The conventional wisdom is that people should avoid three topics in conversation: sex, religion, and politics. But two of those topics are becoming intertwined, according to a recent Synagogue Transformation and Renewal study that found that nine out of 10 rabbis plan to encourage their congregations to vote in midterm elections.
"Political parties are very aware of the role synagogues can play in getting people out to vote," says STAR head Rabbi Hayim Herring.
STAR, a national foundation dedicated to synagogue innovation and leadership development, recently released the results of its first Rabbinic Leadership Survey: Vision 5767. The survey found, in addition to the above figure, that 79 percent of the 100 rabbis questioned from across the country said they are more inclined to back political candidates who are pro-Israel.
The survey also asked which party is more supportive of Israel, to which 36 percent said all parties are equal; 35 percent said Republicans; and 14 percent said Democrats.
As midterm elections draw near, some New Jersey synagogues have hosted political candidates in public forums. Earlier this month, Temple Sholom in River Edge hosted U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger Paul Aronsohn. Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck hosted U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on Sunday. Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston held a discussion with Menendez and his Republican challenger, State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., on Oct. 18. The discussion was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in cooperation with the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Northern New Jersey Region of Hadassah, among others.
"Apparently the political parties are very aware of the role synagogues can play in getting people out to vote," said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR. "Congregations are a huge base for Israel advocacy in terms of rallies, getting people to Israel, letter-writing. This awareness of the role congregations play should catch the attention of the larger community and the political community as well," he said.
The IRS has specific regulations that define just how involved in politics non-profit organizations like synagogues may be. According to the IRS Website, the law labels a 501(c)(3) organization as one "which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." The law does permit religious organizations limited lobbying abilities, as well as the ability to advocate for or against issues within the public arena.
As long as synagogues give equal opportunities to both sides of the spectrum, they are allowed to host political candidates in their facilities for discussions, said Howard Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union.
"There’s politics and there’s policy," he said. "IRS regulations don’t allow any politics in any nonprofit but we’re allowed to do public policy. All streams of Judaism view public policy as something important for us to be involved in."
So long as politicians are discussing the issues and not campaigning, the synagogue may open its doors for them, and even though Israel ranked as a top priority in the survey, there are a variety of topics of interest to the Jewish community today, Herring said.
"The IRS is very clear about guidelines about not making endorsements of specific candidates," he said. "When you look at the gamut of issues today Israel, social welfare, stem cell research rabbis and other clergy are able to talk within those guidelines about what Jewish values say about those issues. Congregants are then free to make their own decisions."
There is a broad range of topics of interest to the Jewish community, agreed Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action, a joint commission of the Union of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
"Certainly Israel is central to our concerns as American Jews, and we bring those concerns into the political arena," Feldman added. "Part of our message is always about support for Israel."
According to the survey, Herring said, rabbis try to balance their focus between Jewish causes, communal focuses like Darfur and the Jewish response to genocide, as well as tikkun olam and rebuilding New Orleans.
Rather than look at the role of politics within the synagogue, Feldman said the more interesting question is, "What is the role of the synagogue in the political arena?"
"For us, bringing our values, our interests and concerns to our elected officials is very important. We encourage our congregations to be engaged, to educate about the issues, Jewish values, and help their members become educated and engaged voters," she said.
Feldman’s counterpart in the Conservative movement said Jewish values are stepping stones to active roles in politics.
"We, as religious Jews, have certain values," said Richard Lederman, director of the Committee on Social Action of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "We have certain social values that we learn from Torah. The synagogue is a place where Jews turn to come to an understanding of our traditional values. It’s an appropriate role for the synagogue to play to help clarify Jewish social values, and if that has an impact on people’s social-political perspectives, then that’s OK."
Feldman agrees with this view and sees politics as part of Judaism’s overall mission.
"We are commanded to create, and creating a society means working with others in the public arena," said Feldman.