Rabbi David Evan Markus is not allowed to get political in his Shabbat sermons at Temple Beth-El of City Island.
That’s not a requirement set by his congregation, which bills itself as “Your Shul By the Sea” and sits on an island in Long Island Sound connected to the Bronx by a lone bridge.
Rather, it’s a requirement of his weekday job as a judicial referee in New York State’s Ninth Judicial District, which encompasses Rockland, Orange, Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties. As a judicial referee, Rabbi Markus, who is a lawyer, presides over civil discovery, settlement, and trial proceedings and writes legally binding decisions. Accordingly, he is bound by all the ethics requirements that apply to judges, including those barring public comment about most matters of political or public controversy.
In determining how these principles apply to a pulpit rabbi presiding as a judge, Rabbi Markus has asked the New York State Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics to apply established judicial ethics rules to a whole new set of very Jewish situations. Rabbi Markus is believed to be the first practicing pulpit rabbi to hold a full-time judicial role at the same time. In response to a question he raised about his situation, the committee ruled he may “teach, preach, and write on Israel-related issues concerning the law, the legal system or the administration of justice, but not on non-legal matters of substantial public and political controversy, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Now, Rabbi Markus hopes to become a full-fledged judge in the Ninth District, serving on New York’s confusingly named Supreme Court (which actually is a lower court, not an appellate court, and is not the state equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court).
The path to a Supreme Court seat runs through a November election conducted on partisan lines for a 14-year term, and perhaps more significantly, an August Democratic nominating convention to which voters will elect delegates. (Do partisan nominations and election seem at odds with judicial standards of nonpartisanship? Yes they do. Does Rabbi Markus want to discuss politics? Only so far as to note that with the initials DEM, perhaps his voter registration was predetermined.)
Rabbi Markus, 49, grew up in Westchester County, and attended the Solomon Schechter day school there. His father, Jaacob, is an immigrant. Born in 1945 in a Displaced Persons camp in Turkmenistan to Polish refugees who had fled east after the Nazis invaded, he grew up in Israel and then came to America in the 1960s. His mother, Mona, was born and raised in Yonkers. Rabbi Markus inherited a love of America and a desire for service from his father, who was always grateful to the country for taking him in. He continued to feel grateful, even after he was severely injured while serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
(Both Rabbi Markus’s parents are alive and live with their son in Briarcliff Manor. “Kibud av v’em means something very direct to me,” he said. “I get to be able to take care of them and keep them safe.”)
After graduating from Williams College, where he studied political science and environmental studies, Rabbi Markus went to Harvard, earning both a law degree there and a graduate degree in public policy from its Kennedy School. He graduated from both those Harvard schools in 2001. After clerking for two years for Judge Albert Rosenblatt on the New York State Court of Appeals, he went to work for New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye.
“She was a visionary,” Rabbi Markus said. “Not only was she New York’s first female chief judge, she was also someone who understood that the structure of our courts needed to be transformed if we’re going to do equal justice for everyone. She gave me an opportunity to help do this.”
After taking a leave of absence in 2008 to become deputy director of voting protection for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he worked for two years as special counsel to the New York State Senate’s Democrats, where he negotiated and drafted legislation. And then in 2011 he took the post as a judicial referee.
But his religious side also exerted a strong pull. Leading Jewish ritual and talking about spiritual matters came naturally to him. After being raised in the Conservative movement, he spent time in the Reform movement. Then, in 2008, he enrolled in Aleph’s rabbinical program, which offered both remote classes and part-time enrollment. That meant that he didn’t have to abandon his legal calling. And at the end of the program, the prospect of a part-time pulpit awaited.
“Maimonides was not a full-time rabbi,” he said. “The Rambam was a doctor in the palace of the king. The notion of the full-time professional rabbi is relatively new. The community I serve and the causes I support in the Jewish community not only don’t need a full-time rabbi. They are best served by rabbis and other Jewish professionals who are fully immersed in the community.”
That said, when after ordination he chose a pulpit, Temple Beth El was particularly appealing because it was about as close to his Westchester home as he could get while still being outside his judicial district, thus drastically decreasing the already slim likelihood that one of his congregants might appear in his courtroom. (Congregants do come from beyond City Island, including Westchester as well as Queens, and since covid added an online dimension to his rabbinate, he has a student attending his Torah study class Zooming in from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean east of Africa.)
Rabbi Markus also is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers.
“I get to help people find meaning in their lives,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything better.”
But he’s also sees his judicial role as directly affecting people.
“I learned first-hand what Chief Judge Kaye taught me 20 years ago: Courts are the emergency room of society. That’s true whether a case presents a family dispute, a business dispute, a medical malpractice claim, an issue of constitutional rights, or seeks to hold power accountable. Courts are like first responders: We need them to be fair, speedy, expert, efficient and kind. Our societal health, and our democracy, hang in the balance.”
He’s proud of the work he did in helping create New York’s first special foreclosure court.
“In 2018, Rockland County had a severe foreclosure crisis,” he said. “It had one of the highest rates of residential foreclosure in the state. I was sent to lend a hand. I came to understand that when cases are delayed it doesn’t help anybody — it doesn’t help the family because the debts rack up; it doesn’t help the communities because sometimes you end up with zombie properties that can diminish safety and property values; and it doesn’t help the banks.
“Every foreclosure is something else in disguise. It’s a death, a divorce, a job loss, or an illness. Whenever somebody was in foreclosure, the odds are pretty good something bad was happening in the family, and that weighs heavily on all of us.”
He said his aspiration as a judge is to “use the law to serve the law’s genuine objective, which is to do justice, allocate rights, impose responsibilities, and hold power accountable. Sometimes the path to justice flows through decisions. Sometimes the path to justice flows through talking with people about their concerns — hearing them deeply — with a clear sense of what’s really going on. It helps to bring the skills of a listener and problem-solver to those cases.”
And as for his pulpit, he said that the restrictions on his preaching imposed by his judicial role proved to be a blessing.
“Rather than focus on outside matters, the judicial ethics rules focus me pastorally on inside matters — matters of the heart, community resilience, ethics, and compassion — tender places that need our focus now especially,” he said. “How can we make meaning and find resilience in a world that needs all we can give?”
Perhaps even better: The ethics rules freed him from fundraising, another judicial no-no. “It makes me perhaps the only pulpit rabbi who can never talk about the proverbial building fund,” he said.