Ahead of Trump inauguration, a grassroots movement of rabbinic ‘resistance’ sprouts
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'Jews have learned the lessons of the past. Silence in the face of encroaching hatred is not an option'

Ahead of Trump inauguration, a grassroots movement of rabbinic ‘resistance’ sprouts

With calls for an #InaugurationFast, liberal American rabbis navigate political and spiritual waters to lead their flocks in protest of the incoming administration

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World editor.

Pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators protest in front of Trump Tower on November 20, 2016, in New York. (AFP/KENA BETANCUR)
Pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators protest in front of Trump Tower on November 20, 2016, in New York. (AFP/KENA BETANCUR)

‘Friday, January 20th will be the day democracy dies, unless we rise up and resist. We must not let it happen. #TheResistance #DemForce”

If the Trump campaign was straight out of reality TV, the blowback “resistance” movement has borrowed its share from Hollywood as well. With the inauguration of Donald Trump approaching, the movement is filling social media with hot Twitter hashtags and slick shareable memes, breathless news of which Democratic Congressmen are skipping Friday’s event (some 50 to date), and other means of “defeating” the incoming president.

Jewish Americans, too — overwhelmingly liberal Democrats, with some 71% voting for Hillary Clinton in November — are not shy about expressing their personal and political apprehensions. After months of racist and other unsavory rhetoric by Trump supporters, and with the incoming administration’s wildcard potential to harmfully impact liberal social policies, the dismay felt by many American Jews is palpable.

A growing grassroots movement of concerned rabbis reflects their flocks’ dissatisfaction. In their calls for “Jewish resistance,” online and in the streets, the rabbis’ protest movement goes beyond hashtags and Facebook event pages. These religious leaders are staking their reputations and careers to speak out against Trump. They see themselves as “fulfilling a sacred duty.”

‘What are we resisting? The attack on democracy in favor of tyranny’

The motivation behind their protest movement is stated simply by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of Minnesota: “What are we resisting? The attack on democracy in favor of tyranny.”

From decrying the participation of an Orthodox rabbi in the inauguration ceremony to declaring an interfaith fast day coinciding with Friday’s inauguration, these rabbis are navigating political and spiritual waters to lead their flocks in the new Trump era.

In a series of conversations with liberal rabbis on the front lines, they explain their motivations and goals in “resisting” the Trump administration.

Rabbi Hier gets no pride from the tribe

For the first time since 1985, a rabbi will stand on the podium and deliver a blessing at the inauguration of the president of the United States. But since today’s states are barely united, it is no surprise that what would otherwise be a source of pride has turned into yet another divisive force in Jewish America.

Is part of the scorn heaped on Hier by liberal American Jewry because he is an Orthodox rabbi? Pre-election surveys predicted some 50% of Orthodox Jews would vote for Trump. According to exit poll figures, at least 39% did, although Jewish history Prof. Samuel Heilman would put the figure higher.

As Heilman wrote in a November Haaretz oped, “the divide between the Orthodox and all other American Jews in their voting patterns was confirmed in the 2016 elections no less than was the divide in America as a whole.”

In 2007, Rabbi Marvin Hier was described by Newsweek in its annual “America’s Top 50 Rabbis” special as “one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head.” A two-time Academy Award winner for his work in film, 77-year-old Hier is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In addition to its international museum operations, the center is a watchdog for racism and the portrayal of the history of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Marvin Hier speaking at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., March 24, 2015. (JTA/Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)
Rabbi Marvin Hier speaking at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2015 National Tribute Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., March 24, 2015. (JTA/Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)

Perhaps through his ties with the family of Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, Hier was invited last month to offer up a prayer at Friday’s inauguration. Not long after his acceptance, a Change.org petition was created by American Jews who felt betrayed that Hier, a champion of human rights, would align himself with the “racist” Trump administration. It has garnered 3,200 signatures to date, asking Hier to rescind his acceptance and not “normalize Trump’s promotion of intolerance.”

Hier, a one-time consensus hero, has been publicly “rebuked” by community rabbis on social media and email.

This week, Conservative Rabbi Brent Spodek, spiritual leader of New York’s popular Beacon Hebrew Alliance, was one of many to publish a letter to Hier describing “terrible grief and confusion” at the respected older rabbi’s decision.

Conservative Rabbi Brent Spodek, spiritual leader of New York's popular Beacon Hebrew Alliance (Meghan Spiro / philasophia.com)
Conservative Rabbi Brent Spodek, spiritual leader of New York’s popular Beacon Hebrew Alliance (Meghan Spiro / philasophia.com)

The letter Spodek shared speaks of fears of the “idolatrous” incoming administration and “rebukes” Hier for his benediction

Spodek, a former journalist, has been eloquently outspoken in his outrage over Trump’s election. In an email conversation with The Times of Israel this week, Spodek said his community backs his social conscience, saying, “The issues raised by Trump are well beyond synagogue politics.” Further, he said, the Talmud teaches the imperative of “protesting against the transgressions of the entire world.”

But, in a quick phone call with The Times of Israel this week, Hier said he “vigorously” disagrees with those calling for him to rescind his acceptance. In participating in Trump’s inauguration, he says, he is working on behalf of the Jewish people in this divisive time of increased anti-Semitism.

Those rabbis who are “resisting” the Trump administration, said Hier, “have their point of view, and I of course vigorously disagree.”

‘What they’re asking for is not legitimate’

“My main reason for participating in the Trump inauguration is because what they’re asking for is not legitimate,” said Hier. An election was held, he explained, and a president was decided upon. “They’re acting like it’s still going on,” he said, astounded.

“What they’re saying [in calls for ‘resistance’] is we’re still in the voting season — that they want to kick him [Trump] out. They’re totally out of whack with the Clintons, the Obamas and and the Bush families, who will be seated on the podium, showing the whole world that the election is over,” he said.

Further, he said it “would be an insult to the country of which I am a citizen” to have turned down an invitation to offer a prayer for the new president.

Said Hier, as the first Orthodox rabbi to participate in any inauguration, especially in an era of increased anti-Semitism, to reject the offer would only feed hatred and misconceptions about Jews and be a “slap in the face” to the American people.

An inaugural fast day for an inauguration

The Trump campaign’s detractors use imagery of the rising Fascism in 1930s Nazi Germany when speaking out against the president-elect. For his part, Trump fans those fears, as discussed in a lengthy National Review piece, through his admiration of past Communist governments’ “strong hand,” his obsession with looks, brains and genetic superiority, and many other inflammatory statements.

American Jews are sensitive to all things Holocaust. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans, “Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness.”

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, the senior rabbi at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota (courtesy)
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, the senior rabbi at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota (courtesy)

This mix of Holocaust awareness and Jewish ethics are part of Rabbi Michael Adam Latz’s motivation for resistance, as seen in a January 15 tweet: “My husband’s parents are German refugees-they escaped the Nazis in 1939. That’s why I’m with #JewishResistance #InaugurationFast #NeverTrump.”

“As Jews, we’ve seen this before — we know what happens when demagogues go unchallenged. His immoral behavior, vile treatment of anyone who disagrees with him, racist appointees, and fundamental lack of decency are not normal partisan squabbles — they are amongst the most morally challenging issues of my lifetime and everyone with a moral conscience, regardless of party, has an obligation to resist normalizing these behaviors and beliefs,” Latz, the senior rabbi at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, told The Times of Israel.

The Conservative movement's executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, stated her reasons for participating in #InaugurationFast in a personalized meme she distributed on social media. (Facebook)
On her personal Facebook page, the Conservative movement’s executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, stated her reasons for participating in #InaugurationFast in a personalized meme she distributed on social media. (Facebook)

The Holocaust as a reason for resistance was alluded to by other rabbis as well. “Jews have learned the lessons of the past. We’ve seen this before. Silence in the face of encroaching hatred is not an option. We must be brave,” said Berkley-based Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor, spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom.

A popular Jewish voice on social media, Latz is one of the driving forces behind a call for an interfaith fast day on January 20, “#InaugurationFast,” a day of spiritual cleansing “as we prepare for #moralresistance.”

Most fast days in the Jewish calendar deal either with repentance, as in Yom Kippur, or with mourning in commemoration of the stages of destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

In conversation with The Times of Israel this week, Latz said, “We are fasting to show that we are preparing to spiritually resist tyranny — to prepare our hearts and souls for the tremendous work ahead to lift up a vision of dignity before a president who tweets with impunity.”

His call is gaining traction, said Latz, among Jews, but also Christians and Muslims are planning to fast on January 20. The Conservative movement’s executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Julie Schonfeld, has heeded the call, and on her personal Facebook page stated her reasons in a personalized meme she distributed on social media.

Head of T'ruah rabbinic network for human rights Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Tamara Fleming Photography)
Head of T’ruah rabbinic network for human rights Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Tamara Fleming Photography)

Banging-the-concrete protest efforts are already ongoing through T’ruah, a network of 1,800 rabbis working for human rights led by Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

In addition to the upcoming activities at the Women’s March this Saturday, Jacobs’ T’ruah is organizing “to resist any policies that violate human rights or civil rights.”

“The fact that this administration has encouraged and tolerated anti-Semitism only reinforces the fact that those who attack other minority groups will also come to attack us,” she added.

“We have already been out on the streets, calling our elected officials, and issuing moral calls to stand up for the rights of all people. In February, this organizing will continue at a national convening at which rabbis will receive training, and will plan specific avenues of resistance,” said Jacobs.

A laundry list of reasons for resistance

The rabbis who spoke with The Times of Israel have a long list of grievances against the incoming administration.

“We are resisting a president that traffics in bigotry and white supremacy (see Steve Bannon and Jeff Session) and sexism and misogyny and stoking the fears of others — Muslims, immigrants, Jews, the disabled — to win an election,” said Latz. “We are resisting the rejection of human decency — especially in our president. We are resisting the atrocious treatment of the free press!

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of 'Nurturing the Wow' (courtesy)
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of ‘Nurturing the Wow’ (courtesy)

“We are resisting the trampling of our constitution and we are resisting the dismantling of a health care program that provides health care to more than 20,000,000 people,” said Latz, a point expressed by most rabbis who spoke with The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the Chicago-based rabbi-in-residence at Avodah, an organization that trains young Jewish adults to become lifelong leaders for social and economic justice.

Echoing Latz, Ruttenberg said she is “speaking up and speaking out, helping to try to frame the Jewish response to this political moment” while “resisting the erosions to our democratic norms that we’re already seeing underway in the Trump administration.”

“I’m resisting the threats — that Trump has made and his cabinet nominations reinforce — to many of our human rights, religious freedoms, freedom of the press, and perhaps liberty… I’m resisting complicity and standing up for democracy and justice,” said Rutenburg, the author of the recent spiritual parenting book “Nurture the Wow.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom and founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. (courtesy)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom and founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. (Courtesy)

Creditor, a vocal Jewish leader on several rights issues and founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, calls for a “robust resistance” over the above issues, and added that “a moral American conscience is aggrieved at the nomination of an attorney general whose racism recently kept him from becoming a judge, at the offensive appropriation during a press conference by the President Elect of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust (and an Oklahoma lawmaker calling that ‘a sense of humor’).”

“I am resisting an unapologetic assault on the better angels of American values emanating directly from a White House soon to be staffed by ideologues and led by a manipulative bully,” said Creditor.

Backlash to flashpoints

Touching on one of the most sensitive points of conflict in the Jewish community over the incoming Trump administration, New York Rabbi Spodek voiced his concerns over the appointment “of an Ambassador to Israel who has a track record of nationalist provocation which I think is against the best interests of both Israel and America.”

With his overt animosity to liberal Jewish groups including J Street, the appointment of long-time Trump friend David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel is hard to swallow by many American Jews. Seen as a supporter of the controversial Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Friedman is widely lauded by supporters of Israel’s center-right government (and the contingent of settler leaders attending the inauguration), and feared by broader left-leaning US Jewry.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L'Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice at a November 2014 immigrant rights protest. (courtesy)
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice at a November 2014 immigrant rights protest. (courtesy)

This conflict hits home with Liberal Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a well-known activist and co-founder of Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek. The Arizona rabbi said it is now almost impossible to be part of American mainstream Orthodoxy — largely Trump supporters — and work for social equality in the US and Israel.

“The main opposition to rabbinic activism against hate is coming from members of the right-wing Zionist establishments and from Orthodoxy who have shown significant support of the Trump administration. It appears that all that matters, to some, is settlement expansion regardless of other global consequences,” said Yanklowitz.

However polarizing the Trump era already is among American Jewry, most of the rabbis who spoke with The Times of Israel are not concerned with a backlash from their communities over their “resistance.”

‘When I become too afraid to stand for the justice of the Torah, it will be time for me to question whether I am still called to be a teacher of Torah’

Writing from ultra-liberal Beacon Hill, Spodek said pushback from his congregation would not slow down his activism. Although his community resoundingly does encourage his activism, “When I become too afraid to stand for the justice of the Torah because to do so would be unpopular with my congregation, it will be time for me to question whether I am still called to be a teacher of Torah.”

Avodah’s Ruttenberg said too many members of the Jewish establishment have taken a “wait and see approach” while quietly attempting to work with the new administration. As a rabbi, she finds this abhorrent.

“The idea that we should allow the government to move forward on the plans it’s been articulating for some time before we speak up is ludicrous. We serve God when we prevent harm from being inflicted. We serve God when we can limit the extent of damage that might be done,” she said.

“So we must stand up for what is right — and as religious leaders, we can model for people what that can look like and show them the ways in which their tradition mandates them to speak up,” said Ruttenberg.

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