Shocked by Trump victory, many L.A. Jews look for ways to move forward

The night after Election Day, the theater of the Electric Lodge in Venice was as dark as the mood of the 20 or so people who gathered there.
November 16, 2016

The night after Election Day, the theater of the Electric Lodge in Venice was as dark as the mood of the 20 or so people who gathered there. And yet, as they sat in a circle, disappointed, the space also glowed with candles as they attempted to console one another over Republican Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Seated before a bongo drum, Open Temple Rabbi Lori Shapiro facilitated the discussion, presenting a mock-up of states that went “red” and “blue” and a quote by Founding Father Thomas Paine: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” 

“I am not a political rabbi,” Shapiro, whose congregation sponsored the evening, wrote in an email to the Journal. “The ‘Express Yourself’ event came from the fact that my texts and emails were off the handle from people in the community who were NOT sleeping Tuesday to Wednesday.”

Jewish Los Angeles is mostly liberal — with notable exceptions in the Persian, Israeli and Orthodox communities — so Trump’s election came as something of a body blow. As the news settled in, many gathered to register their shock and disappointment.

“My hope and expectation was that we would be celebrating a different kind of broken glass, the breaking of a glass ceiling, and instead it evoked Kristallnacht,” Temple Emanuel Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller said at the Open Temple event, noting that the election coincided with the 78th anniversary of the infamous “Night of Broken Glass” when Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses were destroyed in 1938.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the egalitarian community IKAR held a get-together at a private residence in Hancock Park, during which attendees responded to a writing prompt that said, “I weep,” followed by, “I pledge.”

“The idea is, ‘Yes, we’re sad, but how is this going to spur us into action?’ ” IKAR Executive Director Melissa Balaban said in a phone interview. 

She told the Journal that an IKAR board meeting had been scheduled for that night but leaders decided instead to provide a space for people to come together in the wake of the election results. 

“The imperative we have as a community is to be there for folks who feel the most vulnerable at a time like this, particularly people of color who are members of our community and friends of the community, LGBT folks, Muslims, Latinos,” Balaban said. “We feel a real need to work together to ensure the safety of all of these people.” 

Speaking from the pulpit the following Saturday, IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous called Trump’s election “a devastating setback” and “a terrifying new reality.”

“A very dark and very dangerous force has reared its head in our country,” she said. “What was once subterranean has now surfaced and can be shouted from the greatest halls of power of our nation.” 

However, she cautioned her congregants not to lose hope: “The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice — that is no lie.”

From shock to solidarity

In the progressive and minority communities of Los Angeles, many regarded Donald Trump’s election as a personal affront.

“For us, we feel we’re at the intersection of two of those major communities that feel targeted, and that’s a very scary place,” said Asher Gellis, executive director the Jewish LGBTQ group JQ International.

However, he said after the election, his email inbox filled with messages of support from leaders in the Jewish community and beyond — a sign that the relationships JQ International has tried hard to build are paying off. Gellis said he was still “really in shock” and unsure how to respond to Trump’s victory, but those close relationships would be crucial in the coming months and years.

As the news sank in, shock soon gave way to solidarity. On the Friday after Trump’s election, a group of rabbis took part in a rally outside the Islamic Center of Southern California in Koreatown.

“We’re gonna manage this best by being proud and by being loving,” said Rabbi Robin Podolsky of Temple Beth Israel, a nonaffiliated Highland Park synagogue, as the crowd dispersed.

An open letter from the progressive group Bend the Arc Jewish Action circulated Nov. 10 summed up this position: “To the millions of immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBT people, women, people with disabilities, and everyone who is threatened by the President-Elect and his administration, we want you to know: we are with you.” By early the following week, the letter had gathered nearly 40,000 signatures.

Talk therapy

The day after the election, though, many were still focused on gathering their own thoughts and feelings.

“No matter how you feel about the outcome of the election, it is important to acknowledge that this was a monumental and emotional campaign,” the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrote in an Election Day statement posted online as votes were being cast. “As airplane safety instructions wisely advise: put your oxygen mask on before you help others with theirs.”

Seeking solace, more than 50 students came together at USC Hillel to reflect on the results on Wednesday, according to USC Hillel Executive Director Bailey London. 

“Some students expressed fear and distress and feel really sad, while others are looking forward to change in government and interested in seeing what unfolds,” London said in a phone interview.

Like many, London was caught off guard by the election results. And on Wednesday afternoon, hours after Clinton’s concession speech, London was still processing her feelings about it.

“I don’t know how I’m feeling yet. I’m stuck in shock. I wasn’t prepared for this,” London said. “It hadn’t dawned on me that Trump was going to win.”

At Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on Friday evening, congregants gathered to read Jewish texts and reflect on peace and coming together, according to the temple’s senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron.

Shabbat is a time to “allow your heart to kind of soften the edges,” he said. Shying away from political discussion or venting, congregants instead reflected on how they could recuperate after an emotionally trying election season.

“It’s about a fracture in the country, the divisiveness in the country,” Aaron said. “We wanted to kind of stem that with talks of peace.”

Five stages of Donald Trump

Two days after the election, Zachary Rodham — a Jewish senior at USC and nephew of the just-defeated Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton — was in the midst of drafting an email to his aunt. But he was having trouble finding the right words.

“Hard for me to figure out what to say,” the 21-year-old said. “I’m sure what she’s feeling — I’m sure she’s feeling something pretty similar to all of us rooting for and supporting her campaign.”

Rodham spent election night in New York with family, including relatives of Chelsea Clinton’s husband, Marc Mezvinsky, and Bill Clinton’s half brother, Roger, at an Italian restaurant and at the Peninsula hotel. He recounted being shocked as the results were reported.

Speaking two days after the election, the reality had only just begun to sink in.

“People [have been] reaching out to me like somebody in my family passed away,” he said. “And in a way, something did pass away — the energy surrounding her campaign is gone. After Trump got elected, you go through the five stages of grief [and] accept the reality that he is now going to be the president of the United States of America.”

Taking to the streets

Those closest to Clinton resolved to combat the president-elect and his party in Congress.

“What I’m going to do is, starting next week, organize to get people together who have similar beliefs as me and in two years, fight for those elections and get my country back,” Pam Schwartz, a volunteer for the Clinton campaign, told the Journal shortly before Trump was announced the victor on Tuesday night.

The day after the election, and well into the weekend, thousands poured into the streets to voice opposition to the incoming president and identification with those who feel threatened by his election. Among them was Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes, a Jewish high school freshman at the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts downtown, who walked out of her classroom Wednesday along with some 300 other students to participate in an anti-Trump march.

“Most of us can’t vote,” she told the Journal on the phone. “So it’s like we want to get our voice heard, and aside from social media or talking to people, we can go out and we can protest and that’s one of the biggest things we can do.”

For her, the demonstration was a way to protest the president-elect and to show that she stands with communities who feel antagonized by his election.

“We were standing with minorities and people of color and women and LGBT people,” she said. “We were standing with all of them. And it was also in opposition to, you know, to all of his policies and who he is as a person.”

Not so fast

Even in L.A.’s overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community, there were some who hailed Trump’s election as a victory for this country and the Jewish state alike.

Edward Schwartz, 69, an intellectual property lawyer from Pasadena, said he supported Trump’s candidacy in large part because he saw him as the more favorable candidate for Israel. Schwartz was an early supporter of Jews Choose Trump, a grass-roots organization that sought to marshal Jews in favor of the Republican.

To the Jewish Angelenos mourning Trump’s election, he advised, “Wait and see. People say a lot of things in campaigns, and then you wait and see what they do when they get in.” For instance, Schwartz said, he hopes and believes Trump will drop his promise from early on in the campaign to deploy federal agents to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

Reached on the phone Nov. 14, Schwartz suggested the distraught reactions to the Republican’s victory were overblown. “People who believe that they need counseling to get past the results of the election are childish,” he said.

Carol Greenwald, an economist in Maryland and Jews Choose Trump organizer who originally recruited Schwartz for the campaign, echoed his sentiment.

“Rabbis who say, ‘Come cry because of the tragedy,’ have forsaken their leadership,” she said.

Cause for concern

Yet some found reason to redouble their resolve following a seeming outburst of racist sentiment after Trump’s victory.

On Nov. 11, the ADL reported in a blog post, “In the days following Donald Trump’s election, there has been a spike in reports of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism, including widespread use of swastikas and other Nazi imagery.” Among other incidents, the ADL highlighted a trolley stop at UC San Diego that had been vandalized with a swastika and the words “Heil Trump.”

“The overwhelming response that I’ve gotten here has been, ‘I’ve never been more dedicated to ADL’s mission,’ ” Amanda Susskind, ADL director for the Pacific Southwest region, told the Journal shortly after the election.

Other community organizations responded with similar notes of renewed dedication to their causes.

“Every decent American — across lines of party, ideology, religion, race, national origin, and sexual orientation — must act now together to isolate the haters, reject their gospels of division and violence,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote in the Huffington Post.

In a joint letter (see page 15), a group of more 100 Jewish historians struck a similar message, condemning what they called “unprecedented expressions of racial, ethnic, gender-based, and religious hatred.”

Establishment reacts

Along with the ADL, a number of prominent Jewish organizations quickly shifted into gear to react to Trump’s election. 

Many wrote to offer him their congratulations and support. The Jewish Federations of North America, for instance, wrote the president-elect to pledge its cooperation, going so far as to include the phone number of its Washington office’s director, William Daroff. Likewise, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations each penned short but congratulatory notes to Trump.

Others were more circumspect in their responses. The leaders of the country’s major Reform institutions offered to work with the next president — provided he uses the office as a vehicle to “bring Americans together.”

“If he does so, we will be ready to work with him for the common good,” they wrote in a joint letter. “If he does not, we also stand ready to be fierce advocates for the values that guide us: inclusivity, justice and compassion.”

Many tentative opponents of the president-elect sounded similar notes of patient watchfulness.

ADL’s Susskind pointed to Trump’s election night remarks, during which he called on Americans to “come together” and “bind the wounds of division.” She said her office would be glad to work with the administration toward those goals, but would also be quick to speak out against any perceived anti-Semitism or bigotry.

“His immediate first speech after being elected was perfectly lovely and harmonious and unity-seeking,” she said. “If that’s where he goes from here — great.”

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