Rap Videos Okay in Synagogue But Not Politicians

It is often said that politics and religion make strange bedfellows. Strange or not, it is important to remember that politics and religion are bedfellows in just about every nation in the world (some more than others).

I’ve noticed that in the United States, where we have a supposed separation of Church and State, it is often the synagogues that are the only ones concerned about such a separation. I hear rabbis and synagogue leaders express concern about keeping politics out of the congregation because it could jeopardize the institution’s 501(c)3 tax exempt status. While these rabbis are worrying about their nonprofit status, the local churches are allowing political candidates to deliver stump speeches from the pulpit and many churches are notorious for outright endorsing candidates.
Synagogues have always had politicians address the congregation, but in recent years as the American Jewish community has become more politically polarized it has become more commonplace. While this used to occur without incident or at least with only minor dissent, there is now a guarantee of backlash from congregants and lay leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s speaking engagement at a Miami temple was cancelled

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, will speak this evening at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. The congresswoman is speaking at the annual meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit. There hasn’t been any public opposition to Wasserman Schultz’s appearance, but this event is for a communal organization and is not connected to the synagogue.

That was not the case in Miami last week. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was slated to speak at Temple Israel on Friday night, but the day before her appearance was canceled. According to the Miami Herald, the debate about whether the chair of the DNC should be allowed to speak in shul pitted a prominent Republican donor against a prominent supporter of the Democratic Party. At the end of the day, the temple’s president Ben Kuehne decided to cancel Wasserman Schultz’s presentation, but that didn’t stop Stanley Tate from resigning. Tate is a past president of the congregation and a major donor to the Republican party who is the co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Miami-Dade County. Kuehne, the current president, is an attorney who was retained by the Gore campaign back in 2000 during the recount.
What’s interesting is that this is not the first time I’ve written about Miami’s Temple Israel on this blog. In fact, just last month I mentioned Temple Israel as the congregation where Drake’s bar mitzvah music video was filmed. I wonder if either Ben Kuehne or Stanley Tate has heard the lyrics in Drake’s song that was performed on the bimah of their beloved congregation. I would think that would be more offensive than Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaking about the U.S.-Israel relationship on that same bimah on a Friday evening.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearance at a Boca shul this month was met with protests

In his explanation to Temple Israel congregants about the cancelled Debbie Wasserman Schultz event, synagogue president Ben Kuehne cited security concerns rather than Tate’s opposition. He also included a video of the protest at Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice spoke there on May 10. 
Having heard Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on several occasions (including at a small gathering at a private home last November and at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C. in March), I can honestly say that when she speaks about the U.S.-Israel relationship it is not a political speech. Her support of Israel is unquestionable and I’m sure that had Temple Israel’s leadership asked her not to speak about divisive domestic political issues she would have complied.

So, for Temple Israel in Miami it looks like some of their members are fine with vulgar and misogynistic rap lyrics sung from their bimah, but they’re not okay with a well-respected Jewish member of Congress speaking from their pulpit about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller