Petition draws support of local rabbis
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Petition draws support of local rabbis

Clergy pledge to defend civil liberties during Trump administration

From left, rabbis Rachel Kahn-Troster, David-Seth Kirshner, Rebecca Sirbu, Paul Jacobson, and Lee Paskind
From left, rabbis Rachel Kahn-Troster, David-Seth Kirshner, Rebecca Sirbu, Paul Jacobson, and Lee Paskind

The Truah rabbinic petition — with signatories pledging to hold the Trump administration accountable for protecting the human rights and civil liberties of all people — has garnered some 650 signatures, said Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck, the group’s director of programs.

“We want to send a strong message early on that we’re prepared, as a rabbinic community, to stand up for human rights for all Americans,” said Rabbi Troster, a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights. And the document, which is posted on Truah’s website, truah.org, has elicited the support of rabbis from all denominations.

Truah — founded in 2002 as Rabbis for Human Rights in North America and renamed in 2013 — hopes the petition will resonate throughout the rabbinic and cantorial community, “encouraging rabbis to come together as colleagues,” and “put the administration on notice that as a rabbinic community, we will not let other people’s rights be violated,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “Rabbis are the moral voice for the Jewish community. We can’t compromise our values in order to gain access to the administration.”

Indeed, continues the pledge: “For some Jewish leaders, there will be a temptation to accommodate the new administration in the hopes of protecting our own community’s ‘interests.’ As Joseph learned long ago, and as the Jewish community has learned time and time again, proximity to power does not guarantee protection in the long run.”

The document adds: “Jewish history has taught us that fascism arrives slowly, through the steady erosion of liberties. And we have learned that those who attack other minorities will eventually come to attack us. To our great dismay, we learned this truth again when, during this election campaign, anti-Semitism rose to the fore, along with racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia.”

The petition, which Rabbi Kahn-Troster called “a rallying cry for the rabbinic community, gets the message out there,” she said. But after that, “We don’t know what to expect. I think it created a moment of hope and a vehicle for change [at a time] when people are feeling hopeless, and showed rabbinic colleagues that they are not alone in putting forth Jewish values.” It also, she said, “serves as a beacon to the Jewish community in general. We, as Jews, will not let human rights be violated.”

Rabbi David Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said that when he read the petition, “it was a no-brainer for me. This election was different from any one in my lifetime and in modern history. Not different because the country was divided or because it was Democrat vs. Republican, but different because of the nature of the rhetoric and dismissiveness of core decency and Jewish values, by the victor in particular.

“I tremble in fright,” he added. Mr. Trump’s “very first appointment was of someone with fast and loose ties to the alt-right movement,” embracing groups that are anti-Jewish, anti-African American, anti-gay, and xenophobic. “Neither Steve Bannon nor the president-elect has stood up in front of the media or used Twitter to express views pushing back.” On the other hand, Rabbi Kirshner said, Mr. Trump has pushed back in disapproval at the cast members of “Hamilton” when they addressed a statement to vice president-elect and audience member Mike Pence, “as well as at flag-burners and a host of other things.”

“Our responsibility is to hold his feet to the fire to preserve the system of checks and balances, of government of, by, and for the people, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “He can’t go rogue or be above the law.”

He added that “the waters have gotten muddier and more divisive in the Jewish world.” While some Jews believe Trump’s support for Israel is particularly strong, “every person since Truman has been a good president for the State of Israel. The difference between Trump and Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George H.W. Bush is that none of them put support for Israel above human values and decency.

“Some people say that a core element of being a good Jew is unbridled support for the State of Israel, since enemies have driven us out of other nations for centuries,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “Other Jews disagree, holding that the key is to be a light unto other nations precisely because of the way we have been treated. We know what it is to be the other.

“These two groups seem to be at odds over the core element of being Jewish,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “The answer to the question is ‘yes — both of those things.’ It’s not either-or.”

Why did he sign the Truah petition?

“Number one: One day my kids will know what I stood for. Number two: My congregants will know the values I believe in. Number 3: Any candidate today, whether for Congress, Senate, or dogcatcher, knows that congregational rabbis have an impact on great numbers of people. That’s why they seek us out. We speak not as an individual but as a representative of the many. That’s why our names matter.”

Rabbi Lee Paskind of Teaneck, a former congregational rabbi, now acts as a consultant on social justice issues for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The rabbi, who has been instrumental in furthering social justice initiatives in his synagogue, said he does not sign everything put before him, “but I did feel I wanted to sign this.” He acknowledged that some people have expressed the concern that taking any public stand “might put them in the bad graces of the new administration.”

Rabbi Paskind said he suspects that because of the number of signatories, the petition “will have some traction.” He believes that “a lot of people are in jeopardy, or could be in jeopardy, based on much of the president-elect’s rhetoric during the campaign.” Also troubling, he said, was “the way he comported himself, and the way people who supported him treated potentially vulnerable groups. He did not in all cases eschew that behavior — or did so only after some kind of pressure was exerted. He mostly sidesteps stuff like the ad with the six-pointed star. He pooh-poohed that repeatedly.”

“It’s necessary to take a strong stand,” Rabbi Paskind continued. “A lot of things may be happening that are very scary… and many of the appointments to his Cabinet and other positions bear out a lot of my concern. While I would not suggest that he is not the legitimate president-elect, apparently by due process … he has made it clear, and so has his vice president–elect, that he would like to undo most of the positive changes we’ve seen not only in the last eight years but going back to FDR and the New Deal. I don’t think he’ll do all of it, but the feeling of being endangered grows exponentially every week. People who feel that way have a responsibility to take a stand about that.”

“I don’t think there’s one shred of evidence to make people think he would be better on Israel,” Rabbi Paskind added. “He’s 100 percent untried as a politician. He has no clear position. The only good thing was that he did know what Aleppo was. He’s changed his position on so many issues over the course of the campaign. So on the issue of Israel, none of us know anything about what his position will be.” Of course, he said, “this won’t sway people who think Israel is the only issue American Jews can vote on.”

On the issue of civil liberties, Rabbi Paskind said that “so many different groups of people are so much more vulnerable, or afraid they’re vulnerable, in this new era.” He cited the “level of misogyny” Mr. Trump has voiced, calling it “unforgiveable,” and said that the president-elect “has nominated some women who are to the right of Attila the Hun.

“This doesn’t buy him out of the horrible things he has said and allegedly done, or the homophobic and anti-LGBTQ stance of Michael Pence. We’re really dealing with human rights and civil rights,” he said, pointing to the South Carolina decision threatening voting rights. “And there’s no way to think that it will get better, with the Supreme Court judges he’s been threatening to appoint. I never thought Roe v. Wade would be in jeopardy. They want to send women back to alleyways and use coat hangers for abortions. How could that have happened? That’s why I signed the petition.”

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu of Teaneck, the director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, speaks, writes, and blogs on a variety of issues related to religion in America today. She said signed the document “because I am very concerned about some of the ideas President-elect Trump proposed during his campaign, specifically the ideas of having all Muslim immigrants register, and the deportation of immigrants. In addition, I am concerned that Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans, Muslims, women, and other minority groups will lead to legislation that will restrict the rights of minority groups. Discrimination against one group will lead to discrimination against other groups. Therefore, protecting everyone’s human rights is crucially important.”

Concern for others is equally important to Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. “I signed the petition because as a congregational leader, as a Jew, as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a human being who cares for and is concerned for other human beings, I have an obligation to do anything and everything that I possibly can to identify and combat any form of injustice that I encounter in the world — whether that is through my own spoken voice, written word, other acts of advocacy, other congregational initiatives, or by encouraging other people to act,” he said. “I think that signing the petition is only a first step. We have to continually act upon and speak about our beliefs and encourage the protection of all human rights and civil liberties. Signing the petition is simply a gesture of reminding myself and others that I will not be silent.”

Other local clergy members who have signed the petition so far include rabbis Lawrence Troster of Teaneck, now serving a congregation in the Philadelphia area; Debra Hachen of Beth El in Jersey City; Julia Andelman of Teaneck, the director of community engagement at the Jewish Theological Seminary; Jacob Lieberman of Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel in Ridgewood; Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, Meeka Simerly of Beth Tikvah in Wayne, and Cantor Alan Sokoloff of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.

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