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Political Issues and the Pulpit: How North Carolina Jews are Responding

Political Issues and the Pulpit: How North Carolina Jews are Responding

Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Lucy Dinner wearing Jewish prayer shawls while marching in a rally

There’s been a very interesting debate among rabbis recently concerning the issue of politics on the pulpit.

One side, Rabbi David Wolpe argues that politics, in any form, have no place on the pulpit. The other side of the debate, articulated by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, says it’s rabbis’ moral imperative to speak out against injustice, regardless whether its source originates in the political or legislative decisions of our elected leaders. (To be clear, rabbis who serve congregations should not and legally cannot endorse candidates; I’m always careful to distinguish between political endorsements and speaking out on political and moral issues.)

For 22 years, I’ve served as a congregational rabbi in North Carolina – and since 2010, my state seems to have gone backward on issues such as health care, LGBTQ equality, and voting rights.

A core belief of our congregation, like many, is that all people are created in the image of God. Going backward on human rights is, simply, a contradiction of our Jewish values. Our congregation, encouraged by its rabbis, hasn’t been afraid to tackle the moral issues facing our community and to speak out.

We passed a congregational resolution against Amendment One, the anti-marriage equality amendment to the state constitution, which restricted the rights of certain people to marry based solely upon their sexual identity. This amoral amendment enshrined discrimination into our state constitution, but a year later, it was  overturned by the Supreme Court.

We also passed a resolution against HB2, North Carolina’s the so-called “Bathroom Bill,” which sought not only to discriminate against transgender people in terms of bathroom preference but also eliminated existing laws passed by local governments that sought to protect transgender people by barring such provisions from being passed in the future.

HB2 also had significant impacts beyond the transgender community, removing the ability of all North Carolinians to file employment discrimination cases in state courts and prevented local municipalities from enacting living wage and worker protection ordinances. Bottom line: HB2 was an attempt to use transphobia, homophobia, race, and class as political wedge issues.

Parts of HB2 were eventually rescinded, but only after the bill caused loss to the state as a result of business relocations, the cancellation of concerts and sporting events, and other negative economic consequences. All told, HB2 resulted in an estimated economic loss to North Carolina of more than $600 million.

Now, our congregation is about to pass a resolution on immigration, which we intend to submit to the Union for Reform Judaism for consideration at its upcoming Biennial convention. Our resolution addresses the local impact of current immigration policies and suggests congregational responses to this challenge.

What else?

The state of North Carolina has been the victim of intense racial gerrymandering. Courts have declared some of our federal and local voting maps to be racially motivated and in need of redistricting.

North Carolina’s newly elected governor was immediately subjected to an attempt by our state’s legislature to remove all gubernatorial powers.

North Carolina once ranked 26th in terms of per capita education funding. Now, it ranks in the lower 40s.

North Carolina did not expand Medicaid, causing clinics to close. Several hundred North Carolinians die each year for because of inadequate access to health care, both prevention and treatment.

The list goes on.

Since 2013, many Reform and Conservative rabbis in North Carolina, alongside their congregations, have become activists in the Moral Monday movement, founded by Rev. William Barber, which has brought Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others together to march on issues of human rights and dignity. For us, Rev. Barber has become a social justice rebbe.

As a rabbi, I’ve never been hesitant to speak out from the pulpit or in the press on any of these issues. I’ve also been vocal in support of Israel’s security and a strong Israel/U.S. relationship. No matter where one stands in terms of the Israeli political spectrum, a weak, demonized, and isolated Israel will never be in a position to make concessions for peace; that’s why the foreign aid and missile defense allocations currently before Congress are so critical. On these topics, along with opposition to BDS, there is something close to unanimous agreement in our congregation.

I have no hesitancy in speaking out on pro-Israel issues or any of the other topics I’ve written about here. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, "The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference."

Taking this to heart as a Reform Jew and a congregational rabbi, I believe we cannot remain silent in the face of the very serious social justice issues we now face. Our world needs powerful voices, including those of pulpit rabbis, to speak on behalf of children, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the undocumented, as well as a strong Israel/U.S. relationship.

This is nothing less than the mandate of Jewish tradition and of the Torah itself. Simply put, speaking out, as rabbis and as congregations, is who we should strive to be as Jews!

Learn more about Reform Jewish social justice efforts by visiting the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel and served in an Israel combat unit in the 1980s.

Rabbi Fred Guttman
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