February 22, 2020

Heckler interrupts Kol Nidre sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood

Some local rabbis have shunned the idea of bringing politics to the pulpit, but Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood is not one of them. About five minutes into his Kol Nidre sermon on Sept. 29, the beginning of Yom Kippur, Rosove had already denounced President Donald Trump by name when a man stood up and shouted his displeasure.

“This is supposed to be a house of prayer!” the man said as he stormed out of the sanctuary, according to multiple eyewitnesses.

After a brief pause, Rosove resumed his sermon. When he finished, most of the audience of about 1,200 that had gathered for one of Judaism’s holiest ceremonies responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation in support of his remarks.

The incident at Temple Israel comes amid continuing debate among American rabbis as to whether the sanctuary should be a place of refuge from today’s confrontational politics.

In a Journal op-ed in June headlined “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple urged his peers and community members to keep politics out of the synagogue.

“All we hear all day long is politics,” he wrote. “Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.”

The op-ed elicited a number of responses, including from prominent rabbis such as Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Brous argued in an op-ed printed in the Journal that the Torah is inherently political.

“This sacred scroll recounts the story of a band of slaves rising up before the most powerful and iconic ruler of the ancient world and demanding freedom and dignity,” she wrote. “Is that not a political message?”

Rosove’s sermon, titled “We the People,” put him firmly on one side of the debate. Drawing on quotes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr., Genesis and the Jewish prophets, he argued “that there’s a battle being waged for the soul of this country; that there are dark forces of hate, bigotry, intolerance, extremism and xenophobia that are aided and abetted by our nation’s president.” (The text and video of the sermon can be viewed at tioh.org.)

Reached by phone, Rosove said the man who interrupted his sermon was not a member of the temple. He declined further comment. Several longtime Temple members contacted by the Journal said they did not know the man.

After the applause for Rosove died down at the end of the sermon and cantorial soloist Shelly Fox led the gathering in singing “This Land Is Your Land,” the rabbi returned to the pulpit to defend the nature of his homily in light of the man’s comment.

“A house of prayer has windows that look into the city, and any synagogue without windows is not a synagogue, because we are not divorced from the reality of the world,” he said, paraphrasing the Talmud.

“This is supposed to be a house of prayer!” the man said as he stormed out of the sanctuary, according to multiple eyewitnesses.

The members of Rosove’s congregation contacted by the Journal came to his defense.

David Lehrer, a Temple Israel member and former Los Angeles regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that after hearing Rosove’s sermon, he emailed him, writing: “It would be spiritual malpractice to let the High Holidays pass and not comment on what has happened to our country and what we should be doing.”

Thelma Cohen Samulon, a past president of the temple who attended the Kol Nidre service, said the outburst “caused me a moment of anxiety, and I was very pleased that the rabbi kept going, and he really didn’t miss a beat.”

Samulon and others said the heckler may have been the same person who, during the Rosh Hashanah service when audience members volunteered what they were grateful for from the past year, took the microphone and answered, “Trump.”

The man was not entirely alone in expressing his disapproval of Rosove’s Kol Nidre sermon. Just before his outburst, a woman walked out, quietly telling those seated next to her: “I don’t need to listen to this bull—-.”

A few others — perhaps less than a dozen — were also seen leaving the sanctuary, although their reasons for heading for the exits were not known.

Wally Knox, an attorney and former Democratic state Assemblyman from 1994 to 2000, said he could not remember in his 30 years of membership at Temple Israel a standing ovation for a rabbi’s sermon.

“There’s a recognition that we’re living in extraordinary times,” Knox said. “For one, I was proud to hear John speak up.”