Sunday, May 27, 2012

Keep Politicians Out of the Sanctuary

by Jonathan S. Tobin

A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

Religious institutions with tax-exempt status are forbidden from conducting partisan activities, but this is a rule that is often observed in the breach in some communities, especially where one party predominates. The use of inner city African-American churches as platforms for Democratic politicians seeking to mobilize voters is a tradition that few question. The same is true in some evangelical churches for conservatives. That predominantly liberal American Jewish institutions would be tempted to play the same game is hardly surprising. But though Republicans are a minority in most Jewish communities, they still exist. In the case of Temple Israel, 85-year-old philanthropist Stanley Tate, the co-chair of the Romney campaign in Miami-Dade county is, or was, a member and asked to be able to respond to Wasserman Schultz’s remarks. When he was told that he couldn’t, he quite understandably resigned from the synagogue. Faced with the choice of losing a cherished and generous member, or an appearance by DWS, the temple discovered a “security problem” that forced their cancellation of the congresswoman’s visit.

Tate will be criticized for throwing his weight around and so will the temple leadership (the president is a prominent Democrat) for caving in to him. But Tate should never have been put in that position to begin with. Synagogues and churches should stay away from allowing their services to be commandeered by partisans, especially during a presidential election in which the considerable Jewish vote in Florida may be up for grabs.

The problem here though is not just poor judgment on the part of Temple Israel but the assumption on the part of many liberal Jews that there is no difference between their faith and their political party. Though the old joke persists that Reform Jews define Judaism as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, Republican and independent members of Reform synagogues are rightly under the impression that they are there to practice their faith, not cheer for the Democrats. While we don’t blame Wasserman Schultz for seeking any opportunity to address an audience, Temple Israel owes Tate an apology. Other religious institutions similarly tempted to play politics in this manner should take a lesson from their embarrassment and resolve to keep partisanship out of the sanctuary at least until November.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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