He couldn’t even get through his first sentence before the tears began.
“I woke up Wednesday morning thinking about the legendary sign,” he started. He couldn’t continue. The congregants packed into the unusually crowded sanctuary held their breaths for three long seconds. He inhaled. “Above the synagogue of the Kotzker rebbe: Jews don’t despair.”
Rabbi Daniel Zemel knows there is a lot he could despair about.
As Reform Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, and as residents of the District, where more than 92 percent did so, Zemel’s congregants at Temple Micah were almost uniformly dismayed by Donald Trump’s election. As many grew shaken and scared in the days following the election, they flocked to Zemel’s Friday-night Shabbat service for solace, strength or simply togetherness.
“We have just lived through a bruising political season where the results feel to many of us like a repudiation of the values that we believe this country was founded on and embraced. … Tolerance. An open mind. A spirit of generosity. A belief that we are all created in God’s image,” he said in his sermon. “And for me, there’s always been something so confluent about my American beliefs and my Jewish beliefs. They reinforce each other.”
Addressing the election so openly was a rare choice for Zemel. During the High Holy Day season a little more than a month ago, when rabbis have their biggest audiences of the year, some rabbis used their pulpit to speak against Trump. But the majority decided not to talk about politics, and Zemel was strongly in that camp.
“For me to tell people what their values are about the election, it would be so ‘preaching to the choir’ in the most unnecessary way,” he said. He steered clear of current events altogether on Yom Kippur, giving a sermon about the Book of Job.
Now, Zemel expects he’ll be talking a lot about what’s happening in America, for the foreseeable future. The emails have been pouring in from his bereft congregants: What can we do next?
“I want to learn about civil disobedience. I think we’re at a point where we may have to,” Zemel said. He’s doing his reading — Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham jail, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” the biblical story of the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill the babies of Jewish slaves.
“If they’re asking Muslims to register, of course we’ll get every Jew in America to register,” he said. “If they‘re going to start deporting people, we‘ll make Temple Micah into a sanctuary.”
He also wants to further understanding between liberals and conservatives. He wants to convene very personal conversations —maybe one-on-one, maybe in small groups — between members of Temple Micah and conservative counterparts, perhaps Trump voters, whom they wouldn’t otherwise meet. He might ask speakers from diverse viewpoints to address the synagogue.
But on the political front, he plans to lead his congregation in direct action against the Trump administration if Trump carries out some of his campaign proposals that the Micah community finds most abhorrent, like a registry of Muslims.
“We simply have to communicate whatever we can and take action, that this is not the American way,” Zemel said. “We all have to be ready to pounce on every action which is totally, totally, totally objectionable to us. We can’t be seduced and think, ‘Maybe we can let this one slide; this will be okay.’ ”
In his sermon, through his tears, Zemel tried to urge resilience. “We will console one another, and then we will light a candle. That’s what we do,” he said. “Jews mourn by lighting a candle. When our world is darkened, we light a candle. If our world became darker, we would light another candle. And then we would light another candle. And we would return to the street.”
He asked the congregation to rise soon after, and together they sang “America the Beautiful.”