Attendance, activism up at synagogues after election

A banner hung in January outside Temple Micah in Washington referred to
Jewish refugees who were turned away from the United States during the Holocaust.
Photo provided by Temple Micah

Even from the outside, it has been obvious that something has changed at Temple Micah in Washington since the election.

In late January, the congregation hung a large banner outside its building connecting President Donald Trump’s immigration ban to the history of Jews who were turned away from the United States before the Holocaust.

Things have also changed inside the synagogue. Attendance on Shabbat has gone up, congregants are increasingly involved in social justice initiatives and during services members sing classic liberal folk songs, including “This Land is Your Land” with new gusto.

In the days after the election, Rabbi Daniel Zemel said his congregants were “disturbed” by Trump’s surprise win, and Temple Micah President Ed Lazere described his “shock and horror” at the results in the congregation’s newsletter.
Since then, the Reform congregation is one of many synagogues in the Washington area to experience an increase in energy and involvement. At some — but certainly not all — local synagogues, community members have turned to synagogues to process their reaction to the election and to channel their political activism.

“I think people are feeling the need to congregate, and I use that word deliberately,” said Zemel. “People feel the need to be with others who feel similarly.”

The leaders of Temple Micah also hope to channel this energy into concrete action. On March 18, the congregation meet to discuss what it can do to oppose the Trump agenda.

Meanwhile, Zemel has emphasized since the election that synagogues can be a place to learn more about the millions of voters who supported Trump. In April, congregants will discuss the book “Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right” in which the author, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, analyzes the lives and political opinions of working-class and poor conservatives in Louisiana.

Zemel said that Micah, like other area synagogues, is looking into ways to help refugees in the Washington area.
Kol Ami, a Reconstructionist community in Arlington, also is looking to help refugees since the election, according to community coordinator Herb Cooper-Levy.

Cooper-Levy said that participation at Kol Ami’s lay-led services has increased by around 50 percent since the election. In the wake of the election, the synagogue created a new committee, Nitzavim (which is a form of the verb “to stand” in Hebrew), that has taken public positions on issues like advocacy for refugees and for LGBT rights. In addition, members participate in weekly protests in downtown Arlington against white nationalist Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute.

“You’re seeing ordinary people whose jobs have nothing to do with public policy standing up and saying, ‘I have to do something,’” Cooper-Levy said.

Not all synagogues have experienced an increase in attendance since the election. Rabbis from Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown and Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church both said attendance at their Shabbat services has not changed.

But it has at Temple Emanuel in Kensington. Rabbi Warren Stone said congregants have become more involved in advocacy and aid for refugees, activism around gun violence prevention and advocacy around climate change mitigation.

“We need to move beyond belief to social activism through our Judaism,” he said. “We need to walk the mitzvot, to speak out about the mitzvot and to not to hold back.”

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