B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan was the site of a rally that drew thousands before the New York City women’s march in January. The synagogue has also set up an action alert list with 200 subscribers to mobilize congregants for protests.
For some of these synagogues, the current activism is just an intensification of a historical tilt toward political engagement. Bnai Jeshurun has a longstanding program to aid New York State farmworkers, while Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., led two trips to aid undocumented immigrants in Texas in 2014 and 2016, before Trump’s election. Synagogues nationwide have long been active on Israel policy, and in the 1970s and 1980s, on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
But some congregants see synagogue-based political action as a step too far. David Horowich, a Reform Jewish businessman from Syracuse who voted for Trump, appreciates Reform Judaism’s cultural and communal aspects. But he feels synagogues shouldn’t be in the business of political advocacy, because it’s not always easy to judge whether policies are successful.
“I haven’t been in favor of coming out with statements that are political, because sometimes they can come back and haunt you,” Horowich said. “I’m open to people expressing their opinions, but you have to wait until it all plays out.”
For those who oppose him, Trump’s policies on refugees and immigration have become a particular focus of synagogue activism. All four religious denominations and several major organizations opposed the first iteration of his immigration ban in January.
In response to Trump’s immigration policies, several synagogues have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. For some synagogues, including Temple Sinai, that means setting aside rooms should undocumented immigrants need a place to live. Others, like Philadelphia’s Congregation Beth Zion-Beth Israel, which is exploring becoming a sanctuary, are holding classes for immigrants and others on immigrant and refugee rights.
“Our religious tradition teaches about not only welcoming the stranger but not oppressing the stranger, and making sure the most vulnerable in our midst has been protected and cared for,” said Temple Sinai Rabbi Jonathan Roos. “The level of fear is at a level unseen during the Obama years, even when the level of deportations was high.”
The push for synagogue activism appears to be spreading. Timoner has held two conference calls with rabbis interested in Beth Elohim’s model. And T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights group, drew 200 rabbis to a conference in February, called No Time for Neutrality, that ended with 19 rabbis getting arrested during a protest in front of a Trump hotel in New York City.
“We have more power, privilege and social capital than we’ve ever had in this country,” said Beth Zion-Beth Israel Rabbi Yosef Goldman.”It’s an opportunity for us to be vigilant about using our power to defend our own community, but [also] to defend those around us who are more vulnerable than we are.”
Posted by Valeria Duek Kosherlat Jewish travel in Argentina and Cuba