When he heard the news last month that a gunman had shot and killed 11 Jews inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, Joshua Lopez texted Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld with his condolences. Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, replied with an invitation. He was part of a group heading to the scene from Washington. If Lopez could make it, there was a seat for him on the bus.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Lopez told WJW. “I wanted to be there to stand with the Jewish community in a time of need and say, ‘You’re not in this fight yourself.’”
It was another chapter in the burgeoning friendship between Lopez — who in May lost his
position on the D.C. Housing Authority over charges of anti-Semitism — and Herzfeld, the outspoken modern Orthodox rabbi who called for his resignation.
On the bus ride to Pittsburgh, the bond between the two strengthened. When they arrived, the group prayed and attended the funerals for Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers who were killed in the attack. Lopez did an interview with Univision, the Spanish-language news station.
The two say Herzfeld reached out to Lopez shortly after he stepped down from the housing authority. Herzfeld wanted to figure out something the two could collaborate on. According to Herzfeld, Lopez helped an Ohev Sholom member get access to city services. The rabbi then signed on to be a “community partner” with the housing authority, a government entity that manages a portion of the city’s affordable housing stock.
“We started off not on the same page but we kept an open line of communication. It’s really an
organic relationship we built over time,” Lopez said. “I didn’t come to him asking for anything and he didn’t ask me for anything.”
When Herzfeld’s son became a bar mitzvah, Lopez was in attendance. Lopez said the two had a conversation about his family; Lopez’s parents emigrated from Guatemala in the 1970s. The rabbi has broached the idea of a congregational trip there.
It’s a far cry from last spring, when the D.C. Council was engulfed in controversy after Council member Trayon White Sr. claimed that the Jewish Rothschild family controlled the weather.
If the central characters in the drama were White (D-Ward 8) and Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Lopez and Herzfeld had key supporting roles. Lopez organized what was billed as unity rally where Abdul Khadir Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam, called Silverman a “fake Jew.” Herzfeld subsequently crashed a D.C. Council breakfast, calling for White’s censure and Lopez’s resignation.
“Shame on the council for not being willing to censure Trayon White,” Herzfeld said inside the Wilson Building. “And shame on the council for not standing up and saying that Mr. Lopez should needs to resign. You know better!”
Lopez denounced Muhammad’s remarks and said he was not invited to speak but grabbed the microphone.
Silverman had also asked Mayor Muriel Bowser to fire Lopez. He ultimately resigned. But now, Herzfeld is singing Lopez’s praises.
“I consider him a good friend,” Herzfeld said. “He clearly has a strong desire to connect with the Jewish community.”
But some at Ohev Sholom still have hard feelings about Lopez and his role in the Trayon White saga.
“It hasn’t been easy because there’s a lot of anger in our city with that rally, and [Lopez] has been very courageous coming to the synagogue,” Herzfeld said. “People remember that. Some people are very welcoming and others are still raw. To his credit, he has come and heard.”
Lopez said he went to school with Jews and has long had an appreciation for the community. He said he’s not unfamiliar, but through his relationship with the rabbi he’s learned more about Jewish sensitivities.
Others aren’t as convinced. Silverman said that during this fall’s campaign to unseat her — in which Lopez publicly backed Silverman’s unsuccessful challenger, Dionne Reeder — Lopez was divisive.
According to one Silverman supporter, Lopez and a confidante were calling Silverman a racist outside of a polling place during early voting.
“I certainly appreciate Josh trying to learn more about the Jewish community. He has never reached out to me and certain of the actions during the campaign suggest that he still engages in a divisive approach,” Silverman said this week. “I’m happy that he’s learning more about Judaism, or at least the Orthodox sect of Judaism.
“But I certainly think he continued in a divisive way during the campaign.”
Lopez insists his support for Reeder was over policy, not a personal grudge. He’s long been an ally of Bowser, who Silverman has clashed with many times. Herzfeld said he believes him. And Lopez contends that it was Silverman’s side doing the dividing.
“During the campaign, I was called anti-Semitic every single day. I was getting tweets saying I’m a hateful person, I hate Jewish people,” Lopez said. “It was an underlying current I think some people were promoting. But I’m at peace with it, I know what kind of person I am.”
Herzfeld clearly believes him.
“Josh has got so much to contribute to our city,” the rabbi said. “It’s not like there’s a magic potion to wave over someone and suddenly they understand all the sensitivity of a different community. But what’s crystal clear to me is that Josh really wants to understand how we can build a better relationship. His intentions are good. And the important point to me is not the past, but the future.”