no valid “religious liberty” argument when former mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to modestly regulate the dangerous circumcision ritual known as metzitzah b’peh. Many Orthodox Jews vociferously opposed Bloomberg’s regulation. But the safety of 8-day-old infant boys is far more important than adhering to an ancient ritual that many rabbis discarded long ago.
Government policy toward education, and the Jewish community’s response to it, however, is more complicated.
There were overwhelming reasons to oppose DeVos’s nomination. She was manifestly unqualified for the position, and her incompetent presentation before Congress even cost her support of two Republican senators. Personally, as a Jew and as an American, I have huge qualms about any program — run on the federal, state or local level — that channels money away from public schools and into parochial ones, especially without stringent restrictions and oversight.
But in opposing school vouchers, I can’t ignore the underlying dilemma: How do families afford serious, high-quality Jewish education? This is primarily an issue for the Orthodox, but not exclusively so; in fact, I believe if day schools were more affordable, there would be more non-Orthodox options. The benefits of excellent day schools extend beyond individual families to the entire community: Their graduates disproportionately become Jewish leaders and innovators. For a tradition that prides itself on learning, how can we not support such efforts?
If government shouldn’t support our religious education (or others’), then American Jews must figure out how to use our considerable financial resources to fund and sustain the lifeblood of our tradition.
The Trump administration will continue to try and erode the precious separation of religion and state, not to please the Jews — most of us didn’t vote for Trump — but to shore up its precarious hold on white Christian evangelicals. All these attempts must be resisted, but they all shouldn’t be dismissed.
And we can’t allow the president to further divide our community. He’s destroyed enough already.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.