Each year of Barack Obama’s presidency, U.S. rabbis organized a conference call to speak with the president ahead of the Jewish High Holidays.
But this year, those rabbis will not participate in such a call with President Trump.
Citing his lack of leadership after the Charlottesville protests, rabbinical groups representing the Reform Jewish Movement, the Reconstructionist Movement and the Conservative Movement issued a joint statement Wednesday announcing their decision.
“The president’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia,” they wrote. “Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.”
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Tuesday night at a rally in Phoenix, Trump reread his three statements pertaining to Charlottesville and maintained that he had adequately condemned hate groups. But many still believe that the president was not forceful enough and that he left room for white supremacists to interpret his remarks as supportive. Many have since distanced themselves from the president, including Republican lawmakers and charity organizations that normally hold functions at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Though anti-Semitism was on the rise during the 2016 presidential campaign and increasingly after, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said up until last week that they still intended to hold the call with Trump.
The calls began in President Barack Obama’s term as a way for the broader rabbinical community to hear supportive words from the president ahead of their most holy days. Each denomination then had a chance to ask him a question. Most years the first question would be about Israel, Pesner said, and in later years, questions arose around racial justice and the global refugee crisis.
Last year, in his final conference call as president with several-hundred U.S. rabbis, Obama said he would use this time to reflect on the previous eight years and the unfinished work still to do. It was the end of September, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was then leading widely in the polls.
“But a new year brings new hope, and the community represented on this phone call has always known what it means to stand up for the less fortunate, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee,” Obama said. “And so I’m confident that we can stand together and make sure that as we pass the baton to the next administration that we’re going to be able to build on the enormous progress that we’ve already made.”
Such assuring messages are needed more than ever, Pesner said, “with Jews being so concerned about the rise of white supremacy and with this president who has given anti-Semites comfort and aid.”
The organization of Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, did not sign the joint statement, and Pesner did not know whether they’ll still try to hold a call with Trump.
In an emailed statement, they would not say whether they would hold a call. An RCA spokesman said they “believe it is more effective to address questions and concerns directly with the White House” and instead pointed to their strongly worded rebuke of Trump’s Charlottesville remarks.
“Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism,” the Orthodox rabbis wrote. “While as a rabbinical organization we prefer to address issues and not personalities, this situation rises above partisan politics and therefore we are taking the unusual approach to directly comment on the words of the president.”
Trump’s family, including daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and grandchildren, are Orthodox Jews. Their rabbi in New York City wrote a letter to his congregants in which he said he was “deeply troubled” by Trump’s comments after Charlottesville.
The Jewish High Holidays are a time of reflection and repentance. Pesner said it’s an opportunity for Jewish people to ponder whether they are doing enough to combat bigotry and hate.
He would not comment on whether Ivanka and Jared should reflect on that while observing the holidays, but said he prays that Trump does his own reflecting on it.
(This post has been updated.)