Friday, April 16th | 4 Iyyar 5781

October 8, 2019 5:00 pm

An Open Letter to My Rabbi: Please Don’t Politicize Yom Kippur

avatar by Naomi Cohn


Illustrative. Photo: AJN agency.

Dear Conservative New York Rabbi,

I wrote you a note a few days ago about your Rosh Hashanah sermon, but have not received a reply from you.  Therefore I am writing you this public letter.

After listening to your sermon last week, I have decided not to attend your Yom Kippur services.  Members of my family have been involved with your synagogue for close to three decades.  Yet now I no longer feel welcome there.  It breaks my heart to forgo accompanying my family members for Kol Nidrei, the spiritual highlight of the year. But I feel that you have given me no choice.

Your sermon on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the holiest period of the year, was devoid of religious meaning. Instead you expressed your anger at the president and those who voted for him. After listening to your politicized sermon, rather than feeling elevated, I felt diminished.

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On Rosh Hashanah there is always a feeling of exhilaration. I had baked two round challahs for the family dinner the night before and was feeling happy heading out for services. This feeling dissipated  when I heard your talk.

I know you hate Trump. I get it. Believe me. After services, as I waited to wish you a happy new year outside the synagogue, I overheard the congregant in front of me congratulating you on your sermon. And I heard your response:  “what I really wanted to say was, impeach the ——.” I was going to tell you then and there what I thought, but didn’t want to create a scene on Rosh Hashanah, so I just wished you a happy new year.

On this, the holiest day of the year, your job is to provide spiritual guidance, not political opinion. After the service I voiced this opinion to family members. A bitter dispute ensued, followed by angry silence. And just like that, the holiday was no longer happy.

Do not worry, Rabbi. Your message came through loud and clear. Those who do not plan to vote for the Democratic party are not welcome in your synagogue. You are contributing to a corrosive atmosphere where only Democrats feel welcome in Conservative synagogues. This is a dangerous path. Just one of the deleterious effects of this policy is that some families are no longer able to attend services together.

Last year when I attended a bar mitzvah at which you officiated, you explained that one of the reasons to learn synagogue skills is in order to feel comfortable in synagogues anywhere in the world. Yet I am not permitted to feel comfortable in my own synagogue.

I did not vote for Trump. But you accused me and others who disagree with you of being immoral. You spoke about bigotry. I suggest that you might look within your own party, at Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, the governor of Virginia, and many others. Do not accuse me of being a bigot while you support these people. It seems to me that at a time when the Democratic party is moving away from its support of Israel, and two of its leading presidential contenders (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) have taken on senior advisers who support the boycott of the Jewish state, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a rabbi to stand up on Rosh Hashanah and tell his congregation that we are morally required to vote for the Democratic party.

I understand that you are angry about Trump and you want him impeached. What I do not understand is the reason that you feel compelled to use your pulpit in this way. Maybe it makes you feel good. Maybe you think it makes many of your congregants feel good. Maybe you think that in this way you will convince those who disagree with you to vote how you do. But your attempt to ostracize me and others who disagree with you is wrong.

I hope that before Yom Kippur you will consider the destructive effects of your words. Your synagogue is a Jewish institution that has existed since the 1850’s. Its purpose is to serve as a sanctuary, a place of worship for all Jews. Please do not tear our people asunder.

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