Back in May, I wrote about the controversy that ensued when a Miami synagogue invited Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak at a Friday evening Sabbath service. When members protested about the hijacking of a religious observance for partisan purposes, Miami’s Temple Israel disinvited her, leading to some spurious charges that local Republicans had “bullied” the shul. As Bryan Schwartzman of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent reports, DWS is back in the news this week for another synagogue appearance, this time at Reform Congregation Knesseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and again, Republicans are complaining.
While this event is far more defensible than the Miami appearance, it still raises some important questions about the way religious institutions get dragged into partisan politics. With polls showing President Obama losing popularity among Jewish voters, Democrats are going all out to try to prevent a precipitous drop in support in this otherwise solidly liberal community. Which means synagogues are on the front lines of a nasty partisan argument that they would do well to avoid.
We should specify first that there is a big difference between the Miami dustup and the one that is stirring in Pennsylvania. The Elkins Park event is scheduled for a Monday evening and is not part of a synagogue religious observance, meaning that Wasserman Schultz won’t be speaking from the pulpit. The synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Lance Sussman, is doing his best to represent the event, which will also feature local Jewish Democratic politicians, as informational. (Full disclosure: I am a member of a Conservative synagogue that shares space at the Knesseth Israel building but is not a co-host of this event.) Sussman, a respected historian, also says he thinks it’s better to hold two separate events in which the major parties will conduct outreach to the community rather than hosting a debate at which the two sides can have at each other.
There is something to be said for that point of view, but the problem is that very little if any effort seems to have been made to schedule a Republican event at the synagogue and, as of this writing, there is nothing in the works. So while the synagogue’s intention may not have been to create the impression of a partisan endorsement, at least for the moment, that is exactly what has happened.
Appearances aside, some question whether the synagogue providing a venue for what is, for all intents and purposes, a partisan political rally, is appropriate or a violation of their tax exempt status. While witch hunts aimed at punishing non-profits for perceived partisanship should be avoided, part of the specific problem here is that, as Adam Kredo reports in the Washington Free Beacon (who obtained an invitation to the event), rather than the Wasserman Schultz appearance being part of a program organized by the synagogue, it appears to be directly staffed by President Obama’s campaign. Theoretically, a Republican event, should one ever occur, could be similarly run by the Romney campaign or its Jewish surrogates. But even if that is true, the spectacle of a political party taking over a religious institution — as opposed to renting its catering hall or public area—is unsettling.
In its defense, Knesseth Israel, which is the largest synagogue in the region, believes it has an obligation to provide programming for its members about important issues where they can hear directly from newsmakers rather than hearing it through the filter of the media. They are right about that. But this is not just one event in a lecture series in which a number of different points of view or issues will be heard. It is a one-off political rally.
It has become all too commonplace for religious venues to become partisan outposts during election years. Sunday services at inner city African-American churches are regular campaign stops for Democrats. Republicans have used evangelical churches in other areas for similar purposes. That is wrong no matter who is the offender. While religious institutions should not be aloof from politics and issues, they should be careful about crossing the line into partisanship. Unlike the Miami dustup, this event falls into a gray area rather than an expression of open partisanship. But given the close identification of Reform Judaism with liberal stands on most of the political issues of the day, all Reform synagogues need to be doubly careful not to reinforce the movement’s proverbial image as a group whose definition of Judaism is the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. That is not a fair characterization of Reform Judaism, but when synagogues blunder into partisan thickets, they can’t be surprised when they wind up in the middle of disputes in which they have no proper place.