Jews against the Muslim Ban
Last Friday night, my rabbi got all political on me.
It came as something of a shock. I know Rabbi Naomi Levy really well — we’ve been married 25 years. During that time, I’ve heard Naomi give at least 1,000 sermons. Not one took an overt stand on a hot political issue or candidate. She would call for understanding between Israel and her neighbors, for instance, but the words “two-state solution” never escaped her lips.
It’s not that she hasn’t always had passionate and astute political opinions. I know. We talk.
But inside the sanctuary, her focus always has been on helping people grow spiritually, to find their life path through faith, tradition, learning and community. When she calls for social action, it is of the nonpartisan sort: feed the homeless, plant trees, engage with other faith communities. Her sermons move people to tears, laughter and introspection, not to petitions.
“That’s what people come to shul for,” she always told me. “That’s who I am.”
She also understood that politics could easily divide a congregation, or alienate some members. Both when she was the senior rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, and after she founded Nashuva, an outreach congregation based in Brentwood, she wanted everyone to feel welcome and accepted. If people wanted a pundit, they could watch cable.
So imagine my surprise this past Friday night: The usual standing-room-only crowd, some 400 people, packed inside Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Nashuva holds its services. Naomi began her sermon as she often does, with something true, funny and personal.
“I’m a neurotic Jew from Brooklyn,” she said. “I’m scared of so many things. I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of snakes. After my bout with skin cancer, I’m scared of the sun.” Then she asked, “But you know what I’m not scared of?”
Voices from the congregation responded, “No, what?”
“Muslims,” she said. “I’m not scared of Muslims.”
There was a momentary pause. We didn’t see it coming. It took a split second to clock the punch. The rabbi was speaking out, loud and proud.
And all at once, applause. A loud, long spontaneous ovation.
Listen to Rabbi Naomi Levy’s sermon:
Naomi went on to hammer away at President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and all refugees from Syria. She spoke of her own mother, Ruth, who arrived from Poland at age 6. The rest of Ruth’s large extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins — all were murdered in the Holocaust.
Naomi urged her congregation to fight the ban and to oppose the administration’s efforts to demonize Muslims. When she finished, the applause went on for a while. One couple did get up and walk out — maybe they had to use the restroom?
Why now? I asked Naomi. Why is this issue the first one you chose for making a strong political stance?
“I had no choice,” she said. “Welcoming the stranger is at the core of what it is to be Jewish.”
Of course, I agree. As an American, I know our country’s success is tied directly to immigration. As a Jew, I know how our country’s open doors literally saved our lives. And I know how many more Jews would be alive today — helping make America even greater — if the voices of fear and hate hadn’t all but closed the door to Jewish immigration after 1924. Those same forces tried to shut out Iranian Jews in 1979, and Soviet Jews in 1989, but thankfully they failed.
There is something in this immigration ban that is particularly noxious and motivating. It’s why Jewish organizations ranging from Yeshiva University to the Reform movement have taken stands. Why leaders who don’t ordinarily bring politics to the pulpit, like Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein and Stephen Wise Temple’s Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, have spoken out. Why many disparate parts of a very diverse, fractured community are fighting it together.
That unity makes the silence of some leaders and institutions even more apparent.
Without naming names, it’s all too clear that many rabbis and leaders who deeply oppose the cruel, hateful and self-defeating order cannot publicly say so, for fear of alienating some supporters. Some worry it will tear congregations or boards apart along partisan lines. Or, they worry about upsetting large donors.
I don’t envy any rabbi or community leader this choice. There are costs to speaking out, and those of us who don’t have to pay shouldn’t be so quick to expect others to foot the bill. Their silence in any case should not be an excuse for our inaction.
At the same time, there is a cost to not taking a public stand. How dare we do any less than we would want others to do for us? History will record who stood by and let the doors slam shut, and who, even if they failed, tried to jam them back open.
I’m proud of my rabbi, my wife. I hope to be proud of us all.