Synagogues and Election Season
Many years ago, I went with my parents to Shabbat Evening services. It was October, a few weeks before the upcoming state and Federal elections. It was a warm night in October in Massachusetts, and the lobby doors were open. The democratic candidate for State Senator in the district, George Bachrach, was on the front steps of the synagogue greeting people as they came out of services.
Fast forward to a few years ago. Our synagogue has an annual spring fundraising event that brings out 200 people. During the cocktail hour, one of the candidates for Mayor, Ed Remsen – who isn’t a congregant – had come to the event with a congregant to “work the room”.
To me, George Bachrach had the right idea to connect with voters. While Ed Remsen’s presence at the synagogue raised a few questions.
During the next 8 weeks, we will all be inundated with election emails, direct mail, radio and TV ads. A few weeks ago, I made an online contribution to a Senate candidate from another state. Yesterday alone, I received emails from the candidate, her campaign manager, as well as Nancy Pelosi, James Carville and Barack Obama asking me to support various democratic candidates.
While synagogues cannot endorse candidates, they can serve an important role to educate congregants and the general community on the critical issues related to our Jewish values. The Religious Action Center has some great material on the “Dos and Don’ts” for synagogues regarding elections. Holding candidate forums, creating voter guides and having get out the vote efforts are significant activities your synagogue can do that can impact elections in your community and state.
What about clergy as individuals endorsing candidates? You may recall the many articles back in the late summer of 2012 about “Rabbis for Obama”, when the list of more than 600 rabbis endorsing President Obama’s reelection campaign was announced. These were personal endorsements. There were no sermons in support of President Obama’s election campaign. All seemed kosher with the Internal Revenue Service. Of course there was also much analysis of different rabbis’ views on Israel that also made for good press.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz from Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA wrote a very thoughtful and thorough blog in response to “Rabbis for Obama” titled “Politics and the Pulpit”. In her view, a political endorsement and adding one’s name to the list of “Rabbis for Obama” was similar to endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.
Did you know that Sunday, October 5th has been designated as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”? This is an effort of several Christian organizations to restore the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit without fear of censorship by the government or worrying about jeopardizing their church’s tax-exempt status. This also happened back in 2012 (Rabbi Gurevitz also wrote about this in her blog). This appears to be an attempt to push the Internal Revenue Service to investigate and litigate this issue.
Our Jewish values tell us to not sit on the sidelines. Elections, whether they are local, state, or federal, are opportunities for synagogues and synagogue leadership to play an active role. These are occasions for advocacy on issues and for educational programs that may have impact on election outcomes.