Reform movement faces divides in Trump era

Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, left, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, both members of the Reform movement, were featured Monday at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience.

The calls to action were aimed at the Trump administration, but less clear at the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center gathering was the ability of Reform Jews to resolve political disputes under their own roofs.

“I think the potential for the faith community is to be the conscience of the community,” former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell told attendees. But “you cannot then be demonizing the people with whom you disagree.”

Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell

The three-day conference held this week, called “Consultation on Conscience,” brought 800 Reform movement members from 200 synagogues across North America to an Arlington hotel.

The opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies started from the top at the conference with RAC’s director, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who warned attendees about a “new sense of vulnerability,” saying that immigrants are being demonized and refugees are turned away at our borders.

That opposition was reflected by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, one of the many politicians there, who spoke alongside Markell.

Asked for his response to the Trump administration’s threats to withhold federal funding for cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities — Sacramento is one such city — he told the friendly crowd that the loss of money is a price he’s willing to pay.

“I’m not, in my city, trading civil rights for money. Period. As an American Jew, I couldn’t do that,” he said to applause. “So if you want me to do otherwise, get a different mayor.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg

Divisions within the Reform movement came under scrutiny at a workshop aimed at helping attendees resolve conflicts within their synagogues.

Some “people make arguments which are extreme,” one attendee said. “But I would argue that sometimes people who make arguments that [climate change] is real can be extreme.” If someone shows data that denies climate change, “you should listen to that data.”

Another person responded, saying that “sometimes there really is a right answer and a wrong answer,” and the existence of climate change is one of those topics.

“People are putting up things as fact that aren’t fact,” she continued, “and so when you allow that to be a part of the conversation, you’re being coerced into a false conversation.”

Reform clergy have found themselves in the middle of unexpected conflicts. Cantor Hollis Schachner, of Temple Shir Tikva of Wayland, Mass., said her synagogue has developed a rapport with the Islamic Center of Boston. When the Islamic Center received hate mail, her congregation organized a rally in support of the Muslim community.

“We all turned up in full force to support them,” Schachner said. They were surprised to see a number of congregants showing up wearing their pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” hats.

“They felt that as Republicans — even as Trump voters — they could still go and support an oppressed community because of their Jewish values,” she said, adding that they didn’t believe that by wearing Trump hats they were disrupting the rally.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson, of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, has also faced displeased congregants as a result of Trump’s win, although not for the reasons he expected.

After Trump’s election, the synagogue announced a “healing service.” Then Ellenson received a call from two upset congregants.

“Rabbi, we need to talk to you. We’re upset,” Ellenson recalled them saying. Why? “We’re not upset about the results of the election.”

Ellenson said the congregants felt “the congregation wasn’t a safe place that reflected their values.”

That prompted Ellenson on what he called a fact-finding mission. He asked congregants why they cast their vote for or against Trump.

For Ellenson, the situation’s resolution was these congregants being heard.

He said: “It was a situation of wanting to be heard, and I think we’re in a situation where there is a lot of talking and not a lot of feeling heard.”

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


  1. There is a good reason for rabbi’s and congregations to be rigidly non-partisan. With all the other issues in the Jewish community, having partisan divides among congregations is the last thing we need. The synagogue should be a warm shelter from partisan bickering.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here