Sestak to Anchor Cutler Installation at Beth Israel

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IMG_4186.JPGJoe Sestak, who’s in the midst of campaigning to become Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate nominee, will participate in Rabbi Jon Cutler’s installation ceremony at Congregation Beth Israel of Chester County.

As an admiral in the Navy, Joe Sestak frequently encountered people like Jon Cutler: Gay men who had to shield their true identities due to the military’s “Don’t Ask: Don’t Tell” policy.

That’s why he says he feels honored to participate in Cutler’s installation as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel of Chester County Friday. “I’m very proud to do it,” said Sestak, who’s in the midst of campaigning to become Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate nominee and unseat Republican incumbent Pat Toomey, who beat him by 80,000 votes in the 2010 election. “He’s someone who’d gone through having to live in the closet and now he’s come out. It’s a special honor to do it for him.”


While Sestak didn’t actually meet Cutler — a chaplain in the Navy and Marines since 1987 — until last year in Washington, he was already quite familiar with the native Philadelphian who served during Operation Desert Storm and in Iraq as recently as 2008.

“I had somewhat of a familiarity with the reserve and active chaplains, because on my ship I made it a point to have an identified denominational leader for each of the various faiths,” said Sestak. “I might’ve been aware of him as a rabbi in the reserves, but I know very much who he is. Where I really got to know him was in Washington at the Navy shipyard. He asked me if I’d come down for his installation.”

Theirs is a relationship born of tragedy. “If you’ll recall, in 2013 there was a shooting at the Navy Yard” — 12 men and women at the shipyard by an employee at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013, who was subsequently killed by police — explained the 59-year-old Cutler, who’s been a reserve since leaving active duty in 1991. “I was called for duty in 2015 because they were moving back to the building and needed chaplain support.

“Because of my experience in counseling — I have a doctorate in counseling — we were dealing with people who were traumatized. The role of the chaplain is expansive — it ranges from leading services, to one-on-one or group counseling, to post traumatic stress to personal issues — the gamut.”

Having already revealed his sexuality and other intimate details of his life to his new congregation, Cutler will use his installation as an opportunity to talk about his military background. With Sestak on hand to speak about the importance of chaplaincy in the military, it’s the perfect setting to do so.

According to Internal Revenue Service statutes regarding churches and religious organizations, as long as politics are left outside the room, Beth Israel won’t be in jeopardy of losing its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit religious institution. That’s the rule unless Cutler or someone from the congregation officially endorses Sestak or any other candidate.

Earlier this month, Cutler emailed newspapers in the state from a private email account that Sestak “isn’t just the right choice for Pennsylvania. He’s the right choice for Israel.” Though Cutler included his congregation in his signature, the Sestak campaign said that the email did not rise to the level of an official endorsement.

Cutler said that a lot of his admiration for Sestak goes back to when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was being repealed as military policy.

“The point is, I wasn’t able to talk about being gay in the military until 2011,” said Cutler, who previously served as rabbi at Congregations Beth Tikva in Flemington, N.J., and Tiferes B’nai Israel in Warrington, in addition to creating the community group Darkaynu. “On a personal level,” Sestak has been “very supportive in repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I’m asking him here as a personal friend, not as a candidate.”

Sestak is happy to oblige, having wrestled with the issue for years. “When I was selected to my first ship, an admiral asked me after I was installed what I thought of ‘Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell,’ ” recalled the 64-year-old Sestak, who served two terms in Congress leading up to his unsuccessful 2010 senatorial bid. “I said I thought it would be declared unconstitutional in the next year or so.

“It never happened, so it had to be enforced. If some young sailor came up to me and said, ‘Captain, I’m gay,’ we needed to dismiss him. But I didn’t like it when it happened, because you want the best of every demographic.”

This Shabbat, Cutler will tell his own story, with his husband, Thierry, their 24-year-old adopted son, Thomas, and his friend, Rear Admiral Joe Sestak (Ret.) by his side. “I want to introduce my congregation to the military piece of my life,” said Cutler, who admits not knowing until he was overseas that serving in the Navy also meant serving in the Marines. “As guest speaker, he’s going to talk about religious faith in the military and his own experience. Being an admiral, he knows.”

Contact: [email protected] 215-832-0729

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