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Shul the Proper Place for Politics?

September 9, 2010 By:
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Congregation Beth Or has hosted controversial political speakers, including Norman Podhoretz.

At least once every election cycle, it seems, there's a flap surrounding a Jewish institution's decision to host or not host a political candidate or group -- invariably stoking partisan passions and raising questions about the role synagogues can or should play in politics.

So far in 2010, two such incidents have made waves. Lower Merion Synagogue just canceled a planned appearance by Democratic Senate hopeful Joe Sestak, in part because leaders apparently feared it might be misconstrued as an endorsement.

And earlier this summer, the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., informed the Republican Jewish Coalition that it was no longer welcome to rent space at that facility, according to Scott Feigelstein, director of the RJC's Pennsylvania/South Jersey chapter.

According to Feigelstein, the decision came shortly after a May RJC program at the JCC featured John Runyan, the former Philadelphia Eagle who is challenging U.S. Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.), a first-term Jewish lawmaker considered politically vulnerable.

JCC officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Eager to Get Messages Out

With Labor Day come and gone, and the 2010 election season now in full swing, pitches for Jewish votes have intensified. In many cases, candidates are eager to take their stump speeches directly to constituents.

With Republicans all but certain to go after President Barack Obama's Middle East policies in local races, it's a sure bet that heated debates will emerge in Pennsylvania's Senate race and in the region's competitive House races in three suburban Philadelphia districts.

Feigelstein, angered by the JCC decision, noted that several Jewish institutions over the years have also chosen not to open up space to his organization, which essentially argues that the majority of Jews who vote for Democrats have got it all wrong.

"I prefer that synagogues open up their doors and allow for a free, frank and open discussion," said Feigelstein.

And many have.

At least three synagogues -- Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown; Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood; and Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown -- have already scheduled candidate forums for their respective districts in advance of the November mid-term elections.

Democrat Bryan Lentz and Republican Pat Meehan are squaring off to fill the 7th District House seat being vacated by Sestak; U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) is defending his seat against Democrat Manan Trivedi; U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-District 8) is facing a rematch against Republican Michael Fitzpatrick, who narrowly lost to Murphy four years ago. (U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13), the state's lone Jewish House member, is widely expected to defeat Republican challenger Dee Adcock.)

But should congregations avoid sponsoring political events or hosting elected officials altogether, avoiding the appearance of favoritism or risking divisive discourse? Or does such an approach deny members the opportunity to hear directly from candidates about issues of particular concern?

And if shuls choose to open their doors to political debate, how do they do so without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status?

Marc Stern, an expert on church-state issues with the American Jewish Committee, said that the law is pretty clear, though figuring out what's prudent has more gray areas.

The tax code forbids a synagogue from either endorsing a candidate or holding a campaign event, said Stern, though he added that it's relatively rare for the Internal Revenue Service to actually strip a house of worship of its tax-exempt status.

Stern explained that if a synagogue or other not-for-profit Jewish institution does host a candidate during campaign season, it is required to extend an invitation to the opponent.

It's perfectly legal, he added, to invite elected officials to speak -- even at the height of a campaign -- about the work of their particular offices, as long as no mention is made of the election. But doing so is probably not a good idea, he cautioned.

"You do not want to do these things without a very clear understanding of how it will appear," said Stern, stressing this doesn't mean synagogues should forgo political events altogether.

"That position sort of suggests that religion ought not to concern itself with the here and now," he said.

Robin Schatz -- government affairs director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who arranged two of the upcoming synagogue candidates' forums -- advises congregations to have competing candidates appear at the same event. Otherwise, some people might perceive a synagogue as favoring one side over the other.

"In politics, appearance is reality," said Schatz.

So what exactly happened with Lower Merion and Sestak, who is engaged in an intense and high-profile race against Republican Pat Toomey for the Senate seat held by Arlen Specter?

The leadership of Lower Merion Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation, declined to comment. But according to sources, the Orthodox Union, a national organization with a growing presence in Pennsylvania, had arranged to rent the space for a meeting between about 15 local Orthodox leaders and Sestak.

Yet the Sestak campaign advertised the event as open to the public, something synagogue leaders did not want.

The O.U. recently arranged a similar meeting at the synagogue with Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett. The O.U. says that it is also trying to do the same with Corbett's opponent, Democrat Dan Onorato.

Sestak wound up addressing 20 or so people in a private home.

A campaign aide said that there had been a miscommunication with the synagogue, but also hinted that several pro-Toomey members played a role in getting the venue changed; however, that could not be independently confirmed.

Varying Viewpoints

Few congregations have actual written policies when it comes to political forums, but many have developed practices that have emerged over time.

In the past two years, the Reform Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen has hosted several political events, including RJC events featuring conservative thinkers Norman Podhoretz and Dennis Prager.

Jan Zauzmer, the congregation's president, said that they have also hosted liberal speakers in recent years, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Generally, the shul tries to present speakers with varying viewpoints, she explained, and only in the runup to elections do the leaders insist that each event be balanced.

"We are pleased to be able to invite candidates on all sides of the political spectrum to address the community," said Zauzmer.

Feigelstein, of the RJC, said that he hopes that more synagogues will decide to host political forums, and realize that they can do so while promoting discussion and without losing their tax-exemptions.

"Why exclude an opportunity?" he posed.

And, at least on this issue, Democrats seem to agree.

Burt Siegel, a Sestak supporter who ran the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia for 35 years, said that "every time a candidate appears before a Jewish audience, it helps educate a candidate about the concerns of the Jewish community."

He added that it's up to synagogues and other institutions to convey that Jews are not a "one-issue" community, but one that also cares about the domestic agenda as well.

Said Siegel: "We want people educated on the facts directly from the candidate."

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