Generally speaking, all elections are about change. But the most recent presidential election was different, according to Chizuk Amuno Synagogue’s Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman.
“This election was not about change. It was about fear,” he said. “Fear of Donald Trump. Fear of Hillary Clinton. Fear of the other. Fear of the loss of economic security and unemployment. Fear of loss of identity.
“We are standing in a place of fear.”
Approximately 300 people came to Chizuk Amuno in Pikesville last Wednesday night, Nov. 16, to attend “Debate and Decision: Thinking About the Election with Jewish Values.”
The panel discussion was hosted by Rabbi Shulman and featured Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Congregation in Reservoir Hill; Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein of Owings Mills’ Beth Israel Congregation; and Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville.
The event also featured an election analysis by Dr. Neil Rubin of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University and a Jmore contributor.
Dr. Rubin attributed Trump’s victory to the Republican candidate’s genius for marketing and self-promotion.
“Donald Trump is a very charismatic individual who exudes confidence,” he said. “He understands new technology better than anyone else. He is an amazing marketer. He manipulated all the levers at his disposal. And Trump’s supporters were much more committed to their candidate than were Hillary’s supporters.”
Rabbi Shulman began the program by saying, “Some observers note that the last time our country was this divided, the newly elected president was Abraham Lincoln. But our new president steps into our current cultural breach with much less personal character and national respect.”
Earlier in the week, Rabbi Goldstein noted, Beth Israel celebrated 60th anniversary of its founding. But he said that milestone was largely overshadowed by the results of the election.
“A couple of young parents came forward to tell me that for the first time, they actually hesitated to bring their children to synagogue on Sunday morning,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “They were fearful and worried.”
But Rabbi Goldstein said that those in the community who are concerned about the future need to be proactive and avoid despondency. “We are here to learn how to convert our mourning into meaning,” he said.
Rabbi Goldstein referenced a recent airing of “Saturday Night Live” that began with cast member Kate McKinnon portraying Hillary Clinton and singing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“When Leonard Cohen was asked if anything inspired him to write ‘Hallelujah,’ he responded, ‘I wanted to stand with those who clearly see God’s wholly broken world for what it is and still find the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want, you’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case, it was given to me. For this I am grateful.’”
Rabbi Schwartz said the Torah instructs Jews to stand up to their fears and challenges, and rise to the occasion on behalf of the needy and disenfranchised.
“We have the obligation to be vigilant and to speak up,” he said. “Torah tells us to take responsibility for those who do not have their own voice, for those who are widowed, are poor, all who are marginalized. Why? Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Torah also tells us we have responsibility to tend the Earth for the next generations.”
While some say the president-elect must be afforded a fair chance to prove himself, Rabbi Burg said, “I don’t accept that.
“He has done and said some pretty terrible things,” he said. “He has made acceptable to significant segments of our population xenophobia, Islamophobia, the nativist white nationalist approach, the elevation of Steve Bannon to strategic advisor. These are scary times.”
After the election, Rabbi Burg said he immediately contacted a Muslim colleague. “I told him that the results of this election do not represent the results that we hold dear. We have your back,” he said.
The system of checks and balances conceived and implemented by the Founding Fathers will be severely tested as never before, Rabbi Burg predicted.
“We must remain engaged,” he said. “Talk with people from different walks of life. If you are white, talk to people of color. If you are straight, talk to gay people. We should all look out for people with disabilities, for immigrants. We men need to figure out why it’s OK to speak about and treat women the way they have been spoken about and treated in this election.
“Then, it won’t be Trump nation. It will be our nation.”
In closing, Rabbi Shulman called for vigilance, compassion and determination.
“Stand up for Jewish values, not against an administration. No matter who we voted for, there are issues about which we care,” he said. “Our lives are the lives we conduct in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our work, in our communities. The primary Jewish response is to stand up and live a life of integrity, of justice, of caring and love, and emanating that out. Some of the best things I can do are to guarantee that the values I represent are the values I live.
“This was an election, but it doesn’t define my life and how I live,” Rabbi Shulman said. “As Jews, we will be a light to the nations so we can be seen walking into the world as the kind of people who foster the society we desire. We must double down as a light to the nations.”
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
Photo of Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman and the panel at “Debate and Decision” by Melissa Halpern of Chizuk Amuno
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