Rabbi Dennis Shulman of Demarest is throwing his hat in the ring against U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett in next year’s election. If he wins, in addition to being the first rabbi in Congress, Shulman, who is also a practicing psychotherapist, could bring another unique characteristic to Washington: He has been blind since childhood.
Rabbi Dennis Shulman
Shulman is running on the Democratic ticket against Republican Garrett, who has held the House seat for New Jersey’s fifth district since ‘003. Shulman told The Jewish Standard this week that his two careers have taught him the values of truth-telling and taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Although Israel is "a major concern" for the rabbi, he said his focus would remain on his three platform issues of Iraq, stem cell research, and higher accountability from Washington.
"I felt there’s been a tremendous disappointment in national discussions involving truth-seeking and truth-telling," he said.
While he said he learned the value of truth from his psychological background, he feels that his rabbinical role heavily influenced his decision to run.
"What’s so important about being a rabbi is the basic rabbinic message at least for me that people should take responsibility for their choices and that there are consequences," he said.
Shulman looks to civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as one of his chief inspirations, particularly Heschel’s declaration that it would be blasphemy to talk about God and not about Vietnam. Shulman follows the same philosophy now with Iraq.
"The war in Iraq was extraordinarily misconceived and mishandled," he said. "From a fiscal point of view it is draining our resources."
Although it makes him unique, Shulman doesn’t want to be known as the blind rabbi candidate. He wants the focus to remain on his politics.
"That may be how the media perceives me but I’m hoping they’ll see beyond that category," he said.
Shulman’s blindness came gradually through his childhood. By fifth grade he could read large-print books but by seventh-grade he could read only Braille. By the time he did his undergraduate work at Brandeis, he was completely blind.
While he has found ways to work past his blindness in his practice and in his rabbinical duties, Shulman is aware his handicap could present a greater challenge in Washington.
"I have confidence that if I can become a highly successful psychologist and a well-respected rabbi, teacher, and author that’s what people tell me I can become successful in this new challenge," he said.
He believes that overcoming his other challenges has given him an edge to succeed in Washington.
"I learned a great deal about what it is to struggle," he said. "I have a great deal of respect for people who are going through difficult times."
Shulman began a private psychoanalysis practice in 1979 after receiving a doctorate in psychotherapy from Harvard. He became interested in psychoanalytical perspectives on the Bible 15 years ago. Four years ago, he received private rabbinical ordination and has since split his time between his Demarest practice and teaching at New York’s Jewish Community Project Downtown. In between, he also does weddings and funerals, and since ‘001 he has led a Shabbat minyan in Alpine.
If elected to Congress, he realizes he would have to cut out most of his rabbinical and psychological work, but he would continue to lead the Shabbat minyan. Given the congressional schedule, Shulman plans to return to New Jersey on weekends and work on what he called "the Joe Lieberman principle."
"Like him, I will go in [to the House on Saturdays] if I have to do a vote, but it won’t be a day of campaigning," he said. "Shabbat will be sacred."
Shulman lives in Demarest with his wife, Pamela Tropper. They have two children, Holly, ‘4, who lives in Washington, and Juliana, ‘0, a junior at the University of Chicago.