HomeSeptember 2012Season of Choices

Season of Choices

The High Holy Days are approaching, and every Jew’s thoughts turn to the meaningful issues of the day.  Possibly because “we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Jewish people identify with the downtrodden, the less fortunate, the outcast.  They ally themselves with a variety of causes, they contribute money and they take positions in far larger numbers than their percentage of the population would indicate.

Desiring to do good, Jews take stands on social issues in the voting booth.  Perhaps because the Democratic party is considered to be synonymous with entitlements that provide government solutions to social problems, the “Jewish vote” tends to be overwhelmingly on the “blue” side of most national elections.  Will the selection of Paul Ryan – who has proposed changes to these entitlements to prevent federal government coffers from running dry in the future – as the Republican running mate, create problems for Jewish voters?
On the other hand, some Jews are making the case that Republicans are offering a stronger solution to not being strangers in the land of Israel.  According to JTA’s Daniel Treiman (Capital J, August 16), the Israel Democracy Institute/Tel Aviv University poll found that 40 percent of Israeli Jews believe that, of the two candidates, Republican candidate Mitt Romney “assigns more importance to defending Israel’s national interests” versus almost 19 percent for President Barack Obama, a Democrat.  Another 10 percent said that both care to the same extent, while remainder of respondents said they did not know or declined to answer.”  Do these sentiments mirror those of American Jews?
Another major issue in the upcoming national election is the economy.  Many people – Jews and non-Jews alike – are not better off than they were four years ago.  Is President Barack Obama doing enough to fix a bad situation he inherited?  Does challenger Mitt Romney have a better solution?  The blame game is easy, and the solutions are tough.
Finally, there is the question of religion.  Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith – and the alleged desire of some Mormons to baptize people, including Jews who died in or survived the Holocaust – is an issue for some voters.  Barack Obama’s early education in an Islamic school, his longtime association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his relationship with Former President Jimmy Carter and his assertions about the oppression of Palestinians, are grounds for concern among others.
In swing states, such as Florida, that can determine the outcome of the election in the electoral college, elderly Jewish voters may be weighing their perceived notion of Medicare and Social Security reform with their opinion of which party or candidate is the stronger ally of Israel.  Other swing states such as Ohio, where the economy is especially dismal, may be subject to voters who put their financial health above the other factors.
According to Harvard School of Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a liberal Democrat who agrees with the President’s domestic policies and takes some exceptions to his Israel policies, “It is imperative that this election not be turned into a referendum over Israel’s security in which a vote for the Republican candidate is seen as a vote in favor of Israel’s security, while a vote for the Democratic candidate is seen as a vote against Israel’s security.”
As Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, wrote, “Liberals are predicting Florida will be where they will best be able to stampede elderly Jews away from the Republicans, worries over Israel notwithstanding.  The issue was not whether Obama could hold onto more than 50 percent of Jewish votes, but how much of the 78 percent he got in 2008 would he be able to retain.  The most optimistic estimates of the Democrat vote will keep him in the mid-60s, with his share of Jewish ballots in Florida probably being even lower.  But Democrats are hoping that some of those Jews defecting from their ranks will start to slink back to Obama due to fears over the future of Medicare.”
What is a Jew to do?  If, indeed, one’s Jewish values play a role in every action, how does one resolve competing Jewish interests?  How do we define Jewish values? Do we get our news from the media, and how do we know that the reporting is unbiased?
There is no question that everyone will be talking about the election throughout the fall.  Some of us will hear about it – with emphasis on issues as opposed to candidates – from the pulpits of their synagogues during the High Holy Days.  Other congregations eschew political talk on the pulpit to preserve the decorum of the occasion and avoid the inevitable contention.
Local congregations and organizations will also be sponsoring candidate forums and other opportunities to learn what might be at stake in the coming election.  Rabbis, pundits and others are quick to point out that the Presidential election is only part of the story.  There are many critical issues on the California ballot, and everyone should be aware of the pros and cons.
While there are many differences of opinion on candidates and issues, this is clearly a season of choice.  People should become and informed about and act on those choices.  It is, after all, the Jewish thing to do.

Politics from the Pulpit
We asked rabbis how they feel about incorporating politics
into their High Holy Day sermons. Here are their answers.

I’m firmly of the belief that our Jewish values ought to help shape our choices in life and that includes choices relating to the wider world and politics.  As a rabbi, I do not see it as my role to advocate for a particular party or candidate from the pulpit but rather to help frame issues of the day through a Jewish prism.  Sometimes there is one clear Jewish perspective on an issue, and at other times Jewish voices come down on multiple sides.
For me it’s about helping folks incorporate Jewish wisdom into the complex decisions we need to make every day.
– Rabbi Gersh Zylberman,
Temple Bat Yahm, Newport Beach

I plan on avoiding politics per se (no sense in losing our 501(3)(c) status after only being here a year).  But where I might go is to teach about certain Jewish values that come into play in the country about this time we live in.  How to deal with those less fortunate, tzedakah, personal responsibility, being a mensch in a place there aren’t any, how to treat those who believe differently from us and the promotion of human dignity.  Anyone who wants to can read the current political landscape into these values and others.
– Rabbi Joel Berman,
Temple Beth Emet, Anaheim

Our congregation knows that the rabbi separates his political views and his background as a former high-stakes commercial litigator, and now a law professor, from his role as spiritual leader.  In our shul, I never ever advocate partisan politics from the pulpit.  If people want to know my views on issues of the day, they can visit my personal website at or google my name, and they will find enough reading material and views to keep them occupied until the following year’s High Holy Days.
People come to shul to engage their Jewish souls and reach beyond their grasp towards something holy and spiritual, not to get a glorified book review or op-ed column.  They want to learn something deeper and to hear something more eternal: “What is life itself about?  Is there still time and hope for me to make my life as meaningful as I thought it would be when I was younger?”
– Rabbi Dov Fischer, Young Israel
of Orange County, Irvine

I feel that politics should be off limits during the High Holidays.  Many Jews come to services one time a year.  It’s a time to inspire them with a positive message about Jewish tradition and the human challenges they face.  It’s easy to make a political speech; however I do not think that it is the time or the place.  Our job is to instill Jewish values and to uplift those who attend services.
– Rabbi David Eliezrie, North County Chabad Center, Yorba Linda

Judaism is not a political party.  Here in Orange County my hope is that all Jews would affiliate with and choose to become part of a caring community, a holy community that can engage multiple voices on any given issue including political issues.
Religion in the public square or bringing the public square into religion is not simple in today’s times.  To maintain tax-exempt status, all non-profit organizations (synagogues and others) may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office or use their organization’s resources in partisan campaigns.  It is possible to hold a forum or series of forums with candidates from all parties included.  When an invitation is extended to only a single candidate, it narrows the community’s focus and stifles discussion as if God or Judaism favors one candidate over another.
– Rabbi Dennis Linson,
Temple Judea, Laguna Woods

While our congregation likes to engage in political issues, we focus on the importance of understanding the issues.  We don’t intend to endorse a candidate.  We never use the pulpit for that.  We talk about the importance of voting and having a realistic perspective on the election without elevating or demonizing either candidate.
– Rabbi Arnold Rachlis,
University Synagogue

Election 2012 Forum:
What’s at Stake for Jews, America and Israel?

On September 28 at 8 p.m., following services at 7 p.m., the American Jewish Committee (AJC) will hold with University Synagogue a public forum on the issues facing the 2012 presidential election.  This non-partisan forum of noted speakers and writers will debate at the synagogue the significant domestic and global issues of the day.  As the forum AJC held in 2004, this forum will provide a venue for the Jewish community to discuss its varying positions.
Speakers will be David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc; and Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSULA.  Moderator, Rabbi Marc Dworkin, director OC AJC, will be the moderator, and Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue will offer the introduction.
“This forum is an opportunity for the OC Jewish community to have a civil dialogue on the important issues facing us,” said Rabbi Dworkin.  “It is our chance to hold a dialogue as a community without partisan rancor.”
As Rabbi Rachlis explained, “Each speaker will talk for 15 or 20 minutes about the issues at stake for Jews, Israel and the world.  They are both centrists who will talk about what each of the candidates offers the Jewish community.  Then people will have the opportunity to question the speakers on the positions expressed by the candidates and get more information on where they stand on Israel, domestic policy and other issues.”
Rabbi Rachlis clarified that the forum is not a debate, because “that would not be the right atmosphere for Shabbat.”  He said that “no issue is off the table as long as it’s raised in a respectful way.”
In March, 2012, AJC conducted a survey of American Jewish opinion to determine what are the most significant issues facing Jewish voters.  The survey asked what are the three most important issues to you in deciding how you will vote in the 2012 presidential election?  Eighty percent of the respondents put the economy first, and fifty-seven percent put health care in the top three issues.  Come November, will these issues be predominant for the Jewish vote, or will Israel, Iran and national security?  How important will social issues be to Jewish voters as they are offered clear and distinct perspectives of the candidates?  Will the Jewish vote follow historic patterns, or is this the year we will see change?


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