A local pro-Israel organization sent out a call for action — a request to thank President Donald J. Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
A local yeshiva high school passed it on to its students.
Nobody involved expected that would be deemed newsworthy by the Jewish Standard. Let alone the Jewish wire service JTA. Let alone Haaretz. Let alone Newsweek.
They forgot one thing: In the era of Trump, everything is different. Even, or perhaps especially, support for Israel.
Israel advocacy often involves flattering politicians. But given America’s sharp political polarization, is it still unquestionably bipartisan to send an email thanking the president for his “faithful service as our nation’s leader”? Can pro-Israel engagement with a partisan politician be nonpartisan in this environment?
So how did a request to send a prewritten emailing thanking Mr. Trump for his announcement recognizing Jerusalem make headlines around the world?
The answer tells much about the tensions roiling beneath the surface of the area’s modern Orthodox community — and perhaps the particular perils of being the Frisch School in this particular moment.
The Paramus high school, after all, is famous now in the world beyond Bergen County as the high school of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has been tasked with solving problems as varied as Middle East peace and the American opioid epidemic. The other Orthodox Jew close to the White House, Jason Greenblatt of Teaneck, who heads Trump’s team negotiating for Israeli-Palestinian peace, was a board member at Frisch until he took this post.
But there is a minority of parents who are, often privately, not on Team Trump. And to many of them, Frisch crossed the line from pro-Israel to pro-Trump last week when Rabbi David Sher, Frisch’s director of Israel education and advocacy, emailed students about a campaign launched by Norpac, the Englewood-based pro-Israel political action committee, asking them “to personally thank President Trump for his decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and to begin the process of moving the embassy there.
“This move was heavily criticized and it is therefore important that each person who believes that the president made the right decision have their voice heard,” he continued. “We are therefore encouraging every student who believes that the president’s decision was correct to contact the White House with words of support. It will take approximately 2 minutes of your time.”
The email included a sample letter thanking the president “for the courageous leadership you demonstrated by formally proclaiming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and initiating steps to move the US Embassy. This action fulfills the commitment made by Congress in the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. President Trump, you have displayed leadership and strength among the nations by formally recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the State of Israel.”
The model letter continued, “We appreciate your commitment to follow the wishes of the American people and your faithful service as our nation’s leader. We are grateful for your unwavering support of Israel, America’s greatest ally.”
For Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake, the letter-writing campaign simply was a thank you to a politician who had supported Israel and a policy that the Jewish community and Congress had advocated for more than 20 years. Norpac is nonpartisan; Dr. Chouake noted that Norpac leaders serve as finance chairs for both Democratic and Republican politicians.
“I’m not worked up,” said one Frisch parent who is opposed to Trump but did not want his name used. “In all honesty, schools do this stuff all the time. I remember being asked to write letters when I was in high school.”
Frisch’s principal, Rabbi Eli Ciner, emphasized in a statement to JTA that such advocacy on behalf of a policy affecting Israel was standard operating procedure at the school. (Rabbi Ciner did not reply to the Standard’s efforts to contact him. Frisch was closed this week for winter vacation. )
“As a religious Zionist school, we encourage our students as civic-minded American citizens to write to the administration when they agree or disagree with the government’s policies regarding the State of Israel,” Rabbi Ciner said in the statement. “In this particular case, many of our students strongly supported the president’s decision recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”
But for some Frisch parents, this crossed the line into pro-Trump behavior. One of them posted her upset on a secret Facebook for Orthodox Trump opponents. Other parents joined in. Some made their displeasure known to the Frisch’s administration.
Ninety minutes after the email from Rabbi Sher, a second one went out, this one from Rabbi Ciner, emphasizing that writing to the White House was “entirely voluntary and should be done only if you agree with President Trump.”
That might have been the end of the story had the anger been shared in emails and private conversations. But Judy Maltz, who is a reporter for Haaretz and also was one of the nearly 2,000 members of the secret Facebook group, published a story about the local controversy, headlined, “Kids at Kushner’s Old High School Were Urged to Write Letters Sucking Up to Trump — and Parents Are Fuming.”
From there, the story jumped to Newsweek, which beneath the headline “Jared Kushner’s High School Is Making Children Write Letters Of Support To Donald Trump” referred to the coed, modern Orthodox high school as “ultra-Orthodox.”
The next day came the backlash, with NorthJersey.com proclaiming: “Critics say Jared Kushner’s Paramus alma mater ‘unfairly targeted’”
The paper quoted Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, as saying Frisch “was unfairly targeted. The reports in the media were political.”
But one parent who opposed the original email insisted that there was no effort to target the school.
“Nobody wanted to hurt the school,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That is why we were having the discussion in the secret group. People in the group were having a principled discussion about what to do. That is why we were so upset the journalist didn’t tell us she was basically lurking in the discussion, taking our comments without asking us.”
This parent said the outrage at the letter-writing-request, which she said extended beyond the people who directly contacted the school, reflected dismay at two other recent incidents.
The first was a talk Mr. Greenblatt gave at Frisch last month, after the Jerusalem declaration. “It was supposed to be apolitical, but it’s hard for that not to look like Trump support,” she said.
She was particularly offended by Mr. Greenblatt telling the Frisch students that “they couldn’t believe everything they read in the media.” She said that he repeated the mantra of “fake news” with which the president has brushed aside allegations and investigation.
“That really bothered me,” she said. “He’s just feeding the distrust of the media that’s part of the president’s propaganda thing.”
And it came, she said, in the “disturbing” context of “the president needing his ego stroked.”
That context had been set by Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. “I did ask my congregants to thank the president for his Jerusalem announcement,” Rabbi Adler wrote in an email. “I believe that despite someone’s shortcomings, if that individual did something beneficial for you personally (such as Rubashkin) or Am Yisrael he deserves a thank you.
“I heard (though I can’t verify it) that Jason Greenblatt reported that while Jewish communal organizations were forthcoming with letters of appreciation, the president was surprised that individuals weren’t as forthcoming .
A version of what Rabbi Adler told his congregation on the subject, posted by a Trump supporter, said that Mr. Greenblatt indicated that it is “important to this president in particular” that people in the community show gratitude for his actions.
“It was disturbing, the president needing his ego stroked,” the Frisch parent said. “What do we have to do, kiss the czar’s ring?”
But why is it such a big deal to thank the president for doing something right?
“My question really is, was there a letter-writing campaign to thank President Obama for the Iron Dome?” the Frisch mother said. “All I remember from the Obama years was people speaking out about the Iran deal, criticizing Obama.
“And these are unusual circumstances. This is not just any president. This is the president who a week ago made these horrific comments” about immigrants from other countries.
“Schools can’t say we’re apolitical so we’re not going to address the president’s bullying and lying and racism, and at the same time ask the kids in your school to write emails of gratitude for faithful service to the country. Something’s wrong with that. The message to the kids is that all those things don’t really matter because all we care about is that Jerusalem is the capital. If that’s all Judaism is supposed to be about for our kids, we’re really making a mistake. It has the potential to turn off a lot of kids from Judaism totally. And a lot of adults,” she said.
Rabbi Ozer Glickman of Teaneck agrees that the original Frisch email was a mistake, and he told Rabbi Ciner so. Rabbi Glickman, a former vice president of the Frisch board of trustees, is the father of five Frisch graduates and the grandfather of a Frisch student. He is a rosh yeshiva, teaching Talmud at Yeshiva University.
“Many Jews argue that it is simply a matter of hakarat hatov, acknowledging when someone has done something good,” Rabbi Glickman said. “I concur that the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s declared capital is long overdue. I believe, however, that the timing of the letter-writing campaign was unfortunate. It coincided with commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. during an episode in which the president was reported to have used racist speech. Soliciting students to write letters on behalf of Israel when many American citizens are troubled by apparent racism betrays a certain tone-deafness that sometimes afflicts the Orthodox community. It says that we don’t care what someone says or does as long as they look out for our interests. That’s a terrible message.
“In conversation, Rabbi Ciner understood this point. It wasn’t the school’s intention. I believe him and remain a supporter of the school. I do think, though, that the school needs to exercise better judgment in the future.”